Because in AA and Al-Anon meetings we emphasize similarities rather than differences, I usually refrain from talking about my Near Death Experience. I don’t want some share of mine about going to the Light to discourage a newcomer from identifying as alcoholic or convince them AA is full of loonies. But my blog’s a different matter. It’s a place to share my whole experience, loony or not.
When we get sober, we hear a lot of talk about ego as something in close cahoots with our addiction. In order to grow in sobriety, we strive to become conscious of those times (always?) when it takes over our thinking. But what, exactly, is that entity trying to become conscious? That is, who/what are we without our egos? When we get down to the very heart of our being, our consciousness, what do we find?
Eckhart Tolle, in my experience, writes most masterfully on this topic. In A New Earth, he makes a number of distinctions among the images appearing on the screen of the mind or various voices in our heads. In addition to ego (which is essentially the voice of fear – a destructive agent) and thought (which continuously occupies the brain much as digestion occupies the stomach, but without necessarily holding insight), he identifies emotions (the body’s reaction to thoughts) and the pain-body (an energy field within the body that feeds on negative emotions). Together, these components of our minds conspire to create the Unhappy Story of our lives.
In contrast to this, Tolle posits Presence. Presence is that which witnesses all aspects of our experience – the font of consciousness itself. I remember when I was reading Tolle on a beautiful beach in Costa Rica, the phenomenon of Presence kept eluding me. I’d try repeatedly to disengage from my thoughts and emotions enough to zoom in on who was witnessing them, only to be sucked in by another thought or emotion, such as judging the extent of my success.
Today I understand why I couldn’t do it: my core, my soul, my essence was submerged beneath a layer of lies (thoughts) and denial (fear) manufactured by my ego to maintain my love addiction: I lay on that beautiful beach with a boyfriend who I knew in my core was concealing late-stage alcoholism, simply not drinking or acting out around me. I did not want to know this, mind you. I wanted not want to be fully conscious, because if I dropped my stories of him as an ethically strong and genuine man, I’d need to uproot my entire emotional life by breaking from him. Addiction – with its urgent needs and false realities to fill them – obstructed my access to Presence, exactly as it had back in the days when I was drinking.
I do, however, have a memory of being pure presence. If you’ve read my addiction memoir, you know that in 1982 I snorted a half-gram of lidocaine sold to me as cocaine, which shut down my cardio-pulmonary impulses and caused me to die on the dance floor of a Manhattan nightclub. In those three minutes without pulse or breathing, I rocketed out of my body and into a vast blue sky above the open ocean, embarking on my journey to god. There’s no room to tell the whole story here. What I want to concentrate on is the “I” in those sentences. What was “I” outside my body?
Pure awareness. Pure interest. Pure embrace of each phenomenon I encountered. That is, whatever I experienced, I loved. I saw and knew with an ongoing, unqualified excitement that made not loving impossible. How to describe this? When you were a kid, maybe on your birthday or Christmas, you might have encountered a big stack of presents. You didn’t know what was in them. You didn’t need to. You anticipated finding out without worry that some might be duds. All you felt was, “Oh, boy!” That’s how you’ll feel about everything after you leave your body – everything, that is, except the prospect of returning to it.
Fear became null. When I was diving hundreds of feet toward the ocean’s surface, I wondered whether its surface tension might impact me like concrete, and there was certainly an extra spurt of “Oh, boy!” when it didn’t – but no adrenaline tinge of dread. Same with the realization that I was about to burst into the sun – I only wondered what would happen. That’s it. Fear, sadness, anger: these are functions of the BODY. We don’t need them once staying biologically operational is no longer of consequence.
Short of dying, how can you experience your own essence – that core consciousness you’ll become on the other side? The best way I know today is to get quiet, close your eyes, and mentally speak your own name adding the suffix “–ness.” Do this several times. Each time you repeat it, go further toward your child self. Seek the thinker, not the thoughts. Not only that, let go of trying – to be someone, to please, to do well before anyone but god – and let yourself fall toward humility. You’re just you.
In my “Louisa-ness,” there’s a subtle hint of… I can’t find a word besides “dumbness.” But it’s a dumbness I thoroughly love! Maybe it’s just the void left by ego’s absence, the submission to being limited. It’s sort of like the curve of a ball, the spherical nature of myself coming back to me. It cups me. It hums “Louisa-ness.”
The more sober I am, the closer I move toward living from my essence. THAT is my spiritual journey. As Meister Eckhart put it (not related to Tolle), “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
Part of the reason I love to climb mountains is that the physical demands pare away my thoughts and emotions until the simplicity of one goal – I will simply continue – eclipses all the various yammerings of ego. Ego may initiate my climbs, but spirit finishes them. “One Step at a Time” – the name of my sober mountaineering group – offers the ultimate metaphor for spiritual growth. Day before yesterday, standing at 12,200 feet on the summit of Mount Adams, I did indeed feel close to my god.
I’m alive. I’m grateful. Nothing else matters. For me, until the times comes to shed the “dumbness” of this body, that’s as true as it gets.