Once when I was 13, and another time when I was 26, I had a spiritual experience. Both times, I was alone and, as the Pentacosts say, I was filled with the spirit. My senses were alive, and I loved everything they lit upon: at 13, colorful autumn leaves outside my window, the soaring music on my record player (Sweet Surrender by John Denver, if you must know), the feel of my journal and the inky slide of my pen tip, the scratch of my mohair shawl; at 26, the luminous late spring fields north of Corvallis, Oregon, the air blowing through my rolled-down car window, the music on my tape deck, the sound of my own voice singing. My body felt almost too small to contain the beauty of the world.
I think of these times whenever someone asks if I’ve ever felt transported by an experience, or awed, or if I’ve felt a joy that stopped time.
I thought of these earlier incidents a couple weeks ago while attending a two-day training. The training was offered by an internationally recognized couples therapist. At these trainings, six couples sit in a circle with the therapist over the course of two days. Sitting in an outer circle in the same room are therapist observers. We come to watch the therapist work and to learn more about his approach so we might be of greater service to the couples we see in our own practices. Quite often, the situation for these couples is dire; they are here as a last-ditch effort to save their relationships.
This was my fourth such training. In the past, these weekends have exhausted me. I was buffeted about by the intense feelings in the room: the anger, the anguish, the weariness, the hope. In truth, I think I felt proud of those feelings, as if riding the roller coaster with the clients was proof that I was a caring person, a good therapist.
That’s not what happened this time. This time, I felt calm. I felt grounded. As each agonizing drama unfolded in front of me, I thought, I wish the best for them. Maybe things will change; maybe they won’t. That’s for them to decide. I wish them well.
This feeling was so unprecedented that at one point I wondered if perhaps I was becoming jaded. Maybe this feeling signaled the end of my career as a therapist. I still cared, though. These people were suffering. We have all suffered like this in matters of love. I wished for them less suffering; I wished for this experience to show a clear path toward their suffering less.
Meanwhile, this remarkable, deep equanimity persisted.
It lasted through both days of the training.
I was aware while feeling it that at some point it would end. I tried not to care too much about that; I wanted to savor it and be grateful for its presence now.
It did eventually shift back to my more ordinary way of being in the world. I was curious why it had arrived at all. The best answer I had was that likely it had something to do with all the yoga I’ve been doing. I wasn’t exactly sure why this might be so, but somehow the yoga explanation made sense to me. Things occur in life when certain conditions come together; doing yoga a lot more was the one obvious condition I’d changed in my life.
Last Sunday, I woke up early with an anxiety dream. The plot details were mundane enough, but I woke up feeling guilty and anxious and worthless. I didn’t want to go back to sleep for fear of slipping into the dream again, and I let Garth know I was getting up. He said, Hey, I just had a flying dream. He told me about his dream where, in the midst of great turmoil and violent upheaval all around, he and a group of people were seated in a circle, cross-legged, doing yoga. After awhile, he realized he was able to float above the ground, as high as ten feet. No one else was able to do it and before long he was giving everyone rides. Someone asked him how we was able to do it, and he said, I don’t know; the Universe is buoying me up.
As the morning wore on, I realized I felt cheated, as if Garth had actually had the experience his dream described, while I was left with the tedium and monotony of common life concerns. I talked about it with him; I shared it with another training group I met with later that day. I brought it up at the dinner table. I hoped if I talked about it with others, I’d overcome it; I’d get on the other side of being jealous of all the flashy ways other people’s spirituality seems to manifest and ultimately I’d embrace my own way. Except “my own way” seemed to entail a smattering of bright moments of equanimity and love separated by years – decades sometimes -of regular life. Honestly, I’d rather be buoyed, I’d rather fly.
I spoke with my wise therapist. I told her I longed for that calm and equanimity to return. I felt almost ill with not knowing when or if I’d ever experience it again. She asked did it at least make it more bearable to know this feeling existed for me, even when I wasn’t experiencing it in the moment? Her question revealed to me something I hadn’t realized before: I don’t; I don’t know that this experience exists for me whether I am feeling it or not. I am like the child who only knows her blanket is there when it’s in her grasp. If it’s in the drier, it might as well have been wiped from the face of the earth, and reassurances that it still exists somewhere don’t have the desired effect.
Friends of mine might say these moments I’ve described are moments of touching god, of being one with the energy, the chi, of the universe. Dream Garth – who in his waking life would never use language like this – would say I was “buoyed by the Universe.” And they would say I’m not only buoyed at these notable moments, but all through life as well, even when I don’t notice it. Their words cut both ways. It suggests hope for me, but it also highlights a confidence I don’t feel.
I’ve made several passes at bringing this post to an end. I’m not sure how to – probably because I’m not at the end of this experience. I felt such despair when my equanimity left, and greater despair still when I realized I had no framework that guaranteed its return. Still, as I’ve written several aborted endings to this post, it has brought me into closer contact with the details of my life and the details of the world. And what I find there is this: my life has been enormously blessed; it would not be an exaggeration to say I should be on my knees in gratitude for the rest of my life in thanks for the good that is here. I’d like to be able to say with certainty that my life has been blessed because of some divine river that always flows on my behalf, but I can’t say that right now.
In the meantime, the best image I could find for what equanimity felt like is the one below. It comforts me that even if I never step into that divine stream again, I can step into forests, oceans, and actual streams; I can rest in the expanse of the sky; I can commune with my dear children and husband, with my soulful family and friends. That is the divine stream I can count on, every day.