My Bio-Spiritual Journey

It happens that I’m applying to a training program for spiritual directors. The program requires submission of a ‘spiritual autobiography.’ Since I began blogging in 2006, my online writings have served to document my growth, and especially my efforts to merge science with mysticism. In that spirit, I’m posting a modified version of the text for the amusement of anyone who might be interested.

Artus_Wolffort_-_St_Andrew_-_WGA25857My spiritual quest grew out of a traumatic childhood. The adversity of my earliest years set the stage for unwise choices during young adulthood and serious mental and physical health problems in middle age. Although at times I suffered greatly, many of my most important lessons arose directly from traumas, setbacks, and illnesses. The challenges forced me to seek connection with a higher principle, which I often simply call Life (though I am comfortable calling it God, Presence, or any similar term for the Source of creativity, love, unity, peace, and mystery).

My parents had a violent relationship and divorced when I was four. My mother suffered with depression and was repeatedly hospitalized for shock treatments, then committed suicide when I was six. After our mom’s death, my older sister and I moved in with our father and his new wife (his mistress prior to the divorce), who treated us with extreme cruelty. My sister, the one family member who consistently supported me, suffered a psychotic break after about four years in my stepmother’s home. Sadly, she never seemed as supportive afterward. My father, mother, stepmother, and sister all had substance abuse problems. By adolescence I had developed serious addictions of my own and was performing poorly in school.

Luckily, we had settled in a nice area of Southern California, close to beaches and coastal mountains where I found refuge from the mistreatment at home. My father—a professor of fluid dynamics—encouraged my curiosity about these natural surroundings. I also enjoyed a month each year with my grandfather on his farm. He loved tending the land and taught me a lot about plants and animals. In high school I went on many camping trips, drawn to the vastness of nights outdoors.

In the summer before my senior high school year, I hiked the 211 mile John Muir Trail by myself. Backpacking for weeks alone in the High Sierras increased my self-confidence and solidified my love of nature. My days among the granite mountains raised me to both physical and psychological peaks. I made a decision to devote myself to studying life (at this point I wouldn’t have capitalized the word), and upon returning home I worked to improve my grades.

College deepened my curiosity about natural history; I took numerous courses in all areas of biology, but especially ecology. The living world struck me as amazing and mysterious, even as I memorized the mechanistic interpretations taught in my classes. In logical terms, I saw no need for explicit spirituality, but my relationship with nature had a devotional quality to it.

In the late 1970’s technical approaches to biology carried more prestige than ecological ones. Lacking confidence in my yearning to study nature, I opted for the greater status of a biophysics graduate program, where I used electrical engineering methods to model nervous systems. My choice of neuroscience had been fueled by fascination with the brain and consciousness. However, my research involved recording signals from earthworm neurons; this was tedious, lonely work that didn’t seem relevant to the big questions that had drawn me to the field.

I had recently broken up with a girl I’d lived with since high school. Already feeling pretty unhappy, I suffered another major blow when my grandfather died. Off-track from my original passion for the natural world—and reeling from major losses—I suffered my first major depression.

I was referred to a psychologist with a fine reputation, but unfortunately he was a New Yorker who did not understand a Californian’s desire to study the outdoors. Seeing a biology student with excellent grades, he encouraged me to apply to medical school. Although I’d never had much interest in becoming a physician, I followed my therapist’s advice.

I wasn’t well-suited to medicine. My traumatic past left me prone to dissociation, and I sometimes made careless mistakes that harmed patients. But looking back, I see that clinical training set me solidly on the spiritual path.

For one thing, medical school prompted me to join Alcoholics Anonymous. Although my drug and alcohol use had diminished since high school, I knew it wouldn’t be ethical to work as a physician unless I were completely abstinent. Having been raised without religion, I found AA’s spirituality challenging. I understood that a belief in God would be helpful, but whenever I visited churches, I felt out of place. Luckily, I soon moved very near an old Quaker Meeting House in New York City; since my ancestors had been active in the Religious Society of Friends, I felt some kinship with the organization, while its social conscience matched my values. Quakerism has been central in my life ever since.

Medical school helped me discover that nature’s mystery isn’t confined to beautiful landscapes, but is equally active in the human body. Anatomy and physiology intrigued me just as much as ecology, and it was a privilege to witness births, surgeries, and deaths. The first time I watched an infant being born, the labor and delivery suite seemed to fill with a silvery light; I felt such powerful emotion, it was hard to keep from weeping. I felt something equally moving during my first night on call as a medical intern, when an AIDS patient died in my presence. He looked up at my worried face with a blissful expression and said, “I know the answer that everyone seeks!” and then lost consciousness. During that moment laden with tragedy and release, there was such stillness it seemed as if the world stopped spinning.

My Quaker involvement encouraged me to frame such experiences in mystical terms. I used my time in silent meetings to deeply contemplate scientific truths and human trials until they began to seem like divine works of art. I wasn’t too concerned about Life’s meaning (by now the word begged capitalization), but I deeply admired its beauty.

Another flood of wonder struck me the first time I looked into a human eye with ophthalmic instruments. On the spot, I decided to specialize in eye surgery. Although ophthalmology demanded extreme attention to detail, which was hard for me, serendipity guided me to a subspecialty that matched my temperament: operating on eyelids to remove cancers and then reconstruct the tissues to restore proper function and form. This line of work was more forgiving than intra-ocular surgery, and it involved an esthetic aspect that I appreciated.

In the year 2000, after practicing only six years at Kaiser, I was forced to abandon my career because severe neck disease made operating impossible. My depression, which had never fully resolved after its onset in graduate school, soon worsened. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where I felt afflicted by demons and attempted suicide. Angered by the shadowy forces that wanted to destroy me, I resolved to fight against them. I left the hospital with renewed commitment to Life.

Over the next few days, my mood escalated until I found myself in a state of awestruck bliss. Visions of God, the Big Bang, and gentle, floating souls appeared in my consciousness as wave after wave of religious ecstasy broke over me for several days. I felt all-pervasive love, a profound sense of peace, and the seamless flow of Creation that interconnects all beings. During one three-hour interval I lost the ability to speak, and for the first time in my life appreciated the mysterious power of nonverbal awareness. All these experiences were deeply moving and transformative, but they made me question my sanity, while my agitated behavior alarmed outside observers; I was hospitalized a second time.

Probably because my Quaker practice had, for more than a dozen years, focused on viewing biology through a mystical lens, during the course of my religious epiphanies I recognized perfect compatibility between science and mysticism. In my energized condition, I believed myself divinely appointed to use this insight to heal the centuries-old rift between science and religion. Although in the hospital one knowledgeable counselor cautioned me about ego inflation, I did not (or could not) heed her warning. Self-deification loomed as a dangerous precipice bordering my spiritual path.

Fortunately, my wife experienced a striking coincidence that led her to seek guidance and help me get back on course. Understandably, she was quite concerned about me, in particular because I was convinced I’d met Jesus Christ on the psychiatric ward. I seemed to have lost my normally cautious nature and was talking nonstop about my newfound Christian faith. She saw this as an unhealthy break and worried I had simply lost my mind. Soon after I returned home from the hospital, she was walking up Market Street in San Francisco when a street preacher standing on a milk crate called to her as she passed. He reached into his valise to retrieve a sheet of paper, which he handed to her. On it were the words “Saint Andrew, First Follower of Christ.” This alone would have been remarkable, but the document also named Saint Andrew’s day: November 30th, which happens to be my birthday. (The paper currently hangs on the wall of my meditation room.)

My wife interpreted this event as verification that, however unbalanced, my altered state was the result of God reaching out to me. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, she took me to our local parish. At the time three priests were living on-site, and during subsequent months all of them worked with me. They took my spiritual experiences seriously but also taught me that Christianity calls the devout toward humility, not self-glorification.

Having found such valuable support, I worked my way through the Rites of Catholic Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and converted to Roman Catholicism, taking ‘Andrew’ as my confirmation name. I worshiped in that tradition for five years, attending mass twice a week and helping out with youth religious education. I attended two eight-day silent Ignatian retreats and spent a year in spiritual direction with a young Jesuit.

I also remained committed to the Religious Society of Friends. On most Sundays, my wife and I attended both a Catholic Mass and a Quaker Meeting for Worship.

By 2005, all three of the liberal parish Fathers had departed; our local church was now led by a priest who railed against reproductive rights and homosexuality during his homilies. Listening to his hostile, judgmental tone, my wife suffered flashbacks to traumatic experiences she’d endured during Catholic education. We stopped going to mass.

The next year, 2006, was a turning point. Still grappling with serious depression, I began seeing a new psychiatrist. This doctor doubted that I was as irreversibly mentally ill as I’d been told ever since my hospitalizations. She believed my intense moods were the result of childhood trauma, and she felt convinced I could improve more by ramping up my spiritual life than by continuing on a mind-numbing regimen of psychiatric drugs. With her help, I began to taper off the medications, a process that took five years.

As I was working on freeing myself from pharmaceuticals, a Brahma Kumaris retreat center opened within walking distance of my home. Heeding my psychiatrist’s advice about concentrating on spiritual development, I started attending the center’s events and retreats and began receiving guidance from one of the Sisters. The Brahma Kumaris philosophy seemed similar to Catholicism’s, in that both share the conviction that God is directly accessible. However, the all female leadership seemed much more open-hearted than the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Influenced both by Catholicism and the Brahma Kumaris, I worked on building a personal relationship with God. This wasn’t easy for me at first, but using my Quaker sense that a divine light shines within each person, I gradually established a relationship with that inner heart of Life.

As my spiritual maturity increased, I began to feel the urge to write about my progress. In 2009 I launched a blog, WillSpirit.com, in order to explore the relationship between spirituality and mental health. Mainly, I was writing to sort out my own feelings, but my essays seemed to help others who had endured harsh childhoods and were trying to find their way.

