by Marcelle Martin.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my graduate school program was not meeting my great longing to understand the nature of reality. I began to seek inwardly. Yearning to know what life was about, I paid attention to my inner experience in a new way. I would not have said I was seeking God with all my heart, but increasingly the most important thing to me was the inward search. I spent hours alone, writing in my journal and walking the hilly streets of Amherst, MA, heading toward the edges of town where I had a good view of open fields during the day, and a wide, starry sky at night.
I was at that time feeling ripped apart by unsatisfactory romantic relationships, one that had ended because I could not share the fullness of myself with the man who cared for me, and another which I had thought held the hope of greater connection, but ended in my being rejected repeatedly. Opening my heart, I let myself feel the pain of these two relationships, and the love and longing that was real in both, but thwarted. Attending to my feelings uncovered earlier experiences of pain. It also revealed that I had learned some very hurtful patterns of self-rejection in the face of what I interpreted to be rejection from another. This and other insights about my inner psychology shook up my self-image and increased my longing to understand the purpose and meaning of life.
As I allowed myself to feel my pain and sadness more intensely, I simultaneously opened myself to unexpected joy. During one of my daily walks, delighted by sunshine and fresh grass, I rolled down a hillside. In personal letters, I began to express myself more authentically, in the process discovering that I had a deeper and wiser voice than I had known.
Living with ultimate questions, opening my heart, letting go of previous certainties, and giving up the hope of finding spiritual answers from other people—all these things helped open the way for direct spiritual experience. My daily walks were important, as well. They helped free my mind from circular patterns of thinking and allowed it to become more quiet. I sensed myself as part of the natural world, a small part of a much larger reality. I found peace in that.
After reading all the books I could find in the local library about spiritual and mystical experience, and still needing more understanding, I began to pay attention to my dreams. Slowly I learned the language of image, metaphor, symbols, stories, and emotion, the medium in which dreams communicate truths about ourselves, our lives, and the world we live in. Some dreams conveyed luminous messages.
I glimpsed a greater context to life and consciousness than I had known. My housemate and I began to practice various forms of meditation together, and we found a meditation teacher. During that time I would not have said that I was praying, but my heart was becoming focused by my longing to understand the nature of reality. I wanted to know if my consciousness would continue after death; I needed to know if God was real. One night when I was walking home under the stars, my perception opened in an unexpected way, and suddenly I glimpsed the underlying, sacred wholeness of reality, and my place in it. I felt a divine light flowing through my body and knew more clearly than I had ever known anything that this power was great enough to heal any problem on Earth.
Over the decades since that time, I have gradually been learning how to open to the Light, how to let it flow through me in the things I do, and how to help others do the same. I discovered that regular spiritual practices are essential for this growth—individual daily practices, including prayer, meditation, and walking in nature; weekly practices such as meeting for worship with my community; and less frequent practices such as meetings for prayer and healing, faithfulness groups, and silent retreats.
Many of my close friends and acquaintances are activists, living their faith through public service, witness, and various sorts of community organizing. Some of them subtly suggest that spiritual practices are an indulgence in a time of crisis. While I believe that outward action is crucial, I am also certain that spiritual practices, both individual and collective, are essential. Our outward conflicts and crises are expressions of our conflicted, fearful, and fractured inner state. Only if we are also addressing the inward root causes of our problems can our outward actions and witness be effective in bringing about the healing transformation so sorely needed in our time.
I want to connect as fully as I can to the divine wholeness of which everyone, including me, is an inseparable part, and I feel called to help others do the same. In many different ways I’ve been trying to do this, including through writing my blog, A Whole Heart.
What helps you open to deeper spiritual experience? What have you learned from such experiences?
Marcelle Martin, author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups, has led workshops at retreat centers and Quaker meetings across the United States. A member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting, she lives in Chester, PA with her husband, Terry.