A Journey of
Spiritual Awakening

Mary NurrieStearns

During our years of publishing Personal Transformation magazine we printed personal stories in each issue as a source of inspiration and encouragement for readers.

Now, in the spirit of being fellow sojourners we share our stories of transformation. Periodically, we wonder about doing so as the stories are personal and historical. We also feel shy about openly disclosing personal stories having both been raised in families that valued privacy.

We live in a society where image seems more valued than truth. Struggle seems more like failure and vulnerability more like weakness. Yet our life experiences are grist for the transformational mill.

We can think of no important reason to not share our stories. When we are around someone who openly speaks the truth we feel relieved and relaxed. Witnessing others transparency empowers us to be so ourselves. And the more transparent we are, the more conscious we become.

Since we are all brothers and sisters on this spiritual journey, we are being open and transparent.

Often times, extreme suffering is the portal to spiritual awakening. Great pain and desperation can make a person willing to die. And spiritual awakening is a death, a death of mistaken identity and a realization of who we truly are. I will start this accounting of spiritual awakening just before the place of suffering.

I begin in December 2002 while on a day hike with family. Happy and carefree, we romped on the big red rocks. Then the fear began, the fear of jumping over rocks and falling to my death. That night I dreamt that I did jump over a crevice and fall to my death. Except I didn't die, my body died and I lived on. I witnessed the plunge. I woke up realizing that I am not my body, that something lives on after physical death. I felt less afraid of dying.

Just a few weeks later I began feeling incredible anxiety. Throughout the winter of 2003, I was down on the floor of my counseling office, overwhelmed with anxiety. The anxiety was so intense that I was incapable of doing anything but resting on my back, arms and legs outstretched. Waves of terrifying anxiety ripped through me. I remembered the advice of a spiritual teacher, "Breathe and welcome the anxiety, go into intimate relationship with it."

Like waves of an ocean, those currents of anxiety were relentless, a force field stronger than I was. Helpless, I surrendered to them. Nothing else mattered. I was swept away. And then, something else was felt. There was this sweetness, a presence that held, contained and was underneath the anxiety. This utter sweetness also came in waves as it arose to enjoin the anxiety. I breathed and experienced it gratefully and after a while the entire experience would subside. Much calmer, I would slowly find my way up to my feet. Much calmer, I would be able to stand, to think, and to put my attention elsewhere.

This experience was replicated again and again. There was a worry story that fueled the anxiety. It was about money. Would there be enough? Will my husband produce income? What will happen to my counseling practice? For the first time, there were empty spaces in my work week. The money story was achingly familiar and brought up memories of childhood poverty.

February came and went. March arrived. Still, on occasion, I was slammed to the office floor, riddled with anxiety. Curiously, this only occurred when I was not in session. I tried to understand this fearful state. I wanted to be rid of it. Logic didn't lessen it. Neither did talking it through with friends. The only way to relief was through the anxiety, through the oceanic waves, surrendering into them, then being filled with the arising presence of sweetness and understanding.

In late March my husband scheduled a business trip to San Francisco in an attempt to secure a business contract. Finances being tight, he arranged to stay with a woman he had been spiritually mentoring, someone we had worked and socialized with a few years earlier.

Although the idea of his accommodations made me nervous I trusted my husband and agreed with the plans. A few days after making these original arrangements for lodging, my husband announced that he was going to extend his visit in San Francisco by a couple of days in order to see a spiritual teacher and hike in the nearby mountains. Slam, I was on the office floor in the most intense wave of anxiety. An awful sense of foreboding overtook me. Overwhelmed and out of emotional control, I couldn't even weep. I didn't know what I was afraid of. I did know that my usual calm, tightly controlled ways of dealing with emotions were unraveling. I couldn't press my teeth together and suppress my emotional body. It was most unnerving to not be able to tuck away my emotions.

When he returned from the trip we enjoyed an affectionate reunion. Life resumed, and as the month went on my fits of anxiety began subsiding. In early May my husband confessed that he was attracted to the woman he was mentoring and felt a heart connection with her. She had experienced a "spiritual awakening," similar to what he had experienced three years earlier. He reported that they connected in deeper ways than we did and that he was confused by the connection and relationship.

The day he told me that news is the day I began dying. I no longer knew who I was or what would happen or what I could base my life on. My reliable counseling practice of fifteen years was changing; my extraordinary marriage was threatened. The inner peace I had felt for years was shattered by the winter of anxiety.

Ekhart Tolle's book on tape, "The Power of Now" became my lifeline. I listened to him feverish during my work commute. I took in his message of being here now, in the present moment. "Being here now" became my motto. I could only manage taking each moment as it came. Any movement of thought into the future brought great emotional suffering. I soaked in his words. They felt like they kept me alive and instant by instant I made it though the day. Anxiety ceased. Mourning began.

Ideas and images about my life arose and died. The myth I had long held about the great love story of our marriage dissolved. It was just a story. The belief that we would be together until the physical death of one of us was gone. It was just a concept. The notion that ours was a thriving marriage was destroyed. These thoughts were simply productions of the mind, not the reality of my experience.

The dying progressed. The belief that my counseling practice would exist until my retirement was shot down. The idea that I was mentally healthy and progressing on a spiritual path was laughable. One after another, concepts about who I was were shredded. I was no longer the strong one who others relied on. I had not answers for myself, much less for anyone else.

I felt dead. I told myself that "Mary died." I felt intimately that the only way to live was NOW, in this moment. Blessedly, when in the present moment, the sweet energy that met my anxiety showed up in my experience and met the mourning, the emptiness, helping me to endure. Deep sadness mixed with this loving presence. I dared not drift away from each moment as it was experienced. If I did, the grief was unbearable because there was the absence of the sweet energy. The energy was only available in the present moment.

Late in May, while retrieving my office phone messages, I heard this message on my voice mail. "Mary, I am so glad to hear your voice. I thought you were dead." A former client, while attending a funeral at the church I used to attend, saw my name engraved on a brass leaf on the Memorial tree for deceased church members. I was not upset by what I heard. The Mary I had been, the one whose identity was linked to her ideals, her work and her marriage, felt dead.

I went to the church and retrieved the leaf. The leaf became a reminder that "what was" was no longer. The past was dead, not to be held unto. Life exists only in the present. Any movement from the present, either into the future or the past, causes suffering.

Time passed. June 21, our thirteenth wedding anniversary approached. On June 20 my husband confessed to having additional phone contact with the woman he had been mentoring. I was devastated. For me our wedding anniversary was a funeral for our marriage. My body was alive but I was a shell. My heart was broken. I had known deep down inside that I could count on our marriage and now that assurance was fractured. There was no anxiety, just massive sadness.

My experience was one of no hope, no future, nothing to rely on, no place to rest. There was nothing except the schedule of the day, breath and the present moment. Any mental movement away from NOW was excruciating. What life there was, was here, in this moment. All else was unknown.

My new anchor was spiritual teacher Adyashanti, a Zen teacher. I listened to his teaching tapes on my daily commute to work. My mind couldn't comprehend his words about spiritual freedom. However my being craved his message about living in the unknown and the promise of spiritual awakening.

During this time, I was in close communication with a fellow yoga teacher who was also in the throes of a marital crisis. A deeply spiritual woman, she was shaken to her roots by the news of her husband's attraction to another woman. We communicated weekly, talking about the death of life as we knew it. One day I timidly emailed this message to her, "I want to be God realized."

Rick, although increasingly withdrawn and flat, said that he wanted us to take a week long trip to the mountains. We marked the third week of August on our calendar. I prayed that this would be a week of healing and a reconsecration of our marriage.

A few days prior to leaving for Colorado, I had lunch with my yoga teacher friend. She said her prayer was "God, bring it on, whatever you will, whatever I need for my spiritual growth." She added, "even if it means the death of my body." I swallowed hard, wondering if I was willing to die in order to be united with God.

Armed with twenty-five hours of tapes on spiritual awakening by Zen teacher, Adyashanti and spiritual teacher, A. H. Almaas, my husband and I started our car ride to Colorado on August 14. We talked little, absorbed in talks about opening to true nature. One student of Adyashanti stated "I am so mad. Your other students report these expansive experiences. I feel nothing. I am frustrated and don't want to wait for another life to be self realized." Adya responded, "The fire is burning in you. Stay with the fire." I trembled and wondered if the fire was burning in me.

