The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I have this perhaps incorrect notion that you get whatever you ask for. (It’s just the delivery date that’s uncertain.) The purer, more in-tune you become, the less the “you” exists. “You” become what is and always has been. Which is just a lead-in to the fact that I “asked” at some point to have this experience, since I am at a stage at which I would fear a violent death.
I had wondered off and on for years how well I would keep it together if confronted with the actual threat of pain and death. Confronting fear is a test that exists for us. A rite of passage. Just you and the powers that be.
I think it’s important for people to pass along the mechanics of this kind of experience, like Carlos Castaneda does, like Ram Dass does in terms of experiences that the “layman” can hang onto. Guides. So the diagram can be recalled if the need arises to summon some courage.
The Tale: We had spent the whole of the July day crossing Pennsylvania’s luxurious midlands, having camped south the night before. We were fasting, too, in an effort to amend the excesses of two previous days in Norfolk and to clear our minds of the unpleasantries we had encountered there. (We were visiting a disintegrating family scene, we felt, unhappily, helpless.)
I was slightly irritable and knew that Will was on edge just as I: the VW was just too tiny and cramped to make travel very lighthearted for long. A couple of hours before dark we entered the Alleghenies in northern Pennsylvania. The park curved around, crossing the New York state line, surrounding a monstrous reservoir fed by three rivers. I felt pretty certain we could find a campsite before the sunset; if we could agree on one, which was uncertain.
The marked, legal campsites surfaced early on, but they resembled pictures I’d seen on TV of refugee camps: people cramped together, huddled around small cooking fires, children squabbling in the roads, clothes drying on a thin wire strung between camper and car. Neither of us wanted to pass the night there. Besides, as the sign indicated, there was no room.
I could tell from his face that Will would tire early today of the game of finding a campsite at the last minute. His forehead was pinched as he wheeled the car back onto the main road again. We were both aware that night was closing in at its leisurely summer pace, but closing all the same. We were forever hunting campsites at twilight, but our luck seemed to be holding again as we spotted a decently graded dirt road that wound to the left of the main road and appeared to follow a ridge around the side of the mountain.
A few yards in and the steep gradient hid us from the highway. We had only the whole ridge of this mountain to argue over, I thought, as we rode into a deeply shaded, cool-looking forest, with no signs of other people. The forest floor was muffled with a thick mat of leaves and rotting vegetation. Any place we found was probably going to make a soft bed, although lumpy.
About a half mile down the road a stream flashed off to the right, its thin, icy line disappearing around grey boulders and thickly grown-together cedars upstream. Will pulled the car off the road up from the stream and we got out to survey the situation. It was the same lumpy, spongy mat, trees growing more thickly together further away from the road. But here there were breaks in the vegetation and a few small stones lying about which could be gathered to ring a campfire. The stream was down a little rise and seemed o.k. to wash in and drink from. Deer tracks pocked the sand. There was a path leading back into the deeper woods, and all in all, it felt fairly safe in spite of a certain primeval heaviness. We agreed, in silence, that we would pass the night here.
We still weren’t talking as we unloaded the tent and sleeping gear, although being outside and stretching made things noticeably more tolerable. I breathed in the air heavily scented with rotting, wet wood and cedar and black dirt and felt revived by the smell of such richness. Small things rushed about in the underbrush, tunneling through the layers of rotting material. Soft crackling background noises surfaced from pools in the stream.
We both felt a bit lost not having to prepare an evening meal; it filled in between activity and rest on these outings and was always a pleasant responsibility. But Will made a pot of tea instead and we sipped in silence, until he suggested a walk to clear the air. Take the path into the woods to see what lay beyond.
The exercise and putting some geographical distance between the two of us appealed to me, so we took off, not trying to stay abreast of one another at all. Down the path that led from the campsite, over more lumpy ground and rotting stumps. We passed under a fancifully arched sapling, as though through a doorway, and the vegetation got greener and a bit soggier. I noted with disappointment that we seemed to be approaching a swamp and promptly lost my enthusiasm to go further. We seemed to be intersecting the reservoir just where the water stagnated and contented itself with lying in still, slime-green puddles.
I headed for a knoll that looked to be drier but Will plowed straight ahead into some waist-high grass, going on to explore and be alone. He didn’t bother to say see you later. I wasn’t going to follow. Not me, boy. Snakes. I climbed to the top of the knoll and took a 360 of the slight view it afforded. I watched Will’s back disappear around a bend in the tall grass in one direction. Just more slime out there, I bet. Soggy forests back there. Waist high grass going God knows where.
