Wake Up! The Role of Ecstasy in Spiritual Practice

There’s an old joke about a Taoist who, when ordering food at a hot dog stand, asks the vendor to make him one with everything. Even as we laugh at this play on words, we know exactly what is being implied in the punch line: reunion with the All-That-Is — God, Goddess, Buddha nature, Universe, Divine, whatever you may call it. Such mystical experience is at the heart of many spiritual traditions. It seems that every religion has its share of mystics, all of whom seek that seemingly elusive experience of spiritual ecstasy which is found in Divine union.

But is it really that rare? In my own personal spiritual history, the so-called “religious experience” has been uncommon, but not unknown. For me, these were without exception defining moments, almost all turning points in my spiritual direction, epiphanies on the journey of discovery in what it is to live a mindful and meaningful life. Yet my work with others in the many spiritual traditions around me made me wonder if others would share my conclusions about these moments; thus I asked friends, colleagues and contacts — Witches, Christians, Sufis, Quakers, Buddhists, Sikhs, a few eclectic folk with no name for their faiths, and a practitioner of Regla de Ocha, perhaps better known as Lucumi — a few questions about their experiences with spiritual ecstasy, and what role that played in their religious practice or spiritual awakenings. Through their responses, I came to a better understanding of how various seekers define such amorphous terms as “ecstatic spiritual experience” or “spiritual awakening,” as well as how — or whether — they occur in these traditions. The questions, as well as some of the responses, are below.

 

Does your belief system encourage an ongoing, personal, direct relationship with the Divine?

Only three of my respondents said “no” to this question: Larry, a retired engineer who considers himself a seeker; David, an attorney who is also a seeker with no established name or practice for his spirituality; and Susan, a writer who follows a Nichiren Buddhist philosophy. Susan went on to say that having a relationship with someone outside oneself “would be like expecting to get rich by counting our neighbor’s money. Our relationship is with the law of cause and effect and the reality of our lives.” Ironically, Larry (who is also a Nichiren Buddhist) answered “yes” to this question, explaining that his practice is about revealing one’s enlightened Buddha nature. This was not the only time that followers of the same traditions had differing responses; Jagdish, a Sikh, believes that her faith does encourage such a relationship, although she does not actually try to communicate with God, who she believes to be her Creator; on the other hand, Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa, who also practices Sikh Dharma, believes the human experiences is “a manifestation of the Divine Light. To know oneself is to know the Divine.”

Annie, a musician who does not follow an established religion, agrees that we are all part of the Divine. Both she and Elanor, a retired college professor and practicing Green Witch, feel greater intimacy with the Divine when working with plants and animals.

Presbyterian minister Fred referred to the writings of the apostle Paul, which he interprets to mean that he should focus on God in everything, rather than the more natural self-focus to which we are generally accustomed.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a sheikh in the (non-Islamic) Naqshbandi Sufi order, believes that this intimate relationship is experienced as lover and Beloved.

Interestingly, Paula (a Quaker), Cairril (a solitary Witch) and Omi Lana Omo Yemoya (a Lucumi priestess) all feel that direct relationship with the Divine can be experiential in that the Divine moves us or speaks through us in messages or revelations, though perhaps in differing ways.

 

How does one pursue and maintain such a relationship?

Many of the participants included prayer, chanting and meditation in their responses to this question. Both Buddhists, Susan and Larry, were specific in mentioning their chanting of the Lotus Sutra and the universal law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. Ek Ong Kaur explained her Sikh practice this way: in the two and a half hours before sunrise (called the Amrit Veyla), “the soul can penetrate through the layers of the subconscious and make itself visible to the conscious mind.” Sikhs rise at this time, take a cold shower, and meditate, chanting and singing sacred songs in order to find the Divine Self. Cairril performs formal meditations and trance work on specific journeys seeking guidance for a particular purpose. Elanor also works with meditation and visualization for guidance. She, Annie and Cairril all seek the outdoors as a foundation for strengthening their bonds with the Divine, though Cairril also uses ritual for this purpose. Larry’s and Omi Lana’s religions, too, use ritual and ceremony to maintain this connection, though theirs also have a strong community element. Whit, who defines his spiritual path as “Quaker/Christian/Open/Love everybody,” seeks relationship with God by “waking up every day, breathing, building and maintaining friendships in this world, but not always of or about this world.” Annie stresses that honesty at all times, in all things, is a good place to start.

 

What role does ecstatic spiritual experience play in your faith or practice? In what ways might this type of experience be sought or induced within the parameters of your faith?

Don, a former police detective, current consultant on ritual crime, and practicing Methodist, said “We refer to that as the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit.” He went on to say his religion teaches that opening one’s heart to Jesus and allowing Him to be part of one’s life can lead to an ecstatic experience. Fred expressed the belief that while ecstasy is certainly part of the Christian pilgrimage, it doesn’t play a major role for most practitioners, and that it can be unsettling and perhaps even frightening. He wondered if seeking such a moment might not be more self-gratification than intimacy with God. “It is mostly a gift of God that comes in God’s time, so seeking it may result in frustration.”

Llewellyn agreed. “The Naqshbandi Sufi order is a path of sobriety rather than ecstasy. It does not encourage ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather the ability to return from states of meditation to a balanced grounded life of service.” Others, too, spoke of integrating everyday life into their belief system as part of the whole. Ek Ong Kaur explained that the Sikh’s sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, brings one to a gradual awareness of Divine Light inside all things, which creates a consciousness of service. “Selfless service is a very important aspect of the Sikh tradition,” she said. Jagdish’s Sikh practice also includes selfless service; she and her family have recently returned from India, where they just completed a project to bring clean drinking water to a village for the first time ever, and this is not the first such project for them. Instead, it is an ongoing family tradition.

Other respondents are active seekers of spiritual ecstasy. Both Annie and Larry find such moments in music — Larry through listening, Annie through playing her guitar. Larry specified that it is “music that is minor-chord heavy, with a beat that literally resonates my body” that he is most drawn to. He wondered if such music actually creates chemical changes in his body on a level of which he was unaware which caused such a reaction.

Cairril utilizes self-hypnosis and private ritual, as well as dance, to both induce and direct such experiences. Both she and Elanor feel that ecstatic experience is a normal part of their spirituality, and that many things can bring it on.

Omi Lana, as part of a religion where spiritual ecstasy often means being possessed by an Orisha, said, “Logic cannot explain this direct interaction with the Orisha; only the experience can provide understanding.” According to Omi Lana, these Divine Beings take control of the priest’s or priestess’s body in order to convey messages, or to offer blessings and love to those present.

Paula’s Quaker faith was actually named for their tendencies toward ecstasy — “quaking” or trembling under the throes of spiritual communion. At the time, she said, “it was meant as a pejorative term.” Today, she continued, quaking isn’t as common in Meetings, but it does exist. “Quakers are ‘moved to speak’ to a gathered congregation at times during worship. This is called the vocal ministry — members report trembling, increased heart-pounding, and a sense of physical urgency to rise and speak.”

Whit, who is a huge Grateful Dead fan, thought the pursuit of ecstatic experience might be an individual thing, “like fruit ripening on the tree in the sun, rain and wind.”

Several folks reported not really having a personal experience with spiritual ecstasy. Susan flatly said “I don’t know what this is. Being a calm, level-headed person who tries to stay in reality, having an ecstatic spiritual experience seems unlikely.” Instead, she seeks enlightenment through working consistently toward improving her relationships, society, peace and love. While Susan had never heard of such experiences among believers she knew, Larry thought it might be so frequent as to be taken for granted. He reported that his practice can bring feelings of great joy and lasting happiness.

David made the distinction between an ecstatic practice and feelings of wonder and mystery, “for example when I gaze up at the nighttime sky, read about scientific discoveries, and see newborn infants.” While he admitted that some readers may not see this as rising to the level of ecstatic experience, he countered that “reasonable people could debate whether just waking up might be the basis for an ecstatic spiritual experience.”

 

Have you personally experienced spiritual ecstasy? If so, did you actively seek it or did it happen spontaneously?

Only two of my respondents had never had an ecstatic spiritual experience. One of those, Ek Ong Kaur, said that while she has never had a peak experience such as this, she has experienced her own humanity, and her own identity, which, according to Sikh Dharma, is the most beautiful spiritual experience of all. “To know yourself, to be able to deliver your identity in the face of any challenge or threat, that is a living ecstasy. The sweetness of being myself is something that I experience every day. I know who I am. And I know why I am here. This knowing has given me tremendous peace.”

Of those who’ve had them, about half said they actively desired the experience; Annie even said she seeks it each time she picks up her guitar. Most who have had multiple ecstatic moments said they came most often when they least expected it, sometimes during extreme duress.

 

Can you try to put into words what happened and how you felt at the time? What revelations occurred to you at the time, or perhaps later, as a result of this experience?

These were the most interesting of all the responses. Though there was a wide variety of experiences, there were some commonalities.

Larry’s was maybe the most traumatic, coming about as it did during a near-death experience. At age 18, he happened to accidentally grab two live wires in an amateur radio station behind his home, and was jolted by 1,000 volts at over half an amp. He was slammed into the wall, paralyzed by the force of electricity surging through his body. “Time froze,” he said simply. “My experiences were indescribably vivid during that six minutes, and were far too powerful for simple explanation. The imagery, sounds, objects and overall experience have never been surpassed since, nor have they been forgotten.” His most impactive realization was one not common to most teenagers: that of his own mortality. He described the event as one of “bone-chilling intensity,” and was left without any fear of death.

Don, too, found his moment of ecstasy during crisis. “I was praying for protection,” he said, “and fell into a trance.” During his experience, he was “told” that he would be victorious, and that he did not need to fear anything, ever.

Some participants found ecstasy in moments of intense meditation. Llewellyn has felt divine love blossoming within his heart, becoming stronger until it overwhelmed his entire body with bliss. “It was like sexual ecstasy except that it was on a higher level, experienced within the heart rather than the sexual organs.” At times, it would last so long that he was exhausted from the experience, which came “in waves, sometimes exploding within the heart.” Other times it was gentler, “like a lover’s touch, but from inside the heart.” He went on to say, “It is the most intimate and yet impersonal love that one can imagine.” Llewellyn believes that these moments draw one into deeper and deeper rapport with God, which eventually leads to union with the Divine. “It leads to a knowing that every cell of creation is full of love, alive with love, and that there is this primal bond of love between the Creator and His creation, which at its core is oneness.”

Others who found ecstasy with meditation also had other provocative incidents which brought about their experience. Larry was encouraging someone when an incredible rush of compassion suddenly flowed through him. He felt unbelievably happy and as one with the universal life. “It was like a passage from the Lotus Sutra, ‘They have received the supreme jewel without seeking it in earnest.’” He also realized at that moment that he needed to change in order for this to happen again. “Thus the work and struggle began” for Larry.

Jagdish’s first ecstatic experience came as a complete surprise to her and everyone around her. She had taken her children to the circus. “All of a sudden,” she said, “I passed out. For a split second, I saw a bright light and I heard a clear sound, somebody telling me, ‘I love you, because you love my people.’” She described the feeling as “so beautiful and peaceful I didn’t want to come back.” It was her second experience that came about during meditation; it, too, was so blissful that she didn’t want it to end. She remained in that state for a long time, but finally came back in order to continue the work she’d begun with her family. Since that time, she does not seek deep meditation for fear she will not be able to pull herself away from it a third time.

Paula was in Meeting when it happened for her. She, too, was under a great deal of stress and, just prior to her experience, felt a sense of surrender. “It felt like a mini-near-death … I felt like I ‘went’ to another dimension, encountered a loving Being who communicated three messages to me.” First, she thought “Oh, this is what death is like — I had forgotten.” She described it as a relief, both physically and mentally, “like sinking into a hot bath.” Next, she got the message “Don’t confuse your life with what you are,” which she interpreted to mean your life is something you are doing, like taking a class. You are actually a great and wonderful spiritual being vast beyond this limited experience. The third message was that all evil in life comes from fear. She has been learning this at deeper levels, and attempting to live out those messages ever since.

David’s experience happened during a vision quest. He laughingly told me once that when he first heard about such things as vision quests, he thought, “Someone would have to be nuts to do that!” Less than a year later, he sat in a circle of prayer ties containing crushed, raw, dried tobacco, alone in the woods, fasting and praying for two days. How times change! He did not enter the experience seeking ecstasy; he sought only a vision. Afterward, he explained, the facilitating shaman said he seemed “clear.” Another who saw him returning through the woods on the morning of his quest’s conclusion said he appeared to be “floating.” He recalled wanting to share the experience with anyone and everyone, feeling a “child-like, not childish, joy.” But in answer to my question, he also quoted Lao Tzu: “The Tao described in words is not the real Tao; words cannot describe it; nameless, it is the source of creation; named, it is the mother of all things.”

Fred was touched by Spirit in seminary. “I was walking alone around a small lake near the campus when the words of a hymn from my childhood — ‘How Great Thou Art’ — came to mind. I had the powerful sense that (as the third verse seemed to be saying) Jesus had died for me, not only for me, but certainly for me.” Fred felt that this was a confirmation of his decision to enter the seminary and, after, the ministry.

Mac’s moment came through a breathing technique called rebirthing. After over an hour of this practice, “my body suddenly became filled with pranic energy flowing up my spine, warm and joyful, onto my head, and I had a vision of what looked like Jesus, who told me, when I asked him ‘What is the answer?’ that “LOVE is the answer.’”

Cairril, who experiences ecstasy often, said this state most often leaves her feeling full, whole, complete and at the same time empty and light (in a good way). “Sometimes, if a message I’m imparting is very difficult, I’m so overcome with sorrow and compassion that I can barely speak.” She has seen glimpses of the future at times, and known exactly what to do or say at a given moment. Other times, the message she is given makes no sense to her, but she knows it will unfold later. The messages are not “spoken” to her; “it’s more a sense of inner knowing,” she said.

Whit’s experiences have come in a variety of ways — “sometimes with a million people dancing in a crowd; sometimes with someone close; sometimes alone in the woods; sometimes in a dark night of the soul.” But he declined to try and describe the experiences.

Annie described it as sheer joy. “I try not to think,” she said, “I just let it be.” Her messages are, most often, that it is still possible, even in this scary world, to feel an intense happiness and connectedness to other people, to feel good and to help others to feel good.

Although all accounts were fascinating, it was perhaps Elanor’s description which intrigued me most.

After several trance-like moments early in her life (one as early as pre-teen years), Elanor was in Wales with her husband and children. They were hiking up to a waterfall together; however, Elanor’s more long-legged kin soon left her behind. As she walked, feeling rather sorry for herself in the process, she looked up and saw a Being there who was not human. He was just sitting there, watching her, and when he noticed that she could see him, he leapt over to her and began to “walk” with her (though Elanor described his movements as more of a frolicking and dancing than walking). He was exceedingly interested in her, amazed at her awareness of him, and together they made their way along the footpath. “We communicated in feelings, not words, to a very much greater sense than words could ever. We absolutely loved each other, but not in any worldly way. The element of sex was huge, but not remotely in any sort of fornicating/genitalia way. It’s just that how we (Being and I) related had the exquisite piquancy of sexuality/sensuality.” Elanor’s encounter continued all the way up the footpath, growing more intense as they went. Even though it was raining, her surreal bond with this Being grew and heightened, and the feelings of ecstasy were incredibly profound. By the time they reached the falls, “as beautiful a wild piece of Wales as I could have hoped for,” Elanor said, the falls themselves were anticlimactic, and the feelings of ecstasy were so intense that she could not speak to her family.

Through all of the descriptions, I could tell, I knew that these words fell flat when compared to the actual experiences themselves. Even though the participants tried valiantly to be vivid and succinct, there is no language to describe something so ineffable as spiritual (or any other kind of) ecstasy. Had I been asked to describe such a moment from my own experiences, I know I would not have fared any better.

 

Did the experience change you, your world view, or your actions and behavior in any significant way?

Not one person who had experienced spiritual ecstasy said “no” to this question; what’s more, no one felt that the changes that came about for them were negative. Annie felt that her experiences gave her reason to hope, and to get out of bed every morning. Whit said it made him a better man. Mac said he was more loving. Larry said his changes were incremental, happening slowly through struggle.

Larry’s effects were, in part, physical; after his near-electrocution, he was no longer able to mentally visualize anything, not even the simplest geometric shape. In addition, he became slightly synesthetic (“feeling” nuances of sound in a way that sometimes surpasses what he can hear). More spiritual results included the growing view of the world as temporary (although with purpose), not something to be taken too seriously.

Paula’s feelings from the experience are still with her. For a while, she said, she had an enormous sense of well-being, and a knowing that she didn’t have to tackle her problems alone, that she would always have help. “That’s faded now,” she said, “and I have to intellectually remind myself. It’s a constant challenge.”

Jagdish reaffirmed her belief in loving people and trying to help everyone with more compassion. “All the people of the world became my family. Nobody was a stranger, everybody felt like my own.” Since that time, she and her husband have expanded their humanitarian aid projects globally.

Llewellyn feels that moments of spiritual awareness bring us to a deeper understanding of life, since they show us the deeper love that is at the core of creation. “You experience the link of love that binds together all of creation, and how the root of this connection is oneness.” In addition, he explained, it gives us a more dynamic and intimate relationship with God.

Elanor’s response to this question was simple. She felt that the experiences opened her to the real nature of ecstasy. “It’s always just there; it happens in every moment … whenever I don’t shut it out with mundane thinking.”

 

Did the experience change the state of your relationships with others?

Cairril’s experiences have opened her up to a broader view of the world. “They have reinforced my natural curiosity and made me open to the idea that there are many ways of being in the world.” It has, though, made her feel more cut off from the everyday world. “Our society has no appreciation for ecstatic experiences,” she said, admitting that it can make her feel awkward at times. Still, “all my spiritual experiences inform my relationships with others, whether it’s strengthening the bonds or knowing when to let them go.”

David — who had, prior to his vision quest, been an intensely private man little-known by those around him — felt that his experience provided an “opening” in his relationships with others. He referred to it as a spiritual renewal.

Don felt that his eyes were more opened to the love of others around him that he had previously missed or ignored.

Larry expressed a sense of withdrawal from those around him, as a general rule, and possibly less patience for “pedantic opinions, boring antics, and temporal pleasures.” He did say, however, that he actively seeks and thrives on thought-provoking examinations regarding the hard questions about what life might, or might not, be all about.

 

Would you call this type of experience a spiritual awakening?

About two-thirds of my respondents said yes, emphatically.

Annie said, “When I stopped fighting who I actually am, I realized I could accomplish a lot more.”

Larry’s awakening was to the realization that there once was, and would be again, a world without him in it. “As a result of coming to grips with the idea that I had a limited time to ride this train, I pay more attention to the scenery, as well as the passengers traveling with me.” It made him question everything he’d ever been taught, as well as the very idea of who and what he was, and seek the deeper realities that might have been hidden by prior teachings.

Larry’s feeling was yes. “Awakening is exactly what I’d call it.” He explained that the term “Buddha” means “awake,” and wondered if we truly value our precious journey through life as much as we should.

Mac believed it was indeed an awakening, because the Universe was flowing through him.

Don responded, “Without question!!! I felt as though I was reborn, spiritually and physically.”

David, too, answered on the side of awakening. He felt that the experience rouses and reactivates the seeker, making them more aware of their spiritual nature.

Whit also said yes, describing it as first “coming strange, like John the Baptist. A knowing I wanted to shout about. Then I hid it for a while.” Now Whit tries to integrate the lessons learned, using the awakening to help him collaborate with the people around him in order to make a better world every day. He was especially moved to work with young people in realizing their talents and dreams.

Paula was more cautious in her response. “It is an opportunity for such an awakening; it isn’t a fait accompli, but another reminder.” She stressed that you must discipline yourself and constantly apply the lessons to practical experience.

Fred said no, that his awakening had come earlier, and in a more practical way with the realization that what was missing in his life was a more active practice of his Christianity within the context of the church and the larger Christian community. “I did awaken, but it wasn’t the ecstatic experience that caused that. Perhaps the awakening led to that experience.”

Llewellyn also felt that spiritual ecstasy is not analogous to spiritual awakening, but that perhaps ecstatic moments can lead to such an awakening. He defined spiritual awakening as “a direct experience of one’s own divinity that does not pass away, is not a temporary experience, but a lasting state.”

Ek Ong Kaur, too, said no. “We don’t practice spirituality to awaken. We practice it to be human, to be kind, to be serviceful (sic) and graceful.” For her, spiritual awakening is the realization of one’s own reality as it is. “There is nothing but this moment, and sometimes it takes tremendous difficulty and challenge to finally relax into this moment, as it is.”

 

What purpose or goal do you feel is fulfilled by a spiritual awakening?

Cairril responded (aptly, I might add) that “as long as you are seeking, you’ll continue to find more layers of the onion.” She feels sure that once touched by these experiences, you can never go back to the way you were before. She expressed her conviction that moments of ecstasy and awakening are indicators of “a lot more going on than my senses can grasp, and that no one has come up with an explanation for it.” She is content with the “firing of brain synapses” concept, knowing that this is also a limited view but having nothing more conclusive.

Llewellyn didn’t feel that there needs to be, or even is a goal, per se. “Real spiritual experiences just are,” he declared. “To try and place them within our limited human agenda is to limit them because they belong to our divine nature. They are given as a gift.” He went on to say, however, that they can lead to a full awakening of one’s divine nature, what is called “baqa” or “abiding in God” in Sufism. “This is a passing away of oneself, of the ego, and an abiding in God, an experience of ‘what you were before you were.’”

Ek Ong Kaur said “The mind can create so many experiences, but can it just be with what is without judgment, in a positive state of appreciation?” In her practice, an awakening is a realization of the reality of your Self. “When you know you, and you really know You, then even death doesn’t matter, it’s just part of the game.”

Others felt the experiences had a more specific purpose. Annie felt they provide us with a sense of peace, even if for a short time. David felt that they put us more in touch with our spiritual nature. Jagdish said they widen the scope of our human help. Mac believes they move us toward our Higher Selves and unity with all creation. Whit feels they are the realization of teachers coming to terms with why they are here. Fred mused that it is a recognition of the importance of the divine realm in a person’s life. Larry cautioned that such awakenings or moments of ecstasy are “signs on the road, not the actual destination.”

 

What advice or guidance would you offer to other spiritual travelers who seek such an awakening?

Paula said “Don’t ask for such experiences.” She counseled that they come at a high price, and generally only under duress or in times of pain and struggle. Instead, she suggested the use of everyday opportunities we are given to live out our purpose.

Many others had some common-sense advice:

  • Don’t give up.
  • Keep your mind, and your options, open.
  • Be strong, and have courage. Don’t be afraid to be or look silly. Don’t be afraid of the unknown.
  • Don’t be impatient. It will happen when the time is right.
  • Be diligent.
  • Don’t look so hard. It’s right in front of you.
  • Expand your horizons. Step outside your familiar, comfortable box, and do things that scare you.
  • Be positive.
  • Read books, all kinds of books, and don’t rely solely on the teachings or philosophies of any one author or leader.
  • Play!
  • Get out of your own way. Nothing will so constrict you as thinking too much.
  • Be yourself.
  • Listen carefully to messages you might receive, then act on them.
  • Perhaps most important, have fewer expectations, and you will have fewer disappointments.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add about spiritual awakenings that I have not already asked you?

Ek Ong Kaur had this to say: “The only God that you can experience is the God in your own heart. When you find your own heart, you will find all of God you need to know.”

Larry mused, “Consider that you might now, by merely being alive and sentient, be in the midst of the greatest spiritual awakening there is.”

Llewellyn added, “Spiritual awakening is given because the Beloved wills. In the West we tend to identify with our own effort and our own desire for spiritual experience. It is very difficult to realize that it is not about us, that within our human drama, a deeper drama is taking place as the divine finds ways to bring Itself into consciousness, to be born again.” But Llewellyn, like Paula, advises that there is a price for awakening and ecstasy; “divine love first destroys the ego before it reveals the secret of oneness.”

 

For me, personally, ecstatic spiritual experience has, each time, been an awakening to a greater understanding of who and what I am, and why I am here. I don’t expect revelations of such magnitude to be handed over easily, or without preparation, or even all at once. Cairril is right about this, though; once touched by such an experience of the divine, you are never the same. While they were fulfilling, they also left me hungry, wanting more. I suppose, if Llewellyn is right, that this is my Western conditioning, but whatever the reason, I welcome future “intrusions” of Spirit in my life.

There are many ways of traveling on this journey, and Spirit speaks to and through each of us in the way most appropriate to our circumstances and understanding, as well as using whatever language will most clearly communicate what we need to know. I trust this process completely, even when the language is alien to my own personal experience, as in the case of some of the experiences shared herein.

Drema Deòraich (from June, 2009)

48 Slaves: Slaves to Tech

The world in which we live grows more dependent on technology with every passing day. Even now, you are reading this on a computer, laptop or mobile device. Unfortunately for millions of individuals — many of them children — our dependency rests on their shoulders.

Many metals go into the production of these technical marvels we take for granted. One of the most problematic is coltan, or columbo-tantalite, which when refined becomes tantalum. Coltan’s unique properties, including the ability to hold a high electrical charge, make it ideal for use in capacitors. Useful not only for computers and cell phones, this ore is also essential for the manufacture of jet engines, missiles, ships, weapons systems, camera lenses, hearing aids, airbag protection systems, gaming consoles like xbox and playstation, and numerous other devices in regular use. Multiple countries host coltan deposits, but the largest by far is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation torn by poverty and war. It is here where an estimated 800,000 children dig the precious mineral out of the earth with their hands and feet, some in pit mines, others in stream beds. With constant exposure to hazardous conditions, radioactive minerals and dangerous tools, disabling accidents are common. An average of 6.6 children die in the mines every month from soil collapses alone.

Because many traffickers in coltan-rich areas use their profits from the sale of this and other technically necessary minerals in part to purchase arms for their war, coltan is considered a “conflict mineral.” The nickname is well-deserved for other reasons, as well, not the least of which is the enforced recruitment of child soldiers, rape and sexual violence that surround its acquisition. In addition, coltan mining camps also directly damage the surrounding environment; large numbers of men in the camps cut trees for poles, destroy the stream beds, and decimate the local wildlife population — including threatened and endangered species — with poaching for their food.

Coltan isn’t the only mineral at the center of trafficked miners. Illegal mining of tungsten, tin, copper, gold, and cobalt — used in rechargeable batteries for everything from laptops to hybrid electric cars — also perpetuates the problem of trafficking. But the connection between slavery and modern technology goes beyond the mines. Factories in eastern Asia where these products are manufactured often use slave-like conditions. Human rights violations in all their many forms have been found at one stage of production or another in the supply lines of all the companies who make our devices. Even the Internet itself has played a central role in the rising numbers of individuals, especially children, sold in America and other countries. Through the anonymity it affords, traffickers and buyers can achieve a distance from the transaction which makes it easier to escape detection.

The connection between trafficking and technology has received wide attention in the last decade, so much so that technology-based companies are finally paying attention. Intel began to manufacture microprocessors using conflict-free tantalum3, and are working toward their second goal, which is to produce the world’s first microprocessor that is totally conflict-free by the end of 2013. To this end, Intel Corporation is currently implementing a verification system at the smelter level, where the raw ore is refined, in order to ensure transparency in their claims. As of the writing of this entry, they have mapped over 90% of their supply chain and visited smelter sites in 20 countries.

Ironically, technology and computers are also being used to fight trafficking in human beings. In late 2011, Microsoft Corporation’s Research Department worked together with its Digital Crimes Unit to draft an RFP (Request for Proposals) for scholarly research into the role of technology in sexual slavery (specifically where children are involved). The project also sought to identify new ways technology might be used to intervene when trafficking is identified. Six winners were selected in early 2012 and at this time the projects are ongoing. The grants awarded to the recipients totaled $185,000. Microsoft also collaborated with Skype and other sponsors to support the first-ever, all-female, international “hackathon” this year at university campuses around the world. The event gave participating women the opportunity to help find answers to how the Internet might be used to protect and defend trafficking victims.

And hey! There’s an app for that! The Department of Defense’s Combating Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) now offers a mobile app for Apple and Android phones with which their people can train on the go to spot and stop human trafficking. With this resource, military agencies or first responders in suspected trafficking have easy access to regularly updated information. They’re not alone. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials and even commercial flight crews are also training with computer models to spot and stop trafficking in human beings.

Technology has become a cornerstone of the developed world, so our cell phones and laptops and iPods aren’t likely going away anytime soon. We can only stop technology’s role in human rights violations by demanding supply chain transparency, as Intel is working to provide. It’s worth remembering that as more companies follow this example, prices may well go up. We have to be willing to support that increase if it means our upgrades don’t come at the expense of another’s freedom.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/29/30; some original links no longer function)

48 Slaves: Guilty Pleasures

Mmmmmmm … can you smell it? That warm, rich, inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee? Over 75% of all U.S. adults look forward to that first-sip moment, most on a daily basis. The morning beverage of choice is in fact the second most valuable commodity in international commerce, after oil. Despite the fact that coffee has been blamed for a multitude of ills over the years, recent studies have begun to turn that opinion around. It may surprise the majority of coffee drinkers to learn that their daily habit has many health benefits, including protection against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver cancer.

Unfortunately there’s another surprise lurking in the coffeepot, one that isn’t so sweet. Rampant slavery lends a bitter taste to the bean we so love. It’s a fact that the majority of the world’s coffee growers receive a tiny fraction of what we consumers pay for a cup of coffee, or even for the whole or ground beans at the grocer. Coffee plantation work in Guatemala pays a mere $3 per 100 pounds. Families are often forced to include their children in their efforts to meet that quota, thus exploited child labourers are a frequent companion to trafficking in this business.

In April of 2011, CNN reported that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a California-based company, of human trafficking across eight farms in Hawaii and Washington state. Two of those farms produced coffee.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2012 that coffee is produced with forced and exploited child labour in Ivory Coast, as well as throughout Latin America, with special emphasis on Guatemala. Workers are subject to confinement and abuse, and induced into work by labor brokers and the confiscation of identification documents from migrant workers. Though trafficked individuals may be participating in all stages of production prior to roasting, the studies show it to be most likely in harvesting.

Still want a cup o’ joe?

I know. You kinda want to stop reading now. I mean, that morning caffeine hit is sacred, at least for me. Somehow I’m sure it just won’t taste the same now. But coffee isn’t the only Blessed Bean under scrutiny for human rights violations in the supply line.

43% of the world’s cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast, some from the same farms as the coffee we already discussed. Many of the slaves in this industry are children whose desperate parents are tricked, selling them into debt bondage or outright slavery.

Americans spend $13 billion per year on chocolate. In fact, Hershey’s and M&M/Mars control two-thirds of the US chocolate market, most of which comes from Ivory Coast. Beginning in late 2000, Knight Ridder Newspapers, the BBC, and a collection of independent journalists began multiple investigations, all of which concluded that exploited child labourers and slaves between the ages of 7 and 16 were smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to cocoa plantation owners in  Ivory Coast. Lured in with the promise of lucrative work, these children are then forced to work in harsh conditions with machetes or dangerous pesticides. Beatings are routine. The chocolate industry promised it would take action to stop these practices, but a 2011 Tulane University study found that a very tiny percentage had received any aid at all. According to the Dominican Sisters of Houston, Mars has a system in place to ensure no forced labor occurs in their supply chain. Hershey does not.

I should point out that these reporting organizations don’t all use the same definition of “child labour” and “child work.” The International Labour Organization (ILO) would like to eliminate all labour for children under 16. However, they do realize that we can’t make it go away overnight. In some instances, child work is required for the continuation of the family or the community. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour was added in 1999 and outlines which benefits children must receive (education, safe environment, etc.) Child workers are part of the culture in some places, such as on La Reina, the co-op plantation I visited in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, a few years back. In that instance the children worked in the harvest season and went to school the rest of the year. They were not enslaved. Their whole families lived and worked the plantation, and participated in fair trade practices and eco-tourism.

Okay, so now that I’ve soured your joy on two favorite things, let’s take a look at what we as individuals can do about it. Boycotting isn’t the answer; loss of sales across the board would only hurt the labourers and slaves, as well as  smaller farmers and families who aren’t doing anything wrong. Instead, mindful purchases can make a meaningful difference. For both coffee and chocolate, fair trade certified products are the way to go.

Fair trade policies ensure a fair living wage to farm workers, cruelty- and exploitation-free labor practices, healthy and safe working conditions, and environmentally sustainable methods. Both the coffee and chocolate industries have a number of products that have been fair trade certified. However, it should be noted that there are differences between the standard requirements among the certifying organizations. The Fair World Project offers a list of organizations along with their standards and a little about each one.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/22/13; some original links no longer function)

48 Slaves: Mindful Ignorance

There has been a shift in how officials view the crime of trafficking in persons; whereas it was once considered an immigration issue, more and more enforcement agencies are approaching it as a human rights violation. Efforts toward prevention of human trafficking and prosecution of traffickers are in flux. Outreach to victims is a major part of the new paradigm; young trafficked women who end up in prostitution are no longer treated like criminals. Immigrants whose papers were confiscated by their slavers no longer have so much to fear from immigration or police officials if they manage to escape or find rescue.

Public awareness efforts are also booming. Because let’s face it: there are too many people who don’t know slavery still exists today. Even the peripherally aware have no idea of the sheer scope, the numbers of trafficked persons or the profits from the sale of their flesh.

Over the last week I was fortunate enough to see “Not My Life,” a documentary about human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. Our local branch of the World Affairs Council rented out an entire theater and offered free admission to the public in order to get as wide an audience as possible. The packed house settled in for a disturbing 80-minute journey into a few realities of human suffering in the slave trade. I’d read much of what the film portrayed and though I wasn’t surprised by the facts, I was touched by the faces of those who are actually enduring this type of bondage. Tears came to my eyes more than once, but I actually gasped out loud only once — when a young woman told how she was first sold as a virgin only to have her owners sew up her vagina and sell her virginity over and over. After the film but before the credits, the screen cleared and three simple words appeared in white letters on a black background:

“Now you know.”

Over the last few weeks since I started this blog, I’ve talked about it to friends and acquaintances. Some read my posts eagerly and were interested in the topic. Others read the first one and didn’t come back. At first I was puzzled by this until I began to discuss the topic in general with others who had never read “48 Slaves.” Almost every time the other person would express revulsion and sympathy, followed quickly by discomfort, then avoidance and/or denial. Perhaps the most indifferent response I got was along the lines of, “Well you know, you have to have shoes and clothes and stuff. What’re ya gonna do?”

In most cases it took an average of 2.5 minutes for the other person to change the subject.

Many people feel sympathy and a macabre fascination with tragedy. We’ll slow down to gawk at traffic accidents, or watch the news for images from catastrophic events. But those same individuals will deliberately don blinders when it comes to slavery. We don’t want to see the truth. We don’t want to know. Because once we do, we can no longer claim ignorance. We have a responsibility to act.

Maybe they don’t hear because we’re bombarded by words and statistics on a daily basis. After a while they lose all meaning. No facts or figures can measure the harm this trade inflicts on countless souls. No words could possibly convey the horror these people face every day. We lack a realistic mental image to give the words any real impact.

So let me help you with that.

It’s easiest, perhaps, to spot the children. Young girls in brothels, or begging on the street, or carrying guns in an army, or working to mine that shiny gold you wear around your neck are immediate red flags that shout “Something is wrong here!”

The adults are harder to recognize. For all we know, slate quarry workers, miners in Ghana or brick workers could be legitimate laborers, though the conditions in which they toil are usually distasteful.

Even the conditions alone can be a clue bat for the obtuse. Toilet facilities and sleeping quarters tell a story all by themselves.

There are hundreds more online. Google “human trafficking” or “modern slavery” and select the “images” category. Many of the photos are part of blogs or news articles that detail the issue in a variety of ways. Fair warning — be prepared. If you can look at the hopeless faces in these images and not be affected, you may just be part of the problem.

Drema Deòraich (from 9/13/13; some original links no longer functional)

48 Slaves: Gadgets and the Girly Trade

The detail that most affected my personal slavery footprint was the purchase/ownership of products like stereo equipment, cell phone, computers, television, BluRay and CD players and the discs that go with them, etc. I’m sure to be in good company in a world where even modest U.S. households are filled with technology. It seems obvious to point out that these items could be constructed without the benefit of slave labor. But that would raise costs and as a result, end-user prices would go up accordingly. With so many consumers focused on getting the biggest bang for the fewest bucks, ensuring a fair wage for everyone along the production line seems antithetical to higher sales figures. Besides, it would surely mean lower profits for the business owners or stockholders, and we can’t have that. The ongoing debate about raising the hourly pay for fast-food employees demonstrates this pretty clearly.

It’s a safe bet that the majority of technophiles aren’t giving up their gadgets anytime soon, slaves notwithstanding. The captive workers behind our gadgets are forced into mines and factories under the most appalling conditions, working sometimes as much as twenty hours each day. Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911? Over 140 immigrant workers were killed by fire or smoke, or who jumped to their deaths. They weren’t labeled slaves, but the reason so many died is because the doors to the stairwells were locked to prevent them taking unauthorized breaks. At the time that disaster was used as an incentive to improve conditions for sweatshop workers. But slavers don’t care about such things; working conditions for their enforced labor make the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory look like a cakewalk.

But mining and manufacturing aren’t the only trades where you’ll find trafficked individuals. Slavery also presses adults into agricultural labor, recruitment for armed conflicts, arms and drug trades, household servitude, even begging on the streets. But it doesn’t stop there. Some are sold for organ and tissue removal, surrogate birth-mothers. Children are snatched and sold through illicit international adoption or as mail-order brides. I didn’t get the above details on any one website. They’re everywhere. Just google “human trafficking” and you’ll see them too.

The most prevalent use of trafficked women and children occurs in the commercial sex trade. Prostitution and pornography are multi-billion-dollar profit-making businesses, and always seem to have an eager market. Slavers and their networks are not about to give this up easily or quietly.

But the sex industry doesn’t offer the glitzy upscale lifestyle the media sometimes depicts. At least, not for the victims. In the New York Times article “The Girls Next Door,” a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement described one scene as the “squalid, land-based equivalent of a 19th-century slave ship with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and a stash of penicillin,” and drugs to induce abortion; the scene he describes was inside an outwardly average Victorian-esque house in Plainfield, New Jersey, where four underage Mexican-national sex slaves were found and rescued (2004). Vanity Fair ran an in-depth article (May of 2011) about the efforts of one female cop in New England to help a handful of trafficked young women. Disturbing glimpses into the lives of these victims told a harrowing tale of the strength, determination, and pure, raw luck that got them through years of sadistic mistreatment by their pimps. Two of the girls were brought into the trade at the age of 13 and were finally rescued around the age of 18. Another, 15 years old, was stuffed into a duffel bag and dumped in the middle of a six-lane highway by her pimp. The girls were threatened with violence to themselves or their families, tortured, beaten, isolated from everything they know. Rape, dehumanization and other forms of physical intimidation became a way of life for them. For the thousands upon thousands of others who were not rescued, it still is.

In case you think this doesn’t happen here in the good old U.S. of A., think again. The young women featured in the Vanity Fair article were all born and raised in the United States. And they are not alone. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, over a quarter of a million youths — runaways or thrown-aways — are at risk of becoming victims. The average age of girls trafficked into prostitution is 12-14. Trafficked boys and transgender children are even younger — between 11 and 13 years of age. The pimps are demanding, expecting workers to turn 10-15 tricks per night. When they don’t meet their quotas, the punishment can be quite severe.

Some states are beginning to tackle the sex trade and its potential thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of trafficked workers by enacting new laws and/or going after the Johns. The theory is that if they can stifle the market, they can stop (or severely diminish) the trade itself. Even the Air Force is cracking down on “juicy bars” outside the gates of Osan Air Base in South Korea. Their reason? Too many of them are associated with human trafficking.

But what about women (and men) who willingly choose the sex trade and actually like it? (Are there any?) Are we infringing on their rights by zeroing in on prostitution as a likely forum for trafficked individuals? If so, where and how do we draw — and then walk — that delicate line? Like any highly charged issue, the question of whether or not prostitution is a “victimless” crime is up for debate. Some of the arguments on either side can be seen at Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues

What do you think?

Sources:
ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/victim-human-sex-trafficking-20139472

Federal Bureau of Investigations, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking

Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2012/12/03/selling-american-girls-the-truth-about-domestic-minor-sex-trafficking/2/

New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/25/magazine/the-girls-next-door.html

Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues, prostitutionprocon.org/

Stars and Stripes, http://www.stripes.com/news/juicy-bars-air-force-puts-squeeze-on-businesses-linked-to-human-trafficking-1.238446

Treasures, http://iamatreasure.com/about-us/statistics/

Vanity Fair, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105

Drema Deòraich (from 9/7/13)

48 Slaves: How Many Slaves Work for You?

48 slaves work for me.

No, I’m not rich. I don’t live in a big house sitting on acres of land. I’m an average, 50-something woman with an average life. I’ve never personally met the faceless individuals who mine the gold and silver in my jewelry and the minerals in my personal care products, or harvest my food and the cotton for my clothing. I’ve never seen the women and children who endure forced labor to produce and manufacture the products I purchase at the local grocery or department store.

It never occurred to me that my simple practices support human bondage and suffering. Until yesterday I felt pretty good about my buying practices. My closets aren’t full of expensive clothes and most of what is there came from thrift stores. I have few leather items. I don’t wear makeup, and try to buy local produce when I can. Maybe I just never thought about it much.

And then the writing bug took me.

A few years ago I began to write a fictional tale. The storyline is complex, but it didn’t start out that way. As I’ve heard from others who are driven to put fingers to keyboard in creative pursuits, my manuscript took on a life of its own. One of the elements that began to emerge was that of trafficking in human beings. I didn’t intend to write about slavery. I knew nothing about slavery. In fact, at an early stage of my story’s development, I stopped to read what I’d written and almost deleted it all. I thought, “No one will believe this. It’s too harsh. What will others think of me that I could write about such cruel treatment of other people?” I’m not sure what kept my finger off the delete key.

The rest of that day I trudged through a mental debate on that subject. Later that evening, as a distraction, I plopped in front of the television and began to channel-surf. Somehow — I don’t remember the chain of events — I stopped on a channel I’d never viewed before. The documentary they were airing depicted young (young!) women in the U.S. who are forced into prostitution. Shocked, I watched their individual tales wind out before me on the screen for several hours, and came away knowing beyond a doubt that my manuscript was tame by comparison to the real-life stories I’d just witnessed.

In the time since my eyes opened I’ve done a little on-line reading. Information on modern-day slavery is abundant because it’s such a major problem. Estimates on the numbers of trafficked individuals vary from 2.5 million (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking) to 20.9 million (Polaris Project) to 21 million (International Labour Organisation). Over 50% of all trafficking victims are from Asia and the Pacific. Almost 50% are used exclusively for commercial sexual exploitation and of those, 98% are women and children. Yes, you read right. Children. Knowing the exact number of victims is impossible due to the nature of the crimes and the perpetrators. And prosecution for the perps is sadly lacking. One study done in 2006 showed that for over 800 people trafficked, only one slaver was convicted. (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking)

Few of us are untouched by this multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Even the mindset behind it can be in operation right under our noses, and we don’t see. Of course we don’t support human bondage in this day and age. Naturally, we and our friends and loved ones despise the manipulation and coercion of other human beings. We’d know if that weren’t the case. These things can’t happen to us, right?

Wrong. As it turns out, I myself “employ” 48 slaves. How many work for you? (Slavery Footprint Survey)

A few notes:  This is my first blog ever. I’m bound to make blogging mistakes; your patience is appreciated. I don’t intend to turn this forum into a scholarly tome with nothing but facts and figures; those can be easily found elsewhere online. Instead, Forty-Eight Slaves will be a tool for awareness both for myself and for my readers. Posts will be added at least every two weeks, more frequently if time permits. (I work for a living. And I’m writing a complex and intricate manuscript, remember?) I welcome intelligent, thoughtful, constructive comments as well as those directed toward increasing awareness of the realities of contemporary slavery and the organizations that fight it. I do not encourage (and will delete) mindless, snarky comments with no constructive value.

Thanks for reading.

Resources:
International Labour Organisation — www.ilo.org
Polaris Project — www.polarisproject.org
Slavery Footprint Survey — slaveryfootpring.org
United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking — www.ungift.org

Drema Deòraich (from 9/1/13)

Awakening

In golf, players who are progressing through the game at a swifter pace will sometimes be allowed to “play through” or pass slower golfers ahead of them on the course.

I’m not a golfer. But I am a deeply spiritual being. So I want to explain what I mean by “playing through” in the context of this blog. Many who seek answers to the deeper questions or who want a religious element in their lives choose to follow spiritual teachings set out by those who came before. That’s their choice, and I respect it.  My own spirituality, on the other hand, doesn’t fit any standard formula that I know of. It’s constantly evolving. I learn and grow at my own pace without feeling a need for instruction from books or priests or gurus. I make my own path.

I’m playing through.

This past year has been difficult for me. The personal life I’d so carefully and lovingly built for over 33 years fell irrevocably apart. The first few months after the crash are a blur. Only isolated, disconnected memories from those days linger amid the rubble of the rest of my life. For a while I was a real mess.

Instead of falling back on my faith, though, I pushed it away. I didn’t want to think beyond the next minute. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I struggled to find reasons to get out of bed in the morning and to cope with the absolute fundamentals. Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Sleep. Repeat as necessary. Eat when you’re hungry. Feed the cat. Don’t forget the cat.

Looking back, I don’t think I believed for a minute that any divine being was “punishing me” for anything. However, I do believe things happen for a reason, so apparently something in this painful experience will benefit me in some way I cannot yet fathom. The Messiah’s Handbook in Richard Bach’s Illusions  (www.barefootsworld.net/illusions.html) says “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”

Now my somewhat sensible conscious mind says I would never have knowingly chosen to go through this particular dark night of the soul regardless of the rewards. I’m not sure what I did or which turn I took that led me to seek the gifts inherent in this particular set of problems; I’m sure they’ll one day manifest, but at this time I’m in the dark as to their nature.

Nevertheless I have no doubt I brought this on myself. See, I think it works like this. The Divine puts things in your path that you need to learn, or experience, or do. If you ignore the thing or walk around it or put it off, the Divine will whisper in your ear.

Hey … you really should do this thing.

If you still ignore the message, you might — might — get a tap on the shoulder. If even that doesn’t work, you get the clue-by-four. You know, the one that swings in from out of the blue to knock you out of your comfort zone and smack dab into the middle of a major crisis you can no longer ignore. No more chances to wake up gently or make the change slowly. The clue bat just whacks you upside the head and suddenly everything is different. Remember when your mom would threaten to slap you into the middle of next week? Yeah, it’s like that.

Years ago, I saw a greeting card that fits this scenario. On the front was a 3D-ish maze that was so large it completely filled the image and ran off the sides so that you couldn’t see a clear path in any direction. In the center was a little man looking up at the card-holder with an expression of utter bewilderment on his poor face. Inside the card was a very deep, yet simple message.

“Sometimes the only way out is through.”

I’ve thought of that card over and over in the last year, except in my mind’s eye I’m in the middle of the maze. After the initial shock, I spent a lot of time asking myself why — why me, why now, why this way? The answers to such mundane queries are pointless. It did happen. I am where I am. It is what it is. Asking why only left me anguished and frustrated, so I tried to put it out of my mind, suck it up and deal.

I don’t remember what prompted me to do so, but one day I asked those same questions of Spirit. Suddenly, the answers became very relevant. Instead of being a victim, I became a student. I was no longer helpless. I was a scientist, examining a failed experiment with an eye to avoiding the same mistakes in the future. Spirit didn’t show these things to me. She only waited patiently for me to see for myself what had been there all along.

I’m still in the maze. The drama that upset my applecart hasn’t concluded. My road may still be long and full of shadow, but it helps to once again see the spiritual current running through every detail.  At least I’m moving forward again. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Drema Deòraich (from September, 2013)

Choices

I sometimes envy people who have had that “Aha!” moment which inspires the words, “This is what I was born for!” To have that certainty, that conviction, that gut-deep knowing that you have found your true purpose must be profoundly and life-alteringly fulfilling! It would, of necessity, focus you, give you “permission” to dismiss all other pursuits as irrelevant. You can finally, without hesitation or reserve, give yourself over completely to the joy, the love of your calling.

There have been those persons in our world history who seem to have had such clarity of purpose in their lives: Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking — all are considered masters in their respective works, and with good reason. Each found his or her place in the world where they were most effective, where they shone brightest.

But all that glitters is not gold, and finding that sweet spot doesn’t guarantee happiness. Beethoven lost his hearing and had multiple romantic difficulties. Goodall’s methods of research were frequently called into question. Michelangelo was constantly dissatisfied with himself, and suffered from melancholy. Mandela spent many years in prison.