Also in 2009, I decided to learn how to perform acupuncture. Having found the deep, meditative relaxation needles induce helpful for my depression, I wanted to use the technique to support others suffering from mood disorders. In order to reconcile this foreign health care paradigm with my Western training, I read a lot about Taoism and Chinese philosophy. This led to a broader exploration of Eastern mystical and meditative traditions, including Buddhism. Having sporadically practiced Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for a decade, I finally made my first trip to Spirit Rock. In short order I became a regular participant at dharma talks, began volunteering, and started attending residential retreats.

I closed my struggling acupuncture practice in 2012, when I became unable to work due to a massive internal hemorrhage that led to several weeks of hospitalization followed by a month during which I was fed intravenously at home. The illness confronted me with my own mortality, which led me to redouble my spiritual efforts. As I reached out to everyone around me who seemed wise, fate guided me to the director of Oakland’s Niroga Institute, who invited me to teach anatomy and physiology to yoga teachers-in-training. Lecturing about these subjects in a spiritually friendly environment reinvigorated my appreciation of biology’s power to teach us about Life. I began to incorporate more body awareness into my spiritual practice, doing my best to remain mindful of my physiology while moving through yoga poses or simply meditating.

I also completed a yoga teacher training myself. I taught yoga for a few months at a homeless shelter and at a drop-in center for the chronically mentally ill, but eventually decided to focus on personal practice while offering biology instruction to aspiring yoga teachers and yoga therapists. I continue to teach in this capacity, using colorful PowerPoint presentations that I put together with a great deal of care. By circuitous means, circumstances enabled me to heed the call of my visions from 2000: my teaching merges science with spirituality. Of course, my role as instructor isn’t tainted with any sense of special appointment; I do, however, feel grateful to be working in this capacity.

As I gained stability and opened to joy, people with traumatic backgrounds and mental health issues—in AA and elsewhere—began to seek out my perspective and support. As I learned that my life experiences could assist others, my past history began to seem less like a curse and more like a gift. At this stage, although I felt a call to service, I doubted my ability to offer effective help.

After all, I was still finding my way. In addition to my involvement with the Brahma Kumaris center, Spirit Rock, and Niroga, I went on vision fasts in the high desert, participated in Holotropic Breathwork retrreats, was treated by a spiritually-based somatic therapist, and started writing mystical poetry. I also worked with an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioner who helped me meet my changing mental states with less resistance and reactivity. As always, my spirituality revolved around my love of biology, but now I began to feel Life vibrating on all sides—in every person, animal, plant, and tract of ground. I started to wonder about the relationship between matter and consciousness, while during meditation retreats vast opening experiences seemed to dissolve all distinctions between the two. Such visions and insights provided rich new material for my writing.

Then, in March of 2014, I underwent a major abdominal operation to deal with the vascular problem that had caused my hemorrhage two years earlier. In preparing for the procedure, I asked a local priest to hear my confession on Ash Wednesday, the day before my surgery. During my years of worship within the Catholic Church, I had confessed several times to having harmed patients through inattention and overconfidence, but on this occasion I felt the full, terrible weight of remorse. I also learned the healing power of absolution; sins that had burdened me for decades seemed forgiven.

Because of a failed epidural catheter, I awoke from anesthesia—after a four hour operation and a 10-inch incision through my belly—without any pain control. The postoperative experience was so intense, it felt like a shamanic journey; I had no choice but to surrender to the harrowing ordeal. Ever since, I’ve found it relatively easy to accept my circumstances, even when they involve discomfort and loss. What’s more, questions about consciousness and the nature of reality no longer seem so important.

Having moved beyond my old writing topics, I launched a new website, MindfulBiology.org, to illuminate the healing power of Life with straightforward facts about human biology. That fifty million synapses are packed into a volume of brain tissue the size of a grain of salt strikes me as deeply profound; how can we not feel admiration and devotion toward Life?

Since starting the new website last December, I’ve been blessed with further maturation. Although I still believe biology amazing enough to stir mystical awareness, I now find it easy to just keep my heart open as Life unfolds, moment-by-moment. As this capacity to abide in direct experience emerged, I asked a local non-dual teacher to help me explore its subtleties.

Now that I’ve vacated my former quest for answers and techniques, my love for the earth and all beings upon it has grown warm and consistent. Given my long history of mood afflictions, medical problems, and professional setbacks, I find such steady, sweet affection both refreshing and startling. As the psychiatrist predicted back in 2006, spiritual growth has freed from post-traumatic suffering. Now I again hear the call to help others, but this time with greater confidence in my potential to make a difference.

However, it hasn’t been clear to me how to proceed. Since I never became expert in a single spiritual approach, I don’t feel qualified to teach any specific path or practice. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works as a hospice chaplain told me about a local institution that trains people to work as spiritual directors. As I studied the online descriptions, I felt very enthused, because the training is based an interfaith approach that seems like a good starting point for someone who feels ready to assist others in spiritual work but isn’t rooted in a single tradition.

Since biology has been so central to my recovery, it will no doubt influence how I practice spiritual direction, but I am well aware my approach isn’t for everyone. In fact, it will be interesting to discover how different people follow their own unique leadings. I believe such one-on-one service work will complement my MindfulBiology project, which involves lecturing to groups while writing in relative obscurity. Learning to offer support through openhearted inquiry seems like a natural step on my lifelong journey toward the heart of Life.