Peter Kowalke

My Spiritual Belief System

We all believe in something, whether we know it consciously or not. These beliefs serve as the foundation for everything we do.

For me this foundation is Advaita Vedanta, a thoughtful and pro-science strain of Hinduism that is thousands of years old yet utterly modern. I’m a member of the Ramakrishna community, founder of American Vedanta and its philanthropic arm, the Philia Mission, and actively but quietly moving in the direction of monasticism.

Normally I point people toward American Vedanta when I talk about my faith, but the site is undergoing a redesign right now. So until the site’s back up, here’s an article I wrote about my spiritual journey for the magazine, Prabuddha Bharata.

American Vedanta

The long journey of an American who found Vedanta as a child

By Peter Kowalke

Like any good origin story, a myth has developed about how I came to Vedanta.

As the story goes, I reverse-engineered Vedanta when I was 14 years old. I grew up in Ohio, in the woods, where there were more deer than cars. I didn’t go to school, nor did I have any religious education of any kind. But when I set out to make sense of the world, I arrived at an understanding that looked remarkably like Vedanta. Only later did I discover it had a name, and that there were others who believed as I did.

The actual story of how I came to Vedanta is more nuanced and a lot less magical. I did live in the woods and I did come to Vedanta without knowing it by name, but the principles of Vedanta were quietly seeded throughout my life from the very beginning. Like someone reconstructing a puzzle, all I did was identify the pieces and put them back together.

Assembling the puzzle was a long task. It took 29 years.

I was given the first piece almost immediately, however, at age two. It came in the form of a curious statement by my mother.

Mother’s Love

By all accounts I was a sweet child, physically energetic but also sensitive and able to quietly occupy myself for long stretches at a time. I was not mischievous, and definitely not cruel. I listened to my mother, and I felt bad when I made a mistake.

But mistakes happen, and when I was two years old I made my mother mad. I think I broke a bowl.

My mother, usually so calm and understanding, had a rare lapse in temper when I broke this particular bowl. She scolded me, and I cried. But then she did something I will never forget.

Seeing my tears, my mother paused and questioned herself. Why would she make someone she loved so deeply feel bad and cry? For what, a bowl? I was so much more important than this bowl, and yet here she was causing me distress over its loss.

Determined to fix her mistake, my mother sat me down, looked me in the eye, and very seriously said she might lose her temper, she might say hurtful words. She might even momentarily forget her love for me. But no matter what I did, no matter what I said, she would always love me.

I must never forget this truth, my mother told me that day. And by the seriousness of her tone, I knew I would never forget the lesson. My mother would always love me.

This was the most important moment of my life, a foundational truth, and it happened at age two. It made me question the nature of love, and that in turn ultimately led me to Vedanta.

For if my mother’s love was not conditional, what was the basis of love? If something could be permanent and everlasting, what was permanent and what was not?

I knew that bowls would break and people would die. If my mother’s love for me would not die, something I knew both from words and direct experience, it had to be permanent; love had to be something fixed and unchanging that would survive my poor actions and my human frailty. Everything I saw was impermanent, but there had to be a permanent foundation underneath or there could not be everlasting love.

Through this simple statement, “I love you and I always will,” I also arrived at the understanding that this permanence is shared and within all of us. Real love could not be about beauty, action or even thought, because these things were impermanent. Real love could only come from loving the permanent part of a person, or what I later would understand to be the soul in Christianity or the atman in Vedanta. Like the traditional Indian greeting, namaste, real love was the divinity within me recognizing the divinity within the other person. It was seeing self.

The myth of how I came to Vedanta might suggest that the little two-year-old Peter understood this lesson in a flash of insight. But I did not. I never forgot the moment, and I never questioned my mother’s unconditional love. But it took years for me to fully unpack the significance of my mother’s statement.

I didn’t fully understand the lesson until I was 14 and searching for truth.

Truth is One, but Sages Call it Variously

Like many youth, I began searching for answers as I came of age. Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How do I deal with death?

Unlike many youth, I was left to find the answers myself because I did not attend school. There were no teachers to give me the answers, and my parents were moral but not religious. So I began making sense of the world with a relatively open mind and little overt direction.

What I found were several large groups that each claimed they alone had the truth. They were right, and everyone else was wrong.

The problem with this situation was that each group made the claim. The Christians said they were right, the Muslims countered with their own God, and the Buddhists thought that both groups missed the point because there was no higher power. Science added that all faith was misguided, and only the theories of physics and evolution made sense.

Approaching the problem rationally and without much bias, my 14-year-old self tried to make sense of this mess.

Each group had some seriously silly people among its ranks, but each group also had many intelligent advocates. I could not easily dismiss any group, nor choose among them; it would be a tremendous act of hubris to think I knew more than the smart people in each camp who had dedicated their lives to answering these eternal questions.

My approach, therefore, was a search for commonality. While I could not choose among competing claims, I could see if there were any universal principles that all major belief systems had in common. These common universal principles would be my best chance at knowing the truth.

I found many commonalities as I pieced my way through the various faiths and facts in my early teen years. One universal concept stood out, however, one that was particularly strong in my Judeo-Christian culture and also in my personal history: love. All major belief systems had love at the center.

From this commonality and my early childhood experience with real love, I pulled together the teachings of every major knowledge tradition I could find and developed a pet theory that God is love, that He must by definition be permanent and unchanging, and that the fundamental building block of everything, from my computer to myself, was this oneness called God.

In my search, I had come upon an unnamed and slightly unrefined iteration of Advaita Vedanta.

The myth of how I came to this truth would have me reaching it on my own, in the woods, when I was 14. Really I had been quietly exposed to these ideas for years, however; the ideas of Vedanta were unnamed but all around me growing up.

On a cultural level, my family and friends did not know that Swami Vivekananda had come to Chicago for the Parliament of Religions in 1893, but his lecture tour deeply impacted U.S. intellectual thought. The educational theorists who informed my parent’s decision to keep me out of school might not have been tuned into Vedanta, but the counterculture that influenced their thinking was build on it.

More directly, my mother internalized some of the ideas of the American transcendentalists as an English teacher, but she didn’t realize these very American thinkers were deeply moved by the Upanishads. Likewise, I devoured self-improvement books as a youth, but rarely if ever did these life transformation gurus acknowledge that their ideas were watered-down Vedanta thought.

In retrospect, there were many such examples. I had been swimming in a sea of Vedanta without knowing it. What I did was trace the concepts back to their foundation in my search for life’s answers.

I remember feeling like a genius when I first “invented” Vedanta. This understanding could be lived and experienced, not just believed. It relied on ancient wisdom that resonated with the human experience, but it also lived comfortably with modern science and every major religion I knew. It was so profound, this understand I formulated, that I even briefly wondered if I was the second coming of Christ.

Mostly I was not that sure of myself, however.

I knew nobody who believed like me, and I was keenly aware that truth cannot be invented. If I was the only one who understood these truths, chances were high that I had gotten something wrong.

So mostly I kept quiet while I practiced and deepened my spiritual understanding.

Experiments in Truth

Because Vedanta is first and foremost tied to my direct experience in love, an experience that began at birth, for me it has never been based on faith or received wisdom. Vedanta is something to be lived and found in every moment. The Advaita Vedanta framework explains this experience and anticipates my future direction. But it only ever is a guide, a logical explanation that follows the direct experience.

Literally in the woods, figuratively all alone in my understanding of the world, I began experimenting as I quietly searched for others who understood what I saw and felt.

These experiments in truth took a multitude of forms, but they were principally centered around the concept of “thou art that.” Almost always, they were about breaking down the distinction between me and the other. At first I would find myself in the other, then I would subvert my ego by losing myself in this expanded Self.

One early experiment was an attack on preferences.

Preferences build our sense of self at the cost of identifying with the other; they define and limit us. So if somebody liked a food or an experience, I told myself that I should be able to like it, too, if I discovered why they enjoyed it. There were only things I liked and things I was going to like, I speculated. For the most part that assumption has held true and shown the hollowness of categorizing things into good and bad.

Another big experiment was testing the idea that our individuality is just maya, an illusion, and that we really are One on a deeper level. I tested this hypothesis by seeing if I could find myself in anyone, a challenge to love everyone.

At first this assumption of love and identification only worked with young and attractive girls. But I kept at the experiment, and eventually I learned how to love with equal speed and intensity the tired grocery store clerk and the old man smoking on the street. This identification with all people led to experiments in enlarged decision-making and personal austerity for the benefit of others, among other tests.

Then there were the experiments that flowed naturally from my increasingly Vedantic outlook, many of which I did not even notice or understand at first.

I ran a small national magazine as a teenager, and I would stay up late and labor over every hyphen and comma. Yet when an issue would roll off the press and an error was found, I would usually shrug off the mistake. I worked tirelessly so each issue was perfect, but afterwards I promptly gave up the fruit of my labor as if the perfectionism was just a game.

Only later would the Bhagavad Gita and other texts explain this behavior as non-attachment.

Om Sri Ramakrishnaya Namah

By age 18 there was no longer the need for a fence around my faith because nothing could dissuade me from what I knew through direct experience. Or so the story goes.

