October 1996, Volume 4 Nr 2, Issue 38
To write a spiritual autobiography I will have to be so general it would be vague and impersonal or so specific it will be me but also novel-length. My compromise is to cite a few incidents and themes which are strong fibers in this tapestry, hoping to see enough of a pattern to recognize me.
My early childhood was auspiciously filled with many supernatural aspects. If I had to challenge it, it was sort of animism: there were spirits all around me - certainly people and animals had souls but so did trees, flowers, streams, great mountainous hills, clouds, all my stuffed animals were animated with personalities and spirit. And then there were fairies, elves, trolls and angels - which I always hoped to see and certainly believed. I had imaginary friends (though rarely it seems), but my teddy bear Cuddles was my constant friend and companion. The air was thick with things, beings, not all of them benevolent. There was the very mixed blessing of always being watched over (or sped on or under surveillance or protection depending on who or where or when the being was) by my guardian angel, Jesus, Mary, God the Father (a rather remote awesome even cold old man usually), saints (lots of them!), ghosts, Santa Claus and dead people, and of course, the Devil (we rarely called him Satan or Lucifer - he was a much more basic and prosaic character and therefore more real and threatening somehow as the Devil. Yes, he usually had the horns and tail and pitchfork - this image I had owed as much to cartoons as anything else.) There were also monsters under the bed, demons at the window, awful things in the closet, and the devil I was sure would rush up out of the toilet with the great noise of the flush.
Another thing I remember is that I used to see colors around people. Colored auras I suppose. (I have a theory about those - has to do with immature CNS (central nervous system), with perceptions just manifesting in one mind differently.
So animism and magical thinking were keystones of my conscious spiritual life as a young child. Magical thinking included incidents such as, when I lay awake worried because my mom wasn't home (she was a waitress usually, other things that kept her away included bridge games and night classes at the Syracuse University), my heart would quiver, and shunt and burst at once in my chest if I heard a siren. I prayed and prayed she was okay. I willed her home safe. I watched the lights of the occasional cars on our street as they raced in lines along walls and ceilings of my bedroom, saying "This one is her. This one is her. She's okay..." with a cold fear, let down, as they went by, not mom. But, I wouldn't let my spirit sink too far because that would be failing her. I had to be resolute and strong or I'd be the cause of her accident. Her life depended upon me. I had to will her home safe. When the car lights finally were hers, I heard the front door open and knew she was home - and my fear seemed silly and I usually was asleep before she came up the stairs.
Though I didn't call them "spiritual", and certainly not "religious" for the first quarter of my life, the sort of experiences I've had throughout my life which were numerous came in such a variety of forms but had that same quality: numinosity and immanence
So there was animism in my early childhood, which gave way to an amalgam of magical thinking and scientific inquiry. Throughout my first fifteen years of life I had a wildly rich fantasy life. I am not sure what happened to make that daydreaming gradually lessen, dwindle to a comparable trickle from the Mississippi of my youth. Even the trickle goes underground for long periods. I am more likely as an adult to use active imagination as a practical psychological tool, or to practice potentially scary encounters (such as when clashing with a co-worker). But thats like work. Im less likely to use daydreaming as entertainment than as work. Sad to realize that. Part of the disease of overscheduling, of making time "purposeful", of shoulding all over ourselves. Only since this course Ive been cultivating daydreams again.
Another trend from about ten years old which has continued through my life is a constant philosophical bent. I'e been a philosopher from an early age, asking those classic questions like a golden warp through which I wove, and still weave, the threads of psychology, spirituality, art. Music, friendship, conversation.
This philosophical leaning has helped me recognize the transient, illusory nature of the details of life. It gave me contact with my internal witness and great peace at a great depth which helped me not get too involved or concerned at situations that were constant emergent crises for so many people I knew - crises involving relationships usually. Of course this was a mixed blessing because while my ability to be a witness, a spectator, allowed me to access richer depths below the superficial stumbling we mostly engaged in, it also lended to help me be detached, lest I get hurt - if I kept my feelings hidden away, they couldnt get hurt.
I discovered my love of conversation early. My favorite and most memorable conversations have been concerned explicitly or implicitly with meaning and have been explorations, all over the thought-map, conducted with intelligence, creativity and humor. They seem to occur when people meet as equals in inquiry. All other roles become unimportant and the friendly relaxed tension of great conversation opens out. Two keys to healing conversation are curiosity and compassion.
