24/7 Spirituality

I’ve definitely been around the spirituality block a few times. Or, as they say out here in Montana, this ain’t my first rodeo. In one of my prior blogs, I wrote about all the many ways I went about trying to connect with what I now imagine/call “the Force” — ashrams, contemplative retreats, mantras, zazen with Buddhist teachers, etc.

But I also happened to be born and coming of age right as the “new age” was being birthed. In fact, I had a hand in it’s debut.

I was just out of college and working for a boutique public relations firm on Fifth Avenue  and 42nd street in New York. One of our clients was the Ladies Home Journal. Surprisingly, they had been the highest bidder to get what was called “first serial rights” (meaning, they could publish an except of an upcoming book before it was actually available in stores) for an upcoming book by actress Shirley MacLaine. The book was “Out on a Limb”, her recounting of the many spiritual experiences she had been experiencing. One of the most controversial claims was her belief that she had once been a man in Atlantis (in itself a controversial “place” that some people believe was a holy land which sank at some point in the very distant past).   Our job, at the PR firm, was to publicize that month’s issue of LHJ — and there was nothing more “hot” than a huge movie star claiming she believed in reincarnation, channeling and Edgar Cayce

LHJ had on staff a brilliant editor and writer, Ed, who drafted up a press release that announced that Shirely’s new book was coming out, the LHJ had the excerpt, and wait tip you hear this — Ms. MacClaine thinks in a past life she was a man!

Today, this all seems quite quaint– but back then, this was HUGE. Ed wrote the press release, then-editor Myrna Blythe approved it, and then, it was handed to me to type up  was(no computers then) and disseminate to the thirsty New York City  media.

So there I was … typing the press release that turned into huge news and effectively launched the new age in one fell swoop.  The media, unsurprisingly, went berserk; responses ranged from hilarity to religious folk damning her to hell. The late-night shows had a field day. It was as huge a story then as perhaps Brad and Jen’s breakup was a decade later. Everyone was talking about it.  It was so huge, that the head publicist for Bantam Books called our PR firm in a fury, saying that our publicity for the except ruined the splashhe hoped to make when the book was published a few weeks later.

God bless Shirley MacClaine — she blasted open things that were previously seen as fringe, occult, heretical, dangerous, or just plain nuts.

Now,of course, not only is this not news, it’s old news; spiritual growth has, well, grown and there are few things left that are still considered “out there” except, perhaps, UFO abduction. But trance channeling, past lives, Edgar Cayce’s work, spiritual healing, energy medicine, crystals, sensory deprivation tanks, etc. are now, if not mainstream, certainly not fringe.

The MacLaine publishing experience certainly intrigued me. As a child, I was intensely curious about God and religion, and had several precognitive dreams which came true. I wanted to know about the Ouija board. I was curious about the Tarot deck (though it scare dmd) and I intuitively knew on some level that there was, a Sting wrote in one of his songs, “a deeper wave than this.” But I didn’t know how to find it.

Thankfully, the Universe, in its utter reliability, got me out of the first PR firm job and put me in the publicity  office of the biggest book publishing house in the world. Because I sort of “got” this new age stuff, and at least was very interested in it, I was assigned all of the new age books to promote. And boy, were there a lot of them.  After the MacClaine book got record amounts of ink from journalists, and tons of airtime on radio and TV, it then landed on the bestseller list and stayed put — for years.  Publishers, always eager to chase a trend, hopped on the New Age train, and off we all went. Thousands of books were published in the next ten years that became huge bestsellers, turning formerly starving spiritual teachers into circuit speakers with mega-millions. A few publishers jumped on the wagon so thoroughly, that they only published new age authors. Jeremy Tarcher, Red Wheel, Weiser, Hay House …. they saw the niche and they published it. For years, everyone who’d ever thought they heard the voice of their decades dead grandmother, who could construct a decent sentence, got huge publishing deal.  They went on book tour, they gave lectures, theysigned books, they held weekend seminars at airport hotels. In some ways, it was very cool; in other ways, it was gross. I’m sure you know what I mean. A part of me was aghast at how commercialized the new age became; tee shirts, CDs, webinars, seminars on cruise ships… somehow or another, for me, the message frequently got lost in the hoo-ha that surrounded the messenger.

