Falling Into Grace
by Karuna J. Poole
As I returned from the lectern, I marveled at the workings of spirit. Just two months before, I had been in a plane falling twenty-five thousand feet toward the ocean and here I was, a devotee of an Indian guru (Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Ammachi), now sharing that experience with the congregation of a fundamentalist Christian church. Spirit had led me to make this Afro-American Pentecostal church one of my United States spiritual homes more than five years ago. As a result of that long association, I had just spoken to this group, using Eastern religious terms such as "mantras" and "ashrams," without a cringe in the crowd. I marveled at the creative ways in which God was bringing the races and religions together.
When I returned to my seat, I reflected once again on the events that had led to this testimony. About eight weeks before my annual trip to Ammachis ashram in India, I had felt an inner direction to start saying my mantra a lot! (A mantra is a potent collection of sounds, first recognized by the ancient Indian seers, which can awaken spiritual energies.) While I had focused on mantra repetition during other periods in my journey with Ammachi, it had never been an ongoing part of my spiritual practice.
I started saying my mantra one to ten thousand times a day, sometimes more. I also began to chant the Lalita Sahasranama, the Thousand Names of the Divine Mother, almost every day.
A few days before my departure, the pastor of my church sent a junior minister to me during a gospel concert, inquiring whether or not I would be attending church on Sunday. The pastor wanted me to read a poem. Never before had he asked me to do anything of the sort! After the concert, with some trepidation I asked, "You have a poem you want me to read, right?" "No," he said, "you pick one." What poem could I read that would be meaningful and acceptable to this church? When I fretted to my daughter about my dilemma, she reminded me of the poem a devotee of Ammachi had read during a recent talk. "Perfect," I thought. The poem, believed to have been written by a hospitalized patient, contained sentiments that would be meaningful to both groups:
AMONG MEN MOST RICHLY BLESSED
I asked God for strength that I might achieve
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey
I asked for health that I might do great things
I was given infirmity that I might do better things
I asked for riches that I might be happy
I was given poverty that I might be wise
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life
I was given only life that I might enjoy all things
I got nothing I asked for but everything I had hoped for
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered
I am among men most richly blessed
When I read the poem that Sunday morning, the congregation was vocal in their appreciation of the content, calling out their praise: "Amen," "Yes," "Thank you, Jesus."
The following Friday, I left for India. The trip proceeded smoothly until the final segment, when, halfway between Singapore and India, the plane started shaking. Simultaneously, all of the oxygen masks descended. As we struggled to put on the masks, the plane began to fall, first fifteen thousand feet, then another ten thousand. The entire fall took less than a minute. As the plane began to descend, my daughter and I glanced briefly at one another and then went inward. My mantra started flowing freely within me. With it came a great sense of peace.
Numerous thoughts went through my head. Before I left Seattle I had made sure my will was in order, and at the last minute felt compelled to leave my roommate a note saying that if anything happened to us, I wanted Mrs. Jenkins, the pastors wife, to sing at our memorial service. In addition, two clients had told me that they were worried about our flight to India, sensing that we were in danger. I thought about how those premonitions had been correct. I realized that if I was going to die now, I could leave with no regrets. I had lived my life fully and had no sense of any unfinished business. I felt a bit curious about what would happen next. Were we really going to die? Were we going to land in the ocean and have to fight for our lives? How was this situation going to unfold?
The atmosphere of the plane was far different from any television version of this type of event. The instant the plane started falling, a woman screamed for about two seconds. After that there was complete silence. Not even the pilot spoke for about 15 minutes. When he did speak, he informed us simply that there had been a decompression problem and that we had leveled off at ten thousand feet. He said we had turned around and were now flying to Malaysia. Once we arrived in the skies above Malaysia, the pilot informed us of a change in plans; we would return to Singapore. For two hours following the fall, we did not know whether we would live or die. Would the plane crash when we landed? What was the flight crew not telling us? Why had we gone back to Singapore instead of stopping in Malaysia? In spite of these thought streams, my mantra continued to flow through my head constantly. Nothing else was important.
Sometime during that two-hour period, I became aware of a strange odor. I took off my oxygen mask to investigate. I smelled burning electrical wire. News reports later stated that the decompression problem had been caused by a fire on board. Other news reports said it was a miracle that the plane landed safely in Singapore.
I was amazed by my reaction to this experience. While I had felt some tension in my body during the fall and the subsequent flight back to Singapore, for the most part I had been remarkably relaxed and free from fright. Most of us never know how we would react in a near-death experience. I would have expected to feel terrified; instead I felt curiously peaceful.
When we arrived at Ammachis ashram several days later, I noticed a sign on a bulletin board that read, "Life is not a right; it is a gift from God." I understood that saying at a deeper level than ever before.
Soon after my arrival at the ashram, I was informed that Ammachi had been aware of the events occurring on the plane at the time they were happening. When I went to her for my first darshan (the time when she receives and hugs each person who comes to her), she told the crowd sitting nearby how the plane had started shaking and then began to fall. Later that same day, when I reflected silently about the plane experience, I wondered if the mechanical problems had been as extensive as I had originally thought. During my next darshan, Ammachi once again told the crowd the story of the fall and then whispered in my ear, "Karuna, big problem."
Ammachi has said that she is closer to us than we are to ourselves. I now believed that she had been there with me through the whole experience. I recognized that the deep sense of peace I felt as the plane was falling was so similar to the peace I feel when I am in her physical presence. I once heard that when devotees die, their gurus will meet them, taking their hand as they cross to the other side. I sensed I had been given a brief glimpse of that experience. I felt a sense of wonder and gratitude.
During my two months in India, I noticed ways in which I had changed due to the plane experience. The most obvious change was that events that would have upset me in the past barely phased me. I found it much more possible to live in the moment and let my life unfold. I experienced each moment of life as an extra gift.
While in India, I wrote the pastor of my church in Seattle, describing the events that had occurred on our flight. When I returned home, he asked me to give my testimony before the entire congregation. Like being asked to read the poem, this request was unprecedented. As I prepared my testimony, I decided to focus not only on the grace that had spared my life but also on the grace that had prepared me for the experience. I believed that it was grace that directed me to focus on my mantra for the eight weeks preceding my trip. It was grace that allowed me to read a poem just before we left for India that reminded me that God works in unexpected and sometimes undesired ways. It was grace that made my mantra the primary focus of my internal experience during the fall.
Although I did not mention it in my testimony, I knew it was also grace that had given me an experience that increased my faith in my teacher and in spirit. It was also grace that now allowed me, a devotee of an Indian guru, to give this testimony in a fundamentalist Christian church.
I thank God for all of the grace I have been given and for the way spirit weaves events into my life to help me learn what I need to learn as I complete my journey home.
Karuna Poole is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She offers individual and group psychotherapy as well as a variety of educational workshops and materials. Her workshops often combine psychotherapeutic and spiritual processes. She is author of two books, Getting to Joy: A western householders spiritual journey with Mata Amritanandamayi and Letting Go of Suffering. (206) 722-0878.