My Spiritual Autobiography: from Mormonism to Integral Spirituality
Updated: Jan 20, 2022
I wrote the first two of these "spiritual autobiographies" in 2004 and 2005, as part of a religous transistion group I participated in at the Unitarian Church. I wrote the third in 2012, after I had become involved in Zen Buddhism.
My Spiritual Autobiography: Part 1
I was born in the Mormon church. In a way that sounds funny, as if my mother gave birth in the wardhouse. Actually, the image of my mother giving birth to me in our wardhouse is a perfect description of my family’s relationship with the church. To be born into our family was to be born into Mormonism. In my childhood experience, they truly were one and the same. The Mormon world was the only world there was.
My father was raised, along with his eight younger half-brothers, in an alcoholic and abusive home. I believe his choice in young adulthood to embrace his Mormon heritage and devote his life to the gospel is what allowed him to escape the alcoholism, drugs, and even prison time that have killed several of his brothers. For that, I am deeply grateful to the Mormon church. When I look at some of my cousins – some of my dad’s brother’s children, I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if my father hadn’t chosen to embrace Mormonism.
My mother was also raised in an abusive home, although I only just recently discovered this. She has always been, for the most part, a quiet, passive, private person, who mostly followed my father’s stronger and sometimes larger-than-life personality. This is not to say she is not a true believer herself. I have always know that she completely believes, with all heart, in the truth of Mormonism. She has devoted her whole life to my father and the church.
As for me, and my spiritual journey – I loved everything about being a child in the Mormon church. I loved Primary, which was still held in the middle of the week after school back then. I loved getting my CTR ring! I loved lacing streams of crepe paper through the spokes of my tricycle wheels for the Pioneer Day Parade. I loved getting my own New Testament, with a picture of Jesus in the front of it. I loved my Primary bandelo with its round emblems. I was even okay when partway through my three-year progression from Gaynote to Firelight to Liahona the program changed and I suddenly became a Merrie Miss, with an unfinished bandelo, but a new Merrie Miss Marker that I could embroider and glue emblems on.
From my earliest memories I loved Sundays. Each Saturday night my five sisters and I all lined up at my mothers dressing table to have our hair put in curlers for church the next day. I loved running through the house on Sunday mornings in just my slip, feeling the curls in my hair as they bounced on my neck and shoulders. I loved going to Sunday School and singing songs about Heavenly Father and Jesus. I loved the reverent feeling I had in my heart when we prayed, and I loved the little cards I was given with pictures of Jesus on them and sayings like, “Someday I will live again, Like Jesus.” I loved (and was very proud of the fact) that I had so many stickers on the reverence chart in our Sunday School classroom.
And I loved my Sunday dresses and shiny patent leather Sunday shoes. Well, except for the one summer Sunday, when my sisters and I used the hours there used to be between Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting to build a wonderful hut in the fields behind our house. We made it out of old plywood, mud, and straw. If only we’d thought to take our Sunday dresses off before we started! I caught my first glimpse of the wrath of God as I watched my father tear down our little hut with his bare hands, once he’d seen our Sunday dresses.
When I was five years old something happened that over the coming years would change my world completely. That year my father’s parents were killed in a car crash. His five youngest brothers, those who weren’t old enough to be on their own yet, came to live with us. Our family went, literally overnight, from having five little girls (the oldest of which was just nine) to also having five boys, the youngest of which was also nine. The boy’s ages ranged from nine up into their late teens. They were five mostly teenage boys who’d been raised in the same alcoholic and abusive family my father had been raised in.
In many ways that event was a train wreck for our family. When the boys came to live with us, violence entered our home. I remember cringing, sick in my stomach and scared to death, trying to hide under my bed or in my closet with my hands over my ears so I wouldn’t hear the sounds of my father in a fistfight with one of his teenage brothers, trying to establish who was the boss of this house, and who would obey the boss. In the following years my mother even became violent at times. I can still hear the sounds of her hitting my youngest uncle with a wooden paddle, while he cried and defiantly yelled at her to stop hitting him. At the time I saw him as a big boy in big trouble. Today my heart breaks when I realize that he was just a nine year old little boy when both of his parents were suddenly killed, and that he’d been in the car with them when it happened.
When I look back on those years now, I believe that my mother eventually went into a clinical depression, and stayed there for some time. She was often sick and always tired, and took lots of “naps” during the day. No one ever talked about what was happening in our home. And between mom’s depression and dad’s temper being at the breaking point more and more frequently, we kids were largely left on our own emotionally and psychologically, to figure things out and cope as best we could.
Much as I believe my father embraced Mormonism so tightly in order to escape the pain of the family he grew up in, I grew into a teenage Mormon zealot in order to escape the pain of mine. I learned (and with quite impressive skill actually), to repress and then deny all of my fear and pain. I channeled all of my conscious energies – emotional, spiritual, and intellectual – into learning and living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Mormon paradigm was the only reality I knew. I truly believed that God himself – through men who spoke for him as surely as Moses and Abraham did – had promised me that if I would only live the gospel exactly as his leaders taught me to, I would be happy. I would love and be loved. I would have a happy family in this life and an even greater depth of happiness in the eternities to come. I had no doubt that living the gospel would solve every problem I ever had, and bring me every happiness there was to be had.
And despite my zealotry, I believe the church did help me in many ways during my growing up years. It didn’t turn out to be the ultimate solution, but at the time it gave me Jesus and Heavenly Father to count on and turn to, and strong moral guidelines that kept me from coping with my pain in destructive ways. It got me through my growing up years, until I was old enough to understand what had really happened in our home, and to learn healthier ways of dealing with life and people.
In addition to the pain and challenges that existed in our family, there were also may fun and happy times. There were camping and fishing trips every summer, which I loved. There was dad singing and playing his guitar while we girls danced around the room, and dad sitting up all night with my sister and I when we had our tonsils out, feeding us popsicles and crushed aspirin tablets and taking care of us. There was the excitement of the horse races. My dad raised quarter horses and show horses, and mine, Bronze Eagle, almost always won a trophy. There were birthdays, and “family fun nights” in which one of us got to pick games for everyone to play all evening. And just remembering the Halloweens and Christmas mornings is enough to bring back the feelings of total magic they created in me. As far as the church went, there were things like Relief Society Bazaars, and girl’s camps, and road shows, and ward campouts, all of which I loved.
My total commitment to Mormonism led to the easy decision to serve a mission. I was called to the Boston, Massachusetts mission. Ironically, it was while on my mission that the first cracks in my utter certainty about the absolute truth of Mormonism appeared. On one occasion, my companion and I attended the Catholic first communion of a disabled little girl. We weren’t allowed to attend other church services in our mission, but it was okay in this case because we were actually there to convert the priest. (This delusion of grandeur on our part was no doubt the result of my having listened one too many times to a popular audiotape called “Conversion of a Benedictine Monk.”)
During this first communion service, I was overcome with a feeling that I could only describe at the time as God’s spirit – the Holy Ghost. But that made no sense whatsoever. The Holy Ghost comes to bear witness of the truth, and here I was sitting in none other than “the great an abominable church of the devil,” witnessing an empty ritual performed by a man who had no more authority to act in God’s name than my mailman did.
“How could this be?” I wondered. “What’s going on here?” But not to worry. Soon the mental gymnastics I’d mastered during all those years of repression and denial kicked in, and I was able to resolve my dilemma. “Clearly,” I reasoned, “the people present at that Catholic service loved each other. And surely there has been love in every Mormon meeting in which I’ve felt the Spirit. So that’s it! That’s what I felt during that first communion. Not the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the truth. Not God’s spirit. Just love.” (Of course, the absurdity of that statement doesn’t escape me as I write it today. But back then it served its purpose, which was to keep me safe in my unshakable testimony of the truth of Mormonism.)
A second experience on my mission created an even larger and more serious crack in the unshakeableness of my testimony. We were teaching a group of young adults – friends of the son of the local bishop – who were just getting ready to enter college. I became good friends with one particular girl in the group. For some reason we just really connected, and I and wanted so much to help her experience this wonderful gospel I had to share. So I was concerned when one night she came to me in tears, clearly distressed. I asked her what was wrong and she blurted out, “If the Mormon church is true, I don’t want to know it!”
