Personal Transformational Stories
Kundalini Rising and Spiritual Awakening Publishers Story
A Journey of Spiritual Awakening Editors Story
Cancer Lesson: Treasure Every Day Nancy Cohen
I Forgive My Father Alicia Doyle
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff Wilma Mankiller
A Will to Live Carolyn Hill
Something More Linda Spencer
Opening the Heart by Annie Leight Interviewed by the Publisher
Kundalini Awakening Patricia Bloise
Hoping to Live, Preparing to Die Alia Kazan
The Joy of Anger Beth Adams Cameron
Turning Ogres into Allies Alana Karran
From Darkness into Light Julie Matney
Letting Go of What I Cannot Control Suzanne Edmondson
Creating A New Life Anne Marie Ellis
Crisis can be a Gift
True journey stories for me have always been The Wizard of Oz, Odysseus, Star Wars, and It's a Wonderful Life. The hero in each of these stories is usually immersed in feelings of hopelessness that are always initiated by a crisis. Dorothy suffers the loss of friends, family and home, and is ultimately exiled. Odysseus also loses friends, family and home, as do Luke and George Bailey.
My crisis centered around the loss of my career, friends, family and home. The day I had to move away from my home and friends because I couldn't find work in that town, life as I knew it started to crumble. My wife and I left Santa Barbara, and with $800 to our name, moved to northern California. Exiled. Along with everything else going on, my wife was sick and I had to figure out how I was going to take care of us.
After I lost my job, I read books, went to groups, gurus and therapists. In doing this, I came to realize that somehow only I had the answer to life that I'd been looking for. No one else had it for me. I hoped I would find the answers I had sought for so long in how I chose to live my Journey through this crisis.
As I looked back over the last 20 years of my life, I remembered that even then I was searching for "an answer." The world around me was full of misery and suffering, and it wasn't reserved for only the "bad" people. Good people were murdered, suffered the loss of loved ones, sickness and disease. No one was immune to the reality of suffering. Even Jesus was tortured on the cross, and rumor is, Buddha died of food poisoning.
I had accumulated years of troubles—divorces, bad relationships, jealousy, addictions, pain and arrogance. You know, the usual stuff. And in my mind everyone else was the cause and source of my suffering. I accepted I had my problems, but if only everyone else out there would change I would be so much happier. Yet deep inside I knew that wasn't entirely true.
As I was thrown into this crisis, it became the beginning of a Journey that, as it unfolded, answered my questions, "Why is there so much suffering, what is the cause, is there a way out, what is the answer, why am I here?" The year before, my wife had introduced me to an ancient meditation technique for calming the mind, changing the mind, and seeing the cause of problems and suffering.
I felt broken and lost. A deep wound inside had been torn open and laid bare, exposed, bleeding and aching. As I look back now, I see that the crisis was a blessing in disguise. In the midst of all of this I had many opportunities to work on the meditation technique my wife had introduced me to.
I attended ten-day courses where I sat for 12 hours a day looking at my own mind, thoughts, sensations and feelings. And I began to make connections. I remember in one course in particular where I wandered in my mind for days lost in feelings of anger, depression and hatred. My mind replayed life-scenes over and over again—the hurts, betrayals, and broken promises. Finally, I was worn out. I looked around and realized none of those people were there. They weren't in the room and never would be. I had taken myself on a week-long personal tour of Hell and Purgatory, a lifelong tour.
And then I began to realize it had always been myself who had caused all my years of suffering. My own ranting, raving, crazy mind had me absorbed in dramatic, anger-filled, hopeless emotions. My biggest "enemies" had never been anyone "out there." It was at this point that I started to feel like there was a way out, an answer to my misery. The lock on my mind came with a key.
As all this new information began to sink in, I acknowledged that just as surely as the problems lay deep in my mind, so also did the solution. The exit door to my suffering was on the other side of the deep crazy abyss called "my mind." As I realized this, I began to feel deep feelings of gratitude. There really was a way out. I only needed to embark on the Journey just as all of our heroes had done. I needed to come face to face with all my demons, use all my past memories and habits of my mind as the way out, the way to treat the cause of my own suffering. The ten-day course I took on vipassana. meditation, a technique taught by Buddha, showed me how to do this, how to go inside my body for life's answers.
That was seven years ago. The meditation technique I learned during that time has impacted all aspects of my life. As a psychologist, it has helped me relate to my clients on a deep, caring level and shown me that although people are different, no one is better than someone else. I see now that we're all human beings suffering from different conditions everyone is doing the best they can and we all have something to learn from one another.
My spiritual journey has also taught me there is no journey, no growth, no change, without morality. Morality is the foundation of a true spiritual life. The turning point for Odysseus happened when he gave up his lust and deception and ego gratification. For Luke, he finally became totally honest both with himself and others and told the truth. Jesus and Buddha lived a life of morality. It was the foundation of their teaching. Absolute morality. I'm not talking about a form of morality that we fashion and that makes us appear moral to others and lets us get away with "a few small white lies here and there," "a little acting out now and then," occasional "mistakes."
We all know what a true moral life is like, and as we advance in our moral life, we advance on the spiritual path. We move into a new realm, the realm of compassion, hope, joy, and service. We become the Grail, the containers of true spirituality. This is our challenge and the gift of our crisis experience. To meet the crisis head-on, to stand our ground with our wounds gaping wide open, to surrender and to call to the "Something Greater." We must deal with the Hells we have created and come out the other side stronger, more complete, more humble, more human, and, if you will, initiated into the spiritual realm.
As we travel this spiritual journey, we must challenge ourselves to live our life in the best possible way, passing the torch to others, serving others and our community, and being deeply committed to the ongoing and lifelong process of deepening our spiritual life first, above all else.
That's my story. The story of my gift of crisis and the significant change in my life because of that crisis. Maybe it's your story, too. Maybe you've changed a little. Maybe your life story is a Hero story. Maybe you, too, have had the good fortune of having your crisis experience move you on your way to a better life, to being a better person and making this world a better place. If so, and if you are the Hero reading your story, welcome home.
Cancer Lesson: Treasure Every Day
I can vividly recall the carefree scene in my mind. It was a beautiful day, May 5, 1997. My fiancé and I had applied for our marriage license in Cape May, N.J. My mother accompanied us as our witness. While we were filling out the paperwork for our license, she asked if I was planning to run the Race for the Cure for cancer the next Sunday. I thought it was an odd question, and certainly unrelated to what we were doing at the time. "No, Mom. I haven't run in several years," I replied. In retrospect, it seemed my mother's innocent question was a bad omen. I had no idea then that in 24 hours, my life would be forever altered.
I didn't give my mother's question a second thought until that evening. I was sitting on a large denim lounge chair and I started doing a self-breast exam. I think it was subconscious on my part. I don't know what led my hand to my breast, mainly because I never do self-breast exams, even though, as a nurse, I know better. Nonetheless, I found a lump on my left breast. It was a hard mass, with a diameter of approximately one inch and absolutely no pain associated with it. I examined my right breast. It was soft, no lumps.
Fear played a big part in my aggressive pursuit of an immediate appointment. The next day, I was examined by a breast specialist at my hospital. She is a gifted surgeon, technically excellent with a gentle bedside manner. She confirmed that there was a mass and whatever it was would have to be removed. She took a fluid sample from the lump and sent it to the cytology lab where the specimen would be examined microscopically. Normally, the results are back within 24 hours. However I was called into the office approximately three hours later. It was as she suspected. "Nancy, I am so sorry to deliver the bad news. The mass is malignant. "
I was in total and complete shock. My mind reeled with questions. Are you sure? How could this be? Where did it come from? How could I possibly have developed this disease? I was a healthy 3 l-year-old who exercised regularly, ate right and had a very remote family history of breast cancer. I was also working two jobs at the time; clearly not a sedentary individual. I just didn't fit the description of the "typical cancer patient."
Questions and theories swirled around in my mind. Was it the stress of two jobs, planning a wedding, environmental toxins, or did I have the dreaded breast cancer gene? I was terrified and I felt so alone in the doctor's office.
I'm too young to die, I thought. What was going to happen to me? Wasn't there any other explanation for this abnormal growth, a cyst perhaps? Please, God if you take this away, I will never ... But it was too late to bargain. I was faced with a potentially deadly disease. That was the reality. I had lost all control. I had to put my trust and my life in the hands of the doctors I chose to care for me.
I made my first phone call to my parents. I sobbed hysterically until my supervisor gave me permission to leave. My fiancé was in school that night so it was impossible to contact him. That evening and the next several days I was bombarded with phone calls from family and friends. Even acquaintances and long lost friends were eager to hear my story. An endless flow of cards and flower arrangements were sent my way. I felt privileged to be honored in various prayer groups.
My wedding, which I had been planning for six months, was coming up in three months. I decided not to cancel this precious event. I desperately needed something to look forward to, and planning my wedding gave me hope.
From the moment I told my fiancé, Timothy, he supported me 100 percent. My relationship with him was really put to the ultimate test even before our marriage took place, and through all this we've grown even closer and learned to make our relationship a priority no matter how busy we are. The time we have with those we love is precious and should never be wasted or taken for granted. As I went through my treatment, I learned to quit taking things in life for granted, especially my relationship with loved ones.
During treatment, I took a six month hiatus from my primary nursing job and had to completely resign from my second nursing job. The hustle and bustle of my daily life was replaced with doctors' appointments, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and recovery. All of my life's plans were put on hold until the treatments were determined. After two surgeries, the first to remove the malignant growth and the second to remove fifteen axillary nodes, the most encouraging news at this point was that the results of the node biopsy were negative.
Although this was an extremely difficult time in my life, it was also a time when I was able to get away from work and experience life without all the pressures of my nursing job(s). As my life slowed down, I was able to truly appreciate the small things in life that I had been taking for granted. Everything becomes more pronounced when you feel you're on a time clock. Nature, a sunset, family, everything became much more meaningful to me. I will never put myself under the stress of doing two jobs again. It simply is not worth it. Clearly my body couldn't handle it and life is too valuable to go down that road again.
My last chemotherapy treatment was scheduled for two weeks before my wedding so I'd have some time to recover and gain my strength. My wedding day fell on the hottest weekend of the year. Barring a few minor morning disasters, the wedding went off without a hitch (no pun intended). I was able to restore my mother's wig from the '70s. I wore the beautiful make-up I received from the Look Good... Feel Better program. (This program sponsored by the American Cancer Society, involves product donations from cosmetic companies. Make-up artists and hair dressers also volunteer their time to demonstrate make-up application and wig usage.) My wedding dress was simple yet elegant. After almost three hours of fussing and primping, I looked like a vibrant, lively, healthy bride.
