Michelle Lee Garrison Hough
A. PHYSICAL ROOTS
I was born in Joplin, Missouri, a town situated in the area of the United States known as the Ozarks. This area spans Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. It is more like the South than any other part of the Midwest. Even though I moved to NYC when I was 24, I know that my spirituality and my identity were greatly influenced by my regional origins.
1. Physical Setting: Before I describe my ancestry and how it is a uniquely Ozarkian heritage, let me tell you a little about the topography and the natural setting of the Ozarks. Nature is a persistent theme in my spiritual journey, and I connect with nature to find spiritual solace and unity. Most people think of Missouri as a plains state, but the corner of Missouri where I am from is hilly. The Ozarks are a very old mountain range. There are a lot of lakes, streams and creeks. My father’s home is a large, log style house on 160 acres of land in a wooded valley. There is a small, stream fed lake near the house with a little waterfall that runs into a stream. The stream winds around the property and connects to a large creek. There are a lot of cliffs nearby. Eagles, owls, hawks, heron, deer, raccoons and all sorts of other animals are a regular part of the landscape. This beautiful natural setting was a sort of womb for me when I was growing up. I now live on a dead end street in a very woody area of Croton, NY. We are very close to the Croton Dam, and also the Croton River and the Hudson River. There is a nature trail to Silver Lake at the end of our street. Even after 18 years of my adult life spent in an urban, cosmopolitan setting, I feel like I am now back in the environment that is second nature to my soul.
2. Ancestry: My ancestry in the US goes back at least four generations on each side. I have Irish, English, Scottish, German, French and Native American ancestry. The Native American ancestry is from the Cherokee tribe. My father’s maternal great-grandfather was a Cherokee healer, or medicine man. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather are on the Cherokee rolls, listed in District No. 10 at the Cherokee Nation Headquarters in Talequah, OK. My mother also has Cherokee ancestry, but it has never been documented. She knows less about her ancestors than my father knows about his. This ties into the Ozark region, because the Cherokee had to cross through that region on the Trail of Tears on their way into the Cherokee Territory in Oklahoma. Many of them changed their surnames to appear European, so that they could buy land and lead more prosperous lives, rather than being forced into the Cherokee Territory. There are a lot of other tribes associated with the area, and the most common is Osage. When I was growing up most people would say that they had Native American heritage, but my father didn’t document ours or get involved in Native American Fellowship Circles until I was an adult. Now I am very interested to learn more about Native American spiritual practices.
B. IDEOLOGICAL ROOTS
1. Protestant Christianity: My mother raised me in the Lutheran Church. I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I also attended a Methodist church with her and her second husband for part of my childhood. My mother’s grandfather was a Baptist lay minister. She was raised in the Baptist church. My father was also raised in the Baptist church. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher for part of his life. In my early adolescence, my father started his own church. This was part of the big charismatic Christian movement of the 1980’s. His church was called Praise Place. My uncle who is a musician led the worship and there was a full band. For several years, I would go with my Dad, my half-sisters, my Aunt, Uncle and cousins and sing, clap, dance and play the tambourine. I got involved in praise dancing, and did this with a small group of women to open a concert for Phil Driscoll. This was the beginning of my discovery of connecting with the Divine through movement. Praise and Worship was the cornerstone of the church, and it was attended mostly by Protestants, but a group of nuns from the Sisters of Mercy order also regularly attended for the worship. The sisters danced in the aisles. One of them became very close to my family. It is worth noting that she was the pastoral care director of a local hospital for many years, and my father used to volunteer at the hospital to pray with patients. My mother has also been a hospital volunteer for more than 40 years.
When he decided to give up Praise Place, my father started attending a Unity church, and then a United Church of Christ congregation for several years. He dedicated himself to the cause of welcoming homosexuals back into Christianity and educating others about homosexuality and the Bible. This was also a large influence on my spirituality. As a teenager and young adult I started hearing a lot about our God being what my current pastor calls “a God of radical inclusivity.”
I now attend and do some work for a Lutheran church. My husband was raised Presbyterian. When we moved to Croton we wanted to find a church we could attend as a family, to add some religious structure to our lives. We both feel that we were nurtured and educated in important foundational ways through attending church as children. I also wanted to find a community of people I could commit to, as part of my spiritual practice. It is the commitment to community that is important to me, more than the suitability of the particular group to my beliefs, which are rather unconventional. To state that another way, I feel like the commitment and continued community involvement are the enriching objectives, rather than a strong sense of religious identification.
2. Paganism: In contrast to the Protestant Christian religious practices I was raised with, I also grew up with a lot of Pagan elements thrown into the mix. From a very early age I heard my mother and grandmother talk about astrology. I continue to have a strong interest in astrology today, and I was always very intrigued by the integration of astrology into church practices in medieval Europe. The medieval and Renaissance eras fascinate me, and the congruence of Pagan practices incorporated into a developing Christianity are a big part of the attraction. Superstition was also commonly revered by my mother and grandmother, which they attributed to Irish and Scottish origins. My husband’s parents are first generation immigrants from Scotland and are very superstitious. My mother practiced witchcraft when I was growing up. She was somewhat secretive about it, but I saw her practicing it several times. She used to cast a circle before she would do her spells, and when I saw her doing this she asked me to get inside of the circle. I believe that part of this is wrapped in with her mental illness. Nonetheless, knowing that she believed in it at one time had an effect on me. She also talked to me a lot about psychic phenomena and dream analysis, and I have a strong interest in both of those. I have worked on developing my psychic abilities, telepathy in particular. I find that during periods of rapid spiritual growth, I remember my dreams more often, and they are filled with rich symbolism. This has been true for me since early childhood. My mother and I both believe that we come naturally by some psychic abilities, but neither of us has spent much time focusing on those abilities. I see that changing for myself in the future.
3. French Literature: From an early age, I was very attracted to French language and culture. It all started when the family of my childhood best friend had a summer exchange student from France. I was very impressed and impressionable. So my mother let me have a French girl stay with us the following summer, and my 15th summer I spent a month in Paris with her family. By that time I was hooked and excelling in my French classes, so I did another summer exchange program in the Ivory Coast while still in high school. I lived with a French family there, and they offered for me to come and live with them again once they moved back to Paris, so I took them up on it. In college, because I tested out of so many credits and wound up in graduate level courses, I ended up majoring in French. My professors were very encouraging and advised me to apply to graduate programs in French literature. I studied and worked in France for a total of three years. My French family was in some ways the “good parents” I never had, the family environment that stabilized me, and my proficiency in French and adaptability to that culture gave me self-confidence that I hadn’t found anywhere else.
I ended up with an M.A. and all of my coursework completed for a Ph.D. in French Literature. It was funded through scholarships and stipends and it gave my young adult life a purpose and an outlet for expression. My area of specialty was medieval literature. This is very spiritually relevant for me because medieval art, architecture and literature are infused with religion, mysticism, devotion, symbolism and intuition rather than rationalism, which came to dominate Western thought following the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. The linear method of thinking and structuring our lives that dominates thought today was not followed in the middle ages in Europe. In college and graduate school, I felt that God wanted me to be some kind of a spiritual teacher and I thought that I could do that through teaching French literature and medieval literature and philosophy. I was close to finding my path, but I clung to the French because I didn’t know any other way to get graduate school paid for and to find something I could do without a struggle.
The most important thing I took away from studying literature was an ability to relate deeply to all kinds of texts. I especially love extracting spiritual teachings from literary texts, which has helped me in reading and learning from the sacred texts we have covered this year in the ISIS program.
4. Philosophy East/West: During my undergraduate studies, I took a philosophy course called Philosophy East/West that sparked my lifelong interest in Asian philosophy and spirituality. I was particularly drawn to Buddhism and some of the Vedic teachings in Hinduism, and I loved reading the Bhagavad Gita. I drew a parallel between Jesus Christ and Krishna. For me, Buddhist teachings and many Hindu and Yoga teachings made scriptures from the Bible come alive.
5. Law: When I was 25 and working on my Ph.D., I started getting very concerned about my career prospects in academia. While I wanted to teach medieval French literature, I was aware of the relatively low income that non-tenured professors earn, and I also saw graduates from my program having to struggle to find jobs in universities that were in locations that I found unappealing (i.e. North Dakota). I was living in NYC and because of the high cost of living, I started thinking about other career options. I talked to my favorite professor and advisor about applying to the law school at NYU, and he said he would recommend me. My department was very supportive of me making this switch. So when I was accepted to NYU Law, it was ranked #4 in the country. I decided to get my J.D. and become an international business lawyer. This was a huge switch, from the more free form, creative, intuitive work that I had been doing in academia, to a field that is dictated by logic, rationalism, and competition. In a way, I wanted to prove to myself that I could excel in that area (and then discovered that I could not excel in something I did not love). I worked in that field for five years, living and traveling both internationally and domestically. Spiritual lessons that I took away from that period are how to work with the energy of conflict through cool-headedness and logic, seeing the value in meticulous work as a form of service and discovering that ego and intellect are truly not the best tools for peaceful resolution. I saw the limits of ego and intellect, and that’s probably the most important lesson I learned from studying and practicing law.