I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t imagine what could cause such a sentiment. Why, if the Mormon church is true, then knowing that would be the greatest blessing on earth! When I asked her why she felt that way, she began to explain to me her deep love for the Catholic church. Starting in her childhood, she explained everything she’d loved about it – the Sunday School classes, the church camps, the beautiful stained glass windows, the music, the rituals, the spiritual experiences she’d had there, her many church teachers and friends, and on and on.
As I listened to her explain all of this I found it easy to empathize with her. I knew exactly how it felt to love the church you grew up in with all your heart. I tried to think about how I’d feel if I suddenly found out the Mormon church wasn’t true. I’d be devastated. Of course, I thanked God that I would never have to face that crisis, since I was already in the true church, but I could certainly empathize with her feelings.
Later that night back at our apartment, a terrible thought stole into my mind. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what if the Mormon church is true for me for the same reason the Catholic church has always been true for her – because I love it with all my heart, and I could never imagine myself in any other church? Because I was born and raised in it, and it’s the only church I’ve ever known?” That thought was terrifying, too terrifying, and I used all of my skillful powers of repression and denial to banish it from my consciousness.
I finished the rest of my mission and was welcomed home with happy, open arms. But I found that even though I had banished that feeling of fear, a tiny seed of awareness had been planted in my heart. It was an awareness of the fact that if the Mormon church somehow weren’t true, I didn’t want to know it. I was afraid to know it. If the Mormon church wasn’t true, then I didn’t see how anything in the universe could possibly make any sense. For a few years after my mission that fear lived and grew, mostly unnoticed, somewhere in the recesses of my mind and heart.
But it kept growing there in the dark, until one day a few years later I realized that the only way I would ever feel fully certain of my testimony again would be to do what I’d asked so many non-Mormons to do while on my mission – to seriously consider the possibility that the church they grew up in might not be the “true” church. But how was I to do that? I was completely immersed in Mormonism, and had been since birth. It would be like asking a fish to step outside of the ocean so she could get an objective look at the shoreline from a distance
Gradually I began to realize that if my investigations were really going to be valid, I would have to remove myself, at least for a little while, from my immersion in Mormonism. In order to get any kind of an objective look at it from the outside, I would have to step back from my activity in the church. I was quite sure I would be back, and with a stronger testimony than ever. But I felt I couldn’t get that stronger testimony without stepping back, at least for a little while.
I realized, of course, that if the church was true, which in all likelihood it was, then by intentionally removing myself from it, I was walking away from doing those things (like attending church services, paying tithing, keeping the Sabbath day holy, etc.) that made me “worthy” of receiving God’s guidance through the Holy Ghost. I made the decision to step back from the church fully accepting that, spiritually speaking, I would be on my own. I stopped praying when I left, because I had no expectation whatsoever that God would answer my prayers. Not that he wouldn’t want to, but his hands would be tied. My intentional disobedience would prevent me from being able to receive his Spirit, no matter how much he may want me to feel it.
The need to get a more objective look at Mormonism was actually only one of two forces that were acting on me during those years after my mission. The other force came in the form of a man named Doug, who came to work in the same children’s summer day camp program that I worked in. I felt an instant connection with Doug. He was so much fun, and so full of life. I felt brave when I was around him, brave in a way I’d never felt growing up in a family filled with so much fear. But best of all, he was so, so kind and patient with the kids. Every child there loved him, and I thought he would be the most perfect dad in the whole world.
There was only one problem, and it was a huge one. Doug wasn’t Mormon. In fact, he wasn’t religious at all. As I grew to care for him more and more, I tried so hard to convert him to Mormonism. I gave him carefully chosen pamphlets to read and tapes to listen to (which bless his heart, he did). I prayed and prayed – and fasted and prayed – for God to soften his heart and give him a testimony of the church.
Late one night after I’d gone to bed Doug came to my house and stood outside knocking on my bedroom window. I got dressed and went out, and he said he wanted to take me somewhere. We drove to Camp Rogers, a children’s camp in the Uintahs where he’d worked for a couple of summers. While we stood there in the moonlight and the trees, he told me that there were only two times in his life when he’d ever felt even the slightest possibility that God might exist. One was when he was here at Camp Rogers with the kids, and the other was when he met me.
On the way home he asked me if I thought my parents could ever accept someone who wasn’t a Mormon, and I tried as best I could to explain why they felt the way they did, about both me and Mormonism. My response to Doug that night is one of my regrets in life. At the time I hadn’t yet made the decision to step back from the church, and from time to time I have wondered what my life might be like today if I’d left the church earlier, back when Doug was still in my life. But all I can come up with is that everything happens for a reason.
Doug eventually went on to date and marry a non-Mormon. I see now that the loss of him from my life left me angry at God, though I managed to successfully repress that anger at the time. I had tried with everything in me to stay true to the gospel. And because of it, I’d lost this amazing person. I began to feel sick and tired of “being right.” I just wanted to be happy, and I wasn’t. A few years later I came across a book whose title expressed exactly how I felt. It was called, If the Gospel Is True, Why Am I So Unhappy?
So, on the one hand I had this anger at God over losing Doug. And on the other hand I had a growing realization that the only way I could be completely sure that Mormonism was absolutely true would be to step back from my complete lifelong immersion in it, and to honestly consider the infinitesimal possibility that it might not be true. So, in my late 20's I made a conscious decision to take a vacation from the Mormon church. I was pretty sure I would be back, but I was equally sure I had to get away for awhile.
I see now in retrospect that my decision to step back from the Mormon church those many years ago turned out to be the beginning of my adult spiritual life. I had no idea when I left on that vacation that I would never be back, except as a visitor – for things like baptisms or baby blessings or missionary farewells.
Two things ended up being the catalysts that turned my vacation from Mormonism into a permanent departure. The first was the influence of a dear friend of mine, Daniel Rector, and his position as the publisher of Sunstone magazine. Back in my late teens I, along with a group of friends I’d gone to high school with, began attending a series of missionary preparation classes at BYU. Daniel was the teacher of those classes. He’d just gotten back from spending the summer proselytizing in South America, where his dad, Hartman, was the mission president. After Daniel had returned from his own mission, he’d come across a man at BYU named Grant Von Harrison who’d written some books on faith and missionary work, and how to draw down the powers of heaven to baptize hundreds of people, just like Alma the younger had done in the Book of Mormon.
Daniel was determined to test out these new methods, fearing he’d not done all he could have done on his own mission. With true Daniel zeal, he had pestered his dad until Hartman had agreed to let him come, just for one summer, and proselytize in South America. Daniel and the other missionaries he worked with did end up baptizing scores of people, and when my friends and I all starting going to his missionary prep classes, he and some of the missionaries he’d worked with in South America taught us how to go out and do the same thing.
Several years later, around the same time that I’d made the decision to step back from the church for awhile, I was surprised to see Rod Decker on TV interviewing Daniel. The interview was about the upcoming Sunstone Symposium, and I was stunned to learn that Daniel was now the publisher of Sunstone! I immediately called the Sunstone Foundation and asked to speak to him, and thus began my involvement in Sunstone and my dear friendship with Daniel. After college I ended up getting a job at Easter Seals, which was located in the same building on Rio Grande Street as Sunstone was. I became a volunteer, and went into Sunstone every day on my lunch break to prepare their deposits and do their books.
I learned that in the years since those mission prep classes, Daniel had undergone a 180 degree turn in his spiritual life when he had discovered the concept and reality if God’s grace (as in the age-old “grace vs. works” debate). Daniel had become a devoted believer in God’s unconditional love and grace, and was dismayed that this principle was not recognized by or taught in the Mormon church. He believed the Book of Mormon supported the concept of grace, and he became involved in Sunstone because he viewed it as a way to spread the gospel of grace among Mormons. At one point he actually apologized to me for all the things he’d taught us in those mission prep classes that he no longer believed.
I was especially receptive to the concept of grace at this time in my life, because if it was true – if God’s love and presence in my life really had nothing to do with my righteous works – then it meant that God would continue to guide me, even though I had intentionally stepped away from activity in the Mormon church. It meant that I hadn’t put myself outside the reach of God’s love and guidance after all. Most importantly, it allowed me to begin a relationship with God outside of Mormonism.
So my friendship with Daniel was the first catalyst that led to my Mormon vacation becoming a permanent departure. In addition to grace, Sunstone exposed me to other ideas espoused by Mormon liberals, such as Mormon feminism, and new approaches to the Book of Mormon. One of the most influential things it exposed me to ended up being the second catalyst that led me out of the church for good, and that was the work of Michael Quinn. Mike is a consummate historian with a Ph.D. in history from Yale who was involved with Sunstone at the time. He had been a history professor (director of the graduate program) at BYU, and had worked under Leonard Arrington in the Church History Department.
I learned a lot of surprising and disheartening things as I began to read Mike’s work on the history of Mormonism. The most life-changing thing I learned was that clearly Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had been wrong at times. Not just wrong about inconsequential things, but actually wrong in their callings and pronouncements as God’s prophets. Joseph had made prophecies that had not come true. Brigham had said that Joseph’s death came about because Joseph had lost the spirit of revelation. They had been fallible, even in their callings as prophets. And this information hadn’t come from anti-Mormon sources, but from our own church Historical Department’s documents. I was also very bothered by Joseph’s treatment of Emma, and his repeated lies and manipulations concerning polygamy
The knowledge that Joseph Smith had made such mistakes gave me permission to do something that would have been utterly unthinkable during my growing up years. It gave me permission to question the prophet who led the church today. If Joseph Smith had been wrong, even when acting as a prophet, then it was entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the prophet today was wrong about some things, too. For the first time in my life, I had inner permission to actually decide for myself if I believed that what the prophet said was true, rather than automatically accepting his words as the truth, and concerning myself only with how to conform myself to his words.
That was the real beginning of the end for me. During the years since my mission I had begun uncovering the layers of repressed feelings in my own psyche, and once I had inner permission to think and feel for myself about Mormonism, one doctrine after another got thrown out. No more twisting my mind and heart into a pretzel to make myself accept and feel good about doctrines that now seem patently absurd, unchristian, misogynist, manipulative, and unhealthy.
This process of finding my own spiritual voice and authority took a few years. In the beginning, I found I couldn’t have anything to do with the church, because I simply wasn’t strong or spiritually self-confident enough to hold my own in the face of the enormous power and authority it had always had over me. If I so much as heard that righteous sing-song voice of a general authority on TV during general conference, I began to doubt myself. It felt as if the church was a giant, powerful vacuum that would suck me right back in if I got anywhere near it. Eventually, over time, I became strong and sure enough that I could hold my own in the face of it. (Although today I still pretty much steer clear of Mormonism, and even Sunstone, not because I fear being sucked back into it, but because it utterly bores me to tears, and I find I have a very low tolerance for boredom.)
In the years since leaving Mormonism, my adult spiritual journey has included wonderful learning and new experiences from more sources than I ever would have dreamed of. I am on a journey that I love. And as I’ve said before in this group, I love the questions as much, if not more than, the answers.
It’s so fun for me to see Malia in this group, because the very first time I had a reading with her she gave me an image that captures perfectly my spiritual journey. She said my soul’s energy in this life was like the energy of a tree, with branches growing out in all different directions. Something captures my interest and I’m off to explore it, growing a new branch. Then something else calls to me, and I’m off to explore that and grow another branch. I feel just like the branches in this image she gave to me – always reaching and seeking and trying to learn and understand more.
And she was right about my goal in all of this reaching, too. She said that what I was really trying to do was to synthesize everything I learned in all these branches and draw it into the trunk of the tree – into a solid spiritual foundation that I could feel grounded in and base my life on.
Some of the branches I have explored since leaving Mormonism have included:
Psychology and family dynamics
Taoism and, Buddhism, and Hinduism
The wonders of science – especially quantum physics and cosmology
Paganism and Native American spirituality
Bodywork and holistic healing
Ken Wilber’s brilliant work (Integral Theory)
The work of the Jesus Seminar
Most recently, I have begun an exploration of the perennial philosophy found at the heart of the major world religions – Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Mystical Judaism, Mystical Christianity, and Mystical Islam. It amazes and excites me that what the mystics in each of these traditions have said about the nature of reality – based on their own direct first-hand spiritual experiences of it – parallels what quantum physics now says about the ultimate nature of reality and human consciousness.
In a way it feels like I‘ve actually gone beyond Malia’s image of the tree’s branches and trunk. What I’m searching for now are the roots – what lies in the ground, at my true source. Because the perennial philosophy isn’t about beliefs or doctrines or philosophies or religious history. It’s about one thing only – the first-hand experience of my own essential nature, and my oneness with all that is. And if hundreds of years of mystics in every tradition are to be believed, that knowing happens not at the level of the intellect or the personality, but at a much deeper level of our being. The source of that knowing lies in our existential roots – in the shared ground from which all Being arises. Right now I’m searching for whatever actual practices can help me to experience that, no matter which spiritual tradition they may come from.
I think that’s one of the things that brought me to Unitarianism. Unitarianism has just a few guiding principles, and no official doctrines. One of its guiding principles is that we embrace truths from every spiritual tradition, as well as from science. I’m starting to feel like the truth is a big puzzle which the mystics in each spiritual tradition, as well as science, each has a piece of. A single religion with it’s one piece of the puzzle isn’t enough to give us the whole picture.
So that’s where I am today. From time to time I have wondered what my life might be like today if I’d never taken that “vacation” from Mormonism so many years ago, and all I can come up with is that I’m very glad I did.
My Spiritual Autobiography, Part 2:
Finding Meaning after Mormonism
Growing up Mormon I always believed I knew The Truth about the ultimate nature of reality – where I came from, why I was here, what would make me happy in life, what I could really trust in and count on in this world, and what to expect after I die. I grew up feeling absolutely certain, as I was taught in the church, that there was an actual celestial being named Heavenly Father who knew and loved me personally. I felt certain that he could see what was happening in my life, and would help me when I needed it. I was not alone in the universe.
When I stopped believing in Mormonism and could no longer accept its entire picture of reality, I still felt certain that I would always believe in Heavenly Father, and Heavenly Mother, and Jesus, no matter what. These beliefs seemed to be completely beyond question. But little did I know, when I first began to apply critical thinking to Mormon church history and doctrine, that I would eventually end up having no choice but to apply that same critical thinking to the history of Christianity, and to the very notion of the existence of a personal God.
I distinctly remember one day during this period when I was reading a book about the atonement, and I had one of those rare “Ah-ha!” moments of total clarity in which I suddenly said to myself, “A human mind thought this up. This is not an inherent aspect of reality.” It suddenly seemed clear to me that the Christian doctrine of the atonement is a human construct – a theological scaffolding built by human minds in order to have a place to sit our anthropomorphic God in a throne on top of it. (And it is also a useful tool to control human behavior.)
With this bedrock of my spiritual world view jettisoned, all that was left was my belief in a personal God who hears and answers prayers. But over time, it began to seem more and more unlikely to me that God was some celestialized former human man who knew me personally and would intervene on my behalf if I asked him to. The more I allowed myself to see the terrible suffering that exists in the world, the more the whole notion of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs became not only unbelievable, but actually offensive. It became far more plausible to believe in a God who helps no one (or in no God at all) than in a God who steps in to alleviate the suffering of some, while completely ignoring others. Or, in a God who helps some because they have people who will pray for them, but who ignores others because they have no one to pray for them.
Eventually, I realized that I could no longer believe in such a God, much less worship him. And speaking of worship: this omniscient, omnipotent, incredible Being who created the Universe and everything in it, for some reason need or wants, and thus commands, human beings to “worship” and “adore” him? Please. If that isn’t a projection of the human ego into the heavens, I will eat my hat.
So, there I was, left by myself, with the underpinnings of my entire world view gone, having discarded my most basic assumptions about reality because they just didn’t hold up anymore. Without my belief in Jesus as my Savior, and God as my Heavenly Father, I was left all alone and on my own in the Universe, in a way I’d never been before.
