Between Terror and Enlightenment

I once read the Tao Te Ching from cover to cover in a single afternoon. Sucked in and mesmerized, I had no words; simply, the truths of the Chinese classic resonated with my soul. This is how it is to flow with the universe. I emerged from my office as if to another world, my head swirling with the poetry of being. Everything felt alive, as if it were speaking to me, as if we were not separate, but deeply interconnected. That night, ironically, the student philosophy club was meeting to discuss the use of psychedelic drugs to induce mystic experiences. As I walked down the cement stairwell to the basement classroom, I could not tell whether the world was full of indescribable beauty, or indescribable terror. It seemed like both. The particles in the walls were speaking to me, and closing in on me. As I sat in the meeting – at turns, listening, speaking, and drifting away – I continued to alternate between these two states. As I breathed deeply, the world filled with enchantment. As my mind strayed, it eclipsed me. I felt powerless, crazy, and lost.

For the last four years, I have experienced panic attacks in this way. They are like a razor’s edge. On one side lies the divine – infinite peace, beauty, and wisdom. On the other side lies what is utterly mortal – fear, pain, and a deep sense of abandonment. The minute I let go of the one, I flip into the other. I have often thought that this dual nature owed itself to the common origin of my strong panic attacks and my deep spiritual practice, which both began when I was accidentally hit over the head with a car trunk. This single event jarred my sense of reality. I could no longer find ground beneath my feet. The world was no longer in the same place, in the same shape as it had been. My mind scrambled without success to find something familiar and soothing, but I was nowhere at home.  All of my past traumas bubbled to the surface, leaving me naked to the inescapable discomfort of being. The doctors told me that if I wanted to heal, I needed to find a way to quiet my mind. There was no exit. All I could do was sit with it and breathe.

This simple action changed everything. I shifted into a new world, one full of wisdom and grace. The gods descended. My life filled with synchronicities; new possibilities opened before me.  I found meaning at every corner, insight with every breath. And this pattern continued. Each time I felt fear and faced it, my reality grew more beautiful. As I learned, this is a core principle of spiritual development; pain is nothing more than the early sensations of growth. As we break down areas of ignorance and resistance, our awareness expands, allowing more energy to flow through our world. And as we flow with this, as we learn to move more and more with the energies of the universe, we find more and more beauty around us.

Surprisingly, however, even as I made great progress in meditation and self-understanding, my panic attacks did not stop. In fact, they seemed to grow worse. I had more “grand mal” attacks that threw me back to the first impact of the concussion, shattering my mind all over again. When I felt rundown and sick, I collapsed into days of constant smaller attacks that held me in a cloud of weakness, shifting between terror and revelation. My health deteriorated and, as I have recently learned, severe adrenal fatigue kept my body from producing enough of the hormones that end a panic attack. In other words, any little excitement could set me spinning into space, and there was nothing to bring me back. This strange condition gave me a much closer look into panic attacks than I would wish for anyone. Yet, as I was presented with more and more opportunities to explore the relationship between terror and enlightenment, I grew convinced that their coincidence was much more than that.

Physiologically, during a panic attack, the mind and body come out of alignment. Neuroscientists have discovered that in a typical attack, the regions of the brain associated with instinctive action and the “fight or flight” response take charge, while those associated with higher, rational thought shut down. This is why the trick to ending panic is to bring our sensations and actions into conscious awareness. Exercises such as tapping and breathing, which engage both the instinctive and reflective mind, can be very helpful, as they facilitate the reintegration of mind and body.[1] But what happens, if, instead of ending the panic attack by integrating mind and body, we end it by shifting into the state of disembodied mind? Or, what if, unable to hold such a pure state for very long, we end up uncomfortably shifting between a state of divine insight and one of instinct and fear?

