When the Spirit Disappears

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Once when I was 13, and another time when I was 26, I had a spiritual experience.  Both times, I was alone and, as the Pentacosts say, I was filled with the spirit.  My senses were alive, and I loved everything they lit upon: at 13, colorful autumn leaves outside my window, the soaring music on my record player (Sweet Surrender by John Denver, if you must know), the feel of my journal and the inky slide of my pen tip, the scratch of my mohair shawl; at 26, the luminous late spring fields north of Corvallis, Oregon, the air blowing through my rolled-down car window, the music on my tape deck, the sound of my own voice singing. My body felt almost too small to contain the beauty of the world.

I think of these times whenever someone asks if I’ve ever felt transported by an experience, or awed, or if I’ve felt a joy that stopped time.

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I thought of these earlier incidents a couple weeks ago while attending a two-day training.  The training was offered by an internationally recognized couples therapist.  At these trainings, six couples sit in a circle with the therapist over the course of two days. Sitting in an outer circle in the same room are therapist observers.  We come to watch the therapist work and to learn more about his approach so we might be of greater service to the couples we see in our own practices.  Quite often, the situation for these couples is dire; they are here as a last-ditch effort to save their relationships.

This was my fourth such training.  In the past, these weekends have exhausted me.  I was buffeted about by the intense feelings in the room: the anger, the anguish, the weariness, the hope. In truth, I think I felt proud of those feelings, as if riding the roller coaster with the clients was proof that I was a caring person, a good therapist.

That’s not what happened this time.  This time, I felt calm.  I felt grounded. As each agonizing drama unfolded in front of me, I thought, I wish the best for them.  Maybe things will change; maybe they won’t.  That’s for them to decide. I wish them well.

This feeling was so unprecedented that at one point I wondered if perhaps I was becoming jaded.  Maybe this feeling signaled the end of my career as a therapist. I still cared, though.  These people were suffering. We have all suffered like this in matters of love. I wished for them less suffering; I wished for this experience to show a clear path toward their suffering less.

Meanwhile, this remarkable, deep equanimity persisted.

It lasted through both days of the training.

I was aware while feeling it that at some point it would end. I tried not to care too much about that; I wanted to savor it and be grateful for its presence now.

It did eventually shift back to my more ordinary way of being in the world. I was curious why it had arrived at all.  The best answer I had was that likely it had something to do with all the yoga I’ve been doing. I wasn’t exactly sure why this might be so, but somehow the yoga explanation made sense to me. Things occur in life when certain conditions come together; doing yoga a lot more was the one obvious condition I’d changed in my life.

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Last Sunday, I woke up early with an anxiety dream.  The plot details were mundane enough, but I woke up feeling guilty and anxious and worthless. I didn’t want to go back to sleep for fear of slipping into the dream again, and I let Garth know I was getting up. He said, Hey, I just had a flying dream. He told me about his dream where, in the midst of great turmoil and violent upheaval all around, he and a group of people were seated in a circle, cross-legged, doing yoga. After awhile, he realized he was able to float above the ground, as high as ten feet. No one else was able to do it and before long he was giving everyone rides.  Someone asked him how we was able to do it, and he said, I don’t know; the Universe is buoying me up.

As the morning wore on, I realized I felt cheated, as if Garth had actually had the experience his dream described, while I was left with the tedium and monotony of common life concerns. I talked about it with him; I shared it with another training group I met with later that day. I brought it up at the dinner table. I hoped if I talked about it with others, I’d overcome it; I’d get on the other side of being jealous of all the flashy ways other people’s spirituality seems to manifest and ultimately I’d embrace my own way. Except “my own way” seemed to entail a smattering of bright moments of equanimity and love separated by years – decades sometimes -of regular life. Honestly, I’d rather be buoyed, I’d rather fly.

