Editor’s Desk: Recalling My Mentor Michael Toms

Recently I delivered the keynote address at SpiritFest in Ridgway, Colorado and shared a story of one of my mentors. I’m often asked a question regarding the many extraordinary wisdom leaders that I I’ve met through the years. Who was the most inspiring? I can supply many answers, however, first and foremost is Michael Toms. Those of you who have been listening for a long time are very familiar with his voice and his unique ability to engage in deep dialogues as heard on New Dimensions.

The gift that Michael gave me that keeps on giving is that he NEVER LOST A BIGGER VISION OF ME WHEN I COULD NOT SEE IT MYSELF. Sometimes I would go kicking and screaming into new situations where he had no fear.

When I first met him, I was actually a Jehovah’s Witness. I grew up Episcopalian and loved my church, but in my early twenties, when I moved to Alabama, I became a Southern Baptist. I sang in the choir and taught Sunday school and expressed my spiritual exuberance with my new Baptist friends. In my late twenties I migrated to California and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Again, I jumped in with both feet, and was soon knocking on doors spreading the “good news.”

Then I met Michael. He, of course, was not a Jehovah’s Witness. Meeting him was like a thunderbolt. I really wanted to get to know him better, but not before we worked out what appeared to be a spiritual gulf between us. I believed I was privy to “The Way, the Truth and the Light.” He, in my eyes, was not. I phoned him and said, “I’d like to come over and talk about spiritual matters.” He agreed.

I walked into his townhouse with an armful of Jehovah’s Witness translations of various spiritual texts, including the New World edition of the Bible. We went down the stairs to his guestroom, which he had turned into a library that was stacked from floor to ceiling with books. There were books about the Kabbalah, the I Ching, The Bhagavad Gita, Judaism, Vedanta, Science of Mind, and much more. Of course, I didn’t want to talk about any of those works. I wanted only to talk about my religion using my translation of the Bible—and I told him so.

At that point Michael reached back on the shelf next to him and pulled out a green Jehovah Witnesses’ New World translation of Bible and asked, “You mean this one?”

That moment is ever vivid in my memory. As he pulled a copy of “my” Bible off his shelf I thought, “Maybe he’s being more inclusive than I am.” But I kept the notion to myself as we began the conversation. I’d entered his library with all my biases, prejudices, certainties, and enthusiasms firmly in place. I felt that my way was the “true” way. However, I could not help but notice that Michael had included “my way” in his own exploration, along with so many other great spiritual traditions. That aroused my curiosity.

Nevertheless, as we launched into our spiritual dialogue I remained staunchly in my own camp, representing my own interpretation of the truth. I would read a chapter and describe the historical context, then share the meaning that I felt was the “right” one, saying, “So you see this means such and such, it’s quite obvious.”

Michael would listen and respond with something like, “Yes, I see what you mean—and you might also look at it like this.”

Every time he did that I became more and more excited, because rather than negating what I said, he enhanced it. He took my view and couched it in a more spacious landscape. The boundaries of my spiritual ideals were being broadened and extended. If he had said, “No, you are wrong. It is this way,” I, most likely, would have resisted and in all probability there would not be a New Dimensions today.

Michael and I stayed up the entire night talking about spiritual matters. I moved in with him the very next day.

Michael was a comprehensivist. He often talked about an early book that changed his life: The Pleasures of Philosophy by Will Durant. The first book he gave me to read was Sermon on The Mount According to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, It wasn’t long before we were attending Buddhist retreats which, at the time, was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool before I knew how to swim. My most sincere question of Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche was “What is meditation all about? I’m struggling to not fall asleep.” Rinpoche then took my hands and, for a brief moment, he transmitted the Nature of Mind. Following this “glimpse” I’ve been committed to the pursuit of widening my spiritual perspective by walking up the mountain as I quest for the largest foundation of truth on which to stand.

Nine months after that all-night session of contemplating Scripture with Michael, we cofounded New Dimensions. I realize now, mythologically speaking, we conceived New Dimensions in those quiet hours before dawn more than forty-eight years ago. That conversation continues, only now we have microphones, and guests, and hundreds of thousands of listeners are included in the conversation.

It was like the late, futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard described: We had supra-sex and our baby was New Dimensions. It felt like we found one another as a fulfilment of our soul-contract when agreed to reincarnate as a soul-family before we were born.

-Justine Willis Toms