Rembrandt (St Matthew and the Angel) DetailIn the Gospel of Matthew there is a very strange parable that is meant to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like. It goes something like this:

There were ten girls who took their lamps to meet a bridegroom. Five were thoughtless and five were thoughtful. The thoughtful ones took extra oil with them and the thoughtless ones did not. When the bridegroom was late in coming, all the girls fell asleep. Then in the middle of the night, the bridegroom was announced and all the girls awoke and prepared their lamps to go out to meet him. The five girls who didn’t think to bring extra oil had none left and asked the five thoughtful girls to share their oil, but the thoughtful girls refused saying, ‘There is not enough for us and for you. Go and buy some oil.’ So the thoughtless girls went to buy oil, and the bridegroom arrived and the thoughtful girls went into the wedding feast, and the doors were shut. And later when the thoughtless girls made it back to the hall and asked to be admitted, they were refused and sent away.

The story ends with this warning:

Be watchful then for you do not know the day, or the hour. ~ Matthew 25:13 (Lattimore translation)

When I read this story three things are clear. The first is that the bridegroom represents a connection with higher centers, more specifically the higher intellectual center. (The wedding feast at the end stands for the experience of higher centers.) The second is that the lamp oil represents the energy that is needed to connect to higher centers. The third is that difference between the thoughtless girls and the thoughtful girls is self-remembering, described here as a capacity to be watchful or thoughtful.

Not long ago I had a toothache, and between the time when the tooth began to ache and the time when my dentist could see me, I had a few difficult days. On one day, in particular, the pain was bad enough that any pleasure I normally felt in my usual activities was spoiled. The pain intruded into everything I did. It intruded into eating, into any attempt I had to write, and even into the watching of a movie I thought I might enjoy. At the same time it created a force, a rather stubborn reminder that what I really wanted was to find a place where I was separate, not only from the pain, but from the exhausting ordeal of having a body. During the whole of the day I made an earnest effort to remember myself and separate from the pain, and though I succeeded with varying degrees throughout the day, it wasn’t until that night, while I was taking a shower, that I achieved something like a complete feeling of separation.

It happened without warning and without any expectation on my part. I was in the shower, a little relieved by the effect of the hot water running over my back, when something clicked inside of me and everything was different. The first thing I felt was that I was fine. Throughout the day I had been plagued by a nagging anxiety. My body kept telling me that something was wrong and that I needed to take care of it. I had done what I could—I had made the appointment with the dentist and had taken some ibuprofen—but the instinctive function continued to send me alarms. And that was what I observed first: that this nagging anxiety was gone. In fact I felt a complete lack of distress. Everything was good. I was not only outside the pain, but also outside all the petty fears that make up my day-to-day anxieties about the state of my health. The thought that occurred to me was that this state was ‘not human,’ and by that I don’t mean inhuman in the sense of lacking compassion or kindness or warmth, but rather so far above the human condition that it was difficult for me to relate to my habitual concerns. The next thought that occurred to me was that this is where I want to be all the time. Of course that wasn’t possible. Though I continued to feel remnants of this state for a couple of days; essentially I lost the feeling of what I can only call complete contentment after about fifteen minutes. It lasted through my shower and while I dressed for bed and for a time while I sat at my desk and read. During that time my body, and all my lower centers, did what they normally do, but my whole sense of self watched with a very satisfying detachment.

What the parable of the ten virgins tells me about this experience is that when this state arose I was able to partake of it because I had been particularly watchful that day. If I hadn’t transformed the pain in my tooth into presence, the state would have either not happened at all, or if it had happened, I would have missed the bulk and depth of it because I wouldn’t have had the energy to be present to it. In either case I would have been barred from the experience of the ‘wedding feast.’

Here’s another instance. Once, some years ago, I was lying in bed with a woman I was seeing. I was rather tired, both because I hadn’t slept well for a couple of nights and because we had taken a long walk a few hours earlier. The walk had been good for me. I often find that walking or riding or driving in a car strengthens my self-remembering. There is something about a continuous movement that helps me to keep imagination down and to focus my attention.

In any event, despite feeling overtired, my mind was clear and attentive. We were both lying in the bed without talking. Without really deciding to sleep, I closed my eyes, but instead of seeing darkness and feeling myself float toward sleep, I heard a rush of wind and saw the earth below me. I saw myself hovering just above what I can only guess was the ionosphere, with the stars above me and the mass of the earth below me. The effect of the scale of it was astounding. But what was striking about this vision—I cannot think of anything else to call it—was not what I saw, but what I felt. I didn’t feel myself in an ordinary way; I was instead a part of an identity that was much larger. It wasn’t that I felt, as it is sometimes described in spiritual biographies, that I had lost all sense of self and become one with a ‘universal consciousness.’ It was more limited than that. I felt that I partook of a being that included other lives and experiences, but at the same time there was still something individual about it. Later it occurred to me that if we do live different lives, then perhaps what I felt was all the experiences contained in my past, and perhaps future, lives. But this thought came later. At the time I simply felt that I was in touch with a being that was far greater than what I know to be my day-to-day inner world. Perhaps I can explain it in this way: if all my life can be described as a role that I play, then that role was a part of this self, but only a small part.

What was disconcerting about this experience was how quickly it was over. I don’t think it lasted more than thirty seconds. So again there was a feeling that if my mind had not been clear; that is, unhindered by my usual concerns, I could have easily missed it. A space had been made in my inner world, and since I didn’t feel the need to fill it with something else, this vision was able to connect to a part of my being that was able to not only experience it but also remember it. By being open and watchful, another world, a more immense and much faster world, was able to enter through a crack that would have normally been filled by the cares and troubles that ordinarily distract me.

In his essay Of Practice Montaigne describes how he was involved in a terrible riding accident, in which he sustained a near-fatal head injury. Before the accident he had been unable to come to grips with his fear of death, but the experience of almost dying—he refused various remedies because he was convinced that he was past help—satisfied him that death was not something to fear.

The state he describes—some scholars believe it was simply shock—reminds me of the same kind of feelings and perceptions I’ve encountered in connecting to higher centers. The feeling is that everything is fine, that if this is the end of disaster then there is nothing to fear.

But Montaigne wasn’t satisfied with walking away from his accident. He wasn’t only happy to be alive, as many people say after these kinds of experiences. He felt that he needed to take instruction from his near-death encounter.

This account of so trivial an event would be rather pointless, were it not for the instruction that I have derived from it for myself, for in truth, in order to get used to the idea of death, I find there is nothing like coming close to it. ~ Montaigne

In the fourth way we don’t look at a vision, or a trauma, or a brief connection to higher centers as only an isolated adventure. We take something away from it. In particular we take away an observation or a realization that will help motivate us to remember ourselves in the future. Looking at the two experiences I just described, I can say from the first that I took away a real sense that I will never be completely content until I can regain what I felt in that fifteen minutes. And from the second I have to say that since that time I cannot anymore feel entirely alone. The sense of being a part of a greater self was not completely forgotten.  And both these realizations motivate me every day to watch and to wonder what will come next.