Transcendent experiences or awakenings can help give us a larger vision of who are. They are marked by a sense of unity, paradox, and sometimes bliss. Our minds are not able to grasp them. They seem to visit us, to be delivered by a bigger source of some kind. We have a choice regarding whether we work with them or not. Many people have transcendent experiences and never make sense of them, or interpret them negatively and live their lives in fear as a result. I've found these experiences to be meaningful landmarks in my life. Through them, I can see my growth from my smaller self into a bigger universal Self. The following is a timeline of significant awakenings in my life:
The first transcendent experience I can recall is a dream when I was ten years old:
I was in a boat that was filling with water and I was going down with it. Before I knew it, I had drowned and upon realizing I was dead, I also realized that I was still alive, even more alive than I had been before.
I woke up terrified and confused. Someone once told me that if you die in a dream, you die for real. At the time I don't think my mind could grasp the paradox of being both alive and dead. I was sure that the dream was a prophecy that I was going to drown while I was still young. Water, I learned much later, is often equated with the unconscious or the larger Self in dreams. This dream was my initiation into the transcendent realm.
The next transcendent experience I can remember happened when I was twenty six years old. It was another dream which has stayed with me ever since.
I was standing in my grandmother's living room by an open arched doorway that led to the hallway and back to the bedrooms. As I stood by the arched doorway, a hovering ball of light, a few inches wider than my shoulders, floated toward me and then came up against my chest. It then permeated my chest and lifted me up about one foot off the ground. At first I was frightened and I fought the ball of light with everything I had; but it was much stronger than I was. It held me completely steady as I thrashed around, trying to free myself. Then I realized that it was friendly. It loved me. As a matter of fact, it was love. I gave up my struggle and let the light infuse me with itself. My chest felt good, warm, and alive. I felt completely and absolutely loved. The ball of light carried me down the hall and into a bedroom. It set me down gently on a bed that felt incredibly soft and comfortable. I sank into the thick, fluffy goose-down comforter and fell fast asleep. Still within the dream, I awoke in this wonderfully comfortable bed and headed into my Grandma’s kitchen. I felt completely at home with myself. There was no anxiety. Not a trace. In its place was an unshakeable peace. My parents were there in the kitchen discussing the way I was dressed. I loved them but their opinions of me did not matter to my self-worth. Instead, their opinions somehow dissolved in this all-pervading peace I was experiencing. I loved it. I had become completely at one with the love from that ball of light that had since vanished. It had become me. I had become it. I was finally saved from my anxiety drenched existence. I could now rest and go on with my life.
At this time I was suffering from chronic depression. When I woke, for real, from this dream I was able to maintain that steady sense of peace for a short time before succumbing once again to my chronic depressive state. However, the dream was so completely real that I tended to believe the peace I had felt more than the depression which had been all-encompassing until then. Somehow, that peaceful, serene state that I had only achieved in a dream gave me something to go for in my waking life. It became a beacon of sorts guiding me to a better life.
I had followed my vision of having a life where I felt deeply okay and I was making progress on it. I was married. I considered my wife to be my best friend and we owned a small, and very cute, house. We also had a dog who was an amazing frisbee catcher. In the Fall of 1998, my wife and I went on vacation in Europe. We were not church-goers, but I was absolutely entranced with the old cathedrals in Germany. We took a train down into Italy through the Austrian Alps and arrived in Rome. All of the history in Rome amazed me. I loved all the old buildings. One day, when we were touring the Vatican City, we entered St. Peter’s Cathedral. As we entered I looked to the right and saw Michelangelo’s Pieta: A sculpture of the Mother Mary holding Jesus’ dead body after he was crucified. Suddenly, without any conscious thought on my part, tears were streaming down my face. I was in awe. I couldn’t speak. The statue was so simple. So human. On one level it was just a sculpture of a mother holding a dead son, but it was alive with a transcendent beauty that left me dumbstruck. Even though he died over four hundred years earlier Michelangelo had unraveled me. I stood there for a few minutes letting the beauty of this statue roll through me. Then I made a decision. I was going to pray. I was determined to do it. I went alone to one of the side chapels and began to kneel down in one of the pews. I felt incredibly self-conscious even though I was surrounded by kneeling nuns. I felt like I was going to be accused of not praying right. I was sure I would be ridiculed or somehow embarrassed. But I continued kneeling and then I prayed:
“Jesus, help me understand how I’m supposed to follow you. I’m lost. I don’t know how to be a Christian. I don’t like church. I don’t understand the Bible even though I read the whole thing. What do I need to do?”
Suddenly a voice appeared, resonating from the area of my heart. It was sweet like honey but solid like granite at the same time. The voice was timeless. It said, “be yourself.” Those words were a compassionate commandment. Within those simple words unfolded another commandment which, quite surprisingly, was, “don’t worry about being a Christian.” By virtue of the amazing strength of the message I completely trusted that it was, in fact, Jesus, who was speaking. The only thing I had experienced that even came close to the magnitude of this message was the dream I had years earlier. But this time, I had that amazingly similar sense of peace with actual words. Apparently, Jesus thought it was more important to be myself than to be a Christian or go to church. It was clear as a bell and solid as the rock of St. Peter’s Cathedral around me. There was no compulsory Bible study. There was no mandatory church attendance. I didn’t have to be baptized. I was relieved and amazed. I didn’t have to try so hard.
I remember walking around the Vatican Museum that day in a mix of relief and befuddlement. How was I to be myself? What does it mean to be myself? Who am I?
After a friend I had given me The Power of Now, a book by Eckhart Tolle, I decided to start a meditation practice. Although I didn't consider myself a buddhist, I joined a Buddhist meditation group. This was partly out of curiosity and partly because I didn't want to just meditate alone every day. Several months after I had joined the group there was an announcement that some Buddhist relics were going to arrive in town. I found out these relics were bone fragments of the original Buddha and other Buddhist saints. It was said that these relics were incredibly special. I decided to be open-minded about them but I was also skeptical. The day the relics arrived at the temple I ventured out to see what they were. They didn’t look like bones as it turned out. The relics looked like little pearls. A nun explained these pearl-like relics had been reclaimed after the bodies of the saints had been cremated and that they were supposed to hold the same enlightened vibration as the deceased saint. She then gave me a sly smile and said, “of course it might just be the placebo effect.”
I was trying to open my mind to the possibility that these tiny pearls had some mystical quality but I wasn’t doing a very good job at it. Someone in the temple announced it was time for a blessing. Then a nun approached me and asked me if I would like a blessing. I was experiencing some resistance to doing it but I said, “Sure.” I got in a line with the others and knelt down to receive a blessing.
When my turn came a different nun placed a small container of some kind on the top of my head. I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye. It was shaped like a small handbell. As soon as the container was placed on my crown I felt a wonderful warmth. However, this warmth was peculiar. It didn’t just stay on the top of my head. It somehow traveled gently down through the center of my head, into my heart, and then warmed me from the inside out. At the time I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t actually realize that a physical warmth on the top of my head couldn’t travel down into my heart. Instead, I rationalized that she must have warmed up the container before placing it on my head. Shortly thereafter I left the temple and headed home.
That night as I lay down to sleep something extraordinary happened. I felt a similar warmth in my heart as I had earlier that day during the blessing. Then, the warmth started to expand until it encompassed my entire chest. As the warmth expanded a vision unfolded before me. A spinning tapered cylinder of golden light came into view. It was spinning slowly clockwise. Showers of golden light were being released from this cylinder as it spun. From this place I saw light filling the entire universe. The scene then changed to an immense garden that was imbued with the same golden light. The garden contained every kind of flower imaginable: flowers of every color, shape and size.
There was a teaching that unfolded within me as I gazed upon the eternal garden. The diversity of the garden magnifies the beauty of each flower. Every type of flower is needed to complete the garden. So it is with people. We all need each other. No one is left out. There is no superiority. There is only an incredible array of diversity. We are all part of the same light but we reflect this light in different ways. We are whole in the light and also un-whole in that we need to appreciate the full complement of life around us to be truly fulfilled. We are one in the light but many in form.
