free-range (adjective) kept in natural conditions, with freedom of movement
spiritualist (noun) a person who is concerned with or insists on the spiritual side of things.
I like to call myself a free-range spiritualist.
I’m not really a Unitarian, even though my husband and I were married by a Unitarian minister. And I’m not a Jew, although I did go through a conversion process in my twenties and everyone thinks I look Jewish. And I’m not a member of the Unity Church although I go from time to time.
I have been staking out the spiritual world since I was a child and obsessed with my Catholic neighbor’s holy water, sprinkling it on myself and on our plants. I have always had one foot firmly on earth (I am a Taurus after all) with the other foot firmly in the spirit world.
Even as a four-year-old, everything about spirit had already caught my attention, from the philosophical, where do we go when we die, to the mundane and wondrous, like the segmentation of worms or the tiny veins in a leaf.
I tried to fit in, to find a place for myself somewhere in the pew.
But I could never commit to a theology or a particular brick and mortar church. And, boy, did I try! After I accidentally melted my glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary on my bedside lamp, I eventually abandoned my Catholic interests. I went through a Methodist confirmation as a teenager, although my strongest memory of that day is getting my heel caught in a crack in the sidewalk and face planting in my church robe.
Yet, my search for spirit persisted. In college, I switched my major to English and Religion, and swooned in my desk chair while taking classes like “Myth, Dream and Imagination,” “The Inner Journey to Madness and Despair and Back” and “The Theology of Christian Mysticism,” where our Professor made us read Meister Eckhart and smoked a pipe with cherry almond tobacco, which he exhaled on us during his lectures in the small Religion Department library.
Out of college, I took a job as a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, interviewing big-shot mega-church ministers like Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral or Rick Warren and his Purpose-Driven Life, and I spent time with people of all faiths—from the well-known big five: Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist, to many other quirky, fringe churches that I had never heard of before.
I dug deep in my quest, intellectually, experientially and emotionally. And though I made my life and work about religion, I remained mostly on the outside of the peace and faith it offered.
As you can imagine, religion and I eventually disabused ourselves of one other. I went back to graduate school, became a communications professor, and let my bouts with religion transcend to a quiet, unnamable spirituality.
Then recently, a friend said to me on the phone, “You’re a workshop junkie!” I had just unfurled the list of workshops I was going to in the spring, canceling other dates I’d made and crowding the calendar with prescriptions for personal growth. I felt embarrassed when she said it. Humiliated. Exposed. But why? I like learning in groups, I love mysticism, I adore the intimacy and breakthrough experience of the personal growth workshop. Why would that be embarrassing?
I hadn’t realized it, but when I sat down and charted out how many different transformational workshops I had attended over recent years and how many were on my calendar, I was shocked. I saw that compulsive workshop participation was yet another avenue to searching for meaning and authority outside of myself, no different than the religion chaser I’d left behind years before. (And yes, it’s possible that wealth of workshop content integrated to help pave my way to that sudden insight.)
I took plant spirit medicine under the direction of the village shaman in the desert and the Ecuadorian rainforest. I placed wheat grass enemas in my rectum. I swallowed hundreds of foul-smelling round brown pellets from a Tibetan doctor. I danced until my feet bled. I meditated until I forgot who I was. I chanted until my voice gave out. I walked until my arches fell. I held yoga poses until I shook.
I got naked. I got high. I cried. I got vulnerable. It got personal.
I didn’t grow up with an innate sense of belonging to my immediate environment. In hindsight, I realize that exploring spirituality—religious or workshop-led—was the ultimate path to finding home within myself, for learning to belong to myself in the world.
The yearning for external meaning brought clarity to how I make meaning in my life.
What is free-range? For me, it means I learned how to pick and choose. I create community with other open-minded seekers. I go within myself and use my intuition, notice what makes sense to me, and create what is meaningful for myself. I take from here and from there. The world is my spiritual flea market.
And what do you do at a flea market? You search! What if I belong to the search? I have four degrees in three areas of study, and who knows how many workshop receipts I’ve tucked away? What if I just love to learn?
For this column, in the year ahead, with this community I’m thrilled to belong to, I’ll explore my transformation compulsion and detail some of the more interesting workshop experiences—and that longed-for workshop high. You can easily pay thousands of dollars for that elusive rush.
Come along with me in my adventures of finding myself, of stoking that spiritual spark within, of losing, and gaining, and why I’m taking a break from workshops. (Except for that one I have next month, and maybe, of course, those ones around the corner in spring).
Four decades into this life and I’ve finally free-ranged my way to this most important of personal spiritual truths: You can take the girl out of the quest but you can’t take the quest out of the girl.