My husband has remained a pillar of strength throughout my ordeal. Even with his difficult work and school schedule, he has always, and continues, to be there for me. He even took the summer off from school to take care of me. The nights following each chemo session were sleepless ones. Tim escorted me to the bathroom every 15 minutes so I could hug the porcelain goddess.
My hair is growing back and my eyebrows and eyelashes are coming in at a furious rate. Applying mascara is a small pleasure I will never again take for granted. My prognosis is good, even though I have to see one of my three physicians every three months.
My outlook on life has changed dramatically. I am so grateful for every new day, and I now take very little for granted. The profound changes I have experienced are most evident in my relationships with others, especially my husband and parents, but also with my surgical patients, my oncology patients in particular. I can identify with what they are going through. I understand their fears, the unknown they face, even that their faith is now uncertain. I am there for them, to hold their hand and speak to them in a calming manner.
As I think of my patients, it brings to mind the simple self- breast exam that saved my life. I cannot stress enough the importance of this self-assessment. It's critical because mammograms aren't recommended until a woman turns 45. All women, regardless of age, should make it their business to do this every month. It saved my life. It could save yours.
I Forgive My Father
My father and I are talking more these days. We didn't used to. But at least now we're both willing to have a relationship. Willing to heal the past. Willing to move on. Our tentative beginning would not exist if I hadn't changed. I had to forgive my father before I could open my heart again. At first, even calling him "dad" was strange, and it is still hard to say "I love you."
Nearly all my life I've struggled to forgive my father. He left when I was in the first grade, leaving my mother alone to raise my two older brothers and me. It was my most painful memory from childhood. He and my mother had had a terrible fight and he'd pushed her against the wall. Angry and hurt and scared, she'd told him to get out.
I clutched my daddy's leg and begged, "Please don't leave, daddy. Please don't go."
Sobbing, my father walked out the door. I watched as he banged his fists against the hood of his car. Through his tears I heard him say, "I'm no good. I'm no good."
My life changed forever that day. I have few good memories from childhood. What I remember most are the nights my dad didn't come home, the days he locked himself for hours in his den, the times he and my mom viciously tore one another apart with ugly words in front of their three children.
The years that followed my father's leaving were tangled with frustration, sadness and resentment as my brothers and I were forced into early adulthood and my mother was forced to juggle a full-time job and single parenthood while battling a nervous breakdown.
After the divorce, I saw my father occasionally, but our brief visits eventually stopped. As time passed, my father and I grew apart. I began to despise him, teaching myself to forget the few happy times we shared and learning how to deny my pain. Sometimes, I even told my friends that my father was dead.
I cursed him when, at age 13 in a halfhearted suicide attempt, I swallowed a vial of sleeping pills. And when my mother remarried an abusive man, I swore I would never forgive my dad.
Little did I know that my father's actions would not only riddle my mother's life but my own young adult life as well. Untrusting and terrified of abandonment, I was heartbroken each time a casual relationship didn't work out. Emotionally scarred, I withdrew from close friends and family who tried to help. Unwilling to accept the past and move on, I went through life with a crippled heart.
It wasn't until last spring, at the age of 26, that my life took a sharp turn for the better.
My father's mother had just died, and a half-brother I'd never met tried to contact me. I knew only his name, Tony Doyle. He was a son from my father's first failed marriage.
Tony, too, was abandoned by our father as a child. When Tony and I met, there was an instant bond. In connecting with the half-brother who had felt the same emotional abandonment as I had, I slowly began to heal. Tony's life, like mine, was half empty with no father to provide love, support and guidance.
As our relationship grew, Tony told me over and over to let go of my anger toward our father.
"Dad could die tomorrow," he said. "You have to accept the past and move on with your life."
Without telling my father, I forced myself to retrace his past with the hope that I would discover why he left us, why he left me. I started by reuniting with my his two sisters. Together, Tony and I visited my dad's childhood home where I sat for hours one Saturday listening to Aunt Helen and Aunt Irene tell stories about what happened to them as children.
I learned my father was severely abused as a child. His parents were heavy drinkers. I found out that his childhood, like mine, was riddled with loneliness and fear.
Still, my discovery did not excuse my father's actions. His selfish path had destroyed any possible connection with his only daughter. He had missed spending time with me on holidays, caring for me when I was sick, watching me grow into a young woman. He was a no-show, a man without clear conscious, a dead-beat, a failed father.
But learning about his past helped me in some ways begin to understand him and, in so doing, to forgive him. Perhaps he feared he would abuse me just as he'd been abused. Or maybe he felt he had to battle his demons alone.
His reasons for leaving don't matter anymore. There's nothing I can do to change yesterday. All I can do is learn from my father's mistakes and break the cycle on my own.
My father must live with his own demons, his guilt. I have no demons or guilt. Therefore, I can accept the past and move on.
Even knowing this, forgiving my father is still a daily struggle, an internal war between wanting a father to love and hating the father who left me. At times, I still resent him. And I often wonder what life would have been like with a daddy to tuck me in at night, mend my first broken heart and hold me safely in his arms through life's tough challenges.
Forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean forgetting. I will never forget the day my father left, but I now know I was only hurting myself by holding on to my rage. By failing to release past memories and go on with my life, I was the one who suffered.
Last Father's Day I called my dad. He asked about my job. I asked him about the weather in Colorado.
Then he asked, "Do you forgive me?"
"Yes," I said, and truly meant it.
My dad and I are talking more these days. We didn't used to. It is still hard to say I love you, but saying it is getting easier.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
I am from a little community that the old-timers call Mankiller Flats. Most people call it the Rocky Mountain in East Oklahoma. I'm 53 years old. When I was a child, this community was very isolated. There weren't any paved roads. We had no television. We had no telephone. It was a predominantly Cherokee speaking community.
I learned three things from that community that are still with me, that I won't ever forget. I learned these things not because someone sat me down and said, "These are values that will be important to you in your life." But, rather, I learned by watching the people around me, which is probably the best way to learn.
I learned a lot about communities by watching very poor people barter with one another. If some family had milk, another family might have vegetables and another might have fruit. People traded with one another. We had to depend on one another in that community in order to live, in order to survive. This was long before there were federal programs for people, and so the lesson from that was that we are interdependent, and that was the only way we would survive.
The second thing I learned was to try to keep my mind and my life as free as possible of negative things. I learned that by watching people who had faced the most daunting problems you can imagine yet always had something positive to say about what was going on. This relates to a very ancient concept which I describe as having a good mind. Watching and listening to those people taught me that no matter what kind of situation you find yourself in, try to find something positive about it. Try to hold on to the concept that we all have choices when disaster befalls us, and we can either focus on the negative or we can focus on the positive. Our people have kept that old tradition of having a good mind. In fact, one of my favorite traditional Cherokee prayers starts out by saying, "Let us first remove all negative things from our minds so we can come together as one."
Another lesson I learned from my early life in Adair County came from seeing people look at problems and enormous obstacles as challenges rather than excuses to sit down and do nothing. That taught me, as a person facing personal trauma and as a leader, to see obstacles as challenges rather than as reasons to give up.
Until my early thirties, I lived my life based on those three basic principles. I didn't think much about spirituality. My family was not involved in regular church attendance, nor were they involved in regular tribal traditional ceremonies.
One beautiful fall day in 1979 I got dressed and left my home. I had the radio on and I was singing a song. The next thing I remembered was five days later when I woke up in intensive care in a hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Nothing that had happened to me before or has happened since had a more profound effect on me personally and spiritually than that experience. I was driving not more than five miles from home on a little road. I was coming up a hill and my friend, Sherry, was coming the other way. She always drove too fast and she was always in too much of a hurry. She passed three cars before her car and my car collided head-on. She was killed and I was close to death when they took me from the car. The doctors and nurses didn't know whether I was a man or a woman. I was in shock, and bleeding badly. I came close to death. For the first in my life, I had an absolute clear understanding that there is a God. It wasn't a perception; it wasn't an intellectual thing. It was a knowledge that permeated every fiber of my being.
The feeling I had during that time is a feeling I don't know how to describe because I don't think we experience that feeling until we face death. Yet I think that is what life is all about, that experience of going home. During that time, I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of unconditional love, and the feeling was more beautiful than the finest day I've ever had in my life.
While I was recovering from that accident, I began to practice the old Cherokee way of having a good mind. The doctor told me I would never walk again and for a while I moped around believing that. Then my fighting spirits kicked in and I went to work, and I've been walking ever since. Even though I recovered, I decided during that time that if I ended up in a wheelchair or had to wear braces for the rest of my life, I would be fine because I could still read and write.
I prayed, both with a medicine man and with a preacher, and eventually I was on my way to recovery. Then I started having strange problems. I couldn't hold a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I couldn't brush my hair because my fingers wouldn't work. My eyes stopped moving and I couldn't see to read. I began to lose my voice because my throat muscles were starting to go, and I began to fall down.
No one knew what was wrong with me. In September 1980 I watched a muscular dystrophy telethon and saw a woman who had symptoms strikingly similar to my own, and I thought, "Oh my God, I think that's what I have." By that time it had started to affect my breathing. Still recovering from the accident, I made an appointment with a Tulsa doctor and was diagnosed with Systemic Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disorder in the muscular dystrophy family. As I was being treated for that, Charlie and I started working on a project together.
Charlie was raised in a Christian family, and he began to talk to me about church. While I didn't know anything about church or the Bible, his values and my values were strikingly similar. What I called being a person of good mind or trying to live in a good way, he called trying to be Christ-like.
Eventually Charlie and I married and started going to church. I loved being in a community of people who were trying to live in a good way, sometimes failing sometimes succeeding, but always trying to figure out how to be the best people they could.
In 1986, my faith was tested. I began to have major kidney problems. By 1989 I was experiencing kidney failure. By 1990 I had total kidney failure and had a transplant. What sustained me during that time was traditional ceremonies, my church, and prayer. It was difficult to do my job at the Cherokee Nation and to go through the kidney transplant. I tried to find something positive to think about during that time.
