Annie O’Shea has been a member of the Center since 2010. This is an edited transcript of Annie’s account of her spiritual path and experience of awakening in 2013. This talk took place at the practitioners meeting on the evening of Oct. 2, 2013, in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to Sheila Craven for performing the transcription of the recording.
Preparing for this has been a real pleasure for me, because I like going back through my life and I thought what I’d do is look for the spiritual thread, so to speak, that ran through my life. And see where the beads were that sit on there. It starts out with the beads pretty spread out, then eventually at one point there are no beads and that’s just my life. That helped me to go back and see really what was important in my spiritual search.
I was born in a large family.. It was a lot of fun, but it was very chaotic and unpredictable. I’m not exactly sure why, but in the first grade they told me I was smart and I should read to the kindergardeners, and I think that was the first bead on the thread. It set down a jnana tone [jnana is the Sanskrit word for knowledge]. School was my home. I felt very secure there. I decided that’s where I belonged rather than really at home. Home was OK, but school and learning really became my home.
This went on—I had a really great school experience all through elementary school. High school was really the same. I got into dancing and singing in high school and I was basically your general over-achiever. I wanted to get all A’s and be in all the clubs and sing and dance and date the football players, and do everything I could do. And I had a really, really good time.
There was a little Lutheranism—I went to Lutheran Church for awhile. That was really fun because with the Lutherans they just tell you all these wonderful stories about love and all that. So that was really nice. But then, when I was about sixteen I was more of an Atheist. There was no religion. I guess it was boys by then. That’s the first time I remember thinking that something is wrong with me. I just really remember that, because if somebody would tell me a sad story or something that happened to them, and I knew what to say and how to act superficially, but I didn’t feel anything. And I just had this thought, something’s off.
So college was really more of the same. Except I majored in Biology and Boys. Biology is a lot of work. The next really important bead came on my thread. When I was a senior, I met a young man who was a graduate student. He was into philosophy and psychology. He really changed me. Finally something opened my mind up. He introduced me to Jung, Hesse, Carl Rodgers, Ramdas, the whole Human Potential Movement. That was really wonderful. But I went about it in a really superficial way. I read a lot. We talked a lot. We thought we were really intellectuals. Nothing changed in our behavior. But we did learn a lot and had a good time. So that was the first really big opening for me. I was kind of sneaking my way into religion and philosophy, stuff like that.
We can quickly skip over a bunch of years: I move out, I graduate, I move to California. Then I began a long career in co-dependency. What a shock! (Laughs) Not much happened in those times. I call it my Bad-Boy Era, where I had a lot of fun. Well, it’s co-dependency. For those of you who know what that’s about, I don’t have to explain any more about that.
Then a really wonderful thing happened. I was married to a Bad Boy, but I became a mother. Before that, I had no idea what love was. I had a very natural experience of unconditional love. Now I knew, finally, what love was. Before that, I would use the word, but it meant absolutely nothing.
This was really great for me. It was wonderful. But my son’s father was the alcoholic and it wasn’t so good for him. Because of his disease, he really couldn’t make any changes. So that led to a huge crisis. We ended up going to a counselor, which he only went to once.
Then another wonderful thing happened—another important bead. This counselor said, “I will not see you unless you also go to Alanon.” I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Alanon. It’s a twelve-step group for the spouses and friends of alcoholics. They basically, at that point, saved my life. It’s a very spiritually oriented program. The reason it was so important for me is that one of the steps is that you have to develop a relationship with what they call a Higher Power, if you don’t already have one. And I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in anything. So I had to go looking. That was another really important part of my life.
I started seeking then. The first place I went was the Unitarian Church. I felt that was very safe. Someone told me you don’t even say “God” up there. I was tentative about the whole thing. I also wanted to be able to take my son somewhere to get some kind of religious education. I didn’t have anything to offer him really. Except that his whole life growing up, he heard all about Alanon and the twelve-steps and how to deal with co-dependency, which did turn out to be a big help to him.
