What’s in a Spiritual Name

What’s in a Spiritual Name

When Shakespeare’s Juliet asserted that “a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” she likely got it wrong. At least, that’s what the devotees who adopt spiritual names every year are counting on. Whether bestowed by a swami, a priest, a dharma teacher, a medicine man or woman, or even taken on one’s own, a spiritual name can enhance inner growth, perhaps even turn you, if you will, into a rose, simply by saying it’s so.

The practice of giving and receiving spiritual names reaches back into antiquity. In Genesis (17:5; 17:15), God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and his wife’s from Sarai to Sarah in a move that indicated their elevation in status to the “father and mother of nations.” Later, in the New Testament Book of Matthew, Jesus took the same approach with Simon when he renamed him Peter, the “rock” upon which he will build his church. These are moments of initiation, still one of the main ways that the bestowing of a spiritual name is employed to this day.

In almost every spiritual path, the act of joining a religion — by birth or conversion — is marked by the conferral of a name. Christians are baptized with saints’ names; Jews often get a Hebrew name; Muslims may receive a name of the Prophet or one of his companions; Hindus may be called after deities; adherents of certain types of Native American spirituality may receive a medicine name. Another type of naming ceremony usually occurs at the next level of initiation, such as when one decides to formally enter a religious order. For example, Orthodox Christians adopt a new saint’s name when they become nuns or monks. Likewise, Buddhists are given a dharma name by their teacher when they enter a sangha, or community. The new moniker widely distinguishes the bearer as a spiritual adept and is supposed to work in concert with the believer’s spiritual goals.

But when I decided to change my name, I thought I was just indulging an artistic lark. It didn’t occur to me that self-discovery is what spirituality is all about — until after the name change engendered an awakening in me.

The impetus to change my name emerged because I was feeling sweet on my husband after a few bumpy years and thought I might take his rather appropriate last name, Sugarman, which I hadn’t done when we got married. Because I’d been in the habit of researching names on a website/database of Kabbalah names for screenplays I was writing at the time, it seemed natural to check whether such a move would be beneficial for me. According to their numerology, it wasn’t. Long story short, I decided to jump in anyway, concoct an auspicious and entirely new name, and blog about the experience. With my husband’s encouragement, I went down to city hall on July 27, 2006, and filed the paperwork.
If that makes the whole thing sound easy, let me assure you that it wasn’t. Very few of my friends were encouraging; two or three were outright hostile. My mom was, if not distraught, definitely unhappy, especially when I told her that I’d chosen the name Stella, which, as it turns out, was the name of my one of my father’s previous girlfriends. Ouch! On top of it all, I’m somewhat shy. I sincerely thought my name change might entertain a few friends but would otherwise go by unnoticed. As medicine woman and midwife Katherine “Nightfire” Harms can attest, that notion was naive.

“Nightfire,” she tells me, “is like standing up and announcing, ‘Okay, world, this is who I am.’ Because I have to deal with the reflections of this name. The blank faces of someone who can’t deal with a medicine name. Or people realizing, ‘Gosh, that’s something you can do? Change your name and change how you walk in the world?’”

For me, it was the public aspect of taking a new name that became a crucible for my ego. Writing one day about the rather vain associations I had with both my former and new names, I suddenly got scared. I realized that if I published that blog entry, then everyone would know what a loser I was, and my cover would be utterly blown. Remembering a beloved poetry teacher’s admonishment to write what you’re scared to write, I sucked up my courage and pushed “submit.” Suddenly, I was floating above my comfy chair, nameless, cognizant for the first time that I was neither my name, nor my story, just floating, too astonished to be peaceful yet utterly at peace.

It was hard for me to connect the dots of what had happened to me, but slowly I started to realize that I’d had some sort of spiritual experience. One of my barometers for this was watching movies like the Wachowski brothers’ V for Vendetta, which I “got” in a way I knew I wouldn’t have before the experience. Another clue came at a yoga retreat, where a recent entrant into sangha life told me that her teacher had assured her that taking a new name would help her “to understand the nature of her mind.” Again, I knew what she was talking about. The teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, abbot of Santa Fe’s Upaya Zen Center, explains that, “Names can inspire people, dignify them, reveal their potential to them.”