Nineteen ninety-five was one of the most difficult years I've lived through. After the 1995 election, friends whom I thought had been friends for many years turned out to be what I call situational friends; they were only friends when I was in a leadership position, when everything was going well.
Late in 1995, I was diagnosed with Lymphoma second stage cancer of the lymph system. During that time, sometimes I would pray with the Bible, sometimes with the Eagle feather. But I prayed every single day. It was during this time that I had a call from a Cherokee evangelist who reminded me this wasn't a journey I could take by myself. I needed to turn it over to God and say, "If I'm supposed to live, I'll live. If I am not supposed to live, I won't." I began to understand that it was okay to let go of life.
From then on things got worse. I got a lung infection and the medicines they gave me caused kidney failure. Just as I finished the radiation in November of 1996, I experienced total kidney failure. In December, I went on dialysis, which I didn't do well on.
When people saw me during that time, they didn't know what I was going through because I remained fairly positive, both because of my faith and my acceptance. I turned the whole thing over to God and said, "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen."
No one would do a kidney transplant because my immune system was already lowered from the cancer treatment. In the summer of 1998 I participated in a clinical trial where they give patients less immune suppression medicine than other transplant patients receive. I was able to receive a second kidney.
People say to me, "Think how much better your life would have been if you hadn't had to go through all of those things." First of all, I wouldn't have this absolute, unshakable faith in God. Secondly, I don't think I would have had the emotional level headedness to be able to lead the Cherokee Nation.
There is a current popular book, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. I learned during my illnesses that I shouldn't sweat the small stuff. I also learned that one of the most important things in life is love—not only for you to be loved, that's important, but it is also critical to your survival as a human being to love other people.
I don't know what my prognosis is. Do you know what yours is? I read a sign once that said, "The best way to make God smile is to make long-term plans because only God knows what's in store for us."
A Will to Live
The first five months after being diagnosed with AIDS, my body felt as if a major world war had passed through it, leaving nothing but charred, smoking ruins. I vomited, coughed, sweated profusely and was wracked with pain. I had fever, nightmares, severe anemia as well as uncontrollable diarrhea, and had become so fatigued I could barely sit up in bed. I was, in fact, wasting away to oblivion. Yet something made me refuse to give up.
"You know, most people who have a strong will to live usually have a very apparent reason for it, such as kids, a mate, or wanting to see their grandchildren born," my mom said to me one day after watching me struggle. "You obviously have a very strong will to live, but I haven't been able to figure out the reason yet."
I burst out laughing because I hadn't been able to figure it out either. I had just turned forty, had no children, no mate and no home. I was also disgusted with my twenty-year career.
My doctor had put me on the famous drug "cocktail" that was saving many people's lives. However, it merely compounded my problems. Small bites of food caused such agony that I would wrap my arms around my stomach, curl into a ball, and cry at each meal. In addition, I developed severe allergic reactions to my medications and spent many days looking like a swelled up red blowfish, and scratching until I bled.
After going to the hospital for four weeks and getting worse with each visit, one summer day I staggered up the steps of John's Hopkins Hospital and felt my stomach cramp. I knew I had about sixty seconds to find a bathroom. "Oh God, I've lost all control of my body," I muttered. "I don't know what to do, and the doctors aren't helping."
Not only had my body deteriorated, I was beginning to fall apart emotionally. And now, here I was, about to lose bowel control in front of hundreds of strangers at the entrance to John's Hopkins. Crying, I shouted for Mom to help.
She took my arm. "There's a bathroom right inside. We're almost there."
"I can't make it." I gasped for air as my muscles went limp. I was too weak to walk any further. Panicked, I looked in every direction, trying to find someplace to ease my misery and hide my shame. But there was no place to hide. I was horrified and humiliated as diarrhea streamed down my legs, ruining my favorite pair of white shorts and new leather sandals. I collapsed, sobbing, onto the steps near a garbage can and curled up, watching both my insides and my life flow down the stairs.
I honestly don't know why I didn't give up on life altogether at that point. At the pace I was going, it was obvious I was rapidly headed for death. My doctors seemed to be at their wits' end; they took me off all medications and for weeks ran every test they could think of. Each day, it took all of my concentration and limited physical energy to get dressed, eat three meals, go to the bathroom, and get to the hospital.
Several weeks later, my doctor found a lump in my abdomen and sent me immediately to the radiology department. The lump turned out to be a mass of lymph nodes. I was diagnosed with MAI (Mycobacteriurn Avium Intercellular), an opportunistic infection that preys upon people with AIDS, and used to kill them. The potentially fatal symptoms of MAI were being exacerbated by the "cocktail" medications I was taking, which was the reason for my debilitating health. Now that my doctors finally knew what was going on, they could treat the problem effectively.
Over the next five months, with a lot of help from my doctors, family and friends, my prayer group and minister, as well as my own inner strength and meditations, I finally began to heal. One of the things that helped me the most was a prosperity class at a Unity Church that taught the principle of the four Ts—tithing of time, talent, and treasures. This class helped me re-program my negative thought patterns into positive thoughts. Instead of thinking, "I'm not good enough" or "No matter how hard I try, things don't work out," I began to say to myself, "I'm good enough to do this. If I try hard, everything will work out."
As I started to feel better, I found I had time to reflect on all that had happened to me, and I came back to the question my mother had asked: "Why did I have such a strong will to live?" Everything in my life as I had known it had been stripped away and, on the surface, I had nothing to live for. What was my reason for hanging on?
I suppose part of me needed to know if it was possible to overcome a life-threatening illness and overwhelming adversity. Could I lift myself out of the pit I had fallen into and find true joy and peace in life? Could I find the "Kingdom of Heaven Within," that was promised by so many of the world's masters? As I walked through this journey, I began to think that perhaps those things were possible.
I am now on my way to overcoming AIDS. My viral load, which peaked at 170,000, is now almost undetectable. And my immune system grows stronger each week. My CD4, or "T-cell," white blood count is climbing and is now around 350, from a low of 20 (normal is 6,000-12,000). The anemia has subsided. The fevers have stopped. The night sweats have ended. The excruciating pain in my muscles has eased, and I am gaining weight because I can eat again. I still wrestle with the awful side effects of the disease and the potent medications. And, at times, the emotional turmoil that is inherent with AIDS still knocks me for a loop. But all in all, I am healing quite well.
Because of AIDS, I now look deep into my soul for the negative thoughts, habits, patterns, and energies that helped create my "dis-ease" (a term meaning "not being at ease with life and how things work"), and work hard to rid myself of them. I have developed a new appreciation for what is important in life—the small things like ice cream and flowers, and the big things like family, friends, the Creator and myself. I've learned to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like going for walks on moonlit evenings when everything is blanketed in snowy silence, drifting away to the angelic sounds of Pachelbel and Mozart, basking in a sunbeam, curling up in front of a fire with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate, sharing laughter and making memories with family and friends, and thanking our Creator for this glorious life.
No, I'm not ready to die. Because of the changes I made in the way I view life, I feel my life is just beginning. It's become a wonderful ride, and one I certainly don't want to miss.
In 1973 I began a twenty-year journey that would change my life forever. I was admitted to a New York State Psychiatric hospital with delusions of grandeur—I believed I was the Virgin Mary. I was experiencing a tremendous increase in energy, had dropped ten pounds in a week, and had stopped sleeping. Powerful subconscious forces were running rampant in my psyche, and I was out of touch with reality. My family had no clue what was happening to me, and neither did I.
People in the midst of these sorts of crises are sometimes misunderstood and mishandled. I was no exception. I was seen as a psychotic individual and labeled as schizophrenic. Although I was not in touch with what the world viewed as reality, the grandeur and beauty of my internal world could not be imagined. My body had become weightless. My feet carried me as if with wings. The natural world was filled with an extraordinary beauty. Brilliant light shimmered around everything. Trees and flowers took on new meaning. A profound peace overwhelmed me, and there was a deep surrender to the majesty of all. But the doctors did not see this. And I was so taken with the profound grandeur and majesty of this experience that I did not have the ability or the desire to speak of it.
Three months of drug therapy brought me back to a mundane and difficult reality. The heavy sedatives took away my ability to function. I could not tie a shoelace or hold a pen in my hand. I had muscle spasms in my face, and I walked as if I had a plank strapped to my back. I had even lost the ability to think or remember. They said I was better and sent me home.
Once I got off the medications, life went back to normal—for six years. Then it hit again. It was the same pattern as before, with tremendous energy, except I did not experience the intense beauty and joy. I was hospitalized for another three months, diagnosed with another schizophrenic disorder, and underwent intense drug therapy again.
After I was released, I stayed on the medications for a month. Eventually I went back to school and got married. Life was normal and happy until 1991. Then it hit again. This time the hospitalization lasted only four days. But eight months later, it happened yet again.
Over the last nineteen years, I had learned many things about my condition, what it was and what it was not. A degree in psychology had taught me about the mind/body connection. And while I knew there were many conditions in the body that could be precipitated by different forms of stress, this condition did not seem to be one of them. It came of its own accord without rhyme or reason, during times of harmony and smooth sailing. Conversely, during times of difficulty and adversity, it remained silent. There seemed to be no way to predict what would provoke this energy. What became evident over time, however, was that it was not going away.
The night I was brought to the hospital in 1992, I met Dr. Saba, a doctor from India. After three hospitalizations, three diagnoses of schizophrenia, and horrible medications, grace came into my life. I was finally blessed with a doctor who understood what was happening to me, and began to help me understand.
Dr. Saba gave me hope. He diagnosed me with Unipolar Mania—Bipolar Disorder without the depression—and began treating me with Lithium, which I will take the rest of my life. Unipolar Mania is not talked about very often in medical circles. It does not even appear in the DSM IV. It is a rare condition in which the individual swings from a normal energy level to a manic state, thus my tremendous energy, weight loss, lack of sleep, and intense mental experiences.
Although mania can have serious, even deadly, side effects if not treated, there is also a positive side to this condition. When understood and treated properly, Unipolar Mania can transport the personality to worlds of higher vision and deeper understanding. A healthy mind active with this type of creative energy can become powerfully productive. The classic treatment for mania, Lithium, is a wonder drug for people with this condition. It keeps their mania under enough control so they still have an abundance of energy, but their brains don't become disorganized, and they can excel in both their work and their creativity.
