[These excerpts are from Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.
BURNOUT – How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, targets people who have personal experience with depression, who have self-medicated with sex, alcohol, and/or drugs to get relief, and who have considered suicide more than once. But it is also for their friends and family and for those in the helping professions.]
from Part 1, Chapter 1:
Spiritual Journey Interrupted
I can’t recall the precise moment when spiritual matters became important to me, but my earliest recollection was an evening at the county fair with my parents, when I won a baseball toss and chose a cross that glowed in the dark over a miniature panda bear. I was 10.
By junior high I came to realize that I didn’t seem to fit anywhere – that I was different. I invented creative ways to amuse myself without the assistance of friends, which I didn’t have. With money I earned mowing a neighbor’s yard, I bought my first book. I discovered yoga and spent many hours in the front yard, mastering the three-prong headstand. By high school I could easily lift my body from a prone position to a headstand by lying on my belly and sucking in my tummy muscles until my legs thrusted in unison directly over my head. Voila! Upside-down girl, standing on her head! This simple feat earned me a tiny following who thought I was weird.
But I wasn’t trying to be weird. My daddy had died when I was 12, and my family had never gotten over it. The loss shattered us. We each went our own way. We would never be the same again. No more popcorn balls and late night TV. No more barbecues with cousins on Sunday. No more family. And for that, I was angry with God and hell-bent on tracking Him down to tell Him so. My spiritual path began as a mission for justice.
Seeking spiritual truth would ultimately become the driving passion through most of my life. I tried many different methods, but the goal had evolved over the years. When I was a teenager, it had become the desire to understand the meaning of life, why I’m here, what the rules for “here” might be and how I could most effectively relate to my Creator who went by many names – God, Supreme Being, Allah, and Spirit. I didn’t consider myself particularly religious or an example for others to follow.
My life was just different and I had different experiences.
In 1965, when I was 19, I had my first near-death experience when a doctor pronounced me dead on the operating table. My spirit hovered out of body, watching my mother and the neighbor from across the street holding each other, crying over my body, which was lying on a gurney outside the operating room. I heard a kindly voice ask me what I wanted to do.
“It’s your decision,” said the disembodied voice. “You may stay here or go back.”
While I loved where I was – I was so much happier there – I felt so sad watching my mom and her friend carry on so I told him I’d like to go back. He asked why.
“So I can cheer them up, make them smile,” I said. The next thing I knew, I was back in my body, lying on the gurney. My eyes fluttered open, and I told my mom and her friend a joke. They laughed out loud. The doctor, a family friend, wanted to have a word with me and wheeled my gurney out of earshot.
“Well! I declared you dead not that long ago,” he said. “Want to talk about it?”
I shook my head, and he wheeled me out of the foyer into another room, where he checked my vital signs, and then released me to my mom to recover at home.
At the University of Texas that fall, I loved the intellectual discussions. But I was more focused on seeking spiritual truth, because by then I felt my life depended on finding the answer. I widened my net to include both Western and Eastern religions, as well as popular books of the time like the Don Juan series by Carlos Castaneda. I read philosophers like Aldous Huxley, Dr. Timothy Leary, Ph.D. and Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D. and experimented with the psychedelic drugs they advocated, hoping to replicate their experiences, because I was a seeker, just as they were, driven to understand the intricacies of conscious life with a supreme being.
From time to time confusion from the constant infusion of different ideas would overwhelm me, and I would be forced to withdraw to the only place I felt safe – my aunt’s cabin, high on the hill overlooking Lake Travis, outside of Austin.
My aunt, a retired Presbyterian missionary who had served in Africa, was able to leave her dogma behind and listen to me as I questioned all the inconsistencies I’d come across in my pursuit of truth. She gently explained her faith while accepting my concerns, never judging me or my ideas. But whenever I raised what were the most troublesome topics for me, like what happens to the souls of babies who die before receiving communion, or those of people living in remote hinterlands of Third World countries where no missionaries have gone, or why there were so many religions in the world if Christianity were indeed the only path to God, her responses inevitably left me dissatisfied. I thought salvation should be equally available to all people, no matter who they were or where or how they lived.
