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Excerpted from The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham. Copyright 1999 by Sophy Burnham. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"I remembered that instant of satori when, as a young married woman, I'd been typing my article and melted into the tree. I wanted that."

Sophy Burnham, The Ecstatic Journey, Part 7

Later still, you grow so quiet that your body disappears. Then you find that you are the mind, and this mind that you are watching is a serene, deep, beautiful, blank sky, an empty space, elegant in its purity. It is what the Tibetans call rigpa, the beginning of the understanding of the richness of Emptiness. Across it slowly floats the cloud of a thought, which vanishes, and after a while there appears another cloud--an emotion perhaps, a memory, or else the high ping of the radiator--a sound which hits your ears and enters your body in observable waves ... and these thoughts too, rise up, diminish, and disappear. Who is the observing "I"?

Once, when I was just beginning, I saw to my horror a pack of small, wild, sharp-toothed, snarling, furry animals come pouring from my navel--badgers and wolverines--out into the air. I watched appalled as they spewed out of me, snapping and clawing the air. (In ... out ...) But when the meditation ended, I walked with a lighter step.

What had happened? I had no one to ask, and I think if I'd had a teacher, I would have been ashamed to admit my vision. I held my secret, vicious violence to myself.

Almost ten years later I read The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In one scene Our Lord is a young novice meditating at an Essene monastery, when suddenly two writhing black snakes appear outside the walls, whipping their tails. Hissing, they slither into the desert, the snakes of ancient sins.

I suspect that Kazantzakis knew what he was talking about. Born in Crete, he ricocheted between his spiritual longings and passionate, politically revolutionary ideals. He served as minister of education in Greece; worked for UNESCO; translated Dante, Homer, Bergson, Darwin, William James, Nietzsche, and other writers into modern Greek, and still found time to write plays, poetry, essays, and novels, including Zorba the Greek. As a young man he withdrew for a time to Mount Athos (where no female of any kind including hens and cows has set foot for ten centuries) and there he meditated with the monks so long that he developed what's called the meditator's rash. This is a real phenomenon. Apparently it heralds the energy shifts that consume one's body as vibrations rise--burning karma, as the Hindus call it. When I read Kazantzakis's description of those two black writhing snakes, I recalled my own disturbing vision and wondered if he was writing of what he himself had seen on Mount Athos, the physical manifestation of the cleansing of a soul.

For six years, then, I meditated, using either the Buddhist breathing meditation just described, or the mantra given later by my guru. In this second form of meditation, you concentrate on the sound of one of the names of God. It is not, however, the meaning of the word that assists the awakening, but rather the vibration, the frequency, resonating with your soul. (This is different from the Christian lectio, a discipline in which you take a Scriptural verse and read it over and over, concentrating, until its deepest meaning seeps into your heart.)

Studies of meditation show that precise changes occur in the meditator's brain waves and hypothalamus, as well as in the nervous, metabolic, and acupuncture meridian systems. I knew nothing of these studies, but I found my sharp mood-swings flattening out into a quiet steadiness. And periodically I would experience a fleeting moment of transcendence, a light-encapsulated epiphany, in which the world would be flooded with light, and I, too, momentarily. These came as little breakthroughs like the static an astrophysicist might hear when listening to the silence of space--a brief splutter of sound and gone. A blessing of light, and then darkness.

Looking back, I can see now that all this time that I was meditating, my prayers were also shifting, but so gradually, so imperceptibly I didn't notice at first. I wanted God.

"I want to understand," I prayed fervently, as indeed I had prayed since I was twenty. Understand what? I didn't know: all of it! Now I remembered those moments as a child, isolated flashes of memory, like a shaft of sunlight in the forest, when everything seemed pure. I remembered that instant of satori when, as a young married woman, I'd been typing my article and melted into the tree. I wanted that.

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