Powerful inner experiences of illumination have been an integral part of the spiritual journey from time immemorial. While I don't think that such experiences are necessarily the strongest evidence of spiritual progress—the ability to love and forgive others is a better standard, in my view—they can give us glimpses of where we are heading and inspire us to deepen our commitment to our path.
I have always been inspired by reading about the spiritual experiences of others, especially when they teach me something I can apply to my own journey. So, I would like to share the most powerful spiritual experience of my life, in the hope that this sharing may be helpful to others on the path. It happened in the last year, and can perhaps best be described as a brief experience of universal love for God and His creation. This experience taught me that the lofty, transcendent states of mind the Course describes are real, and that following the Course's program really can bring those states to us. In short, the Course delivers what it promises. In its own words, "If you do it, you will see that it works" (T-9.V.9:2).
The background: "a slowly evolving training program"
I have never had a propensity for dramatic inner experiences. While I've had a few that were powerful and even life changing, they were the exceptions to the rule. My spiritual history has generally fit the mold of my earlier avocation as a long distance runner: instead of spectacular leaps, my path has been one of slow, steady progress. My successes have come not through prodigious natural gifts, but through patience, self-discipline, and endurance. Instant enlightenment has never been an option for me. I'm in it for the long haul.
My history with the Course has followed that same pattern. I've tried my best to bring the same self-discipline to the Course's mind-training program that I used to bring to my distance running. It has paid off tremendously: though I have a ways to go, slowly but surely my inner peace has deepened, my relationships have blossomed, and my heart has become more forgiving. Yet the spectacular kinds of enlightenment experiences reported in so much spiritual literature have for the most part eluded me; for me, the Course has definitely been a "slowly evolving training program" (M-9.1:7). This pattern made the experience I am about to describe all the more surprising.
The retreat: "I will accept my part in God's plan for salvation."
This experience happened during a personal retreat that I took on February 18-21, 2002. I had several goals for this retreat, all centered around a desire to deepen my commitment to the Course's path of salvation. I wanted to get a clearer understanding of my specific part in God's plan for salvation, and really commit to doing it. I wanted to learn more about the Circle's function in that plan, and mentally join with my Circle colleagues in committing to our function. Finally, I wanted to gain, through extended prayer and meditation, a deeper personal experience of the peace, joy, and love that the Course promises. I wanted this experience both for its own sake, and so I would be more motivated to follow through on my commitments.
To facilitate these goals, I did a number of different activities during the retreat. I sought Jesus' guidance on questions concerning my and the Circle's function, and wrote down what I received in a journal. I read Course sections pertinent to my questions. Since the focus of the retreat was on committing to the goal of salvation, I listened to a tape set of the Circle's workshop on goal setting (entitled Seeking and Finding: The Course's Approach to Setting and Reaching Goals). And I did a process of mentally joining with my Circle colleagues, visualizing all of us joining arm-in-arm in a circle and committing to our common purpose.
I used a variety of Course practices during the retreat. Above all, I did a lot of meditation. The main form of meditation I used was the standard Workbook style of meditation, in which you slip past your surface thoughts and try to sink deeply into your mind. As a focus for my meditations, I mainly used Workbook lessons on the theme of committing to our one true function of salvation: Lesson 65 ("My only function is the one God gave me"), Lesson 98 ("I will accept my part in God's plan for salvation") and Lesson 100 ("My part is essential to God's plan for salvation"). I meditated in one-hour sessions for the most part, with short breaks for rest, writing, and meals. This added up to a lot more meditation than I usually do. I'm sure this contributed greatly to the experience I ended up having.
The experience: "I love you, Father, and I love your Son"
At first, my meditations were pretty much what they usually are: a mixed bag. There were positive, peaceful moments mixed in with plenty of mind wandering. But over the course of the retreat, the peaceful moments increased, and the mind wandering decreased. I began to feel a real connection to God and to my brothers and sisters at the Circle. My meditations went deeper and deeper. By the afternoon of the final full day (February 20), I was entering into uncharted territory for me. Here is what I wrote in my journal immediately after completing a one-hour session that afternoon:
This technique has never worked so well for me as it is today. I am tapping into a place of deep peace and joy, just as the Course promises….I feel the Love of my Father. Wow!
This feeling of peace, joy, and love continued to grow as the evening progressed. At bedtime, I did a final round of meditation using Workbook Lesson 109, "I rest in God." This is what I wrote immediately after that final round:
Wow! I just had a great final meditation!….I felt really great joy and thankfulness to God, and caught a glimpse of a deep ocean of peace and joy. I was smiling at the end, and close to tears.
But as wonderful as this was, it was only a harbinger for what was to come. I went to bed a little after ten o'clock, but couldn't get to sleep; it felt like I wasn't done for the night. So, I got up at about half past eleven and did another round of meditation.
This was when the full-blown experience of universal love really started. It's difficult to describe exactly what happened, but it's as if the love and gratitude that I was already feeling toward God suddenly expanded outward and encompassed all of creation. Here is part of what I wrote during the height of this experience:
I unconditionally love everyone and everything with no reservations! I love God, my Father!….I am basking in a sea of love. Thank you Father, Jesus, the Course, everyone! I can scarce refrain from kneeling at everyone's feet. "I love my Father and I love His Son!" This is indescribable, wonderful, very intense, spectacular, mind-boggling, I'm free, I love, I am one with all, I love everyone….This is awesome! Words fail to describe it!
I basked in this radiant love for the next couple of hours. Yet oddly, even when I was in the midst of the experience, a part of my mind stood "outside" of it and witnessed it. So, I started doing mental experiments to test it. I brought specific people to mind and extended this deep love to them, starting with those who are closest to me. Then I brought to mind people I normally have grievances against—everyone from those who have personally "wronged" me to "evil" world figures like Hitler and Osama bin Laden. I wanted to see if I truly felt this love for them as well. I did.
I remembered that Course line that says if you were to see people truly, you could scarce refrain from kneeling at their feet (W-pI.161.9:3). I asked myself if that was true for me now, and amazingly, it was. I didn't actually kneel, of course, but I saw such holiness in these people. In thinking of the ones I normally hold grievances against, I remained fully aware of the negative things their bodies did, but it just didn't matter what their bodies did. The negative things were merely calls for help, which didn't change my love at all. I loved these people anyway, without reservation. I even loved animals and inanimate things when I brought them to mind. And I loved God with a deep, intimate, grateful love that I had never felt for Him before. It seemed that I was partaking in the Love of God Himself, a Love that enabled me to "see the world anew, shining in innocence, alive with hope, and blessed with perfect charity and love" (W-pI.189.1:7). It was an experience I never wanted to end.
The lesson: "If you do it, you will see that it works"
But alas, it did end. Over time, the experience faded, as all peak experiences do. My Course practice continued to go well once I got home from the retreat (certainly I had the motivation for it), but I could no longer meditate for hours a day, and my mental state gradually went back to "normal." For the most part, I'm now back to my usual slow and steady distance runner mode. But I do believe that the level I've retreated back to is a higher level than I was at before the retreat. I still remember my experience fondly, and still catch glimpses of it on occasion. I'll never be the same person that I was-the memory of that incredible opening of my heart has remained with me, and continues to inspire me to the present day.
I learned many things from that experience. As I reflect back on it, two things in particular stand out, both of which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. First, it convinced me that the higher states of mind the Course describes are real. Certainly I had believed they were real before the experience-indeed, I had entered into less dramatic versions of them at other times in my life, and I knew that others on the path reported similar experiences. But the sheer intensity of what happened at my retreat reinforced my conviction tremendously. Now, when I read in the Course about the "holy instant," "true perception," and the "vision of Christ," those terms are much more than vague abstractions. For me, they describe a state of mind that is tangible. It is something that I have actually touched, something that I have experienced in some measure and can remember.
Second, it convinced me more than ever that the Course's program really works. I believe strongly that the foundation for my experience was all the work I had done with the Course for years prior to the retreat. And once I was at the retreat, everything I did-asking for Jesus' guidance, reading Course sections, studying the Course's approach to goal setting, committing to my part in salvation, mentally joining with others in a common purpose, doing Workbook-style meditation, and more-came straight from the Course itself. The entire experience of those higher states the Course describes grew directly out of following the Course's program of study, practice, and extension as given. Of course, there are many ways to spiritual experiences, but this is the way that worked for me. And I am truly amazed that anything could possibly bring an experience of such magnitude to a career non-experiencer like me. This is miracle enough to convince me that the Course isn't kidding when it says that if we do it, we will see that it works.
As remarkable as it felt to me, the experience I've described in this article was, of course, not anywhere near as deep as it is possible to go. I think it was just a glimpse of what the Course promises us; the briefest, shallowest foretaste of the end of the journey; "the faintest glimmering of what love means" (W-pI.127.7:1). But what a glimmering! Now I am more motivated than ever to follow the Course's path, because I feel certain that it can take me all the way home to God. It gave me an experience I never expected to have in my lifetime, and I know that if I can experience it once, I can experience it again. All I need to do is take the Course Jesus has given me, and I will one day live forever in universal love.