Eventually the vision came to a close and I fell asleep. The next day I awoke to a light filled room. Everything, it seemed, was saturated with light. I felt a deep, inner peace that seemed to transcend everything and light up the world around me. There was nothing that was not somehow imbued with golden light. I decided to cancel my work appointments that day so I could spend some time just soaking in the wonderment of my experience. A question occurred to me, “what was in the handbell-like thing that the Buddhist nun put on my head?” I drove out to the temple and asked her. She gave me a little smile, the same kind of smile she gave me when she mentioned, “maybe it’s the placebo effect,” the previous day. She then pointed to the bone relic of the original Buddha. At this point my mind collapsed into wonderment.
The bone relic from the Buddha was the thing that gave off that warmth! Of course it couldn’t have been a regular source of heat because it trickled down into my heart from my crown. Regular heat doesn’t do that. After visiting the temple, I then drove to the music store as I was shopping for a keyboard. I met a clerk there who had been at the temple. He was as wide-eyed as I was about his experience of getting a blessing. When I told him what was in the cylinder his eyes became even wider.
Every person I met was imbued with golden light that day. I could see it so plainly. Their outward appearance didn’t matter. Unlike my earlier experiences with Jesus at St Peters and with the Orb of Light in my dream, I was able to actually hold a sense of peace throughout the day. I felt so much gratitude. I was thrilled. Everyone I met was a treasure to behold. Everyone was beautiful. Every moment was an opportunity.
That evening my wife brought our sons back from daycare. I caught my youngest son Eli’s eye as he crawled around on the floor. Suddenly we connected at a deep level. His whole face lit up with amazement and recognition. We truly saw each other. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never seen him so happy before. It was with some distress that I saw Diane but could not see her light. I could see no golden streams flowing behind her as I had with everyone else that day. I knew she had a light but I just couldn’t see it. She was a blind spot for me.
The next day I woke up in hell. Everything was darkness. There were no opportunities. I felt loathing toward everything and everyone. My oldest son, 3 year old Colson saw me that evening. He looked my direction, pointed at me and said, “Dark.” I felt like a sore on the surface of the world. Just as the enlightened experience didn’t last, neither did the hell experience. Pretty soon I was back to my normal ambivalence.
But something had stuck from my experience with Buddha’s bone relic. I felt more open than I had before. The day of golden light did not return but I had faith that my experience was real and that it was possible to reclaim it. After all, I spent a whole day in that amazing state of mind. It was an improvement.
One day someone from my men’s group came back from something called an Enlightenment Intensive. He was so alive from the event that I had to find out what Enlightenment Intensives were all about. Within a few months I arranged to attend one. As it turned out Enlightenment Intensives were a three-day event composed of 16 hour days filled with meditation. It was explained to us at the beginning that about 1/3 of the attendees would most likely have an enlightenment experience. I didn’t have an enlightenment experience at this event or the next one that I attended. During the first Enlightenment Intensives I would plunge into Hell realms. They were places of intense shame, doubt, and pain. Sometimes, on the cusp of enlightenment, I would start feeling ill to my stomach and feel my shame tearing me down. I told myself I didn’t deserve enlightenment. It wasn’t for me. Finally, by the third event I did have an officially sanctioned enlightenment experience according to the Enlightenment Master. He asked, “Are you the cup or the water?” I replied, “I am the cup and the water.” I laughed. "Everything is everything. There is no difference really. We are all God looking at God." I could feel myself expand past the ends of the Universe. I am that I am. I am infinite. I am connected with everyone and everything.
