Of Silence and Terror



"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."—Kurt Vonnegut

In the 24 days that I have now lived on the road, I have so far experienced three moments that I could define as sacred or divine.

I have had a million thought provoking moments. During my visits to the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Richard Rohr’s church in Albuquerque, and watching my dad deliver the sermon at a chapel service at a retirement RV park in the deserts of Arizona, the Dumbledore’s pensieve of my mind was whirling with the excitement of new sensory information mixing with various memories, feelings, and philosophical ideas. I feel like it’ll still be another week before I can even process it all.

I’ve also had about a gazillion jaw dropping experiences and moments of pure amazement. Far too many to record.
There has not yet been a day where I have not silently and reverentially said “god damn…” at some new and beautiful bit of scenery. I have had deeply intimate and profound conversations with some truly beautiful people. I saw the Goodyear blimp two days ago! And a Trump golf course!

I have felt the weight of Oklahoma, the humility of Kansas, and the tension between greed and good feeling in California. The other day I realized that even if I somehow won a million dollars, I would not change a single thing about my life, other than I would buy a used camper van and a phone that doesn’t have permanent black spots on the camera lens. La vie est belle, la vie est absurde.

But there have only been three moments where I could say that I truly felt I experienced something outside of me, something just beyond the reach of my perception.

But first, a brief pause for explanation: I want it noted that when I here use the word “divine,” it is in a similar way to the way I use words like “sunset.” That is, I know the sun isn’t actually setting down beyond the horizon. I know that it is actually the Earth that's moving. But the word “sunset” is somehow still the best word to use to describe that particular experience.

Now I would think (but don’t presume to know) that even the most staunch Atheist among us would not deny that humans sometimes experience moments of transcendence; experiences so sublime and poetic that they are hard to describe or define. Moments that make whatever it is that you want to call your “soul” feel most alive and vibrant and connected.

I don’t know if there is a god behind these moments or if it is just a particularly pleasurable series of synaptic connections and a temporary flood of norepinephrine.
And really, I don’t care. I’d much rather just enjoy them. Life is full of too much suffering to question and doubt the good parts.  So for the sake of shorthand, allow me to refer to these moments as divine, even if I can't say for sure that they actually are so.

I think we experience this sort of divine energy in micro-doses all the time.
I know I feel it when I am walking alone, intentionally lost, in a new city. I know I feel it with good coffee or whiskey. I feel it intensely in every aspect of my sexuality—desire, anticipation, release—something I am only now beginning to truly connect to.
I feel it right now as I sit in an Orange County park, listening to the beautiful work of Dustin O'Halloran, watching adorable old people do Tai Chi and yoga pant moms do baby aerobics.
The practice of mindfulness has helped me become more aware of these moments. In fact, it creates them.
I recommend giving it a go. I am 60% sure that you will not become demon possessed if you do.

Acknowledging these small sparks, I will say that three experiences I mention went well beyond those moments of divine connection.
They were moments of pure awe.
I sat in silence and terror at the beauty of them.

The third moment was last night.
I drove by myself out to what turned out to be a totally isolated beach. I saw the city lights get swallowed by the vast darkness of the ocean. I could feel the tides try to pull me away. The stars were obscured by clouds and there was only a glimmer of moon, so I stared into what was mostly a void. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the things I brought: some sage given to me by a woman that I desperately wished would love me; and a small yellow wax heart given to given to me by my friend and women’s studies professor, Judith, who believes in magic in a way that just makes sense to me.

I burned a little of the sage and thought about what things I want to release as I watched the wax heart melt by my lighter. And then I sat back and just got lost with the sound of the waves. I felt so small. Almost subatomic. But still, I did not feel insignificant. I had this realization that though I am a mere speck on a ball of dust hurling through space, I am not outside of it traveling through it, but rather I am enveloped in it and am a part of it. I think Lao Tzu said that the Tao is to us what water is to fish. The Sufi mystic Rumi told us to remember that we are not a drop of water in the ocean, but we are the entire ocean in a drop. Last night, however briefly, I could feel that.

