Universal Love with a Personal Face

Hina, the goddess of Molokai.

Hina, the Goddess of Molokai.

For quite a few years now, I’ve regularly connected with an expansive feeling of awareness spreading outward toward the larger sphere, into what I once called the corridors of consciousness. It’s as if my local experience mixes with that of a great cosmic mind. This mental state, while deeply peaceful and healing, feels relatively impersonal.

More recently, it has become common for me to feel luminous warmth in my chest during meditation. The sensation sometimes gets quite intense, and I imagine the compassion radiating outward to loved ones, to those I barely know, to complete strangers, and to all Life. This feels like a powerful opening, but as in the “spreading awareness” experience the direction is outward: love arises in the area of my heart and flows into the world.

From what I’ve described, it’s probably clear that much of my recent spiritual growth has been influenced by Eastern traditions and Buddhism in particular. When I enrolled last year in a training program for spiritual directors, I quickly realized that my impersonal, outward flowing experiences didn’t give me much understanding of the more personal, inflowing qualities of divine love described by those of Western traditions.

The training program requires regular sessions with a spiritual director. The woman I see is a former nun and also a hypnotherapist. Early on we discussed my need for a more personal relationship with the divine. I wanted to move beyond expansive but impersonal states of mind to something that felt more relational. My MindfulBiology work formed the starting point, and I was quickly able to identify a personal relationship with Life via my own body. I wrote several essays about the way we are held by our bodies, supported by them, and even loved by them. I wasn’t sure if anything beyond that would ever become available to me, but I was open to the possibility.

In some of our sessions my spiritual director guides me into my inner world using her voice and techniques from hypnotherapy. In a recent session a new experience blossomed: I felt love flowing inward rather than outward, and it had a highly personal quality. A warm affection seemed to come from a living presence outside my body, one that knew me with utter intimacy, all the way to my core. It felt like God or—more accurately—like Goddess.

I’d just returned from a meditation retreat on the island of Molokai. During the retreat, feelings of love had grown very strong. This ease of loving was partly due to a new appreciation of the way our lives are shaped by circumstance and subconscious forces: the way thoughts and ideas are not the main determinants of how we behave. For myself, I felt liberated from the burden of continual planning and the shame that descends when I feel responsible for the problems in my life. More universally, I saw how all of us are adrift in a sea of causes, and how none of us succeeds at conscious control. This lifted the cloud of evaluations and judgments, so love and lightness grew and grew. I hoped my director could help me explore their deeper strata.

Seated in a comfortable recliner and listening to her voice, I found it quite easy to relax into my body. Grounding myself in the sensations of my torso and limbs is one of my regular practices, but with the help of my director’s gentle guiding words, deep abiding became more accessible than usual. Encouraged to simply open to experience, I found myself able to both let go of expectations and wait patiently. In due time it felt as if an angelic presence had wrapped me in her arms; she embraced me from behind and gently carried me forward toward a broad, glowing light.

I expected the angel to propel me into the light, but instead she stopped and we waited at distance. This surprised me, since in a dream while on retreat I’d seen a similar light and had felt a powerful rush of ecstasy as I fell into it. Now, however, I did not rush forward but was gently held back until the light moved toward me. Soon I became aware of its tender touch. A comforting, radiant, mist of love was surrounding me. I felt known and adored. As I basked in soothing and peaceful affection, it seeped inward. The loving energy trickled into me with exquisite patience; at every step, it seemed to wait for me to feel ready before advancing. My only job was to be available; the affectionate essence that surrounded me did all the rest.

Soon I could feel the love both inside and out. It did not seem like something I’d generated; nor did it seem like something that arose within me. It was external but also personal. It felt intimate and reassuring. I had the sense that this loving force understood me, molecule by molecule, and that it loved me despite complete awareness of who I’ve been and all I’ve done. I also felt the infinite capacity of this love, which reaches toward every being with this much tenderness and knowing. It was the closest I’ve ever come to understanding what people mean when they talk of God’s limitless love. Somehow, I knew it as the Divine Mother.

Afterward, my skeptical rationality questioned what happened. Maybe it was just a psychological state brought on by deep relaxation and hypnotic suggestion. I grant this might be true, but I don’t think it matters. The ‘truth’ is less important than the experience. To connect with such intimate and omniscient love is a gift of profound importance regardless of how it gets explained.

If I were pushed for explanation, I’d say my sense is that although my psyche was certainly participating, this loving power seemed to come from outside my body and gently worked its way in. I suspect the process involved something beyond my individual mind as usually defined. But I can’t prove it and feel no need to try. All that matters to me is that this human being, who once felt abandoned and unwanted, now knows the availability (indeed, the immediacy) of love beyond description. This is love of an entirely unconditional sort, independent of social circumstance. It wasn’t offered to me because of anything good in me; nor was it withheld because of anything bad. It was facilitated by another person (my spiritual director), but it—or rather she—felt like someone who has always been waiting. Love waits in endless patience for opening, for invitation.

Biologically, the experience might be explainable in terms of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and so on. Psychologically, it might have been some ancient memory of being held as an infant. But spiritually, it felt like connection with the Mother of All.

Given its beneficence, its healing power, why should I question what happened? Sure, taken at face value it doesn’t add up in modern valuation, where what’s material and explainable is prized, while what’s ethereal and mysterious gets ignored. But my internalization of our society’s mindset never bought me peace and contentment; it never left me feeling lovable just as I am. Instead, it fueled aggressive competition in youth and exhausted discouragement in mid-adulthood. Now, as I approach my elder years, I see this connection with a personal, intimate, and sacred presence as a very auspicious sign.

I’m comfortable with setting aside my desire to understand; I’m fine with letting what happened feel mysterious. No matter how it might be explained, it felt right. That’s what counts.