It’s noontime on a February weekday in New York, and I’m on the fourth floor of an old loft building in Soho, with twenty other people in an Intuitive Training class. One of the reasons I took this class was that the wholistic learning center catalog said that there’d be some guided meditation. Until now, “sitting” has been hard for me. Five minutes of meditation and I’m squirming out of control, the noise in my head louder than when I started. Maybe, I thought, with the help of a teacher and in a room full of other people, I could find the quiet in me. Isn’t that where the Self is? And isn’t finding that quiet center vital to the spiritual work I want to do?
So now I’m sitting on a mat clutching a blanket, surrounded by other people on mats with blankets. All of us are in our sweat clothes, looking like nursery-schoolers down for a nap after milk and cookies. I’m nervous and skeptical. This is the third day of a four-day class, and though I’ve been doing pretty well in the short meditations (I’ve fallen asleep only once), we’ve just been told that the next meditation is going to be four hours long.
I’m doubting I can get through this without falling asleep or going crazy. The teacher puts on the music, and his calm voice begins to guide us over our bodies, relaxing our feet, calves, and knees; releasing negative energy; drawing in the vital life force; tuning into our chakras one by one. Nice. Slowly, the mind quiets. Time dissolves. I float. I am aware that I am in a room with other people, that there is a shaft of mid-winter light bouncing off the purse factory across the street. All the while I am also aware of nothing, of nothingness. I’m calm and soothed, like a baby rocking in a cradle. I am not asleep, nor am I really awake. I am not in time nor in space, but just in consciousness. Periodically, I hear my mind think, “Gosh, I’m really meditating this time!”
Then something happens. All my energy seems to draw up into a ball. I am conscious of being this ball, and the ball is speeding a foot or so from the ground, whooshing along, like a car on the highway, except there is no car, just me. Then the ball bursts, turns liquid, and plunges upward, pure fluid energy. I am in the center of a flower as it blooms. I am not the flower; I am the energy of the flower. I am the process of the flower’s blooming, up and up until I erupt into an open space filled with music and joy and love. The sweetness of it is exquisite, almost unbearable. The melting has become my tears, drenching my neck, my shirt.
I re-manifest as me, in a room with twenty other people in the twilight of a winter afternoon in New York City, back with my body, shaken by bliss.
New York, New York
When I was twenty-nine, I was lonely, depressed, and lost for more than a year. It was as if a heavy blanket had been thrown over my head and body, as if I were in total darkness and unable to move. After a very shaky trip to Europe, I returned to work on a farm in Wisconsin, still under the heavy blanket.
The week I arrived, I fired up the outdoor sauna. I kept adding wood, making the sauna as hot as possible. I sat in the little cedar box all alone. Soon I felt like going out and cooling down in the icy tub, but I held on a little longer. My head was throbbing, and rivers of sweat ran down between my breasts. I tried just to concentrate on breathing and was thus able to enjoy the feelings in my body. Finally, I knew it was time. I flung open the tiny door and stepped out as two blue herons flew over my head. Did they lift the corner of that heavy blanket and fly away with it? The darkness I’d experienced for so long was gone. The sunset across the fields was beautiful, and for the first time in more than a year, it didn’t pass me by unnoticed.
Debra Rae Sikora
River Falls, Wisconsin
If someone were to ask me about my peak experiences, I would talk about my wedding and the births of my children. Then I might recall talking with Robert Bly after one of his readings about poetry and the shadow; renewing a friendship that had lain dormant for more than fifteen years; walking with my daughter on a deserted beach on a cool fall afternoon.
Yet most of my poetry remains unwritten, most of my shadow unclaimed. I seldom write to my old friends and more seldom see them. After fourteen years of marriage, it’s still a struggle to overcome my self-centeredness and inertia, to understand my wife and to give her what she needs from me. And last night — Thanksgiving night, when I ought to have been thanking God for the greatest gifts ever granted me — I roared at my children for disobeying me at bedtime, for all the world like the Wizard of Oz bullying his supplicants in the movie we had just watched together.
What is the matter then? Is there no magic in these high moments? Are they cruel jokes on us who can never live up to them in this life? Am I so unredeemable that no experience can lift me out of weakness and mediocrity?
