“I suspect you have had moments when your world opened up and you felt completely resolved and free. You may have encountered such occurrences while engaging a spiritual practice, while listening to an inspiring piece of music, or while walking alone in the mountains after a snowfall. Sometimes insight and confidence can surprise you in the midst of a crisis, stirring you awake from the core of your being. At other times, a brief encounter with a stranger on the subway might be all it takes to shake you out of the tired and familiar world you live in. And you may, for a while, find yourself moving playfully through life without fear.
You might describe such a happening as a deep, melancholic sigh that releases compassion and tenderness; a fierce, unshakable confidence; or a surrender to an intense longing that feels both unconsummated and utterly fulfilled at the same time. Such moments of genuine insight provide a respite from the landscape of insecurity, distraction, and fear in which you may often live: all the shutting down, pushing away, feeling overwhelmed, and all the neurotic attachment. You may notice that in such instances your habitual mind relaxes, allowing you to enjoy the rich, dynamic energy of life. You may call this a religious experience, but also a deeply human one. You might even call it grace.
In spiritual contexts we often think of grace as something that is bestowed upon us. Once when giving a talk at Harvard Divinity School, I was asked to define grace in the tradition of the Buddha. “Is grace something,” a man asked, “bestowed upon us from the outside—from a divine presence? Or is it something inherent within the mind itself? What is the role of grace or divinity in the nontheistic tradition of Buddhism?” This question led to a lively discussion and has continued to illuminate my own practice and understanding.
In the spirit of the Buddhist tradition, I suggested that grace comes from finding your place in relationship to the world around you. You may often wait for someone or something to bequeath grace upon you. It may appear that it takes an extraordinary or sacred external event to evoke an experience of grace. But your very ability to recognize something outside of yourself and see its value forms part of the equation of grace. The qualities of appreciation and humility, which arise as natural expressions of your own mind, are no less sacred than the objects that arouse them. To be touched by the beauty and pain of life rather than trying to live around them creates grace.
All this is to say that grace doesn’t happen in a vacuum but rather from the intercourse between your awareness and the world you encounter. Grace happens when you find yourself in sane relationship with your world.”