Then I saw the movie Gandhi. I was so taken with that movie. I loved it. So I bought a book about Gandhi and it turns out it was written by a man named Eknath Easwaran. He’s a spiritual teacher who died in 2000 I think. It spoke to me because he’s all about the Mystics. You could be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, anything. It was open to everyone. Easwaran is a fabulous writer. He has written books on the Dhammapada, Upanishads, the Bagivad Gita, all the Christian Mystics. I had problems trying to read some of the classic mystics. They’re intense and very dry sometimes—it just didn’t work for me. But Easwaran has written books that are very readable. He’s a wonderful story teller. So if you’re having any problems trying to read the mystics, you could try Easwaran. He’s a very good writer. He has a meditation practice called Passage Meditation, where you choose a passage of scripture or prayer from whatever tradition you like, and you memorize it and repeat that passage for thirty minutes every morning. And hopefully thirty minutes at night. And you go to retreats. He has a wonderful book of practices from all different traditions.
This is what I got involved in at the time. Meditation: Repeating a mantra, slowing down, one pointed attention, training the senses, putting others first, spiritual companionship, and reading the Mystics.
I was really committed to the twelve step work with Alanon and really involved with Easwaran, and I also started going to Unity Church. When I went there I felt there was a heart connection that I didn’t have at the Unitarian Church. I did a lot of music there, and I went on this long New Age seeking where I went to a lot of workshops, read a lot of books. I was healing and getting over the alcoholism and co-dependence and everything, but I started to feel so good. Everything got worked out. So guess what? I stopped meditating. I was still on a spiritual path, but it was starting to get watered down. Everything’s fine, you know, what’s the problem? I don’t remember thinking that, but I’m sure that’s what it was about.
But I still had this feeling that something was wrong. I was missing something and something was wrong. They talk a lot about love at Unity, and not too much about the dark side there. Everyone always seemed so lovely. I probably acted lovely, but I felt like I was somehow missing. I didn’t really have that heart that other people have.
Also at that time, I married a man. It was a good marriage, but he got a terminal illness and he died after about six years of marriage. That was a really tough but wonderful experience. I had started studying about death issues. I had been attracted to death for a long time because I understood that death is the Big Kahuna. This is the big deal, and there has to be something there to learn from that. I was involved with Alanon, Easwaran and sort of dropped that and started doing a lot of death studies. But I was still pretty involved with Unity. I was doing a lot of music there, workshops, different things like that.
Michael, my current husband, and I met at a very nice time because I had decided I wanted to start meditating again. I had never lost my love for Easwaran. I still had all of his books, even though I got rid of all my other books.
It happened that Unity Church was doing their yearly “Come Learn How to do Passage Meditation” at Blue Mountain with Easwaran, which I was already familiar with. Michael wasn’t, but we went to that class and pretty much for 6-7 years, we were very involved with that group. It was really a very big part of our daily life. We meditated every morning, with a few exceptions here and there. And we went on Thursday nights, to watch a video and meditated. We started a meditation group on Saturday nights for anybody to come to, but it was mostly Easwaran people. We went to retreats. It was a very wonderful time. I changed a lot as a person. I deeply explored that one step about putting others first. When you’re a co-dependent, you have to really tease that apart. Because if you don’t you’re going to be in real trouble. You can’t just say, “Put others first,” ‘cause you know you’re going to do it in a way that’s not healthy.
The whole thing, slowing down, putting others first, reading all the wonderful mystics, was a very, very nice time. I really want to mention that at this same time, I got involved musically with a group called Music for People. David Darling created this program where people would start bringing music back into their homes. Do music together. I didn’t realize it then, but it was a musical spiritual family. The whole four years I was with them, it involved the four principles: Attention, Commitment, Detachment, and Surrender. It’s music improvisation. It’s not learning how to read music, or become an expert or anything else. You simply do music from the inside out. You have to surrender. You have to let go. You have to pay attention. I didn’t really see it as a spiritual path then, but I can see now how it completely ties into that. That was a really wonderful time and part of my spiritual path.
Michael and I like to go motor home camping. And at the time when we were with Easwaran, we would do these trips as mini retreats. We’d meditate in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. We would bring along spiritual DVDs or books. I was at the public library one day and I saw a video titled “Who are you really?” by Joel. I pull out this video and I think, “Well that might be good.” So I took it home and showed Mike and he said, “Well, you know, we can’t play a video tape in the motor home. It has to be a DVD.” So we watched it at home. And we both really liked it and we turned it over, and it said, “Joel Morwood, Eugene.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been here like thirty years and I’ve just now found this tape?” Then I remember that my brother who is on a spiritual path said to me one day, “Isn’t there some guy named Joel in Eugene?” And another person said, “You should come hear Joel.” And I didn’t. Anyway, after we watched the video, we came to one of Joel’s talks at the Center. And Kapoo! I was home again. I got home in Alanon, got home with Easwaran, the music, and I came to the Center and the feeling kind of followed me. I knew I was home each of those times.
