© 2016 JOHN K MCILWAIN.

My Path

Photo Credit: Antonia Small

"I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back.

 

"Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.”

From Wendell Berry's book Jaber Crow, thanks to Collie Agle

I was raised as an Episcopalian, though it wasn't until my late 30's that the church came to resonate with me.  When I was 12, I had my first spiritual awakening, a moment's grace that gave me an all-too fleeting look at the meaning and nature of existence.  This set me on a lifetime search for inner awakening.  

 

During high school and college, my love of sailing and yacht racing was more significant to me than church.  At college, I majored in philosophy, though in the end I found it did not answer my most important questions.  From there I went to law school where I got caught up in the world of the late1960's - psychedelics and organizing marches against the Vietnam War.  I also helped manage the national "Clean for Gene" anti-war student movement, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy for president throughout 1968.

After graduating law school, I had a powerful LSD trip that altered the direction of my life.  It led me to move into a 1960's counter-culture community where I lived for three years.  While there, I moved between two worlds, by day as an associate in a large, conservative, "White Shoe" Wall Street law firm, and then as a member of the "community." 

 

After leaving the community and the law firm, my wife and our new son moved to a 200 year-old farmhouse in Maine, where we lived for five years.  I worked for the state government during the day; the rest of the time I helped in our organic garden, cut wood to heat the house, and did a surprisingly unprofessional job of renovations.  I also studied various spiritual paths, including Gurdjieff, Western arcana, Taoism, and astrology.

 

We moved to Washington, DC in 1977, where my first job was with the federal government. Following that, I went back into private law practice, did a stint in business, and finally was a Senior Fellow at a non-profit institute.  During these years, I took the EST training in 1979, and a decade later took the full Landmark Education curriculum and several of the advanced training courses they offered. During this time, I came to know Randy McNamara, one of the senior Landmark Forum Leaders who became a great friend and teacher.

In the 1980's I found a spiritual home at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington DC, where faith was more of an inquiry than a belief.  There I served on the Vestry (the church's Board of Directors), and taught the Adult Confirmation Class, an experiential exploration of faith.  I left St. Mark's in the early 1990's as it became more mainstream with the retirement of its Rector, Jim Adams, who had had a strong spiritual influence for me.  

 

In 2000, I found my way to Buddhism and meditation.  My first Buddhist teacher was Tara Brach, and I became an active member of the community she founded, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW).  I served as the President of the Board, and sat on the Teachers Council.  During this period I co-founded the St. Mark's Episcopal Church's Meditation Center, where I taught for many years. 

 

My next Buddhist teacher was Rudy Bauer, co-founder of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies.  I successfully completed the Center's Advanced Course in Meditation and Awareness Practice.  This was an intense immersion into the Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen teachings and practices, and I had the special opportunity to participate in several deep and rare teachings with Tibetan Rinpoches of the old school, including Rigdzin Dorje Rinpoche, Lama Wangdor, and Lama Lena.  I also studied with other Buddhist teachers, including Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Sharon Salzberg, and Larry Rosenberg, among others.

Beginning in 2013 I began exploring the powerful teachings of various sacred plants, which has led me to study and the teachings and shamanic practices of various indigenous communities around the world.

 

In 2017, my wife and I moved from New York to Mid-Coast Maine, an area where we have summered, on and off, for 45 years.  Today, I continue to explore Buddhist and other paths of awakening, as we each walk our individual paths on our way home.