I had just fomented a picture of us as Bogey and Hepburn in the Congo when the hair at the base of my neck began to prickle. I became uncomfortably aware of someone or something watching me. The sensation seemed to emanate most strongly from the section of woods back toward the campsite. Great. And I had to walk back through that! I turned away from scrutinizing the sensation, calling it ridiculous, and busied myself with debating what kind of tracks those were on the knoll top; indisputably deer, but for the sake of time and courage, maybe wild turkey? (I envied the Indians their sure knowledge of that most formidable body language.)
Taking a few deeper breaths, I again looked up and around me. Things felt safer, somehow. The sensation had lessened. I climbed down from my vantage point and headed back to the campsite, stepping as defiantly and as heavily as I could upon the ground. When I passed under the sapling, most of my anxiety passed and I felt even more comfortable striding into the familiarity of the campsite.
No sign of Will. Oh well. I grabbed a book, one of the Dune trilogy, and blew on the coals of the fire inside the stone circle. Only a few minutes of reading time left and the sun would be completely obscured. I wished out loud for Will to hurry back, not relishing time in the dark alone. Things still had an uncertain, creepy air about them.
He appeared minutes later, striding up the road from the direction we’d driven in. As it turned out, the path he followed had curved back around and met the road a few hundred yards from the campsite.
Darkness settled in minutes after he arrived. I could make out stars through the tree cover but no moon. Maybe one would be coming up later, but it was going to be pitch dark when the fire died. Will didn’t wait; he climbed into the tent and lit the tiny hanging lantern to read by. We were speaking now, the walk having served its purpose, and I slid into the sleeping bag beside him and zipped up the tent’s screen face.
I snuggled closer and propped the book on my chest. He commented about seeing no snakes that evening, but seeing lots of deer track and some larger tracks alongside them. I tried to be absorbed in the book but was at a fairly involved place and really did not have the concentration it demanded; so I shut it. I wished to be horny, I said out loud. So try, my husband suggested gently. He helped. It was a strange new world, touching flesh after so much distance. Home away from home. I was nicely exhausted as I watched the muscles stretch in Will’s shoulder as he reached up to hold the lantern while he blew the candle out.
He lay back and threw the sheet off his chest, and then it began. Footsteps. Coming from behind us, coming up on the back of the tent. They came steadily and quickly. One, then another, and a third. A twig snapped under the weight of one step. (How melodramatic, something in me thought.) Another step. They were heavy and man-like, not soft and meditated like those of a cat. Human steps. Stopping almost right on top of us. We both rose on our elbows and looked in the other’s direction. I felt myself jerked into a very tight knot of fear. Will seemed fairly calm. What was that? he asked. I didn’t know. My mind was wiped clean; it was difficult to breathe. I managed to say that it didn’t sound like a cat and that seemed to take all the energy from me. I didn’t fear harm from any wild animal. (I remembered that there was no food out; I wasn’t having my period; there would be no enticing scents.) But what if there was a crazy human out there who had watched us and waited all evening until we were inside the tent? My hand gripped Will’s arm for comfort.
Outside it was completely silent now, completely silent and deeply dark. My breathing was the loudest sound in the universe. I raised my head just high enough to see out of the tent flap and there was nothing to see, just darkness and a small red glow from the ashes of the fire. Was it going to do something? What was it plotting behind our tent?
Then it screamed. My panic rose with the scream. A short, screeching hawk-like scream. It screamed again, and again. It was right there on top of us, outside the tent. Something was building, I thought, something terrible is going to happen and we have no defense. “Be cool,” Will whispered, “be cool. Whatever it is, I’m not afraid. It doesn’t make me afraid.”
I heard his voice as from the bottom of a deep well. It was nearly hypnotic. I was just lounging there, waiting for something to happen. No sounds, no movements from outside. I imagined myself bolting from the tent and making for the safety of the car. Then I remembered locking it earlier. It was too far away, anyway. And we had literally nothing to protect ourselves with: blankets to wrap up in to protect us from claws, maybe, but I knew that whatever was out there was not a cat.
Suddenly an image crossed my brain. An image of a tall, dark man standing outside, behind our tent. Only instead of a human head, there was a hawk’s head and a curved beak. The picture passed as suddenly as it had come and then every nerve in my body informed me that if I didn’t do something, take some action, then it would be done for me by whatever was outside the tent. To take control, I thought; what to do?
For a minute my horror subsided and I remembered reading in Grist for the Mill about a mantra to repeat if ever you felt yourself in physical danger. Yes, that was it. The mantra. I started repeating it to myself: The power of God is within me; the grace of God surrounds me. Over and over. I was beginning to decompress. Whatever was out there hadn’t made another move, but I could still feel its looming, dark presence, strong as ever, behind us, almost over the tent. Minutes stretched on.
Lights slapped the tent front. I jumped in the sleeping bag, my throat again constricting, but there would come no scream. Then I silently and gratefully cheered as another VW came chugging around the bend in the road, drawing closer, the lights growing brighter. The mechanical noises were music to my ears. The fucking cavalry, I thought. (How melodramatic, the voice said again.)
