What you are

“One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern.

I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.

This was not illusion but reality itself.”

(Artist Yayoi Kusama, Japan, born 1929)

This is the introduction to Kusama’s exhibit, Flower Obsession, in the art Triennial now showing at the NGV in Melbourne. On entering the exhibit, each visitor is offered a flower sticker or “3D flower” to place where they want so by the end of the Triennial the apartment will be covered in flowers. Kids and adults were enchanted when I was there this week.

For me the best part was the introduction, and that wonderful “… and I was restored.” When I read it, I felt like going home immediately. Nothing more to be said.

I’ve had three spiritual experiences in my life. The first happened about 12 years ago; the second happened 9 years ago, and like Kusama’s, it also involved flower. Not a flower or the flower, just flower. The third one, the big one, happened on Monday, 2 May 2011 around 12:40pm, standing on the corner of Collins Street and Exhibition Street waiting for the lights to change.

Suddenly, a portal in the world opened and who I was was the space in which the world was arising. Everything and everyone that had ever been, and everything and everyone that will ever be, was arising, all of a piece, in this moment. Time was revealed to not exist, and through the space and within the space, there welled in an ever-welling fount a vast force that was Love.

When the experience occurred, I was standing towards the back of a group of about 10-12 people waiting on the corner, and as it happened, everyone in the group turned to look at me and we went through it together.

Afterwards, it seemed to me that if my life had ended on that day or soon after, I would have considered it well-lived because of that one moment. I see Kusama feels similarly because she is now 89 and the experience happened to her when she was a young girl.

I haven’t spoken much about the experience since then. I both long to speak about it, and at the same time I’m reticent. The words are so inadequate, and there’s also a certain impertinence in it when I think of that sacred enormity. Yet Kusama’s words touched and excited me, and that’s why I’m speaking today because my experience may touch someone else.

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Many people have had this same experience down through the centuries and across all cultures. You can see its trace through stories, poems, art, like the footprint of a wild animal in sandy soil. Here it is in a book I read over Christmas:

“One day, I was walking across a park in a suburb of London … what happened then is simply beyond description. I can only inadequately say in words that total stillness and presence seemed to descend over everything. All and everything became timeless and I no longer existed … Oneness with all and everything was what happened. I can’t say I was ‘at one’ because ‘I’ had disappeared. I can only say that oneness with all and everything is what happened, and an overwhelming love filled everything. Together with this there came a total comprehension of the whole. All of this happened in a timeless flash that seemed eternal … Nature, people, birth and death, and our struggles, our fears and our desires are all contained within and reflect unconditional love.” (Tony Parsons, As It Is: The Open Secret of Spiritual Awakening)

Here it is in a woman who’d been engaged in loving-kindness meditation for some time:

“I have opened. I am nothing and I am the whole world. I am the crab apple tree and the frog by the stream and the tired cooks in the evening kitchen and the mud on my shoes and the stars. When my mind thinks about past and future, it is only telling stories. In loving-kindness, there is no past or future, only silence and love.” (From Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology)

And here it is in a wonderful poem:

“Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.” (Late Ripeness by Czeslaw Milosz)

What about you? Have you experienced it? How would you describe it, however inadequately? What have been the consequences for your everyday life? (This is the bit I’ve been mulling over for the last seven years.)

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