Harriet Brown's cave dive
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
I'm driving away from from my mother-in-law's house, crying. Vivian has been a mother to me in every way that matters, and now she's dying of cancer. For months my husband, brother-in-law, and I have been taking turns caring for her in her home. As I pull away this November morning, I know I probably won't see her alive again.
I cry and cry, and after a while a strange feeling bubbles up from my chest into my throat. It takes a minute to recognize it as joy, and I'm horrified—how can I feel joy at a time like this? But it's irresistible. I'm laughing and crying and all the while a small part of me is wondering what the hell is going on. And then suddenly I'm having a...for lack of a better word, vision. I'm not asleep; I'm not hallucinating; I know my name and the date and I'm still driving the car. But an image comes to me: I'm in an underground cavern, on the edge of a vast lake, looking at the water with the feeling of joy still bubbling up inside me, and somehow I understand that the water is actually love, and that love lies under every step I take. I understand that even though my mother-in-law is dying, I will never be alone or unloved. That I am inextricably, inexplicably connected to every living thing on the planet.
Five years ago, I didn't believe in spiritual experiences. Or at least I didn't believe I would ever feel anything transcendent or mystical. I knew others did, or said they did, but those people were seekers. They went to energy healers and astrologers. They prayed and meditated and maybe, I thought, talked themselves into believing they'd had an out-of-the-ordinary moment.
I wasn't that type of person. Though I'd love to believe in a higher power, I just don't. I'm a science journalist, an agnostic empiricist who appreciates the cultural aspects of being Jewish but not the religious ones. So when that image of water and love enveloped me in a sense of peace I'd never felt before, I didn't know what to make of it. It wasn't the sort of thing I could easily bring up with others; I couldn't imagine saying, "By the way, last week I had this vision—let me tell you about it!" Eventually, though, I described it to a friend who said, "It sounds like you've had a spiritual experience."
It turns out I'm in good company. According to a study at the University of Chicago, about half of all Americans say they've had such an experience, which might range from a sense of well-being while watching a sunset to a classic near-death journey.