In the following years, I attended several more enlightenment intensives and had several more enlightenment experiences. None of them lasted particularly long. But these experiences were valuable. Again, they served as glimpses into a Unity that was bigger than my personal suffering. They also came at a great cost. After every expansive enlightenment experience I would also suffer an equally intense experience of contraction. My greatest lesson from attending, staffing, and learning how to master Enlightenment Intensives came to this: I couldn’t enlighten my way out of my situation. I had to face it. I couldn’t master my life through mastering Enlightenment Intensives. I knew there were vast states of being available to me. I knew how to get there with a lot of work. I was getting practice on how to help other people get there too. But the whole thing seemed meaningless if I couldn’t face my life.
In August I attended a Sufi workshop and asked the Sufi Master what I should do to bring clarity to my situation regarding my wife. He told me to get up in the middle of the night every night for two weeks and do the Sufi mantras for forty minutes. I did what he asked for 10 or 11 days before I had to get a good night’s sleep. I believe there was something about these prayers that was pivotal. On the last night of my prayers I had a dream that the earth was falling away into the ocean but I was somehow placed on a ship of safety with a woman I did not know. As entire continents disappeared among giant waves I was safe and held on this magical ship. I was at peace.
In late 2008 my whole life seemed to fall apart. My marriage ended. My job ended. My dad was diagnosed with cancer. But there seemed to be a grace that held me through all of it. I was somehow deeply okay. I also fell in love with my second wife Robin during this time. I don't know how to explain it but it was like love itself demanded that I love her. At first the experience was actually terrifying. It felt like I was breaking apart from the inside out. It was like the ball of light that I had absorbed in my dream long ago was erupting out from within me in her presence. After a while I became steadier with this presence and just let the light shine through me. Basically, like the dream, I stopped fighting it and just let it guide me.
Whereas, in the past, my enlightenment experiences came with great effort and great cost, now they seemed to be popping like popcorn. I attended one enlightenment intensive during this time, and I was in bliss for the whole event. I also didn't have the usual major downslide after the event. Something good was afoot.
From the time Robin and I began seeing each other the writing of her memoirs became a mutual endeavor. I became her writing coach, developmental editor, and I was her healer when traumatic memories surfaced. In June of 2014 I was working with Robin on editing her book. Robin has a remarkable story. She was kidnapped and taken to Africa at the age of eight where she escaped her abductor and found her way to a traditional tribal village. A woman in this village loved Robin like her own daughter. As a matter of fact, Robin’s family experience in the U.S. paled in comparison to the deep belonging she felt with her tribe and with her African mother she calls Mama Eahton. All this happened in 1977 during the Rhodesian Bush War in the vicinity of Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. In the Rhodesian Bush War one of the warring factions sometimes shot white people on-site in hopes of driving the white people and the white government out of the country. One day while Robin was venturing outside the tribal village she was shot. The bullet grazed her head and she began to die of blood loss. In her book she describes an amazing experience of dying and then coming back to life with the help of Mama Eahton.
I had been working with Robin for over five years on her book. My role has been that of an editor, an interviewer, and a healer when difficult memories surface. Her experience of dying and coming back to life started as one page in a seven-page writing. It now comprises about 20-30 pages within her upcoming book. Until June 2014 I wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of her dying experience. There were too many holes, and it seemed too repetitive. There were five different key encounters in her dying experience and they all seemed too much alike and without sufficient description to hold my attention. I kept pressing her for details and asking her for the complete truth of what happened. As always, Robin listened to my critiques and then went back to work. After about a month of contemplation and writing she attempted again to get her dying experience across to me. This time her telling of going to the Other Side moved me deeply.
There was something about the nature of the love Robin described on the Other Side that I found tremendously compelling. It was absolute and unfailing. It was personal and universal. It was masterful, infinitely intelligent, and powerful beyond any comparison that I could conjure. After six years of work she had produced a beautiful vision of crossing over that left me awestruck.
Some days after reviewing the last edits on her book, in the middle of June, we left for a cabin where our plan was to continue working on our writing projects. While at the cabin I began to experience a tremendous sense of love stirring within the area of my heart. At first I thought it might be my love for Robin, but there was no attachment in this love. It was amazingly pure. I continued working on my project while this love visited me in gentle waves. At times I had to pause from what I was doing to take it in. The love was tremendously sweet and serene. Often this peaceful feeling was accompanied by an image of me standing on a beach, at the edge of a great ocean, on a sunny day with its waters softly lapping at my feet. Even though it seems obvious now; at the time I didn’t connect my experience of love with reading Robin’s experience of dying.
I let go of trying to figure out where this love was coming from and decided to enjoy it. The little cabin we were renting had only one single bed so I slept on a single cot during the night and felt the serenity wash through me continually. When it came time to leave the cabin I was afraid the love would leave me. I had attached it’s occurrence to this wonderful spot in the woods and was sure that I could not hold it once we returned to our house.
A couple of weeks went by, since coming home from the cabin, we were doing major work on our house and were living in our yard which fortunately is very private. I had no memorable visitations from the mysterious source of love during this time.
At some point in early July I started to wake up in the middle of the night while feeling sick to my stomach. It was almost as if I had the flu. In addition to my ill-feeling stomach my body would often shake involuntarily for several minutes.
One evening, before going to sleep, I had a warm sensation in my spine. The warmth gradually grew in intensity and then, when it was more hot than warm, the energy in my spine seemed to shoot up into my brain. This event left me feeling like my brain had turned inside out. My thoughts became disorganized fragments that possessed no sense whatsoever. This no-sense state remained for a few minutes until my normal capacities returned. It felt like an electric current had run through me. I was reminded of the time I got shocked by a 240 volt outlet while working with stage lighting in high school. But, despite feeling exhausted I felt something good had happened; a bit like how pure the air can feel after a thunderstorm.
I went to sleep but woke up in the middle of the night with the same sick feeling in my stomach. The core of my body began to shake - my hips, my torso, my chest, then my neck, then legs and arms. After a while the sick feeling left and I was comforted by a warm rush of energy that rose up from the bottom of my spine and spilled out into the area of my chest. It felt like all the cells in the area around my heart were dancing for several minutes before the pleasant vibrations gradually faded away.
The experience of shaking was not new for me. It started occurring about ten years earlier when I was attending enlightenment intensives. I was advised that this was life energy rising up from within me. It was not something to fight.
Again I went to sleep, then woke up in the morning overcome with the beauty of Robin’s story. Her Mama Eahton had become, in my mind, like Jesus. She was the bringer of light to a battered child. She was pure love and acceptance in human form. I thought of how great it was that we all have the opportunity to become that presence of love and acceptance for someone else - bringing the abstraction of The Divine down into three dimensions - into tangible human form. It seemed like my whole body was absorbed in the monumental importance of this fact. I began to shake again as I had in the middle of the night. I remember sitting up in the tent, half out of my sleeping bag, with the morning sun beginning to heat our temporary lodging. Tears were streaming down my face. I was absolutely overcome by the transcendent beauty in Robin’s story that somehow tapped into the entire human story.
After a few more nights I woke up again with my stomach more violently ill than before and with an even more acute, sharp, stabbing pain in the area of my heart. My body, again, started to shake very intensely. While I was going through this event two images came into my mind. The first image was that of being on the shore of the same great ocean that had visited me at the Writer’s Cabin. However, this time it was night and there was a violent storm. The ocean waves were engulfing me. I was still on the beach but wave after wave was pouring through me as if my body were a ghost. The second image was that of being eaten by a lion. My body was completely devoured yet I remained whole and unchanged. These images alternated and sometimes combined as I went through my ordeal that night. The shaking came and went with varying intensities and in various parts of my body as it had in previous nights. My heart hurt like crazy.
At this point I made a connection to the gentle visitations I had in the writer’s cabin and the more volatile events I was now experiencing. It was all love but this time the love had an astounding force to it. I had a sense that each mid-night event was building some capacity within me, even if the process could be unpleasant.
Many times in the past my heart has hurt in a similar way. Starting at age 23 this heart pain caused me great anxiety. The only logical reason I could think of for heart pain was that I was having a heart attack - but I was in my early twenties so a heart attack was very unlikely. Initially, I went to the emergency room when my heart hurt and then was told I was suffering from anxiety attacks. The anxiety attacks continued, always in the middle of the night, and each time I would call Dial-A-Nurse to help me through them. After a while I learned how to recognize the symptoms of an anxiety attack and get myself through them.
What I’ve learned over the years is to honor the pain that comes up in my heart as an opportunity for reunion with myself. But, in the summer of 2014, at the age of 49, and with an incredibly sharp, stinging pain in my heart for over an hour, I was tempted to call 911. However, on a deeper level I knew what this process was about and, at some point, I decided to trust what was happening and let the process run it’s course.
I figured something out. Since the anxiety was about dying, I decided the only way to deal with the anxiety was to welcome and accept my death. Upon accepting my death, the anxiety gradually dissipated, then disappeared. Even though I had found a way to relieve my anxiety, my heart pain was still present.
I was having trouble managing everything by myself so I woke Robin up and requested her assistance. I was on my knees with my head on the ground - still feeling like I was going to vomit. My back was curled in so my head was close to my knees. She began rubbing my back gently and reminding me to breathe. I wanted to throw up so badly. It felt like there was something in me, like a poison, that needed to come out. I began dry-heaving and making loud belches while still trembling and shaking.
After about two hours the shaking, the trembling, and the sick stomach all faded away. Gradually the stinging sensation in my heart started to broaden into a wide ache and then the ache dissolved into a feeling of wider peace. The whole area of my chest was physically vibrating again. My cells were dancing at last. Exhausted; I fell asleep at around four in the morning.
Six hours later, at ten in the morning, I awoke to a somewhat uncomfortably warm tent. There were a few flies buzzing around the roof so I decided to get up and let them out. Something about the morning was incredibly bright. It was as if all the colors had become more saturated. I still felt an immense peace within me as when I’d fallen asleep at four a.m.
I followed the flies out of the tent and was struck immediately by the beauty of the day. I walked out into the lawn and then spontaneously extended my arms and opened my palms up to the sky. My heart felt like an open reflective dish receiving an all-encompassing love from a great source. Then, in a flash, I witnessed an overwhelming Presence bowing down before me. I didn’t see it with my eyes or even with my imagination. It just informed me somehow.
The Presence dwarfed everything: The sun, the solar system, the galaxies, everything; and it was absolutely surrendered to me. The presence then became a tremendous outpouring that was flowing, thundering, into me with great force. The flow was like a Niagara Falls of devotion, but infinitely more vast. In this great outpouring I saw the Presence was devoted to each person in exactly the same way. I was so loved, so held, so precious, so cared for, so incredibly special; but, at the same time I was cared for no more or less than everyone else. In this shared adoration I saw myself connected first to everyone and then to everything. This amazing outpouring had an organization to it that presented as an ultimate intelligence - because it included everything. It was absolute. Everything and everyone was within it, organized by it, held by it, known by it, and actually made of it. No thing and no one could possibly be left out.
The immensity, intelligence, and magnificent devotion of this ever-flowing Source inspired a sense of awe which was quickly followed by a pure ecstasy I had never fathomed was possible. At the same time it was completely obvious that such an amazing joy was the most natural condition of my being. Suddenly I was exactly where I belonged. As I stood in this tremendous outpouring I became the outpouring itself.
My whole being erupted with joy. A huge “Yes!” exploded from within. An endless song of praise sang through every cell of my body, bursting from me toward everyone and everything. In turn, my surroundings exclaimed back to me. The simplest things; our tent, the twigs on the ground, the blades of grass in our yard, the gravel in our driveway, as well as the trees and the sky above became the very same song as myself.
A thought of reverence struck me, “There is no way to be more devoted to this Presence than it is to me. There is no greater love. It’s matchless. The only thing to do is let myself be overwhelmed by it, then my true nature is revealed as its grace. I could never deserve this miracle, but I don’t have to. This ecstatic state of being is the simple mind-bending truth of existence.” Everything else is ultimately illusion.