Swami Vishwakaunteyananda, the North American liaison of the Bhakti Marga Foundation and a devotee of Swami Vishwananda, gives an example of how a spiritual name can awaken someone’s potential: “Swami gave someone I know a name that means ‘ray of light.’ I thought [he] had more qualities of the mother in [him], but within a few months, I could feel how correct that name was for that person. [He] absolutely began to shine and sparkle. [Swami] brought that out in that person with that name.”

Kay Cordell Whitaker, a lineage carrier of the Egyptian Hetaka tradition, describes the process of receiving a name as a “discovery of a piece of yourself you weren’t aware of. An owning. Taking a new name forces you into owning an aspect of your being.”

But how? What’s the alchemy in a name that makes it so transformational? According to Swami Vishwakaunteyananda, “Everything in creation is based on vibration, the vibration of om. It’s no surprise that when Swami gives us a name, the qualities of that name start to permeate all our cells.

Los Angeles-based Kabbalah teacher Deirdre Hade agrees with the vibration explanation, saying, “Kabbalah names are rooted in sacred geometry and numerology. We are in a matrix, which is the mind of God, put together by sound and vibration in the form of sacred numbers. Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet expresses emanations of an aspect of God, the same as Sanskrit. Each emanation is a keyhole that opens into a higher dimension. When your name is put together, it’s a numerical package of energy that can help you express your soul.”

Looked at still another way, neuroscientist Peggy La Cerra, Ph.D., says, “Our name is our social identifier, a placeholder in the minds and brains of others for the neural accountings of our value to them. When someone changes their name (or society bestows a new name upon them, as was the case with the Buddha and Christ), it is a signal that a new neural archive is to be kept on this person — and previous memories have to been re-filed. In that sense, people can wipe their slates clean and be born again.”

The immense power of a name isn’t so surprising when you consider how consistently religions have used the power of God’s name in prayer and meditation. Devotional (bhakti) Hindus believe that the repetition of divine names can bring about release from samsara (rebirth). Within Pure Land Buddhism, it is thought that reciting the Amida Buddha’s name will ensure entrance into paradise. Sikhs generally believe that veneration of God’s names can purify the ego. And Islam espouses a concept of dhikr, or “mention of God,” which should be performed as often as possible.

The power of names suggests why the practice of taking a new one generally exists within spiritual traditions — and why it can be a good idea to have a guide for the process. Hade agrees. She describes a space between states of consciousness called the Halal Hapanui: “We experience feeling lost, ungrounded, untethered, confused, not knowing what to grab onto or hold up. If we’re with a spiritual guide, we can break through. If not, we can get lost in the despair, depression, anxiety, and obsessive behavior. Taking a new name can put you in the Halal Hapanui — not that it will, but it could. I’ve seen many people who have changed their names a lot and they’re very ungrounded. But the name can also be like a boat with oars. It can help you cross the void.” She adds, “It’s always wise to find someone wiser.”

Taking a spiritual name can also become another layer of the ego, oftentimes with a holier-than-thou aspect. Halifax points out, “If you use a name as a key to open the door to a more compassionate life, then great. If it becomes another layer of the ego, then it’ll teach you in another way, eventually.”

Los Angeles psychotherapist, Dana Dovitch, Ph.D., concurs, saying, “Hopefully, the chosen name doesn’t speak to the persona but to the authentic self.” She is impressed by the courageousness of patients who have renamed themselves and believes that for someone to choose their own name “is one of those symbols of beautiful rebellion of the deep self.”

If someone does take a spiritual name outside of a tradition, then Swami Vishwakaunteyananda suggests, “They should use their hearts to figure out why they’re doing it, what they hope to gain, what the meaning is for them.”

Personally, I believe that the vibrations of my new name, Stella, support my path better than my former name did. But the real richness of this name lies in its ability to remind me that I’m something beyond whatever it is I’m called. This — rather than the insignificance of a name — is what I think Juliet was trying to get at with the rose. And what if my spiritual name benefits not just me but everyone else, too?

Stella Osorojos is a former staffer at Condé Nast Traveler and Brides magazines, contributing editor at the late Budget Living, and has been a freelance writer for the past decade (InStyle Home, Lucky, Travel & Leisure). Recently, she completed an acupuncture degree (MTOM, Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine, Santa Monica).

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