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Ric Elias is a very lucky man. And it's not only because he survived a near-death experience when his plane (U.S. Airways Flight 1549) crashed into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. It's because he allowed this experience to deeply and profoundly change his relationship to life. I only wish that more of us had this response to near-fatal brushes with our own mortality. It's only a rare few that come back from the brink of death deeply sobered and humbled by the event. In fact, it seems that too many of us are able to survive such confrontations relatively unchanged at a soul-level. I always wondered why that is.
Interestingly, it works the same way with mystical experiences...
I remember the very first time I took LSD, at the age of 16, in 1971. I, along with millions of other young turned-on-and-tuned-in hippies and self-proclaimed revolutionaries, was convinced that this miraculous drug that could give almost anyone who ingested it a glimpse of the infinite -- a confrontation with the overwhelming love that seems to pervade the entire universe -- would change the world forever. I mean, it was obvious, wasn't it? Apparently not.
I always marveled in those days at how, shortly after the hallucinogenic effects of the powerful drug wore off, most people seemed to forget what they knew in the midst of the trip. That's why coming down was always so painful. The glory, the ecstasy, the obviousness of the oneness of all of creation, suddenly was no longer apparent. And most people did forget. But some couldn't. I was one of them.
I became a pretty much full-time spiritual seeker in my early twenties because of a non-drug-induced glimpse of mystical insight that I had that same year. The impression it made on my soul was so powerful that I could never forget it. Like so many others of my generation, my spiritual calling pulled me eastward. In India I met many fellow travelers who temporarily allowed themselves to believe it was possible to become a spiritually enlightened human being. In that foreign land, for a time meditation became our vocation and the words of the Buddha were taken very seriously. Indeed, in those days being afforded the opportunity to listen to a talk given by a highly regarded spiritual Master was considered to be the greatest blessing. We were, for a time, literally on the edge of our seats. But soon, even in the midst of the thrilling immediacy of our own transformations, so many with whom I shared the path would fall away, seemingly for no reason.
In the end, really, it was nothing more than one distraction or another. Sex, romance, drugs, or more mundane concerns like finances and fearful thoughts about the future. In one moment we were all on the edge of the possible. And in the next it all seemed to disappear. But I never lost my way. I was very lucky. I eventually found what I was looking for, and within a few years ended up in the unusual position of being a spiritual teacher myself.
In my new role, the biggest part of my job was trying to get people to take the gift of their own life seriously. And boy, I can't tell you how hard that was and continues to be today. For many years I have uttered the phrase, "Everybody wants to get enlightened, but nobody wants to change." Change, in this case, really boils down to what Ric Elias realized in his ordeal that day over the Hudson River. It means never again having to wake up in the middle of the night wondering what the heck we are doing with our lives. It means no longer wasting precious time -- the most important thing we have. And the only way to get to that point is to discover unequivocally for ourselves that which changes everything: meaning and purpose.
For Ric, that meant no longer hesitating to honor and acknowledge friendship, to keep his ego under control, and most importantly, to be a present and loving father to his kids. His story is truly uplifting and deeply inspiring. And I would suggest that maybe we can take it even one step further. History's greatest theologians, philosophers, mystics, and moral heroes were all individuals who came to that point in their own evolution as human beings where they felt compelled to get to the very bottom of what it means to exist. They made the heroic effort to struggle with life's deepest existential questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Why does the universe exist? What is the purpose of the life I'm living and what is the reason that I'm living it?
There are and always have been real, life-changing, and liberating answers to these perennial questions. The thing is, it's only a rare few that seem to feel passionately enough to make the effort necessary to find them. Since the dawn of history, there have always been some human beings who are more awake than most and who tried to help others to see what they saw. So what will it take for each and every one of us to get to the point that they did?
Ric was ready that fateful day when his plane crashed into the Hudson river. I wonder how many other people on that plane were also?
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