And let me tell you, church: it was wonderful.

I experienced the same sense of smallness and vastness during my other two divine encounters. And what I have noticed in all three times was that this was all preceeded by a hardcore panic attack so severe that I was actually worried I would stop breathing. The worst of these happened during divine moment number two.

I had arrived in Phoenix, a city where I had never been and knew no one, and decided that having constantly been around new people and sensations the last few weeks, my highly introverted brain needed a night off. So I decided to not go through couchsurfing.com, but instead get a cheap hotel and just stay in and watch Netflix or something. The rookie mistake I made was booking a hotel sight unseen.
The hotel looked like something from an Oscar nominated movie where a celebrity glams down to play a heroin addict with AIDS.
There were a couple of shirtless guys freestyle rapping while drinking from a forty in a paper bag, there were prostitutes walking up and down the street and taxi drivers stopping by to have friendly chats with them. My room was tiny with exposed fixtures and an incredibly flimsy window. And it struck me then that I was alone. Hours away from anyone I knew. And I felt then the size and scope of the universe.
But it did not feel inviting. It felt cold and indifferent.

I thought about how when I was a young Christian, I would go into neighborhoods like the one of my hotel without any fear or reservation and would unashamedly knock on those hotel doors and ask whoever answered if they knew where they were going when they died.
I felt no terror then because I knew God had directed my steps. I was being watched over and protected. I had the power of the Holy Spirit to protect me.
Whenever I was scared, I would just silently pray in tongues for a while. That would serve to silence my brain and soothe my heart rate. I would do this until I felt warm and at peace, which could sometimes take hours. Now that I can recognize just how bad my anxiety disorder was, it is not surprise at all that I was so into the ideas of intercessory prayer and spiritual warfare. My anxiety really did cause me to “pray without ceasing.”

But now, I am really not sure if there is anything out there to hear my prayer.

If there is such a thing as a God, she is awfully silent. There is no one coming to save me.

And then I remembered how old my car was. And I became aware of my chronic pain and how I have no health insurance. I felt my toothache, either through the reality of a cavity or the anticipation of one. I thought about how my eyeglasses are at least a year too old. I realized that the only consistent income I have is my Patreon account (and thank you, my dear, dear, friends who subscribe. Thank you to those of you that want to, but can’t afford it. I understand, trust me). I thought about how big the country is and how very few people I know in it. Where will I stay? What will I do? What folly have I followed? What peril awaits?

I felt all of this strongly, my irregular heartbeat kicking into high gear, my panic rising around me like cold water.

But then I remembered something I heard at a poetry reading my first night on the road: “The only way out is through.”
Meaning that avoiding pain and fear and suffering or running from it, denying it, masking it with distraction, none of those things actually make those negative feelings go away. They are still there. They will come back for you.
The only way to be free of them, the only way to be out of that fear, doubt, depression, loneliness, whatever, is to go through it. You have to feel the full intensity of it for the full duration of it and know that you have survived it. And then brace yourself for whenever the next wave hits you.

So I spent some time with terror. We walked around together. I allowed it to ramble on as much as it wanted, but I slowly began to only half-listen, eventually coming to a place where I really didn’t believe anything it said to me. And I found my filter beginning to change. I realized how friendly my neighbors for the night were, pondering briefly about how our society conditions us to fear the poor. I also stumbled into a vintage clothing store and got to feel the pure concentrated joy of a beautiful, hippyish sales clerk unabashedly flirt with me. I even found my awkward fumbling and ultimately fearful exit with only a name and no number in tow kind of beautiful. Because all things in their own time.

And it was somewhere there that night, walking alone in a bad neighborhood in a strange city that I began to feel that divine sensation. It came as a sort of bolstering. It acted as a sort of Patronus—I know that’s at least my second Harry Potter reference in this essay. All apologies to the muggles. I’ll try to do Planet of the Apes analogies or something next week—I felt somehow protected by the fact that even though I was in no way protected, I was still standing and still willing to stand.