One of the things I really loved is that the Center’s precepts and the eight point of Easwaran that we were practicing at that time just fit together so beautifully. I got right online to get all the information about the Center. And I found out there was a Foundation class, but it had already started for one or two weeks. Then I dug deeper and found out the distance studies course was available. So I filled out the application and went to see Joel—talked to him. I was pretty excited. He assigned Todd as my mentor for the course. I got Joel’s book The Way of Selflessness and got started. I really loved it because it was so organized. So concise. I had always really liked that kind of thing being a student. I would just call Todd and meet with him if I had a question. Maybe every other month. Every now and then, I would come and see Joel. It was really lovely. Now I had a living teacher, a living mentor, and a community. I was really enjoying it. Still doing some Passage Meditation too.
Blue Mountain came out with new guidelines—they strongly suggested we only do Passage Meditation. So I left that group. It was a very sad time because I was very close friends with my meditation group. But it just wasn’t going to fit anymore. I have to say that was tough to leave.
That year I studied the book alone with Todd was really great. But I still was thinking something’s missing. Something’s not quite right. By this time I knew there was hope, because I knew I was nobody anyway, intellectually anyway. [laughs]
I went to the Spring Retreat led by Matt. And I finished the book. I went to the Fall Retreat with Joel. I went to Todd’s Practitioners group and that was very good. Then I got to the end of the book and, it was like “OK, now what?” It was not good because I was really so focused.
I’ve been a researcher all my life in science. So what did I do? I got on the internet and started poking around, just reading everything I could read about anybody who had anything to offer that I was attracted to in any way. Joel always suggested that if anything calls to you, really go for that. That really helped me out a lot. I came across a guy named John Sherman. He has a very interesting back story. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for awhile. He had this thing that he suggested you do. He calls it “Look at Yourself.” There was also something that he was suggesting that Joel suggested that I keep doing because it did speak to me. Its a little practice that goes like this: Try to remember a moment in your childhood. It could be anything you could remember yourself doing. It doesn’t need to be anything special. Just an ordinary memory of an ordinary event. When you have that moment in mind, look for what it felt like to be you in that moment. If you succeed, you will immediately realize what it felt like to be you then; that’s exactly what it feels like right now. Isn’t it? It’s exactly the same me-ness as now. Look and see.
So I started doing this and I was re-reading Joel’s book. I did it as often as I could possibly do it. One day I did it and time and space just fell away. I don’t know how else to explain it. I remember laughing and feeling kind of giddy about it. I think I came to see Joel not too long after that. I said, “Well nothing ever actually happened.” Which doesn’t sound quite right, but what I’m trying to say is that time and space collapsed, so it happened, but it didn’t affect—it’s just so hard to say anything. Anyway, it was a moment. (Laughs all around)
So I had my moment, I had my laughter, I had my “Oh My God—wow wow.” I went to bed, I got up the next morning and it was like someone had pulled the rug out from under me. Michael and I sat down to meditate. I couldn’t meditate. It made absolutely no sense. It just—I was in a whole new world. I tried to read and I could see the words but I couldn’t really read anything. I was really disoriented. I didn’t understand, I mean, I sort of knew it was all related, but I guess I thought, well, it’s over. Then I thought “This is it??” (Laughs) I think I talked to Todd about it, and I talked to Joel about it, but I was pretty disoriented. So I started looking for people who wrote about after awakening. It was really, really helpful to me because it all made sense to me. It really helped me readjust and not be so disoriented. I went to Fred’s group when they were discussing the Jan Frazier book about her awakening. That book was very helpful because I could relate to everything she was saying. I felt really awkward in the group. What am I going to say? I’m not going to say I’m not meditating. I wasn’t sitting. So I went out on my own again. It turns out that Jan Frazier wrote a second book called “Freedom of Being.” That was really helpful too. I would recommend that because she writes about her life after awakening. It’s very practical, very simply written.
I started to notice things change and I’m sure people close to me like Michael and some others started to notice things. I’ve always had a lot of equanimity but issues came up with my mom that were really extreme. I started to notice this phenomena of the non-stickiness. I’m still in the same life but things just—they’re just not sticking. Things happen and I react but it’s not like it was before. I came up with this toaster analogy for myself. It’s like you push the thing down, like your thoughts. You push it but it isn't staying down. It’s not toasting. You keep pushing and you keep pushing (your thoughts keep coming and coming and attempt to make stories), and every now and then you might get a little heat. But you just can’t make toast anymore. The mind never stops. It keeps working, but it’s, like, “tough—I don’t want any toast so I’m not going to have any.”
