How to Find Our Spiritual Selves
Notes from a journey of falling within.
The sensation of falling didn’t stop. My heart skipped a beat and my attention focused, yet I remained relaxed and at ease. Deeper and deeper I fell until I felt as if I was suspended in an endless abyss that stretched out in every direction. I knew this place.
Suddenly, I saw a light — a bright, blinding light that grew into a massive, burning furnace of creation. It seemed like a giant sun off in the horizon, visible only because of my exceptional distance from it. Yet this light held me. I couldn’t just see it, I felt it. Every cell in my body came alive as I began to experience a visceral sense of connection like nothing I had ever felt before. As the moment came to an end I slowly began to realize what just happened: this is the closest I would ever come to seeing the face of God.
Never before had I experienced such awe and connection. Yet, little to my knowledge, it would be something I would start to experience regularly. No drugs or meditation were involved. I just decided to have a conversation within.
Have you ever had a moment where you overwhelmingly felt like you were part of a much greater whole?
Many of us experience this sensation during intense moments of awe. Some feel it while walking deep in the forest, while others experience it as they look up and realize the full scale of the universe. For some it’s felt during intense times of joy and relief where everything except the present has faded away. As we breathe, we seem to breathe with everything around us.
Most of us see these moments as sparse gifts we’re lucky to experience a few times in our lives. But what if we could experience this awe and connection regularly? What if we could feel it on a yearly, monthly or even daily basis? How would our lives change if we knew first-hand that we were part of something much, much greater?
An Unlikely Source
I didn’t learn about developing a personal spiritual connection as a child. I learned about rules. Rules were to be my salvation, but they seemed to be applied haphazardly at best. Love your enemies, but bomb and kill them first. Give to every man that asks of you, but not if they’re going to spend it on drugs and alcohol. Sell your possessions and give to the poor, but first let’s build a church full of gold.
It seemed that believers were asked to take major leaps of faith by the leaders they claimed to follow, but few — if any — were actually interested in doing so. Instead, we spent Sunday mornings listening to messages of unity and love before fighting to see who could get out of the parking lot first.
Man is flawed. This is no secret. But to a young teenager in Western Pennsylvania, it was impossible to separate the baby from the bathwater. In my anger at man I shut out all spirituality. I remember the exact moment I became agnostic while learning about excommunication in high school. Having been raised in both Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, I saw two churches separated by nothing but politics and nationalism. I remember watching both churches lie, cover up scandals and conveniently skip the honest confession they asked of my family and friends. Why would I want this in my life?
Yet there remained a deep spiritual element within that yearned to be fed. In fact, it was this same part of myself that caused my conflict in the first place — I saw people destroying something I loved. Detaching was the easiest thing to do. I succeeded at ignoring this truth for over a decade, until it all came crashing down.
Nowhere to Hide
My reintroduction to spirituality happened by necessity, not by choice.
As discussed in “Will We Get Rejected By Those We Love If We Show Our True Selves?”, I had hit rock bottom hard after a lifetime of trying desperately to “be enough.” Death would have been supremely welcome. It was only when I experienced unconditional love from another that I realized a new path was available.
I was determined to pick myself back up and rebuild my life. To do so, I would use every tool available. My long-time friend and mentor Fr. Naos asked if I was finally willing to explore the spiritual side of myself. Without reserve, I emphatically replied, “Yes.”
But if I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way.
Two Types of Explorers: Planners vs. Experiencers
One of my greatest pleasures is traveling. I worked and saved money all through college so that I could backpack across Europe and Northern Africa after graduating. I’ve been to sixteen countries in four continents and hope to expand that list. My latest adventure is the one I’m on now: my fiancée Janelle and I sold our belongings, left our native Pittsburgh and have been traveling across the U.S. since May. There’s a sincere joy in exploring the unknown.
During these travels, I’ve discovered there are two basic types of people: planners and experiencers.
Planners live up to their name. Before going anywhere they do research, read reviews and make decisions. They excel at creating organized itineraries and experiencing the best things a place has to offer in short periods of time. They read what others have said and use this guidance to create memorable trips with ease.
Experiencers have no such inclination. To an experiencer, there is no greater joy than being presented with a plane ticket, bag of clothes and an hour to figure out their affairs. They don’t want to plan and organize. They want to show up, throw themselves into the deep end and use their gut to find those experiences they never could have planned on in advance.
One is not better than the other. Each has its pros and cons. But deep down, I am an experiencer. I don’t want someone to tell me what Kyrgyzstan or Tanzania is like; I want to experience it for myself. Taking a spiritual journey is no different. If I was going to discover what was true I wanted to do so through first-hand experience.
There were a few key assumptions I made at this point in time:
- There is only one universal truth.
Whatever is can only be and can’t be anything else. Multiple interpretations of the truth only reflect our limited abilities, nothing more.
Consider the Parable of the Elephant:
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them knew its shape. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. Another person, whose hand was upon its leg said that the elephant is like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “Elephant is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk and said, “An elephant is hard and smooth like a spear.”
Just because we interpret the same thing in different ways doesn’t mean multiple versions of the truth exist. Whatever is can only be what it is and can’t be anything else. Each man spoke honestly but the elephant never changed.
2. If something is universally true it must also be universally accessible.
Sir Issac Newton didn’t invent gravity, he was just the first one to pay attention. Gravity follows the same laws at every point of the universe. It doesn’t matter if we’re in Nebraska, on the moons of Neptune or in our neighboring galaxy of Andromeda. Gravity doesn’t care who or where we are — it presents itself to us all equally. There’s no need for a scientist or teacher to “open us up” to it, we can discover gravity simply by paying attention.
3. Universal accessibility eliminates the need for middle men.
All of us are the “same distance” from the truth. It doesn’t matter if we’re the Pope or a serial killer, each of us have the same ability to go within and find what’s there.
We are creations of the universe. Therefore, we’re part of the universe just as the universe is part of us. Whatever exists “out there” must also exist within. We just have to look inside and see.
Can We Find Spirituality Without Religion?
Each religion claims to be the best vehicle to realizing ultimate spiritual truth. By using their specific beliefs, rituals and traditions, each one promises to open the door to what truly is.
When considering the religions of the world, I felt like I was at a bus station where there was only one destination but countless companies to choose from. Each bus company had their own marketing and pitch. Some claimed to be the only true way, warning me that their rivals were liars who would drive me into oblivion. A few focused on inclusivity and advertised their welcoming of passengers of all backgrounds, while many others only wanted certain nationalities and races. There were buses covered in gold and ivory and buses that remained simple and subdued. Each had their own method of trying to get me to ride, but none of them could change one very simple fact — they were all just buses.
What if I wanted to walk?
Choosing to Walk Alone
After I said “Yes” and dropped any resistance to exploring my spiritual side, Naos gave me the only guidance that I needed: “Have a conversation.”
That was it. No books, no rituals, nothing external. These things could supplement my journey but not substitute it. My answers could only be found within.
One Person’s Journey
While I believe there is only one universal truth, I also recognize that I am like a blind man touching an elephant. My personal account is nothing more than that, an honest description of what I found.
Going within and exploring for yourself will be far more rewarding than reading this or anything else. Go, sit quietly and trust that you know how to find the way. If you want to stop and begin exploring for yourself, go for it.
Otherwise, we’ll continue on below.
How to Have a Conversation with “God”
Step 1: Let go of all previous ideas and constraints
It’s impossible to discover something if we already claim to know what it is.
When I began, I let go of everything. I let go of my identity as an agnostic individual, as a Christian, as a Greek-American who needed to maintain his cultural roots. I let go of what I learned in religion class, heard in church, read in the Bible or got externally from any other source.
I didn’t want the safe and familiar, I wanted the truth. This was no time for comfort.
There’s a difference between, “I’m open to new ideas” and, “I’m letting go of everything I know.” The first preserves our worldview and lets us add to it. The second destroys our worldview so we can see what actually is.
I also chose to drop the name “God.” This title invoked images I was taught by others (namely, a man with a beard in a chair) instead of things I experienced for myself. If I wanted to be objective I needed something else. At first I used “That Which Is” before moving on to “Source.” I would eventually come full-circle and say “God” once again but with my own understanding. After all, “God” is just a word. It’s the meaning behind the word that matters. I wanted to know that meaning for myself.
Step 2: Let go of filters and speak honestly
I began each night the same way: speaking with brutal honesty about what I was thinking, feeling and experiencing. All the rules (and I had many) regarding who I “should” be or how I “should” feel were dropped. There’s no way to have an honest conversation while also wearing a mask.
I’ll never forget how I started: “I’m pretty sure nobody is listening, but just in case there is, here’s what’s going on…”
Vulnerability was my metric. If I didn’t feel vulnerable I knew something was hiding and I did my best to bring it out. There was a grounding nature to this practice. The more I spoke, the lighter my burdens became. Slowly, I began to discover a sensation in my gut that grew each time I went within. I began to realize my conversation wouldn’t start with words or images; it would begin with tangible feelings.
However, I couldn’t drop a nagging sensation that something was missing.
After a few weeks the answer hit me: I’m supposed to be having a conversation. I couldn’t just speak — I also had to listen.
Step 3: Let go of self and actively listen to the silence within
They key to being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener. The best listeners are those who remove themselves and give their full attention to what is being said. To listen is to receive.
I began the each night the same way, speaking with complete honesty until I found that place of centeredness and peace. Then, focusing deep into that stillness, I “listened” with all my attention.
