I have some of my own baggage attached to spirituality. From my earliest memories, I knew that it was risky to talk about spirituality. It was sure to mark you as strange or crazy, or get you into trouble. I don’t even know how or where I learned this—maybe at school among my classmates? There was something embarrassing, or dangerous, or profoundly broken with the idea of speaking about this realm.
But in my immediate family, it was just the opposite. Spirituality was an ever-present force. My father didn’t just believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God, and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart, too.
I was hungry for this burning love. But I was also afraid of what other people would think of me. How often do we deny our own deep experience to gain social acceptance? It seemed to me that most people outside my family said they believed in God, but they didn’t really expect anything to come of it. So I learned to keep certain things hidden—especially the solitary and mysterious experiences of longing or feeling loved.
Because I was a child growing up Catholic, I fit my experience into the stories I learned, the beliefs that were given to me. It was safer to talk in the language of belief, rather than to reveal my feelings. Later, those beliefs were challenged by my experience, and my journey brought me into a very different place. My beliefs got turned upside down, in order for me to be true to my experience. But that fire of burning love kept re-igniting.
Today, when I venture inside my own heart, I still experience deep longings, these hungers that feel almost like pain, or sometimes like restlessness. It is difficult to feel this and I am tempted to read a book, or find something else that might fill up that empty place. But instead of escaping or fixing it, I invite myself to try to be present with it. I breathe into the longing and let myself experience the hunger. Is this what it means to become friends with my burning? I accept the feelings of my heart just as they are. I connect with the experience of my deeper self.
Perhaps that is all that happens. But sometimes, something else happens too. My heart opens up, the emptiness becomes a doorway, and I fall into a larger awareness. I feel the earth, the sky, the wind. I feel joined to everything. I find answers to questions and guidance when I face a crossroads. I feel held in the arms of tenderness. I feel that I have come home. Sometimes, as Rumi says,
Something opens our wings
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.
This has been my experience of spiritual awakening. Hunger itself becomes a doorway into sacredness, into feeling connection beyond my aloneness. Does it matter, on any particular day, whether I feel longing or feel love? Whether I feel questions or feel answers? The Buddhist mystics would say no. What matters is that I am becoming conscious. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says,
Take some time to notice what is brewing in your heart. Do you feel a sense of emptiness? A sense of connection? Do you feel questions? Don’t try to change anything, just become aware of what you are carrying in your heart in this moment.