A Story of Pain and Awakening
Holly began attending CSS on Sundays in 2002 after many years of searching and studying within various traditions—the Course in Miracles, initiations on the Sant Mat and Sufi paths, work with anthroposophy, and taking refuge on the Buddhist path with the 13th Karmapa in the Black Crown ceremony. Her root guru, Neem Karoli Baba, first appeared to her in 1977 through a disembodied voice that guided her on her path for a few years. By the time she found the Center, she had been through the gamut of spiritual groups and traditions, as have many of us who eventually arrived at CSS.
During her first year attending CSS Sunday meetings, and after a number of private meetings with Joel, she had a set of profound awakening experiences which had a marked transformative impact on her life. Within just a few years, however, she developed a debilitating illness that brought with it three and a half years of severe symptoms such as disorientation, severe pain and a temporary loss of ability to function in the world. I am interviewing Holly in order to share not only her experience of Awakening, but also to discuss her subsequent experiences of severe pain and mental chaos within the context of her transformed vantage point.
-Todd, Spring 2014
Todd: So tell us, what originally brought you to CSS?
Holly: I sort of stumbled onto CSS after years of seeking, and was instantly moved by the teachings of Joel. After attending on a single Sunday, I knew I was in the right place and, eventually, I began having private meetings with Joel for guidance in 2002.
Todd: In our conversations, you describe a transformative experience that occurred in 2003. Please describe what happened, how it seemed to come about, and how it changed your life experience.
Holly: After a number of visits with Joel, I was telling him that my practice was to be the watcher, and he threw me off when he gave me a practice of looking to see what is behind the watcher. So I was attempting to look behind the "watcher" when I suddenly had the experience of being disoriented in space. I don't have coherent words for what happened next, but suddenly there was an experience of awareness without bounds, and there was no sense of Holly apart from anything else. This went on intermittently for days, although there was a sense of something lacking or incomplete in the experience.
Then, about a month later, while taking out the garbage, in a mood of gratitude, I looked at the garbage can and then at the full moon, and what was revealed in between was that there is only one thing here—only god taking all forms—and that there is no true thought. This was the end of seeking and the beginning of rest. Since then, I've had this longing to share something of this awakening with others. I started inviting seekers to my home for weekly meetings, and this has been going on ever since.
Todd: What do you do at these meetings? What is their function?
Holly: We read, share and discuss the teachings of mystics of different traditions, and I encourage everyone to share insightful experiences as well as their difficulties on the path.
Todd: So, back in 2003 you continued to attend CSS on Sundays?
Holly: Yes, and I continued to meet with Joel. I wanted to share my experience, but because I had never been to a practitioners group or a CSS retreat, all I had to share was the meditation that I'd been doing and my experience itself. Joel encouraged me to look into the CSS Distance Studies Course so I would have some tools with which to help others. I began and completed the course within about two years, with you as my mentor. I practiced the meditations, worked with the precepts and studied the texts. (This was before The Way of Selflessness had been published.) My goal was to learn how to help support the practice of others, and after graduating I then mentored another student in the program. Meantime, I continued my weekly groups, but not in conjunction with CSS.
Todd: So, then in 2008, you became ill. Tell us about the illness and your subsequent experiences.
Holly: I contracted Lyme disease, and during the very worst of it (between 2008 and 2010) I learned to work deeply with pain and debilitation. This illness was very intense. I got bit by a tick 10 years before the symptoms became acute, and for a long time I did not know what it was. The first thing that began to happen was that I couldn't walk downtown because I wasn't able to spatially determine where people or cars were. I couldn't cross streets. I started feeling this anxiety-like symptom in the body—it just felt like an alarm reaction was always going off. I had lots of strange feelings.
During this time, I also developed an irregular heartbeat and at times a racing heart and erratic blood pressure. I also developed something like Bell's palsy with some temporary paralysis of parts of my face, and then I began having lots of trouble sleeping and severe pain.
Then, in February of 2008, the mind began to become fragile, and then deteriorated over the next few months. My mental activity pretty much stopped being functional. I couldn't laugh or even cry; the brain at one point was all but incoherent. I couldn't read, I couldn't watch a movie, I couldn't follow even a simple conversation. But despite this, all was still just this awareness observing... inside, outside, observing the whole thing. There was no escaping it; that never changed. I couldn't have told you any of this at the time—I had a difficult time even being coherent much of that period. Yet despite that, clearly it was all being held in consciousness.
The body was becoming a disaster zone and I had no idea why, despite having gone to multiple different physicians, including a neurologist, to try to get a diagnosis. It remained unclear what was going on until I found a traditional Chinese medical doctor who diagnosed it as Lyme disease. Once I began treatment, the symptoms began to abate. Now after five years of treatment, the symptoms have significantly improved. I still have pain and issues in the body, but it is much better.
Todd: So, in the worst of this illness, with these very difficult symptoms, what happened with your awakening? Did it seem to be affected?
Holly: Well, there was a time when the mind was so vacant and the pain was so great that I was living in perpetual confusion, and even thoughts of suicide arose. The pain was creating such strong contractions in the body, and out of that came a strong sense of selfing.
Todd: Describe what you mean by a "sense of selfing..."
Holly: Along with the mental confusion that was a part of the illness I was also having this severe pain, out of which seemed to arise corresponding contractions of the entire body. This seemed to give me a sense of isolation located in time and space, and I felt like the "I" was becoming the center of my world again. The pain created this seeming focus of location, and I hadn't had a location, but now there seemed to be one and all of this pain with the body and thoughts about it began coming up, and they were indicating a "me." I went to Joel and I remember telling him, "Joel, I feel like I've lost my awakening." And he said, "Well, that's just a thought." And then I would see thought go by and awareness would snap back, with consciousness clearly seen as just holding it all. And then it didn't matter whether I was confused and in pain, or whatever. As I began to have a break in some of the symptoms, this re-recognition seemed to grow even more profound.
Todd: Did you do any practices when these symptoms were really intense?
Holly: Mostly I couldn't do any practices—awareness was pretty much doing me at that time. Most of the time, whether the mind was clear or not clear didn't seem to make much difference. Despite how deranged the mind would become, all that was occurring was clearly this one consciousness just holding it all—all of it arising in this timeless awareness. I would sometimes feel like I needed support from spiritual friends, and I would call on you and Tom Kurzka, and you would both come over and visit. I would sometimes even venture out and have a meeting with Joel.
The gift of the illness seems to have been a deepening of the recognition of being totally surrendered to what is. I wouldn't wish this illness on anyone, but if you have something like this happen, what is most important (aside from finding a competent doctor to treat it) is to be with the symptoms and the craziness of it fully and completely. Just allowing the sensations to be there and not doing battle with them. Seeing them and being with them fully, and experiencing the surrender that entails... there is now seemingly that much more nakedness. It's certainly not a path I'd recommend, but I bow to it and fully appreciate now the value of seeing the darkness of experience within the light of consciousness.
Todd: You seem to be doing pretty well at this point. How has the body been doing recently after receiving treatment for five years?
Holly: The symptoms are much better, but I still have some chronic pain left over from it. Being with these very intense Lyme symptoms seems to have deepened the surrendering process to the point that anymore all I feel compelled to do is service."
Todd: So how does service now express itself in your life?
Holly: I continue to host two groups that meet in my home, at no charge, and most recently one that meets at Unity Church on Mondays. I also have private students in different parts of the country, some of whom have been referred to me by other spiritual teachers or other students.
Todd: Thank you, Holly, for sharing your experience with us.