the love of God,
I say “yes”
During the last thirty years, I’ve often received questions about my early spiritual experiences. In this section, I take the most frequently asked ones and weave them together into several dialogues.
Questioner: Did you have mystical experiences as a child?
Tria: No, I was remarkably un-mystical as a girl. But when I was twenty-one—long before I ever thought of taking up a spiritual practice—I briefly saw the world as non-dual.
This dip into unitive consciousness began quite unexpectedly while I was walking to a college math class. It was the spring of 1968 and the weather was especially lovely that day: an azure sky and bright sunlight made a canopy above the University of Southern California campus. A gentle breeze scented with warm grasses caressed my face and ruffled my hair.
The lovely weather wasn’t enough to stop my fretting, however. Campus leaders—both students and administrators—had just appointed me president of the women’s honor society. While I coveted the prestige, I didn’t want the extra work. I was already overwhelmed by a heavy academic load, my role as caregiver to a handicapped parent, and my social life with a fiance. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine turning down this honor. So as I followed the path around the Engineering School compound I worried, trying to decide what to do.
Then suddenly, a small brown bird took flight before me. Starting near my right foot, it rose at a sixty-degree angle, heading left. Seeing it soar, I felt delight. While I was absorbed in its movement, my worries fell from me, like old skin from a snake. When the bird left my sight, I looked again at the red buildings and chartreuse trees lining my route and knew, without doubt, that I was made of the same stuff as the bricks, mortar and vegetation around me.
My environment still looked as it always did—there were no golden lights, etheric rainbows or translucent beings to announce my altered state. I simply recognized that my flesh, blood and bones had been created out of the same material as everything else.
I walked into math class and took careful notes; the state into which I’d fallen continued, undiminished by this mental activity. When the session ended, I made my way across campus to a medieval history class. As I headed for a seat at the back of the room, I was still in the same state. I felt as if I were floating, but I remained firmly grounded; my consciousness had expanded beyond my body, but I was still entirely myself.
As I was about to sit down, I noticed a large brown moth under my intended seat. Ever since a hoard of flying beetles had overtaken my parents’ house, I’d cringed at the sight of winged brown bugs. But now I felt no revulsion. I bent, extending my hands to the moth and it crawled into my palms. I held it gently for a few minutes, appreciating its presence, then placed it back under my chair.
When I looked up, I saw someone I knew—the first familiar face I’d seen since I’d slipped into this unexpected state. There was Ralph, my roommate’s boy friend, walking though the door. I knew courtesy demanded that I say “hello,” but—even though he was only a few yards from me—he seemed very far away. Not wanting to be rude, I spoke a short greeting.
As I did, the mystical state I’d been in for over an hour vanished. As quickly as air leaving a balloon, my unitive experience was gone.
Questioner: Were you sorry when that state of consciousness disappeared?
Tria: No, not really.
Questioner: Why not?
Tria: The experience simply came and went, like water running through an open hand. I had no expectations regarding its arriving and no requirements regarding its departing.
Questioner: Why do you think you experienced non-duality on that particular day?
Tria: I’ve wondered that myself. I was very concerned—perhaps even obsessed—with whether or not to accept my appointment as leader of the women’s group. But then, suddenly, the bird rose before me and my worries fell away. It reminds me of Zen Buddhist stories about meditators who focus on koans—riddles the mind cannot solve. Eventually, the intellect stops trying and the person temporarily tastes enlightenment.
Questioner: Did this brief time in unitive consciousness change you?
Tria: Not much, although it did open me to the possibility that spiritual experiences could be genuine. After that, I took reports of mystical states more seriously.
Questioner: Did you have any other sacred experiences before your 1981 awakening?
Tria: Yes, a spiritual current filled me with light for a few hours in 1978, when I was just thirty-one.
At the time, I was vaguely dissatisfied with both my marriage and my life as a graduate student. Then one day, it occurred to me that emotional baggage from my childhood might be contributing to my discontent and that forgiveness could help lighten my load.
One Wednesday evening in May, I began an experiment in forgiveness by opening to my past. Immediately, scenes filled with the hurtful actions of others appeared before my mind’s eye. (Later, my own misdeeds presented themselves to me, too!) Responding to each memory I said, simply, “I forgive,” followed by the person’s name and a one-phrase description of what he or she had done. The next day, to my surprise, the process continued on its own. Whenever
I was alone and free of work, experiences from my childhood spontaneously presented themselves to me. To each one I said, silently, “I forgive.”
On Friday, I dedicated another evening to forgiveness. When I remembered a painful event involving my mother, I burst into tears and my hands began to tingle. Other memories followed, bringing equally potent emotions. As I forgave each person, the tingling intensified, spreading over my whole body.
Undisturbed, I opened to another difficult memory. This time, when I named the person and his offense while thinking, “I forgive,” my head, arms and legs shook intensely; as soon as I completed the thought, they returned to rest. I was startled, but intuition told me that this experience, too, was healing. The difficulties of my past were literally being shaken from me.
For the rest of that evening, my head, arms and legs shook every time I forgave. After each shaking episode, the tingling increased until billions of tiny, vibrating particles of energy filled my body. I experienced this energy as light—like electricity—although I did not see any brightness. Beholding this interior wonder, I was in awe.
Questioner: What an unusual experience! Weren’t you frightened?