At the time Dr. Saba diagnosed me, I had become involved in the Self-Realization Fellowship, a metaphysical community. As I worked with my doctor and sorted through the writings of the metaphysical world, juggling back and forth between medical jargon and metaphysical words, pieces started falling into place. I began meditating. Yoga showed me a way to calm and quiet myself. Meditation is a strong tool for circulating energy in your body, and the more I meditated, the more I got the energy in my body under control. As I became more and more proficient at meditating, Dr. Saba was able to cut back on my Lithium.
I also studied Indian mythology, learning about the divine energy in each of us. I came across a new term, Kundalini, which Indian philosophers teach to be a source of profound spiritual energy.
After nineteen years of not understanding what was happening to me and going through tremendous trauma, I can now say that I feel Unipolar Mania is a gift. Through meditation, I am able to tap into this powerful energy, yet remain in control. It's been a difficult journey, but I've learned so much about the mind and what the yogis say. Because my consciousness has changed so dramatically, I now see the world as a phenomenal place. These things never would have happened to me without this, and I am so grateful. This has been a process of transformation. It has been the greatest gift in my life. I am a more compassionate, more loving, more kind, and more generous person because of it.
I believe true health comes from being able to accept our bodies in their imperfect states, just as we must accept the outer conditions of our lives, imperfect as they almost always are. To find opportunity in adversity, to champion our own causes, to be our own keepers of light, to me this is where real freedom lies. It is the struggle that makes one strong, that bestows the gift. Real health is achieved in a state of victory over one's own suffering. Victory does not mean cure. Victory means acceptance, with a spirit of integrity, for whatever life brings us.
Opening the Heart by Annie Leight
Interviewed by the Publisher
I met Annie several years ago during a week long seminar. She had a clarity and intensity about her that stood out among the other participants. There was also a gentleness and directness about her. Sometimes her body hurt so badly from her cancer that it overwhelmed her and she could do nothing but moan and writhe in pain.
Annie Leight was 50-something. One of her spiritual teachers told her that she lived extremely well between a rock and a hard place, which was exactly where she had been lately. Six years ago, she was finalizing her physical, emotional and spiritual preparations for a 10,000-mile transformational walk, a task that she said was given to her in a spiritual vision right before her 40th birthday, a task which became her sacred obligation. The walk was to be in the shape of a butterfly to symbolize both transformation and the transition into a new millennium. Scheduled to begin in October 1993, Annie's walk was postponed after she was involved in a serious car accident in August of that year. While still recovering from the wreck two years later, Annie was diagnosed with undifferentiated cell cancer. Doctors told her that with medical treatment, she would live. Without treatment, she would be dead in six months. She and her husband, Rob, doubted the doctors' optimistic prognosis if she underwent treatment; they later learned there had never been any medical cure on record for her kind of cancer.
Annie knew that if she went the route of mainstream medicine and had the traditional treatments, she would be miserable. With the support of her husband and her friends, she decided against treatment and resumed plans for her butterfly walk. "I felt incredibly loved and supported. Most people assume that when you're diagnosed with cancer, you're going to follow a tried and true path even if it's inevitable that it will fail. What my friends and my husband did was give me permission to go on the journey," Annie says. "By then, the walk had become intimately and fundamentally related to my relationship with the beloved infinite spirit. By that point, I understood that I had a sacred task to do, the outcome of which I did not know. I could do nothing else." Her dream for the journey was simply to show people another way to live. "Most people are living in deep, deep levels of despair. And what I consciously wanted to do was to open my heart and being in such a way that there could be, at least on a small scale, a mirroring of other ways of being alive that did not require eighty-thousand dollar a year incomes, that did not require all the goodies. I think technology is wonderful as a tool, but is lousy as a leader. There's a danger right now in this country where a lot of people are really feeling powerless and despairing and hopeless. Everybody should have the possibility for receiving dignity and respect, because if we don't have dignity and respect, we don't have anything."
Annie started her transformational walk January 1, 1997. She covered 3,300 miles before the cancer forced her to stop walking eight months later. She spent the next several months at a motel near where her walk ended, on pain medication, and predominantly bedridden.
Weeks ago I received a phone call at work from a friend who told me that Annie's health was failing and she might not have long to live. I telephoned Annie to see if she would be interested in doing an interview. A personal attendant answered the phone and I explained that I wanted to interview Annie and suggested an interview later in the week. The attendant answered in a serious tone, "if you are interested in talking to Annie you better do it in five minutes. She may not be with us this afternoon."
I said I'd call back in a couple of minutes after I hooked up the recording equipment.
When I called back, Annie was lucid, focused and deeply centered. She spoke as if these words would be her last. Annie died a little over a week later.
Personal Transformation: What was your immediate reaction to being diagnosed with cancer?
Annie: I was completely devastated. I had just gone through almost two years of coping with serious health problems created by an auto accident that I was lucky to have survived.
PT: How did being diagnosed with cancer impact your desire for doing your walk?
Annie: It made me more determined to do it. When I'm up against the wall and you tell me I can't do something or I can't be something, I become even more determined.
PT: In following your vision, what psychological, emotional and physical difficulties did you have to deal with?
Annie: A whole series of ongoing transformations. The walk brought me into relationship with everything at very, very deep levels. I didn't have the capacity at the beginning, although I'm developing it now, to keep from absorbing all the energies I experienced in different settings, which I think contributed to strengthening of the cancer, because I didn't have protection. I've been learning and experiencing that you can both have boundaries and not disconnect. For me that was a paradox of unbelievable proportions, but allowing myself to live in that paradox opened me to life. Spiritually it opened the door to intimacy with anything, which was such a profound experience. I mean, on a day-to-day basis, I was truly living the mystic's way. Physically, at first, the walk was agony because of all the back and spine and neck injuries which, while I walked, generated enormous amounts of pain. So the first six months of the walk, in particular, was a conscious commitment—sometimes for five minutes—to just stay with the walk.
PT: What can you tell us about the coping skills you developed in living this day-to-day life of walking?
Annie: I learned that all we have is now. I also learned that even though I was fifty years old that I could be—even with the accident, all the cancer and whatever—remarkably resilient. One of the main things I learned was how to stay with something. Also, by being and living in nature much of the time, I learned that there is a softness underlying all of life—a gentleness, a tenderness. Learning to trust that became very important for coping. I could simply be present to anything. That shifted my whole sense of power because I'd always felt like my way of seeing and exploring the world was so different that I didn't have a connecting point. The walk allowed me to not only have a connecting point, but to have a place where there's no disconnect.
PT: Looking back at your life, what is the most important thing that you've learned?
Annie: The most honest answer to that question is that there have been a whole series of meaningful moments in which I've continued to open to life. The process of allowing yourself to be open to life, instead of fending life off, that allows for each moment to count. That's what I want to say to people.
Live your life in the present moment; don't live in the past or future because in the past or future you're no longer fully alive. In the present moment, you can take time to notice flowers and birds and watch a river trickle, and you can get back to that kind of natural inherent connection with your body and the earth and people and animals. Your life begins to flow rather than being a series of isolated events. When life is no longer a series of isolated events, when it's part of this total fabric you're weaving together with multiple shapes and colors and different threads—then any moment has the potential to be incredibly impactful. Then you don't need to create and orchestrate special occasions. The very fact that you're breathing is a special occasion.
PT: What impact did your decision not to medically treat the cancer have on others? The people who loved you must have been concerned for your health and your sanity.
Annie: They were deeply affected, but when I listened deeply I heard that my walk was offering encouragement, a wake-up call to live before you die instead of dying before you live. Every one of my friends is beginning to know their consecrations and responsibilities, obligations and humor, and how they connect to a full life.
PT: Do you feel like you have accomplished what you set out to do?
Annie: It's hard to answer that question now, because I no longer care about accomplishment in the way that it's normally defined. What I care about is an openness to life which allows our gifts and talents to be present in the world. At that point, we're no longer in a management-by-objectives world, or you're no longer in a success vs. failure mode. I stayed faithful to the consecration and didn't worry about an end result.
PT: It sounds like you've come to a deeper level of faith or trust.
Annie: Yes. I started out with zip. It looked like I was a pretty faithful person, trustworthy and all. But, in fact, at the deepest level, the point right above essence, I had no faith and I certainly had not built a real and honest relationship with spirit. I just hadn't done it. So, with consciousness and much support, I've been willing to go deeper into what is really going on, what my truth is, and the barriers to that truth. I've been in deep prayer and meditation saying, "Okay, I'm willing to do this the easy way now—help me to do this the easy way so that I don't have to be transformed through such arduousness, terror, and pain. I'm willing to be transformed. Transform me, but get me out of this perpetual life and death thing—where everything is always at the ultimate boundary." I've learned enormous amounts from living there but the emotional cost and the cost to my husband and friends has been enormous. I made a commitment to see if there's another way here.
PT: If you had never gotten ill do you think you could have come to the same understanding?
Annie: No, I couldn't have. I can honestly say that. There wasn't enough of me for anything meaningful or significant to happen. It would have just been a nice adventure story.
PT: Most people wouldn't jump at the chance to have terminal cancer or some other life threatening illness in order to transform their lives. Is there another way to do it?
Annie: Yes there is. When you start to feel pain, unrest, joylessness or despair; if at the earliest possible moment, you begin to understand that you're being drawn into a deeper place, open yourself to coming into contact with your guide, a human who understands this process well enough to know what is about to be evoked, then you don't have to overwhelm your body in order to allow a change to happen. You have to be open to the unknown and you have to be open to mystery. Otherwise, you're in charge, you're in control and nothing can be transformed—there's no room for the energy to move and flow.
PT: You are very close to your own death; what are your thoughts on death?
Annie: I am beginning to feel that death is the end of a particular, physical, concrete organism. With death you plug into a far richer consciousness that allows you to be here in terms of energy and consciousness, even if you aren't here in physical form. There's a growing peacefulness around the fact that I can choose to let go and not wage war between life and death. I can simply allow death to be the completion of one state of being while at the same time knowing—and I really do know—that there's a consciousness and energy that continues beyond death.
PT: Do you have fear or anger about dying?
Annie: No, I don't. I don't have fear. I could get back into fear in the next five minutes. I assume fear is always a companion. It's a matter of what kind of allegiance it's given and how much energy is devoted to it. It's there like breath is there, or like the capacity for joy and love and awe is there. It's another capacity. You have to not feed it.
PT: Do you still have hope for recovery?
