My First Spiritual Liaison
by Lori Shridhare
One late evening in August 1990, I sat alone in the Bologna train station in northern Italy, frustrated that I had missed my overnight train to France. I was winding down my summer of backpacking through Europe and my last year as a teenager. Hot and sweaty, I had no choice but to take a local train with no sleeping cars for the hour-long journey to Milan, then several more hours to Lyon. I climbed aboard the crowded train and sat in a car with a priest and three women. As I settled into my seat, Walkman hugging my ears, a tall, distinguished twenty-something young man sat in the remaining seat across from me. His wavy blondish-brown hair curled behind his ears, with strands falling along his designer glasses. What stood out most to me were his clear aqua eyes, his suspenders strapped over his lavender button-down shirt, and his sharp nose. He looked like a European fashion model, and I hoped he’d be sitting across from me all night.
Our train compartment had six seats, three facing each other. The only way to transform it into a sleeping car was to push the base of the seats forward so they merged with the other side. My bare legs stretched across to his side, happy to touch the coolness of the vinyl and strangely comforted that they could rest by his side. Close to midnight, I fell gently asleep along with the other passengers, until I was awoken by this man’s gaze. He appeared to be in a meditative state, but with his eyes open. I was taken aback at first, surprised that a stranger could be so bold. This was Italy of course—I was quite familiar by now with the tactics of Italian men, yet I was certain this man had a different agenda.
Perplexed at this invitation to connect, I turned to my instinct. I could accept his offer to return the gesture—or not. And what could I lose? The key to this decision, I realize now, was my comfort in this space of meditation, a subjective experience that cannot easily be described. I was overcome with a joy that arises from a place of inner bliss, much like Rumi describes in his book of poetry The Glance about his meeting with his teacher. I simply felt this man’s spiritual energy and trusted this surreal connection that transcended sexual attraction. After some years of spiritual seeking, yoga, and meditation as a teenager, my DNA had already been wired with an affinity for this practice and the peace that comes with it.
So with this trust in my own state, I surrendered to his invitation. I imagined him as “the Friend” of whom Rumi wrote, the divine presence in human form. I allowed myself to look directly into his beautiful eyes—probing, observing, and receiving his gaze into mine as the train sped through Modena and the paeses of Reggio Emilia. I had never meditated with another person before, which isn’t surprising—I mean, did I have close friends who would allow me to look into their eyes for this long? I was amazed that even though we were strangers, we intuitively knew how to meditate together—and this became the most enticing aspect of this budding relationship for me. Twenty minutes (and a lifetime) passed between us, as we acted as scientists, exploring the truism of the proverb “The eyes are the window of the soul.”
Finally, he rested his hand in mine as our fellow passengers continued to sleep. Immersed in my own state of quiet peace, I barely flinched when he released my hand after several minutes, stood up and exited the car, speaking to me for the first time: “I’m getting off at the next stop.” Absorbed in my blissful state of “soul-meeting,” I was rendered speechless for some moments and even considered concluding this magical encounter as we had met—in the space of silence. But, eventually, I stood next to him in the corridor.
His next words remain in my memory as clear as my own present voice, “When you let go of fear, experiences like this can happen.” I learned that he was an architect and that he often commuted on this train route to his apartment in Parma. We spoke about the familiarity we saw in each other, about the mystical connection that can occur between two souls, about inner stillness—and then he got ready to disembark. Forgoing my plans to travel to France, I followed him to his Parma studio, a two-room artist’s flat set in a hidden courtyard off a cobblestone street.
For two weeks that late summer, we shared our mutual interest in meditation and self-knowledge, discovering we were both studying the teachings of Gurdjieff. Although he was just 28, he was wiser and more sophisticated than any of the young men (boys!) I had dated in the States. We discussed non-attachment—to the world and to each other—as we explored the countryside on his motorcycle, stopping to taste regional dishes at the local trattorias. As we got to know one another, he had a proposal—could our relationship move away from a traditional paradigm and focus more on supporting one another’s spiritual growth? I liked what he had in mind.
One night, he took me out on a surprise “date.” Just after midnight, we climbed restoration scaffolding to the top of a twelfth-century baptistery in the main piazza. Knowing I had a profound fear of heights, he encouraged me to breathe as I climbed each step and to sit down with him and close our eyes when anxiety arose. After sitting at the base of the arches, viewing the historic frescoes and moving deeper into the silence of the space, we climbed into the apex, rife with dusty stucco and paint chips, for our final meditation. I believe that with his support, my heightened awareness of each moment allowed me to permanently dissolve my fear of heights that evening.
Over the next several years, we traveled to see each other periodically, allowing the core of our spiritual relationship to thrive amid our own traditional romantic relationships and even through marriage (thanks to his understanding wife). A few hours after midnight on New Year’s Day 1999, he came to me in a dream, a prelude to the news I would learn later that day: He was driving through the countryside near his home when he was in a fatal car accident. He was just 37. I had never lost a friend at such a young age, and though I was sad, I experienced his passing not as a break, but as another stage in this unique spiritual relationship.
Lori Shridhare, a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a regular contributor to Harvard and MIT news publications, and a copywriting instructor and marketing consultant for corporations and nonprofits.
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