Becoming a Warrior of the Light & Discovering the Sacred: A Spiritual Autobiography of Sorts

Last week I had to write my Spiritual Autobiography for the Spirituality and Counseling class I’m taking this quarter. This particular assignment scared me a bit. More than a bit. In fact, just thinking about this assignment made me itch. By its very nature, the assignment implied that not only am I in possession of some sort of spirituality, but that I have been for most of my life. I’ve discovered over the past 15 years or so that the word “spiritual” conjures up positive happy feelings for a lot of people, yet there was nothing positive about my early spiritual development. In fact, I did not have a positive spiritual experience until just two years ago at the tender age of 51. Everything spiritual in my life up to that point came from either my parents pushing their religion on me or me trying to accommodate their wishes, or me fleeing from any and everything that even hinted of religion, spirit, or the supernatural. That’s what I have to work with: my own fear and dread regarding spirituality. 

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My Spiritual Autobiography Art Project

Sometimes, we get stuck in our stories, so I decided it was time to change the story. Below is what I ended up turning in as well as an art project I created to go with my paper.

It is time to change the narrative that has been my spiritual autobiography. It is time to rewrite my history from a power stance, from a strength perspective, from the view of a survivor rather than a victim. While my parents filled my formative years (ages 5-22) with radical fundamentalist christianity, and while those tenets and precepts haunted and dogged me for most of my life, I somehow found the courage to follow my own inner voice and at the age of 22 began shedding what held me back. I started to develop an ethos to call my own. I used to say that I spent the years between 22 and 51 avoiding all things that had even the faintest whiff of religious/spiritual energy, but in my reframe, I must say that I spent those years searching for a spirituality that worked for me. And, truth be told, I am still searching. Only in the past two years have I discovered the merest thread of a spirituality that may work, but when I look back, I can now identify the many sacred elements of my life that have been there all along. I just didn’t know that I could shift my definition of sacred to fit my needs. What I once thought to be profane is actually sacred, and much of what I learned early on to be sacred is, in fact, profane.

The bible served as my early foundation, and I learned god was angry, vengeful, wrathful, and to be feared. Scripture seemed to mock my most deeply held personal beliefs—equality, justice, fairness, and the right to love who I wanted. I grew up with a sense that no matter what I did, I would probably end up in hell anyway: if I took communion without all of my sins being forgiven, if I had premarital sex, if I even thought about someone with lust in my heart. If I took the lord’s name in vain. If I read “secular humanism.” If I listened to non-christian music. The world became a place not to be embraced but to be feared, a land fraught with temptation and danger. I couldn’t even love to be in nature because if I loved anything more than I loved god, I was committing an act of idolatry.

Somehow, I managed to hang onto myself just enough so that the summer before I started graduate school (the first time, when I was 22), I began to seek out other perspectives. I started reading those dangerous books and making friends with non-believers, and listening to the still small voice inside that urged me to stand up for what I actually believed, not what I’d been told to believe. I stood at my kitchen sink one morning, washing the dishes and decided in that moment that I could no longer be both true to myself and remain a christian. Christianity had to go. Thus began the journey in which I started collecting my own sacred experiences.

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Baby Anna and Mommy Pammie

I started dating women. Sacred. I met and had a commitment ceremony with my first long-term partner. Sacred (and a little profane, but that’s another story). We adopted Anna. So sacred. I started therapy and exploring my feelings, wants, needs, and desires. Sacred. I learned I was depressed and began taking a new wonder drug that lifted my fog and allowed me to enjoy the world. We adopted Taylor. Sacred. I learned to stand up for myself and my needs. Sacred. And painful. When my ex had our daughters baptized without my permission after our divorce, I returned to church (I opted for the Unitarians) for the first time in ten years in order to provide my children with an alternative to mainstream religion. Sacred, though I didn’t end up staying long.

I bought a house and set about making it a home for my girls and me, an act that I now see as a step on my path to a personal spirituality. I met and married another woman and we lived and laughed and loved for fifteen years. When same sex marriage became legal, we got married with my children as our witnesses. Our love had finally been recognized and validated as sacred. Much of what we shared was sacred—some of it was struggle, and when it ended, we left each other intact, emotionally, having developed a stronger sense of what was sacred in the other.

