November 2012 – I’m struck by the absurdity of writing about a journey I know to be illusory. Below is a timeless story of a long and painful journey to a place I’ve always been and never left and learning what I’ve always known, but just forgot. And it goes like this…
I traveled along many eclectic spiritual paths for many decades exploring reality, personal beliefs, religious traditions, ancient philosophies, life after death, and the ultimate nature of Truth.
I identified as a Christian pilgrim for more than forty-five years but I could not shake the feeling of an irrepressible intelligence flowing beneath the surface dissolving every belief, memory, and concept I had so carefully learned and owned as mine since I was a child. Let’s pause here and pretend to go backwards in time now to fill in a few details.
Many times as a young child I noticed an impersonal aliveness, a benevolent presence or awareness while I was outside or alone in a quiet space. I was parented by abusive alcoholic gypsies, appearing as adults, who smoked, drank, and loudly bickered through the passing of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s while posing as dedicated Southern Baptists.
The aliveness and serene depth of this aware presence was comforting to me…like an invisible close friend and comforter at my side during all the turbulence of childhood and adolescence.
My parents packed their furnishings and dysfunctions into a Pontiac and changed addresses as often as most people change their automotive oil. So I learned to loosely hold anything resembling structure and always sleep with one eye open and my rucksack in sight.
I learned to duck and cover when the inevitable drunken fights between them began in the evenings. When I was nine, my parents separated again, and I went to live with my Grandma in the next county East. Twice daily, she drove 75 miles, round-trip, carrying me to and from the elementary school in the city.
Not surprisingly, while living with Grandma, I entered a loving relationship with Jesus the Christ to pray away the fear and panic of living with crazy alcoholic parents. I was also consumed with daily bouts of panic, anxiety, and fear and found it hard to be social in school or at church.
Thankfully, Grandma and my dear aunts were a big influence on my spiritual life. A natural healer, Grandma advocated natural ways to eat, sleep, and play, and she regularly used healing touch and reflexology to calm my anxiety and help me relax.
Once I graduated high-school, I entered college life with all the gusto an introverted, fearful, and sensitive young woman can muster. The dorms were loud, the nights were long, and the parties were endless. I was clearly a fish out of water, panicky, and my grades were marginal at best.
I prayed constantly, clinging to Jesus and His promises to rescue and care for me. As odd as it sounds, I felt as though I was in touch with a higher power almost constantly. I felt a loving presence all around my anxious body and I prayed for healing and deep inner peace, but the harder I prayed, the more anxiously my body shook. The doctor insisted I steer clear of all caffeine and stimulants. No problem. Alcohol was my go to drug in college and beyond…providing quick relief from anxiety and panic. (I had no idea at the time that I would develop alcoholism later in life., which is quite silly given my childhood drenched in an alcoholic environment.)
I developed full blown agoraphobia and panic attacks in 1976 while in college and lived reclusively and quietly in the dorms, venturing out only to classes or to my part-time job, until the panic attacks and agoraphobia were so severe that I could not drive…and I quit my job.
At the beginning of my senior year of college, I learned my alcoholic and drug-loving estranged mother had been run over by a freight train near Apex, NC and was near death in the ICU at UNC hospital. I had not seen my mother in several years due to her incessant drug and alcohol abuse. When a Wake County Sheriff’s Deputy called to interview me about my Mother’s accident, I nearly fell apart.
The Sheriff’s office was investigating the train accident since evidence at the scene pointed towards foul play on the part of some unsavory drug addicts hanging out with my mother. My mother lived a colorful life, to say the least, and she died years later due to drug and alcohol-related abuse.
Thankfully, I graduated college with a B.S. degree in 1979 thanks to the support and guidance of my college advisor.
With This Ring
In quick order, like most young women in the 1970s, I married not long after college graduation. As newlyweds, we headed to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to start our careers and our new family, each of us wounded with unresolved and unhealed issues from our youth, me especially, of which we were clueless.
I relished being out of Raleigh, away from my crazy family, and soaking up the natural beauty of Virginia with my new husband. Perhaps the healing process began in those foothills, and I even had a glimpse or two of the quiet and peace I craved.
We quickly became pregnant with our first child and I noticed a glorious decrease in the daily panic and anxiety levels due to the abundance of hormones circulating for the baby. I felt grounded and good being pregnant after the initial months of morning sickness. The pregnancy was normal from start to finish and on a warm and windy December night in 1982, our first daughter arrived effortlessly, changing our lives forever. We were a happy young family.
