Fifteen years ago. I was hiking solo in the high desert at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Taos, New Mexico, when I was overwhelmed by a sudden realization that the universe is utterly indifferent to me, and at the same time, profoundly forgiving and compassionate toward me. I remember stopping and just standing in that knowledge for a long time. I had a simple and quiet sense of, Oh, I get it. I see who I am, where I am, and how I fit into things. I felt joy and lightness, as if my burdens had been taken from me. Talking about it almost distorts it. There are experiences that go far beyond words, and this was one of them.
I can’t say that this experience changed my life, but it gave me an important lens through which I’ve looked at my journey ever since. A few years ago I was reading a journal by Thomas Merton in which he reports his great revelation that “everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.” And I thought, That’s it! That’s the same experience I had!
Of course, this experience is paradoxical—how can indifference and compassion coexist? I’m reminded of a Hasidic tale where the rabbi says to his disciple, “Everyone needs a coat with two pockets. In one pocket, carry dust to indicate that you are nothing. In the other pocket, carry gold to indicate that you are precious.” We shrug off the burden of the self-obsessed ego by realizing that we are nothing, and we transcend self-denigration by realizing that there is something of ultimate value about each of us.
When I feel connected to spirit, there’s a great sense of aliveness and energy. Though it’s peaceful, there’s nothing passive about it—it’s a call to deeper engagement with life. Genuine spiritual experience inevitably leads us back into the world, I think—back into works of love and mercy and justice—with new freedom, new clarity, and new power.