A Sword In My Side: 2

Everything Unresolved Is Recreated

This is Part Two of a three-part story, told from the perspective of how I experienced it twenty-five years ago this month, in December of 1995. Part One can be found here.

A Frightened Octopus

I’m sitting in Light Morning’s community shelter. It’s December 18th, 1995, and I have just returned from my first 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center (V.M.C.) in western Massachusetts. When the course unexpectedly turned traumatic on Day 8, I stopped eating or drinking anything. Now my mental status is becoming marginal.

Terrell has stopped by for a visit. He’s the friend and neighbor who introduced me to Vipassana last year, in 1994. Terrell’s own first course was transformative.

“So how was it?” he asks eagerly.

I tell him that it was awful, that I hate Goenka, and that I will never do Vipassana meditation.

Terrell starts grinning.

“That’s great!” he says.

“Are you crazy, Terrell? I just told you what a horrible time I had at V.M.C.”

“That’s just wonderful. You’re so fortunate.”

Terrell is standing across the room from me, so I lift one of my legs until my boot blocks my view of his face.

“Shut the hell up, Terrell! I don’t want to hear that kind of shit from you. My boot’s in your face.”

Terrell grins again, then leaves. He has already taken a number of courses, including courses longer than ten days, and knows that the practice can stir up deep stuff.

Later, Joyce tries to draw me out about what happened at V.M.C. Thinking back to my out of kilter reaction to Terrell, I suddenly see that my angst about Vipassana, all my surging anger and resentment, is like an ink cloud put out by a frightened octopus.

I share the image with Joyce.

“But what am I afraid of?” I ask.

Then, without any forethought, I say, “I never saw it coming!”

And I start sobbing.

“I’ve totally blocked out what a good time I was having at V.M.C. I loved the center. I loved the teachings. I loved the practice. But then something caught me off guard. Whatever it was, it hit me so hard that I left there hating everything about the place.”

Joyce and I look at each other, not able to guess what might have happened.

That night I have a dream.

Screaming in Agony
19 December 1995

It’s a bleak afternoon in early winter, when the days are short and the nights are long. I’m in the office of a massive warehouse, talking with a receptionist. Then I see Kent go by. He has a huge pole across one of his shoulders. It’s so heavy he can barely carry it. He doesn’t notice me, though, and keeps trudging along.

I shake my head in disbelief.

Soon I hear him screaming in agony. I run down the hall to find him writhing on the floor in unspeakable pain.

“Kent! What happened?!”

But he’s unable to talk.

“Someone call 9-1-1!” I yell.

Then, not knowing what else to do, I lie down beside Kent and hold him while he screams, trying to give him as much caring and energy as I can. Slowly he stops screaming. Then Kent morphs into Mary, who once lived at Light Morning. The dream ends as I’m lying on the floor, holding and being held by Mary.

* * *

Dreams and the waking mind speak different languages. The presenting content of a vivid dream often confuses the intellect and resists analysis. Its scenes and images are theatrical, hyperbolic, compelling. Although the waking mind can’t grasp the full meaning of a strong dream, it can be open to associations.

As soon as I awake, three clue-like associations come to mind. First, as recounted in Part One of this story, Kent and I have just returned from taking a ten-day Vipassana meditation course. While there, I experienced unbearable agony on a Day 8 sit of strong determination.

My second association is that I once had to call an ambulance for Kent, years before, when he was living at Light Morning. I heard screams and ran to his tipi. Finding him doubled over in pain and clutching his abdomen, I called 9-1-1. An E.R. doctor diagnosed it as an acute viral infection.

The closing scene of the dream — Mary and I holding each other — brings a final association. It’s the opening verse of a well-known Beatles song.

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be. / And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.”

Maybe the dream has something to do with my mother, but other than that it remains opaque. We don’t see what we’re not ready to see. My readiness, however, is close at hand.

Struck by Lightning

That evening a few friends come over to Light Morning after supper to hear about my course. Wes and Shara, and their daughters Rose and Kindra, are living in the community. Shara leaves for a Christmas party at the Roanoke hospital where she works as a nurse in the birthing room. I’m sorry she’ll miss my stories about V.M.C. and the strange image of a frightened octopus hiding behind a cloud of ink.

“I’m scared,” I say to my friends and family. “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m usually a pretty stable guy, but I don’t know who I am anymore. I can’t eat anything, I get angry, I start crying. People think I may need professional help. I’m beginning to think they may be right.”

Then Shara returns to the community shelter and takes off her coat.

“I got halfway down the driveway,” she says, “and decided that I’d rather stay here tonight.”

Kindra immediately climbs up on her mom’s lap, wanting to nurse. Shara obligingly slides her blouse up and Kindra settles in. At the moment she starts to nurse, I start to cry.

The people in the room look at me with worry in their eyes.

“I’ve just been struck by lightning,” I finally say through my tears. “I know what happened to me at the meditation center. I know why it happened. I can see it all.”

