But I thought today I’d write about how I transitioned from Christianity (the faith with which I was raised) to Atheism to Buddhism to the magical form of spirituality I currently practice. Ultimately, it’s my hope that this is also practical to some of you. While each of us has our own unique path to walk, perhaps reading about my experience will help you feel less alone, or provide ideas or resources that you’ll find applicable to your own spiritual evolution.
My parents were both raised Catholic, and I was baptized Catholic as a baby. When I was four, just before I started kindergarten, my parents divorced. My mom packed my brother and me in her station wagon and drove us to a brand new apartment in a brand new town, about a 40-minute drive away from our old house, where our dad stayed. Not long after that, my mom became a Baptist and we began attending a Baptist church on Wednesday nights. On the weekends, though, we were back with our dad, and while we didn’t go to church with him much, we still went to the Catholic church occasionally, and definitely on Easter.
It was around this time that my mom began warning me about Satan, and how I might do something that would cause me to become possessed by him, or by one of his demons. “But don’t think about Satan or worry too much about him,” she added, “it gives him power when you’re afraid of him: he likes it.”
Obviously, this was very confusing to an elementary-school-aged child. Satan (or a demon) might possess me: so be careful, but don’t be afraid. It was impossible to follow both those instructions at the same time. Naturally, I also became terrified of becoming possessed. I thought about it constantly (which I knew was wrong), and I had nightmares about it. I reasoned that the best defense against this terrible fate would be to pray regularly and imitate the adults in my life (like my mom) who were active in the Baptist church.
My dad, on the other hand, was another story. Even though he called himself a Catholic (and still does, I think), he regularly urged my brother and me to think for ourselves. When he drove us to and from his house along the two-lane country road that connected his town to our mom’s town, he would tell us about things like reincarnation and quantum physics, and would even encourage us to question the Bible. While I still harbored an intense fear of possession, I loved and respected my dad so much, I definitely gave all he said a lot of thought.
After going through another marriage (to someone in our church) and another divorce, my mom left the Baptist church and didn’t talk much about religion for a while. I was around fourteen at this time, and I had a new best friend at school who was raised by atheist parents. She introduced me to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, and inspired me to try on atheism for size…and I loved it! It felt so freeing, and so simple, and so eminently logical not to worry about being possessed anymore, or about going to hell, or being a bad person for not being a good enough Christian, and so on. When someone asked, “Do you believe in God?” I found it thrilling to say a clear and emphatic “No,” and to not feel sorry for it in the least.
A year or two after that, I discovered Jack Kerouac: specifically his books On the Road and The Dharma Bums. He had also been baptized Catholic, but somewhere along the way had discovered Buddhism, and wrote about it in the most mesmerizing and poetic of ways. Not long after I read his books, I discovered the Buddhist section of our local bookstore and began reading everything I could find on the subject. I read A Path with Heart, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, and many more. I began meditating during my lunch break at school, and when I got home from school, I often moved my mattress outside of our apartment so I could stare up at the clouds and spend hours contemplating empty space.
I was still really into Buddhism when I moved to Pasadena to go to college. This was the first time I had access to larger and more metropolitan bookstores, and it was also the 90s, when Witchcraft was experiencing an upswing in popularity. When my girlfriend and I discovered the “Magic Studies” section at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble, it was a revelation to say the least. “Coincidentally,” it was around this time that I discovered my mysterious, waif-like downstairs neighbor was a Witch. She lent me Good Magic by Marina Medici (still one of my all time favorites) and some old Llewellyn Magical Almanacs, and it was like I had finally come home. It was as if I was reading something I already knew (or at least suspected), and just needed someone else to mirror back to me. I set up an altar, tried out some spells, and felt the entire natural world come to life with magic and meaning.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there, however.
I still had a lot to learn about the holistic nature of magic. In other words, I didn’t quite understand yet that the magical spiritual path wasn’t just about doing sparkly spells and having pretty altars: it was also about moving through old challenges, releasing old patterns, and consciously fine-tuning my energy in order to come into ever-greater levels of balance, harmony, and joy. But if you pay attention, magic has a way of showing you what you need to know. Eventually, I put it together that magic is like electricity: extremely powerful, and incredibly helpful once you understand and respect the way it works. (Incidentally, my journey to understanding magical dynamics is what inspired me to write You Are Magical, so other people could fast-forward to knowing what I learned over time.)
I also went through a period when my old terror of becoming possessed resurfaced. In my early twenties, my mom married one more time, once again to someone who was a full-fledged Christian. Her renewed commitment to her faith sparked questions in my mind about my diverging from the well-worn path of Christianity: What if she’s right? What if Christianity is the only true way? And most troublingly, what if my magical experimentation will eventually cause me to end up in hell?
Again, books played a pivotal role in adjusting my world view. There were three books I read around the same time that permanently released me from my twin fears of possession and damnation. The first book was Cosmos. The transcendent way Carl Sagan laid out the known facts about our Universe helped me regain the freedom I felt when I first proudly asserted that No, as a matter of fact I didn’t believe in God.
The second book was The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book gave me a broader perspective on world spirituality than I’d ever had before. It helped me understand that it is in our nature as humans to tell stories about ourselves and our existence, and that none of these stories are precisely true, but none of them are false either. They are psychologically true: they are true in the sense that we can draw personal power and spiritual inspiration from them. And they are true in the sense that there are common threads running through all mythologies, which reveal the qualities (like universal love and personal transformation) that are sacred to us as a species.
And the third book that helped me become free from my Christianity-related fears was…The Bible. And believe it or not, The Bible was the most powerful one of the three. Why? Because when I finally read it in its entirety (I actually listened to it on CD, but I really did listen to all of it), I realized that it was just a book. Just a really old, really boring, really violent book, written by people. While I liked some parts of it, I had no transcendent experiences while I read it. I had several moments when I felt confused by the inconsistencies or disgusted by the prolific rape and murder. But I had zero moments when I felt exceptionally awed or inspired.
As I made my way through Los Angeles freeway traffic at night, the final CD of the Bible came to an end. When it ejected itself, U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was playing on the radio. As I listened, tears ran down my face as I realized that – gloriously – none of us will ever find what we’re looking for. No one really knows what’s going on here. There is no one God, no one path, no one answer.
There is only one mystery. One sacred, beautiful, magical mystery. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.