My Spiritual Journey: By Jerry Biberman, Ph.D.

My personal interest in spirituality, my own experiences with spiritual practices, and the transpersonal experiences I’ve had fuel my interest in learning more about the relationship of spirituality to the workplace. It enables me to stay in dharma. It also enables me to be more aware of other people who share my passion for the subject. In this article, I am going to describe my personal spiritual journey, and how it led me to write and teach about spirituality at work.I was born February 6, 1949 in Philadelphia. My father was a pharmacist, who owned and worked in his own pharmacy. My mother, although educated to be a high school math teacher, helped my father in the pharmacy. We lived in an apartment building adjacent to the pharmacy, where we were the only white family in a middle class black neighborhood. My parents were non-observant Jews. They did not celebrate any of the Jewish holidays, and even gave my sister and me Christmas presents (toys from the store) each year when we were little. I did not find out that I was Jewish until I was eight years old.

When I was about eight years old, I was sitting outside in front of a neighbor’s house, when my neighbor and I discussed the subject of who “God” was. My neighbor told me that he had a picture of God that he could give me. It was a drawing of Jesus. Excited, I ran home to show my parents the picture of God that I had been given. The next day, my parents brought me to the Jewish Community Center near West Philadelphia, and enrolled me in Jewish studies classes. My parents continued to send me to Hebrew School and classes at two synagogues, and later at Gratz College. I thus took classes beyond my Bar Mitzvah and confirmation, and even studied Hebrew while an undergraduate student at Temple University.

Even though they continued to send me to Hebrew and religious classes, my parents remained non-observant. When I would try to have some kind of religious observance at home, my parents would not take it seriously, or worse, would make fun of what I was trying to do. Some of my most painful memories are of Passover Seders that I would try to do, which were always marred by family members arguing and paying no attention to the prayers and the hagaddah when I’d be trying to get them to pay attention.

When I was a teenager, I would regularly attend the Saturday morning and holiday services at my local Temple, although the rest of my family never attended them with me. The Temple and schools that I attended were Conservative (as opposed to the other main denominations at the time – namely, Reform and Orthodox). As my religious education continued into my undergraduate college years, I became increasingly disenchanted with what I perceived to be the religious hypocrisies of my family and members of my Temple. I especially remember: the Rabbi of my congregation driving to within two blocks away from the Temple, and then parking and walking to Shabbatt services; my parents never attending any services other than my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, while continuing to send me to religious school; the Rabbi’s son fasting until noon but then eating a cheese steak sandwich for lunch on Yom Kippur. My disillusionment with Judaism led to my leaving the faith for almost ten years. I married a non-Jewish (and non-religious) Christian woman. For four years I joined, and became actively involved in, a Unitarian church in Shreveport, Louisiana.

I was depressed and anxious during most of my twenties. I had majored in Psychology as an undergraduate, and then obtained a Masters degree in Psychology. I then worked as a research assistant to an unethical Psychologist for two years and as a prison psychologist for a year, before quitting that job to pursue doctoral studies. My goal was to get a Ph.D. by the time I reached the age of thirty. My Psychology studies had led me to distrust introspection, and to be cut off from and distrustful of my feelings. My teachers were all behaviorists who did not believe in the unconscious. I thought I was being helpful to people by analyzing them. All the while, I was becoming more and more anxious and depressed. I wanted to go for therapy, but couldn’t afford it. In those days, psychotherapy was not covered by medical insurance, and my parents didn’t think I needed any therapy. Finally, my grandfather, believing me when I said that I was depressed and needed therapy, used his social security money to pay for me to see a psychiatrist for psychotherapy. The psychiatrist who I went to put me on Sinequan (an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication), and used cognitive therapy. After two years of therapy with him, he ended my sessions with him by saying that my thinking was now better, but that I was not expressing any feelings, he did not know how to get me to express my feelings. Indeed, I was not able to access or express any feelings until a few years later.

In my late twenties I entered a doctoral program in group dynamics at Temple University. As a student in this program, I first learned about, and became interested in, T groups. My interest in T groups led me to enroll in 1976 in the Graduate Student Professional Development Program (GSPDP) of National Training Laboratories (NTL), held in Bethel. Maine. It was in 1976 while at Bethel that I had the first of several transpersonal experiences, and regained access to, and was able to express, my feelings.

During one of my free time periods, I had climbed to a place in Bethel (regrettably no longer there) called “Step Falls”. The “Falls” consisted of a number of small falls on a hillside. One could sit in one of the many little pools created by the falls, and have a beautiful view of the sky and the surrounding countryside. It was difficult for me to climb to the falls, because I was not in good physical condition. Once I sat in a small pool however, felt the water, and saw the view, my heart opened up, tears began to flow, and I experienced a profound sense of peace and a feeling that I was one with my surroundings. The feeling was of lightness, exhilaration, and of great joy and happiness. I had never before felt so at one with everyone and everything. I don’t even know or remember how I climbed back down from the falls, but I remember that the climb down seemed effortless. I felt like my senses had been altered and that I was “high” (even though I had not, and never have, taken any drugs or other hallucinogenics). The night after my return from Step Falls, I awoke in the middle of the night, and sobbed for several hours. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from me, that everything, for the first time in my life, made sense, and that I was loved and supported and at one with the universe. That feeling lasted for almost a month after my return from Bethel. That summer of 1976 was really the beginning of my spiritual quest.

