A wake-up call

I was living in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area, age 40, in my first year as Associate Editor for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, writing editorials, columns and book reviews, all very happily. I belonged to no church, but I lived, or tried to live, according to my silent prayer, “Dear God, show me the way.” There are many worse ways to live. Indeed, at my best I live that way now, though I define things differently. (As usual, religious experience unites; religious opinions divide.) Yet whenever I sat down to work on the novel whose first-draft I had written eight years before, or on my study of “Thoreau and Mr. Emerson,” begun even earlier, I dried up. And I had other problems, including my marriage and, notably, my health.

I was experiencing chronic intense back pain. Any little thing, like building a cold frame for some lettuce seedlings, reduced me to near-immobility. I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down comfortably. My chiropractor sent me to get x-rays, and one Tuesday she showed me the x-ray films. They showed a thinning of pads in the hips, which was pretty serious, and heavy deposits of calcium on the bones: On the x-rays it looked like frosting! And nothing could be done to remove it. It looked like I was beginning to become an old man, and I was only 40. So along with the pain came depression, of course — I not realizing that this was the low point.

My wife suggested that I might want to watch “Out on a Limb,” actress Shirley MacLaine’s two-part TV special. I dislike and distrust television, and I didn’t have any particular interest in Shirley MacLaine’s spiritual searchings. But I was in pain, without anything better to do. Why not watch a little TV? So I watched the first night’s program. The longer it went, the more intensely interested I got — and the damnedest thing happened.

When I got up at 11 p.m. to go to bed, I suddenly realized that for the first time in days, my back didn’t hurt! What’s more — to jump the gun on the story — the arthritis of the spine disappeared, and never troubled me again. I had years of back pain yet ahead, but never again from arthritis.

It would be years before I learned the “how” of what had happened, but even at the time I took it as a wake-up call. Thinking I was leading a God-centered life, I had still let externals distract me. No wonder I felt like I was dying! I decided to go to the first of the Higher Self Seminars, which (in honor of Edgar Cayce) was going to be held in nearby Virginia Beach. It would cost $300, no small amount for us then, but I decided to take the chance that it would be worthwhile. After all, that was quite a wake-up call. And so I was one of the 600-plus people who filed into the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach Saturday morning.

The newspaper ad had said that the seminar would offer: “Group meditations, techniques in visualization, chakra-raising sessions, questions and answers relating to past-life recognition, how we create our own reality, and the final connection with the Higher Self.” I saw, clearly enough, the expert manipulation that had been used in the wording of the ad, but reading it again all these years later, I judge that what she offered is what she delivered. And she delivered it, as a seasoned show-biz professional, by knowing not only how to employ sound-effect techniques but how to mobilize and use group energy. In the very first visualization exercise, her voice led us to visualize crossing a river to where the Higher Self would be waiting. To my astonishment, there indeed was an image, one I never would have consciously chosen.

My Higher Self appeared as a unicorn! A unicorn, a magical, mythological beast. For the first time, I realized why my father–who could be symbolized as a loyal, dependable work horse–had always been so dismissive of my beliefs. He thought I was “really” a horse too–and what was he to make of a horse who thought he was a unicorn? My unworldliness had worried him. By telling me (against my active resistance) “the way things are,” he had tried to protect me. The gift of the situation, besides all the practical things he did teach me, was that living with him provided me with protection against (that is, understanding of) skeptics and cynics.

On the other hand — I realized that weekend — I’m not a horse. I am what I am! I am different, and that the difference is to be prized. This visualization, more than any single event in my life, removed my shame and doubt about who and what I was.

I had asked myself in my journal, that morning, what I wanted from the seminar, and after some false starts had decided that “what I’d chiefly want is to be spiritually, physically, mentally whole. I’m so tired of being a fragment, and a crippled fragment at that.” That weekend of healing brought me part-way toward wholeness (which means, health). I got something of what I wanted.


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