Although I’d been a student of metaphysics and the mind-body connection off and on since the early nineties, I didn’t discover New Thought as an organizational or historical movement until 1998. In that year, I returned to university studies two and a half years after my first attempt at college found me booted from the Honors College, losing all my scholarship funding, deep in the grips of major depression, reeling from attempts to self-medicate, and ultimately, pregnant by a much-older man who benefited greatly from my lack of self-esteem and boundaries. Those 28 months since dropping out of college had been some of the most transformative of my life — I gave up the guy, gave up the drugs and heavy drinking, read self-help and positive thinking manuals, and got counseling and treatment for my depression (and other issues stemming from a consistently traumatic childhood). I got involved in a progressive Episcopal church, feeling too uncomfortable with the idea of getting formally involved with non-Christian spiritual groups given my father’s conservative Christianity. Over time, though, I found my feminist mysticism (and sense of self-worth) deepening through my close connections with the Order of Saint Helena. I moved two states away with my infant son in 1997 to help start a non-profit organization, and just over a year later felt ready to give college another chance.
At the time, I was working in behavioral programs for children with autism, and planned to finish a degree in psychology. I was nervous about getting back into school, though, and chose two classes for my first semester that I knew would be interesting. I dropped out of one after the first meeting proved painfully boring. The other class — a religious studies class — was amazing, and the teacher was one of the most vibrant, brilliant, funny, and kind people I’d ever encountered. Within a year, I’d changed my major to religious studies, and continued to take classes from that instructor as often as possible. He was clearly ON FIRE, and I wanted to know more about what gave him that fire. He never talked about his personal beliefs in class, so I searched for him online, and found his name associated peripherally with the Unity movement and with an academic society that studied New Thought and other metaphysical movements. I read up on Unity, and had an “aha moment,” seeing in it a system of spiritual thought that embodied many of the beliefs I already held. To say that I had a “conversion experience” might even be understatement; I was now ON FIRE, read everything I could get my hands on, and attended every meeting, service, and healing circle that was offered, all the while ignoring the cognitive dissonance I was seeing and experiencing. After all, I was still bubbling forth with the energy of the conversion experience, and the benefits were far outweighing my need for logical consistency.
Kind of like being in love.
Because that’s ultimately what conversion experiences are, when you get down to it. It’s like falling for a new partner, when life just feels different, and you can’t imagine what it was like before them, and you don’t want it to end, and you see their flaws as quirks, and life is just completely wrapped up in them, day and night. And truthfully, there’s a chance you may have found The One — the tradition in which you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, even after the buzz wears off and you see it with realistic eyes. There’s also a chance, depending on how comfortable you feel stepping outside your familial and cultural norms, that you’ll stay “married” to your tradition long after the buzz wears off, continuing to practice “for the children” (or your parents) even when you know you don’t believe much of what is being taught. And then there are others who give it a fair shot even after the rose-colored glasses begin to fade, looking to see if making it work is really going to be mutually beneficial but ultimately deciding it’s time to move on. All of these are valid responses to complex realities, and people don’t need to regret or feel shame about their choices of where, how, and with whom to practice your spirituality.
This discussion is further muddied by the way we talk about religious participation. When someone asks, “What is your religion?” we frequently respond with “I am” statements. Not “I attend a Catholic church,” but “I’m Catholic.” Not “I attend the local Friends meeting,” but “I’m a Quaker.” Not “I attend the local Reclaiming group,” but “I’m Pagan” or “I’m a Witch.” This conflation of religious affiliation with identity, of belief systems with self, may not be a bad thing; it does, however, create a dynamic of religious identity in which movement between spiritual traditions may necessarily need to be accompanied by some degree of identity crisis. After all, when one tradition has served as our identity for so long, we can’t help but question if we’re the same person when we move from one tradition to the next. Am I disloyal for wanting a change? Will my change seem like a betrayal to those who have mentored, ministered to, and walked alongside me? Was I wrong or confused when I expressed my loyalty to this tradition or community, even though it felt so real at the time?