Annie: I am doing my best not to make assumptions one way or the other. Every time I have energy, I cherish it and use it to the best of my ability. As long as I have my relationships and until I'm asked to let go of those relationships, I'm alive. When I'm asked to let go of those relationships and to surrender, I hope I'm willing to go to the place of light, the womb of life, and die in peace, honoring the craziness, joy, and beauty of a particular and unique life. Hopefully I can go with extreme gratitude. I feel that I am in relationship to God, am one with God. That is real stuff. It's not conceptual anymore, although it used to be. It is no longer a concept. It's my way of being alive in the world.
PT: In closing, is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
Annie: Stay with your own life; don't get distracted by trying to be somebody else. Learn to enjoy and be open to the beauty of any moment, even though there may be enormous pain, ugliness and injustice. Secondly, learn how to be in relationship to fear and terror, because fear and terror drop us down to a less harmonious and less integrated form of behavior. Thirdly, cultivate a garden of daily delights that allows you to be you without demanding recognition or praise or any of those things. Also, find what you're consecrated to, because we're all consecrated to something. Finally, risk opening your heart and loving and allowing the beauty of love into your life as much of the time as possible.
In the summer of 1995, my world changed. I had been the head senior minister of a large and thriving Unity church in Bellevue, Washington, for almost a decade, and had been in active ministry for almost twenty years. I loved my work: the speaking, the teaching, the chance to make the world a better place every day through service to others. By August, though, I began to feel that I had somehow been unplugged from all experience of creativity and meaning. I was going through the motions of my busy ministerial life but I felt emptied of everything I knew I had to share with the world. When that creativity went, I realized I had nothing to say to anyone.
In the fall of that year I facilitated a videotape series, Canticle to the Cosmos, for a class I was teaching at church. As I listened to Brian Swimme talk, I heard him speak about the "felt impulse" that stirs in the depths of anything that is creatively evolving, whether back at the dawn of the evolutionary process or right now. The next wave of evolution occurs, Swimme said, when a creature—whether human or prehistorical roundworm—responds fully to that creative impulse. The idea seized me that if I got quiet enough for a long enough period of time I could sense that renewing impulse in the center of my being, the evolutionary movement of my own soul.
Shortly after, I asked the Board of Directors to grant me a sabbatical. When they gave me three months, I imagined finding a little cabin by the water, until one day someone said to me, "Why don't you go to Ecuador? A woman would be safe there traveling alone, and you would have a wonderful time." Something in me lit up and I said, "Of course! Ecuador!"
I went to Ecuador by myself in the summer of 1996, and waited for something wonderfully spiritual to happen. I discovered that the best I could do, given that that "something" never occurred, was to get up and follow my feet. So I would get up in the mornings, wherever I was, and follow where my feet took me: sometimes into the world, where I would walk and look and take everything in, and sometimes into my own soul, in my little room, journaling all day. It was an extraordinary experience and, I can see now, powerful preparation for where I am right now in my journey.
I came back at the end of August and I couldn't understand why we live the way we do. I looked at everything from a completely altered perspective: altered not because I was having profound spiritual experiences, but because I had been in a place where I had been virtually invisible as a middle-aged woman with a backpack. When I came back I couldn't understand why our culture was so full, and so fast. Two weeks after "re-entry" I went to Nordstrom's to get more clothes as most of mine had been stolen on the trip. I rode the escalator to the lingerie department and stood, overwhelmed, among racks and racks of gorgeous nightgowns and panties and bras and bathrobes, and burst into tears. I rode the escalator back down, weeping, minus new underwear.
In Ecuador I had discovered how little was really essential, how little we need for life to flourish. That lingerie department became a perfect metaphor for my life back in Seattle. Back at the church, the quality of my teaching and speaking was far finer that it had previously been; what was moving through me was at a deeper level than I had ever experienced. The church thrived, and my life thrived, but underneath it all was a longing for the space to see again where my feet wanted to go, to feel again that basic impulse. I felt a compelling inner push to explore the void; I had a sense that Spirit was wanting all of me, for a time.
As fall of 1997 moved into winter I began to have a series of experiences that affected me physically and mentally: I knew, though, that the experiences were of a spiritual nature. I went through weeks of dizziness so intense that I couldn't hold thoughts very long. I found that something was wanting to happen in me, but I had no time to honor it. Someone whom I loved and trusted told me, "Linda, there's a new energy trying to come in and you need to meditate into it and accept the gift of it rather than trying to function and turn away from it."
I began meditating into the energy, but rather than creating the state of bliss I had expected, it created in me more and more discomfort about having to function in the world in old and familiar ways. I went away for a week for a conference, and meditated every moment I wasn't in meetings. I asked, over and over, "What do you want me to do? What are you asking of me?" I heard that voice that isn't a voice saying, "Until you step into the void, your next step cannot be revealed." I said, "I will do whatever You want," and returned home to resign my position. I stayed on at the church for five months to make a smooth transition, selling my home, leaving my community and the work that I cherished, leaving my calling, leaving Unity, which had given me the gift of life 25 years ago. I gave it all up.
Now it's been almost ten months that I've lived on the water on an island in Puget Sound. It's been an arduous process, ten months of being lost. Ten months of following my feet, my breath, every day, trusting that in the midst of confusion and loss of identity and meaning in my life, that the Divine is always as close as my own breath. I have learned to trust that if I follow my breath and my feet every day, even if I feel completely non-functional, that somehow there is a Divine process at work.
The second guessing of my smaller self goes on all the time, that second guessing that says, "You're crazy! What have you done? This isn't going anywhere. Your spiritual visions have not been made manifest. Look what you left behind!" I then just remind myself that I have made a total commitment to the Divine; I'm allowing the Divine to engineer my journey. Instead of my controlling my journey, or demanding how it should be, I'm recognizing that my job now, in this transition, is simply to stay in the process.
For long periods of time at the beginning of my "island time," I would get up in the morning and basically be non-functional for the day, feeling devastated, sitting and staring at the water, watching the eagles circle overhead. I lost my ability to communicate with people well because I had gone so far within. Even in those days, though, at the darkest moments, if I didn't know it in my heart, I could see with some larger part of me that this emptying was the Divine at work. I knew that when someone is emptied as extensively as I had been emptied, it's because something larger is moving toward filling that in a new way.
I spent days without any apparent spiritual infilling, and then I would be in conversation with someone and I would feel light pouring into my body. I would say, "Where have you been? I've been waiting for you." There that Presence would be, and then it would be gone, and it would be just as confusing as before.
The most important lesson I've learned in this is to let go of control, to give up my small designs for a greater process. In the beginning of this process I had panic attacks: in the grocery store, or in traffic, I'd start feeling so panicky. It was all about control; I wasn't engineering things like before, in the way I had previously. I came from a spiritual tradition where you tell the universe clearly what you want and you hold it in mind and that's what shows up. Well, this process clearly hasn't worked that way!
I let go of my identity; in that there was such a sense of death. Even when we think we've let go of attachment, how attached we can still be to all the ways we define ourselves. I was so attached to being a caring person, a person who brings meaning to the world. I lived my life committed to making a difference, hopefully making the world a better place every single day. I gave up that attachment, and when I gave it up I moved into a state of worthlessness: Why do I exist if I'm not making a difference? Is it enough to be present in the world without being a contributor who's showing up for others?
I had devoted so much of my life to service, but I have realized how much of it was bound up with an ego identity that said in order to belong in the world, to be a spiritual person in this world, you have to give something back. In this last ten months, quite often I was not capable of caring for someone else; I couldn't even pretend to be caring. The core of this process has been about unraveling everything I identify with, and identify myself as. I know there's more unraveling; I, all of us, are so bound to a definition of being and much of that has been stripped away.
In the midst of this kind of transformation we are blind, not unlike the snake shedding its skin. We are blind and vulnerable, a kind of vulnerability where everything is so frightening because we have lost the illusion of being in control. That vulnerable place, however, is the most fertile place of all. I can't say I've held on to that wisdom constantly during this process, particularly in the middle of the night when I was being tormented by my own demons. But when I could see clearly enough that Divine process is at work, even if I don't believe and cannot see or feel it, it made a huge difference.
In the first months of my island time, it was as if the energetic tide of my own soul was going out, and out, and out, and out. Recently, though, I have noticed a shift; the tide is starting to come in. The energy that was completely gone is coming back, in a movement forward. I can move my body again.
I think that the evolution of the Divine is happening very strongly in me and in us all right now. The universe requires points of expression to bring forth new energies. We can all respond at any moment, like those roundworms at the beginning of evolution. I simply surrendered into the arms of the Divine and allowed It to do within me what It needed to do. I believed that in responding to that felt impulse I would get a clear message and clear direction, but my experience has been oblique, and more unknowing than knowing. This journey has been—and continues to be—about following my feet, and breathing. The impulse feels strong in me, but I do not know where it is taking me.
During these ten months, I have often questioned, "Am I doing this right?" I often felt I must not be doing this right because if I were doing it right I'd be meditating more, or doing something "spiritual" more. I have suffered a lot of self-judgment about whether I was on course or off course. What I most want to share with others in profound transitions in their own lives is, when that self-judgment begins to happen, breathe into it. If you're breathing, you're doing it right. You just breathe and do what's there, in that moment.
I can't say where this process will take me. I have no idea at this point where my life is going. There have been times when the money was gone, and I mean gone: nothing, and nowhere to turn. But always, another moment followed that moment of bleakness and despair, and then another moment.
Always, there's something more toward which Spirit is leading me, and you. Always.
Hoping to Live, Preparing to Die
High up here in my oak tree. Strong. Solid. So unlike me at this time so small and frail here in my sacred place I am nestled in giant branches. Held like I am never held by anyone. High above them all, I am safe, without a care in the world except perhaps I wish mom and I saw eye-to-eye more often. But here I am with my reverie. Free to dream and plan the life that lies ahead the children I'll have, and how happy I'll be, and of course how healthy.
Twenty years fly by like the pages of a book turning all the plans, schemes, hopes, dreams loves and losses I am happy with my life and have found joy and creativity working in theater with disabled adults, and music therapy for children. But I have no children of my own.
Then things change. A lump in the breast, but I'm only 32! And I'm a vegetarian, and I meditate, and pray!
Two men in white coats enter the ward, looking at the ceiling. Wringing hands. Shuffling feet.
"I, er, don't know how to say this."
"It's okay," I tell him, "I think I know what you're trying to say" (always ready to comfort others.) "Am I going to die?" (My heart is pounding but I don't flinch.)