Half way to Colorado we switched over to A. H. Almaas tapes. In one tape, he addressed the three natures of our soul: animal, spiritual and the human heart. He said that our spiritual nature is transcendent - that which we all seek after. Animal nature contains our instinctual urges for survival and is expressed as sexual passion and territorial aggression. The human heart is love. To truly mature, the task is to awaken and unite the three natures. He went on to say that, unfortunately, many spiritual seekers suppress animal nature, only to experience its uprising in less conscious ways. He added that this is what is being expressed when spiritual teachers sexually act out with students.

My husband became animated and said "I have been feeling numb." Then he fell silent. After a few minutes he quietly said, "what I am feeling is exactly where I stopped feeling--my attraction towards her." Once again, I died. In that moment, hopes for marital reunited shattered. I felt dead inside. All I could do was breath and drive. There was nothing to hold onto. The past was smashed promises unkept, dreams unfulfilled, identity false. The future was way too unknown; it was way too precarious to go there. This moment was the only one where breath was possible and life could be endured. Inside of me there was nothing.

Later that day we arrived in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. We checked into our motel, located a Chinese restaurant and soothed our nerves with a mixed drink before dining. Back in our motel room, Rick turned on his computer to do some business. I showered and fell into bed with the company of a book "Luminous Night's Journey," an autobiographical account of A.H. Almaas's spiritual awakening.

I read on and on and on into the story of A.H. Almaas's awakening. Finally, in exhaustion, I closed the book and shut my eyes. In utter vulnerability I screamed silently, "God damn it, do what you have to do. I want to be awakened. I don't care if I die." The light was still on, Rick was still working and I drifted off, mercifully, into the world of sleep.

Sometime early morning, before dawn, all there was in awareness was velvet blackness. Words cannot describe but merely and vaguely point to this experience. There was only luminous darkness. Buddhist teachings describe this as the void; Christian teachings call this God realization.

I don't know how long this awareness and experience went on. And I cannot describe it because the experience is not one that is manufactured or experienced by the mind. The experience of voidness is one the mind cannot wrap itself around conceptually.

I can report that during the morning hike the following day, my internal experience was one of emptiness, nothingness, and "no-body" here. The experience of "going into the void" was one of seeing essential nature, recognizing the real identity of this soul, experiencing oneness. On Tuesday, it slowly dawned in my awareness that the personality of Mary was all manufactured by mind. It is not who I am. I am nobody! As my husband and I walked, I felt strange, like being in a new land, unfamiliar and very alone. There was no Mary there for company. Tears came as, from this place of nobody, I realized profoundly that there literally is no future - no hopes, dreams, expectations, goals, ambitions, things to accomplish - they are all mental constructions. There was nothing but emptiness. I wept more. The implication followed that there was nothing to hold unto - all there is "resting in the unknown." I was all alone, with nothing for security. There was utter aloneness.

In the days that followed, all aloneness became all-is-oneness. The strange vacancy of Tuesday transformed into silent bliss. There was nothing in my mind. All was still, all was silent internally. There was no me. There was no separation from everything. The peace beyond all understanding pervaded.

Awareness went beyond the usual boundaries of my body-mind. Hiking along the beautiful continental divide, several experiences of expansive awareness occurred. One happened while stopping to rest and laying my head down on a stone. Suddenly there was no person in my awareness. Mary was not there. "I" had merged with the stone. I was the stone. Another happened while looking at the clouds pass by in the sky and merging with the sky and experiencing the clouds moving through me, as sky. Yet another happened while sitting in the car. Awareness extended beyond the car and trucks and cars were passing through me, as air.

During those days of hiking, the experience internally was one of being like a shining white bed sheet. There were no thoughts, no mental activity. There was nothing on my mind until something came into view from the environment and then the white sheet of beingness was filled with the external object and nothing but the earth, tree, stream or cliff existed. Mary was not there.