Last summer, I had a very powerful experience – at once terrifying and enlightening – that helped me to understand this relationship. I had been in Portland, “the Amsterdam of the Pacific Coast,” for just a year, and a friend convinced me (a novice at such things) to try what ended up being a much more potent bong hit than I expected. As my spirit ascended, a thought full of dread raced into my mind, “I am about to have an out-of-body experience,” I realized, “ like the kind people write books about, and I don’t want to.” I tried desperately to calm myself down. I walked outside. I talked to other people in the house. I practiced Tai Chi. Hours went by, and nothing worked. Finally, I video-conferenced a friend with whom I often practiced meditation. In his presence, I could let out what I really felt. On the one hand, I was speaking the words of Sophia, wisdom, my spirit guide. I could see the truths of our world not, as we usually do, from the perspective of the finite reaching toward the divine, but from the perspective of the infinite, as it flows into our common experience. On the other hand, I felt like a scared little child, condemned to be forever alone. I was afraid I would stay crazy for the rest of my life, or I would just die. I could not decide which was worse.

“Alyssa,” my friend said through the video conference, “I think you have experienced this before. I want you to remember.” I vehemently denied ever having an out-of-body experience. I asked if he meant the nightmares I had as a preschooler about being buried underground. I wondered if he referred to a fear of death that actually came from the experience of dying in another lifetime. “No,” he clarified, “think harder. I think you have experienced this state before in this lifetime.”

Suddenly, I remembered. As a very young child, I had been put under anesthesia twice, once to remove ear tubes, and another time to remove my adenoids. The second time, I was terrified of the mask the doctors put over my face. I thought instead of putting me to sleep, they might kill me. I decided to hold my breath as long as I could. Then l I heard them say, “It’s not working –  looks like she needs some more.” I panicked, and passed out.

As an adult, when I was put under anesthesia for an emergency appendectomy, I woke up to the entire surgical team holding me down.  “The strong ones always come back like that,” one of the nurses said, “fighting.” I had been dreaming that I was dead. I was struggling because I wanted desperately to get back into the world and take care of my children.

That summer night, Sophia reassured me that we can always come back into the world, if we want to. She scoffed at fear; it is nothing in the scheme of things, she explained. Finally, my scared inner child summoned her courage, and I leaped across the divide. I dropped a grounding cord, just like we do in meditation, and I came back into my body, just like that. That performance, including my sudden return to reality, terrified those in the house watching me.

Despite their rejection and ridicule, I remained convinced of the value of what I had experienced. As I reflected over the days and weeks that followed, I realized something very special about panic attacks. Not only does the mind imagine impending death, but the spirit begins to experience it. It goes rushing back to the white light, just as in death. Or perhaps we could say it this way: the moment trauma disengages the mind from the body, we have the unique opportunity to experience the light that always shines through us, without our everyday fetters. We catch a glimpse of what transcends our finite, embodied existence.

A friend recently asked if it didn’t sound cliché, or perhaps simply unreasonable, that her car accident was a profound spiritual experience. The insight that she gained had left her calmer, more at peace, in the months after that near-death experience than at any other time in her life. I told her that this made complete sense to me. Although she processed the experience more quickly than most, the opportunity for the spirit to grow from trauma is there for all of us all of the time. When our body freezes in terror, the hands of the divine are right there to hold us. In fact, they are more keenly there than in any other moment of human experience, because everything else has been stripped away.

The trick is to integrate those experiences that are profoundly finite and infinite at the same time. I have a feeling that those who spend their lives in schizophrenic or psychotic states have been divided by trauma more powerful than they could handle. This is why they make such strikingly truthful, prophetic, and poetic statements without being able to function in everyday society. I wonder, too, about humanity itself, when powerfully traumatic or oppressive situations cause us to divide, like the mentally ill, into overly separate selves – one excessively embodied, materialistic; the other, ineffectively transcendent, spiritual.

I look at our recent collective history – slavery, genocide, world wars…I think of the slower-growing traumas of attrition – the extreme self-neglect and alienation of our post-industrial, techno age…And I think it is time for our collective tapping and breathing exercises. It is time for us to reintegrate our collective mind and body. As I heal myself, I dream of our collective healing. How do you imagine it looks? How do you imagine it feels? 

Just breathe, now. Breathe with me. – I think this is how it begins for all of us.

[1] Van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

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