It might be said that every spiritual journey involves light and shadow. I didn’t start on my spiritual path because of a traumatic experience. As far back as I can remember I was a natural mystic. But, at least in my case, there was no escape from dealing with the harsh realities that come with living in the world. Mine was not a protected life.
Maybe it was because I had felt alienated and left out for so long I was led into the underworld. A “goody two shoes” I didn’t fit in with almost everyone around me, including those in my family. Because I had so many talents I know I made my parents proud. It’s just I wanted to belong. Though I was not a product of the 1960’s, I did take a course on that generation later in college. The youth of that generation broke down a lot of barriers. Some good, some maybe not so much. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was coming of age, it was hard being a “goody two shoes.” Smoking, drinking, doing drugs (including pot), and having sex at an early age and were pretty much the norm. Since I didn’t participate in any of these activities, I ended up not fitting in much.
By the time I reached 15, I was also heavy into my spiritual practice. Though I was able to feel some sense of community through my mystical reveries, I found it difficult not having human friendships. Maybe that is why events went in the direction they did that fateful New Year’s Eve night on a beach during a vacation my family was taking in Florida. Wanting to not feel left out, I went with my older siblings to participate in a bonfire on the beach. When we arrived, my older siblings took off, and I was left alone completely bewildered by what I saw.
Yes, there were bonfires, maybe a dozen of them, all up and down the shoreline. There were also a lot of people. Unsure of what to do, I headed over a bonfire feeling very insecure. Most of the youth there were older than me, by about three to five years. I stood there shyly until someone approached me and asked if I wanted a sip of Coca-cola. I took the can and drank. That is when things started to get weird.
In my life by that time I had already experienced a number of psychic episodes. I had also had a few mystical reveries. Maybe that is why I was so into reading books on psychic phenomena, the paranormal and mysticism. I was trying to figure out the many things that kept happening to me. But, this time things felt different. Not too long after I drank the Coca-cola I started to see spinning vortexes of light in the air. My body also felt incredibly light. In fact, I remember falling backwards more than a few times to see if I might actually float on air. Instead, I just kept hitting the sand. Until the next thing I remember I felt a young man, maybe about 18, yank on my arm. I don’t remember anything he said. I just remember him pulling me into the shrubs by the beach. The next thing I was raped and left lying there with my mind spinning around seeing colors in the sky and feeling more bewildered and confused than ever before.
After that somehow I managed to get back to the area where my siblings had dropped me off. They found me and took me back to the place where we were all staying in Florida. For nearly fifteen years I never spoke about this incident to anyone except to a young man who I was having conversations with by way of traditional letter writing. We lived in separate towns and met at times on various debate tournaments. Apart from him I just didn’t talk about it. I felt too scared, embarrassed and ashamed. Even my family members did not find out until I was into my forties.
Overall, I buried the episode and tried not to think about it. Looking back I see how much it impacted me. To begin with when I got home I ended up getting mono. It was so bad I was forced to be out of school for two months. Already I was suppressing what happened to me so much, I didn’t even connect the mono with the rape. Fortunately, this did not impact my schooling too much as my teachers were willing to send my school work home so I could stay caught up. When I did start to examine all that had happened to met it was not in a therapy session. Rather, it was during a spiritual awakening that took place when I was 29 years old. I will write more about that awakening later.
Over time I did look at and heal that trauma. Part of the healing happened when during a mystical episode I felt I was given a choice to go through that trauma or not. During that episode it was as if two paths opened up to me. On the one path, everything remained as I remembered it. I went to the beach in Florida. My life remained as it was. On the other path, I did not go to beach and my life went in another direction because of this. From that broad perspective I saw that the path that led me to the beach triggered off my life long quest to understand suffering, how to help people heal from pain, and to comprehend better why people do harmful things to one another. This path led to a life where learning compassion for myself and others was heavily emphasized. There is a Christian saying of learning from the example of Jesus on the cross how to “joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.” Anyone who experiences great suffering or trauma can learn to do this. As we heal we can develop a deeper level of sensitivity and compassion towards ourselves and others until eventually we joyfully seek to minimize the suffering we see all around us.
As for not going to the beach? That path kept alive my hopes to become a singer. I was raised on opera and Broadway musicals by my father (along with Big Band sounds, some jazz, and classical music). My voice was good and I was taking singing lessons before going to Florida. Even after the Florida beach episode I did manage to go on stage and land a few musical leads in high school. Though it might have been fun to continue down this path, I saw that by staying on inward spiritual journey would have dimmed over time. Though this path satisfied my need to fit in and would have given me more attention and validation, it also seemed like it became a distraction from delving into a more serious inquiry of what life was really all about. Yes, I would still have my spiritual experiences and background, but this life would have been more about pretense, or pretending I had my act together more than I really did. On this path my life was lived more on the surface. Though it would have been an easier life, my spiritual practice would have also been more superficial. My understanding of spiritual realities and the suffering people go through would not have been nearly the same, not as deep. Plus, this was a path where it would have been easier to feed my ego, even if I covered it up by pretending to be an enlightened and spiritual being.
Reviewing these two paths I began to see how the trauma I went through on the beach at age 15 had helped me somehow. Now, I am not saying people have to be traumatized to be on a spiritual path. I am just saying in my life, I could see how that trauma deepened my need to learn empathy and compassion for myself and others. To speak in Jungian terms where they used mythology as symbolic of human experience, it was like I was Persephone (the Roman goddess who was raped by Pluto, the God of the Underworld), and taken into the Underworld to learn more about the realms of both heaven and hell. Like Persephone, I now possessed a deeper understanding of what those realms were like, giving me more power to lead people in and out of their own underworlds with greater care. In short, by taking this path I was opening up to becoming more of a counselor and spiritual guide to others. Though it would have been nice to learn the lessons of empathy and compassion in a less traumatic way, by taking a path where trauma had become a part of my own life, I was now better equipped to understand others from the inside out, having experienced more difficulties in life myself.
How This All May Relate to You
Trauma is a horrible thing. I am not trying to condone it or make it right. At the same time, when you really look at it, almost everyone on Earth goes through some sort of trauma. In my work as a counselor over the decades I have sat with numerous traumatized people. That trauma has come through sexual abuse, financial hardship, war, divorce, a death in the family, violence, being dragged through the mud in a lawsuit or through some sort of abuse and even more. As a counselor I have sat with people who have experienced a tremendous amount of emotional and physical pain. Truly, as the Buddha teaches, life is full of suffering.
Yet the bigger question is, what do we do with it? From a Christian point of view a lot of comfort can come to us when we contemplate that a spiritual master such as Jesus, likewise experienced a great deal of suffering. Despite torture and betrayal he was able able to forgive. And, he was able to say, “They know not what they do” meaning he had a spiritual perspective to see the ignorance, suffering, and pain that led people to act in destructive, vengeful and harmful ways towards one another.
When it comes to our own trauma, one of the biggest spiritual practices we can undergo is learning to forgive — ourselves and others. This is not an easy practice. I have spent a lot of time in my life learning to forgive and helping others to forgive. When people come on retreat with me, I frequently lead people through a forgiveness process. Forgiveness does not absolve the other person from the consequences of their behavior. They still have their karma to experience. It simply frees us from the emotional and mental states of anger, hatred, grief, shame, and depression that can take over our lives. In short, forgiveness allows us to experience love and joy again.
Another, major lesson of trauma is learning how to expand your consciousness beyond your own suffering. In my life, it took me a long time to understand I was not alone. Especially when we are young and don’t have much understanding of the world, we can feel like we are the only ones to experience difficulty. But, if we really look at it almost everyone is traumatized in one way or another. At this point we also have choices about how we respond. One way, is to bury our suffering and try to make sure we don’t suffer anymore. We may even be inclined towards addictive activities that prevent us from feeling our pain as we cover it up with sex, drugs, shopping, money, power and so forth. All this may seem to help, but it is really like pretending you don’t have termites in the house. The termites (your suffering) are there. The longer you ignore dealing with them (and your suffering) the more they more destruction they will be free to create.
Acknowledging and looking at your suffering is important. Not so you can dwell in it. Rather so you can understand the root of your suffering and heal it (get rid of the termites) once and for all. Generating compassion, wisdom and insight for yourself and others is essential. When I look at the events that took place when I was 15, I generate compassion, wisdom and insight towards myself by understanding that I simply was tired of feeling lonely and left out as a child due to my interest in spirituality keeping me set apart from others so much. I have since generated compassion, wisdom and insight towards my siblings who took me to the beach and then left me there. Though in many ways it was selfish of them not to look out for me, I see their own desires to belong were as strong as mine, if not stronger. And, over time each has had their fair share of suffering. They deserve my love in kind.
As for the stranger who drugged me, and the other stranger who likewise raped me? Though I know nothing of these people (though later I did have psychic impressions of one of them), I am positive that if I heard their stories, I would see how the suffering in their own lives caused them to behave as they did. Was how they acted skillful, wise, or right? No, not really. But, again, as an adult and one who counsels others I see where a failure to confront our suffering in the right way, and lead us down destructive paths that sadly lead to only more suffering. In all honesty, I hope for their own spiritual well being that each has come to a point where they realized the pain they caused, why they caused it, and how not to cause it again. For they too are worthy of redemption and love, just as are all the people in your life who have caused you great pain, not to mention how you are worthy of these things yourself.