Well, maybe, but I think not. The problem — it’s taking me painful years to learn this, obvious as it seems — is in looking to the experience rather than to myself; as if a peak experience were some kind of storage battery that, once hooked up, would charge my life with energy and meaning.
It’s more like a signpost that comes looming up out of the mist as I walk. If I read the signpost and then just sit by the road admiring it, repeating its directions to myself, relishing the moment when I first caught sight of it, I won’t go anywhere. It might be a perfectly wonderful signpost, with a dragon head on top and runes carved all over it. It’s of no more use to me than a Bible to a dog, if I don’t heave up my back and trudge off toward where it points.
Richard A. Stewart
In my life death has come close a few times, and I have to call these moments peaks.
My mother. She is forty-two and dying this morning of lung cancer. I am twenty and not sure what it means to have my mother die. She is sitting in a white rocking chair, eyes closed, wearing a light blue quilted robe. I am sitting by her feet. I put my hand on her knee and she puts her hand over mine. I have no idea what she’s thinking. Her only sister stands by her side; behind my mother is their mother. She is a Christian Scientist and for days has been reading Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, but now she just stands quietly with a washcloth in one hand, which she occasionally dabs across my mother’s brow.
I notice it first: her breath has gone in but hasn’t come back out. I look up at my aunt, my grandmother. They don’t know, and I have to say it: “She’s not breathing anymore.” My grandmother gets angry. She tells me not to give up. My aunt sighs a long, deep sigh, a sigh of relief mixed with pain and tears.
I’m called in to assist a mother giving birth. I am the midwife who first touches the baby; who shines the flashlight into her eyes and sees that the pupils don’t dilate; who listens with a stethoscope for the heart that isn’t beating.
I give the baby to the mother, and she holds her and cries. And cries. There are tears in my eyes, too. Then I have to take the baby and wash it. I’m touching this little naked baby, smoothing water over the pink skin, so soft and smooth and perfect. I feel the baby warm but dead and I try to figure out what death means. I can still feel the life present, so close, but just far enough off for this baby to be still, quiet.
My friend. She is thirty-two, my own age, and I am standing in her hospital room, alone with her. She is unconscious. But she opens her eyes, looks directly at me, and says, “I’m going to die.” I look at her with the oxygen mask rattling at full flow, her abdomen swelled up with the tumor, her arms skin and bones, her legs too swollen for walking. I say, “Yeah, pretty soon.” She looks me in the eye and says, “I want to die now.” I wonder what “now” means.
Now, all we ever have; now, the peak moment; death, the experience that reminds me.
Sixteen years ago, I camped halfway up Coalpit Mountain. I planned to become completely independent of my crutches and largely independent of my cane. I planned to practice walking until I could hike clear up to the peak.
I was there all summer, mostly by myself. I needed the seclusion because I felt too vulnerable and self-conscious to be around other people as I went through the painful and often clumsy process of learning to walk again.
The first few hikes I went on crutches. Then I left them in camp and used my cane. I made it 200 yards up the slope, then a quarter of a mile, then half a mile. On the best days, I did without my cane, though I couldn’t go as far.
All summer, I hiked on the side of the mountain. At least once a week, I headed for the peak. I never made it all the way up before summer was gone and cold weather drove me off the mountain.
When I returned to the floor of the valley, headed for warmer country, I was much stronger than I had been at the start of the summer. I stopped and looked back at the mountain. The highest point I had reached was a long way below the peak. Nonetheless, having a goal to aim for had helped me to keep trying, until I could walk a mile up a steep slope and back down, without crutches or cane, without limping. I wasn’t disappointed that I had never reached the peak. I never felt the need to go back and try again.
He was a hero. I, his brother, was a hero. I was huge and full, a soaring helium balloon, the promise to my buddies delivered in stunning excess. Never since, except for hugging tight my first true girlfriend on a roller coaster, have I felt so important in such a rush of terrorized elation.
I was the first to spot the plane.
Tom had said to watch south at about 4 on Friday, so, while my sixth-grade buddies wrestled on our front lawn, I tracked the sky. When I saw it, I hollered, “There it is! I bet it’s him! See it? See it?” They all got up then and followed my finger and found the speck.