These are the kinds of questions that can keep people hanging onto a spiritual community months, or even years, beyond its period of practical usefulness and positive influence in their lives.
On top of that, humans tend to like community. We like regular opportunities to meet and make friends, and to feel supported in our spiritual journeys by a circle of like-minded people. We like when our children come home from Sunday School and tell us how they’re learning to be kinder, more compassionate, and connected. We like potlucks and study groups, prayer circles and the sense of camaraderie that comes from shared intentions. We worry that leaving an organized spiritual tradition or community means we’ll miss out on that, but it doesn’t have to — not exactly! Even atheists are starting to organize their own opportunities for inspirational community gathering. You can find mindfulness-based stress reduction groups, social circles for intentional living, and organized activities for your kids to learn and grow. You can even take the DIY approach: from 2009-2011, I hosted a monthly circle in my home for a small group of like-minded friends. Among the regular attendees: an art therapist, a Reiki healer, a PhD student studying ancient Celtic religion, 2 yoga instructors (one who has since become a licensed mental health counselor, and one who is now a licensed social worker), and a life-coach-in-training who now has a successful practice as a coach and group facilitator. I hosted each week, providing space, decaf, hot tea, fresh-baked bread, and other treats. Each person brought a potluck snack, and we rotated through who planned and led the activities each week. We were, in essence, ministering to each other, without the need for an organized spiritual tradition or church-based community.
Spiritual community is present and available when we set out to find or create it, and can take many forms.
Only you can decide where you need to be at this moment in time, and at this point in your journey. If where you are is working for you, stay there without apology or regret, and know that you are walking the path that is right for you. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t feel obligated to stay where you feel stuck, ignored, dismissed, or simply like an outsider. Go where you can let your light shine fully, and where you will be fed spiritually, even if it means striking out on your own for a bit. Almost all spiritual traditions have many truths in them, but none hold the entire truth, and you don’t have to feel guilt for seeking out a new realm of truths. If you can, leave while things are still reasonably healthy and you can make a positive transition; often the universe senses our desire to leave long before we feel strong enough to act on it, and might provide catalysts for change that may or may not be peaceful.
A few years before meeting my now-spouse, I was engaged to an amazing man who had been my closest friend for years. We were madly in love with each other, and also loved each other very deeply. For reasons that were out of our control, it didn’t work out, and the breakup of our engagement was one of the worst heartbreaks I’d experienced. For a while, it hurt to see him even though I missed our friendship (which had preceded our dating by a good four years). I didn’t want to dwell on thoughts of him too much, and preferred to move on with my life. It took a few years, during which I met and married my husband, to feel like I could talk to my old friend again. There were a few awkward meetings at first, but in no time our old friendship had been reestablished. I’ve now been with my husband for almost 15 years, and I have no doubt that he’s the right partner for me. But I am still thankful for the presence of my old friend in my life, and for the way in which his friendship provides a healthy connection to many parts of my past that would otherwise be lost or dismissed.
I’m no longer involved in any formal way with the Unity movement, or with any other organized tradition within New Thought. I have, however, come to a place where they are like old friends — not my life partner, but still holding a tenderness of memory that is precious to me as well as a host of teachings that I still find powerful and transformative (even if it took me a few years to get to a place where I can be friends again). I tell this story to say, in closing, that if for some reason you end up stepping away from a spiritual tradition or community in way that is painful, uncomfortable, or triggering, perhaps because you stayed well beyond when you knew you were Done, give yourself the space you need to heal, lick your wounds, and grow:
Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method: Healing. To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding. I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless. That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness. – Elizabeth Cunningham
Don’t feel obligated to forgive before you are ready, or to jump back in and welcome old teachings (or people, or communities) with open arms when you’ve been hurt. Take your time, give yourself the space you need, and when the time is right and you are more fully healed, you may be surprised by your ability to be gracious to those who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt you, to find meaning in teachings from your past that are no longer your primary source of inspiration, and to forge a new path for yourself, using bits and pieces of what you’ve found meaningful to create a new beginning, and maybe even a new you.