Meet Stephanie Dowrick
Writer, spiritual and social commentator, and interfaith minister Stephanie Dowrick, PhD shares insights and hard-won life wisdom.
“Do we want to solve the world’s problems enough?” This was the question Reverend Stephanie Dowrick asked the audience at the recent Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney. “The only solution is peace, but for peace to be a reality in the world, it must first be a reality in our own lives. How many of us are willing to make the changes within ourselves necessary to solving the world’s problems? And not just with our words.”
It’s a question for which there may not be an answer, but it’s one which Stephanie addresses in her latest book, Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another. It is an invitation to take on this responsibility and recognise that we are not separate from the world and its problems and the only way to solve them is if we accept that we are part of the solution. Here she shares her own journey:
Have you always been a spiritual person? Seeking the Sacred is virtually a spiritual memoir, and in it I explain that I have throughout my life been drawn to thinking about the ‘big questions’, but for many years that energy went into social causes, especially peace and women’s issues. I am so fortunate because my curiosity has meant that I have had first-hand experiences living in several cultures, experiencing and studying different faiths, and recognising the deep yearnings that are common to people across time and cultures. So do I have a special appetite and interest in spirituality? Yes!
What has been the most defining moment in your life? My mother’s death when she was 37 and I was eight. That early experience of death woke me up to how precious and meaningful life is. I have lived with that awareness ever since. The birth of my first child, Gabriel, when I was 36, also changed me radically and for the better, as did the birth of my daughter a year later. I've found it a wonderful training for working with people on psychological and spiritual issues to also be a mother: to recognise your limitations and at the same time how you can and must grow up and beyond those limitations! My mother and then, so many years later, my children, also taught me how unconditional love can be.
What is a memorable spiritual experience you’ve had? More than 20 years ago, a friend called to ask if I would go to a small gathering for the oracle of the Dalai Lama who was visiting Sydney. At this time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was widely known and loved but was nowhere near the spiritual supernova he has become (not at his own wish, I suspect). At the time, I knew nothing at all about his oracle – the monk who goes into a deep prayerful trance and guides or advises His Holiness on spiritual matters. But something pulled me, so I went. We sat in comfortable silence for a short time and then the oracle gave a talk. I don’t speak Tibetan, his English was limited, the translator’s English was also limited, so I have no idea what he said, but what I remember vividly was the exceptional atmosphere. What I experienced in the monk’s presence was an unlimited expression of loving kindness, openness, harmony and inclusion. Those spiritual qualities radiated from him and touched and opened me in a totally rare and unexpected way, and, I suspect, everyone who was present.
What is ‘spiritual inclusivity’? It means unconditional inclusion: regarding the whole world as your family – even those whose views you profoundly dislike. It doesn’t mean we ought to spend time with people whose views or behaviour are abhorrent to us but, equally, we have no right to wish them harm or to kill or slaughter them for believing or interpreting life differently from the way that we do. This understanding is essential to any degree of effective peace-making.
Is pain and suffering a prerequisite for spiritual awakening? Perhaps. Most of us don’t turn in to address the deeper questions or to call on our spiritual resources until what we usually fall back on no longer helps us. Sometimes we literally have to come to our knees to see the world differently and to understand our purpose differently. However, we can also learn a great deal from joy, gratitude and appreciation.
Is there a religious or spiritual tradition that resonates with you? So much of what’s regarded as religious thinking is highly divisive, not inclusive. Being aware of others as belonging to one human or divine family does – or should – change our conduct. I have learnt a great deal from Buddhism about how to teach (at my retreats and in the services I give), as well as how to pay attention to the everyday details of life where my spiritual life is best discovered. I have learnt a great deal from Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafiz about the joy there can be in spirituality and in accepting life in its gloriously imperfect perfection. And I’ve learnt a great deal also from the life of Jesus, a truly radical teacher of love, while also observing how even the most sublime teachings can be distorted by human institutions – by people much like us – when they place more emphasis on power and self-righteousness than on humility and love.