For example, with my son, in the past my life has had a lot of anxiety about him. Now I was a completely different person—it was a whole new world. I reacted; I said something, but no toast. It was pretty amazing.
I think I need to mention dreams before I end. For several years I was having these dreams. It always involved the car. And it always involved the situation where I would be completely out of control. An example would be I would be in a car. I’d be in a little town, usually like a tourist town. I’d drive up to a store, get out of the car, go in to buy something, come out—no car. Different town. Nothing recognizable. I would ask people to help me. Can’t help you lady. I don’t know. You’re really—you’re in deep doo doo. I would get really so distraught physically and mentally. I would wake up—I would sob. The dream was always the same with different variations. But now, looking back, I realize in this dream, it’s like it’s so bad that I either have to die or wake up. So I woke up in the bed, but eventually I Woke Up. So the dream makes sense now. But it didn’t really then.
One day at the Center I raised my hand and mentioned the dream. Joel said, “Come see me Tuesday.” Just out of the blue like that. I don’t even know what was going on there. I went to see Joel and we talked some more about what was going on. He asked me some questions, and we had a conversation. I’m not exactly sure what was going on. But I do remember a couple things. I remember Joel said at some point after we talked, “you’re on your own now.” Then I was sort of hemming and hawing about saying “Enlightenment” or calling it this or that. And Joel said, “Well you've got to call it something.” I remember that. I’m not sure what happened, but after that meeting, it’s like the last brick came out. When I left that meeting and the next day, it was like, yeah, and that was it.
You said the last brick fell. What was different?
All I know is that, the day after that meeting, if he had called me on the phone, I’d have said, “Well, thanks for your opinion. That’s nice, but…” [laughs] So it’s just like there was no doubt, there was no question. There was no disorientation. I was on my own now. I didn’t really need his validation.
If I followed you correctly, I don’t remember hearing anything about anything scary, or any dark night of the soul.
I did have frustration. I’m so devoted, so focused, so disciplined but nothing’s happening. I also had lots of dark periods that seemed not to be related to my spiritual search. It was more about my co-dependency problems, and crises like that.
I’m curious how what the process looked like to go from space and time falling away and being disoriented, and then somehow stabilizing.
I wish I could do a better job of verbalizing that. There are a lot of accounts of people that it takes awhile, a year or whatever. They were very helpful to me—they did a very good job of putting it down on paper. When that happened it was a moment in time. It was just a shock. Everything just fell away, just the way people described it. There was no space or time. Everything was, I just was, there was nothing. Then I came out of that, and the next day it was clear the spiritual search was just over. Meditation, reading, all of a sudden it didn’t make sense like it did before. I think I tried to keep one foot in and one foot out for quite awhile. I was very attached to my spiritual search. And I did not want to give that up. I think that was a big factor. I had this nice little box, get up at this time, do this and do that. That sort of behavior goes way back in my life. So I’m not surprised that I switched it to the spiritual search. I have a sister-in-law who I saw last year who reminded me when we were younger, pre-teens, she would say, “You were like so weird. You had a list that said 8 o’clock get up; 8:10 wash hair, 8:15. .. .” (laughter). It’s that kind of thing where one tries to control one’s life. I think I was talking to Joel one day and he said every now and then he has a little nostalgia for his activist years. I had some nostalgia for that intense discipline that I was engaged in for so long. I knew who I was. I was an intense spiritual practitioner. Now I’m nobody. Which is fine.
I think the whole spiritual path can be summarized as letting go. Can you comment on the role of that reality in your path?
I do think that ultimately surrender and letting go is very crucial. It figured largely in my dreams where I was unable to let go. I was so distraught and upset that I wouldn’t let go. I stayed in that tied-up knot. Surrender—it’s that paradox again. You have to let go, you have to surrender, and yet you have to be somewhere and be something to let go of. You probably have had lots of experience in your life already where you experience some surrender. When I was in Alanon, it took quite awhile, but I’ll never forget the day that I really surrendered trying to fix my husband. You have to get to the point where you realize that this person is probably going to die, or kill someone else because of the disease. I had to let go of that. I had to surrender that. Surrender was like a terrible thing, yet there was a sweetness to it. Because you’ve let go and you’re in the moment. You’re just there then. I like that term, bittersweet.
