When I was at a retreat recently, I had an interesting recollection of my childhood while I was growing up Catholic in Queens, New York. At that time, everyone I knew was Catholic. All of my friends, neighbors, family…everyone was Catholic. And since I wasn’t exposed to anything different, I simply grew up thinking that this was the way most people were and people who weren’t like “us” were different and on the outside of what was right and acceptable.
In the 70s, there was great fear surrounding cults because, at that time, cults (like Charles Manson) did horrible things. Or, like in the Patty Hearst situation, she became a willing member of her kidnappers (suspected brainwashing or her simply trying to survive was the reason). After those and other instances, anything that resembled a cult was scary. I recall seeing what we called the “Hare Krishna’s” usually in the city, in subways, or at the airports. These groups would wear white, with their heads shaved and would dance and sing and give out flowers. My mother told me that if I got too close, they would kidnap and brainwash me. They looked harmless enough, but I didn’t dare get too close. That said I was fascinated.
When I was 13 an older boy who lived in the neighborhood either joined or was “taken” by the Hare Krishna’s. His name was James and he was gone for a few months. When he returned, he was different. My neighbor went to high school with him, and I would ask him about James, as I was extremely curious about what had happened to him while he was gone. My neighbor told me that James would sit on the front lawn of the school with his shaved head, pray and eat herbs and led a very quiet, peaceful, and happy existence.
That was my exposure to anything I would call “eastern” during my childhood. As I got older, either intentionally or unintentionally, I married a Catholic man, raised our children Catholic and was an active member of the Catholic Church until the sexual abuse scandal really took hold. As I transitioned away from a religious practice, I moved into a more spiritual practice and started doing more yoga (and the rest is history). With the help of a very good teacher, and in addition to the practices of yoga, I was exposed to places, experiences, and new teachers that not only exposed me to the “other side” but allowed me to go deeper and do a great deal of healing, heart opening and introspective work. Over time, I have become more and more open in my heart, my way of thinking, and my ability to practice the art of devotion. My love and devotion to my teachers and God are well documented and, in my opinion, are beautiful and pure, not unlike the love of a parent to a child, which is selfless, unconditional and of the purest intentions. I understand that some people have a limited way of thinking, not unlike I did as a child (which I was taught) and may not understand this type of devotion as it is different to what I was exposed to in my youth. But those relationships have laid the foundation for who I have become and I am extremely grateful (and lucky) to have had them.
People often ask me, are you still Catholic? And I say yes, but I don’t practice the same way other Catholics do. I would say my relationship to Mary and Jesus is stronger now than ever because I have seen Christianity from a different view (I highly recommend reading books by non-Christians about Christ…..fascinating). I have also studied Buddhism and Hinduism but don’t see myself being able to fully embrace either because I think it’s extremely difficult to do that, as so much of it is cultural. That said, there are westerners who have had success in doing so. I actually see, not only similarities within these different practices, but true practices I can call upon as needed from all of them (and I do). It’s like I have all of my bases covered.
Around the third night of the retreat, I had a flash back to the Hare Krishna’s and thought, even though these people don’t look like the people I remember at the airport, there was a joy and love that looked and felt so familiar. Here I was in the thick of it….and I liked it! I remember thinking, how unfortunate it was that I had that fear instilled in me, at such a young age, and how limiting beliefs have prevented me from opening my heart in ways that are so pure and authentic. As I have become more and more aware of this, I try to have as much of an open mind as possible and hold those in my heart who are unable to see my behavior and me in a way that they can relate too…and dare I say, judge me accordingly. At this point in my life, however, it becomes less about who understands or even likes me, and more about who I am in my heart (which is not and cannot be my ego). The heart has to win all battles. There is no longer a choice.
I am surrounded by amazing people in an amazing community (both within and outside of my yoga family) who are so supportive and love and accept me as I am. I’m so lucky and grateful to them but I’m especially grateful to those who may challenge my intentions. Those are the ones that I hold dearest in my heart. And to all of you….I thank you.