I spoke with my wise therapist.  I told her I longed for that calm and equanimity to return. I felt almost ill with not knowing when or if I’d ever experience it again. She asked did it at least make it more bearable to know this feeling existed for me, even when I wasn’t experiencing it in the moment? Her question revealed to me something I hadn’t realized before: I don’t; I don’t know that this experience exists for me whether I am feeling it or not. I am like the child who only knows her blanket is there when it’s in her grasp. If it’s in the drier, it might as well have been wiped from the face of the earth, and reassurances that it still exists somewhere don’t have the desired effect.

Friends of mine might say these moments I’ve described are moments of touching god, of being one with the energy, the chi, of the universe. Dream Garth – who in his waking life would never use language like this – would say I was “buoyed by the Universe.” And they would say I’m not only buoyed at these notable moments, but all through life as well, even when I don’t notice it. Their words cut both ways. It suggests hope for me, but it also highlights a confidence I don’t feel.

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I’ve made several passes at bringing this post to an end. I’m not sure how to – probably because I’m not at the end of this experience. I felt such despair when my equanimity left, and greater despair still when I realized I had no framework that guaranteed its return. Still, as I’ve written several aborted endings to this post, it has brought me into closer contact with the details of my life and the details of the world. And what I find there is this: my life has been enormously blessed; it would not be an exaggeration to say I should be on my knees in gratitude for the rest of my life in thanks for the good that is here. I’d like to be able to say with certainty that my life has been blessed because of some divine river that always flows on my behalf, but I can’t say that right now.

In the meantime, the best image I could find for what equanimity felt like is the one below. It comforts me that even if I never step into that divine stream again, I can step into forests, oceans, and actual streams; I can rest in the expanse of the sky; I can commune with my dear children and husband, with my soulful family and friends. That is the divine stream I can count on, every day.

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  1. Dee Packard said:

    Katrina, I love this picture soooo much. It gives me a whole measure of hope. I am so glad you found it and shared it. I loved, too, the paragraph telling us of your multiple attempts to end this post. And, being one of the ones who had heard you tell this story before . . . the day it happened, I am very interested in what you are making of it. And, with the help of your wise therapist, you are looking, it seems, for the auspiciousness that is in your experience of freedom and then the loss of it. That, in my view, is a or the spiritual approach to experience. And that you are seeing a much bigger picture of Reality, that includes a warm but dispassionate/less attached responsiveness to life, whether you are feeling it or not, seems ver big indeed. Remember my telling you that now twenty years ago, I experienced about 40 seconds of what felt like total freedom from anxiety after a mundane car trip which has never returned. Darn I wish
    it would, too. I know the possibility of it though. This is all too much to write here, but, it just tumbled out. Thank you for being someone who grapples with these fluxes with such sincerity and presence. Love!

  2. Kelly said:

    Trees bring me contentment.

  3. Tina said:

    Dear Katrina, thanks for this soulful post. I couldn’t help but smile several times throughout. You are the river, an yes, your yoga will churn it for you in whatever way you need it. Much love and light to you. Namaste, dear friend.

  4. Karen said:

    I love so many aspects of this post–the writing, the themes, the examples and analogies. But what I love most is that it addresses envy. Thank you for being so beautifully human.

  5. Jacquie said:

    Katrina, you have once again transported me to another dimension with your writing, thoughts and spirituality. Thank you dear friend. xo

    • Thanks, Jacquie.  That means a lot to me.  It’d be a pretty lonely thing to do if I didn’t hear from people. I hope all is well in your world. xo Katrina Live Your Life Out Loud Katrina I. Gould, MSW, LCSW Psychotherapist for Individuals, Couples and Groups 503-702-0877 “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.” -Raymond Carver

  6. Polly Pitsker said:

    Very moving and very personal writing. All I can add is I love you!

  7. tom moss said:

    Katrina, the euphoria and let-down reminded me of reactions I and others had to the Lifespring trainings we took many years ago. The good news to me has been that though the euphoria did not last, there was a shift of the mean of my thinking and feelings that has played out over my entire life love, tm

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