"It's a tumor," says the other man. A lump rises in my throat, thoughts compete for space in my head.
Tumor? I don't know this means cancer!
The night before surgery I dream. I fall over a cliff into a raging river fearful but I am swept to safety.
"Well, I would plan three to six months at a time," he speaks bluntly. "There are cells in the bloodstream."
"Cells?" (Aren't there meant to be cells there?)
Agonizing silence. They turn on their heels and leave. I think about yesterday. An eternity passes. I feel numb. A nurse arrives. She looks young. Embarrassed. She takes my hand and I collapse into tears. Tears of self pity, tears for every loss I've ever known. I fear that others may treat me differently, or tiptoe around me.
I'm told I have a two percent chance of living three more years without treatment. Perhaps five years with it! It's too late for anything but chemotherapy.
Of course I ask, "Why me?" And a thousand other questions I hear of miracle cures and think, well why not me?
I decide that cancer happened to a particular "me," so I'll simply change that "me" and it won't be appropriate any more. Naivete, perhaps, but the doctors could offer little optimism.
The days that follow are a blur. Domenic, my new partner, is calm. He's my anchor. He's only twenty-six. He doesn't let me see that he's terrified! His dad died of lung cancer a few years ago.
Would he still love me if I lost a breast? Other stresses were too much for a new relationship anyway, but our friendship continues to deepen.
Twelve long years pass... years of solitude and contemplation, then times of torment and pain. Days of stillness nights of terror until the breath was leaving my body and life slowed down enough for me to appreciate the simple turn of a leaf.
Do I still have cancer? Yes. Each new tumor stealing the future, finally robbing me of both breasts. Active in the bones now for seven years, betraying the part of me that still wants to be in control. So many questions without answers. So much gratitude for each new day.
I live my life like a prayer, learning to let go of trivial concerns... each pain-free day a bonus. Focusing on quality, rather than quantity. One day at a time. I refused chemotherapy. Maybe it could have helped. Really, life has become a process of learning to trust my own decisions. Making choices from instinct, not out of fear. Honoring the "me" that is spirit, the part the doctors rarely address.
Now I endeavor to say "Yes." To remain open listening to my body's signals, moment to moment trusting in God's plan, the unfolding of my destiny. Finding the faith and courage to continue to live with uncertainty. Asking "What really matters?"
I believe that a significant factor in my increased well-being and the unexpected long term survival could be attributed to several "transformational conferences" I have attended run by Richard Moss, MD. The energy generated in large groups of people cannot be underestimated when this is gathered and focused in sacred attention.
Gradually I have learned to see myself as far more than simply a physical body with a named set of medical symptoms. To be able to see oneself as larger than a structure limited by a very bounded and defined self-perception can be the most important tool in self-transformation.
Although I have not healed bodily, I can say that the degree of healing in my heart, relationships, and life in general has been far more than I could have imagined possible.
To me, a life well-lived embraces and accepts the gifts and challenges that life brings. I can choose to live with dignity. Truly live, not just endure, rather than handing over responsibility for my decisions to family and doctors and becoming "the victim."
Having cancer allows me the privilege to sit with others during their time of transition able to relate to their suffering and help them feel less alone. Suffering teaches compassion, and while I hope to live, I prepare to die! For what is death but a process of letting go? One which we all face sooner or later.
My mother too has had cancer for many years—a form of leukemia. She's a survivor like me. One of us might die soon. It could be me—her only daughter. I've been in a Palliative Care Unit for over five months now strange how this illness can heal the wounds of our past. Like sisters now, we're on the same journey. In a dream we look out of a huge window onto a shining sea which stretches to the horizon. A procession of boats sails toward the sunset. The masts and sails are black. Now I pray for a little more time, so that I may be there for her when her time comes. Perhaps then she will become the little girl and I the mother. I know I will speak to her the words that are left. The words that come from the place in me that holds the potential for the spirit of the oak.
In my heart I feel a tiny acorn gradually beginning to awaken slowly, steadily
as the light starts to reach it!
Publisher's Note: A couple of weeks before we went to press with this issue, we learned that Alia had died.
The Joy of Anger
Beth Adams Cameron
Sometimes I blow up. Last time it happened because we ran out of ketchup. I teach second grade and I make lists, but I hadn't written ketchup on the list. I reacted to my family's criticism. "Both of you could have noticed and written 'ketchup' on the list," I said accusingly. They sent me hostility and we settled down to eat mustard-pickle-lettuce burgers.
"Are you a little stressed?" my husband ventured after four minutes of silence. "Maybe you need a retreat."
I stomped to the hall, checked the Spiritual Renewal Center flyer on the bulletin board and shouted, "There's one called Dealing with Anger (as Anthony de Mello Saw It), but you two are the ones who need that." I still resented their behavior. I listened to them muttering, returned to the kitchen and let them talk me into spending the weekend at my favorite place.
On Friday evening, I drove to Albuquerque's south valley and checked into a cozy single room. From my window I watched Black Angus calves lazily grazing beside their mothers, while a pig rooted under a sprawling Cottonwood at the farm adjoining the dormitory. Guinea hens keened their beckoning calls and a little girl in a pink dress pumped on a squeaky swing. As shafts of evening sun filtered through the doorway, I felt wrapped in peace and forgot I was capable of fits of rage.
I wandered across the meadow to the lecture hall. Sister Amada, one of four sisters who operate the center, warmly welcomed me. They pray for the retreatants during the week, and I felt the effect. Sister Amada explained that everything offered for the weekend was optional and we'd know what we needed to attend. If we needed sleep, we'd sleep. A large lady in her seventies sat next to me. She wore a flowered T-shirt and jeans. "If your mother isn't living, this is the closest thing to her, if not better," she whispered.
We introduced ourselves and told what we hoped to get out of the weekend, and Brother Joe, the presenter, took notes. One person appeared truly angry. She only revealed her first name, Ellie, and pulled her chair closest to the door where she sat with folded arms.
Brother Joe presented a method based on self-awareness. Questions were freely asked and his answers were honest and simple. I realized that the process of seeing the primary feeling that originated before my anger would involve a personal search. The means was through journaling. Already I'd let go of some baggage and was preparing to view my irrational reactions, as in the ketchup incident, with honesty.
We walked to the tiny stone chapel for prayer. Evening blended into night while we sat in candlelight under the vigas and listened to Native American flute and related readings. Ellie was the first to leave.
Energized by the challenge of the weekend, I raced to the dormitory where coffee, tea, and snacks were provided. I'd much rather talk about the method than have to apply it. Like the cartoon showing two doors. The first door is labeled "Heaven" and the second "Talks about Heaven." No one is lined up behind the first door, but there's a long line behind the second. Seven of us talked for an hour before I took a night walk around the compound. I gazed at the nearly full moon and fell under the Center's hypnotic spell. My resentments paled while I watched clouds drift across the sky.
I woke gently to the sounds of classical guitar. On the lawn, Mark, who drove eighty miles to attend this retreat, sat cross-legged and strummed. I quickly dressed and noticed a note had been tucked under my door. "Call home." Grabbing coffee before morning prayer, I met Ellie and briefly talked. Her face reddened while describing three harassment suits she'd filed. She believed in revenge and intended to get a lawyer and return to court. Nervously shuffling from foot to foot, I avoided looking directly in her eyes, afraid I'd intimidate her. Her agitation increased with the storytelling. Silently I predicted this retreat couldn't fix her problems. Fearful of her anger, I suggested we walk to chapel.
We were led in a guided meditation followed by "Amazing Grace" and then breakfast served by cheerful volunteers. I learned about two books by de Mello and borrowed one of them. Whenever people with similar interests gather, they help each other, share information and exchange ideas. I thrive on this synergy.
I called home and vented over the phone when my son asked where the house keys were. Whoops! Lost it again. Breathing deeply, I told him, even though he should have looked before calling.
We laughed a lot during the lectures. We also journaled. I experienced one "a ha" moment when I recognized defensiveness provoked my anger. I journaled about feeling accused and wishing to let that feeling go.
"What do you mean by that?" Ellie challenged several times, obviously uncomfortable with teachers. But Brother Joe, a former principal, author, and psychotherapist, wasn't an ordinary teacher. He poked fun at human nature, shared cartoons, and told us we'd all die with our anger as well as all our other feelings. "The task is not to let it own you. It's to be free to act, not to react," he said.
After lunch I walked along the ditch. I noticed a twisted trail left by a snake scooting across the hot, white sand into the bushes. A roadrunner allowed me to get just close enough to see him, then flew to a fence post. Returning to the Center, I passed horses, orderly gardens, and llamas in the pastures bordering the ditch.
After a swim, a very practical guided journaling lecture, and dinner, I sat with new acquaintances and watched the sinking sun. Something palpable had taken place. Our chairs that peppered the lawn Friday evening were now clustered together. We were no longer individuals looking for answers only for ourselves, cloistering in our rooms and struggling alone with our raging demons. We'd become a group willing to listen and share with each other. Anger and all our other negative attributes didn't carry such a sting.
I called home and learned I'd driven over a bolt and my husband had to change the tire. He wasn't pleased. This was my third flat in five months. "I'm sorry to cause extra work," I responded. But I didn't feel blamed.
At evening prayer, I sat across from Ellie and listened to evocative music. Sister Margaret Mary explained a Membres symbol that represented going to the center of oneself. We were invited to write something about ourselves we'd like healed and place it in a dish at the altar. Ellie didn't participate. I was afraid she might stand up and challenge Sister's service. Instead, at the last minute, she grabbed a pencil and scribbled for a long time. She took her paper to the dish and let it slide from her hand. I lowered my head, pretending not to notice. As the papers burned and music filled the chapel, her shoulders heaved. She was the last to leave.
Sunday, our last morning together, I awoke early, feeling really rested. On the lawn, retreatants were reading, meditating, doing Tai Chi, doing yoga, or talking quietly. I felt blanketed in the belief that everything was truly okay, and even if the worst misfortune imaginable happened this morning, it would still be okay. The Dominican Sisters encourage participants to engage in the practices that help them grow spiritually. They create an atmosphere free from the noise and clutter of ordinary life, and they also offer private spiritual direction sessions. So they're really more than a mother, although my friend was partially correct, because they do nurture and attend to their guests, but they do it with unconditional acceptance and love—a standard most mothers hold for themselves but cannot attain.
