Prisoner of hope
“Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you” (Zechariah 9:12).
I have been a prisoner of hope for too long. Hope as the promise of redemption. Hope as the last virtue standing. The stringy vestige of hope, apparently made of unbreakable sinew, that wouldn’t let me give up on my life and my dreams.
I had come to hope’s table a beggar and got treated accordingly.
In my more lucid moments, I recognized hope as the tugging of my soul. When all seemed lost, when I badly wanted to settle for anything but this, I detected the lies I was telling myself and was exposed. Who exactly was pleading for mercy using the veiled threat of capitulation? I had absolutely no intention of giving up. I seemed constitutionally incapable, as if that was a weakness. It was then that I equated hope with my soul.
I was mistaken.
A year previously I had decided to travel and take my work on the road, a world citizen, until the work dried up. It felt like the capricious withdrawal of grace. Money disappeared through my fingers seemingly faster than it appeared. But Life knows what it’s doing. As the joke goes: Want to make God laugh? Make plans.
Let me count the waves of fear that followed. Let me count the countries I visited, for surely the next one was where I could make this itinerant life work.
The idea of pilgrimage has always been to pare back the distractions for an unmediated encounter with Self, to pre-empt the accounting season of Death and meet it at least halfway. As the French Renaissance writer Montaigne put it: “Since God gives us permission to arrange for our own removal, let us prepare for it. Let us pack up our belongings, take leave bedtimes of the company, and shake off those violent holdfasts that engage us elsewhere and estrange us from ourselves.”
As a constant pilgrim, however, I got fixated on discovery itself; I only ever felt free when I was en-route to somewhere else. Eventually each new location – and a big shout out to Sucre and Medellin here – was foreshadowed with dread. I freighted a backlog of integration work from years of pilgrimage, deep healing and therapy like uninsured goods. My rationalizations became more desperate.
Running. Running. Running. How long had I been running? My whole life? And from what?
Even when I was running directly into my shadow, with intent, I was only ever preparing the way. At the Temple of the Way of Light, an incredible healing centre in the Peruvian Amazon, I took perverse pleasure in climbing into the underworld of my psyche – played out in dystopian Disneyesque detail – during ayahuasca ceremonies. I would wrestle in the morass, sometimes surrendered, sometimes beaten up, and always emerge ready for a new round. But I wasn’t just ready. I needed to engage again.
Ayahuasca may not be addictive in a pharmacological sense, but we can become addicted to anything. I liked the cover of darkness, it suited my shame. I liked the way the intensity, mostly, tapered off after four or five hours. I liked the discrete nature of the experience. I faced many things of heaven and Earth in Peru but was never subjected to the Void, a place of no beginnings and endings. Life knows what it’s doing.
Most of all, I liked feeling connected and for as long as that beautiful Amazonian sanctuary existed, ayahuasca and songs of the plants existed, the Shipibo healers and their mastery existed, and there existed a possibility of connection – to people, to the Earth, to Life, to my heart. This was the home I was seeking, but the outer form eluded me.
Finally, I returned to Australia broke and chastised. At the Four Winds Society, where I learned a shamanic approach to medicine, they call the big energy leakages that prevent us stepping forward in life “back doors”. Turns out, I had left the barn door wide open.
The spirit of this land is ancient; its serenade the riotous laughter of kookaburras. The vastness and light of Australia defy measure, and I can hold only a fragment of the immensity. In the remote countryside in the southeast, I tried to get grounded. I had already been grounded in another sense. It was the only way I could – eventually – feel safe in my body.
Growing up, I had never fully inhabited my skin or chosen to be here at all. My resistance to being grounded was not just a lack of trust. It’s what awaited me in my body. Call this forced return to Australia an involuntary retreat.
Without delay, the flimsy hold on the reality I had constructed got unloosed. For every collapse, a temporary reprieve, followed by another wave of convulsive release. I had no idea that my body was still housing so much primordial terror and rage. I thought I had done all that, all the cellular releases and emotional purging. The healing journey seemed to have an unreachable horizon.
I unravelled, until the unravelling generated its own force and became autonomic; that is, there was nothing I had to do, or heal, or clear. There was nothing to meditate upon, no teachers to hear, no practices to follow, no books to read, no YouTube satsangs to absorb, no transmissions to download. Though I did all these things, this unravelling didn’t need my permission or intervention. It got scary.
The ubiquitous term “boundaries” is shorthand for maintaining a cohesive sense of a nuclear self: the body and mind in a unified whole. As a child, my chronic dissociation broke the nexus. Being anchored in the body would have constrained my psychic wandering. The unconscious is a borderless country. I lifted off and was drawn irresistibly to the dark elements. Wide awake in my bed, the sound of disintegrating edges – a chorus of sympathetic screams – gathered momentum and the whole loomed above and around me, the gloaming before pure night. I was shadowed by a cresting wave.
I hadn’t been able to run then.
They say there is a fine line between spiritual awakening and madness. I say that if awakening is what this is, there is no line at all. Pre-verbal wounds cannot be traced by the rational mind. Their biography is told in symbol. In the midst of this breakdown, I could find no proper explanation; the lows were so utterly convincing that in their throes there was no beginning and no end, just this perpetual state of undoing.