I’d invited everyone over to see my brother Tom come home for the weekend in his BT-13. It was September 1943. An Air Corps pilot-training instructor in Texas, Tom had his orders for Europe — to fly a B-24 bomber — and was due to ship out soon. He’d talked his commanding officer into letting him run up to Milwaukee in the trainer to say goodbye to his family.
The plane crawled northwest, then veered east, and straightened to due north across the clear, bright western sky. In the quiet of a calm afternoon, we could hear broken waves of its drone. We watched, intent, not knowing what Tom would do.
The plane slowly swung in a wide, lowering arc that became a circle. Then, still gradually coiling down, it traced a second circle.
I never understood how Tom pinpointed our neighborhood, our block, our house from 10,000 feet in the air, but by the time he completed the third spiral, he’d somehow fixed his target.
Then down he came, engine whining in a daring divebomb plummet, all of us yelling and cheering, oblivious to the awful risk of trajectory and speed. Down he came, engine roaring louder and louder, our shouts mere squeaks amid its thunder. Nearly straight down the plane came, as if out of control and doomed to hit the ground. Our eyes huge, we covered our ears with our hands. He was relentless, unwavering in his aim.
Down, down he came, precisely to us, to the house, closer and closer — until we saw his helmet, and his gloved hand waving casually as if from a presidential motorcade.
Finally, hardly a hundred feet over us, Tom jerked the stick. Up shot the plane’s nose, as though from an explosion, skimming trees and roofs with few feet to spare, wings flattening and beveling away from us as we shrieked and rolled helplessly on the ground in wild fright.
He was a hero. I, his brother, was a hero. I was huge and full, a soaring helium balloon, the promise to my buddies delivered in stunning excess. Never since, except for hugging tight my first true girlfriend on a roller coaster, have I felt so important in such a rush of terrorized elation.
There were immediate phone calls to the local base — frantic questions about a Japanese attack, angry complaints about windows rattling in their casings and china jumping off shelves and hooks.
Word was relayed just as quickly to Texas, Tom’s commanding officer assuring the base that the pilot would be properly disciplined when he got back. (Lip service — except for a wrist slap — we learned later.)
Monday morning, leaving for school and saying goodbye to Tom, I begged him to buzz my school before he left town.
Scowling fiercely, he answered, “What kind of kid brother are you? I’m in plenty of hot water now, and you wanna make it deeper for me! Sorry, Dew-boy, no more fancy stunts.”
But outside, on the front walk, away from my mother, he caught hold of me and said, “Keep an eye out around 10. No guarantees, understand, but I’ll see what I can do.” He winked, and we shook hands again.
By 9:50, I had half the class in the hall, at the windows that overlooked the boiler room and smokestack and the playground. We watched and waited.
At 9:55 we heard him.
He zoomed over the playground, then cut back in a sharp U-turn and circled the smokestack at our fourth-floor level. He dipped his wings in farewell, then went around the smokestack two more times, smiling and waving as he zipped past the windows. Finally, he gunned the engine to a blasting roar, rocketed up, and swung away to the south, toward Texas.
That’s the last time I saw him. His B-24 was ripped by German anti-aircraft fire over the Hague in late 1944. After he got the crew off, he tried desperately, unwisely, to save the ship. When he knew at last that it was hopeless, he bailed out.
By then he was too low for his chute to open.
I was alone in a cabin at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains. I had come to take in the river and the mountains, to heal my bruised body and soul. After a few days, I was on farmer’s time, in my loft soon after dark and up just before dawn.
Late one night, I was startled awake by a mighty thump on the side of the cabin. I climbed down the ladder, slipped on my sneakers, and stumbled outside. Although I forgot my flashlight, the moon was so bright I could see. Lying right next to the log wall was a large bird, either dead or stunned.
Gingerly, I picked it up. I wasn’t used to handling wild animals, and I thought it might suddenly claw or peck me. But it lay quite still. I could feel its heartbeat through my fingertips touching its breast. It looked like a hawk.
I held it against my chest, and felt its warmth penetrate me. My normal consciousness went still, and a very different, primitive awareness emerged. For several hours we remained together, speaking to each other in light waves, colors, symbols.