At that point my spiritual search became all about trying to find out what is actually “real.” I wanted to know if there was anything larger than myself out there that I could trust in or count on. Is there any higher power of any kind? Is there any larger purpose to our lives, any divine pattern or flow that I could somehow get myself in sync with that would bring me peace and happiness? And is there any source of help and guidance beyond myself that I can count on during the hardest times of my life? I just wanted to know what’s really real, even if the answer was bad news. (And I expected that there was about a 50/50 chance that the answer was bad news.)
In the years since I left Mormonism I have searched in many places for answers to these questions. I’ve come to think of my spiritual world view now as a kind of tapestry. Most places I’ve searched have given me at least one thread that rang true that I could weave into my new world view. In hindsight, I see that over time some threads have become more and more prominent, and it’s a few of those threads that have turned out to be major ones that I’d like to talk about now.
The first two threads are Transcendentalism and Nature Mysticism. It has always been my experience, both in and out of the church, that I have found spiritual peace and guidance when I am alone in nature. So when I came upon the Transcendentalists’ idea that the natural world is a symbol for spiritual realities, and that the natural world itself comprises our most reliable spiritual text, it rang true to me.
Unlike Mormonism, where I shaped my experiences (or at least my interpretation of my experiences) to fit the model of reality that was handed to me, in Transcendentalism I found just the opposite – a model of reality that fit my own independent experiences. Emerson writes:
Nature is the symbol of spirit. Natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts. Outer creation gives us the language for inward creation. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. The motion of the earth around its axis and around the sun, makes the day and the year, an analogy between man’s life and the seasons. And who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky?
There is nothing capricious in these analogies. They are constant, and pervade nature. This relationship is free to be known by all. A life in harmony with nature will purge the eyes, to understand nature’s text. By degrees the world shall become to us an open book, every form significant of its hidden life. Every natural object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the soul. (“The Portable Emerson”, pages 19-30.)
There have been times, hiking by myself in Southern Utah or the California redwoods, when I have been so overcome by the beauty and spirit of the natural world around me that I’ve been taken outside of myself in a way. These are some of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.
My natural affinity for Transcendentalism and Nature Mysticism found another outlet when I happened across Taoism, and specifically, the Tao te Ching. The Tao te Ching has become my most favorite written book of scripture. It offers a spiritual world view that is in total harmony with the flow of the natural world. It is in complete accord with reality as I experience it, and the longer I live the more it rings true to me.
Another thread that seemed to flow naturally from my discovery of Taoism as one form of Eastern mysticism was science, especially quantum physics and cosmology. In one of my classes in massage school, the instructor mentioned a book that he said did a good job of integrating Eastern and Western ideas. When I read it I was introduced to the discoveries of quantum physics, and the strange world of reality that science encounters at the subatomic level.
I was so fascinated by this view of reality that I read as many books as I could find on quantum physics written for the layperson, as well books on cosmology, like Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. I came to believe that Einstein could do circles around Joseph Smith as a modern-day prophet: a human being who brought hidden truths to light for the benefit of humanity.
In a book called The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra outlines striking similarities between the strange world that scientists encounter at the sub-atomic level, and the nature of reality as it is described by Eastern mystics. In some places, he puts two statements about the ultimate nature of reality next to each other, and if you cover up the names of both authors, you literally can’t tell which statement comes from the physicist and which comes from the mystic.
Is seems that the deeper scientists probes into the ultimate nature of physical reality, the more their findings parallel those of the mystics who probe into the ultimate nature of non-physical or spiritual reality. Instead of science and religion being at war with each other, in the world view of the mystical or contemplative traditions we find a spiritual reality that parallels modern scientific discoveries about physical reality. (And even if physics is studying the manifest world, and not the radical emptiness described by the mystics, I think it is still the case that the realities of the manifest quantum world can be symbols for unmanifest spiritual realities.)
This exploration into science led to what has become the most prominent thread in my new spiritual worldview. As I said earlier, the Transcendentalists’ idea of the natural or physical world as a symbol of spiritual realities rings true to me. And when I look at the natural world, whether in the largest sense of the entire physical universe, or on the local level of planet earth, if there is one truth of the physical realm that seems everywhere evident to me, it is the truth of evolution.
Everything evolves. The Big Bang produced hydrogen and helium, which evolved into gaseous clouds, which evolved into rotating pinwheels of matter, which evolved into stars, which produced the elements that evolved into planets, on which life appeared and began to evolve.
And even if you don’t believe that human life is directly descended from other primate life forms, there is no denying the information in the fossil record about the sequence in which different life forms appeared on earth (wherever you think they might have come from). First came simple one-celled life forms in the sea, then fish, then amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals, then primates, then humans. And with the evolution of more and more complex life forms came more and more complex brains, which leads to another kind of evolution: the evolution of consciousness. As life forms take on more and more complexity, so does the level of consciousness associated with them.
As the concept of evolution as a central organizing fact of the natural world became more and more evident to me, and as I combined that with the Transcendentalists’ view of physical realities as symbols of spiritual realities, spirituality for me became all about the possibility of human evolution, specifically the evolution of human consciousness.
It is often said that when the student is ready the teacher appears, and it was at just this time that I happened upon some of Ken Wilber’s books. Ken Wilber is a brilliant philosopher and a prolific writer. He is a master at taking various maps of reality developed by pretty much every major discipline and integrating them into comprehensive meta-maps of reality. This started during his college years, when he began to explore both Western psychology and Eastern philosophy, and what each had discovered about a human being’s growth and development.
Wilber ended up integrating these two approaches (Western psychology and Eastern philosophy) in the first book he wrote, called The Spectrum of Consciousness. It is about the evolution of human consciousness, both in the individual human being, and in humankind as a whole over millennia. This evolution can be mapped out, from the rudimentary consciousness of a newborn infant to the fully enlightened consciousness of a Buddha, and every stage in between.
Wilber’s map divides the evolution of consciousness into three broad stages: the prepersonal, the personal, and the transpersonal. The prepersonal stages occur in infancy and early childhood, before the child has formed a stable, cohesive individual sense of self. The personal stages are the stages in which we experience our self as a separate individual with our own thoughts, feelings, and boundaries. Ideally, the personal stages result in the development of a healthy, fully integrated, mature human being.
The prepersonal and personal stages of development are the domain of Western psychology. For the most part, Western psychology considers its work successfully completed when a person has resolved the various issues and dysfunctions of the prepersonal and personal stages, and has become fully functional in the personal realm.
But when the discoveries of Western psychology are integrated with the discoveries of Eastern and Western contemplative traditions, we see that a healthy, fully individuated human being functioning at the personal stage of development is not the end point in the evolution of human consciousness. There are higher stages of consciousness still to be realized.
These higher stages of human development constitute the third of Wilber’s three broad stages, the transpersonal stage. In the transpersonal stage, we experience levels of consciousness that transcend the merely personal or individual sense of self. The higher states of consciousness that can be experienced in the transpersonal stages have been reported with consistency throughout centuries of history, by the mystics in virtually every major spiritual tradition the world over – Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, mystical Judaism or Kabbalah, Sufism, and the Christian mystics.
I have such a passion for Ken Wilber’s work. His map of the evolution of human consciousness has become my primary guide on my own spiritual path. I wanted so much today to present a basic overview of his map of the spectrum of consciousness. I re-wrote this presentation again and again trying to find a way to include just the basics of it, but I just couldn’t fit it into the time frame we have, so I have prepared a handout of it, for any of you who may be interested. I also brought some of his books that you are welcome to look at when we’re finished.
Earlier I gave a laundry list of some of the different avenues I have explored in my search for truth and meaning since leaving Mormonism – everything from family dynamics to Transcendentalism to the Tarot. Each of them seemed to give me something that spoke to where I was at at the time I encountered them. With each new discovery I would get so excited and think, “Oh, now I’ve found it – this is it, this is the answer I’ve been looking for.” But after that happened again and again and again, I began to feel like something of a flake, with the attention span of a butterfly.