Perhaps the worst part for me was that I ended up having to publicize many of these “new age” authors’ books, which often meant knowing them up close and personal, and even traveling with them while they did book signings, media interviews, and events. The reason why is was the ultimate disillusion was that guess what?  Every one of these teachers had … a dark side. I could write a whole other blog about some of the truly bad behavior I witnessed coming from these folks. Yelling a cab drivers, smiling warmly at fans then rolling their eyes at me in disgust after we would get into the limousine, having their agents call and scream (yes, scream) at me because their book tour wasn’t long enough or going to enough cities …. and the perennial question, why was Oprah not calling to schedule them for her show? I just found out recently that a new age big shot therapist we published, who sold millions of books at the time, was just arrested for drugging and then sexually assaulting some of his patients. Nice.

I thought, naively, at the time that because someone talked the talk that they would naturally walk the walk. There are legions of stories of gurus sleeping with their students, of new age stars embezzling money, laundering money,  of having non-profits formed so they could keep MORE of the money… we published that woman, too. Imagine how much fun it was to have to tell all the media outlets we’d begged to interview her that, well, she was kind of a fraud. Whoops!

So after the initial froth of the New Age subsided, I was more than a little jaded.Many of the idols were now millionaires. Some my work had helped make them such. And then, the Catholic Church molestation stories started coming out. Wha was a spiritual seeker like me to do? It seemed everywhere I turned, there were idols with feet of clay.  Somewhere along the line, I assumed that anyone who could write a book with the poetry and depth of some of the authors I read and/or published nada to be genuine, authentic, spotless.  I obviously had not yet read enough Jung.

I finally realized that very few idols– maybe none– can be “spiritual” 24/7/365. It was a rude awakening. I have since come to learn that “enlightenment” is NOT ascending into some white cloud blue sky atmosphere, soaring with angels and released from humanity. I came to understand that “enlightenment” is a moment — maybe several — when we release from the heavy bonds of our ego, and move into a vast, loving, anxiety free space. There’s a great Zen story that teaches quite clearly this idea — that teachers are not the teaching — called Pointing To The Moon.  In the piece, a Zen master reminds his student that if someone shows you the moon by pointing his finger at it, you might well only notice the finger, and not the moon.

It is this way with spirituality. The teachers are the fingers and the moon is the teaching.  We so often get them confused.

Interestingly enough (no accident, I suspect) the next trend in “spiritual” books were all about the “shadow” an idea Carl Jung had theorized back in the ’30s. In a nutshell, he said that everyone had a shadow, a place in our psyches where we put parts of ourselves that were forbidden or loathed by consciousness, and that we could not achieve wholeness until those parts were made conscious. Non-scholarly fans of Jung scooped up his idea and wrote popular books about the phenomena. Suddenly, “shadow work” was what therapists were offering.  God bless us all; we were trying so hard!  While I never did shadow work in or out of a therapists office, I did take to heart (and read the original work of Jung on this topic) and it made sense. Suddenly, all those experts and star spiritualists with nasty little porn-watching habits (I’ll never say who, but you would definitely recognize his name) were never going to be pure. I traced it back to a desire that was clearly still in me to have my idols be without stain.  I wanted both my parents to be perfect. Neither was. One of them failed pretty badly at the job. Inside of me there was still a deep longing for someone to hold the high watch and do it without sin.

When I got clear on that, things changed. 24/7 spirituality was not possible, and probably not desirable. The great saints and mystics and teachers and gurus and Rinpoches spoke of “perfection” and “enlightenment” but I finally got it that they were ideals, not goals. I could sit on meditation a cushion for 365 days and on the 366th, have very sore and stiff legs and perhaps, more space in my mind. But I was not geeing to get “enlightened.” I could, and did, spend thousands of dollars on retreats, conferences, private sessions with famous gurus and get in the car to drive home and swear at the truck driver who cut me off on the freeway.  What happened to that enlightened state?

