Our Souls' Potential

Canyon Ranch's Jonathan Ellerby details his powerful spiritual journey

When he was 18, having just graduated from high school, Jonathan Ellerby went on a road trip. Camping one night on a California beach, he encountered two inebriated prospectors who told him about a remote area in the high Sierras, a place of stunning beauty and almost mystical silence. His curiosity piqued, Ellerby went looking.

After a few adventurous days, he found the spot, and it was everything the prospectors said it would be. Ellerby set up camp, and as he meditated on a moonlit rock, he had an experience that was truly mind-blowing. Gradually, almost everything in his perceptual field—the earth, sky, stars, even his own body—appeared to melt away. Eventually, all that was left was what seemed to be the light of God glowing through the moon. He felt that he briefly became that light, and then it, too, disappeared, leaving him alone in an ocean of undiluted awareness in which absolutely nothing seemed to exist.

Ellerby came away from this experience with the feeling that this great, cosmic emptiness is the foundation of reality, the seedbed for a mysteriously emerging, dreamlike universe.

Not surprisingly, spirituality became the consuming force of his life, and after many years of exploration and numerous consciousness-changing experiences, Ellerby contends that, more than anything else, direct experience with numinous realms is what awakens us to our souls' potential. He also believes that we can increase our receptivity to these kinds of experiences by committing to an ongoing spiritual practice.

In Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening, Ellerby, spiritual program director for Canyon Ranch Health Resort, examines 12 spiritual paths, distilling a lifetime of knowledge into an inspiring, insight-laden guide.

For readers who may have trouble visualizing the soul, let alone knowing how to live from it, Ellerby—who's studied with spiritual teachers across the globe—offers a down-to-earth delineation.

"The simplest way to describe the soul," he says "would be to call it the 'true self': the preferences, talents/gifts, qualities and characteristics that naturally bring us joy, vitality and peace. When we live from the soul, we feel empowered, engaged and vibrant. We access a natural power, an actual force that contributes to health and happiness."

The practices that Ellerby believes will help free up that power are nothing new. They've been a part of human experience for millennia, and range from activities as prevalent as prayer, meditation, music and service to practices that turn our entire lives, as well as the inescapable reality of death, into paths of discovery. Writing that diversity is a natural part of spirituality, Ellerby says that these practices "reflect a common spectrum of spiritual styles" and urges readers to choose a path that resonates with them.

Ellerby has divided the practices into four categories—body, mind, heart and soul—reflecting basic personality orientations. All of them, he says, have the same ultimate purpose: to distract the ego and help us set aside familiar ways of seeing the world.

Ellerby's reflections on these paths glitter with little epiphanies, but his accounts of actual experiences are so vivid that some readers may feel vicariously empowered. He writes about studying yoga in India; a Lakota healing ceremony; his apprenticeship on a turkey farm with a Gurdjieff-like teacher who showed him how to let go of attachments; a raucous, spirit-calling ceremony in South Africa; a magnetic Hawaiian who taught him how to pray from the heart; and a grueling, four-day vision quest during which, just as he entered a state of total collapse, his ego seemed to crumble, and he experienced a revitalizing realization.

"Then like lightning," he writes, "something struck me. ... I can't do this—'I' am the barrier! As long as I think that I'm alone in this world, that I'm the one who makes things possible, I'll always suffer. The very thought that there's a 'me' who's separate from God and Nature is a lie, and that is what's torturing me. I wasn't alone!"

Ellerby writes with the exuberance of a man who has been on an extraordinary journey, and can't rest until he's told everyone about it.

"Those who heed the call," he asserts, "will cross an invisible line on life's road and realize that there's no going back to a life of unconscious choice and reaction. We're awake and hungry for the light of day and can't wait to travel beyond what we already know. One day, the fear of staying stuck overcomes the fear of change."