This blog has been online now for about a week and I received from different people similar questions The questions were something along the lines of: “What is life like after an experience of transformation?”. I can tell you how it was for me. After the introduction I will try to answer a couple of those questions.
What a mystical experience feels like
The spiritual lingo doesn’t really make sense until you have had some sort of mystical experience yourself. And before I had mine I felt huge resistance against people who spoke about “becoming whole”, “coming home”, “dropping the self” or “a deep letting go”. But after the experience I realized that these terms actually make a lot of sense (and that the majority of the self proclaimed spiritual people who use them still don’t know what they are talking about). Have you ever had the experience that you find out you were doing something the wrong way for a long time? Do you know the feeling of discovering that your car goes much faster when you take it off the hand brake? Have you ever been so drunk that you wore your right shoe on your left foot and vice versa for quite a while before you got it right? Or, when you are a man, do you remember that moment where you finally figured out how those mysterious female genitals worked and you became a stud overnight? In all these cases you feel huge relief and the newfound situation feels very natural. The invisible ‘something’ that was bothering you has fallen away and all of sudden it becomes very clear what was wrong. Things flow again. Your ignorance is revealed and replaced by awareness. All of a sudden it becomes hard to imagine and even hilarious how you could have been so blind in the first place.
Dropping the burden
Well, the experience of awakening is very similar. What dominates is this feeling of huge relief, the feeling of having dropped an enormous burden. But what makes it strange is that what is dropped is the once so solid idea of who you were as an individual: your identity or your sense of ‘I’. It is literally unimaginable. During our whole life we developed and nurtured all kinds of characteristics that benefitted us in some way or the other. Other characteristics we tried to get rid of, we hid, suppressed or denied them or we didn’t develop them at all. This way we have been weaving the cloak of our identity since childhood. We wear the good characteristics on the outside and the bad characteristics that we believe we need hidden on the inside. The cloak is our unique survival mechanism, protector and channel for self expression. Because we always have been wearing it, day in day out as long as we can remember, we become completely identified with it. We are our cloaks, no doubt about it. We are always comparing cloaks and judging cloaks of others, we are never truly satisfied with the shape, color and size of our personal cloak on the one hand but will always justify why it looks like it does on the other. We tend to act quite defensive when it comes to our cloaks.
What happened to me was that one day, for some reason, the cloak was ripped from my body. I screamed. For a brief moment I felt extremely threatened and vulnerable. I thought I died and on some level I did. It was litterally painful, as if fabric that was glued to my skin after 32 years of not taking it off was removed violently. In that moment it was also inevitable to realize that ‘I’ was not the cloak. Of course this was a stunning revelation. I realized that the cloak had been functioning as an armor, a facade, an image and a straitjacket. Now I was naked. I realized I was everything that I believed I was PLUS everything that I had tried NOT to be. All the opposites integrated. It made me feel whole and complete for the first time in my life. There was nothing lacking, nothing wrong with me. The tough part of ‘becoming whole’ is realizing that you have been ‘everything’ all along, also all these things you have been so desperately trying to deny like: weak, stupid, dishonest, yellow and, especially, very afraid. Very afraid to be what I already was: imperfect. But the relief was enormous: I would never EVER again need to deny to be something that I already was.
With the relief came also a deep mourning, manifesting as a flood of tears. Everything became clear. I had woven and worn the cloak for good reasons. I had been rejected, denied, emotionally injured, all the wounds I had once covered up with the cloak were still there. There was a child under there that felt not loved, misunderstood, ugly, powerless, feeling a failure. I had never met that child before. That child was me. The cloak was the strategy I came up with not to feel the pain of the child. By keeping the child covered up I had been keeping myself covered up. The cloak had been keeping the child trapped, locked up and lonely. Now I felt incredible sadness about what I had done to myself but also immediate forgiveness and liberation. I knew I would never ever betray myself again.
Now back to the questions illustrated by the aforementioned silly examples.
