Change happens. It’s part of everyday life. Sometimes it’s predictable. We know winter will become spring and what’s in fashion now won’t be in fashion next year. But there’s another kind of change, something that happens inside of us—a movement that can shift the direction and focus of our lives. Personal change like this can happen unexpectedly. We find that we can’t go back to the way we were.
Leo Tolstoy said, “The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience.” When our conscience speaks, we are compelled to answer. Three women of faith in Tidewater have experienced such change and chosen to follow a different path. Here’s a look at their ongoing journeys.
A GOOD HEART
Ten years ago American Buddhist nun Kelsang Kalden made the decision to become ordained in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. “Like a ripening in my heart, I knew that this was the way I wanted to live my life,” Kalden said. It wasn’t something you might expect from a woman with a degree in economics and a well-established corporate career. But then again, this particular woman grew up asking questions.
Raised in a traditional Catholic family, Kalden always wanted to know the how and why of things. As she grew, so did her curiosity, especially about life’s purpose. High school did not answer her questions, but she hoped college and nursing would. As a nurse, she found herself helping people, but something was still missing. Believing the answer might lie elsewhere, she received her degree in economics and waited for wealth, status, and respect to give her life a purpose.
While writing her graduate thesis at Clark University, she became disillusioned. “I grew up in the 60s in Massachusetts and had heard John Kennedy speak of the Peace Corps, and it resonated,” Kalden remembered. “A friend encouraged me to listen to my heart.” And so she did. She applied to an international aid organization and left graduate school.
This change of direction led her to work in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodia border. “There were people experiencing immense poverty and suffering,” she recalled. “They had nothing, but were giving me gifts and were happy.” For the first time Kalden was exposed to Buddhism and found what would eventually become the truth she had been looking for.
After her aid work, she returned to the U.S. and jumped back on the corporate wagon, working 70 to 80 hours a week. Her mind, however, would return again and again to her experience overseas. “I took six months off to figure out the two pieces of my life: the business, wealth, success side and my experience in Asia,” she said.
Kalden realized business success held no meaning for her. She resumed nursing and went to a meditation center. “I heard the word ‘bodhichitta,’” she said. “It means someone who is trying to attain an enlightened quality of mind and act where everything is about benefitting others.” Digging deeper, she found Buddhism answered her life-long questions. The decision was made. She began studying and practicing Buddhism under the guidance of renowned author and meditation master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition.
Today Kalden is resident teacher at the Keajra Kadampa Buddhist Center in Virginia Beach. “Buddhism can be many things—a religion, a complete way of life, or simply practical knowledge for navigating the challenges of daily living,” Kalden explained. “You do not have to give up any of your own traditions but can expand to derive benefit from Buddhist practice and ideas.”
Kalden strives to maintain a positive peaceful state of mind and a good heart, which she then shares with others. “If you apply Buddhism in your daily life and begin to understand that it works,” she said, “you can make it yours and run with it for the rest of your life.” And perhaps begin a ripening of your own.
A LASTING IMPRESSION
Gwynne Wells has a very clear memory of her first visit to worship at the Friends Meeting in Virginia Beach. “I just remember that it was so refreshing, very different,” she recalled. That visit, it turns out, made a lasting impression.
The daughter of a minister of the Christian Church Uniting, Gwynne grew up in a traditional Christian family here in Tidewater. She has fond memories of attending Sunday school, going to church camp, and singing in the choir. From time to time the family visited other churches, exploring how different faiths worshipped. This is how, as a young teenager, Gwynne found herself at a Quaker Meeting. “There was silent worship, and one person stood up and gave a message,” she said. “I remember I got in the car and said, ‘Wow, that was different.’”
As Gwynne grew up, she continued attending her father’s church and participated in occasional family visits to other houses of worship. During these years she developed a strong interest in discovering why people of different faiths held their specific philosophies and beliefs. While attending the College of William and Mary, Gwynne enjoyed taking courses in religious studies, always curious about how and why people believed as they did.
Years passed and Gwynne found herself back at the Friends Meeting. For her it was a natural progression of her interests, of being intrigued by the Friends’ philosophy and practice. “The overall belief of Quakers is that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone,” said Gwynne. “God is accessible to everyone equally and God is continually being revealed. It is experiential and can be different for different people.”