The reason I was stunned speechless when I first came upon Ken Wilber’s work was because he took all of these different things that I had explored and experienced, and drew a big map that included all of them. He showed how each of them have been a step forward in the evolution of my own consciousness. When I first saw his map, my whole journey suddenly made sense.
And all of this brings me back to the original questions I had when I stopped believing in the Mormon explanation of reality. What’s really real? Is there is anything larger than myself that I can trust in or count on?
I have found some answers to these questions that work for me. They all seem to fall under the umbrella of the Transcendentalists’ idea that the natural world is a symbol of spiritual realities. First, is there a God? Is there anything larger than myself out there that I can count on? I no longer believe in the literal existence of a personal God like Heavenly Father, except as a way that people at certain stages of development describe their encounters with ultimate reality. However, I do believe that we are all part of a larger whole. I believe that there is one larger all-encompassing Consciousness of which we are each individual manifestations.
Back in my Mormon days, when I was deeply troubled about something, there were times when I prayed to God for help and was overcome by deep feelings of peace and comfort. I interpreted that as a personal God seeing and helping me. Since I started experimenting with meditation a few years ago, I have had those same feelings of deep peace and comfort arise spontaneously from within me, in response to nothing but my meditating.
I now believe that this kind of help and comfort comes not from a personal God who is external to me, but rather from that level of my own being at which I am one with the larger Consciousness out of which everything in existence arises. I believe that at that level of reality, everything really is all right, and always will be. So when I encounter that level of my own being, I naturally experience peace and comfort and reassurance.
At various times in my life I have also experienced what I understood at the time to be God or the Holy Ghost giving me guidance or direction when I prayed for it. I still believe there is guidance to be had in our lives, but again, I no longer believe that it comes from an external God. Rather, I believe there is an inherent intelligence woven throughout the very fabric of reality, a fabric we are each a part of, and that intelligence operates to further both the evolution of the individual and the evolution of the whole. I believe that the guidance I experience in my life comes from that deeper aspect of my own being, and that it acts to further my evolution.
And then there is the question of praying for others. When people I care about are in pain or distress and I am unable to help them myself, my natural inclination is to pray for them, to plead with God to help them in ways I cannot. No longer believing in a personal external God has made that difficult. In times of desperation, my prayers for others have often ended up sounding something like, “I know you’re probably not even really there, but could somebody or something out there please help this person I love.”
I now view these kinds of prayers for others differently. I have learned that everything in the material world, including our bodies, is made up of energy. Einstein’s famous E=mc2 is one way of expressing this. At the deepest level of physical reality, matter is nothing more than frozen energy, or to put it another way, energy vibrating at a certain frequency that gives it the qualities of solid matter. At the level of subatomic particles, this energy-matter behaves in strange and almost magical ways. Quantum physics gives us a picture of a physical reality in which everything is part of one inseparable whole, and separate events are interconnected in ways that go beyond the limitations of Newtonian physics.
This all leaves room in my mind for the possibility that when I pray for another person, rather than my prayer being heard and responded to (or not responded to) by some celestial person in the sky, what actually happens is that my energy, or the energy I send out, can somehow affect the energy of the person I am praying for. I don’t know for certain that this is what happens, but people a lot smarter than me have suggested that it is, and it make sense to me given what I understand about reality at this point in time.
My two primary spiritual practices have become meditation and hiking. These are for the most part solitary experiences, and I love them both. But I am also somewhat frustrated because I feel that I need and want to choose a contemplative path and follow it. I want to choose one path from among the major spiritual traditions that includes both contemplative practices to further my own evolution, and a community of others to share the journey with. But I don’t seem to be able to find that here in Utah. I keep telling myself that when the student is ready the teacher (or community) will appear, and I can only hope that will happen yet again for me.
I want to talk lastly about one model of human evolution called Spiral Dynamics. Spiral Dynamics was developed by a psychologist named Clare Graves. Dr. Graves identified eight developmental or evolutionary stages through which people pass. He called these stages value memes. A value meme is a particular way of thinking, with its own world view and value system. It is a level of psychological existence.
Memes are not based on what people think and believe, but rather how they think and believe. Two people with very different ideas and beliefs (for example, fundamentalist Christians and fanatical atheists) can still have the same ways of thinking and believing. Rather than classifying people, Spiral Dynamics classifies ways of thinking, which may change in individual people over time.
Memes form as human beings respond to their life conditions, using whatever intellectual capacities they have. Each move upward on the spiral to a new meme marks the awakening of a more complex way of thinking, on top of what already exists.
When a person is centralized in one meme – when their center of gravity hovers around that particular level of consciousness – they have a psychology which is particular to that meme. Each meme holds a different view of the meaning of life. Each contains its own framework for religion, politics, family life, education, mental health, work, social order, and law. Memes can be applied to individuals, organizations, and entire societies.
Memes themselves are neither good nor bad. Each represents the best response available to a certain set of life circumstances, given the abilities of the individual, organization, or society. Each meme has both healthy and unhealthy aspects, and humans always manifest their being in both healthy and unhealthy ways. For example, the same meme that produces Navajo mysticism also influenced Jim Jones’ followers to drink suicidal purple Kool Aid. The same meme that inspires the dedication of millions of people on behalf of noble causes, and brings order and purpose to their lives, can lock others into militant, fanatical holy-wars.
Dr. Graves divided the memes into two tiers, and labeled each meme by giving it a color. The first six memes, from Beige to Green, represent what Graves called first tier thinking. The Yellow and Turquoise memes comprise the first two levels of second tier thinking. As I read through the Spiral Dynamics book in preparation for this presentation, I was amazed at how much of what I read also applies to the evolution of the Mormon church as an organization.
So, how does Spiral Dynamics relate to our experiences of leaving the Mormon church? When a person who has been immersed in Blue Mormonism leaves the church, one of three things can happen:
First, we may regress to Red. We may decide to please ourselves only, and say, “Damn the consequences and to hell with anybody who doesn’t like it!” This may or may not include throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into every behavior that was forbidden to us when we were believing Mormons.
This is the sense that I got from the Mormon church while I was still in it – that if I ever left the church I would lose the Spirit and immediately sink into a life of alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity. When I first left the church and that didn’t happen, I was angry. I wasn’t angry because I missed out on the fun of all that debauchery. I was angry because I felt I’d been told a lie and intentionally manipulated with fear. I felt like the church instilled this false fear in me deliberately, as a way to keep me from questioning its authority.
But I now understand this aspect of Mormonism in a different way. Blue is the meme that brings a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives, and gives us rules for living that take us out of the chaos of Red. That’s Blue’s job. So when you’re living in Blue, it makes perfect sense to fear that if you leave Blue, you will lose both the meaning and the morality that Blue gave you. If you’ve never been beyond Blue to Orange, and the only non-Blue possibility you can see is Red, then of course you fear that’s what will happen to you if you leave Blue.
I no longer think that the church deliberately lied to me about what would happen if I left it as a way to manipulate me. And I don’t think that fear came only from the Church. I think it was also my own fear – that it came from my own Blue thinking, and that it’s a perfectly normal and legitimate Blue fear.
Second, we may leave the Mormon church, but stay in the Blue meme, with its all-or-nothing, black and white thinking. We may simply exchange one black and white Blue belief system for another black and white Blue belief system. I personally tend to think that this is where the Tanners are, and groups like “Exmormons for Jesus.”
Third, we may move from Blue to Orange, and actually begin to think in new ways.
With these three possibilities in mind, I would like to throw out some questions about Mormonism, and our relationship to it after we leave it. I am not proposing that these questions have one right or wrong answer, just different colors of answers.
In our last meeting Amy talked about reaching a point where she no longer knew for sure if God existed or not. She said, “I don’t know, and that’s okay.” My question is: Is it possible to say the same thing about Joseph Smith? Is it possible to say, “I don’t know for sure who or what Joseph Smith really was, and that’s okay.” Does Joseph have to be either all angel or all demon – either God’s one and only true prophet of the Restoration, or else a despicable fraud?
Do Mormon church leaders have to be either all angel or all demon? Or, like you and I and every other human being on the planet, can Joseph Smith and every prophet since him, and all church leaders, be a mixture of both light and darkness, who operate out of whatever meme they are presently at?
Does the Mormon church have to be either the one and only true church on the face of the earth, or else a total fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting dupes? Does it have to be either everything it ever claimed to be, or else be an evil institution with no redeeming value whatsoever? Or, can it just be another Blue organization with both healthy and unhealthy aspects, and just one of the many possible structures that can meet the needs of people who are in Blue?
Do we have to either love the Mormon church, or else hate it?
Ken Wilber and a psychologist named Allan Combs have developed a model that they call the Wilber-Combs Matrix. Up the left-hand side of the chart are the stages of development up the Spiral. Across the top are states of consciousness, from ordinary everyday waking consciousness through the higher transpersonal states of consciousness. Their purpose in proposing this matrix is to show that a person can have a temporary peak experience of one of the higher states of consciousness, and they will understand and interpret that experience based on whatever developmental level they are at.
For example, a person in the Purple meme could have a temporary peak experience of a higher state of consciousness and interpret it as a visitation from an animal spirit guide. A person in the Orange meme could have a temporary peak experience of the same higher state and interpret it as a vision of overwhelming bright light.
Temporary peak experiences of higher states of consciousness are also affected by our culture. This is because all of our experiences must be interpreted for us to make sense of them. For example, three people in the same meme, let’s say the Blue meme, can have a temporary peak experience of intense interior illumination. A Christian might interpret this experience as being one with Christ. A Buddhist might interpret it as experiencing the bliss body of the Buddha. A Jungian might interpret it as a archetypal experience of the higher Self.
So, with all of this in mind, is it possible that Joseph Smith actually had one or more temporary peak experiences of an altered state of consciousness, and then came back and interpreted the experience based on the Purple meme and folk magic culture that he was immersed in at the time?
And, given the fact that the world and everything in it, including God, looks very different from each of the different memes, is it possible that at least some of the changes over time in Joseph’s explanations of his spiritual experiences, or in the doctrines he taught, is because he himself moved from Purple to Red or Blue, and when his worldview changed, his understanding his spiritual experiences also changed?
And lastly, Question #5:
What might all of this mean for our relationships with family members and friends who are still believing Mormons?
The authors of Spiral Dynamics point out that all people are not equally open to, capable of, or prepared for change. Some people are entirely different people today than they were just five or ten years ago. Others are essentially the same today as they were 30 years ago, and may serve as the flag bearers for a world view that has always worked well for them. Such people rarely change without the impetus of a significant life event that cannot be resolved at their present level. People have the right to be, and to stop, anywhere they choose to along the spiral, and a person who isn’t ready cannot be force into a new meme.
The sad and difficult truth is that organizations, friendships, and families can sometimes split in two when new memes awaken in only some of their members. And I think Mormonism creates some special challenges in terms of memes and families. A Mormon temple marriage isn’t just based on two people loving each other. Besides love, Mormon marriages are strongly based two shared memes.
First, the Purple meme, with a temple sealing conferring eternal celestial tribal membership. If one partner leaves the church, the celestial tribal membership of the partner who still believes is placed in jeopardy.
And second, the Blue meme, with it’s absolute certainty about the higher meaning and purpose of both our lives and our marriages. In Mormonism, temple marriage is an ordinance that is required for individual entry into the celestial kingdom.
These memes aren’t just where the two individuals entering the marriage happen to be at the time they marry. Temple marriages are actually based on these shared memes. So it’s easy to see why a marriage may fall apart when one partner leaves behind these shared memes, and why the believing partner can be left feeling abandoned and betrayed.
My understanding of Spiral Dynamics has changed how I view the Mormon church, and my loved ones who are still in it. For example, I have a nephew who recently left on a mission, and two more who are in the process of getting ready to go, and I’m happy for them. All three of these boys live squarely in the Blue meme right now, and they are genuinely good boys who are trying their best to do what they understand is right.
My hope for them in their missions is that they will come across people in Red whose evolution would be furthered by a move into Blue. If they do find such people, then I would feel perfectly comfortable saying that they were “guided” or “meant” to find those people and share their Blue Mormonism with them. Only when I say “meant” to find them, I no longer mean meant to find them because bringing them into the Mormon church will bring them eternal salvation. I say meant to find them because for people in Red, the move into a Blue structure means a move forward along their evolutionary path.
I’m also happy for them because my own mission turned out to be the beginning of the end of my testimony of Mormonism. People move up to a new meme when they are ready to, and when they are ready to, almost anything, including experiences as a Mormon missionary, can be a catalyst that gets them thinking.
So, that is where I am right now, with regard to both my own personal search for meaning, and my relationship with Mormonism.
My Spiritual Autobiography Part 3:
States of Consciousness -- Knowing God
Growing up Mormon, my understanding of what it meant to "know" God and Jesus Christ was shaped by Joseph Smith's first vision. To know God and Christ was to see them face to face – to see them in their glorified bodies of flesh and bone, and speak to them face to face, as prophets throughout history had. I didn't grow up expecting that I myself would see God or Christ face to face in this life. Rather, God's plan was that I would come to know God and Christ through the teachings of the prophets, past and present, who had seen and spoken with them face to face. If I lived the gospel fully in this life, I could see Heavenly Father and Jesus face to face in the next life. That is when I would fully and ultimately know God.
When I encountered integral theory, I encountered new and deeper understanding of what can mean to know God. Specifically, I came to understand knowing and being one with God in terms of states of consciousness. Over the years I’d heard about the idea of states of consciousness associated with eastern traditions like Buddhism, but I really didn’t understand what it meant until I dove into integral teachings.
The first few times I looked into Buddhism it didn’t speak to me at all. I could never get past its “four noble truths.” The first noble truth is, “life is suffering.” (At least that’s the way it was worded the first few times I encountered it.) I thought that sounded like an incredibly negative basis for a spiritual path. Sure, life includes suffering, but that is far from all that life is. Life also has incredible times of love and joy and fulfillment. So why would you base your spiritual path on the worst there is in life?
The second and third noble truths were equally repellent to me when I first heard them. They are: desire is the cause of the suffering that is this life, and eliminating desire is the key to eliminating suffering. It sounded to me like the core teaching of Buddhism was that we suffer because we want things, so the key to end suffering is to just stop wanting things. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stop wanting all of the good things in life. I didn’t want to shut down my feelings of wanting things. That sounded like becoming emotionally dead. And as if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Buddhism said that the ultimate truth of reality is that each one of us is like one drop of water in the ocean, and if we successfully follow the Buddhist path, our ultimate end will be to just melt back into the ocean – all individuality gone – like we’d never existed in the first place. I never got so far as to really explore the fourth noble truth – the eightfold path to realize Buddhist enlightenment – because the whole thing sounded incredibly bleak and depressing to me, not a path I wanted to follow or an end I wanted to reach.
Years later, integral theory helped me better understand Buddhism, and other eastern traditions, by helping me understand states of consciousness. Each of the world’s mystical traditions has development maps of these realms and states of consciousness. The integral map of them was developed by identifying their common underlying structures and experiences, despite their surface differences in different traditions. I was surprised to learn that these commonalities can even be found in the writings and experiences of Christian mystics.
See this page for a full exploration of states of consciousness from the perspective of integral theory. The rest of this essay will refer to concepts from this page.
My Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness
In terms of my own experiences of higher states of consciousness, I remember the first particularly vivid and strong experience I had of making the subject-object shift in my sense of self while driving in the car by myself to Southern Utah. As I drove, I was using the time as an exercise of sorts, to be as consciously aware as I could be of everything that was there – the feel of the car I was sitting in, the sight of the road, the other cars, the scenery in front of me, and the sounds of my own and other cars. "I" was clearly right there, observing all of this as my car moved down the road. And then, in an instant, it was as if "I" was gone. After a few seconds lost in thought, I snapped out of it and was right back in the car again – driving and fully aware and present. I felt amazed at the shift, and I said to myself, "Oh my gosh, I was right here, and then I was gone! And now I'm back again!" This shifting back and forth kept happening, as I drove, to my amazement at the time.