1. Is it hard to maintain this new state of awareness?
Yes and no. No, it not hard because it is impossible to fall back. Once you found out how to operate your car to make it drive properly and smoothly there is no reason nor temptation to drive with the hand brake on again. And if it happens by accident you notice immediately. But yes, it takes an effort and practice not to fall back in old pitfalls. The cloak wants to slide back on, but now as a new and improved version. What also has become very clear is that you identity is not fixed and has a tendency to solidify. So you must keep moving. But on the other hand, once someone has tasted the revelation of moving up one stage he is filled with desire to see what comes next. Keeping yourself moving is not a burden but an appealing journey.
2. What changes the most?
Difficult question to answer because I can look at it in so many ways. So many things have changed dramatically and at the same time fallen into place. Probably the most mind blowing change in perspective is that you are not who you think you are. Your ego-identity is not a given but an ingenious illusion built around fear. Being able to see the fear makes it also possible to see the love and makes us able to take love-driven decisions. You don’t have to frantically prove to yourself anymore that you are without certain features you don’t like or find embarrassing. You own them all. That makes it impossible to feel different from or better than somebody else. Believe me, this was huge for me. The realization that we are human beings and that therefore nothing that is human is alien to us* anymore is a very humbling one. One of the side effects – not wanting to hide your humanity anymore – can be perceived by others as new, different and courageous behavior but it feels quite natural.
* This is a famous quote from the play Heauton Timorumenos written by Publius Terentius Afer (195/185–159 BC), known in English as Terence, a dramatist of the Roman Republic. The orginal quote reads: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“. What I find fascinating that this man had the same insight I had approximately 2179 years before me. What was true then is still true today.
3. How do other people react to transformation?
I don’t know what people say behind my back. And I was definitely not embraced as the new Messiah when it had just happened. I believe many of my close friends didn’t know what to think and they all acted according to their individual cloaks, some were protective, some worried, some skeptical and some curious. But over time most people react very much like how a girl would react to her boyfriends shift from making well intended attempts to skillful love making: a bit surprised at first at but able to get used to the unexpected improvement quite easily. Even when people think the story is weird they don’t have problems with somebody who has become friendlier than before.
4. Do people also react negatively?
Hardly. I lost no friends and I feel that all the relationships with people that mattered to me have deepened. What might have helped is that I’m from Amsterdam and that most people I know are educated, tolerant and open minded. On rare occacions openness will provoke hostility in somebody who is very guarded. Sometimes some girl’s boyfriend will become unfriendly or arrogant out of insecurity. Sometimes a person doesn’t understand why I go on meditation retreats so often and implies I’m lazy. Sometimes somebody insists on making the statement that he/she has more important things to do than work on something futile as ‘opening your heart’. But the far majority of the people think it is cool stuff and can feel that it makes sense, just like wearing your right shoe on your right foot makes sense.
5. What are the down sides of transformation?
Nowadays I’m well in touch with doubt and insecurity but before the experiences I was in almost complete denial of these emotions. For a long time I really felt that my view of the world was the right view and that all the others were just not getting it. I have brief moments where I want to be ‘normal’ again and would like to feel again the overconfidence I used to have. I admit I have good memories of the moments where I felt on top of the world (albeit my own little world). Becoming more sensitive, more aware of the needs of others and less selfish, makes decision making more complex than when you just care about yourself. Waking up to the suffering of all sentient beings including your own adds a quality of sadness and rawness to your life which is beautiful but often just sad and raw.
6. Is it safe?
This last question has not been asked to me literally. But all the other questions I’ve heard a lot, and they came up again with the introduction of my blog. So I find it fair to answer them. But please also see that all these aforementioned questions come from fear. Once we are invited to take off our cloak we first want to be reassured that it’s safe to do so. But the whole idea is that we leave our comfort zone. Not leaving your comfort zone before you have reassured yourself thoroughly that the next destination is super safe isn’t really daring, is it? So yes, it is safe. But no, it doesn’t feel that way at all. It is very scary to go beyond your habitual patterns. But do it anyway. All in all, it just feels more alive, more human. It feels like – here comes the kicker – nothing special.
PS: All the examples are based on true events.
PSII: If you are interested in your own spiritual development and would like to learn how to meditate consider participating in one of my mindfulness (& more) meditation courses (if you live in or nearby Amsterdam). It’s fun!