Venice Beach, 1994
A stormy January day at sunset. The ferocious weather and the marbled purple sky, a perfect reflection for my own personal turmoil.
On Christmas night a week or so before, a man I’d only known a few months had asked me to marry him. Marry him! A memorable night for obvious reasons, there was also a hilarious part of the story (funny now) about getting locked out of my apartment after going outside for the big moment. In retrospect, it does seem incredibly symbolic — the time had really come to lock out the fear that had had me in its grip for too long.
You see, I saw myself as damaged goods. Possibly unlovable. That day on the beach I was torn apart by two equally strong impulses — one to run as fast as I could, and the other, to trust a person with my heart for a lifetime. These warring sides drove me out of the safety of my car and right to the edge of the earth where massive waves were pounding the shore.
There wasn’t another person on the sand. Tears squirted out of me like I was a cartoon character. I tasted my own salty sadness. Confusion swirled round and round, until I became so truly terrified over being that out of control of my own emotions that I wished I could have crawled out of my own skin, or traded skins with a seal who wanted to be a person for a while.
But then a spray of ocean mist came over me, mingling with my own tears. And that’s when it hit me. Suddenly I understood all at once that I was not separate from the world, I was of the world. My tears and the ocean were from the same source. The universe, Mother Earth, God… whatever name for the divine you want to use, was speaking to me.
I knew I hadn’t been hit by lightning (unless I was dead and didn’t know it), but a surge rushed through my veins all the same, as if someone had hit me with the lifesaving paddles. The trust problem I was having was not with the man I was in love with. The problem, was that at some point I’d stopped trusting myself. What changed in me right then and there on that squally beach was me finally insisting that I trust me. Since there has never been any satisfying combination of words that could ever adequately describe this experience, I did as Joan Didion tells us to do in times of crisis… go to the literature.
The literature in this case was the work of Abraham Maslow, who coined the term ‘peak experience’ after it became clear that his original term, ‘mystical experience’ would not be accepted in psychological literature. Some people also know it as Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime or Freud’s oceanic feelings.
She would walk to where the land and sea/met each other in a dance of violence/She found a treasure of untold beauty/tossed it back and swore herself to silence… One for Every Moment — Crosby, Pevar & Raymond
Downtown Los Angeles, 2017
Another January, twenty-two years after that day on the beach. I found myself marching in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, my daughter heavily on my mind. Were her rights and the rights of every woman really being threatened? How could it be that this many people felt under seige on so many fronts?
The last thing I expected was to feel anything like I did that day at the beach all those years ago. While I didn’t know at the time that my group was marching with 750,000 of our fellow Angelenos, it didn’t change the fact that I felt awed and humbled and overwhelmed by all the people who had come together. I felt unity on an unimaginable scale, at a time when we’re always being reminded of how divided we are. The mystical experience is one of communion, a momentary dissolution with the self and its boundaries in order to become one with our surroundings. This is what leads to moments of transcendence.
But I also felt the fear again, so what was going on??
You’ll see that at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is self-actualization. The self being referred to here however, is not the egoistic self, but the self we recognize when we are immersed in awe and the recognition that we are part of something much bigger and powerful than we are. The call from this ‘self’ is to fulfill the deepest possibilities in our being.
Mytical experiences are glimpses of the divine. Those moments that grab and take hold of you, like when your breath is sucked out of you as you stare wild-eyed at Half Dome or drop into a wave for the first time. Some people describe them as feelings of limitless horizons. And yet, there is something inherently overwhelming about witnessing the vast power in our own being. Many people speak of being simultaneously more powerful and more helpless than ever before while having a mystical experience.
I had to go back to the literature. It was there that I discovered a another aspect of Maslow’s theory, referred to as The Jonah Complex. For a bible refresher, Jonah was called by God to share a prophecy and instead of fufilling this destiny, Jonah resisted and sailed away in another direction. This caused a great storm and flood and landed old Jonah in the belly of the whale. And there he stayed for 3 days until he was given another chance to deliver on what he was called to do.
The Jonah Complex is our desire to escape the fear of responsibility that accompanies self-actualization. We are terrified of our own potential because of the interpersonal and social consequences that can happen with that kind of change. It could mean a complete obliteration of life as we know it so that a new and more powerful and impactful way of living could emerge. Sometimes we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. -Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love http://www.marianne.com
When Maslow set out in this study, even he believed that mystical experiences happened to one saint every century. What seemed to blow his mind the most was learning that not only was that not true, but the fact that all of his subjects used the same kind of language to describe their experiences — from an 18-year-old athlete to Mother Theresa.
Some people do not remember having mystical experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t forever changed by them, because science shows that they are. A 2016 Johns Hopkins study found that stronger mystical experiences tend to “reframe life priorities, with pleasure-seeking dropping, and other aspects increasing family, connection, higher principles.” [i]
Self-actualizing people are,without a single exception,involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. – Abraham Maslow
As Gandhi said, “Politics should be sacred.” And by sacred, I don’t mean necessarily religious, but that which originates from the deepest part of ourselves. The march manifested universal belonging. Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute at University of Pennsylvania said, “Peak experiences shake us out of our ordinary concerns and point our attention toward something higher, perhaps greater visions of ourselves and others. Peak experiences come along with a realization of purpose or higher meaning for one’s life.”
Sometimes a higher meaning for one’s life isn’t exactly what we thought it would be. But a hero or heroine is made by the strength of the villain or villains they have been called to defeat. With great power or knowledge comes great responsibility. I know I’ve said those words from time to time, but I couldn’t come up with who said it without a search. Turns out no one knows! (It’s not Spiderman, as some would like to believe.) The strongest evidence traces it back to a translation from a moment during The French Revolution. And here we are on the precipice of our own revolution.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, puts it brilliantly when he says, “The mystic is not a kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic.” So please. Do not fear your own formidable power. Let us not languish in the belly of the whale when there is so much at stake.