C. HIGH POINTS
I think it is useful to highlight both the high and low points in one’s life in a spiritual autobiography, so I will briefly describe the way I see mine.
1. Traveling: I have mentioned that I like to travel as a means of exploring not only the outside world, but myself as well. I don’t feel like I have traveled as much as I would like to during my life, but the times that I have been able to have provided me with some great life lessons. As mentioned above, as an adolescent, I participated in exchange programs in France and in the Ivory Coast of Africa. I traveled throughout Europe during the three years I spent in France as an adult. I also worked for a law firm for one year in London and I loved traveling for work and pleasure when I was there. I met my husband when we were both traveling alone in the Caribbean, and we like to visit new islands together each time we go. I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica with my husband after we got married and I loved speaking Spanish while there. I have also practiced Spanish in the Dominican Republic, Spain and Mexico. I am working on my Spanish again now. I have not been back to Africa since the time I went when I was 17, but I plan to go again in the future. My eldest son is currently obsessed with geography, maps and flags, and he has grand plans to travel to Madagascar, the Seychelles and South Africa with me. My husband travels to India for his job and I hope that I am able to spend some time in India before I die. My father’s wife is from Beijing and she goes back there yearly. At some point we all hope to go to China together as a family. I feel that travel is a concrete way to spread one’s wings spiritually and in every other way, and it has made me more open to the beliefs and traditions of others.
2. Achievement: I have never thought of myself as an achiever and I have an innate resistance to competition, but I feel like the personal achievements in my life have given me a sort of spiritual boldness that is still developing. Self-confidence is a recurring struggle for me and so it helped me to see that I could get into top ranked graduate programs, such as my Ph.D. program which was ranked number 3 in the US, and my J.D. program which was and still is top 5. My first job coming out of law school was for one of the best firms internationally, referred to in the UK as a “magic circle” firm, and it is also one of the better firms in NYC. I am grateful that I did those things, simply from a confidence and boldness perspective. Currently the way I am gaining boldness is through slowly mastering yoga asanas that are difficult for me. I don’t consider it an “achievement” to be able to do a headstand, for example, but it is simply a way to keep setting goals and relating those goals to my spiritual path.
3. Family: The greatest spiritual teachers in my life are my family members. I got married to my husband Jamie in February of 2006 and our first son was born in November of that same year. We conceived on our honeymoon, and we had thought it might take a long time. Our second son was born 18 months after the first. So we discovered we were fertile, and now that we have two we are grateful and feel no need to have any more children. Marriage and motherhood are more challenging than anything I have ever done, and there is no better way for me to be constantly reminded of the importance of my spiritual growth and consistent spiritual practice. Mindful, compassionate parenting is a goal that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind, and I learn so much through my failures.
1. Intrafamilial: My parents divorced when I was 3 years old, and both remarried and divorced again. My father is now on his fourth marriage and my mother lives alone. The multiple marriages and divorces created a lot of upheaval in my life. I have two half-sisters with whom I am close, and I am so thankful for them. My mother is mentally ill. She has rapid cycling bipolar disorder. It is something to note from my background, and it has had a significant impact on me spiritually. I am her only child and we didn’t know her diagnosis until my early thirties. She has been hospitalized multiple times for her mania and depression. I love her very much, but I was abused in many ways growing up. I do not blame her. It is simply a fact. Seeing her suffer awakened compassion in me at an early age. I am grateful for that. Friends of mine hear some of my family struggles from growing up, and they wonder how I can be “normal.” It’s a good question. I don’t see myself as someone who fits within the cultural norm, actually. I feel like the amount of instability and dysfunction I witnessed growing up has given me a much broader awareness and sensitivity than I would have otherwise had. Again, I am grateful.