The car passed slowly, not stopping, turned farther down the road and passed on again. I savored the lights as much as I ever have anything. The thing . . . whatever it was, its force wasn’t as strong anymore. It was as though a weight had been lifted somewhere in the darkness.
Will sighed and told me that he was going to sleep. Oh, good luck, I thought, going to leave me all alone, stuck in this consciousness. I knew I couldn’t sleep. He kissed me and drew the sheets up to his shoulder, turned over and slept. I just kept repeating the mantra over and over, feeling myself growing looser, my breathing becoming easier, hoping to keep the thing away through the night.
I hung on the mantra, trying to keep my concentration, even as sleep closed over me. The last thing I remembered was that it would be back in the morning: it was that much of an animal, I was sure. I slept.
At daybreak, a distant thunder woke us both. The morning was heavy with mist and the smell of rain drew closer with the wind. We debated sleepily, in light of what had passed in the night, whether to get up and move on pronto or to stay and take our chances with the rain and packing a wet tent. The urge to sleep won out and we decided to stay. After all, it was morning. We felt braver. Much braver. I climbed out of the tent behind Will and chose a spot to pee on. Everything seemed lazily peaceful; the woods were steaming and full of chittering bird voices. I wanted to see some deer emerge from the woods and come drink at the stream. I walked back, disappointed, to the tent and climbed in.
And then the footsteps came again, from the same direction, the same sequence, even the twig snap. It had been burned into my memory last night. There was no mistaking it.
It began its series of screams again and this time it had company that answered its screams from across the road. There was a curious gaming quality about the screams this time, almost a humor in them, as if they were toying with us, laughing at us, taunting us. But it was light, it was dealing in our realm now.
Will and I nodded at one another and then he unzipped the tent flap in one quick movement. We leapt out into the morning air. I turned to face the rear of the tent, to confront it. And there was . . . nothing. No drooling, deranged man, no animals, and no sounds of a hasty retreat. I looked up into the trees. Nothing. Across the road something flashed low and brown in the grass, about knee level, but after that, no other disturbance passed our eyes or ears. We ran across the road and searched the underbrush for the brown thing, for anything. Nothing. Nothing. I walked over to the stream and plunged my hand into the icy water. We packed the car and drove away.
Exactly what went on within me when I was convinced that we were dealing with a powerful manifestation that had threatened to do us harm? Physically, my blood pressure dropped immediately, my chest muscles froze and became rigid, the paralysis making it all but impossible to breathe. I felt a huge weight pushing down upon me and just could not get air into my lungs. My skin was clammy and cold on the outside; inwardly, I felt like I was burning up.
A book I consulted afterwards explained exactly what does happen in the body during extreme fear. Blood rushes away from the skin, causing the white pallor of people who have seen “ghosts.” Paralysis, fainting, premature aging — they’re all symptomatic of stark fear. The body makes what author Carroll Izard refers to as “prehistoric alterations”: the blood undergoes a chemical change to make it coagulate more readily, in case of wounds; the sphincter muscles relax, to lighten the body. That makes it easier to run. And the digestive processes all but stop so as not to distract the involuntary processes of the body from total concentration on the problem at hand. Which is all well and good. But in Will’s and my case, the object was to deal, not to run. The confrontation was staged as much on a mental level as on the physical.
I couldn’t run because I had to stand my ground and deal with it, or, in essence, I would have defeated myself and, I think, the purpose of it all. (Not that I advocate not running; I’m sure there are times for that, too. This just wasn’t one of them.)
Since we couldn’t see our adversary but received only auditory and vibrational (tactile?) pictures of it, we had to deal with it on the strength of projections. It was all on the level of a mental duel. A serious bit of bluff calling.
My first thought — after deciding that it definitely was not a cat of some sort — was that we had no way to defend ourselves. No small knives, no guns, no stick; only a book to throw if it came to that. Ah, the book, Children of Dune. And then I remembered in my paralysis, which was the most marked thing about me at the time, that Frank Herbert had written: “Fear is the great mind killer; fear is the little death.” And it truly is.
I was out of control, totally nonfunctioning. I was in a position to be handled, manipulated. This is where fear puts you. This is the way fear operates, which is to make the fearer inoperable. Then you’re at the mercy of the fearee.
This is how fear operates even when it’s present in milder yet more long-term degrees. For example, fear of failure usually prevents you from attempting that which would destroy the fear, be it attempting a job in a field you really identify with, be it in confessing to another being that you love him. Fear seems to be a generally inhibitory state of being or non-being, whichever.
