Alice McDowell is the author of the new book Dance of Light: Christian, Sufi and Zen Wisdom for Today's Spiritual Seeker. She also has written the book Hidden Treasure. She is the founder of the Hidden Treasure Program, a personal growth training program, and she was a professor of religious studies at Ithaca College for many years. She lives in Van Etten, New York.
Q: What inspired you to write Dance of Light?
A: I always wait for inspiration and an inner directive before writing. This was also true for Dance of Light. After decades of teaching, guiding others, and engaging in my own spiritual practice, I awoke one morning to an inner voice, telling me to write down all the wisdom I had gained over the years. I took this directive seriously and started to write.
I revisited the earlier part of my life when I discovered Evelyn Underhill’s stages of the spiritual path and their similarities to the Zen Oxherding Pictures while teaching mysticism and world religions at Ithaca College. These formed the pillars of Dance of Light. My initiation into the Inayati Sufi Order and retreats with Zen-inspired Adyashanti enriched the book’s outline.
Q: What role has spirituality played in your own life, and has it changed over the years?
Even though I had inklings as a young child, my spiritual life began at age 11 when my father suddenly died. I was bereft and started asking those deep questions. Why did this happen to me? What is the purpose of life, anyway? Why am I here? This started me on a lifelong search through study, practice and teaching.
My spiritual life has changed over the years. My idea of divinity is different. At first, I saw God as other—a loving Deity but nevertheless other.
My present understanding is less dualistic. I see the Divine as a loving energy that is within and underscores all reality. I’m more aware of what I’d call the intermediary realms or levels of consciousness, such as creativity, light and splendor where other beings dwell. I’ve gained great insight from study, practice and teaching in all three traditions: Christianity, Sufism and Zen Buddhism.
I’ve noticed a difference in my meditation practice over the years that’s difficult to describe. I feel more expanded, realizing that who I am reaches beyond my body and the room. I feel the presence of helpful beings, although they may be parts of me. My heart feels more expanded and tender. I feel a profound love for the people I encounter, but also a deep pain when learning about the suffering in the world.
Q: Your book focuses on both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. How do you see the two fitting together?
A: If you think of the spiritual journey as climbing a mountain, the doctrines and rituals of the various traditions are like encampments around its base. They appear far apart and look quite different from each other. As you climb higher, they become closer.
I’ve always been interested in studying the mystical experiences of the various traditions—Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, the apostles experience of the risen Christ, Mohammad hearing the words of the Archangel Gabriel during his cave experiences, Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree—because these form the core or spark of each tradition. They lie close to the top of the mountain and have many shared elements.
When I discovered how close Underhill’s depiction of the stages of the spiritual journey were to the 10 Zen Oxherding pictures, I started to see that even the journey up the mountain has many common elements among these traditions.
Dance of Light explores the similarities of the journey from the Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Western spiritual perspectives. In this way, readers can understand the full trajectory of the spiritual path and their place in it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I hope Dance of Light will be an important handbook for today’s seeker, whether they belong to a certain religious tradition or none at all.
I hope all seekers, whether beginner or advanced, will receive guidance on the dynamics of the spiritual journey, learn how to further develop their inner life, and find ways to move forward when unmotivated, stuck, or lost. The teachings of the mystics have inspired me and I hope my book inspires readers to stay true to their calling, knowing there is an awesome level of consciousness awaiting us.
I had fun compiling instructive tales and humorous stories from each tradition for the purpose of adding lightness and insight to the teachings.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m concentrating on promoting Dance of Light. I’m enjoying meeting new people electronically and discovering how the process works with help of my developmental editor and agent, Jill Swenson, and social media assistant, McCadden Keeruh.
I’m continuing to guide individuals on retreat at Light on the Hill retreat center. I’m also waiting for that inner voice to indicate the next writing project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Dance of Light is the culmination of much of my life’s work and practice. I’m pleased to have fulfilled the directive given to me that morning several years ago and happily offer it to all interested seekers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb