Posted by Lydia
I began working on this piece years ago. It’s gone through several drafts. I published one previous draft in 2021, briefly, then unpublished it.
The reason for my hesitation has been that this piece tends to trigger people who don’t believe in God — in particular, atheist skeptics. I’m close to a number of these folks. When I’ve asked them to read the draft, I found their outrage and condescension to be exhausting, and deeply demoralizing. I have quailed at the prospect of attracting more of the same from strangers.
My request for any such person who reads this is as follows: Please understand that the intention of this piece is not to persuade you of anything. It is simply “notes from the road” by a person who had a certain set of spiritual experiences. If you comment publicly, or message me about this piece, please consider choosing not to interact as if you or I have something to prove.
It may be for the best that this took so long to publish, as there ended up being a twist ending. And of course the story, which is part of my life story, is unfinished. I hope that some good comes from finally publishing this today.
“And though I know that there are no words that can express this inner journey of mine, I believe in words. I am a believer of words.”
~ The character of Rumi as portrayed by Elif Shafak in her fictionalized account, The Forty Rules of Love
I’ve heard stories about how people seek God. Some pray for hours, every day. Some meditate. Some travel to meet the enlightened.
One metaphor I’ve heard is that spiritual seekers are trying to get into a club with a zealous bouncer. You can go, over and over, day after day and month after month. Eventually, the bouncer might take a liking to you and let you in.
I did not think I was looking. I never went to the bouncer and begged for entry. The divine happened to me suddenly; I didn’t consciously make a choice.
I used to catch myself complaining about it, aloud or silently. And I felt so embarrassed!
How strange, how selfish that I would complain. I hear about people who beg for a sign. I hear about people who spend decades seeking a moment of awakening.
And it’s absolutely something to be grateful for. Even if it leaves you feeling lost. Even if it changes everything. Even if it puts you on a seemingly endless road of change.
On the day I found God, I thought I was going to a fun professional meeting.
This was 2016. I was on a business trip. I was meeting a man I’ll call “Jason,” who’d gotten connected to me by a friend. I knew Jason worked in an emerging tech field; my plan was to discuss digital strategy and product development.
Nope! Instead I connected to the universe, or something.
This is not a joke or a metaphor (besides how life is a joke and a metaphor!). But this is tricky to explain, because I don’t know how Jason did it.
Jason’s office is small and unassuming, with white walls. Jason himself is a hyper man in his fifties. We started out chatting about mutual friends, and digital media, and Burning Man. I wasn’t sure I liked him because he kept interrupting me. I was jetlagged, having landed from San Francisco the day before. I was wondering how to get a quick synopsis of Jason’s work so I could go back to my Airbnb and crash.
It was a normal networking meeting. I’ve met hundreds of people in similar circumstances. And then.
There came a moment when Jason met my eyes and said, “From here, I could totally mess with you,” and I suddenly realized he was right. He had activated — what? Perhaps you could call it a cheat code for my brain.
It may be useless to describe what happened on the material plane, but I’ll try. Here’s one thing I saw him do: He held my gaze, and he seemed able to perceive the shift when I stopped paying attention. At those moments, he would drag my attention back into the present. Sometimes he did this by waving a hand in my peripheral vision. Sometimes he did it by telling me to listen to sounds around me, to look at what was in front of me.
I could feel that he was doing something, altering my state, but at first it did not occur to me to be afraid.
As we kept talking, my consciousness shifted. My mind felt clear as a bell. My awareness opened outwards and expanded, encompassing patterns I’d never consciously seen before. And then we talked about God.
“The world around you is a language,” Jason said to me. “Forces are moving that we don’t understand. Reality is the mind of God.”
And I perceived exactly what he meant.
People often get weird when one talks about God. So here’s a disclaimer.
I am not here to convert you. I don’t follow a dogmatic religion. I’m writing this in an attempt to remember, and to share how it felt.
I did not expect to have this experience of the divine. Yet I’ve learned that people have similar experiences all the time. So you might know someone who feels this way. You might be that person. Or you may become that person in the future.
If it happens to you, maybe you’ll remember this piece. If it happens to you, I pray it helps you feel less alone.
When I met Jason, I had a romantic partner I’ll call “Eric.” Eric was an atheist scientist. He’d made it clear that he did not believe in God, that he considered religion harmful. So after the first day we discussed religion — very early in our relationship — I left the topic alone. I disagreed with him that organized religion was inherently harmful, but I thought, at the time, that it didn’t matter between us. After all, when I met Eric, I didn’t see myself as religious or spiritual at all.
The morning after I met Jason, I awoke, and my mind felt like the glassy surface of a pond. There was one ripple. Eric. I felt I should tell Eric what happened, but I had no clue how to describe it.
We’d been having terrible fights. We’d broken up and gotten back together. Yet I loved Eric more than I’d ever thought possible. And he’d said, many times, that we’d be together forever.
How could I possibly tell him I’d found God?
Two weeks before I met Jason, I remember dancing with Eric — lost in the music, lost in the feeling of Eric’s hands running down my back. I remember looking up at him as joyful tears poured down my face. “We’re so lucky we found each other,” I said.
Eric smiled and said, “We are! But on the other hand, maybe it was bound to happen. It feels like the entire universe is on our side.”
Then, using words I would later find ironic, Eric asked me to “have faith.”
And so, on the morning after I met Jason on the business trip, I texted Eric many inadequate words. I used terms like “consciousness.” I said that my sense of “awareness” had changed. I said, “I feel amazing.” I did not use the word God.
Eric sent a cautious yet positive response. I looked at his texts and wondered whether I’d ever be able to explain.
Just for fun, I recently looked up Merriam-Webster’s definition of God. Here’s Definition #1: “The supreme or ultimate reality.”
One of the sub-definitions is: “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” Another definition, attributed to Christian Science, is: “the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit: infinite Mind.”
Make of that what you will.
Since that day, I’ve met many people who had spiritual experiences, both similar and dissimilar to mine. Not all of them refer to this mystery as God. Some call the relevant states of consciousness “altered states” (whether substances are involved or not).
The day after I met Jason, I settled into my business trip, and then I sent Jason a Facebook message.
“Hey, it was amazing to meet you last night and I’m grateful for what you showed me,” I wrote. “I’m thinking about this state of mind and how to hold on to it… I’m not sure if ‘trying to hold on to it’ is the right way to think about it, but there must be steps to stay close to it?”
“Be aware when you slip out,” Jason wrote to me. “Then… be aware of the triggers that take you out.”
I asked for tips, best practices. Jason’s responses were mystical, maddening, and yet they felt true. Here’s an example: “It seems like you are still trying to do something… versus a complete surrender.”
Those words felt deeply true at the time, yet I still wanted to know what to do. It wasn’t like I had a button to push labeled, “Surrender!” I thought I could see the potential love, awe, and calm that came from being close to God. I thought it must be possible to surrender to the ultimate reality: To simply be at peace in the world.
I’d heard the word “enlightenment” used to describe a desirable spiritual state, but I’d never thought about what it might be like. Now, I felt like I could taste it.
By this time in my life, I was in my early thirties, and had tried many different drugs. I had been medicated as a teenager by well-meaning suburban psychiatrists, had eventually concluded those medications might not be good for me, and had then quit those medications after I went to college. In my late teens I began experimenting with psychedelics. Interestingly, I went into my first trip an atheist and emerged an agnostic, because I had a sense of God on that trip; on a later trip, I ecstatically told my teenage friends that “reality is the mind of God” — decades before I met Jason. And yet, when I came out of these teenage trips, the experience went away as the chemical left my body, and so although I became more willing to entertain the idea that God existed, I did not believe in God until I met Jason. I kept trying different research chemicals over the years — always in a reasonably safe, controlled fashion — and I had a lot of fun. But I didn’t think of this as a spiritual activity during my twenties. I thought of it as a chemical brain activity.
In part due to my extensive previous experience, it was immediately obvious to me that the experience I had when I met Jason outclassed every drug experience I was familiar with. It was also obvious to me that Jason had not dosed me with a chemical.
I wanted to remain in the state that Jason had shown me, but I was confused. As the days and weeks went on, I felt like I was slipping away from my highest awareness — not getting closer. But at the same time, my perspective had changed, and it was difficult to talk “normally” to my secular associates.
I began to understand how much mainstream American culture stigmatizes belief in God. And so, like a member of any stigmatized subculture, I identified key words that I used to feel people out. For example, I rarely mentioned God when starting a conversation, because that word can cause strong reactions.
Instead I used less-threatening words like “consciousness,” “awareness,” “connection,” and “energy,” or I asked whether people identified with a religious or meditation practice. If I felt daring, I used words like “spirituality” or “enlightenment.” After dropping those words, I tried to flow with what my conversation partner said, and thus I began to identify a spiritual community.
Fortunately, my closest friends and family seemed okay with my new obsession. They tolerated me ranting about Zen koans, speculating about saints, and expressing cosmic awe about everyday things. Some of them revealed spiritual interests that they had been concealing from me, and we laughed together about how things can change.
I remember texting one of my closest friends: “I’m having increasingly mystical thoughts. Like, today I actually had the thought that, ‘There’s only one thing worth learning or teaching, and it’s how to be closer to God.’ ”
She wrote back: “Whoa. What is it like to get thoughts like that?”
I told her: “I’m scared of going insane.”
And I was. Terrified! Had I gone crazy? I didn’t think so. But would I know if I went crazy?
Although I initially felt cautious about describing my burgeoning cosmology, I slowly gained confidence, found friends, and found words — except with one person. Eric.
I wanted to ask for Eric’s support through the fear I was feeling. I wanted to share the awe. I wanted to describe the connection I felt between my love for him and the divine love I barely understood, the divinity that felt so close, and inspired me every day.
I wanted to tell him that everything in the world felt like a miracle.
During that time with Eric, I often started sentences and didn’t finish them. I feared his judgment almost as much as I feared my own potential insanity.
I felt like I was holding my balance on a high wire. I began keeping a list of things I felt certain were true. The first item was based on something Jason had said: “Forces are moving that I don’t understand.”
It was a short list.
I messaged Jason asking if I was at risk of madness.
“Stay grounded,” he wrote back. “Insanity and madness relate to strong attachment. Fear and desire will destabilize you as you move to higher-energy states.”
I thought of Eric, and wondered if our relationship was destabilizing me. I asked Jason, “Have you ever been tempted to leave someone because of the amount of fear and desire wrapped up in that relationship?”
Jason responded: “And the underlying emotion motivating that would be?”
I had to laugh. I knew he was right. The way to handle attachment was not to burn my existing life to the ground.
Later I would learn that, among people who pursue spirituality, apparent “insanity” is a well-documented risk — even resulting from practices as “harmless” as meditation.
Day by day, I convinced myself to stay with Eric. I believed that we were critical parts of each others’ journey, even as I asked God how to relate to a partner I couldn’t talk to about the most important transformation in my life.
But we’d already been having lots of problems — and Eric, quite understandably, decided not to stick with it. On the day I knew Eric would pull the trigger, I worked out to calm myself, talked to some friends. And prayed.
The hours crawled by, my body ached, my heart screamed, I cried and cried, and I knew relief would not come.
How could it be that my heart was breaking? Where was the mystical peace that I’d felt on the night I met Jason? How could I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was another way to be — and yet feel trapped in my mind and body, feeling such attachment and pain?
I did not know what to pray for. Perhaps I didn’t know how: I’d never before tried praying with faith behind my words. Finally I simply begged God: Please, let me and Eric be good to each other. Let us not hurt each other any more than we already have.
In the end, we were indeed gentle.
When I walked into his apartment, Eric looked at me and said: “You always know what I’m thinking before I do.”
I remember sitting across from him, holding hands.
“I still love you.”
“I still love you, too.”
I remember Eric saying, softly, “I still love your writing. Where does it come from? It’s so amazing.”
“It’s not me,” I said. “I’m — learning to channel it,” and then I stopped.
Another sentence I would never finish.
You ask where it comes from? The source of my writing, the source of my inspiration, the source of my love, it’s all God. God is everything….
The answer felt so clear to me in those days, when I felt so connected to mystical space. I couldn’t seem to find another way to talk about it at the time. And I wanted, so much, to show him.
But I couldn’t.
Eric looked at me. Concern was written all over his face. He sighed. “No, I think it comes from here,” he said, and touched my forehead.
Tears poured down my cheeks. I said nothing. Obviously, Eric was correct: My writing emerges from my brain, my nervous system, my body. We know these things are real because we can see them with our eyes, because they’re constructed from material atoms, because we can measure them with electrodes and scan them with computers.
Physical reality is real. Science is real. The brain is real. So I could have said yes. But I could have said no. Either word would have been meaningful and meaningless.
I realized that, when talking to Eric, I still had never used the word God.
Later, I would realize that when Eric touched my forehead, he’d touched the spot some mystics dedicate to the third eye: The channel for insight from the universe.
Fun with disclaimers! Here’s another one.
This thing I’m talking about — this everything, this nothing — “God” is just a word. But what a word!
There is massive historical and cultural baggage piled onto the name God. Some people have a very specific notion of God; for them, God contradicts evolution and science, et cetera.
For the record, I think science and the theory of evolution are all great. Keep it up, science! I love what you’re doing. (One might suggest that you, too, Science, are part of God. But we don’t have to talk about that if it makes you uncomfortable.)
Anyway, “God” is the only word that approaches the awe and power — and love — that I want to express. Besides, I reckon that “conscious and communicative universe” has a lot of syllables. A nice short word is God.
I am a believer of words.
I loved Eric more than I’d ever thought possible. But on the plus side, the breakup freed me to put tons of energy into researching the nature of reality.
I had previously thought religious traditions were a collection of interesting stories. I had even chosen religious studies as one of my majors in college, though it had been out of cultural interest at the time, rather than spiritual interest. Now I perceived these traditions as descriptions of reality, even roadmaps. Mystical writing that once appeared nonsensical, elusive, or allegorical felt suddenly obvious, even comforting.
I was raised Unitarian Universalist, which integrates well with the modern American perspective; I’m grateful for that. The primary tenet of Unitarian Universalism is to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the church encourages independence and critical thinking. However, many UUs don’t tend towards spiritual practice, so my birth religion did not provide much direction now that I’d found God. I could, perhaps, have sought spiritual guidance from a UU minister — but the idea didn’t occur to me during my transition period, which is an interesting reflection of how UUs tend to think of ourselves.
I’ve had good conversations with UU ministers since then, however. Most importantly, the intellectual tools that I gained from my UU upbringing — tools seemingly designed to help me find a highly personal religious path — were crucial during my next phase.
I temporarily dropped out of my social scene — half out of good old-fashioned heartbreak and half because I didn’t want to talk about anything but spirituality, which can complicate the vibe. I left my job, which was hard, because I loved that job. But when my amazing former boss learned what was happening, it turned out that she had her own spiritual practice, and she understood why I’d behaved the way I did. She gave me her blessing and mailed me a copy of Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which is about Rumi, a historical Islamic mystic who was transformed through his relationship with another mystic.
I had the sense that the most important thing I could do was strengthen my spiritual self. As I began my research, I formed a very tentative model for what had happened: My awakening had ripened within me and laid in wait like a row of dominoes. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?) When Jason tipped over the first domino, spiritual energy burst through me that I didn’t yet have capacity to contain.
I thought that I could build spiritual strength, then if I received grace once more, I might have more capacity to maintain that sense of harmony with God. This model felt incomplete, but it also felt kind of correct (all models are wrong, some models are useful!).
I tried, discarded, then tried again with at least a dozen spiritual practices. I ceased doing drugs of any kind, including alcohol and caffeine. I seriously considered joining a monastery. I learned prayers and rituals. I memorized mantras. I read about the lives of saints and mystics. I attended weekend workshops from modern mystical traditions. I increased my yoga practice and also started working on aikido, a spiritual martial art. I gritted my teeth and began meditating every day — something I’d always resisted.
I became extremely interested in epistemology. I have not found a sustainable way to engage with this stuff aside from a kind of extreme respect for mystery, an acceptance that anything I previously considered impossible could turn out to be real. Yet I also saw that some things are more possible than others, and that many possibilities are gated by perception, and so maintaining a clean and solid epistemology became a core goal. As I established my spiritual practice, I also oriented around goals like: Enlightenment; union with God; gaining a better understanding of how reality works, including magic (or “magic”) disciplines like energy work, and “impossible” things like miracles; doing all of this while maintaining my capacity to function in mainstream society; and working towards the benefit of all beings.
I found other people who had felt this epiphany, this awakening, this descent of grace. I became friends with some, and I was grateful for my conversations with all of them, like candles in the darkness.
Yet I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, uncertain, and afraid. Apparently, that’s normal. I keep hearing that the spiritual path is one of the loneliest paths. Sometimes it helps to hear that.
One of the first useful books I found was The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, written specifically for people navigating a sudden spiritual awakening. The author, a non-denominational teacher named Adyashanti who began his practice with Zen, put words to realizations that I’d been sensing for weeks.
On awakening and then “losing hold of it,” Adyashanti writes:
This “I got it, I lost it” phenomenon is the struggle, as it were, between our true nature and our imagined sense of self. It means our consciousness is not yet beyond the gravitational field of the dream state of ego, and so we vacillate between our true nature and our imagined sense of self — back and forth, back and forth. This can be very disconcerting and can feel schizophrenic in a way.
We’ve seen the deeper reality of things, and then we find ourselves back in the dream state. Part of us still knows the deeper reality; part of us knows that the egoic structure isn’t true…. Before we awakened, we either believed a thought or we didn’t believe a thought; that’s all we knew. It was one or the other. But after a glimpse of awakening, things can become very strange. We may believe a thought and not believe a thought simultaneously, or we may act in a way that we know is not coming from the undivided vision that we have seen. It’s like we feel compelled by inner forces we don’t understand to behave in a way that we know is not true.
… At this point, a lot of people will assume that somehow they have made a mistake; that something has gone terribly wrong. But what is important to know is that nothing has gone wrong. No mistake has been made. This is just the next phase in one’s awakening.
Adyashanti’s words expressed my pain so well that I cried, and was comforted.
Later, following many other books and experiences, I found Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. The irascible author, Daniel M. Ingram, offers plain-spoken observations about the path to enlightenment with stages derived from Buddhist practice. Ingram’s style is definitely not for everyone, but it has the advantage of being direct and clearly written.
He describes one stage, “The Arising and The Passing Away,” in a way that aligned with my observations — as a point of no return. (Aside from the “A&P event,” I’ve also heard this phenomenon called “shaktipat” and “transmission.”) Writes Ingram:
Some people will have a big and obvious buildup to such experiences and for others they will suddenly just show up completely without warning, sometimes spontaneously and even without formal meditation training….
Whatever context the first A&P Event happens in, that context will tend to hold a special place in that person’s heart from then on. For me it happened on my own, by my own meditation efforts and without a tradition, and so I have always associated my own practice with progress. My friend who had it happen with the Christian faith healer became the most hardcore Christian you could find. Another friend who had it happen while on mescaline has since held a special place in her heart for shamanism. Those who had it happen with gurus tended to follow those gurus for some period of time, associating it with the guru’s presence. Some others who had it happen in an apparently random context usually had no idea what it was or what it had done to them, but most have realized that something was different and nearly all remember it with an uncanny clarity as somehow standing out from ordinary experiences.
Those who have crossed the A&P Event have stood on the ragged edge of reality and the mind for just an instant, and they know that awakening is possible. They will have great faith, may want to tell everyone to practice, and are generally evangelical for a while. They will have an increased ability to understand the teachings due to their direct and non-conceptual experience….
This is a common time for people to write inspired dharma books, poetry, spiritual songs, and that sort of thing. This is also the stage when people are more likely to join monasteries or go on great spiritual quests.… The rapture and intensity of this stage can be basically off the scale, the absolute peak on the path of insight, but it doesn’t last. Soon the meditator will learn what is meant by the phrase, “Better not to begin. Once begin, better to finish!” as they are now too far into this to ever really go back.
At first I envied people who have such realizations with a guru, because I felt so alone. Then, as I continued my search, I began to feel relieved. I saw how many charismatic gurus in this world are traumatized, often abusive people, who do not treat their followers well and who share darkly fractured truths.
I saw that Jason, in his refusal to tell me what to do, had given me something extraordinary: The gift of being unattached to one paradigm or teacher, which worked particularly well with my Unitarian Universalist upbringing.
Jason is a flawed human, like the rest of us. His approach meant that I mostly dodged idealizing him. If it hadn’t been Jason, then someone else might have seen the potential in me and tipped the scale, and what if they’d been less restrained? Or perhaps it might have happened to me randomly, in the midst of a normal day. This sounds even scarier and more isolating, but that’s how it happens for some people!
Or maybe it never would have happened at all. This seems unlikely to me now. But who knows how this would have gone for me if I hadn’t met Jason?
I asked around about Jason, and I learned he’s occasionally had a similar impact on others. Yet there are also many people on whom he has zero such impact. I’ve seen him again several times since 2016. It hasn’t been the same, which both surprised and did not surprise me. I’ve watched him try to accomplish this transmission with others, and I have seen the connection not quite work.
When I eventually asked Jason how he does it, we had a fascinating conversation about energy flows, and he compared it to an improvised jazz performance. Like many spiritual and/or energetic disciplines, Jason’s knack for transmission seems to rely on a kind of aesthetic mastery. This has unreliable effects, in the same way an artist’s output has unreliable effects. Perhaps some of the great spiritual leaders in history mastered transmission in a more reliable way. Some stories make it sound like they did.
As far as I can tell, there are many gifts people manifest that can be called spiritual. Some religions don’t talk about them much, while some religions fear or stigmatize them. Some gifts are commonly acknowledged, like intuition and synchronicity, while others are less common and go by names like energy work and siddhis.
As far as I can tell, all of these could theoretically be understood and utilized by anyone, but some people have particular knacks. And, as far as I can tell, you don’t have to be a good or truthful person to manifest any of this stuff, or even to believe in God.
Which leads to a question: How could I know God exists? How can I be sure about God?
The fact that Jason gave me a powerful experience of God proves nothing. He could be a kind of energetically-gifted manipulative liar. Maybe he’s good at hypnotically drawing out a biological altered state that certain brains are prone to.
So sometimes, people in the years after this experience would ask me: How could I possibly know?
The answer I gave them was that I didn’t know God exists. Nor did I know God is benevolent, or anything else. I simply had this experience that changed my life.
I’ve heard many times, in the intervening years, that faith is about acceptance of uncertainty.
If there’s a reason this happened to me, I don’t know it. I have a pet theory about how certain activities, including psychedelic usage and alternative sexual practices, can shift a person’s energy system so it becomes more likely to manifest sudden and intense energetic experiences. Anecdotally, it seems like lots of people with sexual and psychedelic histories like mine get into spirituality eventually. But there’s also a question here about whether certain interests set you up for certain spiritual experience, or whether certain spiritual tendencies orient you towards certain interests….
Anyway, I did not join a monastery. Nowadays I sometimes think about things besides spirituality, and I’m not a teetotaler, which makes me more fun at parties. Yet I do, occasionally, return to the thought that the thing most worth learning or teaching is how to be closer to God.
There is one more thing that I should document here, though it hurts my heart. I guess it’s best described as my loss of faith.
For years after 2016, I acted like my faith in God was indestructible. I could not imagine a circumstance that would break it. This felt true even when I read accounts of people who had experienced something similar to what I experienced — transmission, shaktipat, the Arising and the Passing Away — and then lost their faith. One such account is Sometimes Brilliant, Larry Brilliant’s excellent memoir.
And then it happened. My faith was broken. It wasn’t anything dramatic that did it. It was a series of conversations with an aggressive skeptic. One of the saddest parts was that this person didn’t know how effectively they could break a spiritual person’s faith — and they regretted it afterwards. They apologized, and to all appearances they felt very bad, so bad that I tried to hide my heartbreak so as to not make them feel worse.
If belief in God can be instilled by one conversation and stripped away by another, then what does any of this mean? Should I take this set of experiences as evidence of… anything?
The thing is, of course, that this loss doesn’t mean I don’t know God exists. The loss objectively means nothing, in the same way that my previous visceral sense of God objectively meant nothing. All of this could be said to have no meaning but a subjective one: That I don’t feel my relationship to God in the same way anymore.
I generally think of religious traditions as being “maps” of spiritual territory, each with varying degrees of fidelity to the territory depending on the cultural context and the psychologies of their adherents. (All models are wrong, some models are useful.) It is often interesting to look for spiritual processes or events that seem similar across different religious maps. The experience (or experiences) known as transmission, shaktipat, or the Arising and the Passing Away is like this. Another such is the Dark Night of the Soul.
Soon after I experienced my break in faith, I met (for unrelated reasons) a Roman Catholic exorcist. Roman Catholicism and Unitarian Universalism aren’t necessarily natural allies, and yet, in him, I felt the presence of a morally upright and spiritually centered person. As we discussed religious philosophy, we arrived at the topic of the Dark Night of the Soul, so named in the sixteenth century by Saint John of the Cross. I told the exorcist about my experience and mentioned that I am inspired by Saint Mother Teresa, who reportedly spent decades in her own Dark Night.
I don’t recall the exorcist’s exact words, and I wish I could because the amount of thought behind his speech was so obvious; yet my meeting with him moved me, and I would like to share some things I recall. He said that there is a Roman Catholic way of looking at the Dark Night, such that the darkness can help clarify a person, can make it more possible for the light of God to shine through them and out into the world. He then said something like: The Dark Night can be perceived as a necessary step on the path to union with God. And he gave me a copy of Mother Teresa’s book, A Simple Path.
From where I am now I feel sure of nothing. I have been rereading the words of mystics like Simone Weil, mulling the commentaries of religious scholars like René Girard, and returning to the practices of teachers like Thorn Coyle. I am obsessed with questions about what the spiritual territory is, beyond the map. What sorts of spiritual structures or infrastructures or models are more or less useful, in the sense that they can help us tread a good path? I pray for guidance and to express integrity in my words and being. I do not exactly recommend anything I have done, and have tried mainly to be honest in what I experienced, and how I’ve made sense of it. I hope that these notes from the road can help someone, somewhere, and contribute to greater understanding of this world of which we are all a part.
May the benefit of these acts and all acts go to all beings everywhere. May the frightened cease to be afraid and those bound be freed. May the powerless find power and all beings seek to benefit each other. Peace.
Quite a journey.
Thank you for sharing this, all of this.
Honest, concerned question: do you have any prior experience with LSD that you could compare your first encounter with Jason to? Because it very much sounds to me like you might have been given a hit of LSD without your knowledge, and that Jason then proceeded to guide your trip to his own ends. And, being into Burning Man, he seems like someone who might be able to do such a thing?
Hi Kris. It’s a common question! I am very familiar with the effects of psychedelic drugs. I am completely confident that this experience was not caused by a chemical drug of any kind.
I have edited the post to include a few paragraphs, and extra sentences here and there, about my history with psychedelics and other drugs. I wanted to add some more context about my experience after thinking about Kris’s question above.
As I have now explained in the post, I had quite a lot of experience with psychedelics and other mind-altering drugs when I met Jason. This is one of the factors making me extremely confident that he did not dose me with a chemical. There are stories of bad gurus doing this — for example, I’ve heard at least one story of a guru who dosed people with MDMA without their knowledge or consent — but I’m really sure that this isn’t what happened here.
Remember! It was more real than the conversation with the skeptic. Are words more real than senses? Are senses more real than what you perceived? Do not be confused. Instead: Remember!
My best theory right now is that it’s all real. Indeed, if one can argue that loss of faith gets us closer to God, then one might suggest it’s because uncertainty is closer to God than certainty.
Edit: This comment is now its own top-level post.
Someone privately messaged me with the question “How many other modern accounts are there of mfers get shaktipat’d?” I’ll list a few links and resources I consider relevant in this comment.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that it’s hard to do a systematic survey of this. I am not sure how many written accounts exist, from any historical period, of experiences like the one I describe above. I’ve heard a number of personal accounts and rumors from the last few years, but most people I hear them from have little desire to be public about their experience.
I’m personally very interested in a related question: What percentage of the people who have an experience corresponding to descriptions of the Arising and the Passing Away show up there suddenly without any conscious intention (as I did)? I’d love a ballpark estimate on this, and I’d also be interested in pattern-matching among individuals to whom it seems to happen without any conscious intent on their part. I have a suspicion, for example, that people who have doubled down on intense sexual experience in some manner (as I did, with many years of deep BDSM practice) are more likely to have this happen unexpectedly than most; and I’d guess that people who have had run-ins with the Western mental health system (as I did, in my teenage years) are too. But I don’t know.
There are also questions about what fits under the definition of “shaktipat,” which, I must confess, is a word from a tradition I don’t have a good understanding of. As a result, I generally use “A&P Event” over “shaktipat,” as I feel more sure that my experience fits that phrase. I’ve also heard the phrases “kundalini awakening” and “direct experience of the nondual” used to describe some phenomena that might be similar. But sometimes when I dig into descriptions of those phrases, they seem like they have key differences; for instance, kundalini awakenings seem to frequently involve spinal sensations that I didn’t experience in 2016.
IMPORTANT FIRST NOTE: PLEASE BE CAREFUL
The extremely famous BDSM author/ teacher Janet Hardy documented what happened to her when she began to study tantra in this 2013 article for Salon. This article made an impression on me in 2016. I had already been able to feel (as I document in the piece above) a risk of potentially dangerous energy overload when I had my experience, and Janet’s report seemed like a good and sobering example of what is possible. A piece of advice I got at the time was that a person who takes spiritual and energetic phenomena seriously, on something like their own terms (as opposed to treating them skeptically or with contempt), while experimenting with those phenomena, might be safer than Janet was.
As a result of my instinct that going slower would be safer and also as a result of stories like Janet’s, I tried to go as slowly as I could stand — especially with practices that seemed obviously powerful and dangerous (e.g. energy work, “magic,” and so on) — while first building a strong baseline of maintenance and safety practices (e.g. for those of you taking notes: Taking Refuge, Dedicating the Merit, basic meditation and prayer practice, not to mention an emphasis on health stuff like physical fitness and nutrition, getting sleep cycles in order, circumstantial support like having a plan for financial health, and being sparing with mind-altering chemicals). This was a good call on my part, and yet, in retrospect, I wish I’d gone even slower on all levels than I did. I intend to publish more safety thinking in the future. But in the meantime, and this is important to emphasize, none of this stuff is exactly “safe” even for people who approach it with extreme slowness — and especially for those who find themselves suddenly at the A&P Event like I did, please, for everyone’s sake go as slow and steady in your escalation and practice as you can stand.
Another pattern I’ve seen is that lack of sleep seems connected to a large number of extreme outcomes, particularly psychotic breaks. Here’s an interview I did in 2017 with Ryan Jay Beauregard, one of the founders of the Zendo Project, an organization that counsels people experiencing psychedelic overwhelm. He had a psychotic break a while ago while taking ayahuasca, which inspired his work at Zendo, and he told me the story in the interview. Plus, in the intro to that interview I give some references for different mental health frameworks (bonus: if that’s a topic you find interesting then you might be excited about a publication I found recently, Mad In America).
OTHER REFERENCES ON THE A&P EVENT
I mention this in the post, but it’s worth mentioning again: Larry Brilliant has a memoir called Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History, which chronicles both his spiritual journey and his work helping to eradicate smallpox. Brilliant had a similar initial experience to mine; his was touched off by a guru named Neem Karoli Baba (a.k.a. Maharaji). Brilliant then experienced loss of faith decades later. He is still alive and around today, and the reason I read his memoir is that I met him at a conference and he generously gave me a copy in 2016.
There’s a video project called 10,000 Awakenings that I’ve heard about but haven’t watched. I don’t know anything about it.
In the wake of my own experience in 2016, I conducted a number of interviews with people who had powerful spiritual experiences. One of these is clearly another example of the A&P Event, although in his case he was actively looking for it: Robert and the Technology of Enlightenment.
There is one example of someone I interviewed who described her own experience as “shaktipat.” However, it’s worth noting that she had this experience at a school and with a teacher now widely regarded as extremely abusive. I almost hesitate to mention her, because I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow this school; for this same reason, my interview with her has languished in a hard-to-find digital format for years while I kept other work up-to-date. Nevertheless, in the interests of shared knowledge, you can find my interview with Ananya the tantrika by scrolling down this page and clicking the headline “EDITED: Agama Yoga Is Probably An Abusive Cult.” (I can’t link directly to the page with Ananya’s interview because in the intervening years Medium made some changes to the domain service toolkit I was using when I posted it, so the direct link is broken.)
I also really like the interview I did with artist and architect Abraham Burickson, but he doesn’t report a sudden awakening in quite the same way. There’s one particular quotation from his interview that still comes to mind for me on a regular basis:
I think it must be very difficult to be a woman in this world.
I can relate. After a long period of being an atheist, I decided to try praying. I was not expecting results but after a few months of doing it I have developed a sense of “God’s presence”. I haven’t told my atheist peers because I fear they might think I lost my mind.
A skeptic could not shake my faith because I fully accept the possibility that this feeling could be nothing more than a psychological trick concocted by my brain and I am aware that most holy books are full of contradictions. I find those things irrelevant because no matter what the source of this feeling may be, it is worth chasing and going to church is a simple way of doing that.
Lovely post, glad to have stumbled across it. Maybe we can’t appreciate what a tremendous gift faith is without losing it. I hope it’s given to you again, or that it finds you again, or that you at least find solace somewhere in the vast void of uncertainty.
Correction: The original version of this post referred to Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love by an incorrect title (I accidentally called it The Forty Words of Love). I am grateful to a nearby Zen teacher for his pointer on this, and other things.