Interlude: The Dark Night of the Wolf

(It’s time to rewind and examine the origins of this journey. I composed this piece in the days before it started. Posting it now with a few adjustments.)

Fortunately, I didn’t think this through. 

Setting foot on new terrain has become the order of the day, and it's been leading you right through the valley of a "Dark Night". But I don't mean to sound gloomy here: trust me, dear traveler, it's all good. You've wanted this. Things are beginning to fall into place. Several parts are transforming fast, bearing the gift of growing pains, letting go, and freedom on the other side. Trust the process.

I’ve been on this journey for a long time. I’ve meandered and taken a couple of loops. I’ve forgotten and re-membered its purpose, I’ve lost and regained faith, I’ve made wishes …

And now I remember.

Let’s rewind to where it all began … to get the old story out (of the way) and start living into a new one: this very present.

Some say that Aesop wrote it first. (Image credit: Sebastien Gabriel)

Be careful what you wish for, part 1: Awakening the Spiritual Heart

I’ve encountered three major shifts in this adult lifetime that lastingly changed the way in which I’ve been experiencing life ever since. The first one happened in May 2005. I sometimes call it my first glimpse of a “spiritual awakening”, though perhaps “awakening the spiritual heart” is more accurate. It hit me suddenly, relentlessly, without warning, as if by grace – though in retrospect it was preceded by a sequence of falling dominos, spread over several weeks.

Just a couple of hours earlier, in the course of an inspiring evening with my dear friends Hope and Lea, I had uttered the wish to “be able to expand our capacities”. Later that night, as soon as I had returned home and entered my room, I started feeling dizzy. I followed an inner voice to “sit down” and “let it happen”, and then … something happened for which I had no words, no concepts at all. An utterly new and hyper-intense quality of experience grabbed my entire being and filled all my senses completely for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t do anything but surrender to it. After perhaps 10 minutes of chronos time, when the storm had weathered itself, I reopened my eyes and literally perceived the world for the first time.

Integration was challenging. I was basically experiencing an extended period of several weeks of bliss and unprecedented ease around formerly difficult situations, while knowing my purpose in life. Yet I also felt alienated from the world I had once known. I had never remotely imagined that such a quality of experience would be possible, and I had no idea yet that this experience was indeed shared in kind by several people in the past, present and future.

When thy seeing blindeth thee
To what thy fellow-mortals see;
When their sight to thee is sightless;
Their living, death; their light, most lightless;
Search no more—
Pass the gates of Luthany, tread the region Elenore.

FROM ‘The Mistress of Vision’ by Francis Thompson

I found trusted friends to talk with, who seemed to understand and could relate. However still, in the ensuing weeks and months I hesitated to follow my intuition to dive deeper, fearing that by doing so I might lose my relationships, my sanity, or both. I held onto a sense of safety of the familiar. I held onto my familiar sense of identity. I felt unworthy of this mysterious grace and sought to “make it about others” whom I deemed more “deserving”. Thereby I gradually “forgot” my clarity and purpose. Oh, this cunning ego with its most artful defenses!

Even so, the mystical experience changed me forever. I became genuinely interested in consciousness, psychology, Buddhism and various contemplative and spiritual traditions. I started meditating and attended my first meditation retreat in September 2006 in a beautiful place called Puregg (see Puregg 2006 diary). It was the beginning of a long journey filled with beauty, grace, challenge, growth, and of course heartbreak.

Puregg - Haus der Stille, 2008
Puregg – Haus der Stille. (Picture taken in April 2008)

Be careful what you wish for, part 2: Sex, Death, Enlightenment

The second shift in 2012 was an extended alchemy of “sudden epiphany” and “slow burner”.

In January 2010 I started working as a member of the ATLAS Collaboration at CERN on my particle physics PhD thesis. Living in France and Switzerland for the next 3 1/2 years gave me a novel sense of (relative) independence and self-sufficiency. I learned to dance Salsa in Geneva, co-habited with 7 amazing guys in a house and garden in Meyrin, and was tremendously inspired when my friend Ling switched her career from “CERN physicist” to “editor at Médécins Sans Frontières”. I thought: How courageous! Could I ever do such a thing? For I already had a gnawing sense – a sort of memory of the future – that my life journey was bound to unfold elsewhere, not in physics. While that possibility would still remain unfathomable and unsettling for a while, a seed was being planted.