I think now, the movement towards “mindfulness” and “non-duality” is a good thing. I think that divinity and perfection and at-one-with can be had, in glimpses, any day. It’s just a matter of getting the ego out of the way. I will write more about the ego in another post, but my great teacher Winifred Clarke once said to me, “The ego only gets you to balance your check book and food shop.” the point being that we need that part, but it’s not the whole picture of who we are by any means.

The best image I’ve ever found to illustrate the idea of what’s conscious in us versus what’s not, is below:

Food for thought, no?

Meanwhile, let’s ease up on our teachers, and take more responsibility ourselves to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is a lot of wisdom out there, if we can let go of the need that the source is perfect.


Growing Up and Spirituality

“As I child, I saw it face to face; but when I became a woman, I put away childish things and began to see through a glass darkly…” 1 Corinthians

I was born in New York City, on Park Avenue in Lenox Hill hospital. They day I was to go home, there was a blizzard. My father was drinking at the Stork Club, and was not sober enough to battle the weather, so  the hospital nurse piled my mother and baby me into a yellow taxi, and off we went to my parents’ apartment on 93rd and West End Avenue.

I took my first steps on West End Avenue;  I was an underage drinker along with all my groovy friends from The High School of Music and Art at a bar by Columbia University. I went to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. I had drinks at the Oak Room of the now-Trumped Plaza Hotel. We once had Thanksgiving dinner at the Carlyle. On my tenth work anniversary, my former corporate employer gave me a Tiffany clock, and when I finally resigned from the crazy publishing business, they gave me a diamond Tiffany bracelet.

New York in those days was heady, dangerous,expensive, glitzy, thrilling and exhausting. And its citizens were arrogant. Always in a rush. Fast taxis, fast subway trains, except when everything would come to a screeching halt, due to an accident or too much traffic; then everyone erupted with swear words, the middle finger, and a level of frustration that over time seemed perfectly normal to me. I had no idea how much the ethos and culture of Manhattan had shaped me, my thoughts, my anxieties, my work ethic and my spirituality.

I was interested in “God” for as long as I can remember. I almost drowned in my cousin’s swimming pool one summer. I was probably 6 or 7 years old and had a near death experience as I felt myself sinking to the bottom of the pool, unable to breathe. Thanksfully, my older cousin Bobby pulled me up, slapped me on the back to get the water out, and I lived.

But I never told anyone what happened to me at the bottom of that pool, probably because I thought it really weird, too weird to share with my mother or other families. I didn’t even know what it was until I got older and started reading the many books that started coming out about NDEs. I immediately recognized the description of a lot of the things that’d happened to me that day.

I swear on a stack of Bibles that the following is absolutely true:

I struggled to breathe and realized I couldn’t. Then, I felt very peaceful. And then, yes, there was the tunnel with the bright light at the end of it. I felt compelled to travel there. Then, there was a movie playing in my head…. and it was starring ME! It was clear that I was being shown a film of the life that I would have if I lived — so in other words it was not a life review, because I’d hardly had enough experiences to show in a movie, so it showed me growing up, my life populated by people I didn’t know now but would.

Suddenly, I felt a yank on the strap of my bathing suit, and I was hurled out of the water and hung over the side of the pool.  My cousin was pounding my back, people were yelling, and I started belching chlorinated water.  Seems I wasn’t quite ready to leave this planet yet.

I had no one to tell of my experience mostly because there was no popular language for near death experiences back in 1967. I had no idea what’d just happened to me.  Many years later, when researchers like Raymond Moody created a lexicon for these experiences, it all made sense to me. My experience in the pool came flooding back to my mind,  I’d had this “thing” yes indeed! It was great to finally have someone explain to me what the heck had happened tome.