As the sky lightened, I slipped back into ordinary time and space. The hawk began to stir in my arms, and I became afraid again. I relaxed my grip and the bird opened its eyes. Then its wings fluttered weakly, and its talons flexed, and, with a heave against my chest, it flew off. After a few moments it came gliding back over the cabin, once, twice, three times.
Later, I found a red tail-feather.
He nodded and said, “When you become quiet enough, your true nature can come forth.” Knocking his fists together, he said, “You just bumped right into your true nature.”
Eight years ago much of my life was in transition and disarray. I had just ended a business I’d run for several years with a friend; I had just broken off a brief but intense relationship; and I was considering moving across the country, as I could see nothing to keep me where I was. At the time I had a sense that great changes were happening; I could feel them even though I didn’t know what they were. It felt as if large, slow whales were immersed deep down, soon needing to come up for air.
So when I had a chance to sit for all seven days of Rohatsu sesshin, an intensive meditation retreat, I did it. I had been practicing Zen Buddhism for about seven years. I stuck with it even though I never liked sitting for hours in zazen, my knees sore and my mind bored. I had sat sesshins before, and this one was no different from the others. I sat there cross-legged, staring at the wall, daydreaming, hating those who seemed to be enjoying it, especially hating the person who rang the bell to signal the beginning and end of each period of zazen.
On the third day, I was really struggling. I was continually falling asleep, and had to put forth a lot of effort just to keep from tipping over and falling to the floor. I was also struggling with the ending of my love affair, playing over and over in my mind what had happened, how I could have changed it, what I could have done differently. I floated there, between sleep and obsession, for hours.
Late in the afternoon, I suddenly saw how hard I was fighting against what was simply the way things were: I was sleepy and would be until I wasn’t; she was no longer with me, and I needed to let her have her life back. This realization grew until it filled me; I just needed to get out of the way of my life and let things be. It felt like walking on a frozen pond and suddenly breaking through to the cold water below.
When the period was over, I felt so joyful I wanted to shout, to laugh. I didn’t want to do walking meditation; I wanted to dance with everyone. That joy continued on through the next four days. I had unlimited energy and couldn’t get enough of zazen. At lectures, each word the roshi said seemed to go straight to my heart. On the last day, I saw the roshi in a private interview and told him about what had happened. He nodded and said, “When you become quiet enough, your true nature can come forth.” Knocking his fists together, he said, “You just bumped right into your true nature.”
For a while after this, the experience remained. I plunged into meditation, started new work, developed deeper friendships. But suddenly I stopped sitting. It was as if the responsibility to act on what I had learned was too much to handle. So I took the path of forgetting. As I had plunged into zazen, I now plunged into drugs, alcohol, sex, work, and television. My experience at the sesshin grew smaller and less important, like scenery in a rearview mirror. I scarcely sat in six years.
Then one day, I ate psychedelic mushrooms on Lake Superior, a powerful, magical lake. I sat and danced and scrambled over the cliffs on its shore. The feeling of connection and joy was like that I’d known in sesshin. That evening, already depressed at the loss of that feeling, I picked up my wife’s Vogue and began reading, hoping to settle my restlessness. There among the fashions, ads, and articles was, of all things, a review of Nine-Headed Dragon River, Peter Matthiessen’s book about Zen. Everything came back to me, and I began sitting the next day.
During the sesshin, the roshi had said, “Enlightenment with thunder, lightning, and fireworks can be exciting. But true enlightenment is simply doing your best, and accepting everything as it comes up, moment by moment.” I won’t run from any more peak experiences, but I’m happy now to be living a life where nothing, and everything, is a peak experience. Dogen Zenji says, “Walking in the evening mist, we don’t even realize it, but suddenly we are soaked to the bone.”
There’s a mountain in New Hampshire that I must climb at least once a year.
The climb takes about three hours, and it is steep going. There are places through the woods where the path is nearly vertical, and I haul my body from boulder to boulder, sweat dripping, heart thumping, chest panting, knees trembling. The climb is always a test of moral fiber; I get bolder each year. Each year I come to honor this mountain more intimately as my teacher.
There’s more than physical exertion involved. In August there are blueberries tucked into and along seams in the great expanse of exposed bedrock. I pick and eat some, each one a tingling gift.