Will was either more on top of it than I or just better at suppressing it (as men are documented to be), because he had the togetherness to tell me that if it made any noticeable attempts on or towards us that we had to yell — great loud confident yells. In my current state I could have barely managed a croak. (Will has a great thundering voice, God bless him.) Which is another point about extreme terror. It is a spell of the same order as experienced when you “get into” a movie, a play, a dance. You are bound, held. In cases of fear, breaking the hold with loud, abrupt, ridiculous noises is good. Yell, clap. Don’t remain hypnotized.
After the creature’s screams began, Will whispered to me to “be cool” and that he wasn’t going to be made afraid. Later he said he did that because he sensed a great amount of fear emanating from me and he was trying to help me reduce it.
Which is another thing about fear: it is a heavy, unmistakable scent, a strong disharmonious vibe. It’s real fuel for predators of any sort; they sense a weakness, an ineffectualness, and attack. It was then that I realized that the only way that thing out there could hurt us was through my fear. My fear was like an interstate, lined and paved, down which the thing could move all its weapons and do its worst; it was an almost tangible link with whatever was outside the tent, a tentacle it had lashed securely into my psyche. I had to break that link. I knew that if I broke that link it couldn’t do us any harm. (So Churchill was right.) That was when I began repeating the mantra from Grist for the Mill: “The power of God is within me; the grace of God surrounds me.”
Then, it was, simultaneously, like falling through cloud levels of space and ascending from the depths of a great heavy ocean. (So that is centering?) I began to breathe more normally again. My heart rate slowed. I began to believe that I was becoming stronger and more positive. And I was. It had to be that there was nothing going on in me but the mantra and that left no room for the fear. It became almost a sort of invisibility. Will was doing it also. The link, the tentacle was pushed back by a slowly advancing wave of something light, yet something strong.
(It was at this time that the VW came round the bend. A little help from our friends? I certainly believe so. Heaven helps those who help themselves?)
The rational being part of me had this argument for the episode: you will not be harmed because you have done nothing to deserve harm. My intellect fought against this premonition of death with that. And then it said, but what if this is your karma to die here? (I wasn’t thinking in terms of “ending an incarnation” then; I was thinking in terms of being ripped off.) I felt like no, I would feel some sort of peace, some kind of reconciliation, wouldn’t I if this was my time to go on?
About this time one of the stranger parts of the experience transpired: a distinct voice snaked into my brain; a thin, wisp-like voice and it said distinctly, “Take your husband in your arms and lay down . . . to die.” That confused me. Angered me. Was that my voice, the one I trust? Who did this voice belong to? My cowardice? Some instinct answered that the voice was too honeyed, too seductive (and it was seductive) to belong to a pure impulse. I denied it its request and repeated the mantra with even more determination. The voice never came again, I repeated the mantra until I fell asleep.
Will’s reaction to the phenomena was what he terms the “stupid man’s reaction.” Don Juan, I think, talks about this in his books, i.e., that many people are never confronted with and are invulnerable to “test patterns” from other levels, i.e., ghosts, the supernatural, poetry, because they just do not acknowledge their existence. Things obviously do happen to all people on many levels simultaneously, but if they choose to confine the reality to the material level, then that is where it happens for them. (So physicists explain the laws of karma in one language that never mentions the word “karma,” and Buddhists explain it in their language using the word.)
The more you acknowledge other levels of existence and the extraordinarily beautiful multiplicity of life, the more aware and at the same time the more vulnerable you become to those elements of those levels that may be antithetical to your existence and well-being. That is why they must be confronted, at all acknowledged levels, or else they’ll come back, and come back until they are confronted. Current psychology acknowledges this phenomenon: that you have to drag the ghosts out of the recesses of the mind, confront them with you and then they go away. That’s life. That’s growth.
That’s what Don Juan means by becoming a warrior, I think. It doesn’t mean being on the defensive as we know it. It’s more a matter of reinforcing your existence and the spark of divinity that is within you so that when and if a confrontation becomes inevitable, you give just what you are. The thing in the dark was just giving of itself. It’s a matter of nakedness, ultimate nakedness. In Tibetan literature they say you must embrace your ten thousand horrible demons and your ten thousand beautiful demons, too.
Anyway, Will’s reaction after awhile was to go to sleep. Which Izard says is another effective technique for dealing with fears. He told me weeks later that he forced himself not to acknowledge that whatever was out there was not on the material plane. He knew that if he could control it (like you can control dreams sometimes, by just willing things gone or by willing that the existing drama in them not continue), then he could help me be strong. He focused only on the material reality, and through the mantra, quieted his fear.
We talked at some length about the experience weeks later during a bout of insomnia brought on by a strong full moon. Best as we could figure we were trespassing on an Indian burial ground or power place and got a very unsubtle hint to move along.
It was during this talk that it came to light (so to speak) that we had both shared the sensation of being watched during our twilight walk and that we had both gotten a distinct picture of an Indian man with a hawk’s head standing outside our tent during the night.
Dee Dee Small