I’d thought I could discuss ecstatic or altered states in one post. Then I remembered…well, “remembered” is the wrong word. More correctly, I experienced a sucker punch to the head: my subconscious dropped my conscious mind into a complete sound-and-imagery-and-sensation re-experiencing of a previous moment in my life. Then it left me there, floundering my way back to the present.
Some folk call it PTSD. I call it Thursday. But I digress.
This is the memory my subconscious decided to overshare:
Once, I was touring a church near my parents’ old house. The church was a tiny wooden building high in the mountains of North Carolina, home to a collection of permanently installed, nearly life-size frescoes. The portraits were humanist renderings of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and Joseph. They were perhaps a little too modern in their sensibilities, given that one portrait showed Mary’s strong feet beneath her robe—but they were surprisingly good paintings nonetheless. I’d come into the “Church of the Frescoes” expecting something kitschy or primitive. Instead the place was a hidden gem, a jewel box of polished oak and talent and faith hidden in the Appalachians. A small tour group came in just after us, and I was glad to see they were quiet and respectful, too. The Church of the Frescoes had a way of inspiring quiet thought. We circulated around the pews in near-silence for a long while, accompanied only by the smells of beeswax polish and the cold rain on the tourists’ coats.
I was pregnant for the second time, just months after losing my first pregnancy to miscarriage. The warmth and humanity in the Virgin’s portrait surprised me. Despite her huge pregnancy and the ominous composition of a dark moon overhead, she looked perhaps like a younger, slightly more handsome version of my own mother, with that same strength and kindness in her gaze. I checked around me to make sure I wasn’t blocking another of the tourists as they perused the narrow aisles, and stepped in closer to better see her face. The artist hadn’t given her that checked-out, spacey look that so many artists do. She looked like a woman who was facing adversity, and yet you could tell she would come out strong and good on the other side. She looked like a good friend to have in a bad place. I felt almost as if I knew her, as if I could sit down over a cup of coffee with her at a sunny kitchen table and tell her my worries…
And my heart shocked me by suddenly screaming to her, in the purest abject misery, Save my child!
I was so dislocated by the sheer volume inside my own head, so frightened by the animal power of those three unexpected words, that I slammed back into myself. I was terrified I’d actually shrieked aloud. I looked around at the people studying the art, and saw the bus driver waiting patiently at the door, and reassured myself that I wasn’t losing my damn mind…I was just pregnant. And boy howdy, did my heart want to stay that way.
For me, that unfiltered, uncontained cry of the heart can only be called prayer. I’ve prayed (over different things) in that same way since I was young enough to remember…and the memories are so strong that my subconscious can drop me into them, mind and body, years after the fact.
In short, prayer remains the first and most continuous altered state of my life.
A wag of a comedian once said, “All prayer takes one of two forms. You’re either saying, ‘Oh shit oh shit oh shit’ or you’re saying, ‘Thank you thank you thank you.’” I have prayed both of those, sometimes pretty continuously, since I was old enough to know what a prayer was. But neither of those things is the equivalent of an honest conversation with the universe. They’re a beg, a cajoling, a pleading, delivered as a lesser being to a greater being, like a small child talking to a parent. Instead of “oh shit,” we could simply call that “asking for help.” And the “thank you” prayer is no different than the good manners our parents cram into our heads from day one.
My plea to the Virgin, while destabilizing in its ferocity, could still just be called an “oh shit” prayer. It was a bald plea, delivered as a lesser being to a greater being. But I’m glad to say that I didn’t actually expect help; it was, of course, my second pregnancy. I’d already learned the hard truth of losing the first one.
The universe seems to respond best to honest surrender. A parent doesn’t like blatant pleas to get us out of shit we did to ourselves (oh shit oh shit oh shit!). And a parent doesn’t respond well to obsequious gratitude, either (thank you thank you thank you!). But if I plead for strength to withstand stuff that’s out of my control, I seem to get it. Or if I ask a real question—if I ask for objective truth instead of confirmation—I seem to get it. I can’t ask to have the answers I think I know confirmed; I have to actually ask the hard questions, with an eye toward my own culpability and/or my own ability to deliver myself from the situation.
In my life, I’ve had the best results asking the universe for a hand dealing with the shit I’ve been given, or asking for a clear view on a situation I could no longer see my way through. When I’ve asked the universe for a hand up, not a handout, the universe usually answers.
Many of the older religious sects and indigenous peoples are well aware of prayer as an altered state. The dervishes come to mind: devotion through hours of spinning in place. Many Native American tribes combine the holiest of self-examination with the prostration of a sweat lodge, or the ingestion of mind-altering substances like peyote or ayahuasca. Even the early Christian church had altered-state forms of prayer, though it generally involved either extreme mortification of the flesh, or at its least damaging, involved kneeling all night by the light of a single candle in an empty, echoing church.
It’s depressingly Western, to dehumanize or sterilize something as important as prayer.
Some Christians have attempted to return prayer to an almost pre-Christian (and certainly public) state; if you’ve ever seen snake handlers or charismatic churches, they’re a trip. Some of my experiences in charismatic churches have been quite powerful and good. (I once lost my shit crying crying in front of a church full of people and, instead of everybody getting embarrassed and clamming up, everybody turned to me and grasped me gently in mute support. It sounds like it would be triggering, to be physically held by total strangers as I choked out sobs, but it was instead comforting, to be seen at my worst yet still be held in one piece.) Unfortunately, the dogma that more often accompanies said charisms (at least in my limited experience) is uneducated, closed-minded, and bordering on the repugnant…so you’ll pardon me if I’m glad that there aren’t more charismatic churches and snake handlers.
We Americans tried to develop a secular form of altered-state soul work. Then Timothy Leary and Richard Nixon ruined it for everybody. We’ve wasted nearly 60 years before getting back to psychedelics, and many medical professionals are now doggedly re-proving their power to treat things like PTSD, depression, anxiety, and (counter-intuitively) addiction. If you want an utterly fascinating read on the subject, I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Trust me when I say, psychedelics are not what you think they are.
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to scientifically verify what, exactly, is happening in the human brain during any form of naturally-induced altered-state prayer, and it’s further impossible to verify whether it’s doing the praying human being any good. (After all, you can’t double-blind charisms. Besides, attempting to measure outcomes-to-requests as if it were an ROI calculation would be utter foolishness.) And until psychedelics are taken back off Schedule I, very few people will attempt the direct kind of scientific measurement that medically-induced altered states encourage. Some people are plowing through the bureaucratic nightmare of legally working with Schedule I drugs in an attempt to make that experience available in a safe, clinical setting to any terminal patient willing to attempt it; God bless those folk for trying, but it’s going to take years to make the experience available to the rest of us.
So, without a wisdom tradition to carry us Americans along, and until science catches up to us, we’re just going to have to keep figuring this out for ourselves.
So what we’re left with is…well, what does prayer feel like? Does it feel like it’s doing anything? I’d like to pooh-pooh that level of unscientific inquiry, but then I have to remind myself that every drug ever developed by the medical field has literally come down to just those questions, in typed questionnaires on the clipboards of every doctor from here to the other side of the world: What does it feel like? Does it feel like it’s doing anything?
My form of prayer is just as uncontrolled as snake handling, unfortunately. I have no control over what I say when I plead so loud that it echoes in my head and heart, but doesn’t come out of my mouth. Like my shriek to the Virgin, there’s no way anyone actually hears a pleading prayer of mine…and yet I can say with absolute certainty that I know it’s heard, because I feel it. The same way I know when someone has heard a sly joke I make on the sidelines of a party–a wry curve to someone’s mouth, the twinkle in someone’s eye as they catch my gaze–no one speaks, and yet I know the joke hit home. I can feel that curved mouth, that twinkling eye, even if I’m not looking at the person when it happens.
Well, I shrieked my pain to the Virgin and I felt her forbearance, her compassion, her understanding. I felt it as surely as if my own mother had walked up to me in that church and put her arm around my shoulders.
I also have no control over how I ask the universe a question. That sounds counter-intuitive, given that I’m a writer. But, whether writing or praying, I’ve always done my best work when my thinking mind is out of the way. Riding the waves of my subconscious, no matter what uncomfortable thing it has to say, is perhaps the purest form of prayer I have. I feel it strongly when my subconscious mind forms a question to the universe. I can also feel it when the universe answers. For that precise reason, I don’t often ask questions. I’m usually too busy trying to force the answers. Or, worse, I’m too busy ignoring the answers and substituting my own because I’m too scared to hear honesty.
Because here’s the gritty part: the universe never lies. And it’s scary to ask a question when you know the answer is going to come back honest and objectively true…especially when you don’t think you’re going to like that answer. Friends and family might soften the answer to protect your feelings, but the universe never will. The universe is the queen of honest answers.
How do I know this? I know because it thumps.
I’ve probably told the cinnamon roll story before, but in case I haven’t, I’ll share a short version of it again. When I was very young, one day my mom entrusted the baking of her famous cinnamon rolls to me while she worked on something else. I was terrified. What if I messed up the family’s single favorite holidays-only baked good? She replied, “All you have to do is tap them with your finger. If it thumps, they’re baked, and you can tell me and I’ll pull them out of the oven.” I was beside myself. If it thumps? What did that even mean? I kept reaching into the hot oven and smacking the rolls with one finger, and nothing happened except the rolls got browner. In a state of progressing anxiety, I begged my mom to finish up whatever she was doing and come get the cinnamon rolls. I was sure that they were burned, as I had never seen them without their frosting before and had no idea they ever got that brown. But my mom sighed at me and kept telling me to do my job. And finally, after what felt like hours, I opened the oven one more time, blinked against the blast of heat, smacked the hot rolls with my finger, and…it thumped. A beautiful, rich noise. I didn’t just hear it with my ears, either; I felt it through my finger and into my hand, as if I’d just hit the world’s tiniest drum right in the sweet spot. I’m sure I sounded as surprised as I felt when I yelled, “Mom, it thumped!” And she hustled to come get the cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
Some things can never be explained. They can only be experienced. And when a prayer goes into the universe, I feel it thump. The prayer sinks deep, and the answer comes back to me like a wave with no soggy dough in the way to foul the sound. I know the moment it happens that the prayer has gone all the way out, and the answer has come all the way back. I know, wherever it is that sound goes when it fades away from me, that the universe is there with it. My mark has been made. My voice has been heard. And there’s absolutely nothing in the way of the answer coming back, either. It may take time for me to understand it fully, but that answer will come back to me. And it will be clear when it does. I may not like it, but that answer will be there.
Like my plea to the Virgin, my most recent prayer was another shocker. But even though this prayer was a quiet moment, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t correct me…humble me…and prostrate me just as effectively as a scream in a church. I asked a question, and I didn’t like the answer one bit.
One evening about a year ago, the veil between states was particularly thin. The moon was coming up and the wind was already on the move, even as the sun hadn’t yet relinquished its hold on the sky. It was the kind of evening that, in college, I’d have scoured the city until I found enough friends to go dancing. Buoyed by all that energy flying loose on the wind, we wouldn’t have come home until the wee hours. But as a married mom waiting in traffic, that kind of evening now feels like the world might slip right out from under me. I was driving my daughter to a friend’s house, yet even as I scanned the road and judged my place in traffic I could feel the pavement trying to squirm. (I’ve often said that what’s “real,” isn’t. A road is a road even in alternate universes, but the destination a road takes you to might change, if you’re not careful to end your trip in the same world you started it in.) I came to a red light and stopped, letting my daughter’s piping voice from the back seat lull my worries.
Autopilot had already gotten us this far in the drive. Being stopped at a light allowed me to take my brain even further out of gear. Between autopilot, my daughter’s soothing prattle, the tiredness of an already long day, the promise of being with good friends, and the energy on the move in the air, I slipstreamed in place, just as I had in front of the Virgin’s fresco.
Even as I found myself considering my cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t alarmed by the thought. It was just a fact of the world around me, like the cars in front of me in line at the light. Before I knew what was happening, a real question had slipped quietly out of my unthinking mind and into the universe. This question was there, really there, and the thump was the universe’s way of telling me it had heard. Thinking of my 50/50 cancer diagnosis, yet at peace with whatever answer came back from the universe simply because I was at peace with where I was at that moment, I asked, How close am I to dying?
I had been gazing at the middle distance when I asked. The middle distance contained the grass median at the center of a nine-lane surface highway at rush hour that crossed the street I was waiting on. Scores of cars streamed in both directions in front of me, headlights and taillights glowing. The twilit strip of grass nodded in the breeze of their passing. A skinny young man, dressed in black clothes with a big splash of white across his oversized jacket, stood in the grass facing toward me. I assumed he was waiting for the light to change again so he could make it across the other four lanes. It was difficult to tell, because he had such dark, lanky hair that I couldn’t see the direction of his gaze well.
I wasn’t focused on him, though. I was focused on nothing except the pleasant tiredness in my body and the pleasant waiting and even the pleasant lack of angst in the question I’d just asked. I was focused on being pleasantly unfocused. But the question thumped, and at that instant the young man moved. His motion caught my eye. I focused on him and realized he was staring right at me.
And he vanished. Literally blinked out of the median like he had never been there, though there was a tiny implication of movement in his disappearance—as if he’d begun to exit stage right inhumanly fast, dodging behind an invisible curtain.
I’ve been able to see the dead since I was very small. Once I was an adult, I came to think little of it. They can be a bit unnerving, but they’re dead—they’ve got other things on their minds (it’s the angry dead that I have problems with). But this boy wasn’t dead. He was an answer.
How close am I to dying? I had asked.
Just this close, the universe replied.
Now you know why I try to avoid real questions. The answers aren’t always what I want. And that was before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) on top of ocular melanoma (OM) and Hashimoto’s.
Apologies, folks, we’re about to get to the hardest part of this particular outing. Mark Twain once wrote, “I apologize for the length of this letter, but I had no time with which to write you a shorter one.” My coinage on that bon mot is, “I apologize for the roughness of this path, but I had not enough light with which to discover a smoother one.”
It’s a special place, a special mindset, to finally accept with total candor that yep, nothing is under control, and there is nothing in this world that can protect me or mine from any and all disasters this chaotic world throws at us. There are no magic words to protect us–and that includes what most of the world means when they say the word “prayer.” No amount of faith or good works will ensure the safety or health of me and mine, or you and yours. The good and the evil people of the world have exactly the same chances of being struck by cancer or MS or, amusingly, both…especially if they, like me, already had one autoimmune disease to deal with.
My chances of being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s hypothyroiditis by itself were roughly one in 100. My chances of being diagnosed with MS by itself were roughly one in 750. My chances of being diagnosed with ocular melanoma by itself were roughly six in one million. My chances of being diagnosed with all three?
The chances of being diagnosed with all three are vanishingly small, and the reason for that smallness is hidden in the term “co-morbidities.” Very few people…let’s be honest, one in a ridiculously small number…survive for long with a triple whammy of disease. I would have to have a perfect combination of those three diseases—well-controlled Hashimoto’s, a lucky break in the kind of cancer, and a ludicrously mild expression of a slow-burning MS—to survive that combination for long enough to make my survival known to a large enough group of people to make a dent in our culture’s thinking.
And that’s why you don’t meet many people like me. It’s not that this doesn’t ever happen. It happens. All. The. Time. It’s just that the people to whom it happens often don’t survive long enough to tell their stories. It’s the ultimate form of confirmation bias. The stories aren’t told because the tellers die before they can tell them, and therefore other folk just think it never happens (because of course they’ve never heard of it).
I’m going to say this only once. That adage, “God never gives us what we can’t handle” is…
Why do I bring this up? Bear with me.
If God never gave us what we can’t handle, suicide wouldn’t exist. And neither would triple-disease-whammies. (Neither would pediatric oncology, thank you very much. And anybody who says that God gives cancer to kids in order to demonstrate what grace looks like has never seen a child weeping in agony in a cancer ward. And yes, I’ve seen somebody use that horseshit answer IRL. I would have verbally smacked the woman if I’d been able to recover quickly enough from my dump-truck-load of shock.)
Only a world as big and chaotic as ours could throw such horror at people. God has nothing to do with punishing us with “tests.” His job is love, not punishment. And let’s be honest, if God’s job were to punish the guilty and the good equally, He’s doing a piss-poor job of it. Or if His job were to test the faithful with afflictions, well…we’ve got a word for that kind of person. We call them sadists. And I will not worship an idiot or a sadist.
This world and its evils—especially its casual, accidental evils, like cancer arriving simultaneously with MS in the lap of a person who already has an autoimmune disease—only make sense if God really meant it when He offered free will. Free will really does mean completely free. It’s look-Ma-no-hands free. If there’s even one human being’s karma bound up in an outcome, God simply won’t touch that outcome. And there’s no amount of prayer that will change His abstention. Only a fool believes that a good outcome happened in her world because she prayed hard enough.
Don’t believe me? Ask me how hard I prayed not to have cancer.
Still don’t believe me? Ask me how abjectly I prayed not to have the aggressive form of my cancer.
Still don’t believe me? Ask me how hard I prayed not to have MS.
Still don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it, then. Ask the parents of those kids in the oncology ward how hard they prayed.
Still don’t believe me? If you’re a Christian, I don’t see how. Christ Himself prayed that the cup would pass him by. We see how that worked out.
And if you still don’t get it…if you still believe that somehow I didn’t pray the right words, or didn’t pray hard enough…then you apparently think I had it coming…and that those kids I pass in the hospital hallways also have it coming. And then I think you need to ask yourself if you, perhaps, are one of the evil people who actually has it coming.
And then rejoice, human: even if you are a self-diagnosed evil sonofabitch, you still have just as much chance as any of us of escaping the comeuppance you so richly deserve.
Those of us with a brain and a heart eventually learn to pray, not for particular outcomes, but for the grace and courage to contain all our outcomes, no matter what they are. We pray for serenity in a chaotic world. (We really pray for the serenity to handle the holier-than-thou and the victim-blamers who try to insist that we must have done something to bring this misfortune on ourselves.) Instead of lying to each other by saying, “God never gives us what we can’t handle,” we should be saying, “Life sometimes gives us more than we can handle. God is how we handle what we’re given.” When we pray, we ask questions and make pleas to the universe and, when the question or plea is really there–when our need is as clear and solid as a perfect strike to a tight drum head–the answers come back just as clear.
But we will never be able to guarantee that the answer is what we want to hear.
And that, in a sudden rush of understanding, was the full answer to my prayed question, How close am I?
The universe’s answer was complete, but it took me a while to realize it wasn’t what I first thought. At first I took Just this close to be a grim commentary on how short the time I have left on this planet may be. And I spent a little while freaking out in silence behind the wheel of my car. But it has since occurred to me that the answer I was given applies to every human being. All of us. Every one of those drivers on that nine-lane highway was within the dead boy’s reach, within his gaze, within the energy realm he inhabited. We are, all of us, just this close at all times. We are none of us immune. We are all free, to live and love and hate as we will. And we are all free to die. Completely, ruthlessly, free. Anything less than that—any entrapment or mind games or peek-a-boo played by a capricious god—would cheapen the utter majesty of that truth.
Life itself is an altered state. At some point every single one of us will be warped out of our minds by grief, or pain, or loss. And how we choose to live through that point is the most potent form of altered-state prayer we have.