In 1980 I spent a day driving to New York City with a man named Joe. We were having meetings and collecting materials for the newly formed local of the War Resisters League. I hardly knew him. He'd been at some of the same meetings and demonstrations, seemed intelligent and was okay to look at. We talked all the way to Manhattan and all the way back. I felt like I'd met my sibling, my best friend, my sweetheart all rolled into one and he was "more than okay to look at" - he was gorgeous! I wrote a poem about it that very week. We were on the phone daily after that and spent a long day at the beach a week later. He wrote a poem that night. It wasnt many weeks later that we figured it out - wed been in love since that trip to New York. We still are. And still siblings and best friends too. Hes still astonishingly handsome- gorgeous. My marriage has been one of spiritual friendship. We began with a deep commitment to supporting one another and challenging one another simultaneously, an agreement to confront the psychological dreck we each carried lest it stunt our individual or collective growth or creativity. That was a great decision and some of the work has been hard but much has also been exhilarating (like a dip in a very cold ocean).
We met Unitarian Universalism only a few months after we met one another and though I worked on Sundays so missed the first few services Joe went to. I managed soon to lose my job so we could attend together.
I had come home. (I couldn't articulately describe to anyone what UU was - like so many of us I was better at saying what it was not. When I got through the list of what it was not, people occasionally said to me, "Then it's not a religion.")
We were very active members and our daughter Guinnevere was dedicated there. The social support for my spirituality was there among UU's and in the Peace and Social Justice Movement. Those were the places where you could have authentic conversations, about hear-issues. Superficiality was out. And, if a certain level of airheadedness was often in, it was earnest airheadedness.
I dont seem to be made of true believer material (except in some very broad concepts such as pacifism, the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and in love).
I'm not a spirituality shopacholic. (Joe and I coined the term workshopacholic for these types in 1981.) I had an inkling that bouncing from one peak introductory experience to another in various traditions (some as ancient as Theravada Buddhism some as new as last week) was like eating nothing but dessert. The real work would have to include day to day practice, work, commitment to a longer term.
My practices have been borrowed from Buddhism and psychology and other sources but I never signed a contract with any of them (except UU which can embrace them all without a contract).
This has been a very personalized religious path, and I, too, have not embraced any one practice long enough to claim mastery in a classical sense. And that's okay. I'm destined to be a religion unto myself.
I don't seem to be made of true believer material. I'm too curious, too contentious, too questioning, and too much from Missouri.
I realize that skepticism is very much a part of my spiritual autobiography. At its best, this is a loving skepticism which opens doors in minds.
Skepticism is not closedmindedness. On the contrary, unless it travels with its near enemy, cynicism, skepticism is an attitude of highly observant questioning, "an open mind is not a hole in your head." My friend Larry Erickson said, "I subscribe to only two -isms: skepticism and eclecticism." It is a line I've repeated for fifteen years. It is a succinct explanation of my spiritual autobiography.
Other main, ongoing events that challenge, create and become my spirituality are my marriage and my children.
It was becoming a parent that taught me I'd been a novice in both love and fear until then. "Terrifying" and "terrific" are same and opposite at once and for good reason. Children remind you of this mystery with great frequency.
Paradox. This is a concept I've found delightful as long as I can remember. It explains so much. It is nonrational but experientially true. It is why I have an affinity for questions, a suspicion of easy and unbalanced answers, a respect for mystery and a constitutional inability to have blind faith.
I've been blessedly cursed or cursedly blessed with problems. (Bucky Fuller said we were put on the Earth to solve problems, and our reward for solving problems is bigger problems), problems, situations to challenge and grow and shape my spirituality. Everything from a mentally ill, alcoholic father to a son with multiple chronic medical concerns (and spectacularly dramatic crises such as nearly dying more times than I want to count here), a typically "dysfunctional" family of quite successful maturing siblings and mom, seizures (as a child), migraines as an adult, and dysthymia, etc., etc. We all have our lists. I'm grateful that I don't see it as a list of grievances at God.
I guess the lessons I learn don't really change fundamentally, but the situational outfits they wear make them look different at different times of my life. This satisfies my sense of myself as a human being doing things. But at heart, at soul, they are always the same lessons, which I must learn and teach and learn and live and learn over again: receptivity, gratitude, compassion.
Where am I now? Entering a midlife quest. I have the resume now, and the gray hair, and the portfolio. Since I was a teenager, I knew I was destined to be a crone - a middle-aged wisewoman mentor with the sexiness of the no-longer-breeding-children woman (I don't need menopause to confirm that decision!). I have the support of good friends, women's group, Jozef, my children, my family, my congregation, all people I can actually talk about these things.
I have techniques and reminders and know where to find them. I have health and relative wealth, and dharmadoors opening all around me. And writing this has been a reminder to me of my blessed destiny, and has been the final stage in shaking off a cloak of mild (bad adjective because it feels awful anyway) mild depression.
© 1996 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski