It started with the F-word.
Not the highly-charged four-letter f*ck.
Not the saintly five-letter faith.
It started with the Force.
Because in the beginning there was the word.
* * *
Or, in my case, the words. They appeared as gigantic yellow characters in all caps, rolling up a darkened movie theater screen. A wise sage named Obi-Wan Kenobi vividly described mystical energy called the Force. My life was forever changed.
Afterward, my imaginative friends and I met daily to act out stories about the Force, creating our own complex variants over time. With an unbridled spirit, we dubbed ourselves honorary members of the Rebel Alliance, standing bravely against any injustice or evil in our suburban neighborhood. We thought ourselves rare space warriors, yet we were un- knowingly taking part in an age-old hero’s journey which had been acted out for millennia. Inspired by the original Star Wars trilogy, we applied archetypal drama to our everyday lives on Earth.
Unsurprisingly, the myth of Star Wars felt more alive than what I learned at church. Star Wars had what my favorite Bible stories had—heroes, heroines, and wise sages. (Translation: Luke, Leia, and Yoda.) But unlike my church’s religion, our Star Wars religiosity seemed more expansive and less exclusive. It was literally “Universe-al.” Our neighborhood was a mashup of mostly Jewish and Catholic kids, with a few of us Protestants scattered around. Our families all had different religious beliefs and rituals, but there was one thing we kids could all agree on: the awesome power of the Force.
Looking back, I recognize that our youthful play was rife with sacred symbolism. Our memories of the film and the tales we created formed our oral tradition. Brightly colored Star Wars comic books became authoritative texts to consult during disagreements in our forming doctrine. As we acted out the myth, day after day, our play took on a ritualistic feel. Before long, the Kenner toy company hooked us on 3.75-inch-scale “icons” of our favorite characters. Cosmic sacred music blared from our tiny record players, compliments of the prolific composer John Williams.
Brushing off parental criticism that we were embracing violence with our lightsaber battles, we banded together as Jedis for the breathtaking destruction of the Death Star. Through our play, we learned about personal responsibility and the difficulty of making moral decisions. Mastering our fear of the evil Darth Vader, we began to understand the concepts of forgiveness and redemption.
Through Star Wars, we were discovering what our religious institutions were trying to teach us. But instead of being told precisely what to believe, we were encouraged to let belief awaken. And for some of us, that awakening became a tiny piece of our spiritual DNA.
And then I lost it.
I blame puberty. But for many years, I blamed religion. In seventh grade, my fellow hormone-rich, self-absorbed friends and I were enrolled in something called “confirmation class.” Once a week we were taught about what our church affirmed— and by extension what we were supposed to think too. At great length, I learned about our denomination’s faith, traditions, and practices. My focus, meanwhile, was on the cute blond boy in the class, and whether he liked me. Or if he thought I was too tall. Or too short. As I worried incessantly about my looks and what other people thought about me, the strong, confident child inside me turned into a nervous gangly girl who felt ugly, poor, and not good enough. Unable to connect the confirmation class teacher’s lessons with anything relevant to my life, I began to harbor a deep, dark secret that I could not share: I did not believe.
As a preacher’s kid, this was quite a liability. Somehow though, I managed to pass the class final (including writing an ordered list, pulled from my shaky memory, of all the books of the Bible) so that I could stand in front of the entire church congregation and be confirmed—right next to that cute blond boy. While my father was always willing to help me with any questions, and never told me what to believe, my self-absorption was growing to a colossal size.
Eventually, my secret attracted friends. Their names were Guilt and Depression. Soon, they found a leader. Her name was Addiction. Slyly, I hid them all behind studded black leather, blue hair, and absurd amounts of black eyeliner. Increasingly, my weekends were rife with the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll. Or in my 1980s version, 40-oz. bottles of cheap beer, cartons of Camels, long nights full of punk rock, and random awkward hookups in the backseat of my tiny Ford Fiesta.
I got so good at all that, I figured I’d try it for another four years through college.
Occasionally, I attended my father’s church out of loyalty to him. But my late Saturday bar nights soon turned that into rarely. It became harder to ignore the exclusionary beliefs of some church members, which left me constantly gnashing my teeth. Confused by their words and actions, which seemed inconsistent with my experience of this “God” thing, I slowly drifted away from attending church at all. My life and academics suffered as I struggled to deal with anxiety and trauma, without the support of a community or spiritual path.
I oozed resistance with a side of defiance, some refusal, and a healthy dose of stubbornness. More and more, I spent time rebelling against, well, everything. Railing about what I was against, I spent very little time talking about what I was for. Religion was one of my favorite targets. Time after time, I would point out what was wrong with this group or that ritual. This dogma or that congregation. This religious leader or that scripture.
I became a rebel without a real cause, stuck in a place of dividedness. My only cause was knocking down yours—making you out to be an “other” who was just plain wrong. With this narrow-minded tunnel vision, I spoke in gross generalizations: “Religion is the opium of the people!” I’d insist, quoting Karl Marx, or “Religion is for the weak-minded!” That was me in the corner, losing my religion.
Graduating from college to pursue a life in New York City was the final nail in the coffin. Consequently, I became a very successful workaholic, seeking sanity through money. As I tried to avoid the flaws of this plan, my apartment became littered with self-help books. Convinced that the key to balance was in the next book, I tried to fill the hole created from turning my back on spirituality. Over the next 10 years, my apartments and jobs improved. Traveling extensively on business and vacationing in foreign countries, my passport proved I could get around. Stockpiling stuff, chasing success, and wooing money, everything appeared to be going as planned. Yet I was drowning in addiction, and a fathomless void was growing inside.
Too many mornings I woke up next to my friend Guilt. Occasionally, it was a threesome with Shame. Lust, Greed, and Gluttony had assuredly been present the prior night. In my hungover state, Sloth would keep me company. The Seven Deadly Sins had moved into my Hell’s Kitchen apartment with me and my not-so-secret secrets.
One day I received a call from my sister, asking me to come to the hospital ASAP. Mom and Dad had just returned from vacation, and my father was sick. An excruciating six weeks later, his body gave out. The day he died, I woke up hungover and dressed for battle: black steel-toe boots, ripped jeans, and a Superman T-shirt. As I walked across the city to the hospital, I passed a group of schoolchildren. A small boy pointed at me and declared, “Superman!” A little girl looked at him with disdain and corrected, “Supergirl!”
But I had never felt less super.
When I arrived at the hospital, our family held hands in a circle. Someone said a prayer. My mind screamed, “Need to get out of here!” Forcefully, I stormed through the hospital’s huge glass doors and marched up First Avenue with no other direction in mind than away, which happened to be north. Angry, with tears streaming down my face, I stomped along, helpless and hopeless. Twenty blocks later, I spotted a chapel across the street. I remembered all the times my father had been called away for an emergency at the church. Or the hospital. Or the nursing home.
I decided now was my emergency. I tried the doors. Locked.
Angrier, I continued up the street, soon spotting a synagogue. Locked. A cathedral. Locked. Finally, I saw a church with the doors open. I burst in, yelling, “I need clergy!” Softly, the janitor told me to wait in a pew. Soon, a man appeared and sat down in front of me. He gently asked me what was going on.
Out spouted my anger at God. “Why would he take his best employee? It’s not fair! It’s too soon! He’s only 65. I didn’t get to say goodbye right!” That was the gist of my 20-minute rant. “Do you have a Bible?” the minister asked. I looked at him blankly. Really? What good would a Bible do me now? My father was dead. Hadn’t this man heard me?
As he handed me one to take home, I somehow muttered, “Thanks,” and left quickly. I apparently was not going to get the answers I desperately wanted. Walking further north to Central Park, I sat with my unwanted gift on the grass. I don’t remember how long I sat there, but somehow, eventually, I made it back to my apartment.
I remember feeling numb.
The void I ignored for years was now a gigantic abyss. As an addict, I knew how to deal with that numbness. And it worked. Or so I thought. Until it didn’t.
Raw and lonely, I felt separated from others, drowning in grief. Even functioning felt impossible. It’s hard to keep everything together when you are hollow inside. Soon, Lyme disease reared its ugly head—a curse that began to ravage my body— as addiction continued its work on my mind.
Eventually, I decided life had become unmanageable. At the end of my rope, I sought help. Doctors, massage therapists, and a kick-ass acupuncturist helped reduce my pain level as well as increase my stamina. With the help of strangers, I started a spiritual recovery. The Seven Deadlies were evicted without notice. I experienced the power of 12-step fellowship. And, finally, I began to look deeply into religious questions.
Because the word God kept coming up. And I felt about God a bit like I did about Darth Vader. So as a self-identified nerd, I headed to my favorite religious institution: the library. After months of pouring over books about the world’s great spiritual traditions, I got myself all twisted up. Eventually, my friend Dianne asked me directly, “Hey, Sarah, can you make trees?”
I looked at her as if she had three heads and replied, “Of course not.” Her answer—“Well, someone or something can”— gave me the foundation for a workable spirituality. I realized that nailing down precisely what I believed wasn’t the point. I just needed to understand there was a Force working in the world—and it wasn’t me alone. The seeker’s path started to unfold in front of me, step by small step. Soon, I became positively addicted to spirituality.
And here’s where the story gets unusually freaky.
Somehow I found myself enrolled in what I coyly refer to as Serenity School. Of course, it’s not called Serenity School by the people who founded it. Instead, it’s described as an interfaith seminary. But when I say the word seminary to people, they often roll their eyes and get a glazed-over look. Suddenly, they’re playing videos in their head of everything they hate about religion, and inserting me into scenes. Let me assure you that I did not go to a school like that.*
Instead, I spent time in a community of wildly diverse students from innumerable paths: from an Ifa priestess who did amazing blessings over water, to an Orthodox Jewish woman who refrained from holding the microphone on Saturdays (and requested the song “Jesus Freak” for our graduation party). There were more than a few Christians. And to my delight, I also met Pagans, Wiccans, Humanists, agnostics, and more than one atheist. In the classroom I uncovered a boatload of other recovering addicts as well as a handful of massage therapists, lightworkers, talented intuitives, and yoga teachers. My academic advisor was a Sufi. It would be an understatement to say it blew my mind.
In the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary program, founder Diane Berke and the diverse staff gently encouraged me to embrace all religious paths as valid and worthy of exploration. Instead of subscribing to any specific dogma or creed, we were asked simply to agree to a community code of ethics. Some of us were entrenched in a specific path already, but many of us were free agents who were in for quite a ride. My classmate Shelly observed, “It’s a good thing that our eyes open slowly. Otherwise, our heads would blow off.”
Together, my class spent month after month learning each other’s spiritual traditions as well as some new ones I had never heard of. Digging in, I began to jettison some of the bull-shit I had clung to about religion. First, I realized it was okay to question what I had been taught: A spiritual path is about asking questions, not seeking certainty through answers. Next, I embraced the meditative, contemplative, and mystical experiences that are at the heart of what we call interspirituality.
(The word interspirituality was coined by spiritual teacher Wayne Teasdale. Describing a spiritual perspective rather than a specific path, interspirituality recognizes that beneath theological beliefs and rituals there is a deeper, shared unity of experience underlying them all: the common values of peace, compassionate service, and love for all of creation. By bringing an open mind, generous spirit, and warm heart to our search, we can find expression through myriad wisdom traditions. Interspirituality’s roots draw from a wide range of teachings, including those by Baha’u’llah (founder of the Bahá’í faith), Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and Father Bede Griffiths, among others. Interspirituality shares many ideas with perennialism and universalism.)
As the program continued, new roomies appeared at my apartment: Meaning, Purpose, Kindness, Courage, and Authenticity. Grudgingly, I let in Forgiveness, Equanimity, and Love. (Admittedly, they might even be our best housemates.) Gratefully, I tossed out most of my fossil-filled baggage to make room for everyone.
Uncovering wisdom in each new sacred text, I glimpsed the archetypes behind my childhood heroes. Soon my bookshelves overflowed with cosmic and earthly words: Yogananda and Zukav were now placed after Yoda.
In every activity, I looked for a sacred angle. In every conversation, I swapped spiritual aha! moments. Narrowly escaping that lightspeed crash fueled by illness, stress, addiction, and overwork, I reached back to a belief in the Force to recover my hope.
Now I’m a fierce advocate for Hope. I suppose I was from childhood, fueled by the tiny holographic Princess Leia pleading, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Since then, the word has burrowed deep into my heart, but my pain made it hard to access and I became hopeless. But I have recovered it, inspired by my childhood princess—or more accurately the human be- hind her, Carrie Fisher. When I was six, Leia taught me I could grow up to run as fast as and fight as hard as any boy—even when wearing a dress. As I aged, my connection to the woman behind the role grew: first as I battled addiction, and then as I fought the stigma attached to depression and hypomania (which I refer to as having occasional strong fluctuations in my Force). Through Carrie, what’s known as the divine feminine appeared, encouraging me to finally voice my sexual identity (i.e., I had a crush on both Han Solo and Leia). At Carrie’s death in late 2016, my higher purpose showed itself: To be a tireless advocate for the hope that our spiritual and religious beliefs need not separate us, but can offer us richer, more diverse connections and community.
So throughout this book, I offer you my services as an interspiritual tour guide. Even though each of us must discover our own path, and no one can choose it for us, I do have some imaginative ideas you might like to try out on your journey. As a result, this book is not an instruction manual with perfect directions to enlightenment. It does not suggest adherence to any specific belief system. Nor is it a scholarly treatise on the optimal way to reach Nirvana. You will never hear me claim that one belief system is better than another, or that any practice is more sacred than any other.
Instead, Spiritual Rebel is a field guide for exploring your spirituality. Through its pages, you will be invited to clarify the beliefs that are personally meaningful to you and to redefine outdated concepts to which you might be clinging. You’ll also have the opportunity to explore creative mix-and-match practices, along with some new ways to experience connection. Above all else, you’ll be encouraged to express your unique style of spiritual freedom.