“What is my name,
O what is my name
that I may offer it back
to the beautiful world.”
This month I am offering more about me and how I found my way to my authentic path. It's a bit of a "spiritual autobiography" and how I received my spiritual name: Habibah.
I have been born many times in this life and each time I re-emerge I have to learn my name again. When I came into this world my parents gave me the name: Jennifer Jane. My middle name came from my mother. In my early years I went by Jenny—it was cute and fit my sweet disposition. Somehow very early on, though, I knew that I was not my name; not what people called me. My awareness of my life as a spiritual journey came quite early on when I began to wonder about who I really was and why I was here. The idea of death was a subject of both terror and fascination. Catholicism came to me from both of my parents. Irish on my mother’s side and Italian from my father. With that genetic and religious background a few predetermined tendencies were set in place from the start including: a love of family and food, stubborn impatience, a tough work ethic, and fear/awe of God. I was a curious and imaginative child and my first years were idyllic, with my mother at home and plenty of love and care to create a strong foundation.
The first passage that was marked by an ending occurred when I was six and my family moved from a small rural town in upstate New York to the “big” city of Orlando Florida. Gone were the days of crafts at the kitchen table, snow angels outside in winter and hot cocoa after school. The transition was much easier for me than my two older brothers who were leaving behind more mature relationships with friends and environment. On the bright side, our new home had a pool and a couple of girls my age lived close by. However, it was also much more progressed and less friendly than our birth home. We all had to let go of what we knew and loved and come to terms with our new life. I accepted it and began to settle in to the new life. But things grew difficult with my parents both working full time to launch their new business, the strain of adjusting to life in public school, and my brothers’ often loud and explosive rebellion at being transplanted. Looking back, I see how, as coming from a line of immigrants who made their way from Europe to America, this theme of being displaced, exiled and thrust from home has stretched throughout my history and meets me like an old family heirloom in this life. I believe that my own tendencies in navigating change were modeled on what came before me, namely, an attitude of forging ahead without concern for what was left behind. My early years in school were mostly anxiety filled and highlighted with a sense of insecurity. I was extremely sensitive and loathed the idea of speaking aloud and being tested in any way. Socially, I made my way by befriending a couple of close girlfriends and never liked being the center of attention. It was a relief to be at home and because I had a vivid imagination and I could spend hours alone happily.
Sometimes one mother is not enough when it comes to raising children and working full time. Thankfully in those early years I had a few mentors in the form of older women that I admired that helped me in ways for which I am still very grateful. My grandmother was a widow from the time I was born. She was a retired school teacher and the most present, calm, stable person I have known. She would spend hours helping me with school projects, make clothes for my dolls, and take me out to eat regularly. I cherish the memory of her support and love. Marcella was a young Italian woman that worked for my parents and would also watch me during the summers. She ranks highest in creativity, openness, and grace. Her gifts to me came in the way she treated me as an equal and instilling the belief that I could do anything. She taught me to play the piano, sew, make home-made pasta, and made me feel like one of her extended family. Two other women that took me into their home and hearts were our neighbors, Iliana and Bettina. They were sisters and their family was from Venezuela and at 20 and 22, respectively, they lived with their parents as was customary. They would do my hair and nails, let me dress up in their fancy clothes and shoes and dance around the house with me. Over the years our family and theirs became very close. These relationships with older women were of profound importance for me because I felt validated, loved, protected, and guided by them. Each of them planted certain seeds in the ground of my being in the way that they interacted with me that pointed me in the direction of womanhood.