My second transpersonal experience again occurred when I returned to Bethel, Maine in the summer of 1981 as an intern in the Graduate Student Professional Development Program (GSPDP) at NTL Institute. I had just learned (two months previously) transcendental meditation and had been practicing it twice daily. Within a week or so of meditating, I began getting headaches, and feeling a lot of energy in my head. While at Bethel, I again experienced a profound state of peace, happiness, and connection, and again experienced emotional flooding. I also experienced changes in my senses. They became very acute. I was able to hear conversation and voices from more than a block away, and experienced a feeling of great energy and yet, at the same time, profound peace and connection with others and with all of nature. That feeling again lasted for over a month after my return from Bethel. When I returned from Bethel, the person who had taught me transcendental meditation explained that I had experienced the “kundalini”.

I have been fortunate to have been graced with experiencing several other transpersonal experiences over the past twenty years. The nature of these intense personal experiences fueled my academic interest in the subject of spirituality, and prompted me to look for connections between this interest in spirituality and my training and expertise in psychology, management, and organizations.

I’ve been doing hatha yoga for over 25 years, and have been meditating since 1981. Although I was raised conservative Jewish, I was really not very religious. I really became interested in Jewish mysticism and Kaballah after praying the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola over a two and a half year period beginning around 1987. Those exercises involve praying over passages in the New Testament. Since I teach at a Jesuit university, I was always interested in the Ignatian spiritual exercises. My experience of the exercises drew me back into Judaism, and prompted me to study Kaballah. I was fortunate to experience attending a ten-day “Wisdom School” in 1989 taught by Zalman Schachter and Eve Ilsen. I have, since then, also studied the Silva Method, read and taken a workshop with Mantak Chia, attended several weekends at Omega Institute, and learned tai chi and several other types of meditation. I have also attended a number of religious and non-religious retreats.

My desire to make sense of my own personal experiences led to my interest in researching and writing about spirit at work. I initially did not know – nor did I particularly care – that there were a number of other scholars who were simultaneously and independently developing similar interests. I was, of course, happy to learn over time that these other scholars existed, and that they were very willing and eager to collaborate.

I began to collaborate in writing and research with people who had presented at or attended sessions on spirituality at work at the International Academy of Business Disciplines. In addition, I contacted, and began to collaborate with other researchers, whose names were mentioned by people at the track sessions. These collaborations led to journal article submissions and workshop and paper presentations at other conferences – most notably, at the Academy of Management.

I teach management courses at a Jesuit institution. The religious nature of the institution provides a natural lead in and context for me to raise spiritual issues within my classes, and to show how the spiritual philosophies of various eastern and western religious traditions parallel the emerging new paradigm of personal empowerment and group collaboration in business and organizations. Each of these spiritual traditions uses remarkably similar methodologies, techniques and traditions – particularly meditation and prayer – to enable people to discover and experience this interconnectedness, and I have used many of these techniques in my classes. I have shared with my students spiritual teachings and philosophy from the mystical traditions of the major world religions, including teachings from Ignatius of Loyola, Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese philosophy, Zen and Taoist readings, vedic wisdom, Kaballah and Jewish mysticism, and Catholic and other Christian readings. Specific processes and techniques that I have used in class include explaining the benefits of and then teaching various kinds of prayer, relaxation exercises, meditation (including mantra meditation), journaling and other writing, active imagination, guided imagery, drawings, spiritual exercises, hatha yoga and other stretching, tai chi, breathing exercises, music, dance and movement.

My use of spiritual techniques and philosophies in our teaching has met with acceptance, not only from my students, but also from colleagues and superiors. Use of these techniques has led to a transformed classroom climate. Classroom meditation has resulted in increased physical relaxation in my students, and reduced anxiety and stress. The use of creative visualization, movement, drawing, music and story telling in our classes have enabled my students to learn to trust and use their intuition and to improve their creative problem solving abilities. Examination of the application of spiritual themes to work has led to my students examining a wider range of alternative behaviors and the potential for increased congruence between organizational goals and their individual searches for meaningful work lives.

I feel really grateful to have been able to apply my experiences to my professional work in teaching management courses at a Jesuit University. My experiences seem to mirror those of others in the growing scholarly interest in spirituality at work, and appears to be an excellent example of the principle of “dharma”. I feel that I am working and writing in this area because I feel that doing so is my purpose in life. In other words, I feel that I am being “called” to do so.

Jerry Biberman’s Web site is jerry

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