Later, when I tried to explain this experience to others, they were afraid for my safety, because I told them it was like shifting back and forth several times between being conscious and being unconscious. They cautioned me to never do that again while I was driving, because I could get into an accident if I suddenly went "unconscious" while driving a car. I tried to explain to them that what I was experiencing at the time as being "unconscious" was the normal everyday conscious I'd been driving a car in for 30 years. Compared to the level of awareness I was experiencing when I knew my "self" as awareness, being back in my everyday state of consciousness felt like being unconscious – like being "gone" the way "I" am "gone" when I am in deep sleep.
In mystical Christian terms, it is the “awareness” part of our mind (as opposed to the thinking part) that holds the key to spiritual awakening, to knowing the Light of Christ as our True Self, because this pure awareness is the Light of Christ within each of us. It is “the light that lights every being who comes into the world” (John 1:9). In different spiritual traditions this awareness has also been called the True Self, Pure Consciousness, Buddha Mind, Big Mind, Buddha Nature, Atman, the Witness, Christ Consciousness, and our Christ Nature.
At first glance the awareness that has been present in us our whole lives may seem to be an awfully small definition of something as grand as the Light of Christ. If it does, it is because our conscious awareness and experience of this inner light of pure awareness is still limited. We are not yet awake to its full conscious presence as our "self," and know it only through its seeming everyday fusion or identification with our thinking mind. The more we are able to tease these two parts of our mind – awareness and thought – apart, the more we will be able to experience the qualities of pure awareness itself, when it is not fused with the thinking mind. The qualities of pure awareness are the same qualities that the Bible says are the “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, etc.
Spiritual awakening, awakening to the Light of Christ within us, means awakening to this aspect of our “self” as our True Self. Spiritual awakening is not a cognitive or intellectual understanding that this pure awareness is our True Self. Rather, it is a profound shift in our felt sense of who we really are, a profound shift in our lived experience of subject and object. When we are awake to our True Self, our Christ Nature, we realize that the body and thinking mind – the bodymind – we have always believed our self to be is not our True Self, but rather is something that is temporarily (in this life) arising within our True Self, which is the Light of Christ – the Light of Pure Conscious awareness that we really are.
We can see Jesus’ awareness of his True Self as this Divine Light in his assertion that, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Many eastern spiritual teachers refer to this felt sense of our own Higher Self as “I Amness.” Over the course of our lives many things about our selves change. Our bodies and emotions change. Our thoughts and beliefs change. The circumstances of our lives change. But the one thing that never changes is our sense of “I Amness” – our conscious awareness of our own existence. This sense of I Amness in you today is the same sense of “I Amness” that looked out through your eyes when you were a child. It is the aspect of you that is eternal and unchanging.
There are two general ways people awaken to their True Self. It can happen as a spontaneous awakening – a spontaneous shift in our awareness and sense of self. In our time, spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie (and many others) describe having had such a spontaneous awakening experience. More often, people grow into this awareness as they engage in contemplative spiritual practices such as meditation.
I first experimented with meditation several years before I learned about states of consciousness. While I was in massage therapy school I came across a book my Deepak Chopra, which introduced me to both meditation and quantum physics. I tried meditation and experienced some degree of meditative absorption, but didn’t really stick with it.
After the integral worldview provided me with a deeper understanding of states of consciousness, I wanted to experience spiritual awakening for myself. It seemed like this could provide the ultimate answer to what I had begun searching for years before – the search to understand what was ultimately “real,” what I could really count on.
I tried meditation again, and read books by a variety of spiritual teachers who wrote about their spiritual awakening, and spiritual awakening in general. I understood the teachings of modern day teachers like Eckhart Tolle more completely when I could looked at them through the lense of integral spirituality. Eventually I felt the need to find a spiritual teacher, someone who had been through spiritual awakening and could guide me. I had read books by many spiritual teachers, and tried practices they taught, and these were very helpful. But they weren’t the same as an in-person teacher.
Because I never stopped wanting to re-create the experience of spiritual community I had growing up in a Mormon ward that was also my neighborhood, I tried to find or create a spiritual community that could be organized around integral spirituality. I shared the basic concepts of integral spirituality in classes at the Unitarian church and the United Church of Christ. A class at the Unitarian church evolved into a spiritual practice group, and then a meditation group, that lasted for about 10 years. Eventually this group stopped meeting my need, because I felt we'd gone as far as we could as a group of students, trying to find our way together, without a teacher who really knew the territory of spiritual awakening.
In the process of learning about integral spirituality I heard Ken Wilber, in various audio and video programs, talk about the Zen Buddhist teacher Genpo Roshi and his Big Mind process for spiritual awakening. I wasn’t really interested the first few times I heard about Roshi, first because Buddhism had not really resonated with me, and second because I didn’t realize Roshi’s Zen Center was right where I lived – in Salt Lake City.
After I learned Roshi was in Salt Lake, I went to the Zen Center and was able to borrow some DVDs of Roshi leading Big Mind workshops. I brought them home and played them, and fell asleep while they were playing. That’s as far as they went in shifting my state of consciousness. I toyed with the idea of attending a Big Mind retreat to see if it would be different in person, but wasn’t ready to make the commitment to actually do it until something unexpected happened. In July of 2003 I was diagnosed with a rare, but treatable, form of leukemia called hairy cell leukemia. In the midst of processing this news I felt that I wanted to do something for myself, something to treat myself and take care of myself, so I arranged to take time off work and signed up for a week-long Big Mind retreat.
That Big Mind retreat was a watershed experience for me. If you aren’t familiar with it, Big Mind is a combination of a psychological process called voice dialogue, used by Roshi in the context of Zen to evoke a higher state of consciousness by simply asking to speak to the voice of our True Self, our Buddha mind (Big Mind), which is always and already within us, even if we don’t yet recognize it. Unlike watching DVDs of the process, which I did not find helpful, being there in person with Roshi I experienced a real shift in my conscious awareness.
In the Big Mind process the facilitator asks to speak to different aspects of our selves – different voices within us. These voices fall into two broad categories – relative voices and transcendent voices. The relative voices are voices of different aspects of our every small self. They include the voices of the controller, the protector, the thinking mind, fear, doubt, desire, ambition, competition, the victim, the victimizer, the seeker, etc. Each relative voice is the voice of some psychological or emotional aspect of our individual selves. There are endless variations on these relative voices and how they come through in each one of us.
The transcendent voices are all aspects of our True Self, whether it speaks as the voice of Big Mind, our Buddha Nature, No Limits, Liberation, Freedom, Bliss, Love, Peace, or the Awakened Mind. The thing that all of the Transcendent voices have in common is that they transcend the limits of the individual egoic self. They are an experience of “self” that goes beyond what we have previously known ourselves to be. They are a way of making an immediate shift in our experience of subject and object, into an experience of “self” as the Transcendent. And they are all voices of aspects or attributes of our one True Self.
In the years that followed I attended several other Big Mind retreats and workshops. I had many experiences of a shift in my felt sense of self, from a relative self to the Transcendent. The shifts began to feel familiar to me, and they changed my understanding of Buddhism. One of the things I’d always found unappealing about Buddhism is its idea of a kind of loss of individuality – the one drop of water dissolving back into the ocean. I didn’t want to cease to exist as an individual person. It seemed to me that there was a point to my existence, a reason the Universe had evolved to create this particular body and mind. But what I discovered the first time I made this shift was anything but what I’d expected.
It was a time of deep personal pain for me, and as we sat in a Big Mind retreat, Roshi asked to speak to the voice of Great Death. Because I was in such pain at the time, Great Death sounded like a welcome relief. Existing was painful, and the thought of not existing was appealing. So I gladly stepped into the voice and relinquished my "self" to it. I was at once aware of a releasing, of a sense of the dissolving of my self, like smoke in the wind. The words kept sounding in my head, louder and louder, "I am nothing...I am no thing...I am NO THING...I AM NO THING! This growing realization was accompanied not by a sense of loss of my individuality, but by deep feelings of freedom, peace, and bliss. Then, as this "no thing" that I was dissolved completely, I became aware that it had actually dissolved into every "thing" in existence. By being no particular thing, I was free to be every "thing". This loss of a sense of personal self was no sacrifice, no real death. Rather, I experienced it was a gateway into a few moments of eternal life, pure joy, peace, and embodied love, as the body of the Cosmos itself.