Egalitarianism became even more important to me in 1968, when I tried to teach English to non-English-speaking students at a multi-ethnic, predominantly Mexican-American junior high school in San Antonio. As I got to know my students, the souls behind the names, I found it impossible to fill out the “census of racial constituency” forms required by the school district. I resorted to asking for a show of hands for each category.
“Okay, guys, raise your hand if you’re ‘White.’ ”
“Miss Young, what does that mean?” a student asked innocently.
I wanted to say, “Hell if I know.” But I just made a goofy face and shrugged. “Let’s, skip that one and come back.”
“How about this one: ‘Black?’ ‘Mexican?’ ‘Asian?’ ‘Other?’ ”
Another innocent voice from the desks asked, “Miss Young, what’s ‘Other?’”
I once feared anyone from a different culture than mine. Now I had trouble seeing the differences. The opening line from the Beatles’ song, “I am the Walrus” played in my head: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together…”
I began to see that we are, in fact, all one.
It was around that time that I flew over San Antonio without a body. My brother had just completed Air Force training nearby. He phoned to give me directions to the base canteen so I could pick him up to celebrate his graduation. I laughed.
“You better listen closely,” he said. “This is serious.”
He explained the layout of the base and the procedures for visitors to enter. I listened to the part about what to say to the guards to get through the gate, because they had guns. But when he started to tell me how to get to the canteen, I stopped him.
“I know where it is,” I said.
“How so?” he asked.
“I’ve been there before,” I told him.
The truth was, after he called me the first time to see whether it was okay to visit me, I had flown out-of-body over the base. I had seen the road leading in, the guard station, the barracks, and guys doing drills. In a dream the night before he called to give me directions, I had seen him at the canteen, standing outside talking to someone.
Back in school, working toward master’s degrees in things related to my teaching in San Antonio, I explored any and every alternative lifestyle I became aware of. These were the glorious days of the Me Generation, the ’70s. Along with my students, I dabbled in numerology and astrology. Then a student who had a lousy attendance record introduced me to the spiritual mysteries ensconced in the Tarot.
I was a teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974 when this student came to my office and said she’d start coming to my class if I’d go with her to one of hers. I admired her spunk, and her request seemed reasonable, so I went with her to her Tarot class. She introduced me to her teacher, who invited me to sit on the floor with him then proceeded to tell me the story of man’s spiritual journey – with cards! I was stupefied. A torch lit inside me – a stunning revelation. God doesn’t speak in one language, I suddenly realized. He speaks to us in the language we can hear!
The story the teacher told with the Tarot cards mirrored some of my own life experiences. I had to learn more about those cards! I bought a deck of the same kind of cards the teacher had used for his demonstration: the Rider Tarot Deck, with an accompanying paperback by Eden Gray, The Complete Guide to the Tarot.
Those cards became so important to me that when I shattered the meniscus in my left knee in a car accident and my karate teacher wouldn’t let me practice anymore until I got it fixed, they were the first things I packed before heading to the hospital for my surgery. They became my comfort tools, like a child’s well-worn blanket.
The doctors at the university health clinic used a new technique on my knee that they said had been used so far only on two professional football players. I don’t know how well it worked out for them, but with me they screwed it up. I spent a long time learning how to use my leg again after a lengthy stay in the university health center.
When I was still in the clinic, Nurses would come to my room around the clock seeking answers to their questions, like, “Should I dump him?” or “Should I move to (wherever)?” I was on morphine for the pain and couldn’t sleep, so they knew they weren’t disturbing me. Perhaps it was the drug, but I didn’t require the book to give them their quick answers.
When I returned to finish my classes, still more or less crippled by the botched surgery, I got my first metaphysical lesson on “asking for what you want” and “receiving it.” I was in a cast from my crotch to my ankle. It got periodically downsized to smaller and smaller versions, but I couldn’t walk right for almost a year. I had to ask people for help getting around, even to go to the bathroom. And they gave it!
Fortunately, I was living in a coop at the time, and the girl in the room next to mine, a Grateful Dead fan I had to repeatedly ask to not cut through my room to get to hers from the kitchen when she had an outside entrance became my champion. She recruited some strong boys to do the heavy lifting for my potty detail. She even gave me a bronze bell to ring when I needed them. She also orchestrated a shampoo routine where they would balance me on the edge of the tub with my head near the faucet so she could lather and rinse my long hair.
I completed my doctorate in two years, and in 1976, as a professor at a small Colorado college, I practiced yoga and meditated. I even wrote affirmations and developed guided meditation tapes for my students. Suddenly there were too many paths to spirituality, and I felt that old “scrambled eggs for brains” sensation again. I still struggled with the important questions like “What does spiritual evolution mean?” and “Which is the ‘correct’ path to enlightenment?”
But I persevered, inspired by the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” One such teacher who appeared for me was a candlestick maker. She had her own shop where she made and sold hand-dipped candles, many with colorful handmade wax flowers attached. I dropped in to see her one late afternoon, because a musician friend who lived in her house spoke highly of her. She showed me her different candles, giving what sounded like a well-rehearsed spiel. Then she looked me in the eyes and asked, “Why are you really here?”
“Well, you’re into Tarot, right?” I asked her.
She nodded affirmatively. Then she flipped the sign on her door from “open” to “closed,” made some tea and told me about her spiritual journey and how she learned the spiritual foundations of that mysterious pile of cards. She wrote on a piece of paper the name and mailing address of a correspondence course I could take: Builders of the Adytum (BOTA).
For the benefit of younger readers, there was no internet in the late 1970’s, and only NASA scientists had personal computers. Snail mail prevailed. People still had privacy. So I was able to keep my interest in Tarot very secretive. The special mystery surrounding my studies made them all the more interesting, keeping me afloat during the toughest days as I acclimated to life in a small college town.
Adytum is the Greek word for an “inner shrine,” the most sacred or reserved part of a place of worship, the “holy of holies.” Members of BOTA strive to build such an inner temple, the Holy of Holies, within. Even my church back home stressed that our bodies were a holy temple. I hoped Tarot would give me guidance about how to build mine.
According to Highlights of Tarot, a book published by BOTA, the function of the Tarot is “to enable the individual aspirant to cope with life efficiently, to understand the spiritual meaning and significance of his experience and environment and its relation to himself as an Eternal Being.”
Was the Tarot open to everyone? (It appeared so.) Was it a practical guide to daily life? (Seemed like it.) Could it help me understand the spiritual meaning and significance of my life? (Says it will.) Hallelujah! My prayers had been answered!
BOTA students were told to memorize “The Pattern on the Trestleboard,” a set of 11 statements, numbered 0 through 10, in Paul Case’s book, The Tarot. In those statements, I discovered a different relationship with that “something bigger than I am” than the one I had experienced in the church of my youth.
In the very first statement my belief that God is omnipresent was affirmed by this mysterious mystery school – “All the power that ever was or will be is here now.” “All the power” surely meant God, and I believed that God was omnipresent, everywhere simultaneously.
Who I am in relationship to God was expressed by the second statement thusly: “I am a center of expression for the Primal Will-to-Good, which eternally creates and sustains the universe.” SO! God, here called the Primal Will-to-Good, expressed through me!
And the final statement – “The Kingdom of Spirit is embodied in my flesh.” – confirmed what I had recently come to believe, that if God is omnipresent, everywhere, then God must also be in me and everyone and everything!
My mind had processed this very quickly. I stepped back to review my conclusions.