Announcing Taylor's adoption
Announcing Taylor’s adoption

During those fifteen years, I did not spend much time thinking about my spirituality or my soul or the sacred. From my vantage point now, I can see that I did continue to cultivate and sharpen my own sense of sacredness, however. I spent eight of those years working with for a Catholic elementary school, and I came to understand, perhaps for the first time, that not all who are religious are judgmental and/or narrow-minded. At Sacred Heart, I learned that the individuals in a religion could hold different values than the institution itself, and that community more than religion or dogma is what compelled most people to attend that church.

Also while working for the Catholics, I realized that I needed to start taking my body more seriously, that it was in fact sacred, and necessary to a healthy long life. I started working out, and found a connection with others, sacred bonds of friendship, which, for me, represented the spiritual connections with others I craved. Eventually, after I left the Catholics, I started running and found whole new worlds of spirituality open up. More connections and new friends, time in nature, the dawning awareness that my body really is a miracle in its own right. I started my runs (especially the more challenging runs) with a meditation: “I am thankful for my feet. I am thankful for my legs. I am thankful for my lungs and my heart. I am grateful for the time to run and for the money I have to buy shoes and running clothes. I am thankful I live here where I can run on trails instead of sidewalks.” By the time I got through my meditation, I forgot that running hurts.

Before I started running, I generally felt as if I were living two lives, and I often said in therapy that I needed to pull my circles into alignment. One circle represented the me I wanted others to see, and the other circle represented what I did that I wouldn’t want others to see, probably the real me. As running became paramount in my life, I began treating my running time as sacred, inviolate. Pargament (our text book author) writes that when we discover the sacred, our sense of fragmentation dissipates and the sacred becomes a passion and a priority.

As running began taking over my life, I began to wonder if it might not be time to stop taking the Wonder Drug, if it wasn’t maybe masking my (normal) responses to a difficult world. I found the new clarity to be sacred, and I redoubled my efforts in therapy to seek enlightenment, a search which led me to body work: massage, acupuncture, breath work. And on the massage table I had what can truly be described as my first encounter with The Divine. My massage therapist always finished our sessions with a blessing, her hands on my head, channeling love and oneness (that’s what she said, I just figured it was a nice way to signal the end of my session). This time, however, she stood at the head of the table, her hands hovering over my hair, and I could feel a new and different energy fill me up, a surge and a tingling from my scalp to my toes. She stood there for a good ten to fifteen minutes while something or some being left her and entered me.

Once I dressed and asked her what had happened, she just laughed and said, “You’ll have to ask Spirit.”

I wrote a haiku (that’s another sacred thing in my life: writing) to commemorate the event:

She laid hands on me
Channeled a Divine spirit–
Broke through to my Soul

That encounter with Spirit (or whatever/whomever) on the massage table served as a breakthrough of sorts, or at least it opened me up to the possibility of a spirituality absent of religion and a sense of The Divine unattached to the particular form of god on which I was raised. I felt pure love. And though my skepticism wasn’t completely eradicated, that experience gave me permission to explore my spirituality in ways I didn’t ever think I would want to. I now attend what I call Not Church, the local Bellingham Center for Spiritual Living, on a somewhat regular basis. They offer a 9:30 a.m. service in which there is no music and no singing, no “meet and greet your neighbor,” all things from traditional church services that tend to make me anxious. We end with a 10-15 minute meditation.

I’ve dabbled in meditation and mindfulness. Both sacred experience, and in the process, I’ve sort of fallen in love with Buddhism—the sacredness in not grasping, in letting go, in silence, in pausing. I feel as if these past two years have made up for a lifetime of ignoring my spiritual life, and if I were to describe myself spiritually, I would have to say that I am becoming a Warrior of the Light, as described by Paulo Coelho:Warrior of the Light

K is for Karma, or Newton’s Third Law of Physics, or Comeuppance if you’re not particularly Buddhist or Scienc-y

KKarma is the Buddhist notion of moral causation, the idea that we all get what we deserve in this lifetime based on what we’ve done in previous lifetimes. It’s an interesting thought—and one that explains the discrepancies in fortune along the human spectrum, i.e. why some of us suffer and others don’t.

Whenever I ponder karma, I think of Newton’s third law of physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I don’t know why—I’m not much of a scientist, but that’s what comes to mind. Also, the law of the conservation of mass—that mass is neither created nor destroyed but remains constant over time. If science can have these sorts of intractable laws, why not the human condition?karma_dominoes

Last summer I had an encounter with a spiritual advisor of sorts—a seer, a psychic, someone who purported to see into my past lifetimes. Her instructions before our meeting were that I should come with seven questions about my life. To be honest, the timing wasn’t very good. Immediately after our session I had an appointment at the lawyer’s office to sign my final divorce papers.

Anyway, I asked her about my writing and she waxed on for a bit, but didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know, or anything I wanted to hear, as in nothing about my memoir writing itself and making the NYT bestseller list. So, I waved her off and asked my next question: What is up with the pain in my body?

I’d been experiencing a strange array of symptoms in my shoulder, liver, back, arms, and feet. But it was the weird sensation in my shoulder that caused me the most grief and discomfort. I expected an alien to pop out at any time. My physical therapist determined it was nerve pain, an assertion backed up by MRIs. Various massage therapists told me I needed to breathe more deeply or explained that I had steel cables running down my spine instead of the expected flat ribbons of muscle. The psychic consulted my Akashic records. Initially she reported that she couldn’t see anything—my records were blank, or, perhaps, closed.

Why would my records be closed, I asked, having absolutely no idea what an Akashic record even was, but imagining a very large filing cabinet in the sky. She replied that I might not be ready to see them, that whatever information they held might prove to be too much for me. Well, ask again, I admonished. I’ll be fine. So she asked again—and this time, after a few minutes with her eyes closed, told me a story.

“Do you have much experience with betrayal?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes. “Let me count the ways,” I said. “More than my fair share.”

karma_next tattooShe nodded. “The pain you feel in your back is the pain of betrayal, of your heart being broken. Of being stabbed in the back, metaphorically speaking.” And she went on to tell me a story.

Evidently, many, many, many lifetimes ago, I was a gay man with a devoted lover. We were very close, very respected in our community. We worked together as builders and architects. I thought we were happy and committed, but then I found out my lover was having an affair. My world crumbled then, and I never recovered. Three thousand years and many lifetimes later, she told me, I am still searching for that kind of love, trying to recreate that relationship.

Her words rang true. I’d never before heard of Akashic records. I’d never given much credence to past lives, though I tried to keep an open mind about such things. I felt the pain in my back more acutely at that moment and pushed away from the table, looking at my watch.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said. “Got an appointment.”

I thanked her and stumbled out into the sunshine and made my way to the lawyer’s office nearby. As I walked through the bright and warm summer day, I replayed in my mind every betrayal I had experienced in my 52 years. The ache behind my shoulder thrummed more intensely as each one sprung to mind. Had I really been trying to recreate this perfect relationship from millennia ago? Would I ever be rid of the pain? Did I even believe in Akashic records? Did it matter?

What I know is that her words rang true. What she said made sense to me on some deep, previously unexplored level. There’s so much we don’t know, so much we can’t see, so much happening beneath and beyond consciousness. Is karma real? I don’t know, but it feels like it might be.

C is for Counseling, or How I Got into this New Gig

 

CTurns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).

I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.

Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.

There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.rumi

After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.

I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.

I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?

I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.

franklquoteI spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.

The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.

I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.

*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog

S is for Spirituality (and also Short)

SKnock me over with a feather. I am pretty sure that I would not have predicted I’d be writing a blog about Spirituality, but things change, do they not?

As a emotionally scarred refugee from fundamentalist christianity, I have long carried a burdensome aversion to anything that even remotely smacked of religion—the supernatural, spirituality, church, prayer, ceremonies, rituals, rites of passage, religious/spiritual people . . . the list cascades into eternity (that’s another suspect concept, the afterlife).

But, here I sit, having met yesterday with a spiritual leader of sorts, to discuss with her the possibilities of joining her “church” (I broke out into a hot flash just as I typed that last sentence, so maybe not joining, maybe just, uhm, attending on a more regular basis). We had a lovely meeting–a meaningful chat. I’m signed up for a class that starts next week.

Yesterday afternoon I had a massage with a side helping of transformational breath work, during which I’m pretty sure I had an out of body experience.

I have an appointment later this week to meet with a life coach who sees into the supernatural realm, and I’m doing a presentation in one of my classes on spirituality and counseling/therapy (or whatever we are calling it these days).

The list goes on. I’m branching out, dipping my toe in.

I am expanding my spiritual horizons.