Around the time of my encounter at Dog Creek, another incident occurred that brought me closer to that something that was larger than me and furthered my tangled initiation into the mystery of Spirit, life, and death. Unexpectedly, I developed a severe ear infection and was sent home from school. I set out on my own to walk the few blocks to my house. This now seems like a time in some forgotten past when you could comfortably send your child home alone, even with a painful earache. However, I also lived on a military base in the South, ironically one of the safest places for a child to live and roam at the time.
Every few steps it felt as if a hot poker was being pushed through my eardrum into the center of my head. I would contort from the blistering pain, a shudder running through the length of my body. It seemed some imponderable beast was appropriating my body and consciousness, grabbing me by the head and shaking me as if to snap my neck. My vision narrowed; everything was pervaded by a bleached whiteness. I stumbled forward. Looking back I can see that this was the moment that I realized that this life I was living was my life. And it was like cold water thrown in my face.
I’m sure that if an adult were present I would have cried; I would have sought some measure of comfort. But with no one to reach out to I retreated into a deep place within myself. This was a previously unknown space of solace that grew each time I visited it, so when the pain returned I sought refuge in this vast quietude that was commensurate with all that might be asked of it. I was shunted into a level of consciousness where an accepting, detached observer began to take shape. It was like a friend who appeared to help me as I navigated myself home through the consuming waves of pain.
This was the beginning of my relationship with this state, which I named the Friend, and each time I have returned to it over the course of my life, I have become increasingly confident in its presence. Speaking of this state as if it is a friend is a way of representing it as an intimate spiritual shelter, an original dwelling place that is comforting, safe, loving, and wise. This is not shelter as a place of denial or hiding, or a fantasy friend, but an internalized awareness that sees with a spiritual clarity. In various traditions this of consciousness is referred to as the witness, the observer, conscience, the comforter, a refuge, a metaperspective, an awareness free from fear. It’s a felt state for which relaxation, alertness, and inclusivity are the foundations. At the time, however, I simply knew it as a place that comforted me in my misery.
As I continued toward my house the light became increasingly stark, an appalling transparency that left no place to hide. Objects appeared in clear profile without history or any kind of reckoning at all. The typical descriptors of the objects that were assigned to my everyday life--sidewalks, street signs, telephone poles, trees--were inaccessible in this state. Everything was distilled into a simple accord by the stabbing pain. At the same time The Friend, both intimate and detached, could see everything without conveying any particular significance to any of it. A particular perception arose that did not have the narrative thread that normally assigned the customary order and meaning to my living. I was in pain. I was vividly awake. My attention was bare, unadorned.
Is this what it meant to be alive, to live a life fully in every moment? Is this what the carvings of wrathful deities in dimly lit temples in the Himalayas symbolized? Or was I dissociating? Had I left my body to cope with the seemingly interminable pain? Is an awakening a painful birth into a different body? Is suffering a country that is necessary to cross for self-realization? How vast the mystery; how complex to hold all this.
That evening I spiked a temperature. In a restless sleep I dreamt of being escorted through an original darkness by a procession of cloaked monks who repeated a low guttural chant as they walked through a mountain pass that held ancient imprints of shells and fish while pictographs sketched on the limestone watched silently. The penitents bore torches through the dark narrow passages casting primeval shadows on the facing walls. On their bodies were garments sewn of animal hides, adorned with feathers and bone. Their skin was painted and they had necklaces composed of teeth, beads, and seeds. I was placed next to a personage in an elaborate palanquin that was held aloft on the shoulders of minders who moved as one to the beat of a drum.
My mother would rouse me from this night journey and take my temperature and give me a dark, thick, lukewarm tea that my grandmother fashioned from the herbs and salts she was taught to use as a child. Warm drops of olive oil and crushed pepper and garlic wrapped in cotton were placed in my ear. I would fall back into my uneasy sleep, returning to the company of the steadily moving supplicants as if they were taken by a great river. The travelers progressed gradually toward a thin gray line of daybreak that slowly swelled into a uterine reef throwing off a light from a far off world.
Threads and tatters of this dream live with me to this day, invoking a journey that is inherently purposeful but hazy in objective. Being part of an assembly of pilgrims moving through dark narrow passages does not have me question if this is suitable company or a true direction, but invokes the question of how to be on this journey. As Epictetus said, “First, say to yourself what would you be; and then do what you have to do.” This dream reminds me to ask daily, What is the dream that I am presently living and how do I choose to be in it? Or, How must I be to live in an entirely different dream? This question of how to be must be answered in our living presence as it’s reflected in our gestures, carriage, utterances, and the collecting and expansion of our life force. Ask, What am I choosing to embody and how can I do this? This awareness gives rise to choices that reveal worlds of both light and shadow, a step into creation and destruction, completing something to begin something. To what end, who knows?
