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.
Francesco Clemente Artist
When I paint, there is no thought of "I" and "mine." There is no thought of gain or loss. There is no hope for immortality, but rather hope to reach a timeless place. If I could live as I paint and keep a sense of humor too, only then could I claim to know what spirituality is. Julian Bond Chairman of NAACP
I experienced transcendent spirituality at a mass meeting in Selma in 1965. The church was packed, state troopers loomed outside, and the Selma Youth Choir were singing with their hearts as well as their lungs. I knew with clarity and certainty that I had become a part of something much, much bigger than myself and the physical confines of the building. A transforming feeling of fellowship and community and the rightness of our common cause suffused me, and it has carried me ever since.
Sharon Salzberg Cofounder of The Insight Meditation Society and author of Faith (Riverhead)
I was 18 years old when, confused, unhappy, and desperate to be someone other than who I was, I went to India to try to learn meditation. After some time, I went to Bodh Gaya, the site of the tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment some 2,500 years before. As I sat under the descendant of that very tree, what emerged from a deep place within me was, 'I want to have the love of a Buddha. I want to love myself and others the way the Buddha loved—without prerequisite or limit.' I thought, 'We should know love for our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths, our problems and sorrows as well as our triumphs.' That moment shifted all my ideas of what spiritual transformation would look like.
Rev. Dr. James Forbes Jr. President and Founder of Healthing of the Nations Foundation
Hearing the comments about loved ones at funerals or memorials. It's lyrical, and it also has an eloquence, even from plain people. It doesn't matter how much of a rascal somebody was—the people who loved him or her seem to have discovered there was some grace at work in that person.
Marilyn Nelson Author of The Fields of Praise (Louisiana State University Press)
Abba Jacob said: There's a big difference between / the mentalities of magic and of alliance. / People who spend their lives searching for God / have a magical mentality: They need a sign, a proof, a puff of smoke, an irrefutable miracle. People who have an alliance mentality know God by loving.
Jane Goodall, PhD Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace
I don't think there was a single moment. It grew with me as I grew, this sense of the other world, a world as real as the physical one we're in now. After my husband died, there was this very strong, extraordinary experience that he was in the room talking to me. I wasn't able to remember what he said. I don't know that that defined spirituality; perhaps confirmed would be a better word. There were also moments when I was out in the forest when I felt that I almost understood concepts like eternity but didn't. Or, if I did, then I didn't remember it. It reminds me of a book I loved as a child, The Wind in the Willows, and the part when the little otter cub got lost and Mole and Water Rat went to find him, and they met the great god Pan. Afterward they couldn't remember the tune he played because to remember it in this life would have destroyed them. These amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don't understand—can't be understood in this life.
Edward Espe Brown Author of The Tassajara Bread Book (Shambhala)
When I cut open a red pepper and a purple cabbage for the first time, I was in awe at the splendor, the integrity, the "perfection" of their interiors. Sometimes we meet the essence in things, and we can share that connection with others. Spirituality is about making one's love or spirit manifest. For instance, in cooking, we're manifesting food for one another, and this could come out of love and generosity rather than a sense of duty or obligation. "Spirit" or "heart" is in all of us, and we can study how to manifest that in our lives in cooking or speech or behaviors so that our good-heartedness becomes clear and palpable.
Anita Diamant Founder and President of Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, Massachusetts, and author of The Red Tent (Picador)
The moment comes on Friday nights, when I light two candles that usher in the Sabbath. The moment comes when I walk my dog near the river and stand on the bridge and take the deepest breath of the day. The moment comes when I am ambushed by the Mary Oliver poem "Praying": "...the doorway / into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak." The moment comes beneath the surface of the water, when all boundaries dissolve. The moment comes when I permit myself to begin again.
Faith Adiele Author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun (Norton)
Every time I act without knowing the outcome, with the risk of failure looming before me, I try to see that as a spiritual moment. Every time I transcend my limitations or touch something larger than myself: one step closer.
Diana Ackerman Author of The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story (Norton)
Growing up in Illinois, I played outside each day and found nature a limitless source of surprises and wonder. That's where I first felt a sense of belonging to its pervasive mystery, of being finite in the face of the infinite and surrounded by powerful and unseen forces. A deity wasn't required; I rejoiced in a sort of eco-spirituality. I still think of myself as an Earth Ecstatic. The tenets of this personal religion are few: I believe in the sanctity of life and the ability of people to improve their behavior toward others. As basic as that stance is, for me it is also tonic, deeply spiritual, and complete—it glorifies the lowliest life-forms and embraces the most distant stars.
Kate Braestrup Minister and author ofHereIf You Need Me(Little, Brown)
When he was a little boy, my son Peter spent hours filling sheets of paper with detailed drawings of human conflict. His soldiers carried fearsome weapons. They were borne into battle clinging to the gun turrets of enormous tanks while flocks of fighter planes wheeled across a Magic Marker sky. The ordnance in these drawings were neatly labeled in accordance with Peter's understanding of human good and human evil: An American flag fluttered proudly above the good guys, and, in case the point was missed, Peter would write "U.S." across the flanks of their fighter jets and tanks. The bad guys fought under red flags inscribed with swastikas. Peter labeled their tanks and airplanes, too. They were the "NOT-SEES." It was so perfect, I couldn't bring myself to correct his spelling.
Vision as a metaphor for human spiritual insight has a history so broad, deep, and obvious that it doesn't require much elucidation. "I was blind, but now I see" is just one familiar variation on the theme of an opened eye meeting light for the first time.
As a 6- or 7-year-old, Peter named evil as a failure of vision. I believe he coined the term "Not-See" not only because the phonetics worked but also because it made sense to him spiritually. The Nazis refused to see the human reality of their victims, and those who might have helped the Jews refused even to bear them witness. The Holocaust began with a denial of human commonality, a rejection of that human "us." This, Peter sensed, is the prerequisite for all violence, all enslavement and bigotry, all genocide, and for all the small and crummy cruelties we human beings busily and blindly inflict on one another.
Mine is a simple spirituality: I am called to love my neighbor. Sometimes, despite an extensive and expensive theological education and few obvious hardships or dangers to distract me, I fail to do this very simple thing. I am brusque with a salesclerk or scowl at another driver in the parking lot, or I might just lose my temper and scream at my beloved son.
Oh yes, I have screamed at Peter. Why? Well, sometimes because, let's face it, the kid was bad. But mostly it was because I was tired, or afraid, or pissed off at the world or at myself. I am not so melodramatic as to compare myself with Hitler when remembering these failures (though Peter, now a teen, might do so), but I wince. So it becomes part of my spiritual practice to confess it: Forgive me, God, for I have at times been the Not-See, squinting, blinkered, foolishly resisting the light of love as it stubbornly, by grace, keeps shining.
Robert Thurman Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University; author of The Jewel Tree of Tibet (Free Press)
One day in the 1970s, when I was working on the translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text, something hit me: The term bodhichitta, which was usually translated to mean "awakening mind," actually meant a spirit that bursts forth with love and compassion for all beings. For the first time, spirituality really meant something for me. Thoughts, words, and actions are "spiritual" only if universal love is the motive, compassion the cause, happiness the aim, and responsibility the active principle. You're being religious when you believe in Jesus or Buddha or any other truly holy being, but wow, you're being spiritual when you become the loving, compassionate, caring being they all inspire you to be.
Naomi Shihab Nye Author of Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose (Greenwillow)
Being part of any gathering of people—staring into human faces, feeling the comforting permeating presence of unknown friends—airplane gates, waiting rooms... Or walking/bicycling city streets—inside the flow and press of gracious eccentric humanity, moving, breathing, suffering, hoping... Pulse of life, all hues of stories, sorrows, dreams, precious mysteries linking us at any given corner... This is why I cannot possibly believe in war or violence as a promising human tactic. Our imaginations are so much bigger than that.
Elizabeth Streb Gravity-defying choreographer, head of Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (StrebUSA.org)
I think that moment comes in the last half-second of life. When I'm taking my last breath, I want to look at how I used up the best of myself. How much did I sweat, push, pull, rip, fall, hit, crash, explode? Maybe it has to do with being able to suffer discomfort in zones away from those I knew—the mud zone, the "I don't know" zone. We're given to planning for the future, but if you fully invest yourself in this half-second you're in right now, the future will take care of itself. My dream is to be so well used that in my last half-second, I just burst into dust. With my work, it's not a far-fetched idea.
Geoffrey Canada President and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone
My grandmother was a very spiritual person. She tried to save me because she knew that I, as a young boy growing up very poor in the South Bronx, believed that money was the key to everything. She tried to convince me that there was a God, but all I could do was look around and ask, 'How could God let people like us, who don't do anything wrong, live in these conditions?'
During my sophomore year in college, my grandmother, who was the most righteous, perfect, spiritual person I ever met, got a very virulent form of cancer. One day it was just us in the room. She was in a lot of pain and dying. I had to ask her: "Grandma, do you still believe in God?" And she looked at me and said, "I believe in God more strongly than ever." That moment crystallized spirituality for me. Her faith and belief is something that has guided me from that point on. There's so much of the belief system that says that things happen to you because of something you've done, or you think there couldn't possibly be a higher order of things. But that's all part of the gift of life. It was something my grandmother knew; even at the end she understood that it was all a gift.
Joan Snyder Artist
My deepest moments of what I would consider spirituality come to me in my studio, with no one around, the music on, ideas flowing, paint seeming to magically go onto the canvas. These to me are intensely private and sacred times. I am Jewish and while not religious, my roots go deep, and, I believe, all lead to the studio. Two sketchbook entries written at different times might help explain my journey, one in which I felt lost and the other found:
"In this painting I have totally lost my way. What is painting after all? It's not a mark a tree limb Turquoise Sky Beads Sparkles Silk Canvas Far From it its Essence Sublimity Touch a journey Silent Language Speaking to Eyes willing to lose their way open open open Shine." (July 2003)
"These are my most authentic moments. Sitting here in my studio with music (Gounod's Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile) or absolute silence with all the thoughts about painting flowing very differently than they do when I walk out of this space. Here one thing leads to another in and out of my control but always (mostly) right. I am taken...inside...nothing that is not me is in the painting. And this summer I travel with Vincent, Antoni, Anselm, Jean Michele, Jackson, Eva, Willem, Nina Simone, and Sofie von Otter." (July 1, 2006)
Patti Smith Singer and poet
When you look at the face of your child for the first time and you're immediately in love. That moment is total clarity—all of the 37 hours of labor, or that you had a lot of strife and you're going to have more strife tomorrow—there are no questions, nothing. Just love. And that moment happens over and over again.
Wintley A. Phipps Gospel singer; founder of president of the U.S. Dream Academy (USDreamAcademy.org)
At 16, my heroes in life were musicians. I met one who was so stoned he had to be carried. I was crushed; my hero was incoherent. I met another who had everything—all the money, all the undergarments that women threw at him—but he didn't seem to be very happy. That's where I saw that the best the world had to offer was only an empty illusion. With help and encouragement, I realized there was a gift I could enjoy all my life: the sense of God's presence. From that presence I could have joy, peace, hope, optimism, confidence in the future—everything that rescues you from a life of drudgery and meaninglessness. That dawning is one of the marvels of life.
James McBride Author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung (Both Riverhead)
When I was a boy, my godmother, Rachel McNair, used to sit me down in her living room and make me pray with her—which I did with great reluctance. She'd always pray, "Lord, let me be a blessing to somebody." She would preach God's word to anyone she saw in the Red Hook, Brooklyn, housing projects where I was born. She lived there more than 50 years. She could walk around the projects at any hour. Even the most hardened junkies respected her. When she died at home, peacefully, last year, I saw her just before the funeral home took her away. Her children had cleaned her face, washed and combed her hair. She looked beautiful. And even through my tears, I thought, She has been such a blessing to me.
I still dream about her now. I see her smiling. I know she's happy. And her prayer is the one that leaves my lips every night before I go to sleep: "Lord, let me be a blessing to somebody."
Ram DassAuthor of Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, And Dying (Riverhead)
The moment I really felt I had found something was when I met Neem Karoli Baba, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas in 1967. He told me the manner of my mother's death, which he had no way of knowing, and I experienced unconditional love through him. He made me feel so safe and loved that I went from being a social scientist to a seeker. There was no fear after that; he was the doorway to God. The first time I met him, he said, "Go back to America, but don't tell anybody about me." But I told everybody—it was like finding a gold mine! He died in 1973, but every day—every day—he's present in my consciousness. He's more powerful now that he's not in the physical body, because he's everywhere. A guy recently asked me, "You talk to your dead guru? It's your imagination," and I said, "Yes, that's where I meet him."
Tracy Chapman Singer-songwriter
Several years ago I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and walked the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway. It's an exhibit that guides you through the evolution of the universe in footsteps, 13 billion years in 360 feet. The experience is overwhelming and awe inspiring. You feel humbled by seeing the tiny line that represents the history of humans in the long line of the history of the universe. With each step you are reminded that we are a part of something that is greater than ourselves. And you see that in a world that is everything to us, we are almost nothing. I walked away from the museum that day with perspective, having been reminded that we are all on a journey, hoping we'll make the best of it and that we will do right by the planet, and each other.
Elaine Sexton Author of Causeway (New Issues)
When my sister lifted the World War II Army-green flight suit from a bag, our dead mother,
as WAC, stepped into her empty pant legs, returned to us quiet as dust. We carried her up
from the basement. Mice, nesting in waves of wrinkled wool, left teeth marks in fabric. Her wartime
wedding band's vines curled in my palm with an old rosary blessed by Pope Pius VI
for my mother, a pregnant believer, in Rome. Still, I refuse to pray
on dead wood. Some days, I confess, I caress a circle of painted orange beads
with a coconut cross I bought in a zócalo market. Sometimes I find them to finger
in secret, walking home from work in Manhattan. Once I found them in a winter coat pocket
on a plane as the workers de- iced the wings. You might call this a prayer, a return to that moment,
that year I believed God lived in Mexico's mountains. Trees rushed the sky
as the sky, itself, gathered thousands of migrating monarchs. I saw them lift off,
saw the shape of my body, leaving my body, on a ridge. My body as air. Not one I'd known,
or had ever known. Not one I'd seen, or had ever seen before this.