When I was a young woman and a student at the University of Toronto, I told a friend that life was not worth living without God. That statement – especially coming from me – shocked him. It shocked him because I had never been conventionally religious. Indeed, I had and have often been dissatisfied with traditional religious approaches. But I have never criticised anyone for their beliefs; I simply did not fit in, and I did not fit in by choice.
I have studied philosophy in one way or another for most of life and the most important thing for me is to understand. ‘I want to know the truth,’ I once said to a nun during a religious class. Sometime during my twenties I stopped going to church, then tried again, unsuccessfully, in my thirties. Yet, it would be untrue t say that I did not have good memories of my formal religious instruction. Quite the opposite. I used to like buying lilies of the valley and placing them on the altar of the Virgin Mary in a baroque church in my hometown in Poland. I also enjoyed philosophical conversations with my professors at the different Catholic universities and higher institutions in which I studied. But something was missing.
The God that was presented to me seemed … well … outdated and I could not relate to the ‘personal’ aspect of … well … Him, being represented as a father-figure. I also had difficulty relating to Jesus, the suffering man-God. That was until a nun told me that we should shift our focus from Jesus’ suffering to his teachings. This was a great discovery for me, although it took many years before I knew what she meant.
In the meantime, I became interested in yoga, and my teacher had a magnificent library, of which I made an extensive use. I was struck by the idea of a guru, or a teacher, who can help us actually experience the divine. Not the rituals, rules and institution – but the actual experience. The desire for this experience grew in me. When I moved to Asia to teach at a university there, I began looking for this kind of experience amongst various Buddhist and Hindu teachers. For a few years I followed a Hindu teacher, a famous Vedantin, and read all of his books, which gave me a lot of clarity. What I liked most about the Vedanta philosophy was that it dispensed with the concept of a ‘sinner’ and substituted it with the notion of ‘ignorance’ which could easily be redeemed through ‘proper understanding’. I liked this way of thinking but still could not find the experience of the divine I was seeking.
That was, until I met another teacher from the different Hindu tradition of Shaktipat, which speaks of direct experience of the divine through the awakening of our inner energy. I know that this might sound like some advertisement in a yoga magazine, but my experience was profound. I felt the energy moving through my body and was in a state of complete bliss for several months. Even my view of the word changed. I saw everything as vibrating with beautiful oneness – a miracle of creation. I stayed with that teacher for 11 years and went to all of his programs, read all of his books and followed his teachings. I was convinced that I had found what I had been looking for and that my spiritual journey was over. So when I was offered the chance to travel with two friends to Jerusalem and write a book about their discoveries there I was surprised at how much I wanted to go.
I especially remember when in Israel walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. I loved the place because it was associated with the days of Jesus’ teaching (as that nun had once told me) rather than his suffering or the torturous paintings I had seen in churches as a child. I went to a small pier and stood there for a moment when I felt his presence there, a deep, very emotional presence that unsettled me and which I described in my book Jerusalem Diary. Since then I have given talks on Mary Magdalene, spirituality and sexuality and Gnostic Gospels as my personal attempt to place a spiritual rather than dogmatic experience within Western traditions.
How did these experiences contribute to my understanding of a more universal concept of God?
I think that our connection with God is both a very personal yet universal journey. In my case, this required learning from other traditions to understand better the one I grew up within. I would not have been able to experience the connections I now feel without also having studied Buddhism and Hinduism. I would not have had the spiritual experiences I had sought without the benefit of learning from other spiritual traditions. But I do not label myself in any religious terms. Like many people, I see myself as a spiritual, but not religious, person. I believe that every religion has something to offer and, at the same time, is limited by its cultural and geographic constraints – constraints which do not have to exist nowadays. Every religion, for me, is a part of the great puzzle, and only a dialogue can bring all the pieces together. Once this happens, the end result will be much greater than the sum of its parts.
More specifically, if I were to define my personal understanding of ‘One God’, I would say that it is an universal creative, conscious energy that constantly evolves. It is not static but dynamic, and is always evolving. I also believe we have a responsibility to evolve as well, and align ourselves with this energy to experience oneness with it and with each other. We are not separate from this energy and not separate from each other. Separation is only the wrong conditioning of our limited mind. But we have within us a different mind, a ‘higher’ mind – and all religious traditions speak of this ‘higher mind’ as our ability to spontaneously connect with that Source and each other. This is our largely untapped potential and getting to know that potential is the reason for our journey here, the journey of fulfilling both our human and divine potentials.
One God is the conscious undertaking of these journeys.