The thing that sticks with me most even still today was Dr. Moody’s chronicling some of the aftereffects of an NDE. Many were so generic as to be applicable to anyone who ever had a life-threatening event, or perhaps a great loss, etc.  What struck me was his note that people who have an NDE have a weird relationship with electricity — TVs turn on and off without hitting a button, light bulbs burn out much sooner than they should, contact computer problems and …one’s wristwatch would never be able to correctly tell the day in that little area on some watches. I was really amazined — at that time, I’d bought about three differences watches because they all kept “breaking” and not being able to accurately show the day of the week and the month.  Still all these decades later, my watches never get the day right == either its number or its name. Very strange.

But somehow, all of these experiences stayed in my psyche, hidden but present, waiting, I guess, for the right time to bloom. In the meantime, I carried on, the way my family and culture expected, becoming a strong, independent  “working girl” wearing clothing with big shoulders and carrying an appropriately male-looking briefcase. I did well in my profession, moving up the ladder quickly. One evening an editor and I had to attend a cocktail party for (I am not making this up) The Romance Writers of America. As I recall it was down towards the south of New York City in a large hotel.  When I met up with the editor, she had this large pink stone on a chain around her neck.  I asked, somewhat uncertain, “Is that a crystal?” Yes it was. A rose quartz. My colleague was the first person I’d ever met that knew what a crystal was, much less owned one.

Lucky for me, she took me under her metaphysical wings and introduced me to the Weiser Book Shop, where there were multiple volumes of books on “esoterica” and “the occult.” I saw texts about things I’d never even imagined. She took me to my first “crystal show” which ignited a life-long passion for crystals. The flame within me was ignited, and there was no way it was going to go out. 

But back then, in the late 80s, this was all very new and very weird. God was to be worshipped in a building (either a mosque, a church or a temple) and anything other than that would be heresy.


The Spirituality of Death and Dying


When my father died in 2000, he’d left a yellow legal size envelope with a bunch of papers inside. They were logical — his will, title for the house, info on the car lease, and the receipt for the burial plot he’d purchased in advance of his death. He told us kids about the existence of this file, which he called “In The Unlikely Event That I Should Prove To Be Mortal” file. While somewhat grim in its simplicity and studied orderliness, it also made things very easy for my mom, brother and me as we navigated the details of closing up a life.

What was not in the file was a receipt for a casket. Somehow, in all his orderliness, he never purchased one.  He was adamant that he not be cremated and that he wanted to be buried in a certain Brooks Brothers suit. A long-time member of A.A., he requested that his 30-year sobriety coin be placed in the casket with him. We had a list of all the things he wanted and we executed on them all… except knowing what he wanted in a casket. Ugh. We were going to have to choose it.

So off we went to the casket company that was attached to the funeral home that my Dad had chosen to take care of things. It was somber, sober, hushed, and very weird to walk into a large room which was cluttered with caskets. I mean, like, 50 to 60 of them. It was shocking and breathtaking. My mom and brother and I just stopped in the middle of the room, surrounded by bronze and silver and titanium and wood boxes. Some of the caskets were heartbreakingly tiny, designed to hold an infant or young person who died an untimely death.

Sometimes, in moments of intense feeling (grief, sorrow, loss) people can have what others consider to be inappropriate reactions.  We did. Upon entering the casket show room, all three of us just burst into hysterical laughter, the kind where you’re crying and heaving and choking and howling. We simply could not get it together to act like somber adults, soberly choosing a casket for our passed relative. The funeral home employee looked aghast, not certain how to respond.  The three of us kept saying, “oh my God, I’m so sorry!” as we bent over again in gales of laughter.