I think this is how I define faith: there is no good reason to believe that things will be okay, but I am still going to believe things are going to be okay.
Even if everything crumbles or is burned to the ground, I can not only survive it, but I can adapt to it and learn to thrive in it and use to my benefit in my search to become the truest and highest form of myself that I can be.
Even though I feel I am in a dark room in the Legend of Zelda, only able to see or perceive just what is a few feet in front of me, I believe I will somehow be fine. That things will unfold and develop.
This morning, I had no idea where to sleep next week, now I have the next two weeks lined up. A few days ago I had no idea where to go today, but tonight I am going to the Goddess Temple of Orange County. Things are unfolding as they need to like so much unwinding landscape.
Every time I turn a corner I get to be surprised by whatever unknown and beautiful thing is there.

Reading this should not make you jealous. Because the truth is that this is all the same for you. You just have the luxury (or the burden) of being able to choose routine. The only thing stopping any of us from doing what we want is us.

I have a terrible fear of heights but still found myself as a kid frequently at the top of diving boards and water slides. And I’ll tell you, even into my teens, I was that kid that you saw walking back down the stairs. I thought then that it was my fear that stopped me from diving in, but what I realize now is that the fear never goes away, you just have to not listen to it and do it anyway.
Our greatest joy lives in the midst of our biggest fears.

These are all the things I realized in the midst of divine moment number one. I had driven out to the middle of the New Mexico desert, miles away from the nearest man made light or other human being. I parked my car and stood out beneath the biggest and brightest sky I have ever encountered. I was blanketed in darkness, bathed by the milky white of billions of ancient stars. I laid on the hood of my car, watching meteors and satelites careen across the sky. I thought then about how the world would end. I thought about how I used to believe in the rapture and a final judgement. I asked myself what it is that I believe now.

And I envisioned then our human future and how at some point—maybe thousands of years from now, maybe before we get a chance to elect new world leaders—the human race will go extinct.

And I thought about how the universe will still be here, just spiraling on as it has for billions and billions of years, maybe never even noticing that we came and went. I considered how this could sometimes be a terrifying idea (and as noted above, have since been terrified by it).
But at that particular moment in time and space. I felt no fear at all. I felt the joy of being a thread in a tapestry. I literally physically bowed to the idea that I am a small part of a great and mysterious thing that I will probably never fully understand while in this body.

That we are all travelers on this planet, roaming to places in the cosmos that we have never been to before.

That we are all alive for the first and only time that we are presently aware of.

That we are all equally lost in this experience, grappling in the void, trying to figure things out.

That I am no more lost or found than anyone else.

That everything about me that I have considered broken, everything that I consider to be a flaw or a limitation, every single thing that is “wrong” with me is all just as much of a happy accident as my supposed virtue.

That though there might be something resembling universal morality, there is no right or wrong way to be human.

That when you look at a forest or a coastline or pristine desert desolation, you realize that you could not design it better yourself, but it was not designed. It was simply a product of erosion and pollination and organic growth.

That you and I are the same things as forests and coastlines and mountains. That we are the natural product of how we have lived to this point. And who could design us any better?

Even if things are presently shit, we have all been through enough shit to know that it never lasts. We usually come out better for it anyway. It’s hard to remember when we are in the midst of it, but we always eventually see our way through.

I pondered these things under the stars. I pondered then I smiled. I smiled then I danced.

I danced alone in the dark under the tapestry of stars, coyotes serenading me as I rejoiced. Marveling in my brain chemistry, the improbability of my existence, and the miraculous virtue that no one ever had to teach me how to breathe.

If there is anything beyond us, I am certain it will be found there in those silent spaces.

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  1. "Ryan - equally empty, equally to be loved, equally acoming Buddha."

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