A window opening. A glimpse of the ungraspable. A sudden surge of love...or hope...or awe. We asked artists, writers, thinkers, and doers to recall the flashes of understanding that took their breath away.
Elizabeth Lesser Co-founder of the Omega Institute and author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (Villard)
I've been a spiritual seeker my whole life because I have been acutely aware of death my whole life. When I was a little kid, I lay in bed at night and wondered, 'Who will I be when I'm no longer me? Where will I go? Does it all just end?' As I grew up, the fear of death was my closest companion. It encouraged me to find a spiritual teacher and help start Omega Institute 30 years ago; it made me become a midwife and had me sit with the ill and dying. It is with me still, as constant as my breath. Our friendship has given me an intense appreciation of life. I've heard there is a Sufi tradition in which one bead is always missing from the prayer beads to signify the mystery of God's true name—which is our true name, and the name we will discover, it is said, when we take our last breath. When my friend Ellen took her last breath, a window opened in my mind for a brief moment. There, on the threshold of life and death, I thought I heard the Name, but before I could know for sure, the window closed, and I returned to the living. Every now and then, especially when I remember those last moments with Ellen, the window opens a crack again, and I hear the Name.
Elie Wiesel President of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and author of Night (Hill and Wang)
Is it at all possible to live without a spiritual quest? Of course it is—theoretically. Under the two totalitarian dictatorships that plagued the 20th century, Fascism and Communism, politics replaced spirituality. But lest we forget: Both collapsed. Can one be spiritual without religious faith? One can. All one needs is to be open to someone else's concerns, fears, and hopes, and to make him or her feel less alone, less abandoned. God alone is alone. Human beings are not, must not be. It is my caring for the otherness of the other that determines my humanity. And my spirituality.
Cornel West, PhD Professor in the Center of African-American Studies, Princeton University, and author of Democracy Matters (Penguin)
The surgeon was rolling me into the operating room for a seven-hour procedure on an aggressive form of cancer that was in the last stage. He said, "I don't understand; how is your blood pressure normal?" I said, "I've made my peace." My response to the cancer was that I was full of gratitude that I had been invited to the banquet of life for 48 years and experienced an abundance of blessings, especially in the form of family and friends. It just turned out that I've been spared for a while.
Noah Levine Author of Against the Stream (HarperOne)
When I was 17 years old, I realized, after waking up in a cell in a juvenile detention center—again—that I was the one who had gotten myself into the mess I was in. At that point, in 1988, I'd been drinking and getting high since I was 12, and there I was, looking at my third felony arrest, resigned to a life of incarceration. It was after a failed suicide attempt that the moment of clarity, that spiritual experience happened: the breaking of denial and blaming everyone else for my problems. I couldn't blame this ignorant, oppressive world; it was how I was relating to this world. So much of the suffering I was experiencing was about the past and the future, but that moment brought me into the present and was the beginning of my spiritual practice: meditation, prayer, and addressing my addiction. I was responsible. I was not a victim. I had created the situation and I had the power to get out of it. I had hope.
Tobias Wolff Author of This Boy's Life (Grove)
It's hard for me to imagine coming to an understanding of spirituality in a single moment. Does it mean a politician competing with other politicians over who is more born-again? A novice taking her final vows? A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest government oppression? Or could it refer to the determination of an immigrant couple to sacrifice their lives in grinding, minimum-wage work so that their children might have something better? Perhaps the greatest problem with this word is the line it seems to imply between spirit and flesh, between some exalted, superior state and the experience of everyday life, when in fact they are all mixed up together. We define ourselves and our deepest values by the choices we make, day by day, hour by hour, over a lifetime.
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner Author of Overcoming Life's Disappointments (Anchor)
I have a vivid memory of being about 10 years old and doing something I knew was wrong. My parents confronted me about it and I admitted it, certain that I had just permanently destroyed any image they might have had of me as their ideal son. To my immense relief, they forgave me and assured me of their love. That was my first encounter with the mysterious Force in the universe that impels people to forgive wrongdoing and to love even imperfect people.