Today’s thesis is simple: you can find transformation anywhere, but if you continue to ignore the signs long enough… it’ll find you instead. I discovered this during a particularly nasty strain of covid, the international posterboy of fear for two years running, beaten only by the threat of world war three in recent months.
It’s said that the night is always darkest before the dawn, and the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, appears as though he knew so when he wrote The Long, Dark Night of the Soul. It explored a figurative ‘dark period’ in his life where something akin to depression set in, and he felt lost, lonely and empty.
It took me a long time to understand what this specific night actually meant. In fact this story begins in my late teens, when I almost died. It began a five-year long fear of death, an outright refusal to feel physically uncomfortable, and an ongoing conversation between two very disparate parts of my psyche – the scared little boy, and the wounded warrior.
So today, I will take you through that night, and also back to where it began.
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At the beginning of any transformational journey, we leave one place to travel to another. We say goodbye to one group in the hopes of being adopted by another. Boy to Man, Warrior to Advisor, Hurt to Healer.
You may remember from my article, Death & Desire, that the question of memento mori – of remembering my death and coming to terms with my mortality – had been a particular personal focus (read: obsession) for most of my twenties. You may also remember that I’d believed that story had come to an end. In reality, I just hadn’t fallen ill in quite some time. And there was plenty to distract myself from what hadn’t been fully accepted within.
Thoreau is popularly quoted as saying “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, and it feels truer than ever in modern times. In fact, we can mute this desperation we all inwardly feel to a point where it’s no longer audible. Be it a podcast on our daily commute, or binge watching after a day of dissatisfaction, we no longer listen within.
This is the very reason why we only hear the dread of a life not lived well when the lights are low and we lay in bed. But even then, Netflix or white noise can save us from this uncomfortable conversation. So off we drift into an uneasy sleep where an inner disquiet still rocks us. But this can only go on so long. Sometimes we’re forced to listen – the stars align, and we find ourselves face-to-face with this disquiet. And we’re obliged to hear its call.
My invitation came in the form of insomnia paired with my phone company becoming unhappy with what I deemed ‘fair usage’. So I found myself awake all night with no internet. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, not even sleep to push these feelings to the next morning (where it’d be easier to distract myself once again), I had to listen to the lesson that was coming – like it or not.
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The second stage of the journey is Transition. This is the meat of the journey, the long second act. Looking back to those times where I felt death was ever-present and moving closer, there was an inner dialogue that would appear – one between the scared youth, and the adult who was forced to clean up his mess.
Both voices had been deafening in the past and, on that night, they’d raise their voices once again. I thought I’d shaken hands with them and we were walking side-by-side, but really I’d just left their messages on read for a couple of years. Much like the saboteur, these voices were fragments of myself from a bygone time that had yet to be integrated into the totality of me, the true me.
It seemed as though I’d been stuck on this stage of the hero’s journey for some time, where the battle is at its fiercest. I’d tricked myself into thinking I’d finished this quest – I’d left the scared, little boys behind me, and been accepted by the men.
But in looking at these aspects of myself, the men were nowhere to be found. Just a wounded, angry ‘adult’ who wanted nothing to do with, what he perceived to be, a coward. I had no distractions, I had no-one else to talk to, I couldn’t fall asleep… the only thing left was to listen to this conversation..
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The Golden Chalice
At the height of the transitional phase, we have a decision to make: to meet the dragon, or turn back. But sometimes the doors of his lair close behind us. This was one of those journeys.
As the argument raged on, another voice crept in – it was the voice of ‘The Foreman’. The Foreman has one job: to keep me from freaking out when I’m on a psychoactive trip. In the moment, the appearance of the Foreman was unexpected, but in hindsight it was obvious.
Looking back, it was the closest thing I could get to describing a ‘bad trip’ without taking any powders or potions. There was the altered state of consciousness that comes with psychedelics thanks to the fever, there was the disconnection from reality due to the isolation, and there was the absolute commitment to seeing this moment through.
The last point is important, because there is very little within this world which can’t be backed out of. If you start a business, you can always fold it; if you join an intensive, you can always leave early; if you get married, you can always file for divorce. So few experiences require your absolute commitment to see them through. But just like jumping off a bridge or tripping on acid, sickness is there… until it is not.
It was at that moment I spoke to myself, I talked myself off the emotional ledge. The argument between boy and man was halted by a thought, a thought which turned into a vocalisation from the Foreman:
“We’re going to be okay.”
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The final stage of the journey is Integration. We take the lessons learnt from the journey and make them a part of us. The fear of death was gone, because in fact, this was never the fear in the first place.
You see, I’d already found myself at death’s door when I was much younger. I found myself in a dodgy house in an even dodgier part of town, devouring substances at weights measured in bravado. I’m sure in a different place, a different time, with some actual intent behind it, this had the potential to take me on a much less dangerous, but equally profound, rite of passage.
I had the separation – a boy turning into a man at 19. I had the transition – the tools were in front of me. But there was no conscious intent, apart from showing off to the other people present. Down the hatch the substances went, and off to a realm beyond my own began.
But as I explored this realm, I felt my consciousness go… back. That’s the only way I can describe it.
“Hmmm… This is weird.” I thought to myself, with the last few vestiges of conscious thought ebbing away.
“Oh. I think I’m dying… That’s okay.” I continued as the dim lights grew quieter.
Then, a flash of clarity. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to cease to be in some awful bedsit on the wrong side of town. Not because I thought I was meant for greatness, or through fear, or through anything – this was simply not the way to go. I turned my head, and here I stand today. Thirteen years after I almost checked out from the game of life.
I left that clique soon after. Some of them kept going, some stopped. Some are worse off now. Some aren’t here anymore. All of us though, were living lives of quiet desperation. Suffering inside. This is what I was scared of, suffering and living a life that made me want to escape on a weekly basis.
I got another chance that night, and if I find myself forsaking that chance, the fear creeps in again. Every time I go a little too ‘rockstar’, the journey begins again. The journey of that night of insomnia allowed me to integrate two pieces into my puzzle – I can live life with intent, and suffering is optional (for the most part). This journey is up to me.
So in the last few hours of my fever that night, I waded into the stream of acceptance – I’m ill, but this too shall pass, so we might as well all play for the same team right now. Eventually, the sun came up outside, I watched the sunrise, and finally closed my eyes.
The stories I tell myself about my own mortality are still there, I’m sure of it. But I feel as though they may be different going forward, and if they’re not, I know I have the tools and experience to deal with them differently.
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The Spiritual Scalpel
Perhaps there are parts of you that poke and prod at you as you read this.
Carl Jung once said he had “become convinced that the psychological problem of today is a spiritual problem. Man hungers and thirsts for a safe relationship to the psychic forces within himself. His consciousness lacks a relationship to safe spiritual conditions. This makes him neurotic.”
Do you hunger for a safe space to cultivate the psychic forces Jung speaks about? Are you on the cusp of a new era? And are you entering this stage with the scalpel-like precision of intent, or waiting for the sledgehammer of fate to strike?
One thing that came from this experience was a new desire – a desire to lead others through their long, dark night. (Minus the fever, of course.) The scalpel is being sharpened, the stage is being set (well, four very different stages actually), and the song we will sing at the dawning of the light will be one of victory in brotherhood.
In short, I am developing a rite-of-passage for you. An immersive experience to help you overcome your fears and saboteurs…
Does this resonate with you? Do you want to know more before I make this announcement public? Reach out to me, and I’ll tell you what you need to know about it. Something is coming, and you are invited.
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