There were also lovely energy experiences. One day, while hiking up five miles to hot springs there were blissful currents of energy coursing through the body. My mind was empty, transparent, like a clear window, so as I walked there was mental quiet and absorption with the surroundings while sensual, orgasmic, blissful energy pulsed through my body. Since that day, in greater and lesser degrees, there is the experience of sweet energy moving through my body.

I relished night times - then the experience of luminous darkness occurred and the next morning was met with new insight. One dramatic experience was the realization, again, totally and utterly, that there is no past. There is no past in the sense of not having an identity based on who I thought I was, on the habit nature of likes, dislikes, ways of relating to time and people, attitudes about self and others based on former conditioning. I recognized how the personality, the "false self," is based on memory and prior experiences. With identity associated with "true self" the "false self" weakens. With identity in "true self" there is objectivity and witness capacity of the "false self." The past is alive in memory but there is not the emotional attachment to what was. The release from the past is most liberating.

Another insight was about the meaning of selflessness. Previously I had understood it to mean "to be giving, to focus on the needs of others, to be of service, to not be selfish, to give of yourself the way Mother Teresa did." I thought it as an ethical code of spiritual living. After the awakening I realized that it means "no self" in the sense of identifying with true nature rather than with personality self. When there is "nobody there," motivation comes from the qualities of essence such as love, creativity, responsibility, wisdom and a sense of oneness with life. There is no separation from another person. We are all expressions of the One. It is an experience of being in God, as God, of God.

Another morning, I awakened early, in what I can only describe as "raptures of the heart." The most intense love I had ever experienced was pulsing from the heart chakra, through the body and into the atmosphere. Waves of love engulfed me. I felt like I was swooning. The energy was delicious and delightful. That day I fell in love with everything I saw - a windmill, a fence, a log, the motel clerk. Not only did I fall in love; I recognized everything as myself, as manifesting out of true nature. It was a divine experience.

That week began a deep healing between my husband and myself. We connected in new ways and worked through misunderstandings, misconceptions and hurts. We opened up to one another. We talked through our experiences during his spiritual awakening. The walls between us came down and we were able to meet one another emotionally and spiritually. The bonds between us deepened. Something fresh, real and substantial emerged in the relationship.

It has been some time since the miracle of spiritual awakening. Most of the time I experience a deep peace and sense of total stillness internally. At times the experience of "I" is of spaciousness and quiet. Often when I sit with others I see God in their eyes, and am immersed in profound emptiness. I relish time and space to simply be and do nothing. I am utterly grateful and astonished by it all.

The implications are still becoming apparent. The spiritual opening was an experience of transcendence, of merging with spiritual essence. A natural result of such an experience is transference of identity from the personality to true nature. There is still a Mary, and I experience the re-emergence of a historical sense of self. The difference now is that I recognize ego and I am less energized by its pull. Now the movement is to make space for this realization, to give time for transcendence. The work is to identify ego and allow its hold on this life to be relinquished.

The way, at least as I understand it now, is surrendering to the path of consciousness, "leaving no stone unturned." This is allowing all sensations, thoughts and emotions to come into awareness, so that all habitual and mental activity is seen through. I selected the word "allow" intentionally. This is not self improvement or doing something to be a better person. This is bowing in humility, so the truth of who I am can shine the light of awareness into the darker recesses of my egoic mind. In this way, "Thy will becomes my will."

I have faith in the wisdom of consciousness, based on direct experience. Nothing of value has been lost, whenever I let go into whatever is arising to the surface. The intense anxiety of the winter of 2003 merged into sweetness when it was allowed. The anxiety dissipated and transformed into sweet energy flow.

I am grateful for the teaching of Adyashanti who recommends allowing all experience so that awareness can liberate us by coming through, illuminating the experience. By bringing awareness into egoic phenomena, the phenomena dissolve. This is awareness in experience, not witnessing from a distance. Being a witness to experience without being in the experience is not as liberating. It keeps us separate from fullness of being which comes from the dissolution of egoic patterning and the immersion into true nature.

I think often of the dream of dying. Awakening to true nature is indeed a death. We are truly born again. Life this time around is not about becoming somebody. It is about being an expression of true nature. Less is known, defined. Life is more mysterious, unfolding moment to moment. A sense of beingness pervades. We no longer lead nor follow. Here we are, discovering the truth of being alive, in this moment.