My fear of the world and its crassness was always assuaged with spirituality, namely a connection to Jesus and Mary that were nurtured by the Catholic Church. I never had major epiphanies in church but the rituals were comforting and I always felt like I knew, with a knowing far beyond my limited intellect, Jesus’ message of love, compassion and truth. My heart and soul resonated with him both as a person and messenger of God. Up until the age of 12 or 13 my spirituality was rooted in religious tradition. But at that time my faith deepened with my first spiritual “experience,” one in which I had no logical explanation or understanding. It was so personal that to this day I have never shared it with anyone. I was away for two weeks at a Christian summer camp located in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a very loving and supportive environment where the ethics and message of Jesus were modeled and never forced. The people were sincere and truly good. It was customary to pray together in small groups when inspired and one such circle developed one afternoon for me in the woods with two other women. Standing, we joined hands and one of the women began to pray in a “normal” way, as would be expected before a meal or event. At one point the praying became more spontaneous—each of us offering in the circle our own words. Eyes closed we all began, as if in perfect sync to take turns saying one or two words and the speed and rhythm increased. Next we were all speaking in a way that made no sense linguistically but our hearts were so full of joy and bliss that our “words” became laughter. In later years I have had similar feelings of ecstasy arise when chanting in a sacred language. Was I speaking in “tongues?” I am very hesitant to label my experience but it opened something in me that made me curious about such inexplicable joy and awoke a hunger for more.
One person in my everyday life that I could have deep spiritual conversations with was my brother Jeff. To this day we are able to share personal stories with each other comfortably, affirming to each other that no matter how mysterious they seem we are not going crazy. As I got older, 15-16 years, we would sit on the back porch late at night, smoke cigarettes and talk about life, death, the soul and finding our purpose. Those times with him always felt like “out of time” occurrences in which we were no longer older brother and younger sister, but rather soul mates from life times ago that supported and inspired each other in this life. In those moments it was a relief to be understood and seen truly, and then we would go back to being annoying siblings. Unfortunately my brother was well on his way to losing himself in drugs and alcohol and battles addiction to this very day. We would often talk about dying and leaving this world and what that would be like. Without saying it we both believed that somehow that would be preferable to the difficulty of living in this world. Our talks were always other worldly and we shared a deep desire to return to that place from which we came. The feeling of being a stranger on this planet, exiled from a “home” I couldn’t name, is something I have carried throughout my entire life. But this part of myself that longed for the transcendent; I kept hidden from view and did my best to fit into my environment. I was good at socially adapting and remained mutable in my views outwardly so as not to appear strange. Although I went to an academically rigorous and socially elite prep school, most of my friends lived in our middle class suburban neighborhood and attended public school. In many ways I felt as though I had a split personality and could navigate in either world without really feeling as though I belonged in either. As I approached 18 and high school was ending, I was desperate to discover my true identity outside of my religion, family, friends, education, etc. The weight of years living according to some outward, prescribed model was beginning take its toll. The summer before college I fell in love for the first time with a man that represented this very shift from acculturation toward freedom of self. He was older and the owner of Orlando’s first independent coffee house. His creative and brilliant mind and wide open heart captivated me and we shared a mutual love. He introduced me to the Beat poets, Avant guard movies and eclectic art and music. I soaked it all up and began to taste the intoxication of freedom on all levels. I moved out of my parents’ home that summer and explored this new world with my love. That special relationship and time in my life was the point where I knew that there was no going back to my old self/life and the beginning of my adventure home to the place of belonging.
After my “summer of love” I left Florida for college in North Carolina. It was a tearful separation with my boyfriend but we both knew that it was an experience that was necessary. He had just finished college and was in another phase of his life; it was an interesting experience in letting go for both of us. Having left all things familiar proved to be exhilarating and difficult simultaneously. It was at this time that I went strictly by Jen, rather than Jenny, as it seemed more fitting for my impending life as an adult. All that I remember about that first year of college were the great friends I made and the parties every night. I definitely did not get any closer to finding myself but I had fun. My first experiences with LSD and mushrooms occurred at that time and those mind blowing experiences rank among the most spiritual I have had. The more I tried to create a new life for myself, independent of my past, the closer my darkness came to the surface. Although I am grateful to have made it through my life without significant trauma, the part of me that had always longed for meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging in the world—my soul—was trying to get my attention. At 19 years old it took a debilitating depression for me to begin to listen to my soul’s call. After my second and equally unproductive year in college and a semester backpacking through Europe, I returned home feeling utterly defeated by a feeling that I can only describe as sheer and utter meaninglessness and hopelessness. The feelings I had hidden for years-like there was so much more to life than what everyone seemed to accept as “reality” and that I didn’t really feel as though I belonged here or had a purpose, rose up in me like a tidal wave that pushed me to the edge of life and death more than once. I wanted to die. My parents took me to their psychiatrist and she told me that my illness was genetic and that medication would be necessary. I took the pills because I was truly scared of dying but I was determined not to live with this “disease” for the rest of my life. No one really talked about it in my family, but many of my family members on both sides have struggled with mental illness and apparently I was not exempt. This was another family heirloom as I saw it; and one that I definitely did not want to inherit. The secrecy along with the dependency on medication created a tremendous amount of shame that only seemed to strengthen depression’s hold on me. It is only now that I am able to see that hold as an embrace from my soul whose purpose was to guide (wrestle) my wild spirit home to life in this body and on this earth. I had spent years only partially living in my body and, like my brother, was tempted by drugs to escape completely the harsh press of the world on my skin. If not for bearing witness to his (almost) complete destruction from drugs many times throughout his life I might have ended up in his place.
I left college after that second year and returned home to rest, stabilize on the medication, and decide my next move. I spent that year mostly alone and enjoyed reading books that I wanted to read rather than what was required. I came across Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and one piece of my soul was reclaimed in that moment. It was that portion of writing that was responsible for sending me back to school with the intention of studying philosophy. As a lifelong lover of wisdom, I had finally found a discipline to which I could commit. And so I earned my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies from the University of South Florida. I secretly hoped that all of the big questions I had been carrying about the nature of existence and my own purpose for being alive would be satiated at last. Instead, I was left with more questions and the beginning of a new adventure.
In college I took my first yoga class and was intrigued by this foreign practice that was both physical and spiritual in nature. From the physical practice I became interested in meditation and found (or was found by) a wonderful book on the subject called Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Suzuki Roshi. It was so powerful in its simplicity which was such a relief from the dense and turgid reading that I struggled thorough in much of Western Philosophy. Eastern Philosophy, by contrast, was not any less intellectual but offered a wider platform of wisdom that seemed to point to an awareness far beyond the limits of the mind. I need to say here that one of the key points in noting the way(s) my life has been a “spiritual” adventure, is that I have always followed my heart or intuition in making big decisions. Even when everyone I knew thought I was crazy, I chose to trust my guidance. That is how I ended up moving to California to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. After reading a few books on meditation and attempting to practice on my own, I knew I needed some guidance. I was a guest student at the Zen Center and lived there for some time before finding an apartment a few blocks away. I participated in daily meditation and took classes to learn more about the Zen tradition. I spent two years in San Francisco and felt like I was finally coming home to myself. After sitting meditation regularly I began to become fascinated by the mind-body connection and was led to get my certification in Reiki. Using my hands in this way to give energy to another for healing was by far the most natural experience I had ever felt. And for the first time in my life I felt like I was really good at something. I wanted to be a healer. But really I needed to heal myself first. I was still taking medication for depression and any time I tried to wean myself off, I would begin to feel the looming darkness and submit to pharmaceutical relief. I had been gathering information and reading about various modalities of healing and decided that I would go to massage therapy school. I was drawn to San Diego and due to a series of synchronistic events that placed me easily in a home and massage school, I moved and happily assumed the role of student again.
In my earlier studies I had read a few books by Deepak Chopra and admired his particular blend of science and spirituality. But I never thought that I would ever end up working for him! Just out of massage school, I responded to an ad for therapists at the Chopra Center for Well Being. I figured it would be a long shot as I was just newly certified. However, I was hired on the spot when the woman to whom I gave a massage said that I have the energy that they were looking for and they could teach me the technical part of the job. That’s how I became an Ayurvedic therapist at Chopra’s center. It was a wonderful job where I was exposed to the rich world of holistic health and able to work with all kinds of people. I loved the emphasis on healing rather than just manipulating the physical body. In addition to the outer work, I was doing a lot of inner work as well. I sampled from the spiritual buffet while in southern California—I did various kinds of yoga, worked with a shaman, learned about chakras and energy healing with another teacher, and became enchanted with the study of herbs and aromatherapy. But a dam broke open when I met one woman in particular that noticed my gift and began to teach me how to use it. Her name was Nazahah and as soon as I heard her name, I felt connected to her. She came from a long line of healers in the curandisma (Mexican shamanism) tradition, but she was “doing” something I had never seen or felt before. I took a woman’s healing class with her that concluded with a session on Mayan uterine massage. It is a form of massage, done over the clothes, to move the displaced uterus back into its “right” place. She had us practice first on her and when it was my turn and I leaned over to touch her, she opened her eyes and said something about how I knew how to work with energy. That small confirmation (after the similar comment from the woman at the Chopra center) was what I needed to send me further along my path of learning. In that class with Nazahah, I felt my uterus move and it was as if my entire being was somehow rightly placed after a lifetime of confusion. I began working with her individually and learned that what she was doing was rooted in Sufi healing. Of all the traditions I had sampled from in the healing smorgasbord up to that time, I had not encountered anything as powerful or transformative. After months of working with her and learning more about Sufism, I recognized that the healing that I was seeking was not available through the mind or body, but that I needed to commit to deeply entering the world(s) of my heart. Where philosophy acknowledged my love of knowledge and wisdom and Zen provided me a passage into the space beyond the mind and body, Sufism captured me in its declaration of Love as the highest potential for healing. I took hand with a very holy man (a Sufi Shaykh) from Jerusalem with whom Nazahah studied; his name was Sidi Muhammad Al-Jamal. Sidi, as he was affectionately known, lived in the holy land and only visited once a year to be with his students and I first “met” him over the phone. When I called him to take a promise to be a student with him, he greeted me with such kindness and said: “It is so good to hear your voice again, beloved.” He prayed a prayer with me and then gave me my spiritual name. He said in his broken English: “You are Habibah. The one who carries the special love.” I thanked him and hung up mystified and speechless. That was almost 20 years ago and I am still learning my name.
After three years in San Diego I felt it was time for another change. My parents had just completed construction on a large boat and were planning on traveling for a year in the Caribbean and extended the invitation for me to join them. It was difficult leaving California especially my friends that became soul mates, but I could not pass up the opportunity to travel and I needed some time to rest. I moved back to Florida and prepared for my oceanic adventure. So much had occurred during my time on the west coast and I needed the time and space to digest it all. I brought Sidi’s first book on Sufism (called Music of the Soul) with me and savored reading and learning this new way. In it, he writes about certain times in our life we find ourselves in difficulty and constriction (jalal) and other times in the beauty and expansiveness (jamal) and that both are necessary for us. My time in the Caribbean was definitely one of beauty and ease. After years of struggle, namely with depression and trying to find my path, I felt deeply contented and strangely protected in this new place. It was a relief to be connected to this amazing tradition that was, outwardly, very foreign. During my year on the seas, I decided to enter the Sufi healing school that had been created by my guide in the US and run by an incredibly talented healer that studied and received his direction from Sidi himself. Nazahah was a student there and encouraged me to develop my gift with energy healing in that environment. I began a three year healing program at The University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism in 2003. I worked very intensely on my personal healing by learning the practices and prayers in the Sufi tradition and spending time at least once a year working directly with Sidi. One of the most profound things I learned during that time was that learning about how to be a Sufi was truly the vehicle for healing. It was not about doing something particular, but rather a natural product of recognizing my true nature as Love. That is the medicine, I believe, in being given a spiritual name. In my case, I had known that I carried this “special love” all my life but I did not recognize that it is who I am until my guide told me my name.
I no longer require medication for depression and although I still struggle with living at times, I finally feel as though I belong here and that I will continue on this journey to recalling all of my names until, when the time comes--to let them go completely.
My path over the last 15 years since planting my roots in Clermont, has unfolded in many beautiful ways through my continued personal transformation as well as becoming both a teacher and mother. This portion of my journey would require a couple more posts! I am realizing that what it is to be fully human (as Jenny) is the perfect compliment to being deeply spiritual (as Habibah). When I feel lost or confused about how to keep going, I hear my guide's simple instruction to my heart: Just Be Habibah. . . .
*Thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to witness a portion of my story. What does it illuminate for you? What names have you gone by and what do they mean to you? Do you feel as though there are, perhaps, new names that you haven't yet discovered? Where or in what places might you learn them?
What My Clients Are Saying:
Connect with Me