Another time, as we made the shift into a Transcendent voice (I forget which one), I experienced a realization that everything in existence, everything in the Cosmos, is God. I was so struck by this realization that I began to make a list in my notebook, a list of everything that I could see was God. The list included the room I was in – the walls and floor and ceiling. It included all of the people in the room, and every person who had ever lived. It included the birds singing outside the windows, the street and the cars, the whole city. It included dirty diapers and trash heaps, temples and prisons, lost souls, books, forests, factories, pollution, rain – every single thing and every single being. I saw that at the most fundamental level of existence, it is all God. Another time, as we moved from a relative voice to a Transcendent one, I experienced myself simultaneously as two different things. In the Transcendent, I experienced myself as the All, looking upon and loving my relative self – that part of the All that is Teresa – while she exists in mortality.
Another time, after Roshi had asked to speak to a transcendent voice (I forget which one) and I let myself shift into identifying with that voice, I felt a happy recognition and I thought, “I know this voice! This is Jesus!” I recognized the experience of being in that transcendent state of mind as the feeling of the unseen presence of Jesus that I experienced as a child in Mormonism. After well over a decade of cosmic loneliness over the loss of the presence of Jesus in my life (after I found I could no longer believe in the literal claims of his virgin birth or physical resurrection), I found Christ's presence again, quite unexpectedly, through the vehicle of Buddhism.
After I had been attending Big Mind events and trainings for awhile, Roshi introduced a new voice. While we were in one of the transcendent Big Mind voices (I forget which one), Roshi asked to speak to the voice of Big Heart. My first sensation after shifting into this voice was the feeling of my arms growing larger and larger – expanding until they were large enough to embrace the entire world, and even the entire universe. My impulse as Big Heart was that my arms had to be large enough to embrace, to hold, every being in existence, so that no sentient being would feel alone.
After resting in that experience of Big Heart for a few minutes, I realized that it was not enough. Because even though I was right there holding everything in existence, so that in truth nothing was ever alone, I realized that they might not know I was holding them, so they might feel alone, even though they weren’t. I saw then that it wasn’t enough just to hold every suffering thing. Rather, I had to pour myself out in such a way that I became every suffering being. That way, whether they ever feel my presence or not, the truth is that no being would ever truly be alone, because I was all beings. I realized that God isn’t just with every suffering soul. God is every suffering soul. There is nothing that exists outside of what God is.
In retrospect, and in the context of integral theory, I would say that experiences in one of the Big Mind voices are glimpses into Witnessing awareness (Turiya), and experiences in Big Heart voices are glimpses into Nondual awareness (Turiyatita).
Because of my experiences in Big Mind, I asked Roshi to be my teacher, and received jukai in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Jukai is a Buddhist ceremony that is similar to baptism in the Christian tradition. It is how one official “joins” Buddhism. This was a big decision for me. One afternoon before I received jukai I sat outside of the Zen Center in my car and cried as I was overcome with sadness at what felt like “leaving” my Mormon tradition for a Buddhist one. I felt such love for my Mormon spiritual home, what I now saw in a much larger context as this little Christian denomination that, while it hadn’t been responsible for the spiritual awakening of a single person that I was aware of, had still accomplished so much of value in terms of helping people learn to love as Jesus loved. It felt like even though Mormonism and I had separated (but not divorced) several years back, we still lived in the same neighborhood and interacted from time to time -- at family events such as baby blessings, baptisms, missionary farewells and homecomings, and funerals. By receiving jukai, it felt like not only was I moving out of the neighborhood, I was moving out of the country – Christianity – altogether! In addition to being a new beginning, it also felt like a huge loss of something I loved.
When you receive jukai you are given a new name – a Buddhist name. Of course, this brought to mind the new name I received in the Mormon temple when I went through it for the first time, in preparation for my mission. I had felt disappointed with my Mormon temple name, which was Leah. It comes from the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah in the Bible. Jacob loves Rachel and wants to marry her, but her father tricks him into first marrying his oldest daughter, Leah. He eventually gets to marry Rachel, too. I didn’t like that my name was for the sister whom Jacob was forced to accept as a wife, in order to get the wife he really loved and wanted. My Buddhist name was Hyakujo. Hyakujo is a Japanese word, and Roshi said during my jukai ceremony that it means “white vehicle.” I later learned that there is a famous Zen koan called Hyakujo’s Fox. Whatever the literal meaning, I liked it better than Leah – a name which, to me, meant the unwanted one.
The shifts in awareness that I experienced in Big Mind training lasted for hours, and sometimes for days. But eventually I always found myself back in my everyday awareness, experiencing my individual bodymind as my felt sense of self, with all of its shadows and fears and limitations. But I felt like at least now I had tasted the Transcendent. I knew it was there, and I knew it was within me and could be called forth instantly – I just didn’t seem to be able yet to call it up myself the way Roshi could. The realization that what I had been seeking for was already and always within me caused me at one point to load up almost all of the dozens and dozens of spiritual books I had bought over my years of searching and donate them to the Zen Center library. I did this because I finally understood, through my own direct experiences, that what I had been searching for all these years would not be found in any book. Rather, it was already inside of me, and it always had been.
I found that the longer I was involved in the practice of Buddhism, the more I came to realize that, just as I had found Mormonism incomplete because it lacked an understanding and teaching of higher states of consciousness, Buddhism, too, felt incomplete, at least for me. At one point I told Roshi that Zen was missing just one thing, and if it only had that one thing it would be perfect. That one thing is Christianity. In Christianity as I have experienced it, both the endpoint and the practice could best be summed up as, "As I have loved you, love one another. By this shall all know you are my disciples." In Buddhism as I have experienced it, the endpoint and the practice could be summed up as, "Wake up!" In my experience, one could fulfill the ultimate purpose of Buddhism sitting alone in a cave, but to fulfill the ultimate purpose of Christianity requires human relationships. While in the end both paths may well lead to the same lived realization of Oneness, for me they feel like two wings of a bird. Both are necessary in order to fly. At one point I told Roshi that I felt like I was standing with each of my feet in a different spiritual stream, and I had to find a way to bring these two streams together.
When I was in my 30s (during the 1990s, the decade before I wrote the spiritual autobiographies below), I wrote several essays as I worked through my beliefs about the Mormon church. These essays may be of more interest to you if you are, or have been, Mormon. In retrospect, and in terms of integral theory, I now see the content of these essays in terms of developmental stages. I see myself evolving out of the blue, ethnocentric, traditional values stage into the orange, worldcentric, rational values stage in my views and beliefs about the church. I also see myself evolving into new stages of development in the moral and faith lines of development.
These essays show my attempts to find my own voice within the Mormon belief system in which I was raised. It was a process that took a lot of years. Of course, many years have passed since then and my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings have continued to evolve. I haven’t been a practicing or believing Mormon for decades. But I remain happy and grateful to have been raised in the Mormon church, and when I read through these essays now, from the vantage point of being in my 60s, I remember my foundational experiences in Mormonism fondly.
Here are links to each of these essays, in chronological order. Three of them were published (sometimes in a shorter version) in a journal called Dailogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and links to those actual articles are included.
1. On Being Single In a "Families Are Forever" Church (August, 1990)
2. My Search for the Mother and Daughter (Februray. 1993)
I wrote this essay under a pseudonym, Linda Johns. I did this because I was afraid of the impact it might have on my family if they knew about my doubts about Mormonism. I chose the name Linda Johns as a secret version of my maternal grandmother's maiden name, Lydia Jones.
3. Truth Telling and Personal Growth in Faith Communities (December, 1993)
4. On the Value of Including Women's Voices in Church Councils (January, 1995)
5. On Religious Authority and Small Beginnings of Apostasy (September, 1995)
6. On God's Grace (September 1995)
7. Differing Views of the Atonement (April, 1996)
8. Mormonism, Alice Miller, & Me (March, 1997