My Spiritual Journey
by David Heitmiller
On September 11, 2001, like most everybody in the country, I was glued to the television set watching the devastation in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. What did it all mean? How could someone be so vengeful that they would take so many innocent lives? Especially in the name of religion? Some warped interpretation of religion to be sure, but still, how did we get to this point?
With these questions spinning around in my head I decided to take a break from the reporting and walk up to check my mail at the local mailbox place a few blocks away. On my way home, I was guided to not return the usual way, but to go straight where I would normally turn left and take a slightly more circuitous route. As I walked, dazed from the events of the morning, I passed an old wooden church. The structure reminded me of the Oberlin Congregational Church in Steilacoom, Washington; the church I attended as a child. I stopped for a moment in front of the building and noticed the reader board which identified it as the Interfaith Community Sanctuary. Someone had opened the doors of the small sanctuary and for some reason I was called to enter this sacred space. As I entered the double doors a bolt of lightning did not come down from the sky and strike me dead. A good sign as I had not been a churchgoer (except for weddings and funerals) for more than 35 years! As I took in the space visually, a woman greeted me and asked if I had come to pray. Somewhat embarrassed, I responded in the positive and sat down in one of the back pews, asking myself why I was there. My eye caught one of the tri-fold brochures in the pew pocket and I took it out and read about the Interfaith Community Sanctuary (ICS) and its vision of honoring all spiritual paths and teachers. It seemed that these folks were looking at the common thread in all religions and traditions instead of getting hung up on the “one right way.” “Huh, I wonder what this is all about?” I asked myself. After meditating for a few more minutes I stuffed the brochure in my pocket and headed home.
A series of events followed in quick succession that fall that changed my life. A couple of weeks after September 11th I decided to check out this “Interfaith” Church by attending a Sunday service. I was warmly welcomed and listened to Brother Jamal Rahman talk about a branch of Islam called Sufism…the mystical interpretation of that religion about which I knew little. He also seemed to know a lot about Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Interesting! A week or two later I returned to hear Rev. Debra Lajimodeire speak about Native American spirituality with a hint of Christianity. A month later while attending a sustainability conference in Seattle, I was surprised when Brother Jamal offered the invocation for the event. A week later I received a new issue of “Yes!” magazine in the mail and there was an article by Jamal titled “The heart of a Muslim.” The universe seemed to be telling me something! I began attending ICS regularly and became a member in early 2002. That was over ten years ago. Since then I have served on the ICS board as head of the gardening circle, church treasurer for two years and President of the Guiding Council from 2009-2011. I continue to serve as building and facilities manager and in January of 2012 I was called to become an Associate Minister, a role I could have never imagined myself in just a few years earlier!
So how did it come to be that I went from a no-faith path to the Interfaith path? It’s been a strange journey with several twists and turns. My mother was raised in a strict Baptist church and pious family and she continued to practice her devout Christian faith throughout her life. Dad had not been raised in a religious family but adopted my mother’s faith upon their marriage. I was raised as a Christian attending the Oberlin Congregational Church, the only protestant church in the small town we lived in, through high-school. Regular Sunday school and church attendance and summer Bible School was part of my childhood and I never questioned my faith until late in high school. Then I remember beginning to think; how could it be that all these people in the world were going to go to hell upon death simply because they were born into a different culture that practiced a different religion and never were even exposed to Christianity? The “package” I had been sold growing up didn’t seem to make sense anymore. When I entered college in the mid-1960s these questions continued to grow along with a general questioning of politics and society. I rarely attended church after high school. Furthermore, my parents left the mainstream denomination that I had grown up in after I left for college and moved to a series of much more conservative Christian churches whose rigid doctrines were even harder for me to relate to.
Although my first wife Carole and I were married in a Congregational church, we didn’t follow a spiritual practice in our 15 years of marriage. (Her mother had been a member of the Christian Science church, but her father was agnostic and Carole had also adopted an agnostic worldview.) From the time Carole and I were married in 1968 until the day I walked into the Interfaith Community Sanctuary in 2001, I would probably have identified myself as an agnostic or a secular humanist. Although I had no particular spiritual belief or practice during this period, in my daily life I operated within the basic Judeo-Christian ethic in which I had been brought up. But as the years went by, certain events happened that prepared me for a rethinking of my path and coming to believe in a higher power or divine force that manifests itself in different ways in different cultures:
• In 1983, my first wife Carole died suddenly at the age of 36 (I was 37.) Although this traumatic event did not lead me immediately to look for a spiritual path, it changed my outlook on life and to seriously consider my own mortality. At some level her untimely death opened the door a crack to the possibility of some kind of divine spirit.
• In 1986, I married my current wife Jacque and we followed a materialistic lifestyle with no spiritual path for several more years. (Jacque had been raised Catholic but abandoned that tradition in college.) As the years went by we found the work and spend rat race to be more and more unfulfilling and empty.
• In 1991 we began a journey into Simplicity in which, with the help of a program in the book Your Money or Your Life, we re-evaluated our direction and our spending. Although the program does not advocate any spiritual path, it does ask you to think about your values and your life purpose and then bring your behavior and spending into alignment with your stated values and purpose (spiritually based or otherwise.)
• In 1996-97 Jacque and I wrote Getting a Life, a follow up book to Your Money or Your Life in which we described our exit from the fast track and adoption of a simpler lifestyle. We included the stories of people we had interviewed around the country who had followed the Your Money or Your Life program. Some of them did so as part of their own spiritual evolution.
• In 1998, my father passed away. As he lay dying in the hospital, I spontaneously called the chaplain on duty to help me cope with the reality of my father’s demise. I explained to her that I was not a religious person but he was and I was trying to connect with him at some higher level. The Chaplain’s words that night comforted me. The next day Dad had a respirator inserted into his throat to assist his breathing so he could no longer speak. Just a few moments before he passed away, he raised both arms (full of I-V needles and tubes) pointing to what appeared to be the ceiling. To make sure we got the message he did it a second time. The nurse on duty did not understand what he was trying to tell us… but I did. He was on his way to Heaven. A few minutes later he took his last breath on this earth. At his memorial service a few days later I read a poem that I had written about what his life had meant to me. Read the Poem
• In 1999 Jacque attended a three week retreat at Genesis Farm in New Jersey, an educational center owned and operated by an order of Dominican Nuns dedicated to the work of Father Thomas Berry, a well-known author of several books including the Universe Story (co-authored with Brian Swimme.) Her retreat included field trips, lectures and communing with the natural world as well as exercises and reading connecting spiritual values and sustainable living. When she got home, I was able to share some of her experience vicariously. Shortly thereafter we joined a book study group that explored the Universe Story in depth. A spiritual awakening was beginning to slip into my life without me even realizing it!
• Late in 1999 we joined our daughter Kimberly and her husband Felipe on a trip to Mexico where we met his family. One day while sitting in his parent’s living room in the small Mexican town where they lived, his Dad asked (through Kimberly’s translation) what religion I was. The question caught me by surprise and I fumbled for words. (I learned later that in Mexico you are either Catholic or evangelical protestant.) I tried to explain I had been raised Christian but I didn’t currently practice any faith tradition. This was not good in his eyes. I must then be a “Materialist,” he exclaimed. The conversation ended unsatisfactorily both for him and me. It made me start to reflect more about what I actually did believe now at age 54. Something was shifting in my thinking.
• In early 2000 I began practicing yoga. Although the style of yoga I initially practiced did not emphasize a spiritual component, it somehow opened another avenue for spiritual expression. Jacque had begun practicing a couple of years earlier and started to collect several books on yoga and for several years we subscribed to Yoga Journal both of which included articles about the spiritual side of this ancient Indian tradition. Later, I shifted to another style of yoga (Anusara) which does include a strong spiritual component including meditation, chanting and readings from sacred Hindu and other texts.
• In the summer of 2000, Jacque and I attended a retreat at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island near Seattle. The title of the retreat was Earth, Money, Spirit and featured guest speakers Donella Meadows co-author of Limits to Growth, Vicki Robin co-author of Your Money or Your Life and Sister Miriam McGillis from Genesis Farm. The presentations and discussions at this meeting further connected sustainability, financial integrity and spirituality in my mind. I still remember the awe inspiring photos of deep space taken from the Hubbell Telescope that were presented by Sister Miriam!
• In July of 2001, our first grandchild, Erik David Berzunza was born. This happy event caused me to reflect even deeper on the meaning of life…my life getting ever shorter now, and this new baby’s life, just beginning. Just a month later I attended a 10 day intensive workshop with Buddhist and environmental scholar Joanna Macy at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains near San Jose, California. The site itself was inspiring. Set in nature, away from freeways and human activity, it lent itself to contemplation and meditation. There were no cell phones, TVs, radios, computers or other technological distractions. A somewhat improvised temple held was a large awe-inspiring Buddhist statue and alter tended by monks who silently wandered the paths of the property. The people attending the retreat were of many ages and came from different walks of life but shared a concern for the environment, state of the world and a desire for spiritual enrichment. The diverse program included presentations, experiential exercises, individual and group discussions and time alone in nature. (Toward the end of the retreat I remember confiding to one of the other participants that I didn’t feel very “spiritually advanced” compared to the rest of the group who all seemed to have some sort of spiritual path or rituals that they practiced. The person seemed shocked that I felt that way and said that they thought I was a spiritual person just by the way that I walked in the world.) The description of this retreat experience as an “intensive” is accurate. Upon re-entry to the “real” world 10 days later, I felt like I was returning from another planet and was dazed by the chaotic frenzy of the San Jose airport. For several days after returning home I felt disconnected and unsure what I was supposed to do next. A few days later, my sister called early waking us and told us to turn on the TV. It was September 11, 2001.
• In late 2001 we were asked to join the speaker’s bureau for a Seattle non-profit organization called Earth Ministry. This group’s mission is to link the spiritual teaching of the Christian faith to the environmental challenges facing the planet. Having spent several years speaking out about simplicity, financial integrity and sustainability, we agreed to help with this outreach program. From late 2001 through the end of 2002 we spoke in a variety of Protestant, Catholic and Unitarian church venues now adding a spiritual component to our standard presentation. In preparing for these events, I found myself questioning my own belief system and drawing new insights and understandings.
So what do I believe now? I’m still on my spiritual journey and expect I will be until I die. I’m a seeker of truth wherever it may be found. For me, truth does not reside in one “right” path. I’ve come to believe that truth can be found in all religions and spiritual paths, in the natural world and in everyday encounters. I believe that different belief systems evolved in different times and places and in different cultures and different contexts that are just as valid as the ones that I am more familiar with. I may not totally understand or agree with certain aspects of a particular spiritual path but try not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” For example, I could never accept the Hindu concept of a caste system that relegates a person to very limited options in life based on the occupation and class of their birth family. But I have come to appreciate some other aspects and teachings of that faith especially as manifested in the practice of yoga.
I believe in a higher power or divine force. I use the word “God” with some reservation as it carries with it some baggage and interpretation that I don’t embrace. In the Interfaith world we use the various names for God that are used by the many faith traditions around the world, believing they essentially refer to the same divine spirit.
I believe that all the religious and wisdom traditions share some core beliefs and principles and I seek to explore those commonalities rather that the obvious differences. I also understand that every religion and belief system has its radical and extremist elements that do not represent the mainstream interpretation or the majority of practitioners of those traditions (even though they get much media coverage.)
I continue to study a variety of spiritual texts, interpretations of sacred books and listen to teachers from many paths. Because I live in a predominantly Christian country and was raised in a variation of the Christian faith, that tradition still shades my current belief system. However, I now think of myself as an Interfaith practitioner melding the wisdom of the various paths that I have studied. I try to remain open to new interpretations and new understanding of the spiritual world that may present itself to me in the future.
So how does my current spiritual path express itself in my daily life? Although people who have known me for many years might not recognize a dramatic change in my behavior and lifestyle I have adopted several practices that ground me in the spiritual world:
• I maintain a regular yoga practice that includes periods of meditation and chanting.
• I attend Sunday services at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary regularly.
• Jacque and I have adopted the practice of reading a grace prior to our evening meal.
• Always cognizant of our own mortality, Jacque and I repeat a short pledge upon going our separate ways each day: “May I truly cherish you today knowing that it could be our last day together.” (This simple acknowledgement is spoken aloud while holding both hands and gazing into each others eyes.)
• The teachings from Your Money or Your Life still resonate in me as move through daily life. What are my core values and life purpose? Am I living in alignment with those values? What is really important to me?
• I have a statue of the Buddha in my office quietly reminding me of my spiritual nature.
• Although I continue to struggle with this, I try to live as much as possible in the present moment, knowing that I can’t change the past and the future is really unknowable.
• I sometimes write poetry to express my deeper feelings and thoughts.
Same Mountain, Many Paths:
The first year I began attending services at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary one of our guest speakers, Rabbi Ted Falcon, used a metaphor that has stuck with me over the years and I think sums up my spiritual world view: The metaphor is of a mountain. The mountain represents our spiritual journey in life. At the top of the mountain a cloud hovers representing Heaven, Salvation, Nirvana, Enlightenment, Truth or however we envision our ultimate awakening. As we start our winding path up the mountain toward our goal we don’t see any other paths. But part way up the mountain we look to our right and left and see that there are others making their way up different paths that started at other points at the base of the mountain. As we climb even higher we notice that there are still more climbers following even more paths. Maybe we even take a detour over to check out some of those other paths and see what they have to offer. Or perhaps we continue on our original path but with new understanding that there are many ways to the top of mountain. As we approach the summit we notice that ultimately all the paths come together.
Updated March 2012