By Ann Graham Nichols
As a teenager, I attended services for the High Holy Days with a Jewish friend, bought a Star of David, and decided to own my Jewish heritage.
Then I dated a Catholic boy and spent Sundays mesmerized by incense and robes.
Later, I joined a protestant church, became an elder, served communion and I was baptized. I loved the hymn singing, and the sense of belonging. Somewhere in there, I became viciously judgmental about the term “spiritual, not religious.”
I viewed it as a copout—a way to stake a claim to being “good” without committing to any particular path. I believed that any path was acceptable, but that floating around “seeking” and “experiencing” was both flaky and disingenuous.
After about a year, it all began to fall apart.
I didn’t believe in the Bible as a source of moral authority; I saw it as beautiful literature intended to mold people into obedient dependence. I viewed all organized religion as something that wedged itself between human beings and the natural world, insisting that natural feelings were immoral, and encouraging judgment of those out of step with their particular dogma.
Also, if Christians followed the real, true God, then no other religion had bet on the right horse.
All of the Muslims, and atheists and agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans that I knew would be judged harshly and left in the ether after death. This group of outcasts included my atheist father and my Jewish mother.
So I began to practice Buddhism. The focus of remaining present—of understanding that neither the past nor the future exist—changed the way that I dealt with everything from my marriage to the deaths of my parents.
As my mother died, I held her hand and practiced Tonglen, breathing in her terror and pain and breathing out my endless love, my hope for peace and comfort in her last hours.
I thought I’d found The Thing, the sweet spot in the universe where I could feel connected to all sentient beings and make compassion my mantra. There was no weekly service, my practice was on my meditation cushion and in my daily interactions with others.
After my father died, I began to look longingly at deities. I felt really, truly alone, and I wanted and needed to pray. To something.
I didn’t want to ask for my parents to come back, or even to feel better; I craved a sense that in the absence of my earthly parents, there was something, somewhere that loved me.
I do have a perfectly good husband and son, and wonderful friends, but what I wanted was that sense that there was still something cosmic that would sustain me in my darkest moments. I also began to have a strong sense that it wouldn’t work for me if there were man-made rules and rituals that might have started out as means of increasing spiritual awareness, but tended to grow into judgmental and exclusive hierarchies far from the messengers of love and peace.
I started reading everything—St. Augustine, Joseph Campbell, Clara Pinkola Estes—looking for my spot and trying to be totally honest with myself. Along the way, I came across an e-book by a Druid author named Nimue Brown entitled Spirituality Without Structure. In the book, Brown asks the reader to think about the things in the world that move them, and to use that knowledge in approaching a spiritual path.
I thought about it, and came up with music, books, animals, and nature.
Music and reading are associated with almost all religion. I’m a sucker for a gospel choir, a cantor, or a rousing session of Kirtan. Books have always sent me into orbit, but not just those related formally to spiritual life—I feel the earth move when I read a poet, novelist or essayist who may never mention religion but whose writing is a practice all its own.
So those things matter, but they were already part of every religion or philosophy I had tried. They could not be the things that led me to that sweet, sweet spot.
(And, of course, I know it is entirely likely that no such spot exists, and that if I were a really good Buddhist I would stop looking outside myself for anything).
But the importance of creatures and the moon and the trees and the seasons…those have never been part of my deep experience of any practice. Christianity talks about “stewardship” of the earth as if humans were its owners.
This has always been a problem for me, because I really don’t think we are. If “stewardship” was used only in the sense of protecting the earth and its creatures, I could buy in, but it is often used as the justification for human intervention and destruction after the fashion of a misguided parent who thwarts the true nature of a wayward child “for her own good.”
A reverence for nature fits with Buddhism; leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh have written and said volumes about the importance of connecting to, and feeling a kinship with all living things. I could become his follower, but there it is again—a human, however amazing, telling me how to make a spiritual connection.
These days, I seem to be maybe 80% Buddhist and 20% Druid.
I still meditate, I still believe deeply in the Four Noble Truths and I practice Metta. I’ve rediscovered a passionate interest in astronomy, and developed one for the changing seasons and the deep connection between humans and the earth.
There is something holy—for me—in making suet and seed ornaments for the birds to help them survive a brutal winter.
It’s a miracle when the moon is full, or a meteor shower sends flashes of light through the sky. There is endless comfort in knowing that beneath this blanket of snow the roots and seeds are sleeping, ready to wake again after the spring sun warms the earth.
These days, I am Spiritual, not religious.
And the universe is my church.
Ann Graham Nichols has been a cellist, a classical DJ, a lawyer, and the hospitality director at a church. It turns out that she’s actually a writer, which everyone else knew when she was five. Ann lives in Michigan, and currently works as the Managing Editor at East Lansing Info.org when she is not chasing comets, cuddling dogs or trying to get her husband and son to drink green smoothies.
Editor: Dana Gornall