Seven of us gathered for a guided meditation while studying Monks in the World. We were using a visual practice as an entry into the inner sanctuary from page 180 of the book. I invited the group to close their eyes, or maintain an unfocused stare, so they could experience inner vision. I read the words slowly as an invitation to drop down beneath our usual stream of thoughts into the sanctuary of the soul.
The exercise begins by inviting our deepest longings to bubble up and form a vision of that sanctuary, including any sounds, words, smells, etc. which might arise. There is no effort to make something happen. There is more of an opening to whatever might arise. There is a noticing of any sense of the divine. There is the simple acknowledging that a gate of heaven might open before us in a way unique to us.
When I guide a group toward such a visual practice, I am careful not to imply that anyone should experience anything in a particular way. It is possible nothing will happen. I just voice the invitation to drop down into spiritual awareness and let things unfold as they will. I trust what Thomas Kelly wrote in A Testament of Devotion: “the soul ever dwells in the presence of the Holy One.” I also believe Psalm 62:1, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” So this exercise is more like becoming aware of what is already happening.
The fascinating part to me is what happens next. Our group experience diversified, meaning everyone had their own unique experience. After we closed the twenty minute exercise with a period of silence, we decided to share our experience one by one. Seven gates of heaven opened in one morning. Seven ways of experiencing the divine emerged. Fascinating!
There was a wide range of experience. Some people saw things, and/or felt things, and/or heard things. One person heard birds, another music, another had a simple conversation. One person also had smells. One person saw nothing but sensed the divine wrapped around her in a loving, full-body embrace. Each one of us had a completely personal experience. I happened to see the Divine Feminine leading me by the hand from a dark cave toward the light, and then we were suddenly sitting in the company of hundreds of people in silence.
As the first person began the sharing I mentioned a firm reality: “How absurd it would be for any of us to say another’s experience is right or wrong.” We laughed. It seems self-evident. But religious people judge other people’s faith/belief/experience all the time. In the world of practicing the presence of God no one has the authority to judge another’s experience. In humility, we cherish the diversity of experience and stand in awe of the many gates of heaven which God reveals in the imagination.
I also cautioned the group not to let the rational mind run wild with its usual attempts to analyze and categorize and understand all the details of the experience. I reminded us that the dualistic mind simply can’t wrap itself around spiritual experience. It doesn’t have the capacity. So I suggested we hold our own images in our hearts and leave analysis alone.
Try the visual exercise. Trust the truth that your soul is already dwelling in the presence of the Holy One. Gently open your mind’s eye and let your own unique gate open before you, without any expectation of a particular experience. The key to visual experience is the same as any spiritual experience: we practice openness, willingness, honesty, humility, and we let our longing for union with the Divine lead the way.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, now available as a Kindle book.