There are pebbles and sand along the path, especially after a rain. They are shreds of the summit that have become gravel underneath my feet, evidence that the mountain is wearing down.
And there’s the view from the summit. For fifty, sixty, a hundred miles, a sea of mountains swells from the earth, slopes rising and falling in every direction like waves of forest green. The Earth is voluptuous, offering the infinity of her breast.
The exertion of the climb, the extremity of the breathing, the intensity of the view force my mind and body to give up the fiction of their seeming difference and merge, making me feel as mineral as the mountain, as ripe as mountain fruit, as animal as the deer I hear snorting, as unfettered in spirit as the hawks spiraling overhead.
There was a period of time — I was living in Massachusetts with scanty vacation time and scantier transportation — when I let several summers go by without coming to this mountain. At some point I knew with a sense of urgency that I had to make the pilgrimage.
With a great deal of organizing and negotiating, I arranged to take the trip with a friend who could borrow a car and had a few days’ vacation time I could match. We arrived in New Hampshire in the rainy days of July. There was nothing to do but climb the mountain in the drizzle; we didn’t have time to wait for the overcast skies to change to sunshine.
We reached the summit sweaty and damp, after hours of exertion and found ourselves entirely enclosed by fog. We had no view, no hawks, no mind-stopping exhilaration. After all the effort of organizing the trip and making the 500-mile drive, we could just as well have been on a Brooklyn pier.
Teetering on the edge of disappointment, I took a deep breath and relaxed. So much for expectations. Grinning, I turned to my friend and said, “This is our peak experience. This is it, in the great cloud of unknowing.”
The rain fell on us gently.
Cullowhee, North Carolina
Well, here I am in a bathtub and I was prepared to write, “I have had no peak experiences,” until I noted, “The bathtub itself is my peak experience.”
Or is “peak” the wrong word? It’s a valley experience, really. The other peak experience I could think of — sex last night with Violet — was more like falling off a cliff.
Maybe peaks are not my specialty. At my Bar Mitzvah, I did feel an emotion which I associated with a glint from the golden Ten Commandments above the Ark — as if God were on stage with me, in front of my uncles.
The other night, Violet and I were looking at a book called Jazz Giants at the B. Dalton on 8th Street, and a guy in a white knitted hat turned to us and said, “Isn’t that a lovely book? I knew some of those guys.” Then he started telling us about listening to Bartok with Charlie Parker at his apartment on Avenue B.
“What was Bird like?”
He was an alchemist, he said. “Sometimes you’d be with him and you had to go crosstown, and suddenly you just were crosstown. Or he’d walk out of a room and come back in with $500. He had that talent.”
We talked to him for twenty minutes before we realized his left hand was just a hook.
Winter Clove Inn
Cairo, New York
My anger, guilt, and embarrassment were still there, like eddies in a great river, important but ultimately insignificant. I just smiled. I had all the time there ever was. I existed in sunlight on a blade falling in a perfect arc.
I had been practicing Aikido and Iaido for about a year. They filled the void I had previously tried to fill with alcohol; daily practice kept me out of the bars.
On a bright Saturday morning, our children’s class was about to finish its first set of examinations. We had set up a party for them at my home. Cookies, cake, punch, and congratulations were ready for them at 11 sharp.
About forty minutes into the party I got a call from a mother who had somehow thought I would provide her two children with transportation to my house. She was screaming at me for leaving her children at the practice hall. Dragging a load of guilt and shame, I drove to the dojo and picked up her children. After the party, she left with her kids in tow, letting me know just what she thought of me.
Feeling terrible, I went back to the dojo for our regular Saturday afternoon Iaido practice. Would I ever learn to cope with people without a stiff bourbon?
Iaido is the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese long sword. It developed in Japan after the samurai class had become obsolete as a military force, and reached its full flower during a long period of intrigue and assassination. Eventually the need for sword drawing itself died out, but the Japanese kept the art active. Iaido changed from combat techniques to a way of liberation, and today is essentially meditative. On that day, though, I was more than ready to go to war.
My practice began in anger and embarrassment — the emotions that used to send me off to the nearest bar. My teacher set me to the first and most basic form: shohato, beginning sword. As you rise from a sitting position, you draw the sword to cut an imaginary opponent facing you. This first horizontal cut is followed by an overhead killing cut. The move finishes with a ritualized shaking off of the blood and resheathing of the sword.
All these moves are done within rigid parameters and to a specifically defined rhythm. The angle and path of the blade and the posture of the practitioner are defined; to standards set by perfectionists in a perfect tradition. The entire form is to be executed in a single breath while maintaining a physical and mental attitude of intense mindfulness, termed zanshin. I called it, “now pay attention.”
My task was to go through this movement slowly and deliberately. I began to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale; inhale, push out the belly; exhale, and execute. I began to fall into the rhythm, though my mind was hardly calm. “The cut is wrong,” I berated myself. “Watch your posture.” “Turn out your heel.” “Don’t breathe so fast.” I thought about cutting the woman who had humiliated me. I became more and more frustrated, until something in me snapped. Suddenly, all that seemed to matter was the movement, not my thoughts.
The sword began to take on a life of its own, moving without my will; I had no will. The scent of the clove oil on the blade filled my head. External noise faded away as an extraordinary light began to grow all around me, washing over me in waves. I wondered if I were the source of the light, but realized that it made no difference.
All that mattered was the form. I was no longer cutting. The movement was effortless, like wind blowing across prairie grass or ruffling the surface of a Minnesota lake. I became wild geese, leaves dancing in the autumn wind, traffic noises. I melted into a billion men and women. My anger, guilt, and embarrassment were still there, like eddies in a great river, important but ultimately insignificant. I just smiled. I had all the time there ever was. I existed in sunlight on a blade falling in a perfect arc.
From a great distance I heard my teacher call me back — “George, there’s no more time.” We bowed our respects to our swords, our teacher, and the aiki shrine. I felt I had come back from heaven, yet was still there. I remembered why I spent all that time drinking, and I remembered where I had seen the smile that I wore. It was the same look my father had when he died the year before.
Many years of practice have put this experience into some perspective. I do not actively seek the state I found that day. I only practice. Somehow, I know I am always there. That place is not a place at all but the same self I always am.
St. Paul, Minnesota
It was as if a deep mystery had been solved. Healthy? Yes. Alert? Yes. A boy? Yes. Mine? Yes, yes, yes.
A circle of very intimate friends and I had a solemn pact that when any of us died we would, if we could, communicate with those remaining. One by one they have departed, and not one succeeded in keeping this pact. I felt it was a closed issue: that no communication was possible; the dead were “lost and gone forever.”
After I went through the windshield in a serious car accident, I began to understand why there had been no direct communication. In a flash before I lost consciousness, believing I was dying, I desperately resolved that nothing could keep me from communicating with my family. As I floated into a light so bright I could not see but only feel the deepest loving care and trust, I knew that ego concerns on Earth were no longer my focus. It wasn’t that I cared less about my family; it was that this love encompassed them all in my wider consciousness. I didn’t have to return to them, because I wasn’t leaving — I was simply dropping my body. They were still included in this wider loving consciousness that was deeper than the love I had felt for them “on Earth.” I knew for the first time that all was right with the universe. This was what my departed friends had experienced.
I came to in the hospital. I healed slowly, but the experience has stayed with me. I know that the cosmos of love and trust and eternity is all around us in dimensions only the ego fails to comprehend.
San Jose, California
Life is the peak experience, each moment in time its own unique expression. Can any moment be better than this one, right now?
Perhaps we fear that if we have too many peak experiences, the peak will be lessened. I am suggesting that a peak experience is not a rare and sought-after treasure, but simply an open receptivity to all that is wonderful in life, an unabashed appreciation for all that happens.
Why not have a peak experience right now?
I never hoped for children. I figured they would be in my life someday, but I occupied myself with other things. I hoped I’d be a famous singer by the time I was seventeen. Then I hoped I’d have a poem in a Major Literary Publication, or maybe a whole book published, by the time I was twenty-five. Then I thought that the world would get interested in my photographs and I’d have an exhibit every other year, in which I’d sell everything and leave people clamoring for more. Well, none of these has happened, and I’m not holding my breath.
Instead, I achieved something I had not hoped for. I now realize that I will know no greater highs than those I experienced in giving birth to my children. Birth is the ultimate act of creation, creation that affects the world like a great work of art.
