On October 27, 2019, I became enlightened. For four days. And I’ve spent the last year trying to make sure that those four days would change my life forever.
It was the 20th day of a 30-day challenge focused on breaking two habits and starting two habits. The two habits I chose to break were old favorites: eating sugar and staying up past 10 PM. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve “broken” those two, but I can tell you the first time I started trying, which was in January 2012. I had two main sources of inspiration at the time: a course on yogic principles, and my step-dad. The yoga course was based on ancient ayurvedic teachings, and it got me thinking critically for the first time about what I put into my body. My dad, on the other hand, was your typical hard-ass white, middle-class, functionally alcoholic, disgruntled survivor of child physical abuse who believed that life’s a bitch and then you die. He’d go to bed at 9 PM every night and get up at 4 or 5 AM every day, and looked down on anyone with less discipline than him. He was the first atheist I’d ever met, and his continued influence on my identity and my sense of the world, alongside my interest in spirituality, said less about my ability to integrate the complex aspects of my psyche than it reflected an ongoing inner conflict between my scared inner child who wanted to be loved and my higher Self who understood that I already was love itself.
Of the two habits I chose to start, one was an old favorite: breathwork and meditation. In the seven-and-a-half years since I’d learned it, I had a consistent practice for maybe two or three years on-and-off, all told. The thing that most often interrupted my practice was clinical depression, especially Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the type of depression that gets worse in the winter. I remember being so proud of how consistently I was meditating that first year (which, incidentally, is the first sign that a spiritual seeker is missing the point). But then I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to southern Oregon. As fall and winter approached, the depression became so intense that it hurt too much to meditate.
The second habit that I chose to start was spending five minutes every day intentionally connecting with the outdoors. That could be as simple as just stepping outside my house and breathing deeply for five minutes, or it could mean doing my evening meditation on a rocking chair on the back porch, or anything in between. I’d lived most of my life in cities, and my depression-fueled internet addiction had prevented me from taking full advantage of the five years that I’d spent in rural southern Oregon’s beautiful Illinois River Valley. Having recently returned from my first Burning Man experience, I was finally starting to let go of my resistance to exploring my relationship with the natural world.
Throughout most of my personal growth journey, my approach to breaking and making habits was heavily influenced by my superego, that part of my psyche that had internalized all of the harshly critical and judgmental attitudes about human nature that I had heard from my step-dad and society at large. If I wanted to stop eating sugar but failed to live up to that intention, or if I wanted to do yoga every day but couldn’t get out of bed due to depression, I would punish myself with negative self-talk that would just send me further into my negative habits for refuge.
Many times well-intentioned people told me that I could not change myself until I learned to accept and love myself as I was, and many times I replied internally, “Yeah, you try accepting yourself when you’re this messed up.” I was living at my mom’s house at 30 years old in the middle of nowhere with no plan for my life. And rather than focus on gratitude for having someone like my mother to turn to in a time of need, I focused on self-blame dressed up as personal development and spirituality.
Now, to be fair, untreated depression is quite a beast, and though working on my mindset was a hugely important aspect of my recovery, it wasn’t enough. Then I learned about bright light therapy for SAD, which was a game changer. All the personal growth work I had been doing up until that point had been like stepping firmly on the gas pedal of a car that was suspended in midair. No traction. Once I had that light box, though, it was as if the car was suddenly on the ground again and I was zooming forward. I’d made contact with life again.
Fast forward to October 2019. I’ve just completed my second year working as an associate marriage and family therapist serving low-income individuals in the Bay Area. I’m almost a year into a relationship with the woman I’m going to propose to before the end of the year. And apparently a novel coronavirus is just starting to get some attention in Wuhan, China, though I knew nothing about that at the time.
I should say at this point that I have had very little experience with classical psychedelics. The experience that I had on October 27, 2019, was no doubt made possible by a wide range of personal development, psychological healing, and spiritual growth work that I had been doing for 10 years, but it would be dishonest of me not to mention the significant role played by cannabis. My chiropractor says that an altered state of consciousness is a prerequisite for a spiritual experience. I had had three prior spiritual experiences in my life. Two were facilitated by breathwork, and one by a guided compassion meditation. Each one was life-changing in its own way, but this one was paradigm-shifting.
