Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 55-59
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Penetrating the Big Pattern
University of Vermont
When does a personal journey begin? At birth? At the moment of first loss? At the point of spiritual self-awareness? In some previous lifetime? What are the markers? How does one define the journey? What makes such a story meaningful to others?
My personal religious journey, the part I can remember, begins when I first discovered light. I was sitting on the second-story deck of our house in Buffalo, New York, at age five, spellbound by the dancing shadows of the big apple tree. Shimmering leaves, light and dark changing by the second—alive, dynamic, radiant, and mesmerizing. Across the afternoon the light shifted, the sun dropping lower in the sky. Some big pattern penetrated my young consciousness. What was it?
As I dressed for Easter Sunday and dutifully attended Methodist Sunday school, I didn't connect this social activity with the mystery I'd encountered. But when we drove across the country to move to Portland, Oregon, there it was again . . . the Rocky Mountains! Big, splendid space on a scale way beyond anything I'd ever known. A magnificent landscape, mountains of such measure I could not even comprehend what I was seeing. Despite the barbs of family squabbles, something really big entered my nine-year-old mind.
For the next seven years we attended Unitarian-Universalist churches, first the big downtown church and then a small local fellowship. I sang in the adult choir downtown, getting myself to practice by bus in a proud, independent sort of way. Then in high school I played the piano for fellowship services and enjoyed my role in setting a reflective mood for others. The adults engaged in worthwhile discussions; our youth group visited various world religious temples for field trips. I especially enjoyed the dark, smoky mystery of the Greek Orthodox Church and its undecipherable chants.
At Oberlin College, music was my spiritual companion. I had the good fortune to sing in an excellent choir under the demanding leadership of Robert Fountain, a protégé of Robert Shaw.We took up difficult Bach cantatas, eerie twelve-tone Schoenberg, and tender Ravel vignettes. We practiced five hours a week, including two hours every Saturday, and we were expected to memorize everything we sang. Each spring break we performed on tour, a concert each night, traveling by bus across Midwest and North Atlantic states. Before every concert, Mr. Fountain would lead us in a moment of silent prayer, indicating this music was serving some bigger purpose. The [End Page 55] year after I graduated, the choir sang the Mozart Requiem in Washington, D.C., to honor the dead soldiers and the war protesters, and to remember beauty in the midst of agony. Sometimes the harmonies would ring so perfectly in tune and soar so high, I would tremble with goose bumps, electrified with ecstasy. Now the big beauty was in my body, singing, communing, gathering me up in its mystery.
Tree, landscape, beauty, song—what world religion was this? None I had been taught about, or at least in a way I could put these things together. The Vietnam War tore apart any sense of stability and meaning in my small world; I nearly lost my first great love to the killing fields. Where was God in this insanity? Not until things settled down could I turn my attention back to the mystery. By then I was exploring the gateways of ocean, redwoods, dance, and ritual. When my dance teacher, Tandy Beal, went to Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, its first year, I followed her the next summer. "You should go," she said, "you'd love it." High in the mountain air, sitting by water, walking in the craggy hills, listening to Chogyam Trungpa teach, I fell in love—with everything! I learned to meditate, zazen- style; I tried dance and improvisational theater based in egoless practice; I absorbed Zen wisdom from Alan Ginsberg, Phillip Glass, Anne Waldman, crazy wisdom poets drawn to Trungpa.
When I returned to Santa Cruz, I...