Tria: No. I sensed that a healing process was underway, so I was not afraid. I felt energetic and clear-headed and common sense told me that forgiveness—and whatever arose from it—must be safe. In addition, I had read about medieval Christian mystics who experienced divine light. My forgiveness process, I assumed, was giving me a taste of their ecstasies.
There was another aspect of the experience that made me feel safe, too. My ordinary self was present throughout, witnessing everything. I hadn’t lost connection to the ordinary Tria; I was just accessing another—heretofore unmet—part of myself.
Questioner: How did your experience end?
Tria: After several hours, the memories faded, the energy receded and I returned to normal. The next morning, I expected the memories and tingling sensations to return, but they didn’t. Instead, I found that I was the same person I had always been. On Monday, I returned to my ordinary life as a graduate student and wife. Engaged once more in my busy life, I almost forgot about what I jokingly named the night of the “Great Quake.”
Questioner: Was this the same energy that you experienced in 1981?
Tria: Yes, but in 1981 the energy was more intense. During that big awakening, the inner flow surged inside me, like a river. What’s more, the energy was always present after that—always available, just waiting for me to shift my attention away from daily life and immerse myself again in its sacred current.
Questioner: You’ve told us how these experiences eventually became a teaching, but when did you start doing cross-cultural research on spiritual energy?
Tria: In the spring of 1981, I still had no name for what was unfolding within me. Then I told my friend Carolyn about my unusual awakening and she said I was experiencing a spiritual power called “kundalini.” She also invited me to visit her ashram in Los Angeles and to meet her guru, an expert on this kind of spiritual process. I gladly accepted.
Before entering the ashram auditorium to see her teacher. I browsed in a nearby bookstore and found several relevant books. In one, I discovered a list of the signs of an awakened kundalini. Energy flows in the body, spontaneous movements and sounds, the desire to be mute, and ecstatic states of consciousness were all on the list. Perhaps I’ve finally found a name for my experience, I mused.
Once inside the auditorium, I decided to ask the guru. After chants, announcements and testimonials, it was time to approach him. Standing in line behind hundreds of devotees, I inched my way toward a man wearing a red ski cap and holding a very large peacock feather. Finally, it was my turn. Imitating those before me, I knelt and received his blessing via the feather. Then, to his interpreter, I said, “I think I’m experiencing a spontaneous kundalini awakening. Is this true?” The guru turned and stared at me. I stared back, noticing that he was simultaneously looking at me and within me. Or was he looking beyond me? Through his interpreter, he said, simply, “Yes. It is very good.”
I was pleased, for the guru had given me a name for my experience. But the next day I awoke puzzled. Remembering that my awakening in the shower had begun when I invoked Jesus’ name, I wondered: how could a Hindu spiritual experience have been initiated by the name of Jesus? A section in one of the guru’s books explained. “Kundalini” is the Hindu word for a universal energy. The Chinese and the Japanese call this energy “chi” and “ki,” respectively. For Christians it is the Holy Spirit.
A few weeks later, my research continued unexpectedly when I turned on the television to see if there was something interesting to watch. I stopped to listen to an entertaining Christian preacher who was explaining that three things always coincide in the New Testament: immersion in water, repentance and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Hearing his words, my mind reeled. Standing in shower water last February, I acknowledged my willingness to change by casting evil from myself and then a spiritual power moved within me. On that day, an ancient baptismal ritual unfolded spontaneously in my modern American bathroom!
Discoveries like these fascinated me. Each one sent me to the library—and sometimes to churches and other religious gatherings—for more information. My passion for cross-cultural research has continued ever since.
Questioner: It sounds like your experiences of spiritual energy often took place in solitude. How did such a private process turn into public performances?
Tria: During the 1980’s, I showed my experiences to a few spiritually oriented friends, mostly in living rooms. Something amazing was happening, and I wanted to share it with the people who were important to me.
By the end of that decade, I began receiving invitations to lecture on spiritual energy and to demonstrate my heart’s movements before groups. During the 1990’s, I offered workshops in Florida, British Columbia, California and Oregon. I also gave presentations at two national conferences on kundalini research and at several retreat and healing centers in Washington. In 1999, I gave a brief demonstration before an assembly of students and faculty while attending an Interfaith Seminary in New York City.
Questioner: How large were these audiences?
Tria: About one-hundred watched at the Seminary. The largest group I ever performed before was a gathering of people celebrating Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. There were, perhaps, 3,000 in attendance and many more thousands watching on TV.
Questioner: How did you end up performing in that setting?
Tria: For that special day, another woman and I were asked to help choreograph a dance of peace involving children of several ethnic and racial groups. On the first day of rehearsal, one of the group leaders suggested that everyone—including the choreographers—dance together, free-form style, to get acquainted. When I joined in, I let heart direct my movements, although I didn’t tell anyone that my dance was a spiritual one. After one of the leaders watched me move, she told the gathering that she saw divine light in my dance and asked me to become part of the performance.
Questioner: Giving public demonstrations, that sounds very revealing—exposing.
Tria: Yes. Since nothing is planned during a demonstration—and since the movements come from my innermost being and not my mind—I do feel exposed. In the beginning, it was hard for me to show the spontaneous movements to even one person. But with time, I came to trust that the river of love would guide me into appropriate gestures—ones fitting for whomever was in the audience.
I also came to understand that my kind of spiritual path prepares seekers to go inside out. By this I mean that, with time, we become willing for heart, our deepest self, to be known. When I give a demonstration, I allow the heart-light pulsing inside me to be felt and its gestures and sounds to be known.