My biggest fear has always been endlessness. It’s the moment before the wave crashes and bedlam overspills. I have remained frozen in that moment, sucked-in breath and a thousand fearful possibilities tumbling through my body. In my dreamscape, I sought to locate the lost infant and found him near comatose, unable to scream or rage. His body was a prison.
What if some of the most intractable mental-health and behavioural conditions have their origins in the pre-verbal developmental phase? We cannot remember and are held hostage by our bodies and a hyper-aroused nervous system. Without reference to linear cause and effect, we think we’re going mad. So we take the guilt and blame into ourselves once again, reinforcing the only thing that makes sense: our own brokenness.
What if, as energetically sensitive beings, some form of trauma is inevitable in this period? Might we be so much kinder to ourselves, less critical and judgmental? As if some of our less noble defence mechanisms weren’t fashioned from the will to survive at any cost.
Rock bottom is a relative concept. If our consciousness is being constantly expanded, then our limits are pushed out too. What I couldn’t handle before – what would have paralysed me, sent me to a psych ward or worse – was now within my threshold. Ayahuasca taught me that.
Crucially, however, there was also an upside. The plateaus when the pendulum swung the other direction were near otherworldly. At least not of this world as I had known it. The best I can explain it is a state of Grace, where the highest possibilities had already been realized. The Universe was made of malleable star-stuff and there was no rush to bring anything into form. I saw beauty everywhere, not least in my ridiculous, obstacle-strewn path. I am suspicious of breakthroughs, like hope in another guise. This was different. It really was a cosmic joke, but at last I was on the inside.
Where had that terror gone exactly?
I have learned that the remnants of trauma as they depart have no traction, they leave no residue. Just a heavy-lidded energetic fatigue, wistful and soft, that lets me know the ghosts have left the building. I have found this to be true during mass cleansings in the Californian desert with Four Winds, when watching my father die and now in this corner of Australia.
Perhaps that is why, just like returning to a cup of ayahuasca after a night of visceral purging, there I found myself again, willing, trusting, prayerful. On cue, as if I could not possibly hold that much light, my foundations would crumble again.
Remarkably, each state was self-contained and induced not a hint of the other. I ought to have developed a phobia for this business. This kind of fluctuation evoked what Judith Herman, M.D in Trauma and Recovery described as the “dialectic of opposing psychological states”. “The two contradictory responses of intrusion and constriction [between the extremes of amnesia or of reliving the trauma, between floods of intense, overwhelming feeling and the arid states of no feeling at all] establish an oscillating rhythm.” This, she says, is “perhaps the most characteristic feature of the post-traumatic syndromes”.
On more than one occasion I was convinced I was simply mentally ill. The moments of expansion only seemed to make room for the next wave of suppressed whatever – you know, rage, grief, despair, terror, the workaday currency of release – to rise unbidden. I cried out for that other state and questioned whether I had experienced it at all.
Trying to dismantle an egoic structure before it has been properly shored up is an invitation to psychosis. I met the Void exactly when I was ready. Life, and ayahuasca for that matter, had always known what they were doing. Meantime, hope kept me in the game.
I realized my love-hate relationship with spiritual practice was based on the faulty premise that there was something wrong with me that had to be fixed. Likewise, I had become overly focused on the pursuit of inhabiting energetic debris. There are so many. Entities, Earth-bound spirits, attachments, cords, auric daggers and hooks, lost soul fragments, underworld intrusions, ancestral patterning, generational imprints, unresolved past-life trauma … and of course, the great collective swill of mass consciousness. It was overwhelming, but none of them were responsible for the fundamental flaw in my beliefs.
The message has been consistent. Immediately following my last month-long retreat with ayahuasca, I re-examined my motivations towards the medicine. I felt the time of heavy excavation work was over. Ayahuasca had refused to give me the answers I wanted; was unwilling to play idol to my healing fantasies. There had to be another way.
In my bleakest moments, these are the words I have I yearned to hear:
You’ve done nothing wrong.
You are exactly where you are supposed to be.
As painful as this is, it is a sign of your readiness and courage that you are having this experience.
I’m proud of you.
I dared not believe, but I am learning to source that knowing from the inside. Because hope, I see now, was merely the tether to my soul.
My soul – my interdimensional God-self, that surveyor of infinite timelines, holder of the blueprint, chief negotiator and member of the Board, the cosmic high-wire act of my imagination – my scary-ass Soul was never reducible to hope. As the Buddhists say: The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon herself.
In truth, I had been trying to domesticate my soul by bargaining for small favours. With an immodesty born of low self-worth, I had been trying to micromanage my destiny, stick lightning back in the bottle. It was hubris to think that I could make any decision, have cause for any regret, if Life is living me, not the other way around.
I no longer want to be a prisoner of the kind of hope that presumes I need to be saved; that denies that I share the power of creation with the Divine. Indeed, that I am not an expression of the Divine itself. I would much rather be a servant of Hope.
If I have awakened to anything it is that my most heart-felt wish is to use my experience to help others cross the water to the other shore. Because when all else is lost or stripped away, Hope is all that is left and we can start from there.