I changed the sheets and blessed the room for the next guest. When I carried my trash to the bin, I tripped and almost fell. For a split second I had a choice to be annoyed or shake it off. I know my usual reaction would have been anger. Fortunately the weekend of journaling brought positive results.
Ellie and I met at the coffee counter. She was smiling and sang a good morning. This wasn't the same person I'd met two days ago. "I don't know if it will ever come back, but for now, it's gone," she laughed. I smiled, telling her I wouldn't stamp my feet like Rumplestiltskin and spew rage because my son asks where the keys are either. And when I occasionally slip, at least I'll be forced to examine what happened so it won't recur. Together we walked to the cherry tree and listened while Mark played guitar before morning prayer.
The Dominican Sisters host a variety of retreats during the year. Topics range from Tai Chi, Holistic, Adult Children, and Enneagram to Mystics, Centering Prayer, and Silence and Fasting.
Turning Ogres into Allies
There are days when I simply forget who I used to be. Instead of selective amnesia, it is more a cocoon of healing, reminding me that bit by bit I am shedding the past and becoming a new creature, a new being. I take more and more responsibility for my actions, I make choices that lead me away from victimizing circumstances, and I am surrounded by loving friends and colleagues who nurture and cherish me. This was not always so.
Ten years ago I met and married the man with whom I thought I would build a life of love, the man with whom I thought I would grow old. We had two children but the rest of my dream was short-lived. Sometime in the years after our marriage, he became an abusive alcoholic. Berating and bullish, this ogre that had once been my husband stripped me of self-confidence, self-respect, self-love. When the abuse turned toward my children, I escaped. A lengthy, bitter, and costly divorce eventually cost me my house and my children.
Having exhausted all of my resources, I saw only one plausible solution left: I must kill this ogre. Metaphorically, that is. But how does one kill an ogre? I pleaded for help. "Help, God!" "Help, Goddess!" "Help, Great Spirit!" "Help, Universe!" I didn't care what form help came in, I just wanted it, and in a big way. As I surrendered my will to "The Great I Is," I found myself transported to the doorstep of a shamanic healer. In ritualistic reverence, she guided me back to confront my enemy. By using the shamanic practice of extraction, she showed me how the chains of bondage were embedded in my psyche.
As I lay face down on the floor of the shaman's dwelling, she identified a place where I was still energetically connected to the ogre. She called on the birds of the forest to claw and peck away the intrusions deep inside me. Even though this was happening on an energetic level, I screamed in horror at the physical pain of it. Agony and I became one as my fists beat on the floor. Sobbing and nearly incoherent, I watched as the lifeline between ogre and self was severed.
Through a blur of tears, I searched the shaman's face and realized it wasn't over. She informed me that I must destroy the cord. What did she mean, I must destroy the cord? Wasn't she going to do it for me? Some part of me knew she was right; this task was mine to complete. I searched my psyche for the weapon of destruction. From the bowels of my being, I conjured a flame of such fervor that it instantaneously consumed the cord and its master. My ogre was reduced to ash. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I sobbed over and over again. "I really did love you; I didn't want it to come to this. I'm sorry, so sorry."
As if the words themselves had the power to imbue life, an image began to form from the ash. Inside a soft, incandescent bubble was a prince in shining armor, posed high upon a grand steed. It was the ogre, transformed. Truly, this was the spirit that embodied the ogre—a light being full of potential and love. Slowly, the bubble lifted from the ash and floated away. The image grew fainter and fainter until it disappeared into the great abyss altogether. I was free.
I had transformed my ogre into an ally. He could no longer hurt me as long as I maintained the image of the shining prince. The ability to make that perceptual shift was inside of me. Instead of bemoaning the injustices my ogre had served up for me, I could rejoice in the knowledge I had gained by his presence. This ogre represents the most significant catalyst for change in my life. Because of him, I have learned to stand up for myself. I've learned that I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, that I have choices about my life, and that inside of me lies the strength and ability to transform any circumstance into a positive one.
Integrating these truths has been a constant, deliberate endeavor. Each time I hear the chains of bondage rattling, I must make a conscious choice to alter my perception. I ask myself why the ogre has reemerged. Whether it is my ex-husband, back in ogre form, or a new ogre blocking my path, I must look beyond deceptive appearances. What knowledge does this ogre hold? What can the ogre teach me about myself? About how I interact with others? What gifts is the ogre bringing me? This is not always easy. I often spend days and weeks dueling with the enemy before I realize the amount of energy I have wasted in battle.
It is when I finally put down my sword that my ogre fades and I can bring forth the true messenger. There is so much to be learned from those we fear. Sometimes the most difficult lesson of all is what they are mirroring for us about ourselves. Ogres are the embodiment of our deepest fears. They are, in essence, an archetypical rendering of our shadow. Ogres mirror our dark potential—all of the murky and frightening thoughts and actions we continually keep in check. Making peace with the ogres that confront us is ultimately about making peace with ourselves. The more I am able to tame the monster within, the less I find myself confronted by their external manifestations.
From Darkness into Light
I was born into a world of fear and spent my entire childhood, teenage years, and most of my twenties trying to find a way out of my dilemma. I knew that fear was not natural and that the side effects were debilitating, but it seemed to have an unrelenting grip upon my mind. I was a prisoner.
My father was a concentration camp survivor. He spent five years in the Nazi death camps of Europe and lost his entire family there, including his parents and five siblings. My father could not talk about his experiences and never openly grieved for his loss. My father did not remember his birth date nor did he ever tell us the names of his family members. As a result of his frustration and anguish, he drank and was openly hostile toward his living family. He never showed affection or allowed us to love him. Sometimes, he would stare off into space and I knew he was going back into this other world, a dark place beneath the world we tried to survive in. I felt hopeless since joy was not allowed in our home. I was petrified of my father. I never knew when he would fly into a rage over any little everyday life occurrence. I remember once, at the age of four, hearing his truck pull into the driveway and wishing I were dead.
I managed to get through high school and college but I continually felt insecure. I did not have any confidence and was hopeless about the future. I suffered numerous bouts of depression that prevented me from completing the advanced degree I was pursuing. I manifested terrible headaches that drove me to a neurologist. There was nothing physically wrong with me; I was coming face to face with my fear and the pressure was unbearable. I tried psychotherapy and read books about healing childhood trauma. I read some metaphysical books but I didn't connect to what I read. These resources did not hit upon the essence of my problem. I instinctively knew that prayer was the only way out of my desperation. If God did exist I needed to know now! One night as I lay in my bed in total darkness, a miracle happened. I heard a little voice in the distance. The voice was actually singing to me! Then it became louder and other voices joined the song. The voices increased until they grew into multitudes, producing octaves and ranges almost beyond human comprehension. The notes seem to go on and on forever like never-ending chants praising God and the kingdom within. I began to expand into the music, thus feeling one with the love and peace that resonated throughout my being. By morning, I knew that the veil of darkness had been permanently lifted. I had walked through a new door. Thus my journey toward The Light of God had begun.
Years later, I stumbled upon a book, "The Kingdom of the Shining Ones," by the renowned expert on the angelic order, Flower A. Newhouse. I was thrilled to have my miracle described to a "T":
"In the kingdom of the Angels exists an order consecrated to music. This order is not composed of an orchestra, but a choir. The songs are released as chants; many of them are heard in march time. The magnitude of this choir is almost inconceivable, still more difficult to realize are the various octaves and keys in which this great assembly sings. Angels do not use vocal chords for speech or song. They speak from the mind and sing from the heart. When heard, their melodic variations are almost overpowering. The enthralling effects hymns of praise, courage, gratitude, love worship have upon our world are very great alone an individual aspirant in moments of stress, heroism or illumination is inwardly aligned with the chorus singing the anthem he requires for courage, balance or serenity. Though the reception of the heavenly music is seldom relayed to the conscious mind, the effects of the songs upon the inner self are noticeable by a surging and enlivening of the higher states of consciousness."
The music continues to this day. I hear it when someone I love has just passed over into another dimension. It rushes in to encourage me forward anytime I receive an inspirational thought. I use it in meditation groups to invoke the Angelic Kingdom. (The groups sing the chants along with me.)
This experience was the beginning of my transformation from darkness into light. My family, who directly witnessed my "rebirth," have all begun their own spiritual journeys. As my sister put it, "You are a totally new person. I want to share in the peace you have found!" My father has been touched by my spiritual awakening as well. He is the recipient of a tremendous outpouring of love and light from his family, who was once afraid to even look in his direction. My life has been made easy, and I can now pursue my spiritual work of writing and speaking about my own realizations and paths to peace.
The Universe responds to every call for help. We are not alone and we are not left comfortless. We are an integral part of God and we are being called to remember our true nature. We grow and expand as we allow the light into our lives and share our blessings and understanding with others. Every inspirational thought we receive and acknowledge is charged by the power of all creation and magnified a million fold.
May we all hear the angels' songs of peace, courage, hope, joy and freedom!
Letting Go of What I Cannot Control
Suzanne Edmondson's life changed forever with a phone call. Suzanne, daughter of a judge, wife of a judge, and niece of a state Attorney General, learned that her 18-year-old daughter had been arrested for her part in a 1995 crime spree that left a Mississippi businessman dead and a Louisiana store clerk paralyzed. The case, which ended with the sentencing of Sarah to 35 years in a Louisiana prison, drew national media attention because of the Edmondsons' political prominence in their home state of Oklahoma.
Suzanne went through hell in the first year after her daughter's sentencing. Her life changed a second time when, inspired by her daughter's decision to tutor other inmates, she began tutoring in the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum security facility housing about 650 women. Suzanne has now been working with the inmates for three years, creating a program called "Tales for the Rising Moon" in which inmates tape bedtime stories for their children at home, and starting a foundation dedicated to providing college scholarships to deserving inmates.
Even more remarkable than her outward life changes, though, has been Suzanne's inner transformation. I spoke with Suzanne several times at her home in Oklahoma. She was reluctant at first to share her inner journey; what was important, she insisted, was the work getting done at the prison, empowering women inmates to stay in contact with their families while incarcerated.
Suzanne agreed to share her inner journey for the first time with Personal Transformation in the hope that it might inspire others who find themselves challenged by unimaginably difficult life situations.
Personal Transformation: What was life like for you after your daughter's arrest?
