Getting to the root of a spiritual crisis

Reader Q&A

READER QUESTION

I’m at a precarious point on my journey. Worldly and material pursuits, the want for any success at age 61 now, literally make me nauseous.

I don’t aspire to be homeless, so I have a day job. I crave the solitude of hikes in the deep woods, feeding birds and chipmunks by my condo but mostly being away from humans.

Since a gut-level glimpse beyond the veil in 2013, very slowly all of the empty promises of ego world have been revealed to me. So I can never go back to that ‘John world’. That John died. [not the questioner’s real name]

Yet I still suffer, and these last 2 days mightily, as I am not awake to the truth of what I am. Only I’ve been very very still, letting this gripping terror and existential despair ‘visit me’ without really trying to change it. A big huge step for me accompanied by a lot of sobbing…

I know you nor any awakened being can bestow anything to me except pointers. Yet as one wise person said as far as waking up: ‘You have to go through it by yourself, yet not necessarily alone.’

I’m in the middle of a swift river, I cannot ever go back to the original bank I launched from, yet I’m paralyzed in sheer terror to complete the trip to the other side. 

Simple facts of my journey:

43 year meditation practice which has been my anchor of stillness. I know silence and stillness within that practice. In Sleepwalking world, not as much.

My world in earnest turned upside down however, some 5 years ago, upon watching an Adyashanti YouTube video and reading his Way of Liberation treatise. I had what he calls a gut-level glimpse of awakening that I experienced as complete & abject gripping terror, as I saw “John” would die. 

Fast forward to today, I discovered your writings only this week. After reading and re-reading 20+ of your blog posts, I experienced yesterday an even deeper dark night of existential despair. 

The stark truth of what you wrote hit the bullseye of my heart, caused more terror.

*

STRAND

You mention tears a lot…why? Why are you crying and how long have you been in this emotional state? 

How long have you not wanted to engage with people and “worldly” pursuits? Why, specifically, do you feel nauseated by “worldly” success? 

You mention terror, existential despair — what is the focus of these feelings? 

I’m deeply curious about these aspects of your story.

READER

Ah yes, the tears. Wow. Well, most recently as it specifically relates to finding your writings and teachings, the tears were falling for an intense grief.

The grief one might feel when a situation or relationship is so broken, so damaged, so hopeless, that you just know, it must end.

So I read and re-read all of these blog pieces of yours, and with each one the truth it sparked in me, simultaneously caused this deep intense grief that “John” was very near his death. And there was nothing I could do to “unbelieve” what I had just read. Like what cattle being herded towards their feedlot slaughter might feel. That.

When the longest relationship of this life ended in 2011, I sobbed and wailed for literally 3 years. The feeling was that I abandoned a Mother & her Son. I could not get past that I had done this terrible act to them. Yet in reality, there was no truth to it, as they ended up perfectly fine, actually great.

Yet, the way it struck me was that I had caused great pain by leaving them, in reality I suffered intensely, in an abject way.

We are good friends now. But for years I was in daily despair and this existential abyss of pain. By the way today, I cannot even vaguely remember who “that John” was, who was in that relationship. Might as well have been 300 years ago…

Couple the abject suffering of that relationship ending with a slow grinding 5–year business failure that drained all of my savings and you now have a better picture.

Throw into the mix a gut-level glimpse of awakening in 2013, my Mother’s peaceful death at age 94 (we were very close) in 2011 and now you really have the full picture.

Lastly, 2018 has seen me striving to find work after a company I worked for got sold back. I was unemployed for 6 months last year, and the seeking efforts to find work were way beyond exhausting.

So, tears for all of these failures I suppose: my strident attempts at waking up, tears for failure in the business world, tears for failure in the relationship world.

Up until I discovered your writings, I was not experiencing any of this. Your writings blew the lid off of a fairly benign and calm state that had been around for the past several months. Yet I am certain this old fear, terror, and existential despair was lurking and had to arise again to be purified once and for all in the light of my awareness. You were simply the messenger.

Regarding not wanting to engage in worldly pursuits or with people: I would say that that started in earnest after the breakup of the relationship in 2011. After that, mostly I wanted to be alone, and I was 99% of the time.

I had a Realtor’s job from 2012–2013 so I was always around people then. Yet I rarely if ever hung out socially with anybody at all during that time. Only with my ‘spiritual’ friends who were mostly online or far away did I engage with at all.

Since the 2013 gut-level glimpse, both my personal will/drive and desire to be around people socially, really nosedived. I was beginning to see and feel the false promises of material pursuits.

In the 1990’s I had a long near-decade run of success trading the markets. One day I made nearly $90,000 in one day. Friends were calling me and asking ‘what are you going to buy?!!, etc etc’. For me, it was a deeply still and near serene moment.

For one thing, in one swift moment, growing up poor and having this low low self-esteem, well that was instantly squelched as a lifelong concept & debunked as any truth. I was just content. So I have had worldly success.

Again, since the 2013 glimpse, my personal drive for material success has faded dramatically. Nothing I could buy could bring any joy, in fact seeing too much excess or glaring wealth makes me feel ill in my stomach.

What brings me causeless joy these days are long meditations and being in nature. I want enough money to do simple things, I simply do not desire very much more these days. I live in a whole lot of gratitude honestly, for things like every bowl of oatmeal I have.

I should say I do not like to be around most people these days. I suppose that even a glimpse past the veil has led to what I authentically feel around most folks. That is: shallow, trite conversations, which I can carry on and bring all of myself to, as I’m naturally gregarious, yet OMG do I feel drained mostly afterwards.

Also, being in sales for a lot of my life, and especially these days, I do bring my light of awareness to those phone calls, no matter how nasty folks are, I can and do bring compassion, because I do not know their pain…

Now we get to the main event, Strand. Whew. While this is fresh, here is how I experience existential terror and despair.

For instance, I never have trouble sleeping, even mostly when these past 5 years have seen my enduring some soul-jarring times. Last night I awoke at 3am. Deep shock of panic and fear, not felt since 2011. The source: How little $$$ I have in my checking account. Circular racing panicked thoughts: I’ll be evicted, I’ll have to live in my car, I’m so exhausted, I don’t have the energy to find a better job, nobody wants to hire a 61 year-old, etc, etc…

That then led to this existential hopelessness of how exceptionally difficult these past 5 years have been. My mind says This will not change anytime soon, as I am too old and have made too many mistakes…on and on my mind raced on.

Terror >>> Peak anxiety >>> existential hopelessness of my failures >>>> rinse & repeat.

Simultaneously my mind races to your recent writings and a shock of terror arises.

For me, how I experience the entire topic of waking up is that is has to be terror-filled, it must be bleak/stark, and this drives me into deep despair. This as opposed to people who think that waking up will make you happier, or cure your money problems, or help you find your soul mate, or manifest sh**, or my Strand favorite ‘sneeze rainbows’.

I am on the other end of that spectrum entirely as to how my mind presents the possibility of waking up to me.

I think part of this bent comes from my first gut-level glimpse experience of it, and countless hours of listening to Adyashanti. He is in some cases word for word on point with what you write. That is why I mention his teachings here, only.

One tape of his that is like etched forever into my awareness is where he says that he tells people ‘true spirituality and the authentic pursuit of waking up is serious business. If you get too far in, there is no turning back’.

This I experience as a deep truth, and rather where I sense I am. I’ve seen the empty allure of the material world, so cannot go back there, have no desire to go back there, not yet awake. I am in no man’s land, which in turn creates both terror and despair that I am trapped forever in this current awful state of limbo.

So both of these events are directly tied to the Survival of John. Deep terror and fear of my own survival.

But let me be even more specific. When I read your post about being able to read other’s thoughts, it hit a nerve with me, Why?

I have become ultra-sensitive to the written word in the past 2-3 years (especially email) So, I read that and it caused me a moment of instant anxiety, I knew it was a deep truth for me. Next, terror arose that this will in fact be my experience if I wake up. I felt certain to have this exact experience, and that pushed me into more terror — then I felt existential despair at the entire description. Because the way you described it, in a felt sense way is what I’m already experiencing with the written word, such as in email. 

*

STRAND

You have several issues here and the least of them is your “spiritual crisis”. So we may as well tackle that one first.

 

Getting a glimpse behind the veil can be horribly destabilizing. Some people get the feeling that if they were to live in a fully awake state, who they are, in your case, John, will die.

It’s important to note that this is not how everyone responds to the glimpse. How a person responds is entirely peculiar to themselves. This is important because a lot has been made of this ego death, and I think some people believe that this terror is a universal experience after getting a glimpse behind the veil. But it’s not.

I had my own very provocative glimpses prior to full awakening, and terror never figured into it. Nor did the idea of death. It did not paralyze me, nor lead me to any negative (or positive) mood state. 

The ego-death of John will be the biggest non-event that never happened. When you wake up, what you see is that John never existed, at least not the way you believed he did. Or perhaps, more to the point, you will see that you are not and never were John.

John is a name you use to describe a loose confederation of memories, conditioning, inherited traits, preferences, and so on. You can know this intellectually. Heavens, the whole field of psychoanalysis is built around this model of personality, but you still identify with John. You have placed your identity in this character you call John. And that trumps anything you know intellectually. 

If you do actually wake up, fully and permanently, your identity will automatically be withdrawn from this John character. And there will be lots of adjustment at that point, which is not always easy. It can be amazingly difficult to navigate your social life and career and whatnot, without your Avatar, your persona, your John Inc. 

And since you are not at the point where you need advice on how to live without your Avatar, I will leave that right there.

You already kind of know how all this feels, in a small way. You said yourself that you can only vaguely remember the John that was in the relationship that ended, where you left your girlfriend and her son. So, from where you are right now, you don’t even feel an unbroken line of identity with that person who you were. Do you cry over that? Do you gnash your teeth over the fact that you are no longer he? Did that John die? 

I’m not unsympathetic. Survival is baked into our human system and it tends to override everything else, including our executive functions, our rational mind. We all get our survival triggers tripped — the brain doesn’t distinguish between degrees either. It doesn’t have a DEFCON rating system. It’s binary, and will throw your entire system into Freeze/Run/Fight mode. Being emotionally overwrought and feeling paralyzed are part of the Freeze response. 

And this is all intensified by your completely arbitrary belief that awakening has to be stark, bleak and filled with terror. If I tell you that this is just a story you told yourself and then fixated on, will that make you stop believing it? If yes, wonderful. If not, you really need to do some work around that. 

STRAND

What happens if you do swim to the “other shore” only to find it looks precisely like the one you left?  

 

Let’s stick with your metaphor of swimming to the other shore. You had a glimpse through the veil and this set you into the rushing waters. You’ve left your place on solid earth and entered the river. Now you feel you can’t go back, and so on you swim, in spite of your terror, your exhaustion, trying to get to the other side of the river, to reach the other shore.

We’re constantly trying to give our experiences context, and so we come up with stories about what’s going on, what the big picture is. Even if the story is pretty far off the mark, we’ll stick to it, adjusting the way we perceive and interpret our experience in order to stay within the narrative. 

Has this narrative been at all useful to you? Is it even close to being accurate? 

The difference between being on the shore you left and the one you are presumably headed for is what, exactly? That on one shore you were Sleepwalking John and when you finally get to this other shore you will be Awake? And this will solve any problems whatsoever?  

What if you finally wash up on this magical other shore and find that it looks exactly, in every detail, like the one you previously inhabited? What then? 

Sleepwalkers love to play this game of “I’m not asleep but I’m also not awake. I’m stuck in some middle space and that’s what’s making me miserable!” 

Sir, you are asleep. Fast asleep. There is no in between and there is no river. 

That doesn’t mean your exhaustion and pain are not real. That doesn’t mean your terror is not gripping. It doesn’t mean you are not in crisis. It just means that you’ve framed it all within a very specific narrative. And since that narrative doesn’t illuminate what’s real, if you stick to it, there is no way out.

STRAND

Spirituality can really fuq you up. Spiritual pursuit and meditation and practices can illuminate a few corridors, while leaving you blind to…everything else. Sometimes spirituality is the worst thing that can happen to you.

 

A lot of people conflate their ordinary life problems with spiritual narratives and themes. This makes it impossible to work out solutions. If you are having standard-issue Life Problems, you can apply all kinds of helpful perspectives and practical steps to move yourself in a better direction. But if you decide you are having a Spiritual Crisis, then you look for spiritual solutions, which will not really help your Life Problems, and you fall further and further into that rabbit hole.

And to compound it, people usually start isolating themselves, spending more and more time alone, or only associating with “spiritual” people. There are times when we naturally withdraw into ourselves for a while, or for some people, they are genuinely reclusive types, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

So you isolate yourself and only talk to other spiritual people, and often what goes along with this is compulsively reading or in some other way consuming spiritual teachings. This all compounds to create a powerful reality distortion chamber.

Even as you gain some spiritual insights, you lose the plot.

You’ve suffered a lot of life shocks, one after another, for a while now. And it sounds like they’ve spanned all the major pillars of life, except your health (knock on wood!). It also sounds like you do not have a strong support system surrounding you. All this is just stuff that happens in life sometimes. And for you, it all kind of came down in one long hammer blow.

That is really difficult to bear. I know what it’s like to be that tired, to have no reserves, to be that raw. I also know that this is a place many people find themselves in life, regular old life-as-a-human, and there is nothing unusual about it.

If you described exactly the way you feel, including that you feel like the life and person you were are things you cannot return to or reanimate, would you be surprised to know that millions (oh hell, maybe billions!) of people are experiencing this right now?

Do you need this to be a spiritual crisis?

You seem to have split the world in two. One of them contains Shallow People and Empty Promises. The other has something to do with…well, I don’t know what exactly. But I know it’s terribly spiritual. There is a Worldly world and a Spiritual world. 

This is a really common split that people who believe themselves to be in a spiritual limbo create. To what beneficial end? If there is any benefit to this, I can’t see it. 

STRAND

It’s important we respect our survival instinct. It’s a really blunt, unsophisticated program, I know! But in most cases it will keep throwing us down on the mat until we heed the message.

 

Our survival programming is really powerful, but primitive — which is problematic. It has the power to override our rational mind, override what we know and intend, yet it’s the most unsophisticated bit of tech we’ve got. 

Getting unhealthily enmeshed in spirituality can make this all even more confusing. We get confused by some of the teachings and start to disdain our survival program. We end up kind of pulling ourselves in opposite directions, which leaves us fixed in one spot, feeling anxious. 

I’m glad you are grateful for every bowl of oatmeal, but honestly, doesn’t that sound a bit Dickensian? What is this stuff about the Empty Promises of Worldly Success? What is that about? What the hell is wrong with having money, or pursuing having money? 

Your survival program is causing you some anxiety about money. I know it’s not much fun to wake in the middle of the night wracked by anxiety about money, but isn’t this just your survival programming doing what it is tasked to do? Is it trying to get your attention for a valid reason? 

You have mentioned separately that money is tight for you. You’ve also said you’re 61 and that you’ve had serious financial issues and even had a hard time getting a job. 

These are all serious survival issues. If you have not secured your retirement funds to take you into your 90s (because you might get your mom’s longevity genes), then maybe this “empty promises of worldly success” bit is a danger to your well being, your survival. 

That you feel morally disgusted by wealth is its own can of worms. Obviously you’ve got some funky money/value issues. But your survival programming is in top shape, I’d say. It’s trying to get your attention and snap you out of your haze.

Money doesn’t buy joy, but no one said it was supposed to. Poverty certainly doesn’t foster joy and having to work at a job you don’t love into advanced age just to keep four walls around you certainly isn’t a joy-fest. 

STRAND

You are having Life Problems. Please look for Life Solutions, not Spiritual Solutions.

 

You probably weren’t expecting me to go down this path, but I am. Some people actually have spiritual problems, but most have life problems, combined with problems with spirituality — which are totally different than spiritual problems. 

I’m not negating your spiritual experiences, your glimpses through the veil. But what I see is that you’ve had an absolutely sh*t few years, you’ve experienced some crushing failures. You’ve experienced deep losses. You’re feeling like you’re running on empty, you’re disoriented, you’ve been treading water and it’s really too much. You’re feeling broken open and vulnerable.

Sweetheart, I’m sorry you’ve been put through the ringer. Truly. And I wish two things.

1) That you would have gotten some kind of no-nonsense counseling while you were doing spirituality — so you could gently be brought back into a grounded state as you experienced intense and life altering epiphanies. So you could integrate as you went along. You could have course corrected long before now.

2) That you had a warm, loving support system in your life to help you through these very rough times you’ve experienced. It doesn’t sound like you’ve got that, and on top of it all, you lost your mom. 

It’s a lot to live through, a lot to process. I’m not sure you are processing it, though. 

You can always go back to your original narrative, that your problem is that you are not fully asleep, but not fully awake and you’re struggling to make it to the other shore, Enlightenment Island. It will be there for you if you prefer it.

But for the next month, as an experiment, can you let that go entirely and look at your life without the Spiritual Lens? Just look at what you’ve been through, where you are at now, what kinds of losses and disappointments and struggle you’ve endured, are enduring.

How about all the unconscious, unexamined baggage you have around relationships and money? Can you have a look at that, too? The way you describe your reaction to the end of your relationship is not indicative of emotional balance and maturity. 

Take a moment to appreciate that it’s been freaking hard and that you’ve not even begun to work through it, understand it, heal and gather yourself, find your strength. It’s not going to happen overnight. 

You may also have some structural-life issues you really need to get a handle on, like your finances relative to your age. And I know some people will say age isn’t an impediment to financial success unless you believe it is. And that can be true, but sometimes it isn’t. And no matter what, age is a factor in planning your financial life. I know you know this. Because you are inelegantly waking yourself up in the middle of the night to announce it!

STRAND

If you set Enlightenment up as the only way out of whatever your current situation is, you are avoiding dealing with your life as it is.

 

Before I woke up I was really happy. I had everything I wanted, I loved and was loved, I had money, time, freedom, my health, etc. I had done lots of work on myself and so I wasn’t my own worst enemy…far from it. 

Waking up ruined everything! Not that I regret it, but man, Enlightenment is a world killer. And that might sound appealing to someone who doesn’t like their world anyway. But it doesn’t really work that way. 

You’ll still have the same sh*tty problems. Everything on the Other Shore is exactly like the shore you left behind. In fact, your problems can really intensify. 

So if you are planning on becoming enlightened any time soon, I seriously suggest getting your real life details in order using the regular life methods beforehand. Everything you’ve said indicates you have not even started to master just being human, dealing with your thoughts and emotions. Dealing with life changes and stresses. Dealing with relationships. 

There is nothing you can do to become enlightened. You can meditate all you want and you can imagine yourself swimming relentlessly toward some Other Shore, but none of that makes a jot of difference. You said you had made “strident attempts at waking up”. For the love of sanity, knock it off.

I have no idea in the world why you believe enlightenment has to be brutal and bleak and filled with terror. I think you just made that up. But if you are powerful enough to just make stuff up (that you then feel obligated to live out) then you really have to wonder why you’d come up with something so awful. 

I suspect you’ve erroneously fingered the Spiritual Quest as your problem and the solution to your problem, when really you’re avoiding dealing with life as it is. It seems you’ve split the world into arbitrary categories of Worldly and Spiritual, and that this is really not helping you at all. And I think you’ve had flashes, moments when you’ve seen that you’re not who you think you are — and instead of that sparking your curiosity, you interpreted it in a way that led you to terror and panic. 

You’ve had a tiny glimpse into my world, but you have no real comprehension of what you’ve seen. There is a pre-existing darkness in your mind that interpreted what you saw as something fearsome. Death. Yet I’m here, living fully in my world and I am not filled with terror. Is there any use in telling you there is nothing here to be afraid of? There is also nothing here to covet or wish for, either. And that might be the harder thing to accept.

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Epliogue

 

READER

I’ve received your message with an open heart and deep gratitude. It has sparked curiosity in me.

 

Curiosity to take a hard look at the poverty story I’ve been telling myself for oh so long. Thank you for shining a huge spotlight on that.

I’ve taken some unbelievably soul-jarring & bone-crushing emotional, financial and sh**, just overall life blows. It was time to just acknowledge THAT. You provided a safe sanctuary for this to occur.

What you wrote is perhaps the most honest expose of my life and especially of the past say, 10 years, that anybody has ever had the patience and love to deliver.

Amara Strand, anyone reading this post needs to know you are a truth teller. A stark truth teller. Anyone who comes to you for your awakened guidance needs to be ready for a raw and deeply honest examination of the space they occupy. You are not here to facilitate a more pleasant “sleepwalking” experience for anyone. No. Yet your delivery of this truth comes with a love deeply suffused with the compassion a mother would have for their newborn infant.

I am in heartfelt gratitude for your gift of true guidance at this stage of my journey.

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