In 1983, on an average and uneventful sunny day, my mental processes suddenly went completely silent for a while in the middle of the afternoon — providing an unexpected, profound, and earthquake-like glimpse of something I would later see as edgeless, timeless, appearances of impersonal awareness.
At the time this occurred, I was rocking my colicky nine-month-old daughter and something radically rocked the identity of what I thought I was. I noticed and felt this presence as a silent and still electrical buzzing through the body and it seemed familiar and intelligent but with an amped-up feel from the benevolent impersonal presence I felt as a child.
I did not mention this earthquake to my husband but I wrote extensively about it and it’s relationship to the nature of my identity. What was I? Were there two vantage points of awareness within me? Was there a silent vaporous inner me and a tangible exterior me?
I searched the teachings of Jesus the Christ again to find some clues but the teachings remained so paradoxical they made no sense to my logical brain so I dismissed them as fanciful writings without basis for my everyday life. Shows how little I knew. The words of Jesus were clear, disturbing, and provocative, but I was just too thick at the time to grasp the deeper meanings.
Like virtually all initial glimpses of impersonal awareness, the depth and stillness of the experience in 1983 was shocking and disturbing, but resonate. (In hindsight, this was just an an experience within the brain while the brain and mental process was uncharacteristically quiet). The stillness and silence were palpable in every direction, across all the senses, and excluded nothing. I was seeing something primal, original, and totally indescribable.
Believing the earthquake was a spiritual experience, I yearned to draw nearer to God and began attending church regularly again, teaching classes at church, and participating in church leadership activities. The childhood dysfunctions my husband and I developed in our families of origin drew us together as wounded adults in marriage, but these patterns of behavior were not the healthy and positive roles we wanted to cultivate and grow. Eventually we sadly parted ways after years of unsuccessful marital therapy, and it was a challenging time for our little family, especially for our kids.
In the 1990s as a working single mother of three, while nurturing a broken heart and wounded pride, I noticed a growing yearning for the many other expressions of God which led me to study the mystical Christian teachings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
I read about the wisdom of the dark night of the soul and could instantly relate to the sheer terror of dismantling the personal self. I continued teaching adults and children at the local church and lead several Bible study and women’s groups.
Meditation and Contemplation
In 1992 I discovered and devoured the ancient teachings of the Upanishads, the Advaita teachings, and the early Buddhist teachings. These nondual teachings reflected the core teachings of Mystical Christianity. I felt less and less comfortable hearing the traditional and patriarchal Christian church doctrine so I dove deeper and deeper into the mystical Christian teachings.
These lesser-known Mystical Christian teachings of the dissolving and dying of the personal self seemed to resonate much more for me than did the traditional teachings about the afterlife and the pardons for sin – which implied there was a dualistic God that was also omnipresent. Impossible.
I began attending the local Buddhist temple for instruction on meditation and yoga and to study the ancient words of the Buddha. I also began a daily prayerful meditation and yoga practice to quiet the mental processing and ease the stress of working in the corporate world.
Slow Death with Self-Inquiry
Sparked by the ancient words of the Christian mystics, and Eastern religions, I began inquiring into my personal beliefs and memories. Over the years inquiry was like a slow death creeping in to dissolve every belief, memory, and concept.
Inquiring deeply into the source of beliefs, memories, and concepts often results in a choppy wake of lost family and friends since they no longer understood the “you” they knew and loved. I was no exception. Decades of working on the inner beliefs and concepts through counseling and bodywork loosened the grip of the psychological webbing holding the personal self in place. Later, I came upon self inquiry and dove deeply into the abyss of the unconscious tapes and the traps of the mental processes that were preventing seeing beyond the relative brain/mind.
Practicing yoga, along with frequent kundalini energy work, silent meditation, and inquiring and meditating on the words of Jesus, Buddha, and Lao Tsu seemed to rewire the body (nothing really happened) and deeply quieten the mind. Noticing random moments of impersonal Consciousness deepened into occasional experiences of Satori. Knowing intellectually that Satori and Enlightenment were still experiences of a dualistic mental processing and not Truth, I maintained a rigorous self-inquiry as to “who” or “what” was having Satori experiences and who or what could be enlightened.
In 2010, when all that remained of “me” was a lasting love of my three children, Jesus, and Buddha, I prayed into the air for death or for Truth. Either and both would spell the end of suffering by vaporizing the last remnants of the belief in the personal self I knew as Anita.
But death was slow to arrive, and I was miserable. And then, all of a sudden, all manner of interesting and mystical happenings appeared in the storyline.
On the morning of December 21, 2010, I awoke from a deep sleep and felt as though every inch of my body was on fire. I was vibrating inside and out and shaking like a leaf. A sense of calm flooded the mental processes and I knew beyond knowing that I was ok.
I experienced a big surge in energy circulating through my body. Since we were having a full moon and a solar eclipse that day, the Winter Solstice, I guessed it was high voltage energy in the Universe playing on my cellular structures since I have always been extremely sensitive to Moon, the planets, lights, sounds, tastes, smells, and the energy of others and places.
At the time, I had no idea and understanding of Kundalini or spiritual energy, but I was certainly motivated to explore and learn more about it since it seemed to be knocking me over. Oddly, this energy resembled the quality of the energy I knew as the familiar panic and terror energy, but with a different signature – no fear was present, only calmness.
It was challenging to find reputable book(s) about Kundalini. I read Gopi Krishna, Yogananda, and others and surmised the 25 years of meditation and yoga I practiced for stress reduction was actually preparing and opening the meridians and energy channels in the body. Nearly all I read about Kundalini indicated that it was a spiritual energy but I was questioning all concepts and beliefs and spirituality is one of the biggest concepts and beliefs.
The energy worked systematically and painfully through the body burning and cleansing blocked energy areas and aligning the energetic framework. Again, in hindsight, these energy events were just part of the colorful life experiences of the anita character, and were neither better or worse than washing dishes or chopping wood.
Little did I know as a child that the copious amounts of anxiety and fear flowing and tormenting my body were actually Kundalini moving in an intelligent pattern of clearing and cleansing. There are some spiritual traditions that take Kundalini as a spiritual accomplishment, but I do not. Who or what accomplishes? NoThing.
Looking back now, I understand what was appearing in the body between 2006 and 2011. There were many blissful states of Satori where the physical body and personal identity merged into the feeling of immense unity as and with All. For hours, I was without the mental processes of the thinking mind, and utterly weak in the knees as the body quieted enough to notice the perfect mystery beyond duality.
The illusory person Anita lost all her edges and swam in blissful pools of reverie, bliss, and unity, but soon discovered in self-inquiry these blissful states were also experiences of a brain/mental process identified as a personal self – so eventually apathy, disinterest, and depression settled in to stay.
These Satori experiences lasted for several minutes, several hours, or even a day and left the body tired, exhausted, and spent. It was during this time that I was deeply immersed in the waters of self-inquiry as taught by the Ramana Maharshi, the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, and Lao Tsu.
I swam the dark and murky waters of the entrenched beliefs in a personal self, teasing out the non-fiction from the fiction, only to learn it is ALL fiction since the separate self is illusory, simply a concept of the brain/mind, perpetuated by the brain/mind, to promote the personal identity across a fictional time and space.
In the midst of a late-night protracted and severe panic attack in December 2011, I believed I was physically dying, and I was more than ready to die. A passing thought to call 911 was ignored. With nothing left to question but “who or what dies” I completely surrendered. Immediately, an overwhelming urge arose to lean in and observe the panic, fear, and the dying process, but nothing significant was apparent and while watching to see my last and final breath, I may have fallen asleep, but I do not know.
Upon waking the next morning, December 27, there were no boundaries with the body, the bedroom, the house, or the world. Life seemed to appear but the observer as Anita fell completely through subjectivity like a wisp of whisper-thin Saran Wrap peeling back the illusory nature of the identity I had claimed as Anita, as well as the illusory world the body appeared to occupy.
Gone were the last shreds of a personal identity along with the last desires, personal beliefs, and attachments to family, physics, and finally, God. What was seeming to arise (how to put words to nothingness?) was an impersonal perceiving — a vacant, nothingness animating and projecting an illusory dream of creation, to play the game of projected reality with Itself.
I was on the floor for days, no appetite, no motivation, no ability to wash dishes or shower and unable to function while the physical senses reeled with shock and awe. I had known “the world” for 53 years as Anita and now that she was seen as a perceptual illusion, there was no navigation or reference for the simple daily activities of living, yet they appeared spontaneously without cause.
It was as though the conceptualizing brain/mind had gone offline. Nothing in my vicinity was known, there were no words, no thinking, no reference points. I stood with my hands (what are these moving things in front of me?) under running water (what is that sensation, that clear flowing? ) at the kitchen sink and had no ability to categorize what was appearing into subjects and objects and knew it all to be a perceptual mirage. I was speechless and just stared and laughed at my younger adult daughter when she walked into the kitchen. There I am…appearing as Katie, the floor, the house, the universe. Oh my.
Reality seems so real until it’s not, and then reality simply dissolves into the nothingness which it is and has always been…just this moment..just this alive aware presence. Yet seekers continue to seek, which is a perfect way to occupy the storyline of this illusive appearance we call reality.
Interestingly, this is a profoundly intelligent and believable illusion we call reality, so just as with animals and all nature, the body of Anita still sees, hears, tastes, smells and touches but without the personal meanings, labels, and purposes imposed over the sensory and sensing organs. A thin membrane of a personal self (ego) is still necessary for navigating while this body appears to occupy this illusion, but it is known to be utterly illusory just like Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker projected upon the silver screen.
Saran Wrap and Periscope Head
After the peeling away of the “Saran Wrap” the brain/mind appeared to be online several days later streaming thoughts across the emptiness, but there was no longer a personal Anita to claim thoughts as hers…though the pitiful personal Anita’s ego occasionally took swings at claiming thoughts until all the personal identity juice was squeezed from the relative brain/mind a few months later.
The “world” of appearances seemed to be perceived as a mysterious seeing that I cannot explain. Once someone asked what it – this seeing – was like, and all I could offer at the time was an image of having an invisible periscope on the back of my neck and head area that is seeing the world appearing. Now, all these years later, the periscope head has also disappeared. The awakening continues to unpeel me as layer upon layer seems to be brought the light and seen as the illusion it is/they are.
Upon realizing the illusory nature of the self/Self, and after living in seclusion for the physical body machine to adjust, what remains is what has always been present…something intangible, something effervescent… an fleeting perception of this moment that cannot be communicated with language nor understood from the relative lens of the intellect or brain/mind.
Realization was not what I had expected as a seeker even though as a seeker I intellectually understood death of the personal self was a key component to realization. How sadly funny and ironic to have drifted away from the foundational Christian parables and teachings of Jesus the Christ to study the ancient wisdom of the Tao and Buddha only to discover my cherished and provocative Jesus the Christ shining brightly as the Tao. “The kingdom of God is within you.” – Jesus the Christ
Update – August 2013 – I married childhood friend Tony Avent and moved to his botanic gardens and perennial plant nursery. I am clearly insane.
Update – October 2013 – We established the Center for Mindfulness and Nonduality at Juniper Level in 2013 for weary pilgrims asking deeper philosophical questions. The botanic gardens offer a tranquil venue for exploring the science and philosophy of consciousness, awareness, and perception…as what is appearing. We simply notice and behold the impersonal nature of beingness. We work to loosen the grip of knowing while realizing there is not a personal self that is able to make choices. Our tools include awareness and presence, open-hearted meditative inquiry, an attitude of not-knowing, silence, walking meditations, community, just to name a few. We welcome what is appearing regardless of the texture. We repeat over and over that there is really nothing to teach and no one to learn… and yet gathering together appears to nurture us all in ways we cannot begin to explain. What paradox and mystery!
Update – June 2016 – Tony and I signed legal documents with NCSU to donate our botanic gardens, land, and assets to NCSU and the J.C. Raulston Arboretum upon our passing. We’re happy to know that more than forty-five years of Tony’s detailed plant research, taxonomy, unique display gardens, and educational programs and plant philosophy will continue after our ashes are sprinkled over the compost piles. See November 2018 update below.
Update – December 2016 – First grandchild arrives, a boy. Sadly, his Mother (my older daughter) and I don’t mix well. Waking up does not end the tangles of family relations though it does pave the way to an impersonal perspective that does not judge the situations nor take any family drama personally.
Update – November 2018 – Tony and I have gifted our 30-year-old Juniper Level Botanic Gardens and PDN perennial plant nursery, and all our worldly goods to the fine folks at the JC Raulston Arboretum at NCSU through a 501-c-3 endowment. The JC Raulston Arboretum has agreed to continue our work (when we are literally composting) with ex-situ plant conservation, plant study, horticultural education, breeding, propagation, and plant distribution, especially now in the face of climate change. We are currently raising money to fund the endowment to preserve the last 45 years of plant research, taxonony, breeding, propagation, and collecting and sharing rare plants. Please donate here.
Meanwhile, I’m still peeling and shedding worn-out repressed Anita stories as they arise. There is no final landing place for this Anita mirage, from what I can see. Seems to be good fodder for writing a book about the paradox of awakening. It’s all fiction, even non-duality!