Finding herself back at the Virginia Beach Friends Meeting was also due to her basic nature. A self-confessed Type-A personality, she relished the hushed contemplation. Finally she was participating in a type of worship that allowed her to be fully present with God. After twelve years, Gwynne became a member of the Friends community. For her it was a natural transition. “One of the wonderful things I have to say about Quakerism is that it is as ready as you are ready, very accepting all around,” Gwynne said.
She feels at home with the integrity of the people and the stillness of the Quaker practice. The meetings are silent worship. Members enter the room, become quiet, “center down,” and begin listening within. The members then enter into a communal deep peace. If someone is led to speak, he or she will stand and share a message. Quakers believe the tranquility of the meetings encourages a feeling of serenity and nourishment to the soul.
Now that Gwynne has been attending meetings for many years, she says that in Quakerism she has found a religious practice that appeals to her desire for quiet reflection and is pleased to be part of the Meeting. “I have been very enriched by the people and the manner in which people live their walk,” she said. Recalling her own path to becoming a Quaker, she says it was as gentle and thoughtful as the practice itself. And it is in this way that she walks her path today.
Rev. Ruth Littlejohn was 35 when she reached the American Dream, but it wasn’t what she thought it would be. “I had a good-paying job, a nice car, traveled the world, lived in the best zip code, and I was just so depressed,” she recalled. It didn’t make sense.” That was when Ruth began carving a path that led to her establishing the Hampton Roads Center for Spiritual Living. It’s a journey that for her has come full circle.
Raised in Norfolk by religious parents, Ruth was actively involved in her African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. She had a strict upbringing and listened carefully to her elders. At age fifteen, because of school integration problems, she was sent to live with family in Washington, D.C. Her climb to the top of the American Dream was about to begin.
Ruth whole-heartedly believed what her parents had instilled: work hard, get a good education, and you will achieve success. She certainly did, achieving a B.A. at Norfolk State University, an M. Ed. at Lehigh University, and an M.S. at American University.
After obtaining her degrees, Ruth moved swiftly up the corporate ladder. She observed that men who seemed unemotional and detached achieved rapid success and modeled their behavior. In spite of many career successes, Ruth slowly became disillusioned. “How could you be that sad and that depressed and have all of the stuff I was promised was the American dream?” Ruth wondered. “So what do I do now?” She realized she needed a better way to live.
This was not an easy change. She read every self-help book in the library. Nothing clicked until 1992 when she picked up a Science of Mind magazine and read it cover to cover. “What got my attention is that it said I was born whole and complete, was not a sinner, and had never done anything not to be good, joyful, and loving.” Ruth realized she did not have to reject everything she had been taught; rather she could expand to include an inner focus and use spiritual tools for empowerment, healing, and a closer spiritual relationship with God.
Ruth began studying Science of Mind materials, took classes, and became a spiritual coach. She received her M.Cs. in Consciousness Studies from Holmes Institute. After graduation, she found herself struggling to balance years of structure and logic with her newly actualized intuition.
Finally she followed her instincts and left the corporate world behind. She moved to Tidewater and founded the Hampton Roads Center for Spiritual Living, a Science of Mind® Community Center. The first service was held in April 2011. “I moved here because I was guided to do this work,” she said. “My goal was to not be traditional. My goal was to create a safe venue for people who have given up on church.”
Today Ruth serves as the senior minister for the Center. “We honor all paths and are accepting of each individual as a divine and unique expression of God,” she said. Services include quiet meditation, affirmations, and songs. Members share how using spiritual tools is helping them become their best selves and help others. Being part of their transformation is Reverend Ruth’s joy. “Following this path has been freeing in ways that are hard to describe,” she said, “but I can tell you that now getting an emotional lump in my throat is a gift.” Ruth has learned that living a fulfilling spiritual life is her American Dream.
Maya Angelou once said, “Stepping onto a brand new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” Kelsang Kalden, Gwynne Wells, and Reverend Ruth Littlejohn have followed new paths toward very different faiths. Yet there are striking similarities among these spiritual pathways: quiet contemplation, a bringing forth of goodness, and a desire to be of help to others.
• Visit www.MeditationinHamptonRoads.org to find out about the Keajra Center and the programs offered.
• The Virginia Beach Friends Meeting is held on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.vbfriends.org.
• For more information about the Hampton Roads Center for Spiritual Living, a Science of Mind® Community, visit www.hamptonroadscsl.org.
Karen Jones is the author of several books, an educator, and former news reporter. For more information about Karen, visit kjwriter.com.