Have you ever been in the presence of something so lively, engaged, selfless, and utterly radiant, it's left you speechless? Mark Matousek taps into the world's greatest renewable power source.
A few months before he died, 83-year-old Spyros Sathi, widely regarded as the greatest Christian mystic of modern times, agreed to sit down and talk with me in his first American interview. Known simply as the Daskalos ("teacher"), this powerful Cypriot healer had, I'd heard, once frightened a group of hard-nosed reporters by rocking a lame child in his arms and setting him down a few minutes later on legs that were suddenly functional. The night before our interview, I'd studied the Daskalos from a distance, holding forth on a New York stage strewn with flowers; now, stepping into his hotel room with a photographer, I had no idea what to expect.
The moment he rose -- six feet five in a cardigan sweater -- and took my hand, all my apprehension disappeared. Something about this towering man—a glowing kindness, a welcoming ease -- put me at ease, too, and for the next hour I questioned him about how it felt to have his powers. I barely understood his responses (you try interviewing a mystic), but when I stood up to say goodbye, I was so light-headed -- so light all over -- that I had to sit down to steady myself. The Daskalos smiled and watched me intently; then without any forethought, I asked him about a painful situation in my life. My host leaned forward, took my wrist between his fingers, and said, "You are good." Three simple words -- just that -- bearing no conscious link to my question; yet hearing them I wanted to weep, as if Spyros Sathi had somehow heard, underneath the surface question, a deeper confusion, a covert hunger, a secret longing to be blessed. The photographer happened to capture this moment, the Daskalos gently touching my arm, grinning at me as I beamed back at him with the same sort of lit-up expression. In the photograph, which I treasure, my face looks like a hundred-watt bulb.
I've never been a person of faith. In matters of spirit, I'm from Missouri -- fascinated but skeptical. Were it not for meeting the Daskalos and a handful of other exceptional teachers in my travels as a writer and seeker, I would surely doubt that such a thing as spiritual energy existed -- not as a miraculous fluke but a natural gift accessible to all of us. Like harmony, symmetry, and even genius, this invisible force is a mystery whose uplifting power must be encountered to be believed. Once that happens, revealing a glimpse of our awesome potential, it can never again be denied.
Daniel Goleman first became aware of spiritual energy three decades ago in Asia. The author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence, Goleman was a Harvard graduate studying meditation in India when he noticed that most seasoned practitioners exuded what he calls "a special quality, magnetic in a quiet sense." Contrary to stereotype, these spiritual types did not seem otherworldly at all. "They were lively and engaged," he says, "extremely present, involved in the moment, often funny, yet profoundly at peace -- equanimous in disturbing situations." What's more, it seemed to him that this quality was communicable: "You always felt better than before you'd spent time with them, and this feeling lasted."
Goleman discovered that the components of spiritual energy are as carefully quantified in ancient traditions as waves and particles are in physics. "One of the words used to describe this magnetic state is sukha," he says, a Pali expression denoting a sense of "repleteness, contentment, delight -- a calm, abiding joy regardless of external circumstances." Sukha is selfless in nature and connected to a greater purpose -- which is why it increases through service to others.
Traditional cultures recognize that spending time with individuals who radiate this quality is nourishing in itself. In the Hindu custom known as darshan ("presence"), people "tune in to someone who is already in that magnificent internal space," Goleman says, "catching it, so to speak, and carrying it out to others."
Such transmission is more palpable than a skeptic might expect, as I found with the Daskalos, and as San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman saw after spending a week in Dharmsala with the Dalai Lama. "At the airport afterward, my wife looked at me and said, 'You're not the man I married!'" Ekman says with a laugh. "I was acting like somebody who's in love." The foremost authority on the physiology of emotion, Ekman -- who is not a Buddhist -- had been invited to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue between Western scientists and His Holiness, along with several monks. Ekman left the meeting deeply moved. "These monks were unlike any human beings I had encountered before," he says. "They were joyous in a way I had never seen, except, perhaps, in my daughter at two or three years old."
Ekman detected four characteristics common to people with this energy: a "palpable goodness," first of all, that went far beyond some "warm and fuzzy aura" and seemed to arise from genuine integrity. Next, an impression of selflessness -- a lack of concern with status, fame, and ego -- a "transparency between their personal and public lives that set them apart from those with charisma, who are often one thing on the outside, another when you look under the surface." Third, Ekman noticed that this expansive, compassionate energy nurtured others. Finally, he was struck by the "amazing powers of attentiveness" displayed by these individuals, and the feeling he had of being seen in the round, wholly acknowledged, and embraced by someone with open eyes.
If these qualities were unique to masters, they wouldn't be half as compelling. What inspired Ekman-the-scientist was witnessing that transformation is possible for the rest of us. "It wasn't luck or culture or genes that created this qualitative difference," he insists. "These people have resculpted their brains through practice." Contrary to the old hardwiring theory that posited the human brain as fixed from birth, the emerging theory of neuroplasticity has revealed that our minds are reshaped through repeated experience.
In his book Destructive Emotions, Goleman cites a recent study involving a monk being monitored in a laboratory while he meditates on compassion. Among other findings, scientists saw a dramatic increase in gamma energy (sparked in the part of the brain associated with positive emotions), proving that through concern for others we can create measurably greater well-being in ourselves.
This ability requires practice. According to Maxine Gaudio, a biofeedback pioneer and master of the energy work known as reiki, "everybody can draw, but not everybody's a Picasso." As beginners trying to kick-start our gamma, we find ourselves in an ongoing struggle with our own anger, greed, and fear. We lose sight of the fact that we're all interrelated, and that connection is central to tapping into a spiritual wellspring.
"It's our daily dilemma," says David Steindl-Rast, a 77-year-old Benedictine monk who lives as a hermit in upstate New York. "A spiritual energy flows through the universe, a superaliveness -- an active yes. Yet even though our greatest happiness comes from feeling this eternal connection, there's a tendency in all of us to close off from it. Those who counteract the tendency through practice deepen their sense of belonging and free this latent energy."
Focusing on gratitude enhances the feeling of connection. "When we say 'Count your blessings,' this is a very profound teaching," Brother David assures me. "A stream of energy -- of blessing -- is flowing from the universal source as blood pulsates from the heart. Knowing this, I'm energized and pass the blessing along to my brother so it flows again to its source. We create a network of grateful living."
Gratitude can also arise through meditation. Tara Brach, a psychologist and instructor of mindfulness practice, counsels students to harness an active yes through something she calls radical acceptance. "Our basic nature is loving awareness, but we forget," Brach says. "We disconnect; we perceive separation, and along with that illusion comes most of our suffering."
An excellent means of plugging back in, Brach maintains, is to begin with self-acceptance, opening with kindness to what is. "This compassionate quality wakes us up. We have more choices, we're more connected. Spiritual practice is about remembering who we are," Brach says. "Others' awareness helps us to remember -- they become our mirrors. Resting together in this energy, we're not driven to create more violence in the world, nor to violate ourselves."
Hearing these words, I can't help thinking how closely the process of connection resembles love. When I mention my observation to David Steindl-Rast, he insists, "It is love." Not personal or romantic love but the love described in the various gospels -- the love "which passeth all understanding" -- the unconditional warmth that arises naturally from our humanity. It was this that I felt with the Daskalos: enormous, embracing, unstoppable love drawing me toward its own radiance. This force could save the world, I think, melt away borders, give us hope. Another great Christian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, articulated this for all time. "Someday after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness... the energies of love," he wrote. "Then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."
Mark Matousek's most recent book is Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good (Doubleday).