I was recently invited to write about a personal spiritual experience. In writing the account below, it occurred to me that whether we are labelled religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, materialist, rationalist, scientific, or “other”, we all seek the experience of awe at creation and connection to our world. I was reminded that we can make the time to slow down, to stop, to wonder at the mystery of being human in an incredible universe.
The men drew a circle in the forest bed and gave me instructions. Fasting would continue throughout the night and I was to stay put inside of the circle. They wished me well and hiked down the trail, leaving me to spend the night alone on the mountain.
I didn’t sleep much that night. When I heard a rustle in the underbrush nearby, I was momentarily startled, but fear gave way to relaxation and a sense of belonging to the natural world around me. Since I couldn’t sleep, I would try meditating, alternating between simply being aware of the trees and sky and earth around me and a more focused meditation on my intention to free myself from old ways of thinking about the world that had become too painful.
Since I had returned from living in North Africa for two years, I had been sliding further and further into a cynical worldview. I knew there was no promised land, no way to escape pain by going someplace else. I was reluctant to embrace my home culture back in the USA. I felt trapped in the world, dissatisfied with what it had to offer, highly critical of society, and angry at a God I didn’t even believe in. I considered myself an atheist, yet I still directed a lot of anger towards the universe, the great mystery, the unknown. I had made a sweeping conclusion that “life sucks” and felt that way on a daily basis. I was so tired of thinking this way, but I didn’t know how to change. Then another human being noticed this and invited me to join a group of men. These men took me in and understood and encouraged me that it was possible to change.
As the sun came up, a hummingbird flew up to me, hovered inches in front of my face. I sat in awe, tempted to flinch, but remained still. This amazing, small creature was telling me something. I heard the message. I belonged to the world, just like the hummingbird. My judgment of the world was arrogant and I could simply stop it, drop it then and there.
When my friends came to lead me down the mountain, they brought a bowl of strawberries for sustenance that would be needed for the physical trials and rituals to come. To this day, I don’t reveal much of what occurred next. The external ritual, however, is not the most important part of the story. The external action galvanized the internal intention to change, to love the world again.
When it was time to return to the city and family and the workaday world, one man wisely reminded me the process of transformation isn’t a one-time event. He said that I would face great pain again. He was right, yet I had learned that I could face it without passing judgment on this mysterious world.