How do you maintain balance in your life? Not always easily! It’s a constant challenge between my energetic, achieving self and the part of me that knows that I need more stillness and time for reflection and what the Quakers call “waiting on God”. I am getting better slowly, so I still need to live a few more decades.
Do you have a daily spiritual practice? Living daily life as ‘awake’ as possible is my main practice; also meditation, prayer, deep reading and reflection; and service to others as well as myself through my liturgies, teaching and pastoral care.
What causes are you most passionate about? Peace-making. Cultural and religious respect and harmony. The end of greed and violence. Protection of the world’s most vulnerable, including children.
When are you happiest? In several situations: with my beloved family, and especially my daughter and new grand-daughter, who's filled with happiness herself; my children have transformed me more than any spiritual teacher. So did the death and absence of my mother, as well as her short life; when I am writing, teaching, talking with friends, listening to music, walking, pottering around my house. So much to be thankful for! I’m least happy and most inclined to grumpiness with the massive amount of administrative work I have to do, sometimes leaving virtually no time for the work I love. And I am most thrown if I am worrying about a situation or person close to me, rather than getting on and praying or doing something about it.
What are your top tips for living a more spiritual life? Notice the effect of your choices on others. Notice your power to choose. Notice that your choices are creating the person you are becoming. Notice what most inspires you. Do more of whatever connects you to your deepest yearnings, to a sense of awe, beauty, devotion, and gratitude.
Seek the sacred
There are five pillars integral to seeking the sacred and welcoming it into our lives, says Stephanie Dowrick in her new book Seeking the Sacred:
1 Reverence There have been times in my life when my sense of the sacred and, even more particularly, my spiritual practices of meditation, prayer, study and journaling have been especially open, vulnerable and fierce. I am sure that I have been far more needy than usual of spiritual comfort in those periods, but also more sensitive and aware of what is so continuously available to me. They have largely been tough times, occasionally desperate, and I would not wish to have any version of them in my life again. But I must also acknowledge with profound gratitude what poured forth within me and – or so it seemed – for me at those times. Without the sacred and a glimpse of my place within it, I truly do not know how I would have got through my own darkest and most mystifying passages and learned to see them as part of life but not all of it.
2 Identity Looking back at my own early story of spiritual seeking, several themes emerge. The first is a tenacious belief that there is more to life than achievement, as entrancing as achievement can be. That matters to me because for years my professional ambitions and drive for excellence as a publisher and as a writer certainly gave me a crucial sense both of belonging and of meaning. Achieving success in those very public spheres was far less a matter for me of applause or financial security, although both those things mattered, than it was a testament to the value of my life.
3 Love To open to what love can pour into us and how love can heal us, there must be at least some willingness on our side, some degree of conscious yearning as we sense that all our usual distractions are not enough. It’s love and the meaning that comes with love that we have to have. During our darkest nights of the soul, the consolations of love can seem far away. That distance is itself the theme of much of our suffering. Yet, like so many of us, I know that it is also when my need has been most desperate, confused and anguished that I am most open to receiving those priceless hints of softening, opening and reconciling with the life within me and beyond me.
4 Do no harm For many years I have been thinking, writing and praying about forgiveness. Gradually I have become convinced that the most significant step on the forgiveness trail is dependent on doing no harm. This liberating moment is achieved when you resolve that you will not wish or cause harm to another, even and especially those who have harmed you. This may not always amount to forgiveness. Certainly it does not mean that what was harmful has ceased to matter. What it does achieve is a highly significant inner assertion that however enraged or wounded we are, we cannot benefit from making someone else suffer, no matter how tempting this can seem.
5 Transformation My children have transformed me more than any spiritual teacher. So did the death and absence of my mother, as well as her short life. My years of writing have been essential to this moment. So has conversation, praying, reflecting and coming up hard against my own shortcomings. Relationships that have ended have transformed me at least as markedly as those that remain buoyant and continue. Grief, joy, creativity, openness, disappointment, despair, courage and rebellion: my entire vocabulary of experience is present in my transforming. Religious experience. Not-religious experience. All one. Some things become easier. Other things become irrelevant or impossible. Life makes a different sense.