One morning in Vienna in March 2012, on the day of my birthday celebration with family and friends, I met Tanya from Australia who had just begun traveling through Europe. Tanya’s wholehearted way of embracing life and adventure inspired me tremendously, even more so when she instantly accepted my spontaneous invitation (after only 10 minutes of beautiful conversational flow) to join us for the celebration that evening. I wondered: How open-heart-minded! Would I ever do such a thing? Thereby, the seed was being watered.

A CERN physicist in his natural habitat. (Photo credit: Anna Pantelia, June 2013)

Working at CERN felt exciting, expanding, and intimidating – everyone else seemed like an expert to me. I eventually “found my place” in Spring 2012 when taking the lead on a new project (the “Minimum Bias analysis at √s = 8 TeV” in short) that would become the heart of my PhD thesis. I overcompensated for my earlier feelings of inadequacy, and overworked like a maniac … until my body collapsed. One night in late July 2012, I experienced a severe panic attack and thought I was about to die from a heart attack. My friend and housemate Andrew accompanied me to the nearby private hospital where I spent several hours – literally a very Dark Night – filled with boundless dread and intense fear of imminent death, even as the caring nurses reassured me that I was actually safe.

Learn to water joy with tears,
Learn from fears to vanquish fears;
To hope, for thou dar’st not despair,
Exult, for that thou dar’st not grieve;
Plough thou the rock until it bear;
Know, for thou else couldst not believe;
Lose, that the lost thou may’st receive;
Die, for none other way canst live.

FROM ‘The Mistress of Vision’ by Francis Thompson

In the following days, while slowly recuperating at home and journaling, I asked three times what I really wanted in life. The third response wrote itself through my hand, in some mysterious way beyond my control: “Aufwachen” (awaken). I stared at this word with disbelief, although it shouldn’t have surprised me. It was a resurgence of the calling from May 2005. The realization shook me to the core. A new question arose: what to do now? (A handy defense mechanism: Analysis paralysis is your friend! Good luck figuring this one out!)

I took the next two weeks off, visited home, meditated in Puregg. I returned to CERN to work for two more weeks, then embarked upon a week-long vacation in France with my dear uncle, aunt, and friends. Little did I know that I would meet Y there, a muse who precisely matched all elements on my wishlist for “the kind of woman I want to come into my life”, penned into my journal half a year earlier. Be careful what you wish for: the universe delivers!

It felt like … this. (Picture taken from a journal entry in October 2013.)

Our brief encounter turned my life upside down in the most beautiful, passionate, intense, loving, challenging, heart-breaking-open, soul-expanding ways. Letting go of Y was the hardest and most liberating thing at the same time. (“Remember that challenges are blessings in drag”, she would write many years later.)

A couple of weeks later, I went on my first journey that would alter the course of my life. For the first time I chose to travel not for anybody else’s sake, but only from the unmistakable clarity of inner direction. I patiently awaited that moment of complete clarity and utter freedom. One morning I awoke from sleep, knew “this is it!”, jumped out of bed, and booked my tickets straight away.

Uh-oh! (Cover taken from here)

I went via London to visit Tanya for two days (memorable last words: “I wouldn’t be on this journey if it weren’t for you“), and on to California for almost three weeks. There I befriended street artists and homeless people, couchsurfed for the first time in San Luis Obispo where I almost stumbled into a barfight, became friends with amazing hosts, slept like a baby on a couch near the oceanside in Oceanside, and visited the Metta Forest Monastery where I had a memorable private conversation with Thanissaro Bhikkhu. At the SAND 2012 conference I met Scott Virden Anderson who would soon become a dear friend, mentor and supporter of my career transition and my spiritual journey. There I also met Mark Matousek who teaches transformation through storytelling and has authored, among other books, the spiritual memoir “Sex, Death, Enlightenment“. I will never forget our post-conference after-breakfast conversation and the powerful farewell hug. “Thank you for finding me“, he said. “Thank you for being there to be found“, I responded. And we shared tears of gratitude.

Thus further seeds were being planted and watered, my “nomad soul” was awakened, and a new direction of life was initiated. This entire journey – and much of the year 2012 – turned out to be the most soul-expanding journey of my life …

… until this year 2021. Which brings us to shift number three:

Be careful what you wish for, part 3: The Answer to Everything

This year on March 14th, 2021, I turned 3*14 = 42. (Also, 2*21 = 42 … numberphiles of the world unite!) And we all know that 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, right? Well, once more I asked for change, and change literally arrived like there was no tomorrow.