Then, again, I wonder — is the focus of such a “true calling” ultimately limiting? Would it cause you to cease all other exploration, all questions external to itself? Would outside interests wither on the vine, as it were? Does such concentration shrink the borders of your world? If so, is it possible to find an in-between point where you still feel the conviction of your purpose and take profound joy in it, but do not close the door to all other avenues of discovery?

I believe that the state of mind can be attained wherein you can continue your focus on your calling, even follow it to the point of excellence, but not to the exclusion of other activities; from this centered point, you can more easily discriminate between those outside pursuits which are merely distraction, and those which harbor golden nuggets of genuine awareness, growth, enlightenment or expansion of thought. I suspect the dimensions of this peak are slight and difficult to sense. Thus you are unlikely to stumble upon its sanctuary. Instead, it must be actively sought and, once attained, used carefully, purposefully and mindfully, as one would utilize and maintain any gift of rare and precious delicacy.

It seems that we alone, of all the animals on Earth, are burdened with the search for meaning. And not even all humans, perhaps regrettably, are thus charged. Many, maybe the vast majority of us go through our lives never wondering why we are here, or what purpose we might be meant to serve. And sometimes — just sometimes — I envy them too.

Usually not, though.

For my own part, I cannot imagine an existence where meaning is … meaningless. Ergo, I continue the search for that true calling, and for the pinnacle of balance between it and all the unanswered questions that await.

— Drema Deòraich (from August, 2009)

Blink Blink

You know, it just doesn’t seem like it should be a new year. Again. Didn’t we just have one of those last week? I swear, with every passing year the time seems to scream by with increasing speed. Remember when we were kids and an afternoon seemed to last an eternity? Nowadays, it is gone in the blink of an eye.

And isn’t that just scary as hell? Because, if you think about it, we blink our eyes a lot. A lot. Blink – another week past. Blink – another starry night sky ignored. Blink – another opportunity to build a snow fort with your kids lost. Blink – another chance to say “I love you” gone. Blink … blink … blink. We don’t get it back. Ever.

Think about this. There are 8,760 hours in one year. If you work 40 hours per week, sleep 8 hours per day, commute 1 hour each way to work, spend 3.5 hours preparing and eating meals each day, and an average of 27 hours per week on laundry, grocery shopping (and storing), cleaning, showering/dressing and other assorted tasks you do regularly, that leaves you only 559 hours free every year. That breaks down to about an hour and a half each day to do with as you please. And that’s only the average things that most of us do; it doesn’t count the other tasks that find their way into our schedules. Blink, blink, blink.

Gurdjieff taught that most people are basically asleep at the wheel, so to speak. They don’t notice what is going on around them because they are lulled by the regular rhythm of everyday mindless tasks, and the stupor of living up (or down) to others’ expectations. We all know the sensation of driving along, suddenly becoming aware of the fact that we have no recollection of the last 10 miles of road. Where were we?

On the other hand, we also know the excitement of anticipation when we are engaged in or about to begin some task or activity that is truly meaningful or enjoyable to us. That’s when we’re really awake.

The question is this: would we rather sleep our time away? or would we rather be awake, alive and excited about the next moment?

Granted, there are some things that can’t be escaped. We must eat. We must sleep. We must clean and care for ourselves and our surroundings. But how much of our time is spent satisfying the expectations of others? And how does it compare to that spent doing what is most meaningful and fulfilling to us as individuals?

We all have a limited amount of time in this life to do what we came here to do. Those hours we waste will not be regained, nor will some opportunities reappear if we pass them by. If we sincerely wish to gain spiritual development and growth, we must recognize what it is we should be doing with our time, and spend that precious resource wisely.

Drema Deòraich (from January 2005)

Prayer

Years ago, I visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Woodstock, New York. It was my first visit to a Buddhist temple, and it was glorious — the designs and decoration on the temple itself, the many essentials in its construction (it must face a specific direction; it must have an unobstructed view; there must be running water nearby; etc.), the massive golden Buddha at the far end of the worship space, the multiple full offering bowls across the altars, the hangings, every detail was memorable. But through it all, there was one bit that stood out. My husband and I were among a small group of visitors being guided around the site by a friendly, somewhat distant Buddhist nun. Among the visitors was a Buddhist monk from another temple in another city. I don’t remember his name; I do remember that he was dressed in the saffron and burgundy robes I have always associated with that faith’s clergy. I also remember that he held a string of beads, running them smoothly through his fingers throughout the entire tour. He never spoke, nor asked any question, but simply listened to the nun with a peaceful half-smile on his face the entire time. Finally, at the end of the tour, our guide asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand, and when she called on me, I turned and addressed my question to the quiet monk: “Do you use those beads to pray?”

“Yes,” he smiled, fingering another bead.

“Are you praying now?” I asked.

“I am always praying,” he responded, moving to the next bead without hesitation.

“Even when you sleep?” I queried, astounded.

“Even when I sleep.” Next bead. He must have heard this question before.

As a child, I knew prayer was an important part of my relationship with God. But as an adult, when I converted to Wicca, I began to question that perception. If the Gods are greater than I, surely they knew my thoughts, even before I did, I reasoned. And I stopped praying.

Years later, I found myself in the midst of a period of doubt and longing in my faith. (What serious seeker has not experienced such a time, at least once?) In my frustration, I found myself spontaneously talking to the Divine as if She were a close friend and not a parental figure.

“Look,” I began. “I’m really stuck here, and I could use your help. Where the hell have you been?” And it was as if She was truly there. I felt some of the answers I sought coming, slowly but definitely; and I knew that the rest would follow when it was time. That moment of unplanned prayer brought me a great sense of peace, one I desperately needed at the time. Thinking back on that moment, I was reminded of the poem about the seeker who asked God to speak to her, and a lark began to sing, but she did not hear; she complained that she could not see God in her daily life, and a flower opened at her feet, but she turned away; she cried because she could not feel God’s presence, and a soft breeze caressed her cheek, but went unnoticed.

To this day, I still talk to the Divine in everyday conversational tones as if She is an old friend. I figure She knows me best, so why put on airs? She doesn’t always answer in ways I expect, nor in ways I want. And even silence, or a lack of obvious response is a reply, is it not? Some things we have to learn on our own; the lessons cannot be handed to us any more than we can ride a bicycle simply by watching someone else do it. And for some life circumstances, the only way out is through. In those times, I speak to God as if I am speaking to myself, working out my problems aloud to an “empty” room or van, and knowing She hears. It always helps.

Talking to God, whether aloud or silently, is indeed one way to feel a closer connection to that divine energy. But it is my firm belief that this is only one form of prayer. My mother always taught me that our actions speak louder than our words. With that in mind, I try to live my life as if it were a prayer. After all, what better form of gratitude can we possibly show the Divine than to walk our talk and demonstrate our growth? There seems to me no better way to inspire ourselves to continue along what can be a difficult path than to see for ourselves that we can be taught and, in seeing this, realize that the difficult times have meaning and purpose.

— Drema Deòraich (from April 2008)