The next morning I began to hallucinate. A chronic, low-grade fever and a deep fatigue had replaced the pain. I was listless on the fold-out couch that was my bed, watching the trees as they flared and listed in the wind and became furious ogres beating wildly on the windows as if to gain entrance. The design on the curtains morphed into turtles and outsized bugs, swallows with wings pointed like daggers moved shadowlike against the wall, and serpents that coiled and twisted in menacing helices.
The world became a wave of pulsations, everything stretched and blurred as though liquefied. I was curious but not afraid. The images and events were clear, well outlined, but the narrative was fugitive; coherence was present while the axis of meaning was absent. Again it was a directness that was comforting and kindly in its simplicity. There was no story about it; nor was there a desire to compose one or a concern that something was missing. This convened a great spaciousness and peace within me; the warmth of my breath braiding a link between my sweat-soaked sheets and the breeze from the open window. This became another form of the Friend, one which was not solely internal but inclusive of the world about me. Throughout this ordeal my grandmother would sit with me for a time, then disappear, and then return. She would stroke my forehead with her broad hands, placing a cold towel on me, murmuring something I could never quite understand. In my house of pain she was a constant reminder that all would turn out okay.
This space seemed to have momentarily evaporated the distinctions between inner and outer, providing a trail of crumbs to follow into the inquiry of unexamined polarities: me and others, thinking and feeling, spirit and body, sensations and concepts, and so forth. This entire experience couldn’t be easily distilled into an insight or lesson; it simply perseveres as a lingering affect. It’s akin to someone who grew up living next to a river and then moved away. Regardless of where this person now lives, when they slow down and become quiet they can still hear the sounds of that river. And the embodied memory of those sounds can recreate in them a feeling of well-being, of the rightness of things.
This experience revealed a state that had a self-possessed response to struggle and adversity instead of one of panic and anxiety. At a young age I was shown a way that was not limited by my conditioned personality. This left an enduring mark on me. I wanted to know how to get back to that place. It was a longing for the Friend.
I once heard Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a meditation master, speak about these kinds of situations as “pouring gasoline on a fire.” Later I found out that Tibetan Buddhism referred to it as “adding wood to the fire.” I imagine Trungpa adapted this phrase for a Western audience, as he often did with Buddhist teachings, without compromising the essential meaning. When asked what it meant, he told the story of a monk who lived in a small flat in Oxford below a man who was a tap dancer, and whenever this man practiced his tap dancing, the monk would sit in meditation. “That’s throwing gasoline on the fire,” Trungpa said, his eyes shining with glee.
This earache became a cornerstone for the practice of using difficult situations to cultivate an awakened state. Back then I had no training to invoke this state of mind, so this didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still not free of my reactions to difficulties. But over time I have come to have confidence in the wisdom of using breakdowns to expand awareness and therefore my choices. Instead of trying to avoid, deny, or fight the experiences that throw me into fear, anger, or contraction, I see now that I can face them and work with them directly, using them like I would someone tap dancing on the floor above me while I try to quiet my body and thoughts.
In aikido we say that the solution to the problem may be in the problem itself. The term is irimi, which means “enter”--to enter into the heart of the conflict to find a resolution. This is the recognition that the causes that trigger us into a reactive state do not go away, they are what they are, the world is always present with its dilemmas and conundrums, and our reactions to them can be all consuming. When we become curious about the nature of our reactions instead of trying to change the cause we’re doing an irimi move.
We also say in aikido that the uke (attacker) is never wrong. In other words, we don’t try to change others because of our reaction to them. But we train to observe our reaction and move into the attack in an open, present way. This gives us the opportunity to increase our awareness of how we respond under pressure and to develop an ability to deal with ourselves and others in a nonreactive, unharmful way. This moves us from trying to change the “other,” or the cause of our upset, to being responsible for our automatic, historical way of reacting when we feel threatened. This opens the possibility to discover within ourselves The Friend, or the field of consciousness that has the spaciousness to include both the causes and effects that are a part of us. To be clear, this is easy to say but difficult to live, and I am reminded daily that this is still cooking in me, and I expect it to be a lifelong challenge.
It was pointed out to me that someone else could have taken this painful experience and vowed to become an allopathic doctor on the quest for curing people with conventional medicine. And though it did lead me to study and practice various healing modalities, it more profoundly opened up my curiosity and longing to embrace the possibilities and mysteries of life and to discover how to draw from this life energy and give back to it.
Is it vulnerability that opens the gate to the sacred?
I have no desire to return to the concentrated pain to gain more insight or to duplicate the experience. However, neither am I repulsed by it nor necessarily grateful for it. It was simply the impetus that provoked me into awakening from my previously unaware state, as if I were sleeping and someone nudged me to wake up. I’ve come to recognize that however fleeting, these challenging experiences become shards of light on a vast, tumultuous ocean reminding me that it’s possible to experience life from an expanded, inclusive state.
It was almost six years later when I experienced once again the wisdom of the body and its ability to connect us to a greater awareness.