by Drake Spaeth
Originally published on November 26, 2014 in The New Existentialists
Last year, I was teaching a section of Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy and discussing with my students the topic of mysticism and personal experiences of the “sacred,” which I loosely define as that which is associated with authentic perception of beauty, feelings of awe, and the dawning of wordless profound wisdom that enriches our lives. Trusting that they had at least glanced at the assigned readings on Maslowian peak experiences, trance, William James, shamanism, and indigenous spiritual traditions, I asked them in class to identify the hallmarks of a mystical or sacred experience. I received the expected responses of “ineffability,” “interconnectedness,” “transiency,” “ecstasy, “euphoria,” and others. Then…my sharp hearing discerned the murmur of the quiet student at the back of the room.
“Gratitude,” she whispered.
I was astonished and verklempt for several moments. It is rare that my students render me speechless, though they continually surprise and inspire me. I had never before contemplated the mystical or the sacred in quite that way. Yet, in that moment, her simple utterance resonated with rightness in my bones, and my pleasant shock soon gave way to a sense of wonder. I felt my heart open up, as my entire being was quite unexpectedly and spontaneously suffused with that very feeling: gratitude.
I was thankful beyond words to be living that moment, to be sharing such a conversation with students who were awakened, excited, and inspired by the subject matter, and to be following a life path aligned with my inner purpose. I was standing in a windowless classroom, and yet it suddenly seemed as if I were standing in bright sunlight and taking a huge breath of clean, wild air borne by otherworldly breezes blowing softly in my face. In that instant, I knew such fierce joy as my awareness reached out to all the people in my life who have risked and sacrificed much so that I could be standing in that room and listening to that word. I was aware of deeply appreciating and loving my family, friends, students, and clients. I experienced ripples spreading out from that moment, knowing that joy can be contagious and that kindness stemming from gratitude will be paid forward. Even the most ordinary of circumstances can instantaneously feel as if they are fraught with meaning, love, and power.
Ironically and delightfully, that single word response engendered a beautiful experience of the sacred in me, and in that feeling there could be for me no more powerful personal proof of its truth. Gratitude is indeed connected inextricably to the sacred. Each seems to engender or encourage the other! The shift from ordinary consciousness to what is commonly understood as non-ordinary consciousness is perhaps only an incomplete aspect of a full experience of the sacred. Heart-openness potentially follows for those who genuinely yearn for it. Conversely, perhaps a surge of gratitude opens the channels of perception, changing everything. Organic, spontaneous acts of compassion and kindness may follow, and they have the potential to plant seeds of the sacred in others as well.
Even the memory of that classroom conversation evokes remnants of those feelings in this present moment of writing these words. That student gave me a great gift, a piece that had been missing from my own somewhat overly intellectualized understanding of mystical experiences. This piece also seems to be missing from some approaches to psychotherapy practice as well.
Many in my profession congratulate themselves on their embrace and adaptation of the spiritual practice of mindfulness for psychotherapy. Today, with the support of their therapists, clients utilize mindfulness to increase their ability to be with painful experiences and increase awareness of alternative possibilities and choices for coping with suffering. It has been an invaluable step toward self-development or posttraumatic growth for many. However, I wonder how much more they could accomplish in their lives if their therapists would espouse and model “heartfulness” in partnership with mindfulness. Therapists such as Virginia Satir, Carl Rogers, and Carl Jung, like kindly aunts and uncles, certainly did their level best to remind us of the benefits of this pairing. A Jungian psychologist once told me that Jung encouraged people suffering from what we now call depression to surround themselves with art, objects, and circumstances that they find to be beautiful and to cultivate an appreciation for them. To me, that is the true gift that spirituality potentially brings to psychotherapy: the ability to notice beautiful patterns of meaningful synchronicity in one’s life and to have a childlike openness to being surprised by unexpected opportunities. We may miss them if our hearts and minds are not expansive enough to catch and embrace them.
Perhaps even more importantly, heart-open kindness and gratitude associated with opening our conscious awareness to the ongoing presence of beauty can transform all our relationships and many other aspects of our lives, making us as therapists or professors aware that our good work is not confined solely to the therapy office or the classroom. I now better understand why I have never fully embraced “transiency” as being a salient feature of mysticism. For me, each time another window to the sacred opens up, it never completely closes again!
I am grateful beyond words that this is so, that I am able to do the work that I do, that I may fearlessly love those that I love, and that I live every moment of this life I enjoy so much.