A Place in Between (Aug 2020)
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Doreen shares with us the inner conflict that arose through her immersion in two different religions, cultures and world views at a young age. This conflict is a familiar one to many of us — those who practice yoga, honor its roots and continue to walk the path of Christianity.
No man’s land, a place separating the front lines of opposing armies, is the only area where enemy troops can meet without hostility. It is a safe haven between actions. During World War I, a horse named Charlie, sold to the British cavalry then confiscated by the Germans, found himself among a hostile bunker-based exchange. He became agitated and tried to run to freedom, but only managed to escape into the muddy field of no man’s land between the trenches. As both sides watched the horse become hopelessly entangled in barbed wire, the shooting stopped.
Soldiers from both sides tried to call the horse but it was too fatigued to respond. So the Brits put up a white flag and entered no man’s land. The Germans met them there with wire cutters. Together, they strategized how to untangle the horse. “We need more clippers,” said the German. From both sides, clippers flew over the bunkers into the field. As they began to free the horse, one soldier asked. “Who gets it?” Another replied, “Better not fight over a horse; it might start a war.”
When I saw Charlie in the movie War Horse, it struck me so clearly that I felt like him, with my soul stuck in no woman’s land, fretfully frustrated, guilty and angry. It was a sort of safe haven between camps, but not because it was a good place to be but because it kept me away from what felt like war zones. For much of my early adult life, I felt stretched and stuck in an “in-between” regarding how to live my life: my mom’s way or my own soul’s calling; in between two different religious camps with partially conflicting doctrines and in between my desire to fit in vs. standing boldly in my own unique light.
I grew up in an old, stoic and traditional Presbyterian Christian camp on eastern Long Island, NY, among a family that did not talk much about feelings and did not touch. My mom had a very specific view of womanhood and expected me to follow it. My dad was a quiet, intelligent farmer with a keen sense of business but also saw a somewhat narrow place for women.
In 1980, as a high school junior, I travelled to India as a Rotary exchange student. It transformed my outlook on family, worship, and my understanding of the Divine. Upon my return to the USA, I struggled to integrate my newfound respect for other spiritual paths. Clearly I had experienced that God had other spiritual camps with authentic seekers, but at home and in my little town (and with my mother), other religions were considered strange; I learned to guard what I said because a wider viewpoint on religions created conflict.
For mom and me the conflict was mostly between her single-minded idea of what a woman’s life should look like, including her narrow idea about how to worship in the Christian faith, and my own ideas about religion, marriage, and freedom. Her one-option-only prescription focused on ‘the other’ leaving no room for me to ask questions, self-reflect and explore my soul’s own journey. For wanting another option, mom called me selfish. Her ideas fit into a little box wrapped in wire which cut me with guilt that turned to anger. I felt loved, but not seen for who I wanted to become.
The other conflict was the church. Wires and briars like patriarchal language in the hymns which offended me and an emphasis on original sin over original blessing trapped me in the idea that my worth had to be earned. So much of the tradition required I believe certain ideas that did not make sense to me, that came into conflict with my direct experience.
I tried to fit in, but didn’t anymore, which is how I ended up in no woman’s land for most of my 20s. Eventually, I felt embraced by Gnosis meditation and Classical yoga, which both helped me to heal the psychological wounds. (Even though I had been minimally exposed to yoga and meditation in India, I did not study much then).
When my mother died in a car accident, I was 34 and just barely revisiting my relationship with the church. At her wake and funeral, I saw the kinder side of my childhood church and felt compelled to have another look. At the same time, I began to feel Jesus following me around. Over the next few years, at the invitation of a church to teach yoga from a Christian perspective, I started combining yoga and Christ in my study, my mat practice, my prayers.
Yet, there was a nagging sense inside that I was still “at war”. In general, I felt unsafe speaking about Christ in the yoga world, and about sharing yoga in the Christian world, partly because of external pressures and partly because I did not feel comfortable standing in my own light.
Better not fight over a horse (soul); it might start a war.
For years I felt stranded in the briars in between. Filled with hurts and questions, I knew I had to address the discomfort that arose. Where do I belong? What if I must choose? Is there a way to be both? Can I be comfortable with the sticky spots? There are many philosophical/theological sticky spots. How do I reconcile with them? All this wore me down. My soul ached for resolve, so I laid down like the horse and surrendered. I needed a white flag and wire cutters.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. — Isaiah 2:4
Poignantly, it was Christ who raised the white flag, and both camps in their own way threw me wire cutters. I had sensed the Christ Light following me around out there in the misty middle ground. He sat with me in daily silence revealing the deeper meanings of the teachings. Jesus helped soothe the wounds from church barbs that required me to stay inside a very narrow interpretation of the teachings by encouraging me to yield, to forgive the mis-steps of the humans (my mom, my Sunday school teachers, the Elders who focused more on externals like clothing and shushed me on the way into the service, who told me I am a sinner before I am loved, who implied ‘our God is better than your God’). “It’s okay to be different,” Christ told me. “Follow me,” he said. Emmanuel never left me.
Having a clear Guide cut the binding. Softening my heart helped to snip me free. Yoga’s psychology and methods also snipped me free, acting like wire cutters to support my healing process. Steady daily physical and mental practice (abhyasa) to strengthen and stabilize myself, and acceptance born through non-attachment (vairagya) directed me toward forgiveness, patience and presence which removed the veils that shaded Divine Light.
Company Over time, something beautiful grew. I discovered more and more books written by and about Christian mystics who revealed that followers of Jesus did have experience with higher realities much like the Indian sages. I discovered contemporary writers reclaiming this study of the inner life. Even more nourishing, I found seekers out there in the brambles, both clergy and laypeople, and as I did, the muddy field dried up. The tangles released into a beautiful green meadow and developed into a camp of its own, one that explores the intersection between yoga philosophy and Christian theology —a camp-in-between.
I am especially grateful for Father Tom Ryan’s leadership and the people who are Christians Practicing Yoga. Their mission is mine too: to “provide support, education, and community for an interdenominational Christian audience”, so that “through the deep transformative power of Christ, Christians practicing yoga and contemplative prayer make a significant contribution to healing the divides in our lives and in our world.”
Effort to follow my soul’s calling and Grace of the Holy Spirit have healed much of my inner conflict. Slowly, I have come to see the light inside myself —the light others see so clearly when I teach. Gradually, I have shown the world the ‘authentic me’. There is more inner work, but as for a spiritual path, I have found a true safe haven. I am at home in this vibrant camp-in-between.