One of my first memories of spirituality was the day of my first Holy Communion.
I remember standing before the church altar as a boy, age 10, hands cupped and outstretched, ready to receive the “body and blood” of Christ, ready to receive “grace” for the first time—at least that is hat I taught.
I was nervous because I thought something would happen. I thought that I would gain a different experience of life than the one I had already. I thought that if I accepted these blessings, eating and drinking them, that I would feel full of something that I did not already possess.
The pastor handed me a wafer. I placed it in my mouth and it quickly dissolved upon my tongue. Then a woman standing aside him held a chalice to my mouth. I sipped the wine, and it burned as it moved along the back of my throat.
Walking back to my pew, I waited. I wondered, When will it take? When will I feel the hit? As if I was anticipating my first experience of a drug, I waited some more. I wondered, What will happen? How would my life be different?
I was led to believe that I would now feel differently with my spirit resting firmly in the hands of God—that now I would exist safely as a spiritual person. Yet, as I waited, I felt no different at all. I felt the same hollowness as before, the same longing for something without knowing exactly what.
As I waited, I began to suspect that the “grace” did not take. I waited and waited. I watched the other boys and girls take their turns at the altar. I waited until the end of the ceremony, but nothing happened.
Disappointed, I felt that I had not received my first hit off God—the Lord, the Almighty, the Creator. I felt no influence of the everlasting and infinite source. The divine spark, apparently, had not lit the inside of me.
This led to a period of skepticism. While I proceeded to refer to myself with the terms atheist and agnostic as I progressed through my early adult years, I continued searching. I nevertheless always maintained an open mind.
Around the age of 20, I had the opportunity to attend a community service trip to Guatemala. I was full of energy, ready for adventure, and eager to experience a different part of the world. The trip was organized by a Christian ministry with whom I participated despite my lack of faith. I enjoyed spending time around these contemplative people, even though their views didn’t correspond precisely to my own.
This trip caused my second significant memory of spirituality.
At one point during the trip, having spent several days volunteering in an orphanage, we accepted an offer from our guide to venture into the local ghetto and attend a nighttime mass. This was La Limonada, mind you, considered at one point one of the most dangerous ghettos in the world.
Descending into the ghetto by bus, I felt a pit in my stomach, wondering if I would survive the night. At the bottom of a hill, greeted by several people holding Bibles and rosaries, we unloaded from the bus and followed them through the dark streets, quickly garnering the attention of everyone we encountered.
Eventually, we arrived at the church. Overwhelmed by its rustic beauty, I nearly tripped as I walked through the door. Ramshackled, the building had an open ceiling which invited a perfect view of the stars. Plastic lawn chairs served as pews. A long slab of concrete against the graffitied corner wall sufficed as a station for an instrumental band, which greeted us with loud music as we entered.
The service began with a sermon by the pastor and his acknowledgment of our presence as visitors of the church. The passion and intensity of this service was unlike anything I had seen before. As we read out loud passages from the Bible, many people bent down upon their hands and knees and wailed, crying out to God. One of them, I was told, was a gang member who had killed several people.
Then the pastor said, “There is somebody in this church who has not totally accepted God into his life. If this person comes forth, he will receive God into his life.” Immediately, I knew he was talking about me. I knew that he had sensed something in me—some lack of faith, some dispassion in my reading, some detachment from the teachings.
I stood my ground, refusing to go forth, but he continued to urge. “Come forth, come forth! Allow the spirit of God to fill your life! The world is dangerous if you set foot beyond these walls without the presence of the Almighty in your life!”
His stentorian voice echoed throughout the four walls, as he urged people to pray deeply that the someone would emerge.
Gradually, others started to go forth, revealing themselves in tears. But I remained at my seat. But the pastor continued to urge: “There is one more; there is one more!” I knew he was referring to me.
Finally, a woman approached me and said, “It’s you, it’s you, go forth!” So I went. I joined the group and the pastor ceased his beckoning. While all the others sobbed, emphasizing the alleged newfound presence of God in their life, I stood perfectly still, absolutely unchanged. I felt no power of recognition, no shift in cognition. I felt the same as I always had, except that I was standing there in a different place at a different time with different people.
When it was all said and done, when the mass was over, we walked back through the dark streets, many among the group feeling triumphant, feeling the rush of endorphins, feeling God perhaps in their own way. When we returned to our seats in the bus, ascending the hill from the ghetto, leaving all the little street lamps and house lights behind, some of the group turned to me and asked how I felt now that I had received the presence of God. I said only that I felt nothing, nothing at all.
Nevertheless, I was not discouraged by this experience—I considered myself quite energized by it actually. Committed to the highest level of authenticity, I continued my search for something true, some palpable experience that could lead me to believe something for sure.
It wasn’t until several years later that I had my third, and most recent, significant spiritual memory. I was 24.
Living in California, I was working and enduring a period of intense intellectual development. Reading everything upon which I could lay my hands, I succeeding in finding a book that I believe changed the course of my life: Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal. The book documented the founding of an experiential learning institute, an alternative think tank located in Big Sur, California.
In one chapter of the book, Kripal mentioned how one of of the early influences on the institute was a professor of religion at Stanford University who received a spiritual transmission from an Indian Guru named Sri Aurobindo. Apparently the guru X-rayed the professor with his eyes, generating an actual transformation in the professor’s energy and consciousness. The spiritual transmission, apparently, had a specific term: shaktipat.
Upon reading this, I was so excited. I immediately scoured the internet to see if I could meet someone who could generate this phenomenon so that I too could receive such an experience—and I found someone. I found a guru.
I traveled to meet this guru at the very next meeting his organization had scheduled.
Arriving at the meditation hall, incense immediately filled my nostrils with the smell of sandalwood, and music rang in my ears with Sanskrit lyrics. Holding a meditation cushion, I walked down a narrow hallway and took a deep breath. Members of the group immediately greeted me, and one of them offered to introduce me to the guru. Walking behind a large shoji screen, I met the man who I now consider my guru.
A man of relatively large features with his hair tied like a samurai, he immediately captured my attention. I immediately sensed that he was an immensely kind man with a heart as deep as an ocean.
“How long did it take you to come once you first heard about this group?” he asked.
I told him that I came as soon as I could, and I later came to understand that this sense of urgency was a sign.
Then he said, “You’ll start to feel the energy. First, you will feel it tingling upon your head. Then you will start to feel it in your chest. And then it will spread to all your ligaments, consuming your whole body.”
Feeling already that I could not wait to experience what possibly could lie ahead, I took my seat in the meditation hall after speaking with my guru.
It was an evening in July; the sun had set at 8 p.m., only an hour prior to our meeting. The meditation session began, and I held my mind in perfect concentration for almost an hour. Then I opened my eyes, interrupting my meditation for just for a moment, watching the sun through the windows of the recreation hall as it vanished in the horizon, just a brilliant orange egg slipping beneath the ocean.
In that instance, just after the sun had set, I glanced at my guru. Sitting there in the lamplight, resting beside a vase of multicolored flowers and a puja table with pictures of other gurus, his back to the large shoji screen and his feet firmly planted atop a Tibetan rug with a tiger print, he rocked quietly backward and forward, bobbing his head as his eyes scanned each of us in the small group.
I waited patiently, hoping that I would experience something. Then my guru stood up. He carried a large bundle of peacock feathers and started bopping people on the head with them as he systematically walked about the room.
I came to learn that is what Muktananda had done several decades prior. Muktananda was the guru of my guru. Here’s a video about him.
As my guru approached me, I began feeling the sensations he described earlier. My neck wobbled as energy rose through me, purifying subtle channels within my body. This, I understood, was the shaktipat, the transmission.
Shaktipat, I came to understand, awakens the kundalini energy in the body, arousing it from a latent to active condition. Kundalini is the ancient Sanskrit word, also known as Holy Spirit, for the evolutionary energy that lies coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine, though dormant in 99.99 percent of people.
After shaktipat, the spiritual aspirant still needs to employ a series of practices—increasing breath energy, increasing awareness of sensations all around the body, increasing positive emotion, and stopping the mind through meditation—to fully entice the kundalini along the central column of the spine and illuminate the brain at the crown of the head.
I have come to understand that doing so will amplify the power of my meditations, leading to superconscious states. I have come to believe that kundalini is the highway straight to the divine.
Although some might argue that shaktipat is the end of our problems, it is nevertheless a challenging road, full of purification of pain gathered from many lifetimes of experience. Chogyam Trungpa, the famous Buddhist meditation master who founded hundreds of Shambhala meditation centers all around the world, said of this path something to this effect: “If you haven’t started, it’s better not to start. If you already started, it’s better to keep going.”
As for me, I’ve already started the path. So at the very least, I’ll keep going. I will continue to visit my guru.
It was an auspicious day, receiving my initiation there in the meditation hall. At the end of it, my guru spoke a few final words.
“Sadgurunath Maharaj Ki Jai,” he said, meaning victory to all gurus.
Our chairs were all positioned in a circle facing his at the front of the room; we stood up watching him as he walked, albeit gingerly, away.
With my heart stoked with energy and my mind clear as sky, I quietly wondered to myself what could be better than this.
Author: Henry Bond
Image: “Holy Smoke“
Editor: Travis May