January 12, 2001
Higher Education

about Sharon Janis

After her own soul-searching journey, a writer hopes to help others with 'Spirituality for Dummies'

By Sandi Dolbee
San Diego Union Tribune
January 12, 2001

There are Dummies everywhere. Dummies for wine and for gardening and for desserts and for dog tricks and for politics and for quilting and for astronomy and for cool careers.

Now, spirituality has gone Dummies.

Thanks to Sharon Janis, a former Hollywood editor who once lived in an ashram in the Catskills and now lives in a rented house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. She is the author of the new book, "Spirituality for Dummies."

Using the popular Dummies format, Janis takes readers on a six-part how-to journey of the soul.

The familiar Dummies icons are there -- only instead of seeing a caution about not turning off the computer until you' ve exited Windows, you get pithy phrases like: "Be yourself, but not your obnoxious self!"

She begins her book by telling readers that everyone is a spiritual dummy ("because the essence of God and spirituality is inherently unknowable by the mind") and ends with a CD offering songs from the Agape International Choir in Los Angeles and hymns from the Desert Fathers of Light of Christ Monastery in Borrego Springs. Janis herself performs several other tracks, including "Amazing Grace" and various Hindu chants.

This reference book is as eclectic as its 41-year-old author.

"I was brought up totally atheist," she says, sipping coffee at a funky Cardiff cafe. "I didn't have a religion, and then I found spirituality. ... I can resonate with anyone. Give me a god, and I' ll bow to it."

In her book, she quotes George Bernard Shaw: "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."

She herself writes: "In the light of spirituality, no one needs to fight with anyone else over whose religion is better. No one needs to quarrel over every rule and detail of all the different doctrines. Rather, a spiritually aware person is open to learning and growing from everything in life."

She is hoping for an eclectic audience as well.

"Every religion can read it unless somebody hates the idea of karma or hates certain philosophies," she says. "Anyone with an open mind, anybody who is a human being."

Atheist to ashram

Janis grew up thinking that God was for people who needed a crutch. But when she was 14, she got her spiritual buttons pushed when she went to see the movie "Jesus Christ Superstar."

"It absolutely blew me away," she says. She went back every week for seven weeks.

"I didn't become so much a believer of anything in particular, but it awakened a spiritual passion."

The passion simmered until she got to the University of Michigan, where a professor took her to an ashram. Later, she met a Hindu holy man who would become her guru, the late Swami Muktananda, and would give Janis her Indian name, Kumuda (which means, among other things, "one who gladdens the earth").

In 1979, Janis went to Muktananda' s monastic ashram in the Catskills, Shree Muktananda, intending to stay just a few months. She stayed nearly 10 years, editing videotapes of teachings and practices and getting up every morning at 4:30 for meditation.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Janis says her new guru, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, told her it was time to make her way in the real world.

Janis moved to Hollywood and began working as an editor. Her resume includes stints at "Hard Copy," "The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" and "X-Men."

Then came the 1994 earthquake, which shook more than her apartment.

"It' s when you think you're leaving that all of a sudden all of your priorities shift, and you see your life very differently," she says. "And you realize that life -- whatever it is, we don' t know exactly what it is -- is a visit. And what did you do in your visit?"

But it wasn' t that simple. Instead, it took a back injury and a spate of illnesses before she says she decided to really change her life.

"I just sat," she says. "I sat for a whole year."

One day, she says she heard "this very clear command" to share what she had learned.

"God gave me all these experiences for a reason. I could take the depth of what I learned in the ashram and combine it with all the entertainment ... of Hollywood."

She was writing her first book, which never got published, when she received another command. "I was meditating, and I got this inner message: You should move to San Diego."

Getting published

Janis has been in San Diego about five years. She shares her small Cardiff home with her cat, Angel.

While her first book didn' t get published, her second one did. It was a spiritual memoir, "Never to Return: A Modern Quest for Eternal Truth," which came out in 1998. As she admits, "it didn't do much."

In 1999, she pitched the idea for "Spirituality for Dummies" to IDG Books Worldwide, the "Dummies" publishing house that recently changed its name to Hungry Minds. She wrote it in six months, combining her own thoughts with quotes from famous people, various teachings and passages from the Bible, Bhagavad Gita and other holy texts.

"Spirituality for Dummies" has been out since November, and Janis hopes it will take off as more mainstream stores begin stocking it (it' s now available on Walmart.com).

In her book, she tells readers that "spirituality is about following your heart."

Religion and spirituality, she writes, are not the same. "Religion is the shell, while spirituality is the kernel within that shell. Religion is the map; spirituality is the territory. Religion is the train; spirituality, the destination."

Despite her years in the ashram and her daily devotionals now, Janis does not consider herself Hindu. "I love chanting in Sanskrit. I love the philosophy. But I feel at home in any church," she says.

As for "Spirituality for Dummies," its content is influenced heavily by Janis' eastern learnings.

In her chapter on death, for example, she writes: "Leaving this world (a.k.a. dying) is like leaving a really tough job. There are some people that you really liked working with, and others you may be grateful to leave behind. You' re leaving to move to a greater place, to a much more wonderful job."

She' s not talking about heaven. She' s talking about reincarnation, which she describes as a soul taking birth "in many levels of form, beginning perhaps with a rock or plant and moving throughout the kingdom of life, until that very same soul is lucky and evolved enough to score a human form. Then this soul passes through as a series of increasingly evolved human beings until it graduates to the next level."

No heaven? She shrugs. "I believe you experience heaven while you're here."

This probably won't sit well with evangelicals and others who believe more in salvation than karma.

"I didn't feel my job was to fit every point of view in," she says. "It's more to get everybody thinking."

Janis is asked what she wants readers to learn from "Spirituality for Dummies."

"I want them to have a new view of the world," she says. "I want them to realize how conscious the universe is. I want them to not feel alone no matter what the circumstances are and to actively engage in the universe. To notice symbolism. To have a lot more respect for themselves than most people do and to understand they are an expression of God."









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