"Imagine the world we would live in if we dared to seeall of lifeas sacred - unconditionally."These are the words on the back of Stephanie Dowrick's latest book, Seeking the Sacred. Upstairs at Gleebooks, one of Sydney's leading independent bookshops, the room is full of people who have come to hear Stephanie Dowrick talking about her new book with psychotherapist Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar.
"We are so ready to divide up the world and even ourselves," Stephanie says. "What we regard as important, precious or perhaps sacred, we will protect. And the rest? We might ruthlessly use it up or disregard it. If it's other people's lives we regard as unimportant, we might dehumanise them or - in war - even slaughter them."
Seeing all of life as sacred, she explains, starts with the way we think about ourselves and other human beings. It extends also to other species and the very planet itself. Respecting and protecting the gift of life unconditionally doesn't mean agreeing with other people's views or ideas, necessarily, "But not liking someone's views or behaviour does not entitle us to crush that person in spirit, word or action," she continues.
To accept that all of life is sacred - and live accordingly - is the journey that Stephanie Dowrick has chosen to take. You could call Seeking the Sacred a modern-day guide to following the spiritual path but, as the author writes in her book, "Our search for the sacred may be as individual as our fingerprints."
In Seeking the Sacred, Stephanie draws on the personal stories and quotes of many people following a spiritual path, but not always in a conventional way. Maybe they are taking ideas from more than one religious tradition. Maybe they don't identify as religious at all, but espouse a set of values by which they are leading their lives.
Some people have been made to feel guilty by clerics or heads of religious organisations for not remaining loyal to one particular faith. But Stephanie Dowrick turns this on its head with her acknowledgement that in 21st century life we are actually very fortunate to have the freedom and choice of drawing on a range of invaluable insights from different spiritual traditions, not to mention contemporary psychology and social analysis.
When I talk to Stephanie Dowrick in private later, she admits that one of the questions she has been asked on her recent book tour is about whether it is more "spiritually respectable" or authentic to follow a single religious tradition rather than a more inclusive path.
"I am on a single path," she stresses. "It's the path of love, but it's influenced by a number of different traditions." The path of love sounds so sweet and nice and easy, but Stephanie insists that it is deeply challenging because she is conditioned, like everyone else, to have her preferences and her prejudices.
"To behave lovingly or simply respectfully requires constant self awareness and self control. Such a view does not allow me to exclude someone from the human family because I might hate or fear their views or behaviour. And it doesn't allow me either to make excuses for what in some traditions might be called 'a just war'.
"In other words, it doesn't allow for any excuses for violence or social injustice like racism or misogyny. But it does support an appreciation for our own gift of life! It asks a lot, and as well it certainly makes life rich, vital and uplifting," says Stephanie.
The path of love she is talking about does not have to be aligned with one particular religion. Within the religions, she says, some people are exploring a loving, inclusive spirituality and some are not. Where she parts company with the religions is when "Ideology takes precedence over caring about other people. Or when religious ideology excuses or promotes divisiveness or violence. Then it ceases to be religious."
Stephanie Dowrick was born in New Zealand in the late 1940s. She was brought up an Anglican until the age of eight when her mother died and her father became a Roman Catholic. She recognises this switch of camps from one Christian tradition to the other, at a time when each viewed the other with the utmost suspicion, would shape her eventual conviction that there is wisdom to be learnt from all the great faiths. This insight influenced her writing for many years, as well as her personal spiritual practice and teachings and led eventually to her being ordained in 2005 as an Interfaith Minister.
By the age of 21, she was living in London and working in publishing and in 1977, when the Women's Liberation Movement was at its height, she started the London feminist publishing company, The Women's Press.
While still working at The Women's Press she studied psychotherapy and from that came the idea for her book, Intimacy and Solitude. To write this, she left London and came with her then-partner to Sydney in 1983. But before completing that book, she wrote a novel, Running Backwards Over Sand, and gave birth to her two children.
Then she spent six years researching and writing Intimacy and Solitude in which she explores how being able to accept our self allows us to better understand our relationships with others. These are themes she also takes up in her new book, Seeking the Sacred. Intimacy and Solitude was published in 1991, revised in 2002, and was instantly a phenomenal success. It has sold over 100,000 copies in Australia and New Zealand alone.
Other bestsellers by Stephanie Dowrick include Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, published in 1997, which examines the virtues of courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness, and Choosing Happiness (2005), which explores the resources we have within us for our own happiness and the crucial importance of taking charge of how we are behaving towards and affecting other people. Both these books draw on Stephanie's psychotherapy background and her years in private practice and teaching groups and workshops. It is evident in Seeking the Sacred that Stephanie still places great importance on the insights we can draw from psychotherapy.
"How we think about ourselves, and who and what we believe we are capable of being, has to be our first and most persistent investigation," she says. "This might include asking ourselves, 'Am I constantly putting myself down? Am I constantly reminding myself of my disappointments or failures? Am I ignoring my strengths or even what I have learned from difficult situations?"'
Stephanie suggests that until we can treat ourselves like a "best friend", we will have difficulty being genuinely accepting and tolerant with other people. The subtitle of her book is "Transforming our view of ourselves and other people" and the transformation she points to is enhancing, particularly when it is grounded in the respect for life that is part of her spiritual vision.
Sitting opposite this woman who is now in her sixties, I notice how few lines there are on her face. Also, despite being very tired after a month-long promotional tour of Australia and New Zealand, her mind is extremely sharp and her energy palpable.
When asked what her daily practice involves she tells me, somewhat light heartedly, that she more or less follows the ancient schedules that have been worked out for a monastic life. "I do ordinary, everyday physical work and I enjoy that. I read and study a lot and fortunately that is also essential to my writing, which is the main way that I earn my living. I spend time praying each day and I meditate. And, of course, I love to spend time with family and friends." She adds that she also spends a good deal of time preparing her workshops and retreats, as well as her liturgies for her Interfaith services at Sydney's Pitt Street Uniting Church. "To be an effective writer and teacher, I must always be learning."
She is adamant that now, more than ever, the world is urgently in need of "re-sacralising" to meet the many challenges we are facing, such as climate change, inequality, poverty and starvation, religious and ideological persecutions, mass migration and war. She quotes Paramhansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, who was so influential in bringing a greater awareness to the West of the spiritual teaching of the East. He said: "Only spiritual consciousness - realisation of God's presence in oneself and in every other living being - can save the world. I see no chance for peace without it. Begin with yourself. There is no time to waste."
Stephanie believes that great changes need to come about at this time, not through religious or political institutions, but through us as individuals making crucial changes in our attitudes and behaviours, through opening to our spiritual as well as human natures, and supporting and encouraging one another to do so.
Seeking the Sacred is written in five sections: Reverence, Identity, Love, Do No Harm and Transformation.
When Stephanie Dowrick started writing the book, she thought it would be "a small book about God, the mystery of God", but then she discovered she was "far more interested in writing about our experiences of seeking" and what it means to be a seeker in 21st century life.
"I've been an active seeker for such a long time," she replies when I ask if writing the book has changed her. "My spiritual questions have been so much at the centre of my life that I can't say this book has changed me, but rather that writing it has allowed me to feel more confident to say that seeking itself is one of the most essential activities of a conscious human life: finding and creating meaning, finding and expressing spirit, and allowing that to influence where we give our attention and how we open to inspiration."
Finally, she says, her hope for the book is that each reader will be encouraged to value his or her own life in a new way and to value others as well. To my mind she has been successful, as Seeking the Sacred offers great insight, inspiration and wisdom whatever your spiritual path.