At first this was a routine meditative practice. Mental thoughts and physical sensations arose but I chose not to engage with them. Instead, I routinely returned my focus within, striving to sink deeper and deeper into that focal point of silence and depth.
Suddenly, a soft whisper of energy seemed to appear from the stillness. It whipped back and forth like a tiny flame, one that could be easily ignored but was eternally present. Like a moth drawn to light I followed it, until the idea of myself — of me, the individual person — began to melt away.
No words can adequately describe this experience. I felt overwhelmingly whole, as if I was part of something that extended well beyond the conscious plane of existence. I went deeper and deeper…until I felt that I saw the face of God.
Taking the Long Way Home
Over the next few months I maintained this practice regularly. Each night I sank deeper while becoming calmer and more grounded each day. For the first time in my life, I felt completely and unconditionally accepted. There was nothing I could do to break this bond. I didn’t need to “become” anything or “prove” my worth; I was already held as complete. There was neither guilt nor shame. Any transgression was forgiven before I was even born. I was held as whole by a force that was greater than anything I had ever known. The statement, “I am unconditionally loved by God” repeatedly moved me to tears for I knew what this actually meant.
Yet I remained undeniably human. This would not last. My mind — perhaps terrified that it was seemingly “dying” each night — became increasingly fixated on old fears. Little by little, I started taking back control. Suddenly, a mix of drastic life changes — deciding to leave my career and a future I built my entire identity around, finding an intense and deep romantic relationship I could barely understand, traveling to a foreign country and having it massively backfire (again, the cons of being an experiencer), etc. — caused me to rocket back into a deeply entrenched self-protective mode.
Maintaining spiritual connection required me to continually let go and trust. How could I do that when so much was on the line?
Over the next few years I did my best to ignore my spiritual side once again. I looked back on this experience as a fluke, as if it was something that happened during an intense moment in my life and nothing more. But just as before, I couldn’t shake the burning within me.
I am finally on a spiritual journey once again. I can feel the resistance to letting go even though I have first-hand proof that this path has brought me the greatest sense of peace I have ever experienced. Instead, my mind is determined to stay “alive” and maintain its control. While I recognize it is only trying to protect me in its own misguided way, I am choosing to continue forward. With patience and kindness, I will outlast my fear — for I know what’s ultimately there.
Three Critical Lessons
1. Unconditional love provides free will
Consider the sun. It’s a massive, churning ball of nuclear fusion that exists on a level we can hardly comprehend. It is the creator of the solar system and enabler of all life on Earth. We owe the sun our very existence — yet we can block it with a simple umbrella. For all the sun’s overwhelming power and might, it cannot force us to accept its light.
Yet the sun gives itself unconditionally. Should we close our umbrella, the sun doesn’t come down and and say, “Hold on now! How dare you block me? I demand penance and the begging of forgiveness before I shine on you again!” No. It simply shines. It gave us light while the umbrella was up and continues to shine as soon as we put it down. What we do has zero impact on its actions. No matter what choices we make, no matter how “good” or “bad” we are, the sun offers its light to us all the same. We have full permission to be.
2. Because I am free, I am responsible.
When a nation declares the right to rule itself it also accepts the responsibility to do so. We cannot be free while being ruled by another.
To ask God/Source/etc. to eliminate our problems is to run away from the very freedom that makes life meaningful. We don’t need to have our problems taken away from us; we need to remember we’re strong enough to face them head-on.
Spiritual connection is not spiritual bypass. There’s no “fast lane” around our issues. However, there is less fear. We can see ourselves as already safe, already whole and already complete. Whatever we need is already within us. There’s no need to run; we can address our problems directly and move on.
3. I am responsible to share with myself that which I have been given.
Each of us are held unconditionally. All the love, forgiveness, acceptance and worthiness we crave was given to us before we were even born. It’s not our job to ask for these things but to realize they’re already ours. It’s our job to give ourselves the very things we seek.
Learning to treat oneself from a place of unconditional love is incredibly difficult. It goes against our nature as social primates who use rewards or punishments to encourage or prevent certain behaviors. But God/Source/etc. is not human — it offers all without condition.
If the single greatest force in the universe holds us unconditionally, why would we not strive to do the same for ourselves?
We Are Free
I do not claim to have all of the answers. Learning to recognize and embrace my faults and imperfections has remained one of my greatest lessons in life.
Yet no journey has impacted me more than this spiritual quest. Most travels require my time, money and wits —but this one has demanded I release all that I believed to be true. As terrifying as that requirement may be, I want to go to my deathbed knowing I saw it through.
Let go. Have your own conversation and see where it leads you. There’s no need to do any more research or become any more “prepared.” Just start. Get quiet, go within and discover what the elephant looks like to you. Let me know how it goes! From one explorer to another, I wish you safe and exciting travels.