I spent much of my early twenties traveling throughout The Middle East and India. I lost track of time gazing at an ancient copy of Homer’s Iliad at a museum in Cairo. I remember sleeping through a freezing cold night on Mt. Sinai and awakening to a brilliant sunrise over the Arabian Peninsula. I climbed the pyramids in Egypt and protested the Israeli occupation of the West Bank with Arab and Jewish women peace activists. For a year, I studied in Jerusalem. Later, I dedicated myself to the practice of meditation at an ashram in the Himalayas.
A lively mix of debate and discussion characterized my Hebrew University days. In the evenings, I worked illegally as a waitress in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Adorned in Roman attire, I served fantastic platters of Middle Eastern cuisine and performed folk songs and dance routines for photo-snapping tourists. I was nineteen and living in Jerusalem, a place saturated in religious symbolism. Known as Al-Quds in Arabic and Yerushalim in Hebrew, Jerusalem is a city renewed and ravaged due to contested paradigms of poetry and politics.
I loved the quiet walk back to my dorm room on Mount Scopus. It provided needed personal space for reflection. The cool evening air provided relief after a hectic night of waitressing, dancing, and smiling for the camera. Jerusalem’s famous panoply of holy sites inspired reflections about the nature of reality, God, and mystery. In particular, the Haram al Sharif or Temple Mount mesmerized me. All religions offer different doorways into the mystical silence encountered in meditation. All religious dogmas can be used to exclude and justify inflicting harm. There’s nothing like living in Jerusalem to come to know both of these statements as truth.
One late afternoon, I noticed an unusually radiant group of people completing a bar mitzvah celebration at the Kotel, or Western Wall. Because this festive Jewish rite of passage occurs multiple times a day at the Kotel, I simply registered their presence. However, a deeper instinct drew me towards them. Trusting these intuitions, I introduced myself. They were Canadian but currently lived in India where they studied at a meditation center in the Himalayas. They were only in Jerusalem for a few days to celebrate the bar mitzvah and would soon return to India.
That night they planned to gather for a group meditation. They asked if I’d like to join them. “Of course! Thank you so much,” I replied.
Later that evening, I sat on a blanket in a beautifully landscaped courtyard with thirty or so kindred souls. The woman who led the meditation directed our attention to the presence of a silent, safe, infinite space within us. She told us to bring awareness to the physical body first. Then she guided us to rest our attention on the breath. Finally, a calming mantra enabled me to let go of all thought, all sound, and, eventually, the mantra itself. What was left? The silence between sensations, breaths, and thoughts. This silent, peaceful space connected each one of us to all of life and to its remarkable wonders.
Throughout my studies, I loved reflecting upon people’s vivid descriptions of mystical visions of unity. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Within us is the soul of the Whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the Eternal One.” However, it is one thing to study an idea and quite another to experience it.
To paraphrase philosopher Ken Wilber, you wouldn’t eat a menu and call it lunch, right? Zen Buddhist wisdom reminds adherents not to confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. One could spend years studying the mechanics of swimming, but until slipping into the wetness of water, only an intellectual sliver of what it means to swim is ascertained. Gathered around me were individuals fully committed to experiencing the vision Emerson described and diving headfirst into the Eternal One.
We sat for an hour in silence. I was enveloped by a sense of peace such that I had never known. Meditation came alive and the healing energy of an all-pervading love surrounded me. As a child, when touching the edges of this deep love, I attributed it to the power of Jesus Christ. On that transformative evening at a friendly stranger’s home, an essential metaphysical insight unfolded. I had been raised to acknowledge only one entrance to God’s energy. In fact, one need not use the term “God” at all. Such a term is another doorway into the mysterious heart unifying all existence. However, humans need language to direct the attention to the ineffable. There are many names for this mystery. The doorways were holy too. In this sense, the calming, silent, spacious energy discovered in my meditation both transcended Christ and was Christ.
I began to cry, and the pain of my separation from Mormonism ran down my cheeks as tears. I sat in a timeless quiescence of connection. My past and my present united. My religious upbringing focused on devotional prayer. There I sat focusing on the space behind, between, and permeating throughout all prayer. Prayers formed by the child’s heart within me and this new space merged as one. Connected to the surrounding meditators, the tree roots below, the stars circling millions of miles above, and my family in Utah, I fell into Christ and the abiding, holy, and vast silence. They were one. People travel for miles to seek the counsel of holy ones. Now, I only needed to devote myself to a daily practice of going within, a daily practice of breathing Jesus.
Later that year, I traveled alone to India to study meditation. Traversing India’s vibrant, wild, difficult, and colorful landscape was an overwhelming experience. I met up with my Jerusalem friends in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The swami in charge of their ashram purposely built the meditation center right next to a congested and busy main road to strengthen the community’s practice of diving into silence in the midst of our cacophonous world, and it worked.
Over the next few years, I took my practice of seated meditation very seriously. I spent hours a day in silence and returned to this ashram two more times for deeper study. I benefited greatly from the swami’s teachings of Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy that affirmed the oneness I experienced in Jerusalem. I conducted scholarly research through lengthy interviews with ashram residents and focused my senior thesis at Reed on Advaita Vedanta. Whether meditating in India or Portland, the space within remained a constant, softening, and welcoming peace. All I needed was a safe place to sit and close my eyes. Upon opening them, the daily forms of human life were seen more clearly as miracles.
“Birth, Breath, and Death” is available on Kindle and in print via Amazon. Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula
Philosophy, religion and love infuse this thoughtful set of observations. –Kirkus Reviews
Amy Wright Glenn’s collection of essays is filled with wisdom that arises from her own life journey as an esteemed high school teacher, inner-city hospital chaplain, birth doula, yoga teacher, daughter, wife, mother, and thoughtful, intuitive human being. –Sharon Salzberg, Author of Real Happiness and Lovingkindness
Amy Glenn has brought her own great sensitivity and heart to the portals where we enter and leave this life, and to the loving presence that is our source. Filled with a wisdom that touches into the great mystery, “Birth, Breath, and Death” is a poetic and beautiful reading experience. –Tara Brach, Ph.D. Author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge