I asked, “How can we open to mystical experiences
and still lead an ordinary life?” Heart
answered, “Feel, always feel.”
Staying in touch with the current of meditation while working or playing takes practice. Below, I describe my own process, learning to feel heart while engaging in ordinary activities.
Questioner: It’s one thing to have mystical experiences in the protected environment of meditation. What happens when you’re involved with difficult tasks or people?
Tria: Joseph Campbell said that returning to ordinary life after a spiritual experience is like getting back into a cold, wet swimming suit. What a good simile!
Let me describe three distinct ways I’ve related to the world during my life. Before becoming interested in spiritual growth, I went through the day relying primarily on my mind; my ability to feel deeply played a secondary role. Once I began the practice of spontaneous meditation, however, that balance shifted for, perhaps, an hour a day: while meditating, sustained feeling of my inner world became my dominant activity and thinking took a back seat.
When I stopped meditating and returned to ordinary life, something of my ability to feel stayed with me, enabling me to engage the world in a new way. While performing daily tasks, I now practiced thinking-feeling—thinking and feeling at the same time. This not only enhanced my awareness of physical and emotional sensations throughout the day, but also enabled me to experience the spiritual heart, our divine essence, during both work and play.
This skill—being able to think and feel simultaneously—provides the bridge that connects spiritual life with everyday activities. Once we become skilled at thinking-feeling, we can touch our true nature directly—even while we’re paying taxes, making love, or arguing with a friend. Learning to think-feel is itself a spiritual practice.
Questioner: Can you offer some specific suggestions for how to ease the transition between activity and meditative stillness?
Tria: It’s possible to slip into meditation in between activities—while standing in line at the bank, for example, or while waiting on hold on the phone. It’s also easy to feel heart while performing simple tasks, like washing dishes or sweeping the floor. Once we learn to touch the silence during stress-less activities, we can begin to practice feeling heart in the midst of life’s challenges.
Questioner: When a task is mentally demanding—or emotionally upsetting—how can I find my being then?
Tria: I’ll tell you a story about how I brought heart’s silence into a legal conflict. At one time my husband and I had a home atop a steep bluff; no one lived on the land below us. When a developer became interested in the land at the bottom of the bluff, I was concerned. The slopes on which our house sat were unstable and I was afraid that construction work would undermine our property and our house.
I launched into a large project, reviewing the engineering plans the developer had filed with the city. My goal was to do everything I could to make sure that high safety standards were followed so our home would not be threatened—and the lives of the people who would eventually live at the bottom of an unstable 100’ cliff would be safe, too.
The engineering papers the city set out for me sat in a pile literally two feet high. Although city officials allowed me access to the plans, they offered no help in understanding them. I spent the next four months studying technical documents prepared by geologists, biologists and engineers, mostly by myself. The task was tedious, boring, lonely, frightening and overwhelming.
I knew I couldn’t sustain the energy I needed if I thought of the developer as my “enemy.” So, I began every day asking the river of love to direct both my research and the final outcome. Each time I began reading the legal papers, I dedicated my project to heart. While I studied the technical material, I also intentionally felt the river of love flowing inside me.
After thirty minutes or so, I often noticed that my ability to feel the inner river had decreased. At these times, I would stop for a couple of minutes to rededicate my task to divine love. With this simple act of devotion, I always felt heart’s flow again, carrying me forward with renewed vigor. To reaffirm my commitment to aligning with the true nature of the developer, I also prayed throughout the day, “May all beings everywhere [including the developer] be happy.”
By the end of the four months, the city agreed to add an additional safety feature to the engineering plans. For this I was, of course, grateful. But what amazed me most was that when I reflected back on this project, I experienced it as filled with divine light.
Questioner: That is quite a good teaching story. I do notice, though, that in your examples so far you’ve been engaged in solitary tasks. Suppose we’re face-to-face with someone who is upset or disturbing in some way. How do we stay centered then?