So God is not a white guy in a white suit that lives in a town up in heaven? (No, because God is everywhere, all at once.) Is God omniscient, as I was led to believe by my Bible and the church? (Yes!) Then “God” and “the Primal Will-to-God,” the “limitless Absolute Consciousness,” must be one and the same. (Yes!) If God is, in fact, everywhere, omnipresent, then we must all be part of that substance that is everywhere, because there is nowhere that God is not, and we are all part of God, the limitless Absolute Consciousness! (Hallelujah!) That meant that every single person had equal access to God, that every single person was equally important! (How could a part of God be more or less important?)
Even the BOTA mission statement included everyone: “People of all faiths are welcome,” and “its ultimate purpose is to hasten the true Brotherhood of mankind and to make manifest the truth that love is the only real power in the universe.” (That’s what Jesus preached: Love is the answer!)
Because the Tarot answered my need to have a God big enough for everyone, because it was an equal-opportunity path emphasizing that LOVE is the answer, just as Jesus preached, it became a big part of my spiritual path.
According to Buddhism, another path I walked for a while (mainly for the guidelines to “right living”), it is each individual’s responsibility to find the path to enlightenment. I remember how comforted I was in learning that perspective, because that’s what I had been doing most of my life. I was finding my own way! And my own way would include Tarot.
The truth was I loved my job. It was my life! A little detail like crummy relations with my colleagues wasn’t going to hold me back, especially when I got to teach in an innovative freshman and sophomore composition seminar.
Faculty from all departments had the opportunity to participate. The classes required research, writing and speaking. It was our version of Freshman English, a sort of “writing-across-the-curriculum” approach. We could choose any topic – any topic. I chose topics that were important to me: “Sex Roles and Personal Awareness” (Are men and women really different, or could it be that we’re more alike than different?); “Free to Be Me” (I still don’t know what that one was about, but the students seemed to like it, because it filled up during pre-registration.); and “Individuals and World Peace,” which was so popular I taught it three times.
I still believe in the philosophical premise of that course – that we can only really change ourselves, and by doing so, we contribute our part to World Peace. I loved this program not only because it provided an intellectual forum for students from all different academic areas, but also because many of my students were as insatiable as I was in their pursuit of spiritual truth.
But my favorite course in the series was “Mind, Body, and Spirit.” That course explored some obvious topics, such as Western vs. Eastern approaches to health and healing. But we also peeked into that forbidden area, Spirit, asking questions like “Who is God? Who am I? What is my purpose for being here?” It was my favorite course, not only because the topics were interesting to me but also because it was a vehicle for genuine soul-searching – both by me and the students. We derived some measure of inner peace from at least clarifying the key questions surrounding those sticky issues. One student told what the course meant to him on the cover sheet of his term paper: “I’m 25 have been in school forever, and this is the only time I’ve ever had the privilege of exploring my beliefs. Thank you, Dr. Young!”
Those good feelings ended abruptly, however, when I met with a financial advisor in the summer of 1989 and realized with utter horror that I had been teaching 16 years (including my junior high and graduate school years) and had virtually nothing to show for it. I was astonished. I felt a simmering outrage.
As a pitiful workaholic teacher at a small college, struggling to acclimate and bordering on burnout, I had somehow never really noticed my pathetic financial circumstances. I was not a spendthrift. I lived in an old attic apartment with garage-sale furniture and wore clothes bought at second-hand stores. My sole indulgence was personal education, and I had a savings account to pay for that.
Now, confronted with the lack of tangible results for my years of intense commitment to kids and their education, I looked for someone to blame. I began to notice details like my 60-70-hour work weeks and my chairman’s “gone by noon” routine, how she delegated her duties to the rest of us, her minions. Her nails were manicured; mine were flush with the tips of my fingers, sometimes rough enough to snag paper. I silently seethed with resentment about “fair pay for fair work.”
The crisis went far beyond finances, however. I also realized just how alone I was in the world as a workaholic introvert. I was sinking fast into a soul-wrenching despair, which became the constant backdrop for the drama my life had become.
And it only got worse when I bought a house for my mom.
__________(end of Excerpt 2)___________________
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Coming up next: “Mom’s House” (Part 1, Chapter 2)
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi