We think we see the world as it is,
when in fact we see the world as we are.
– Stephen Covey
The universe is a unity, an interacting and
genetically-related community of beings.
– Thomas Berry
Back in the early 1980’s, during a retreat I attended for Catholic single adults, we watched a film on the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, who later became known as Gautama Buddha. His teachings formed the foundation for Buddhism. What I remember most from the film is the initial transformation of consciousness that occurred for Siddhartha.
As the legend goes, Siddhārtha grew up in the protective confines of the palace where he lived, completely spared from the harsh realities of life. It was not until he was a young man that Siddhārtha departed the palace and, to his shock and dismay, came into contact with human suffering caused by illness, aging, and death.
At the time I saw the film, the depiction of Siddhārtha’s coming to “awareness” was something new for me. I did not know then what to make of it. A few years later, however, I had my own “awareness” experience. It was during my first years of exploring life with the members of my religious congregation. In the summer of 1984, I volunteered with eight other young women to travel to a remote area of Appalachia near Williamsburg, Kentucky, to run a Bible school. For a month, we slept every night (all eight of us) in the choir room off the sanctuary of a small, country church. We cooked and shared our meals in the parish hall. For me, it was my first awakening to the existence of other young women who shared my similar quest to be of service to the world.
My awakening continued as each morning we drove on winding roads out into the mountain “hollers.” There in secluded, wooded valleys, we picked up young children of various ages, piling them into our dusty cars. We then brought them to the central place where we conducted our little outdoor, summer Bible school.
Eventually, I got very friendly with one family that had three children attending the Bible school. I even accepted an invitation to visit their home one afternoon and share an evening meal with their parents. The family’s kind hospitality and humble country house touched me deeply.
Having myself grown up in various middle-class suburbs in the U.S., my experience in Appalachia was my awakening to the reality of “poverty” in our country. I learned for the first time that not every child in the U.S. gets up on Saturday morning anticipating a trip to Sears with Mommy or Daddy, and coming home with a new toy.
That Appalachia experience of awakening happened to me in my early 30’s. However, I also am coming to believe that much earlier in my life I received a “gift” both mysterious and challenging that was my first, true “awakening.” This gift came in the form of a profound “mystical” or “unitive” experience I had when I was a small child. I continue to wonder at the mystery of why that experience of unitive consciousness happened. I have written the details of that experience in another post. Here I just want to say that I do know that from a very young age the experience seemed to situate me as someone “in the world but not of it,” as one saying goes. Or, put in another way, as someone more profoundly in the world than most young people of similar age.
That mystical experience in childhood left me aware at a deep level of my interconnectedness with what I call “the Presence” (because it felt/feels that personal). The Presence is always there behind my existence and the existence of all that surrounds me. Because I grew up Catholic, and had attended Catholic school from kindergarten on, I originally associated that experience with the “God” in Heaven I learned about in religion classes. At the same time, the experience also seems to have arranged my consciousness in such a way that from that time on, at the core of my being, there exists a strong, intuitive drive toward mutuality and communion with all of creation that is counter-cultural to much of the Western, Christian worldview within which I grew up. Throughout my life I often have chaffed at the differences between the values that seem to flow from the sense of deep mutuality I came to know in that experience and the opinions and behaviors of many religious leaders I have met.
Whatever is behind the sense of Presence I experienced as a child and continue to experience to some degree even now, it seems that first experience oriented me toward living my life driven by the demands of love, mutuality, and interconnectedness. I felt those values so powerfully in those few moments in which I was drawn into conscious awareness of the unitive nature of reality, that it seems they have become almost instinctual to me. Even in moments when I fail to live up to them, a deep sorrow haunts me afterwards. For, from that experience on, I have felt deeply aware of others and the plight of a less-than-perfect world. From a young age, I felt called to engage that world and to bring to it the deep peace, joy, and love I knew, if only ever so fleetingly, in that experience.
Yet, I must admit there was struggle in learning how to live out the vision and values prompted by my unitive experience. For one thing, I was a very shy child, and through my Catholic education had heard many stories about the fate of people who dedicated their lives to God. From my young point of view, the men and women we called “saints” usually ended up living lonely lives of constant struggle and sacrifice, not to mention often having their lives end in horribly painful deaths at the hands of those who could not accept them or their message. As a result, out of a deep sense of fear and self-preservation, I resisted for many years what I felt was a call to live my life making choices driven by the experience I had in my youth.
It was only in my late 20’s that I began to seek a path that would help me to understand the experience and act on its implications for my life. As I moved along on that path, I was able to make a conscious choice about the fear. At one point, I made a personal commitment that never again would I allow fear alone to sway me from an important choice or decision. I would not become reckless, of course, but I would no longer allow fear to be an insurmountable wall beyond which I could not move.
Eventually, I came to know as well as feel that I exist as one with all that makes up our entire Universe, held in communion by the One “in whom we all live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That knowing helped me to integrate more fully the unitive experience I had as a child with my adult life. I have since directed my life toward creating among those with whom I live and work a daily reality that mirrors our oneness and a joy that inspires our creative work together. I also have tried to live open to the movement of Spirit in my life, making a commitment “to go on in faith to whatever is next in love.”
In conclusion, I must add here a cautionary note. While the reflections and resources on this site can help point you, the reader, in the right direction in terms of expanding your awareness, they can never substitute for direct experience; just as viewing the film of Siddhārtha’s life had no real impact on me until I had my transformative experiences in Appalachia.
I encourage you to choose for yourself activities that will help you in your own awakening. You might try spending time volunteering with an organization that serves others who are less fortunate. You might travel to a place unfamiliar to you, not as tourist, but as someone open to learning about the place, the people, and the culture. Whatever activity you choose, I guarantee you will receive from the experience far more than you give.
For an Archive of other posts within this current Click Here
To read my introduction to the next current Click Here