2. Health: During the past five years, I have had some health struggles that have caused me to go deeper spiritually. During my first pregnancy I contracted Lyme disease, and it wasn’t discovered until months after the birth. In my ninth month of pregnancy, I had Bells Palsy, which is paralysis of the facial nerve. On the left side of my face I still have residual nerve damage, so my facial expressions, and most importantly my smile as I had always known them are impaired. This has been very difficult for me. I also developed a heart problem as a result of the Lyme, but after treatment with antibiotics it went away. My heart is now perfectly healthy, I believe. The neck and back pain that I had with the Lyme are also mostly gone. There is a little bit of nerve damage on the left side of my body, but for the most part I am very healthy. I have migraines every once in a while that I feel are tied somehow to the fallout from the Lyme, but they are less and less frequent. Getting sick was of course a reminder of my mortality and of the importance of self-care. An important thing to note is that all of my health issues have been on the left side of my body. I have learned that in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine the left side is associated with Yin, the feminine side, creativity and intuition as opposed to the right side, which is Yang or masculine, the rational mind and the intellect. When I first got sick and had the Bells Palsy, I prayed to God, “I want to be healed from the inside out,” and now I see that prayer request as a lifelong journey.
E. FINDING MY DHARMA/LIFE PURPOSE
1. Surrender to God
I am at a point in my life where I have truly turned over my life purpose to God. It all began when I prayed that prayer about healing from the inside out. I feel like I had to surrender before I could move forward again. Surrender is an important spiritual theme for me. I struggle with it on a daily basis. It is very difficult to let go and trust that everything is my life is in God’s hands. But I am learning that this is the truth.
2. Spiritual Practice
Spiritual practice is essential for me in maintaining my relationship with the Divine and receiving Divine guidance. It helps me to find my path and stay on it.
a. Prayer: I speak to God for some amount of time every day, as a way of expressing gratitude, communicating worries and fears and asking for help for myself and others. I sometimes start with the Lord’s Prayer, saying it slowly and then meditating for a few moments on the particular circumstances in my life that fit each line of the prayer.
b. Meditation: I try to find time to do a little sitting meditation every day, but it is hard for me to maintain a routine. I have had some training in Buddhist and Yogic meditation practices, so that is how I meditate. Sometimes I chant for a few minutes before getting started. To me, meditation is a quiet time to empty out, and then receive love and wisdom from God and/or my higher self. It also a way to awaken to presence and higher consciousness, and to calm and heal the nervous system from the impact of stress. When I fall back on my practice, as I have done recently, I notice that I become enslaved to more anxiety, compulsion and negative thoughts.
c. Yoga: I discovered yoga when I was 25, but I have only consistently practiced it for the past three years. By consistently I mean a minimum of three times per week. I practice in groups and classes, and also at home. My home practice has become very important for me. The goal of Yoga is union with the Divine and with ourselves. The spiritual teachings as well as the physical practice of yoga are keystones for my well-being. I used to love dancing as a form of worship and spiritual expression. Now I find that outlet through yoga. My favorite forms of yoga are Vinyasa and Ashtanga, because I love sun salutations and flowing sequences. I also draw from Kundalini yoga for meditation and energy balancing. I plan to get certified as a yoga teacher to obtain a good credential for teaching meditation and so that I will be better able to help people find and maintain a healthy mind/body/spirit connection.
d. Writing: I frequently journal and blog as a spiritual and mental health practice. Historically I have written poetry and articles about spirituality. I used to write a local column about holistic and spiritual practices and teachers. Writing helps me to wake up to my creativity and receive messages from the Divine.
3. Walking the Path
I have a better sense of my dharma now than at any point in my life. A major breakthrough for me has been learning to accept and trust my spirit, my heart and my intuition. My commitments to yoga and interfaith practices, the work I have done for my church and for a local volunteer chaplaincy program have been major steps on my dharma path. Allowing myself to be who I am without fear and follow my creativity is also a big part of walking my dharma path. Upon completion of the ISIS program and yoga teacher training, I hope to offer services as a spiritual coach, interfaith minister and yoga teacher. I am very excited about opening up to my dharma in this way, helping others to connect with the Divine in themselves and others, through meditation, yoga, mindful movement, writing, specific personal development exercises and spiritual exploration. My own path has been shaped by those very elements and I am excited about eventually bringing that experience into a professional framework to benefit myself and others.