When you felt there was something wrong with you, what meaning does that hold for you now?
There’s nothing wrong with me now because there’s no me. I don’t feel like there’s anything missing any more. Looking back, I feel like possibly I was dysfunctional on the feeling level. Why didn’t I feel anything? Somebody would tell me their mother died and I would give all the right responses, but I didn’t feel anything. I was exploring that and I made some progress, but it was about lack of feeling. Having my son really opened up a whole world for me with that, because it was my first experience of unconditional love just naturally happening. Then I got to feel “Oh, this is what it means to love somebody.”
I forgot to mention one thing that I’m really enjoying. I have become a little less social in groups. But I have developed this enjoyment of strangers. It’s really so fun. I just love going to the coffee shop. I don’t know the clerk, but I’m just fascinated by her. Strangers. I’m fascinated by strangers and I have to really check myself where there’re people in line and talking. I just love meeting people I don’t know. Go figure. Yet in other areas of my life, I’ve become much less social.
What about music? How has that changed for you?
Music is still lovely; it’s also the way I do it, who I do it with, although that’s changing quite a bit. I would love to do some teaching here with music improv because it’s a very spiritual approach. It’s all about surrendering and letting go and being in the moment. I’m not talking about learning how to play anything. It’s you and what comes out. It’s very dear to my heart. And it’s something I feel I could share with the people. [Note: Some months after this talk, Annie did indeed begin leading public ‘Music in the Moment’ events at the Center. See the Center calendar for dates and details.]
After you’ve taken the time that you need, are you willing to be a teacher for all of us here?
I’m still sorting that out. I don’t feel at this point that I would want to give talks. Right now I wouldn’t commit to that.
What is the impact of your awakening on your relationships? What was your impression of that, and what was Michael’s impression of that.
Michael and I are together eighteen years, married fifteen. We’ve always had a very, very good relationship. And we had all those wonderful years of the spiritual path together, and continue to do so. For me it makes it even better. I’m still shocked that I’m the same person. Everything’s different, but everything’s the same. I still leave coffee cups all over the house. Michael will have to speak to the other side.
One of the things that this has done for me is that it has allowed me to see all the preconceptions I have about what it means to wake up! Annie is still Annie. The personality isn’t gone. But I have experienced changes. In stressful times, as she was saying, it clearly isn’t a sticking point for her as it was. And stressful things are still happening in our lives, but for her that part is a real change. There’s still life, we’re still doing it all together. I haven’t woken up; I still get irritated with her. The changes are not dramatic from my perspective. But all I know is what my experience is, not her experience. But it certainly is giving me opportunities to keep looking at my stuff and letting go more and more.
For me, a common element in all four awakening stories of Todd, Fred, Matt and you, is the great sense of discipline. All were very seriously seeking and practicing. Fred and Todd had tragedy in their lives. After they told their stories, I thought there is no hope for me, since I’ve had a good life, and I didn’t want to bring on tragedy just to make this happen.
I’m just a regular person. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.
Were you hoping for enlightenment? Would you think about it often, or ever?
I knew it was possible. I thought it wasn’t likely. But I never gave up. At the Blue Mountain Center I got the feeling that it’s VERY unlikely. It’s rare, rare, rare. That was a bummer. But there were a few people here at the Center, so it’s possible.
It’s not like I did anything. After that moment when the rug was pulled out, I felt like I didn’t do anything. It’s very mysterious. Very paradoxical. There’s so little you can say.
I didn’t analyze it. I did go back and read the last part of Joel’s book. I knew it was something. I just got busy, busy starting to do research and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. As I started to read people’s reports about after awakening, it really helped.
After the rug was pulled out, you said some things happened with your mother, and things with your son. You said ultimately these things didn’t stick. Did you feel at the time you were being tested? Did you feel that everything that could go wrong was going to come up at some time and you would have to face it?
No. Just this thing happened and I went on with my life, and things happened and I would notice my response. No. I wasn’t afraid that I was going to be tested. I had already such a sense that there was nobody there, I was disoriented, but I wasn’t afraid.
So if nobody was there, you had no self doubts.
I was just disoriented. I wouldn’t call it doubt. It must have been doubts, because I kept going to see Joel, and I kept looking. Then went to see him, the last brick came out, and that was it.