While a compelling myth in my Vedanta origin story, in fact I was deeply torn between what I knew and what others told me I should know. Still lacking any sense of community or guidance, I didn’t trust myself, but I also could not turn away from my understanding of truth and the personal experience that brought me there.

I embraced spiritual guidance wherever I could find it, and that often came through Christian denominations, mystical writings, quantum physics and literature on comparative religion. I knew I could use the teachings of any major spiritual tradition, but tweaking the lower truths I encountered and working in isolation was tiring. It also slowed my progress.

But then I found Shankaracharya.

In my second year of college, I ran across the great Advaita philosopher, Shankaracharya, in a textbook on comparative religion. This discovery was huge, because it finally gave me a lineage and a place to look for guidance. My seemingly eccentric worldview had a name, and there were others who saw this truth.

Yet I knew none of these people. Running across Shankaracharya was an incomparable relief because it put to rest my concerns that I was a cult leader in the making who had invented a religion. But I knew nobody who had heard of Shankaracharya, and the few Indians I approached at the time either laughed at me and shoved a pakora in my face, or they talked dualistically of many-armed gods and personal shrine rooms. I knew from the Shankaracharya discovery that I must be Hindu, but all the Hinduism I could find was similar to the lower truth I had found years before.

A big part of the problem was that I still didn’t know where to look, and at the time there was no Google or Wikipedia to give me direction. I called myself Hindu when I really should have searched for Vedanta; I stumbled upon the names of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda but couldn’t distinguish them among the sea of self-aggrandizing gurus.

I was close, but not quite home.

The discovery of Shankaracharya was a turning point inasmuch as I now had confidence and a lead on where to look for guidance: India. Yet I still was alone, and I still had deep reservations that I misunderstood Vedanta because I was not Indian and I had not yet met anyone who actually thought like I did.

For many years this was the situation. Thirteen, to be exact. I experimented, I searched for guidance, I called myself Hindu when pressed. But nobody understood what I meant until I walked into my first Ramakrishna Mission temple in early 2010.

By that time I was a magazine editor in the suburbs of New York and ready for a bold move.

I had been a part of the Chinmaya Mission in Michigan, and I had visited India several times by then. I knew my truths were in the Gita and the Upanishads, and I already had an origin story I told people about my lifelong spiritual journey. But at the same time, I was spiritually stuck because I had gone as deep as I could go without guidance or a spiritual community. Vedanta was a hobby, and I knew it needed to be my life. So I left my job and moved from the New York suburbs to the city with the hope of finding community and guidance.

It didn’t take long.

In the one element of my magical Vedanta origin story that actually mirrors reality, I stepped into the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York on my third day in the city and knew immediately that my search was over.

The presiding monk, former Prabuddha Bharata editor Swami Yuktatmananda, calmly and self-effacingly gave a lecture that day which perfectly coincided with my secret life philosophy for the past three decades. He mentioned Shankaracharya. He explained love in terms of the atman and motherhood. He even talked about how all religions lead to the same ultimate truth.

For the first time, I listened to a spiritual talk that required no translation or qualification. I was home, and I knew it immediately.

It is tempting to speculate that I might have been an Indian in a former life, and that my spiritual journey has extended for several lifetimes. This might be true, and it definitely would make a good story.

The truth probably is more humble, however.

The time-tested ideas of Vedanta have always made an impact on thoughtful people, and Vedanta has directly influenced American thinking since Swami Vivekananda planted the seeds more than a hundred years ago. Vedanta is sprinkled throughout American culture, rarely named but deeply embedded.

Through circumstance and the freedom to follow truth where it leads, I simply came upon this obscure but influential strain of thought at an early age. I stuck with it because Vedanta coherently explained the deepest depths of my direct experience, and I make it the center of my life even today because there’s no point in following a lower truth when a higher one exists.

None of this is magical or special. But it can make for a good story, especially among people who sometimes raise me up because I am young, white, and talk intelligently about some of our deepest truths.

What is lost in the magical myth version of how I came to Vedanta is not only that my journey is far from complete, but also that we all can make the journey.

We like to elevate spiritual people and ascribe their lives to karma and natural gift. This may be true. But when we elevate people and start to quietly build myths around them, we also disempower ourselves. These people become special, their experience becomes that which cannot be lived.

When I walk in the village of Kamarpukur north of Kolkata, where Sri Ramakrishna was born, I don’t like to think of him as a spiritual giant beyond reach. I like to think of him as a man just like me.

This essay originally appeared in the June, 2015 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.