by Sister Judith Thackray
The healing principles of nondual Vedanta have guided me most of my adult life. I was an undergraduate student in philosophy and fine art—widely reading in both ancient and modern philosophy, when I first encountered these healing principles of non separation and holism. It was an exhilarating time, one of new discoveries and openings into new worlds.
I had read and studied the British Romantics and American Transcendentalist writers, who borrowing from the Vedantic scriptures, had experimented with integrating Eastern religious understandings into Western forms of prose and poetry. There was something very exciting about these writers! Something new and “different”—a golden thread was woven into their experiments, and I later followed that golden thread to its source.
One evening, I found myself with my fellow philosophy students at a lecture given by Swami Bhashyananda at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. There was a kind of “instant” recognition that something monumental and life altering was happening to me. After the lecture, I approached the Swami and asked him to teach me how I could directly experience these transcendent truths for myself. He invited me first to write to him, and then to come to the Chicago Vedanta Center for a visit. Within a short time, I received mantra initiation into the Sarada-Ramakrishna Vedanta lineage. For a while, I attended lectures by visiting Swamis of the Ramakrishna Order who came to the the fledgling Toronto Vedanta Society. We called them the “flying Swamis”, because the center had no resident Swami at that time, and the visiting Swamis would fly in and need to be picked up from the airport in Toronto.
I am of Native American ancestry; my Cherokee grandmother entered an Indian Boarding School at a young age—leaving when she was sixteen, and choosing then to hide herself behind a story of being an orphan raised in an orphanage. This is quite a euphemism for what the Boarding Schools were really like for the Indian children forced into them. It was a source of shame to be “Indian” in those days. She gave up her family origins, culture, and language, to “blend” into mainstream America as best she could. In my mature years, I sought out these broken parts in my ancestry, and began to weave them back into my own life. Vedanta gave me an open invitation and profound framework, for this healing journey of personal spiritual exploration and the reclaiming of my spiritual roots. And by extension, this was the beginning of integration of the many parts of my life, that through family loss and dislocations, needed to be made whole again—to be brought into the Oneness that the Vedanta philosophy proclaims.
I began an in-depth study of many different spiritual paths, searching for the common thread that binds them all together: the contemplative mystical core that defines their uniqueness as a path, as well as announces their commonality with all other authentic paths. I recognized myself as someone who was contemplative, in a way that honored my Vedanta path, but also encouraged me to seek out contemplatives from other paths than my own primary path. Recognizing my need to do this, Swami Bhashyananda allowed me to come and go at both Chicago and Ganges, MI, where the Chicago Vedanta Society had a monastery retreat center. He never gave me direct instruction, other than to go immediately to Mother Sarada with any questions, problems, or guidance needed. I learned to do this and rely on this throughout almost fifty years as a Vedantist. Eventually, I took vows as a hermit of Sarada, and founded an interfaith contemplative order in her name. Then followed years of working as an interfaith facilitator, with people who wanted to experience contemplative life and were oriented towards interfaith spirituality. They would come and go—spending various times in our interfaith community.
I found that Vedanta had so much to offer people; so much affirmation and encouragement to give them on their own healing journeys to wholeness. Meanwhile, my own sadhana was enriched and deepened immeasurably by these interfaith experiences with others. Interfaith life is very challenging; one must learn skillful means to heal the separations that can happen, even with all good intentions, when one is faced with another who is on a very different path. Vedanta remained the most stabilizing force I could ever hope for in my own spiritual growth. It gave me deep insights into the suffering of others in their egoic predicaments, as well as my own daily samsaric suffering. And it kept me stable in the realization of the hidden wealth that is present in all human suffering, and in the understanding of how the transformation of our suffering becomes the source of our enlightenment.
Wherever I have lived, Mother Sarada has brought people to my hermitage and gifted me with human contact, each contact irreplaceable in its uniqueness and its added beauty to my spiritual life. Since leaving Canada, I have not found myself in the proximity of any Vedanta Center in all these years back in America, and so I have learned to trust to hosting monthly meetings or satsangs of local people for spiritual nourishment and support. Invariably, this has involved interfaith readings, sharing from our lives, and periods of silent meditation together.
I have found that Vedanta for me, holds a wonderful “toolbox” of ways to relate to a great diversity of people. The inclusivity and universality of Vedanta has a place for each authentic way or path, to be equally regarded on the greater circle of Truth. People have differing strengths, interests and preferences—Vedanta has a way of accommodating everyone who is sincere in their chosen path. My own sangha or larger community, has been a way of outreach or satsang: a coming together and sitting together in the larger being and consciousness to which we all belong—no matter what our chosen path.
Spiritual life is often defined by one word: constancy. Vedantic life has given me constancy, in the midst of the bewildering inconsistencies in human existence; it has given me reliability, in the midst of the changing and unreliable social and political systems in which I have to find survival; and it has given me focus, purpose, and meaning in an age of heightened human uncertainty, angst and despair. I am eternally grateful for fifty years of Vedanta blessings, and forever in its service of the perennial, unconditioned Truth.