Archive for August, 2019

Behind the blinds

It started after the earthquakes. I was in the restroom at Starbucks when the shaking started. My first impression was that I was having a stroke or losing my balance. The black stalls were moving back and forth, and the floor felt like rolling jelly. “Oh no,” I thought, “something is very wrong with me.” Before I had a chance to play the roll call of diseases that might be affecting my brain or inner ear, I heard the squeaking of the hinges on the door and realized that only an earthquake would create such torque and pressure on the stall doors. As soon as what was happening was clear, I ran outside with other terrified patrons. There is nothing like an earthquake to bring people together and to foment conversation. There were a range of reactions, from stoic “oh well, that’s California” to panic.

Unfortunately, I was in the ‘panic’ category. The July 4th holiday was very strange. I headed down to Huntington Beach, noticing that every time I walked around after exiting the car, the earth felt like it was moving. There were aftershocks, and the possibility that my perceptions were based on reality did not escape me. The riot of fireworks that terrified the birds, sending them careening in zigzags from tree to tree in search of refuge, seemed not only inappropriate but jarring to my nerves. I decided that night that I was finished with my country. How I arrived at that difficult sentiment is another story, but let’s just say that the terrified birds, the smoke choking the air, the howling and terrified dogs, and the earthquake all combined in my mind to present a picture of a country that is struggling through chaos and an identity crisis of monumental proportions. I connected “America” with disaster.

The next day, I was sitting on the sofa when I felt the house move. Once again, my first thought was that something was wrong with my vestibular system or my brain, and that I should get to a hospital. Gracie the conure flew around the room in crazy panic, and I realized that the house actually was moving, and much more dramatically than yesterday’s shaking in Starbucks. I sat on the couch in a state of confused fight-or-flight instincts, eventually succumbing to the freeze response as the earthquake continued. When the shaking finally stopped, I realized that for me, the ground had not stopped moving. As I drove to the airport, the car seemed to dip and rise. When I attempted to walk across the street to pick up my husband, the asphalt felt like waves in an agitated sea. My body internalized the earthquake and continued to experience it. This went on for several weeks, and every now and then, I still feel it.

I ran to two Urgent Care doctors in a state of full-fledged panic each time. They said I had panic disorder. I went to my ophthalmologist, convinced that my eyes were not working together anymore; he gave me convex glasses designed to help, but they only made me dizzier. I went to an allergist, convinced that it was sinus problems that had affected my inner ear that was inducing the horrible sensation of the world moving. Nope, he said, this is not the problem. He gently suggested that I have a different problem. “PTSD”, he said. WHAT???? Another doctor had suggested the same thing, and I had immediately rejected that diagnosis. I ran off to a therapist, who told me that I had extreme anxiety, and that I would “never get over it.” She also told me that my abilities as a medium and empath were false: Satan was tricking me.

After consulting all those medical and mental health professionals, I finally had to accept that I had some form of PTSD and panic disorder. I hated to admit to myself that something like that could happen to me. After all, I did not lose anything in the earthquake but my sanity. There was no damage to my house; I did not seem to ‘deserve’ a mental health problem if the earthquake did not destroy anything of mine. However, it DID destroy something: my sense of control. My body learned a very big lesson that day. We are not in control of anything, not even the Earth. The one thing I had always counted on to keep me safe and protected was the Earth, the ground beneath my feet. And if the ground beneath my feet can turn to jelly and rip apart, how am I safe or protected? Epiphany: I am not safe or protected. The Earth and all the people on it owe me nothing, not even the illusion of safety.

Once I realized this on a very deep level, the anxiety became a daily reality for me, and it continues to challenge me. It is a truth that I did not want to feel to the marrow of my bones, but now I have no choice: each moment is precious, because each moment might be our last. We simply do not know when our time on Earth is up, over; we have to accept that life as we know it can be snuffed out or forever altered in a split second. No matter how much I understood that on an intellectual level, I had never felt that truth down deep in my body. I do now.

Regardless of all the factors that can send your body and brain into constant ‘fight or flight’ mode (and there are those who think it does not matter whether or not you identify the cause), the solution seems contradictory: fully embrace and accept your anxiety. Do not fight it, run from it, and ESPECIALLY do not avoid situations that you fear might trigger it. You have to work WITH your anxiety in order for the brain to figure out that you are, in reality, not in danger. That means, everyday you do something that you want to do, even and especially if that ‘thing’ you find captivating frightens you. You must do what scares you.

For example, one day, I decided to head to Burbank to go shopping in the vintage stores on Magnolia. This is something I had never done alone before, and I decided to leave at rush hour with very little gas in the tank. This put me in the situation of not only feeling trapped in traffic, but having to trust that I had enough fuel to make it to my destination (I did, of course, but anxiety tell me to keep the tank 1/2 full at all times). I arrived intact, with symptoms of mounting panic, but I walked up and down the street, went in to crowded stores, navigated the tiny isles, and struck up conversations with the owners and employees. After awhile, I forgot about the physical symptoms of fear and simply enjoyed the experience. On the way home, I was stuck in traffic for an hour and didn’t feel any upset about it at all. I had sent the message to my brain: this only SEEMS like a scary thing to do–in reality, it is not!

Of course, driving to Burbank is nothing like flying to Madrid and taking the train to Granada the next day. Alone. However, that plan is the ultimate brain-test challenge: yes, not only will I accomplish that goal, I expect that I will thrive in an environment that is distracting and requires all of my attention. In my case, boredom and routine create the most stress. If there is nobody to interact with, nothing new to do, nowhere to go, and zero demands on my time, I start to ruminate and worry about anything and everything that my brain can invent. If I have no project, then I have no purpose; if I have no purpose, panic sets in quickly. I must be challenged and opened up to the world in order to overcome the death grip of fear. Oddly enough, it’s not the challenges in life that scare me, but the isolation and frustration of life without goals and mountains to climb.

I made the mistake of giving up on the paranormal as a way to understand reality and prove the persistence of life after death. Of course, I have come to believe (as anyone who reads this blog knows) that physical life and the life of the Self are not interdependent. Consciousness does not rely on a body to function, so the very concept of ‘death’ has become for me a non-issue (not that it will be easy to die and give up your body). When I decided that I ‘knew how it worked’, I lost a big part of my identity: the Investigator. I even went so far as to think that I did not NEED to continue to study any phenomena in the paranormal field. What I did not understand about myself is that investigating mysteries was what brought me the most pleasure in life. I destroyed what I most loved to do, because it was not providing direct and concrete answers to questions that I thought I had already answered for myself through direct experience.

I was so wrong about myself. I need to investigate life’s mysteries and steep myself in the strangeness of it all, because I DO NOT have all the answers, and there is no need to answer the questions that I have raised. Finding specific and repeatable answers to the afterlife–or to reincarnation, or to the nature of consciousness–is not only not possible, it’s not desirable. The mystery itself is the point of creation and life. Enjoying and exploring the unknown and unknowable IS THE POINT. By not doing what I loved, I brought about a huge crisis–one that is, in part, responsible for the ongoing anxiety.

NEVER STOP DOING WHAT YOU LOVE. You do not have to justify it to yourself or others; you are not responsible for finding the answers; you never need to apologize for it. If you cut out your passions, you will suffer the worst of all deaths, one that really does exist: a spiritual death. No matter what it is that fascinates you, never give it up. As a result of my decision that I had the answers that I needed, that I knew myself about as well as one can, and that there were no more strange and surprising things to discover either in the world or in myself, I ended up sick, stunned by panic. The panic is telling me, again and again, GO TO SPAIN. SIT IN A CEMETERY AND CONTACT THE DEAD. Write about it, wonder about it, revel in the impossibility of answering your questions.

Then, and only then, will your body relax and let your spirit flourish. For if your spirit and soul are not in control, then your fears will be.

–Kirsten A. Thorne

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I have been gone for a long time. However, there is a good reason: I have been writing a book on the broader topic of spirituality that includes personal details that I have not revealed on Soulbank. The following is a chapter from that book–I hope you enjoy reading it and will be looking forward to more ‘teaser’ chapters.

I read a book one night: The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer. Mr. Singer believes that anyone can achieve enlightenment at any point by simply allowing reality to exist and flow through us without the mediation of our emotions, thoughts, and judgments. A quote that nicely sums up the main thrust of his book is this one: “Deep inner release is a spiritual path in and of itself. It is the path of nonresistance, the path of acceptance, the path of surrender. It’s about not resisting energies as they pass through you.” (250) I decided that if that is ‘all’ that it took to become enlightened, that I could do it. And so I decided to put into practice everything that Mr. Singer suggested.

The first night after I made this decision, I lay on the floor and cried. Emotions needed to flow through me in order to not control and dominate my life and my decisions. I released the pain of my daughter moving to England and taking away the security blanket for my life, exposing my fears and vulnerabilities. I writhed in anger over the mass shootings of recent weeks, the tragic situation at the Southern border, the fact of the hottest July in recorded history, and the deep, painful divisions that our country is living through. I felt like a bottomless pit of pain, but after awhile, the intensity of what I was feeling subsided, and there was a measure of peace.

The next day, I decided that my emotions, judgments, preferences, desires, and fears would ‘pass through me’ without affecting my clear view of reality: the present moment. I downed a theanine gummy (an amino acid present in green tea that is supposed to help with anxiety and lack of focus) and drank a mug of English Breakfast tea while playing Scrabble with my husband. About 30 minutes later, I started to feel very, very strange. The room lightened and colors intensified, and I experienced the bizarre sensation of my head opening up and allowing my consciousness to expand into the room. I seemed to be losing myself as a body and became more of an awareness. The instant reaction was fear. I didn’t want to ‘go’ where this bizarre process was taking me, because I had not intended to experience cosmic unity today. I wanted to hold on to the everyday, mundane reality that I love so dearly, which included taking my turn at Scrabble; but the Universe was not allowing it.

Panic sets in for me when I cannot find a ‘reason’ for a sensation or an experience, and when I cannot control the sensation or experience. I was not directing this expansion of my mind, nor could I stop it from happening. One hundred milligrams of a theanine gummy intended for children could not possibly be the causative agent for what felt like the beginning of a full-blown psychedelic trip. Instead of allowing panic to take over and determine the course of the next hour or so, I lay down on the sofa and decided not to fight the process, even if it made no sense to my terrified mind.

I cried and shook as waves of emotion and energy passed through me. I do not know what had to be released, for any sense of myself as an independent entity vanished, and I was simply a being experiencing something that I was unable to name, comprehend, or describe. “I” was not there to perform those functions. My job was to stay on the couch and not fight it. Indeed, I doubt there was any way to fight the experience, for ‘it’ was far too powerful to be managed.

After about an hour or so, I was able to sit up. I was woozy and confused by what had transpired, but I felt clear, in the way one feels after crying hard for a long time. I was even able to continue playing Scrabble, losing for the second time that weekend. I would love to say that my experience on the sofa cleansed me of my ego and took me straight to Enlightenment, but I found myself angry and resentful about losing the Scrabble game and realized, yet again, that I had not achieved the goal of life ‘passing through me’, even though I had just experienced life passing through me while pressed into the couch! What happened?

I have written before that I do not believe in a ‘path’ or that such a thing as “Enlightenment” truly exists. In fact, I view the concept as an ideal that can easily turn into a spiritual trap where the ego involves itself and starts charging money for the experience at a nice resort where people can smoke toad venom and enlighten themselves instantly. The idea that anyone could ever become–in Mr. Singer’s words–that “open, that complete, and that whole” seemed impossible, idealistic, and in a sense, a denial of human nature at its most fundamental level. We are material beings safeguarding our survival, and to think that we could ever simply allow reality to pass through us without creating meaning around it is something of a pipe dream. After all, do any of us KNOW anyone who does this? Can any of us say that we have met an Enlightened being? And how do we KNOW that someone has achieved such a state?

Stories about gurus who devolve into licentious and criminal behavior are everywhere. I had friends I respected as spiritual seekers who took the content of their cosmic experiences and used that to open psychedelic retreats and charge significant amounts of money to be ‘guides’ for others’ transformative experiences. So many people I know are trying to earn a living selling Enlightenment to lost and desperate souls looking to be happy. I am deeply wary of anyone who profits from spirituality. I watch myself carefully when I write for an audience, even if that audience is very small. I do not know what Enlightenment is, and I do not preach anything to anyone.

And yet, how do I explain experiences that force me to ‘give up’ and allow emotions and strange energies to run through me? How do I explain the psychedelic or spiritually transformative experience? I do not explain it, because I have come to the conclusion that explaining those moments is fundamentally impossible. The force behind such cosmic connections is so mysterious and ineffable that words, even lots and lots of words, do very little to transmit the meaning of the experience. I do not know if these tsunamis of spiritual openings have anything to do with what we think of as Enlightenment. After all, right afterwards, I experienced anger and fear, irritation and resentment, and I did not get the sense that I was ‘liberated’ from any of those emotions.

I think about the basic teachings of Jesus, and they are pretty basic, indeed: Love one another. Easy to say, very hard to do. I think that, in the end, if you can manage to love yourself and others enough that you don’t cause any damage and can perhaps sow the seeds of compassion for the human situation, then you have accomplished as much as can be expected of yourself and others. I am someone who reacts, holds on, rages, refuses to accept a great many situations I find unjust, and is generally quite emotional. I do not think that I am capable of allowing my emotions, thoughts, and judgments to flow through me without any identification with them.

I am willing to admit that I could be wrong about Enlightenment. Perhaps it is achievable by some people; maybe I know someone who fits the criteria, and I am not aware of it, because that is how unenlightened I actually am. When Mr. Singer states, “You truly can reach a state in which you never have any more stress, tension, or problems for the rest of your life”, I want to throw the book across the room. I do not know if I WANT a life without stress, tension, or problems, because all those undesirable states and situations propel me to take action and figure things out. Without resistance, there is no pushing through to the other side of your limitations. The chick must peck her way out of the egg in order to build the muscles to survive. If she passively accepted her state of being in the egg, she would die.

The struggle for survival shapes and creates us. Of course, sometimes we must give up the fight. Nobody wants to die flailing and screaming, although I suspect I might be one of those who do not ‘go gently into that good night’. I will probably resist until the last moment, when I surrender myself to God with a completely open heart. And perhaps, we are supposed to surrender to God on a regular basis, just to remind ourselves who is in charge. Resistance might be futile, but it is so very human. I am here to be human; I am not God, nor do I aspire to be a spiritual leader.

There is something liberating about stating that you do not have a clue how something works. I do not understand the overall design of the Universe, how consciousness works, what God is, or whether or not enlightenment is possible. What I love is the process, the ‘seeing through a glass darkly’. I suppose I adore the mystery, the fight, the illumination, and the falling into humanity and ignorance, only to climb back up and start the process all over again.

May you enjoy the journey as well, and if you find yourself enlightened along the way, send me an email explaining how you got there and what it feels like. I’m guessing not like I’m feeling now. I want iced cream and a nap.

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