I hesitate to go into detail about the particulars of how this experience occurred, because if my own behavior after the experience is any indication, it will just lead people to try to replicate the conditions for themselves in a fruitless attempt to make somebody else’s journey into one’s own. In my case, the someone else was my earlier self. For months afterwards, I made numerous desperate attempts to relive the experience that I’d had in October, no doubt in large part due to a relapse of depression that I suffered shortly after. But despite that temporary setback, the experience of union that I was graced with on October 27 gave me everything I needed to find my way back to myself and begin the process of changing my life. But I don’t want to be a tease, so consider yourself warned.
Scientific research has identified three main factors that influence drug-induced experiences: the drug, set, and setting. The set is the mindset and internal context of the person having the experience. The setting is the physical or sociopolitical environment of the experience. I’ve speculated on what aspects of set and setting had the biggest influence on the experience I had a year ago. Before describing the experience, I’ll provide some of that context here.
- I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, college-educated, able-bodied man.
- I’m a therapist in training with a history of depression and anxiety stemming from intergenerational trauma and dysfunctional family dynamics.
- I’ve dedicated my life to the pursuit of health and happiness and have hit many roadblocks on that path.
- My biological parents divorced when I was young, and the ensuing conflict between my mom and my father and his family caused me to grow up with a lot of shame for being a man.
- I was raised Catholic, identified as atheist for many years, and now my main spiritual influences come from the Art of Living Foundation, and yoga and Buddhism generally.
- I have just returned from my first Burning Man experience, which is causing me to re-evaluate the society I grew up in. Inspired by the value of “leave no trace,” I have started a practice of picking up litter in my neighborhood as a basic form of community service.
- I have been learning about sexual polarity for the first time, and recently participated in a weekend intensive.
- I recently read the book Start With Why by Simon Sinek, which put me into the mindset of thinking about my purpose and my values and beliefs.
- I have been listening to the album Transcendance by Michael Bernard Beckwith while running, and it’s replete with messages about spirituality and purpose.
- I recently completed a 20-week group therapy program focused on healing the inner child and recovery from codependency.
- After returning from Burning Man, my car was broken into and my laptop was stolen, which has resulted in me watching far less TV than usual.
- About a month prior to this, I had received a reiki session from my friend and housemate Joanne Castaño.
- I am about to return to work after finally taking some time off for a long-needed medical procedure, which I had avoided for about a year and half out of fear. Taking this time for myself represented a shift in my relationship with self-care.
- A comfortable foot reflexology session in a dimly lit room with relaxing music.
- I’m with my partner of almost a year, and we’re both constantly surprising each other with how much easier a relationship can be when we each take responsibility for our own growth and development, while also dedicating ourselves to each other’s healing.
- We are living in a time in human history when our collective intellect and unprocessed trauma are poised to destroy the planet.
I was high when I arrived at the counter, and when the receptionist asked me how much pressure I wanted, I playfully said that I wanted “all the pressure.” I don’t know if the massage I got was normal, but I remember a point when I was feeling particularly smushed down by my massage therapist and thinking, “Well, I can either fight this, or surrender to it,” and I started exhaling every time he pushed on my back and inhaling every time he let up pressure, essentially letting him breathe me. The visuals didn’t start until he started the hand and foot massage, after I changed positions and was laying back in the most comfortable chair you’ll ever sit in, with a warm soft towel covering my torso.
I remember feeling immense gratitude for Karen, and how she has introduced me to so many new ways to enjoy life. In sexual polarity work, they say that the feminine is the only thing that ultimately makes life worth living for the masculine, because of how burdened the masculine can feel with the responsibility of his purpose. (These are energies, not descriptions of people or genders. All people have masculine and feminine energies and embody them at different times. It’s just that more male-bodied people tend to be more masculine and more female-bodied people tend to be more feminine in energy.) So I was feeling really grateful for Karen’s feminine gifts, and then I started thinking about my mom and began crying about how she has felt so abandoned and unsupported by the masculine her entire life. I’m not saying that that is any particular man’s fault, but it’s still sad that she has felt that way her entire life.
Then all of a sudden I saw the image of a TV screen in front of me, and I was watching an animated program about a race of blue aliens with heads shaped like light bulbs. They were just like us. Just going about their lives, trying to be happy and avoid suffering but constantly reacting to pain in a way that spreads more pain around. I saw skyscraper buildings in the background, so tall that their tops were not in the frame, and shot at a diagonal. They were very close together so you just basically see this background of diagonal tall buildings with a blue tinge and thick dark shading. A few of the aliens were depicted in the foreground, at the same diagonal angle as the buildings, with their hands or arms or tentacles in the air and little stress lines coming off of their faces. This was an image of their suffering. Then all of a sudden, one of them stopped suffering and became instantly and unexpectedly aware that he is a spirit in a physical form, that everything is ok, everything is going to be ok, everything is connected, and giving is receiving. That last one, giving is receiving, is meaningful to me, because it is the mantra of the fifth of the five steps of the warrior in Warrior Yoga, Union, which is a good translation of the word yoga. This alien had just “woken up” in a fashion consistent with what I’m sure is my woefully ignorant westerner’s understanding of Hindu/Buddhist/Yogic enlightenment, and he realized that everyone else was still suffering and it was his job to help wake them up. And when that happened, the first thought I had was, “Well, sure, they’re aliens. Anything is possible. I can buy that.” And when I had that thought, instantly something clicked in me and I felt the truth of this “enlightenment story” for myself and for humanity. That everything is ok, everything is going to be ok, we’re all one, and giving is receiving. In my grad school counseling program, we learned the phrase “felt sense.” You see, my program was very “experiential,” since the school was founded initially as an institute for the study of Integral Yoga. A “felt sense” is deeper than intellectual knowledge, deeper than if you just heard or read something. You can feel the truth of it. That’s what happened to me in that moment. I felt the truth. And instantly I saw an image projecting outward in two dimensions at once. In one dimension, I was seeing my life project forward in time. “Stop trying to fix yourself, realize you’re good enough, and start finding things that are actually worth your time. Invest in your body and its relationship with the planet, which is all that you have. Discover what it means to be a true leader,” seemed to be the message. At the same time as I saw my own life project forward, I also saw the Earth zooming out from a focus on me to a much wider scope. “See how your life affects the bigger picture. See how humanity’s collective unprocessed trauma has erected the illusion of our society and presented it as natural and good, when in reality our society is a house of cards that can collapse at any moment.”
“Everything is ok, everything is going to be ok, everything is connected, and giving is receiving.”
Not too deep, but the truth rarely is. Whether you believe these insights to be true or not, just begin to imagine how differently you would live your life if you did. If you are reading these words, then you probably already have some interest in spirituality and its relevance to the situation our species finds itself in at this time, which means there is a part of you that already knows that these insights are true. In future posts, I will expand upon these ideas, bringing in lessons that I have learned from personal development, psychological healing, and spiritual growth, as well as stories from my personal life about how I have tried to translate these lessons and insights into practical lifestyle changes to enable me to be the change that I want to see in the world. I hope you’ll join me.
Upcoming Course – Thursdays, 12-1pm PST, May 6 – June 10, 2021: “Befriend the Change – A 6-week course uncovering the connection between personal work and social change”
Are you distressed by all the division and conflict that exists between people today? Do you find yourself avoiding “touchy subjects” like COVID, systemic racism, and climate change with certain family members or friends? Does all this leave you feeling hopeless for humanity’s future? On May 1, 1992, Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” Today, 29 years later, it seems like the answer is no. But what if the solution to humanity’s problems were actually simpler than you thought? On May 6, 2021, join us for a six-week online course on how healthy relationship skills can save the world. Befriend the Change. Click here for more info.
Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099, licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Reynolds) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.