The day started beautifully: in the morning Tanya (now living again in Australia with husband, daughter and puppy) joined my family for a virtual birthday celebration and hilarious storysharing. Remembering our old stories, my nomad soul came back to life. I also felt incredibly happy for Tanya being the mother of an adorable two-year-old. I thought the day couldn’t get any better than this.

More virtual celebration and storysharing followed in the evening with dear friends from myriad social circles. My heart was overflowing with joy and gratitude for such abundance. Yet still on the same evening, an unexpected virtual reunion would turn my life upside down. After years of silence Y wrote, I responded, and we talked on Zoom for 16 hours straight – indeed like there was no tomorrow.

The universe delivered again, and it has its ways. I had asked for transformation, not for eternal bliss. In its infinite generosity, the universe giveth both: “transformation” and “not eternal bliss”. It does have Divine Humor! Two wonderfully soul-expanding months later, in a quite different sense there was indeed no tomorrow for us … yet a new tomorrow for each of us.

In these two months – they felt like years – I contracted and expanded more fully, experienced more intimate connection, revealed deeper layers of trust and strength, felt more intense emotions (most prominently love, compassion, joy, heartache, anger, acceptance), and conquered larger “insurmountable” blocks and “unfathomable” barriers than in all my 42 years before. Some days felt too blissful to be true (can such love even be real?); some days felt incredibly blissful and absolutely true; some days felt like plunging into the bottomless abyss of heartbreak, wrestling in freefall with Letting Go. (Which is where we landed.)

Admittedly, I had greatly desired a different course of events. Letting go of the beloved is not my favorite part of dukkha, nor has it been my forté. But even more so, I wanted to grow, to be free and whole. I committed to grow on my own terms, to fully and unabashedly embody that awake and true being that can only be unveiled by letting go of clinging to pretty-much-everythingTM. And I genuinely wanted the same for her, as for every being in this world: to be free and whole. I admit that it wasn’t always easy, but whenever I recommitted to this highest good and upheld my heart’s promise, it liberated me too, heartbeat upon heartbeat.

90/100. Good news! You’re experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul. (Screenshot taken from here)

And so the following two months, leading up to this day, have brought even further liberation and growth. I have plunged fully and intentionally into this “Dark Night”, embracing it with unwavering determination. I intend to leave no stone unturned, while also being more compassionate with myself and others, trusting and following my inner guidance and a growing awareness of innate sensitivity. I have lost count of the barriers, blocks, fears, habits, patterns that have been unraveling since, some intentionally and others as unintended-yet-pleasant consequences. A lot of it has to do with releasing codependency.

The not so pleasant news is that such a “Dark Night” process can hurt like hell. It runs its own course, has its own pace, and lasts on its own terms. Yet the more I let go of whatever there is to let go of, the more life begins to “work out” by itself. My inner and outer relationships are transforming fast. By simply trusting to be myself, and choosing to stand up for myself, I confronted my dad for the first time ever, which was – despite the painful context – incredibly empowering, liberating and healing. Likewise with my mentor and other “authority figures”. Consider me a late bloomer! The best part is, in my experience thus far, that such honest confrontations tend to establish clear boundaries and bring the parties closer together. It’s like an omni-win.

Approval-seeking, subjugation and self-sacrifice have reigned my life for too long; it’s a long and arduous path to release them, to release the stories(!) by which I’ve held them in place. Stories about ego, fear of you-name-it, ‘insurmountable’ difficulty. But then it suddenly turns out to be quite simple, and the stories are being revealed as untrue, and their unraveling begins.

This is completely new terrain for me, and sometimes it appears hard to navigate. But I am already committed to continue until that task is done, excited for what may come next. I fumble along the way, while learning to set new boundaries and to accept boundaries of others (these two beautifully go hand in hand). It appears that the main ingredient for setting boundaries is trusting my innate sensitivity and giving it a voice; from there, the boundaries naturally establish themselves. What if this is true for everyone?

Actually, I think this is true for everyone. Perhaps with slight adaptations. In any case, I’ll keep on practicing and learning where I can.