Finally, we were able to stop.  Wiped our eyes. Cleared our throats. Put on our big-girl and boy panties and got back to the task at hand.  Since Dad was a practical guy, we thought that our number one priority in selecting a casket should be price.  This criteria made the selection easy, as most of the caskets were hideously expensive.  I mean, $30,000 or $40,000 expensive. Silk lining, gold trimmed handles, top of the line pillows for the deceased’s head to rest upon. Several of them looked as though they were designed for Elvis.  The funeral employee earnestly described the benefits of each casket. Apparently, most of their customers wanted the casket to be air-tight, impenetrable by insects, rodents, or even the ravages of decomposition of the body. Those bodies would get placed on the silk fabric, the lid would shut and be locked tight, and then lowered into the ground for eternity while the mourners wept at the grave site.

We were most definitely not going to purchase that kind of a casket. We ended up choosing a somewhat plain, nice, subtle coffin. It was dignified and classic and appropriately sedate. My father’s body, in his Brooks Brothers suit and AA coin, went in.

The next night was the visitation. In the manila folder, Dad had been very specific that he did not want an open casket — I never really  understood why. While not vain, Dad was good looking, well-kept, and always crisply dressed. The illness that took his life had not ravaged his looks. But he wanted it closed — so it was closed.

Except I wanted one last look.

I was sure a great hand was going to reach down from the heavens and smite me for this desire; after all, it was completely against Dad’s wishes.  But I had to have one last look. My girlfriend and I snuck into the room where the casket was a half hour before the visitation and we were going to take a look.

But as much as I wanted to see him, I was a big weeny and was totally afraid of actually lifting up the lid and seeing my father, dead.  So I closed my eyes tight, and asked my girlfriend if she would do it. God bless her, she did. And yes, the lid actually creaked as it was opening. Just like in the scary movies. I squinted my eyes open so they would be easy to shut if the sight was too ghastly (or ghostly). But it wasn’t. With open eyes, I saw my father, looking just about like he always did, perhaps a little paler and gaunt. But it was Dad.  It wasn’t so bad to look at him. It wasn’t so bad at all.

Then I wanted to touch him. There was something about daring to bust through social norms and my own fear that made me reach out my hand to touch his. It was cold, a kind of cold I had never imagined. Bone cold. Dead cold. He was, definitely, dead.  I pried open his fingers and slipped the A.A. coin in his palm, cried, and wished him a safe journey to the other side.  I did not tell my motor brother that I’d done this verboten thing.

As I walked into the receiving room later to greet the mourners and look at all the flowers that friends had thoughtfully sent, I felt a true sense of closure. I was able to say goodbye in a way that made sense to me, that felt true to me, and that taught me a lot about facing fears. No boogie man descended. No white-haired, angry God came down to punish me. It was, in the end, just fine.

My Grandmother, (Dad’s mom) committed suicide when I was 27 years old. She’d been diagnosed with Parkinsons disease, and just didn’t want to endure the drawn out debilitation that it would bring. So she ordered literature from The Hemlock Society (an organization who helps people take their own lives), followed the directions (pills, alcohol and a large, plastic garbage bag placed over the head) and ended her life. My father, when planning her funeral, absolutely would not let us see her. He grimaced and said, “Believe me, you don’t want to look.” It scared me. Was she green? Or blue from lack of oxygen? Had she marred her face by clawing at the plastic bag?  I’ll never know.

At the funeral home where the service was going to take place (no church service for HER!), my family members (uncles, cousins) were awkward and uncomfortable. No one really wanted to acknowledge the fact that she’s killed herself. It was a bold act, yet completely in concert with my grandmother’s spirit and independence. I don’t remember the funeral or the burial or anything from that experience except the weirdness that was at the funeral home.

What does any of this have to do with spirituality? Plenty.

After these deaths, and a few more, I decided to become a hospice volunteer. That was in 2000. Since then, I’ve helped well over 100 people die. I have been privileged to sit bedside with patients, and their families, during what is often a very challenging time in addition to being a very sad time.In America, we don’t do death well. And we are even more unskilled at managing grief, ours and another’s.

As part of my Masters program in spiritual direction, we had to write a thesis. I wrote 100 pages on “The Spirirtuality of Death and Dying” and interviewed hospice chaplains in addition to doing a comprehensive literature review.  I also interviewed about 20 of our most popular spiritual teachers, asking one question: What are the spiritual tasks at the end of life?

I talked to: Father Thomas Keating, Angeles Arrien, Brother Richard Rohr, Thomas Moore, James Hollis, Rabbi Zalman Schlater-Schlomi, Rev. cynthis Bourgeault, Larry Dossey, MD, Rabbi David Cooper, Roshi Joan Halifax, Llewellyn Vaughn Lee, KAthleen Dowling Singh… as many as would reply to my letter of invitation.

I was so excited when I started setting up the phone interviews. I just knew that I was going to get “the secret” from these giants of the inner life.

I did one after the other, after the other… and not too far into the process, something became clear; no matter their religion, their psychological perspectives,or their spiritual practice, they all said the exact same thing:  be here now.  They all said that we need to die daily (as St. Paul remarked so many centuries ago). That we have to die to the ego, we have to “let go” as the 12-Step programs encourage, we have to practice dying so that when we actually die, we will go simply and peacefully.

All that time on the phone, and that’s what I learned?

Yes, many of them commented on the need to make amends, tell people that they were loved, to have good palliative pain medicine, to do a life-review. But the real thing was to surrender daily.

After completing the last interview, I sat on the material for several years. Some of it made it into my masters thesis, but most of it slept on my computer. I don’t think I was reay to truly embrace the power of this idea, and its immense possibilities.  Be here now. Ram Dass said this in the 1960s. And here I was, hearing it again and again in the 2000s.

I turned my attention next to the way we face dying in America. And the answer was, not very well. I recalled my early experiences with death (see above) and how certain etiquette and social mores were concretized into a prescribed way of behaving at funerals and during the dying time. It felt cold and heartless, prescribed, contained and uptight. What is so wrong  with looking death straight in the eye, and wailing about loss? Are we still so guided by a Puritan perspective and a WASP-y ethos that mandates we be neat and tidy about death and grief?  I remembered sitting in a movie theater in Rye, New York in 1981, watching the film, Ordinary People. Mary Tyler Moore, in a complete 180 switch from her TV persona as Mary Richards, played a mother of a family who’d lost a child.  When you watch her portray the mother, you can feel the tenseness and tightness of her body, her smile, her affect. This was a person who needed to mourn, but she just couldn’t. That movie made a big impression on me; I could see even then that this was not the way to be.

One of the things I love very much about the Jewish tradition is the way they handle death. Family “sits shivah”. Mourners sit for seven days, not doing anything celebratory, which friends and family stop by with food and support. The Jewish faith suggests that by slowing down long enough to FEEL the grief, you will help HEAL.  I think this is wise.

But for most Americans, overwhelmingly Christian of some sort, we want to get it over with. While I’m very grateful than many workplaces now give paid time off for a death, it makes me grimace to think that by suggestion, we should use those three days and then plop back into our office chairs and get on with it.

Obviously, grief and death go hand in hand. Without a solid connection to your source of inspiration, be it God or the Goddess, Buddha, Allah, God the Father,  or just nature, facing mortality — either ours or someone else’s — is almost unbearable. What do we do? Stuff our feelings and bury our dead and… get on with it. Perhaps we run the shower a little longer to allow time to cry where no one will hear us. Or sit in the car to have a few stolen moments of contemplation and mourning before greeting the kids. Or, we just get really busy to keep our minds off it.

No one likes to grieve. It’s painful, messy, unpredictable, makes our faces look bad, is inconvenient, and hurts like hell.  Who in their right mind would welcome it?

What I know now is that there is profound spiritual growth and connection by diving RIGHT into the feelings, and welcoming it.  We think grief is going to kill us if we let it in … and sometimes, it feels as though we are dying. In a way, we are; things will change after a significant loss. Most of us don’t want change.  Again, it’s unpredictable and scary. But letting go (see above!) and surrendering to loss and grief is, I promise, an amazing way to deepen our connection to God and to ourselves.

We live in a culture that really still allows us to grieve a little, and then go on. Let’s buck that trend.