When I was seven years old, my mother showed me what the Heart was. I can remember it vividly. I was standing in a room in our house we referred to as the den. It was daytime. My mother had already taught me that the Heart was not a physical organ, nor could it be reached by thought. I closed my eyes and my mom put her hand on my chest. As my mind stilled and I settled into my Heart, I felt a warm, open, and powerful stillness. I have spent my life since then working to ground myself in that spirit without interruption.
As a child, I remember two powerful experiences I often had lying awake at night, trying to fall asleep. The first was a profound fear of death. The second was an ineffable sense of rapidly expanding space, a space that had substance and moved.
The first experience – profound fear – ended up being useful in many respects. As I considered death, both my own and that of those I loved, I unwittingly stoked the flame of a fire that would extinguish itself. I did not realize it at the time, but I was actually confronting that fear, and learning to recognize it as a vibration. This awareness would prove helpful in spiritual practice, which requires constant and repeated ego death, often triggering that vibration of fear.
The second experience was also one that made me afraid, but in a different way. Sometimes as I lay awake at night, I would feel as though the boundaries of my body had dissolved and a roundness, like that of waves, flowed through me and carried me up to the ceiling. The expansion of my awareness was rapid and I had no control. While it was frightening, it also felt powerful and benevolent. This fear – unlike the one incited by impending doom – was more akin to that of jumping off a high diving board into water for the first time: frightening, yet exhilarating.
The experience itself sounds ludicrous if I try to put it into words: waves of space that themselves had matter and texture. The roundness was like that of a folded blanket or thick sock, and the texture felt like rolling a fine hair between the tips of my thumb and index finger… ludicrous. As a child, I wanted to know the source of the experience and what it was. The fear it inspired would itself end the experience, and I would have to wait indefinitely until the next time I was visited again by the subtle waves.
A few weeks ago, I sat opposite my mother during a three-hour meditation. For the first time in a long time, I felt the old roundness, the invisible waves, carry me past the boundaries of my body. My consciousness expanded, like looking down into a chasm from a height. This time, there was no fear, nor did I step outside the experience to look at it and say, “There it is again!” Instead, I dove into it and grabbed onto it by completely letting go.
It lasted a long time, and there was expansive movement, as well as the sensation of texture on the surface of the subtle matter. There was a mild awareness of my physical body, but it was separate to the experience, and very much in the background.
Over the years of spiritual practice, I have had many powerful experiences, both good and bad. With my mother’s guidance, I have learned to recognize these as just experiences, signposts along the way rather than ends in themselves. Without a teacher to guide me, I could easily have made these experiences the goal of practice and deluded myself into a false sense of accomplishment simply by experiencing them. Fortunately, I’ve had an excellent teacher to keep me on track.
In some ways, spiritual practice is much like any other discipline: the more you work on it, the more progress you can make. Unlike other disciplines, however, it can take a long time and significantly more work to be able to recognize anything that can be called progress. Vivid experiences can be useful in this regard if treated as landmarks on the road of a greater journey.
It makes sense to me in a way that never did when I was really young why different elements of spiritual practice are so often described using paradox; and why so many elements are not described at all. Much of the process is truly ineffable, and attempting to explain to a non-practitioner will only garner confusion, skepticism, and cynicism. It’s not helpful. Only the next step in the treasure hunt of practice is important at any given moment.
As I’ve gotten older and my practice has deepened, it’s become a more integral part of my life. For many years, it separated me from those around me. The extra perception that comes from deep practice let me perceive traits in colleagues and friends I did not enjoy seeing. In recent years, however, as I’ve worked beyond this, I’ve felt the deepening of my sadhana bringing me closer to the people around me. It’s now possible for me to see others with Love and compassion, yet still be aware of their faults, shortcomings, or dangers. Emotion is not the guide it used to be, and instead a quiet discernment is starting to emerge, free of anger or spite. I will use that discernment to take the next steps on the treasure hunt.
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