The birth of my first child took a long, long time and introduced me to that Zen state known as “living in the moment.” Extreme pain has a way of doing that. (The birth of my second child, twenty-two months later, didn’t take as long and was even kind of fun.) And the exhilaration after: when I’d screamed a thousand times that no, I couldn’t do it, it hurt too much, when I was about to shatter into tiny pieces, my firstborn arrived with his eyes wide open. It was as if a deep mystery had been solved. Healthy? Yes. Alert? Yes. A boy? Yes. Mine? Yes, yes, yes. I, an adopted child, looked for the first time at a real flesh-and-blood relative. But more than that, I felt a closeness to God, to the universal mother-energy. I felt as if I had passed my initiation into the secret sect of motherhood and was now connected to every mother, no matter how different from me in ideology or circumstance.
Now, I approach the idea of fame and immortality with a big “so what?” There are other things that are much more important, like faith and compassion and getting through the day without going bonkers on your children. Being a parent grants one plenty of peak experiences; they are unexpected, and therefore the best kind.
Karen Stein Bard
Pomfret Center, Connecticut
Last May, at a conference in New England, a small group of men gathered one drizzly morning in a half-finished meeting hall to lift our voices to the exposed rafters.
I’m a novice at chanting. I enjoy participating in it when I find the right people and the right setting. When I open my eyes after a few minutes of chanting, the world is enshrouded in a misty glow.
The other men had a lot more experience. They chanted on a single note with a combination of vowel sounds, or with a melodic style, as in Gregorian chant. Several had studied a form of chant brought to the United States by Tibetan monks. In Tibetan chant, two tones are sung at once: a fundamental tone (the kind of note that we are all accustomed to singing), and an overtone — a higher, related note that seems to resound about ten feet above the singer.
Gary led our sessions. He stood in our circle, wearing a black raincoat that almost reached the floor of the plywood stage we were on. His face was somewhat boyish, but the strong confidence shining in his eyes conveyed a mature inner strength. He spoke gently, with long silences and few words.
Gary’s direction was new to me. “Don’t try to harmonize with the men around you,” he suggested. “Just let your tone fit in whatever way is natural.” There was a rich kaleidoscope — deep, growling basses, rich tenor melodies, and hanging over it all the ringing of the overtones. Somehow it all fit together beautifully. There was an organic beauty that made other chanting experiences I’d had seem bland.
We went through several cycles; finally, Gary suggested we meet in pairs in the center of the circle. We paired off spontaneously. Intuitively, I was drawn to a tall, almost gaunt man, with warm eyes. Henry was at one time a professional jazz musician who played bass guitar. During the earlier chanting, his voice seemed to answer mine at times, and at times it seemed to oppose mine, challenging me.
As our turn came at the center of the circle, the air was thick with the vibrations created by the chanting around us. It became increasingly easy to open my voice to the sounds I felt ready to pour forth through me.
I held a note somewhere in the middle of my range, the strength of it increasing as I released my breath. The note Henry sang was only slightly different from mine. There was no harmony, only a tone which seemed to dare me to leave my note and sing his; to find another note altogether that harmonized; or to keep singing the note that I had started, despite the calamitous sound that might result.
As I gazed a Henry, I felt a current released through his voice, something strong and electric, neither friendly nor unfriendly. What was remarkable was the utter stillness of spirit in which we met.
The aural envelope encircled us, crackling as an electrical storm. To me it was rich and fulfilling. Each blazing sound was braced against the energy of the other.
It was as if we were two elements of a spark plug, and across the gap between us sparks were ignited until they filled the circle. At the center, Henry and I were giving each other the best we had, like two gladiators. But the exchange of energy invigorated rather than destroyed.
New York, New York
It was damp and dirty and, the trooper said when he rousted us, dangerous. It was around 3 a.m. in mid-July 1975, somewhere along the interstate in the middle of Nebraska, and my brother Ted and I had finally given out from exhaustion. Believing we wouldn’t make it to the next exit, we had pulled off the shoulder onto the grass and thrown our bags in the ditch. In a few minutes we were asleep. The trooper told us there was a rest area another mile down the road.