Just as a flash of lightning on a storm-dark night reveals the surrounding terrain, so do I suddenly receive an illumination. All at once everything becomes clear — the clues from before the course; my torturous sit of strong determination on Day 8; the octopus cloud; the dream about Kent screaming in agony.

Vipassana means “insight.” While the word carries deeper implications about seeing into the luminous essence of all that is, I have just been gifted with an insight, triggered by the image of a little girl nursing.

“It all goes back to when I was born,” I say, still sobbing.

Then I explain to my startled family and friends that soon after my birth I started to scream. And I continued to scream, off and on, for the first nine months of my life.

Now, in Light Morning’s community shelter, I’m crying for my mother, alone on the West Coast with a wailing first-born child. Crying for my father, unable to be with his wife and son because he’s in prison as a conscientious objector during World War II. And crying for myself, a newborn burdened with inescapable agony.

My anxious mother took her screaming child from one doctor to the next. After months of inconclusive consultations, one physician finally noticed a small mass in my lower left abdomen. It was eventually diagnosed as a wandering spleen, a painful and potentially life-threatening abnormality. After major abdominal surgery on a nine-month-old infant, the condition was corrected. Finally I was free of pain.

“Here’s the scar,” I say, pulling up my shirt to reveal a thin white line running down my lower left abdomen.

“And that’s the same place where all the pain was centered on my Day 8 sit at V.M.C. The same place where it felt like a sword went into my side!”

“So there are really two swords,” I say, just now seeing it for the first time. “A small sword, called a scalpel, slicing open the abdomen of a little boy on an operating table; and a sword-like pain going into that same abdomen 50 years later.

“The first sword ended nine months of agony; the second sword re-created that agony. And it had to be re-created. For only then could it begin to heal. Because as some people say, you can’t heal it if you can’t feel it.”

The living room of the community shelter has become quiet. Kindra is asleep in her mother’s arms. My family and friends are nodding their understanding of what I’ve been sharing. Twenty years of communal living has convinced us that everything unresolved is re-created.

Most of what’s unresolved can be traced back to the unfinished business of childhood. That’s why we shuttle so many U.P.S. packages back and forth among ourselves. Since we reliably use each other as surrogates in our therapeutic dramas, U.P.S. has become a Light Morning acronym for Unresolved Parental Stuff.

Dreams are another arena for these re-creations. In last night’s dream, for example, I was holding “Kent” as he screamed in abdominal pain. Then I was holding and being held by “mother” Mary. That dream no longer seems so opaque.

Neither does the dream I awoke with the day Kent and I drove up to Massachusetts for our Vipassana course. “I’m an infant. My mother is holding me up so I can look through the barred window of a prison and see my father sitting in his cell.” I was less than a year old when this happened in waking life. But given this evening’s insights, the dream has certainly become relevant.

This time the re-creation of what was unresolved didn’t happen in a dream; and it wasn’t acted out with other people. It happened while I was meditating; and it was re-created in my body.”

“It’s like P.T.S.D.” I say. “I knew about my childhood trauma, but I had no conscious memory of it. I couldn’t feel it. But my body remembered. And it was this visceral somatic memory that re-surfaced on Day 8, triggered by an over-zealous sit of strong determination.

“Now I remember that Goenka, in one of his evening discourses, said that a Vipassana course can stir up deeply rooted complexes from the past. He called them ‘sleeping volcanoes.’ He even said that taking a 10-day course can be compared to ‘deep psychic surgery of the mind.’ I just experienced the truth of that teaching.”

The Soul Is Not Human

Despite my sudden illuminations, I’m still not psychologically stable. I can’t eat or drink anything yet. I go to an appointment with Eric, my dentist, and end up crying in his arms. I buy something at our little country store and tell Ray, the proprietor, that I love him.

Joyce can see that I’m in no shape to fly out to California for Christmas. But the family reunion was planned months ago and the tickets are non-refundable. So two days later, Joyce and I and our 11-year-old daughter Lauren head to the Roanoke airport for an early flight to Atlanta, and from there to San Francisco.

We’re also going to smuggle another passenger onto the plane. Lauren’s pet rat Taz, short for Tasmanian Devil, is about to die. We all love the little creature. A friend has offered to feed Taz while we’re gone, but we don’t want her to die alone.

Can you take a rat with you on a plane? Maybe you can take a caged cat or dog in the cargo hold. But a rat?

“Screw it,” I say. “We’re taking Taz with us.”

So we pass through check-in with Taz stashed comfortably inside Joyce’s blouse. During the flight, she makes occasional trips to the restroom to pet, feed, and comfort Taz.

As we near Atlanta, I start to spook out. Not about Taz, who’s doing fine. But about a haunting passage from a Michael Ventura book that I read shortly before sitting my 10-day course. As described in Part One of this story, the passage was one of three unrecognized clues to what was about to transpire at V.M.C. It begins with these words:

“The soul is not human, does not want what the human wants, but needs the human journey for ends of its own. It honors the human journey, but not by protecting what is human. That’s why the humans are so afraid of their soul…”

Sitting in the pressurized cabin of our plane, I can feel a fear that verges on paranoia. Had my entire Vipassana experience — from sending in an application, to the treacherous sit on Day 8, and my subsequent mental-emotional meltdown — had it all been a set-up? Did my deep self (what Ventura calls the soul) know that I needed a catharsis? And realizing I wouldn’t volunteer for one, did it lure me into taking a 10-day course?

The passage goes on to say that what humans fear most is knowing themselves to be “part of a species possessed, precisely, by their very soul.” Not possession by an evil spirit, but by a soul with its own agenda; and with little regard for the well-being of the human.

That’s the scenario that plagues me as we land in Atlanta and take a shuttle train to another wing of the huge airport. After arriving at our new check-in counter, we settle in to wait for our next flight. Sitting quietly, in a diaphanous state of mind, I watch the endless stream of other passengers go by.

Then a veil seems to lift and suddenly we’re all kin. Whether young or old, man or woman, black, white, or brown, each person who walks by is my mother, my father, my sister, my brother. Love pours out of me for my new-found family, and sitting in that small alcove of the Atlanta airport, I’m lost in bliss.

Finally our flight is called, I bid farewell to my extended family, and guided by Joyce and Lauren I float onto the plane that will carry us to San Francisco.

A couple of hours later, I see the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies far below us.

“I’m flying though the air in a cylinder with thin metallic skin,” I say to myself. “If we go down now, it’s lights out. Our bodies will be broken and scattered across those mountains. But look how beautiful they are.”

Then a re-worded version of the Michael Ventura passage comes to me.

“The Earth is not human, does not want what humans want, but needs human journeys for ends of its own. The Earth honors humans, but not by protecting them. / That’s why humans are so afraid of the Earth. The record of their fear is called history. / They’re afraid most of all because they know themselves to be transitory mortals bound to a turning Earth. / If only humans can become unafraid of the Earth’s necessity to journey, then anything is possible. The Earth is honored and shares its beauty.”

Seeing the beautiful Rockies, and sensing the fragility of my mortal body, stimulates the lurking fear that my life is at the mercy of forces far beyond human control.

I start sobbing.

Then further words surface, this time from a Woody Guthrie album about the Dust Bowl. It’s an album I listened to constantly as a kid and I still remember the lyrics.

“Everybody might be just one big soul / Well it looks that-a way to me / Everywhere that you look in the day or night / That’s where I’m gonna be, Ma, that’s where I’m gonna be.”

The song transports me back to an alcove in the Atlanta airport — seeing all my fellow passengers as one big soul, members of one vast family. And we’re living on a planet that seems to be indifferent to our personal safety and survival.

I continue to cry.

A flight attendant glances at me and then turns to Joyce.

“Is he all right?”

“I think so,” Joyce says.

Entering the Burn Zone

We land in San Francisco. I follow Joyce and Lauren and her smuggled rat Taz off the plane, through the airport, and out to the shuttle bus staging area. I’m totally zoned out. All I can do is sit on my suitcase and watch Joyce ask questions and make connections.

We finally board the bus that will take us to Marin County, where my parents live. As we roll through the streets of San Francisco, a realization that should have been obvious seizes me.

“My God! This is where I was born. This is where I started screaming. I’ve come back to where it all began!”

I slump down in my seat – exhausted, dysfunctional, and amazed.

My sister Heather picks us up at the bus station. We pass through Point Reyes Station, go around the head of Tomales Bay, then turn left up Drakes View Drive. We’re heading for a rental house where some of the family will be staying. As we climb the narrow winding road up the ridge we suddenly enter the burn zone.

The prior October, when I was applying for my Vipassana course, a devastating fire roared across Inverness Ridge and down into the Point Reyes National Seashore. Several kids camping on Mount Vision hadn’t buried the embers from their camp fire deeply enough. A strong wind uncovered the embers, which then set the forest on fire.

The Mount Vision fire, as it came to be called, was intense. It burned over 12,000 acres, with temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the height of the conflagration. Forty-five houses burned to the ground, my parents’ house being one of the few that had been spared.

As we drive slowly through the burn zone, almost everything is gone. We see only chimneys where houses once stood; melted mounds of metal that once were cars; scorched bishop pines with all the undergrowth reduced to ash. It’s a black and barren landscape for as far as I can see.

But I’m so far out in the ozone, and my circuits are so fried, that I’m not sure how much more I can take. Have the bizarre events of the past two weeks been coincidental? Or synchronous? Or the machinations of an inscrutable soul?

Then I recall my parents once telling me that I had been conceived at the foot of Mount Vision. This memory finally sends me into shutdown mode. When we arrive at the rental house, I drag myself upstairs and collapse into bed.

My catharsis, however, has not yet run its course.

* * *

The third and final portion of this story is here.

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