Suzanne Edmondson: I felt so much disbelief, like there had been some terrible, terrible mistake. I was terrified for Sarah. Every move she or we made involved a lot of intense publicity, both television and print media. I felt disconnected and unreal.
For a long time I avoided the world. I was unable to go out of my door. I call that period "the time of being under my bed," but I was actually in my den, reading, reading, reading, trying to make sense of it all. I tried to find a way that I could bring some meaning to my broken life. I was greatly comforted by the writings of good people who had been through terrible things.
Transformation: What got you through that time?
Edmondson: My reading, and my husband Jim's and my commitment to surviving. I knew I somehow had to turn this into good, to suffer through it in a way that was meaningful so that good could come out of it at some point. It's been a long journey to that point.
Transformation: How has this journey changed you spiritually?
Edmondson: It's been a profound and astonishing inner voyage. I have always been altruistic but it was more of a societal thing, to do good works. Public service has always been what my family has been about, but it was more superficial before—lunches and programs. I liked it, but I see my prison work today as having a more profound impact. I've shifted from the YWCA board member to someone who has a deeper mission. I live life now more meaningfully and deeply. I want to connect on a spiritual level with the women I encounter in the prison.
I'm from a political family—what we have had, more than anything, is our good name. I've always felt protected by the good name of our family. This certainly took that away. I came to know that one's good name is not as important as one's good heart. I've learned to live without an umbrella that seemed to protect me. I've always been in the public eye, but never before have I been pointed out because I was the mother of someone who has committed a very, very tragic and terrible crime. I had to come to terms with the loss of feeling protected, of being raw and naked out in the world.
When you have kids you worry about them getting home from the prom safely, or about drugs or car crashes. But when Sarah was arrested, it was so far beyond these things; the worst nightmare I could ever imagine had become my reality. Along with the "Why—why me Lord?" has come "Why not me, Lord?" I feel that this has come to me for me to do something with it. I don't know why, but it feels like there's a lighted path in front of me. I stop every now and then because it frightens me—the publicity—but it's in my path, and I need to look eyeball to eyeball at my fears, and keep going because it is part of my mission somehow. One foot in front of the other
Transformation: What has been the greatest challenge in this journey?
Edmondson: Simply keeping one foot in front of the other and not succumbing to despair or hopelessness. I was committed from day one that some good would come from this. I searched everywhere spiritually for a sense of meaning and direction of where the good might lie.
Three summers ago a light bulb went on. My daughter started tutoring right after her incarceration. She would help people write letters home, help with literacy. I came across an Episcopal prayer at this time that really resonated in me: "Oh God, give me courage to live another day. Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things. Inspire me with a sense of joy and gladness and make me a cup of strength to suffering souls." This cup of strength piece, combined with the work that Sarah was doing, made me go, "Aha! I need to get in a prison somewhere and help."
Transformation: What is the most important thing you've learned in this four-year journey?
Edmondson: The depth and comprehensiveness of the spiritual help that is available to me, how sweeping it is. I'm astonished by how deep and wide the spiritual resources are, how incredibly loving. This help has been with each breath: "Oh Lord, help me not become a victim of my circumstances. Help me to become an active, full, loving person. Help my suffering be meaningful so that I can grow."
This has been the great joy of my life, that my spirituality is not just need-oriented. Now it's for life, and it is my life. I think of how many times I've held onto the words, "My eternal Father holds me in His everlasting arms." Those words began to have a life and a reality that address my soul now every day. Before all this, I used those words as a mantra—if I said it enough times, maybe I would believe it. Now, living that prayer instead of just repeating it, I do believe it with my heart and soul. It's been a joyful voyage. It's saved my life.
Transformation: It sounds like one of the surprises is how much joy has come out of all this tragedy.
Edmondson: Oh yes. I now live joyfully every day because I really have learned to let go of things that I cannot control. I can let things go. I can make my choices about the things that I do. I feel in a state of grace in my meditations sometimes, but that's not sufficient for me any more. I have to take it outward and impact others with it, with that grace and joy.
Creating A New Life
Anne Marie Ellis
I do not remember consciously choosing to pursue a career, but I do remember consciously choosing to be "child-free." And after the first failed marriage, I consciously chose relationships without benefit of religious or legal ceremony. So maybe my career started by default as I moved away from the traditional roles of wife and mother. After all, one is always moving toward something—whether by design or default. Working, and the self-sufficiency it brought, allowed me to manifest other values and attitudes I hold as true: independence, individuality, spontaneity, self-determination and gender equality.
I was, for the most part, living my life unaware, navigating via automatic pilot. Until I lost my balance; I became a workaholic. For me, that was not only late nights, weekends, and no vacations. My work had become the foundation of my life—my power, control, confidence, and accomplishments at work were how I measured my self-esteem.
Five years ago I was working on a global re-engineering team chartered with overhauling a system that processed $12 billion dollars of business a year. With each attempt to introduce a new way of doing business, the resistance to change mounted. The executives feared a loss of power and influence, and the means they used to derail a project was to attack the individuals in charge of the teams. I was one of these individuals.
Soon, every move I made at work was challenged. In response, I began to question my own abilities, and for the first time in my career I felt incompetent and overwhelmed. My network of support, once strong, eroded as co-workers, more attuned to the politics, distanced themselves from me to ensure their survival. Finally I realized that I was personally under attack. But still I fought to regain control of the situation.
I had always been able to control my world in the past—by working harder, smarter, and longer. But not this time. My foundation shook, cracked, and then imploded, leaving air beneath my feet. I went down, hard. What began as mild tremors escalated into a major life-quake, a crisis point.
I was confused and in tremendous emotional pain. I cried often, but silently. I fought colds, flu and headaches and my stress level was off the scale. My physician diagnosed depression and prescribed drugs. I was down and didn't know how to get up. So I did what I often do when I don't know what to do or how to do it: I read.
I read about the need and art of balancing all aspects of life—work, family, social, spiritual—and approaching each of these aspects holistically, using spirit, mind, and body. These concepts resonated with me from the beginning, but how to integrate them into my life? Now the skills that made me successful in business paid off, as I brought them to bear on creating my new foundation.
My work ahead was both destructive and creative. I had to finish the destruction of my old foundation—down to ground zero—then sift through the rubble to find what to keep and what had to go. Then I would need to create a new foundation based upon the design forming in my mind, inspired by my readings.
To complete the destruction and re-build I needed tools, but which tools? I studied and used numerous healing tools: affirmations, aromatherapy, soul retrieval, Reiki, Network Chiropractic, flower essences, meditation, etc. The tools that formed what I call my "trinity of grace" were psychotherapy, journaling, and bodywork.
I connected with a therapist of great caring and insight who created a safe place for me to delve deep into myself and face what I found. We identified major life-impacting teachings and experiences; when seen in the clear light of awareness, reasons for my personality, perspectives, and philosophy emerged. And I saw how my current behaviors were replays from the past—coping devices and defense mechanisms valid at one time but now detrimental. There were moments of such intense pain I thought I would break and never mend. I forged onward because despite the pain, the release was real. I felt more vibrant everyday.
Simultaneously, I began to journal, putting my story into words and pictures. I wrote epistles to parents, teachers, religious leaders, God, siblings, friends—dead and living—telling them how I had been hurt by their words and silences, actions and inaction, both intentional and accidental, real or perceived. In my journals I found another safe place to express my emotions. All that I had ever wanted to say or to yell at others and at the world took shape in my journals. I had begun to own my emotions, letting a facade of control and aloofness fade away.
But why couldn't I express myself out loud? In business I was considered an articulate communicator, albeit sometimes overly direct, brutally honest. When had I lost that part of my voice needed to articulate my emotions and personal boundaries? Why hadn't I noticed before the tightness in my throat and what felt like a tight collar around my neck? My ability to express myself for myself had been silenced. I used multiple addictions—smoking, food and adrenaline—to suppress my voice and my life energy. I realized that as far back as I could remember I had become disconnected from my body, moving through life on automatic pilot, my mind fully engaged, my body and spirit ignored.
I was once again graced by the synchronicity that can only occur when Spirit conspires with you. I connected with a tremendously gifted bodyworker. As my physical body was reintroduced to energy flow, movement and stretching, waves of emotion thundered outward. At first I was unable to distinguish anger from terror, grief from anxiety, their presence was so frightening. With the release of emotion came memories, some known but never coupled with the emotions they caused, other memories buried deep because their reality was too painful. At times, the flashbacks of physical and sexual abuse were so vivid in my mind's eye, I thought I was there again. My bodyworker coached me to relax into the emotion by evoking the witness aspect of my higher self. I also overcame the reflex of holding my breath and learned to "breathe through" the emotion.
As the buried memories and toxic emotions were released, my voice began to emerge. At first it was tentative—barely audible whimpers and stifled sobs. I felt embarrassed, ashamed of being a "cry baby" or afraid of "making a scene." Statements from my childhood and adolescence replayed in my head, "girls should be seen and not heard," or "stop crying or I will give you something to cry about," or "if you scream I will hurt you even more." With encouragement from both therapist and bodyworker, I began to exercise my voice through sighing and tones. I practiced saying words like "no" and "ouch" and "stop," over and over again, altering pitch and volume. When I was in my car or the shower I would yell and scream. One day I realized I no longer felt embarrassed or ashamed. And my speaking voice improved; I now speak more confidently and calmly. The tightness in my throat and around my neck had diminished, and it felt so good!
It has been five years since the crisis, when my life-quake began. I continue to read voraciously, expanding my search in an ever-greater circle. My "trinity of grace," psychotherapy, journaling and bodywork, has helped me create a new foundation. Work is now a part of my life, not the center of my being, and I make sure I spend time doing work I am passionate about—personal coaching. One of the great benefits of this process, the turning of a breakdown into a breakthrough, is that I am a much better coach now. My focus has moved from situational coaching intended to help an employee make incremental performance improvements to coaching the person as they grow through their own search for meaning, authenticity, and wholeness.
The beliefs, perspectives, and lessons learned that are part of my life's foundation today are a lot different than those I held five years ago. I now know this destruction and re-creation were not separate serial events, but the core, continuous work of personal transformation. I know that suppressing emotions is an "all or nothing game"—when I suppress grief and fear I also suppress joys and loves. I now know that when I use my voice to articulate my feelings, personal boundaries and dreams, my creativity flourishes. So instead of creating negative things I don't want I now channel my creativity toward enjoying life, healing, and spiritual expansion.