We slept on top of some picnic tables that night. When it was nearly dawn, before getting back in the car, we decided to meditate. The sky was immense, the stars still shining. I remember thinking the picnic table was so hard that I was not likely to be comfortable.
After ten minutes, I became aware that Jesus was there with me.
For a Christian who prays regularly, such an experience might be no surprise. But for me, a recently rehabilitated drunk who had been meditating only a few years, it was entirely unexpected.
I noticed that I had lost all awareness of my surroundings — the cold, my body, the table, the highway. I felt obliged to check whether I was sleeping. I was wide awake. I understood that I was supposed to ask any question for which I’d ever wanted an answer. So I did. Why is there human suffering? Will the planet survive? What is the best path for me to travel? And so on. Amazingly, my thoughts were sufficient to form the questions and I understood the answers intuitively. I knew I was asking and receiving directly and personally; Jesus had decided to visit with me. His face and presence were so definite; I was transfixed. For the first time in my life, I experienced no unmet needs. I felt surrounded by a safe, profound affection.
I was aware that I was asking for and receiving far too much to be able to remember it all. My usual desire to control and retain the teachings seemed absent. I was learning that the fullness of our meeting, the deep unconditional love surrounding my answers, was what I would take with me.
Raleigh, North Carolina
The best meal I ever ate was a pancake. I had already eaten breakfast that day, but when I went to pick her up, she had made me pancakes. Usually, I will not touch, I will not even consider, a pancake without syrup — but these were pancakes she had made, and she had no syrup. She warmed them in the oven, just-right hot, and I delicately, respectfully, put cold butter and cool lumps of orange marmalade upon them. They were full of oatmeal and flour and raisins, and she apologized that they were heavy. I said they were not, and they weren’t — they were light, as light as my heart, my heart filled with light, with the joy of her making these pancakes for me and for being with me on that day. As her blue eyes watched me, I relished that first pancake and then, for good measure, I picked up another one, and rolled it, and gobbled it plain. It, too, was the best meal I ever ate.
I was walking after a run on Redondo Beach in California. There had been a storm the night before and the sand had been eaten away, piled in drifts by the surf, so that the beach looked unfamiliar. The sky was unusually blue for southern California, with substantial gray and white cumulus clouds that we seldom see here. Hundreds of tiny white, black, and bright orange scallop shells had washed up in the storm. My running shoes were tied together and hung over my shoulder, and I was carrying the shells I had gathered in the toe of my sweat sock.
My divorce from my childhood sweetheart would be final in six months. I was twenty-eight years old, and had been in that relationship for fifteen of them. The cocoon my husband and I had created for ourselves had become too small for me. I had moved out of our three bedroom-with-pool suburban house and into a funky beach house with a roommate. I was learning to date, to keep a checkbook and a car, and was starting a new career. I was afraid, sometimes to the point of shaking uncontrollably.
That morning, though, I felt good. I had run a few miles to see the tidal pools where purple sea urchins leave their pigment behind when they die, staining the shells and rocks pale lavender to violet. Looking back, I suppose that exercising and concentrating on shell-hunting may have combined to change my state of consciousness — but trying to analyze it demeans the experience.
I stooped to pick up a shell, and suddenly — for one split second — I knew absolutely that I was OK. With my whole being, I knew I would always be OK, and had always been OK. That was all — just a feeling of unlimited, never-ending protection and OK-ness. It was a feeling I had never had; nor have I ever had it since. That moment reminds me of the drawing of the man on his hands and knees who suddenly pokes his head beyond the veil of this world into the splendor of another. The fabric of the world is rent just for an instant to reveal the wonder of the hidden reality behind it.
I had left the church and the God of my childhood when I was fourteen. An atheist, I had no words or concepts to fit what I’d experienced. Since then, yoga, meditation, books, and teachers have given me the means to access the part of me that always knows it is OK. I’ve learned to feel less fear. But never, even with hallucinogens, have I experienced another moment like the one on Redondo Beach. It doesn’t matter because the experience is always with me even as the memory fades. That moment has shaped the last eleven years of my life, and will undoubtedly continue to guide me until my death. My brief knowledge of that power gradually sets my priorities so that more and more of my attention is focused on my inner life. I know what the writer of “Amazing Grace” was talking about because that is what came to me, unbidden.
Santa Monica, California