I am blessed with dear friends who know how to support, and whom I can support, who have walked or are still walking similar paths. Yet clearly I cannot defer my responsibility to others any longer. Orienting myself along their opinions, advice, and real or imagined expectations – once a source of “safety” and comfort (and also discomfort and rebellion) for me – would send me straight back to square one. No, this journey calls for a different way, one that I have started to taste in 2005 and again in 2012: to trust my intuition, this inner guidance, this inner authority. To take all that I’ve learned on board, discern clearly, and discard what no longer serves. To let go of what I ‘know’, to lose myself in order to find the way. And so too for everyone. Like this:

Pierce thy heart to find the key;
With thee take
only what none else would keep.

from ‘The Mistress of Vision’ by Francis Thompson

Ain’t that a damn good poem?

Be careful what you wish for, pt.4: Writing To Heal

I’ve been reading the book “Conquering Shame and Codependency” by Darlene Lancer and working with the exercises. It’s really good. VERY good.

Nourishment for body, mind, heart and soul. Yay!

Journaling and writing helps, too: I’ve recently taken the “Writing To Heal” course with Mark Matousek and will continue that process. Perhaps therefore I’m writing here again, which I’ve wanted to do for an eternity. It sometimes feels quite challenging to remain fully authentic and to write all of this here “for myself”, sharing it with you only for the sake of creative expression and healing transformation; neither to seek approval nor to cause any other desired outcome. (Work in progress.) Maybe I’ll bore you, maybe I’ll piss you off, maybe I’ll amuse you, maybe I’ll inspire you, maybe you won’t even notice any of this process here and I’m just talking to myself … Whatever be the case, it shall never get in the way of the process. And when I let go of all that, writing happens and joy arises.

And now I remember. I can barely put into words what that means, not yet. It’s like being showered by grace all over, as in 2005, but also new and different.

As in 2005, I remember (and forget and remember) my purpose. As in 2012, I have awaited clarity until the moment of doubtless clarity as to why and for whom I am doing this. A journey lies ahead, beginning in a few hours: this time northbound, to Germany. It will span just under two weeks, but after the pandemic lockdowns even that feels abundantly adventurous. I’ve had other ideas and hopes when I first planned it, but as we know, God in her Divine Humor laughs lovingly about such human matters!

My true purpose for this journey turns out to be much simpler. It is a journey to my innermost self, a quest of releasing habitual patterns and old stories, a “descent to soul”. It asks me to trust my intuition, to follow my heart, to release what no longer serves, to lose myself in order to find the way … and to awaken. Magic happens when I travel and live this way. I’ll also be taking my Ocean Soul for a swim in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and set foot on Viking lands for the first time.

(edit: as of today, that journey has already concluded, yet of course it was only the beginning of a larger journey. :-))

I’ve once heard Gary Weber say, “Put all your chips on the table!” – by which he meant the spiritual path towards awakening. (That was at SAND EU 2013 in the Netherlands. I remember we talked after the conference, an hour or so before an unforgettable walk in the woods with a dear friend, which turned into my first ever psychedelic experience.)

Oh noes! (Image taken from here)

I’m betting on a pair of aces: (1) heal thy (not-)self, in order to (2) transcend it. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, that involves the realization of not-self (anatta) and emptiness (suñyata). My concerns are: do I have time for part 1, and do we have time for parts 1&2? And if so, what are the right ingredients? What’s their right balance, the right order? How do I integrate what I have learned and yet to learn, without getting sidetracked by ego, shadow, story, desire, …?

Tricky. Yet I’ve been preparing for this. I’ll travel with intention, sincerity, humility, not-knowing, love, compassion, trust, commitment. I’ll give my sincere dedication to this quest.

In the days, weeks, months to come, I intend to share that process of discovery and transformation here. I know deep within that sharing all of this is good for something, though I don’t yet know for what exactly. I trust that it will reveal itself. Perhaps you hold the answer?

I’ll conclude with the Bodhisattva Vows and “Night Chant” at Upaya Zen Center that I’ve heard a couple of times from Roshi Joan Halifax. May it be a guiding light on our journeys:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

Let me respectfully remind you –
Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost –
Let us awaken –
    awaken . . .
Do not squander your life.

– Roshi Joan Halifax, Bodhisattva Vows and Night Chant at Upaya Zen Center


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