Tria: Remaining in heart during an uncomfortable encounter isn’t always easy, but it is possible. Let me tell you a story about a woman I met a few weeks after my awakening in February 1981. At the time, I was a graduate student at USC as well as a trainee in Creative Journal Work, studying privately with an art therapist. Occasionally, I assisted her at workshops that introduced journal writing to the public.
On one damp Saturday in March, forty people crowded into a community college meeting hall in downtown Los Angeles, anxious to learn about journaling. A tall, gangly woman with unkempt wiry hair stood out from the crowd. She wore a brown beret, a yellow plaid blouse, and a red paisley skirt and I found her very unattractive. At the beginning of the day, I had been introduced as a workshop assistant and so, when a break was called, she sought me out.
The woman spoke without telling me her name. “I’m a recent convert to Jesus,” she blurted as her eyes darted frantically around the room. “And now the devil is chasing me.” Her words tumbled out breathlessly, as if someone were chasing her. I wondered what kind of mental disorder she had.
She rushed through her story without a pause, leaving me nothing to do but listen. As I opened to her, I fell into the still pool of love inside me and from there beheld her again. Almost at once I felt an incredibly beautiful energy emanating from her. I basked in this strong, clear flow for several minutes knowing that I was sensing the woman’s soul force—that part of her that was pure and whole.
Today, more than thirty years later, I still feel awe recalling the divine beauty that radiated invisibly from her human form.
Questioner: In that example, the woman was agitated, but she wasn’t hostile toward you. Isn’t it hard to feel heart when someone judges you or blames you for their problems?
Tria: One day in the mid-1980’s, I discovered the calming power of the Indwelling God in a most unlikely place. I had just finished eating lunch with a friend near the campus of the University of Southern California. After our meal, we walked together to the ladies’ room. Inside, we found one of the two stalls occupied. While my friend Eva opened the door to the other stall, I kept talking.
“I have one more story to share,” I said, appreciating our friendship. Then, remembering that Eva didn’t like to converse from inside a stall, I stopped talking. Shortly after, a stranger emerged from behind the other door, with eyes flaming. “I can’t stand you people!” she barked. “Why don’t you grow up!” I stood there, open-mouthed. Startled into silence, I watched as she moved toward the sink to wash her hands. Her back was to me then, but we could see each other’s faces reflected in the large wall mirror hanging above the sink. Her skin flushed with anger as she aimed a few more accusations in my direction.
Utterly astonished, I remained present. Neither shame nor anger arose, nor did any thoughts about her or myself. Without trying, I’d stepped naturally into a calm, lucid pond.
When the woman finished washing, she moved toward the exit by backing up; this unusual maneuver positioned her so that she faced me as she departed. While walking backwards, she began reproaching herself for no apparent reason: “I shouldn’t talk like this, should I? What a terrible person I must be,” she announced. With that, she opened the door and left. Still present and at peace, I watched her go.
Questioner: What do you think upset her?
Tria: I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t like the word “share.” Some people associate “sharing” with being “touchy-feely.” Whatever the cause, I found the outcome worth pondering: why, at the end, did she turn her rebuke on herself? I assume it had something to do with my interior silence. When her accusation found no place to lodge in me (I didn’t feel guilt, remorse or hostility), perhaps it passed through me and returned to her, like a boomerang.
Questioner: You didn’t know her at all. Maybe it’s easier to feel heart when you’re at odds with a stranger. It’s hard to imagine having a mystical experience while being in conflict with people I like or who have authority over me.
Tria: I also find it challenging to feel heart when I’m at odds with important people, but it’s not impossible.
In 1989, I was a student at an Expressive Arts Institute, attending a three-week residential workshop with fifty other people. Our goal was to deepen self-awareness and authentic expression through the arts—dancing, drawing and music-making.
On the last evening of the three weeks, a faculty member at the Institute announced that a free-form dance was about to begin to celebrate the completion of our training module. Our assignment was to make a mask to wear during the dance. Art supplies galore—papers of various colors, textures and weights, plus paints, colored pencils, pastels and assorted baubles—invited us into creative expression.
While my fellow trainees got to work, I sat muddled. I knew, without a doubt, that I should not make a mask that night; it was time for me to face the world directly—unmasked. But—and here was the source of my muddle—I was also in a training program, hoping to graduate with a Certificate of Completion. And graduation meant fulfilling Institute requirements. I was not only in a classic “individual-versus-the-group” conflict, I was also in a conundrum: how could I simultaneously follow the faculty member’s instructions (to make a mask) while being authentic (also a group norm), when I knew from deep self-sensing that this was not the time for me to disguise my face?
Not knowing how to fulfill these contradictory mandates, I sat quietly and waited, and waited some more, while gorgeous masks in wild designs took shape around me. Then an idea rose up from the stillness of my being: I would draw a large, colorful feather, cut it out and attach it to my head—in place of a mask. I set to work, sketching a long, broad feather, colored in turquoise, red and yellow. After cutting carefully around its many slender strands, I attached it to my hair, just as the music began.
I entered the dance feeling exposed, wondering whether someone would scold or shun me for not following instructions. I soon discovered that my fears were unfounded: swaying, sliding, twirling and leaping with my face fully visible, I didn’t receive one critical look all evening. I ended the night grateful for heart—for the silent, indwelling power that had enabled me to find harmony where my mind saw only conflict.
Questioner: In these examples, you seem to slip into heart effortlessly. Don’t you ever struggle to feel your true nature?
Tria: Of course, I often struggle to find peace in the midst of conflict. And sometimes I fail, at least for a while. But when I’m committed to finding heart, I usually do and then I’m glad I made the effort.
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates my process. A few years ago, I traveled from Washington to California to visit an old friend. By the time I arrived at Ruth’s house, it was getting late. After a couple of hours of animated conversation, I was ready for bed but she wanted to discuss a familiar topic—her frustrations at work.
Ruth had had a series of secretaries who refused to do some of the tasks she assigned. “This new one is just like the last—always declaring, ‘That’s not in my job description’.” Ruth’s jaw flexed in agitation, then she continued. “I’m in charge, but she won’t do what I ask.” My friend sat staring hotly into space, then swiveled her head in my direction, glaring.
My first response to this frequent complaint was weariness. I don’t have the energy to listen to this right now, I thought. Then, as she listed the details of the new secretary’s failings, I started to feel resentful. In the past, I’d suggested that Ruth meet with her secretary to review her job description, but for reasons I couldn’t understand, Ruth never took that step.
After twenty minutes of complaints, my frustration with Ruth started building. At the same time, I didn’t want to snap at her. I’d spent a lot of time and money getting to her home and the last thing I wanted was to begin our reunion with an argument.
So, while still listening to Ruth, I intentionally opened to heart. Quickly a sense of spaciousness replaced my feeling of emotional claustrophobia. Soon my tiredness was gone, too. Ruth kept talking, unwinding her irritations while I kept feeling heart. A few minutes later, I noticed that my resentment had completely disappeared. In fact, I felt so well, I no longer minded receiving Ruth’s complaints. After another ten minutes, my friend wrapped up her story.
I hadn’t spoken since she’d begun, but now she looked at me as if wanting a response. Feeling energetic and clear-headed, I had no agenda. I no longer needed to fix Ruth’s problem so that I wouldn’t have to hear about it again.
Softly, I said, “Maybe it would help if you had a three-way meeting between you, the secretary and the head of your department to review the secretary’s job description. If the tasks you want done are on her list of duties, then the supervisor can point that out. If not, you can ask the supervisor to consider adding them. If she says, “no,” then you’ll have to reduce your expectations—but at least the issues will be clear.”
Ruth’s eyes sparkled; the corners of her lips curved up. Beaming, she announced, “I think I’ll try that this time.”