December 23rd, 2005 was just another day for me. I can’t even remember what I was doing besides planning for Christmas. But at some point in that day, I wrote myself a note:
I completely missed yesterday’s Solstice, and I feel nothing about it except somewhat wistful surprise.
For decades, I had performed a ritual on the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. When I became a professional New Age teacher and author in 1997, I began to share my Solstice ritual, either in the workshops I gave around the country, or through posts on my website.
The ritual was simple and non-denominational; it was a ceremonial way to mark the end of the year and bring some light into the darkness of the day. I usually opened the ritual by writing down the ideas I wanted to leave behind on one piece of paper, and then burning that paper so that I could see the words disappear. These ideas might have been troubles with loved ones or my career, health issues, recurring problems, or aspects of my behavior that weren’t working. Ritually writing down and then burning troubling ideas made my ephemeral, hoped-for changes seem real and doable.
The second part of the ritual was to write about things I wanted to have or experience in the coming year on a fresh piece of paper. These wishes might have been for peace in my family or my country, better health for me and my loved ones, a change in my attitude, or clearer vision in areas that were confusing to me. I also burned this second piece of paper – this time as a way to release my wishes into the cosmos, so that angels, spirit guides, or God would know that I trusted the universe enough to let my wishes go. I could ask for help, but I didn’t need to control the outcome.
The third part of my Solstice ritual was to take a tiny bit of the ash of the second piece of paper (which contained the things I hoped for), and to mix this ash into a small amount of a ceremonial drink of the season. Drinking a bit of this ash was meant to symbolize the act of incorporating my wishes into my body and my life. It was a lovely little ritual.
In my New Age career, my life had been filled with ritual, and when I married my husband Tino in 1994, he brought his deep understanding of numerous indigenous rituals into my life. Together, we created a home filled with shrines, rituals, spiritual symbols, and meaningful bits and pieces from all over the world. We learned to see every part of our lives as an aspect of ritual; every bird, rock, tree, animal, and occurrence meant something special to us or about us. We felt tremendously in touch with the inner, outer, and other worlds.
But as I wrote above, I missed the Winter Solstice completely in 2005, and it had only been two years since I pulled my life – our lives – apart at the seams and left my New Age career behind me.
How it ended
In early 2003, I was teaching an intensive four-month seminar on psychic healing techniques. My students came from all over the country to spend one long weekend with me and Tino each month. Tino and I were teaching the empathic healing techniques I was known for, and the tribal ritual techniques for which Tino has an exceptional and devoted capacity. Our students were lovely people and we enjoyed being with them.
One night after the main class was over and most people had gone to bed, a few of us night owls were hanging out. I was talking to one of my students about pain in my low back, which was troubling me very much at that time and nearly crippling me. I was seeing acupuncturists and chiropractors and homeopaths and massage therapists and taking herbs and tinctures and doing energy work and relaxation and meditation, but my lower back would not get better. It totally refused. This was a big problem in the New Age, where a central organizing belief is that you control your health through diet, intention, meditation, energy work, being connected to God and nature, and through your adherence to alternative healing methods.
In my books and tapes, I challenged the idea that you control your life and your health, because it’s a pretty toxic and cruel idea when you really examine it. However, even though I knew better, I felt that my low back problem was a sign of some sort of personal flaw. I mean, I was doing everything I could do: I exercised and ate well; I was right with my emotions and my relationships; my aura and chakras were healthy and aligned; and I was right with my God and the other world.
I was doing my healing work; living an ethical spiritual life; eating organic foods; giving to charities … there was nothing in my life that I could identify as causative. Nothing in this life, anyway. So the story I told about my intense pain, which my student agreed with wholeheartedly because it was very similar to a story she knew herself, began this way:
A long time ago in a past life, I lived on the island of Atlantis before the fall. Atlantis was a very advanced civilization where people had psychic powers and could control the weather and the physical world. Atlantean society was based on crystals, and the Atlanteans derived the energy they needed to run their civilization from those crystals. They were also in contact with advanced extraterrestrial beings and lived in a utopia set apart from the primitive human cultures that populated much of the rest of the Earth. These aliens helped the people of Atlantis learn how to control nature and utilize crystals for all of their energy needs.
But the Atlanteans got very cocky, and decided that they could create perfect offspring without actually having to procreate sexually. With the help of the extraterrestrials, the scientists of Atlantis found a way to asexually generate human and animal life in a kind of energy chamber. The political leaders of Atlantis supported these scientists, even against the advice of the Atlantean priests who warned against the folly of attempting to wield such godly powers. Those scientists and political leaders should have listened, because their hubris prompted nature and God to destroy Atlantis and wipe any trace of it and its civilization from the face of the Earth.
This is a story that many people in the New Age know. Or remember somehow. There are many different versions of it, in which the Atlanteans have different powers or a slightly different fate (in Donovan’s famous song, 12 Atlantean leaders escaped and created all of the world’s civilizations). But the main gist of the story (about unusually gifted humans becoming power mad – with the help of science – and having to be destroyed) is essentially the same.
My special twist
However, my special twist – which I shared with my student that night – is that one of these extraterrestrials got left behind when his people rocketed away from the sinking island. This alien agreed to help me escape death by drowning if I would let him take up residence in my body. I guess he couldn’t live on the Earth in his actual form (which was a kind of colored energy cloud – think Star Trek). So I agreed … I mean, what would you do?
The alien quickly curled himself into my lumbar spine (where my low back in this life now ached unremittingly), spirited me away from the disappearing island of Atlantis, and helped me reach the mainland.
However, what my alien symbiotic parasite didn’t tell me, because these aliens are always dropping the other shoe later in the story, is that our agreement gave him free access to the spine of each body I took in my many future incarnations. There’s always a catch.
And so the story I told myself about my recurrent and crippling lower back pain – which would not relieve no matter how many healings I got – was that this alien was angry with me for trying to break our contract in this, my current lifetime. I wanted to live in my own body alone, without him, and he was very angry. My student and I talked for many hours about being controlled by past agreements made when one was afraid (we had both survived childhood sexual assault, so we knew the territory), of giving up sovereignty in order to survive, and of all sorts of other very deep and pertinent things. I mean, stuff you’d pay a therapist lots of money to get to. But we got there through this Atlantis story.
As I thought about it that night when I finally climbed into bed, and when I woke the next morning with my back still on fire, I remember thinking, “What the fuck?” What. The. Actual. Fuck? I mean, what was that Atlantis story, and why did so many people – even complete strangers – know a version of it? Where did it come from, and why was it so important to so many of us in the New Age?
Because as I lay there thinking about it, I began to see it as an off-the-wall weird story. I mean, I always knew it was a strange story, and over my lifetime I had told it only to a few people who, like my student, brought the idea into the conversation, but still. What in the world was I doing and saying?
I finished teaching the rest of the class that weekend, but something had changed significantly inside me. I began to question everything I said and did, as if I were standing outside of myself, observing.
That situation wasn’t the final straw for me, but it was a huge factor in my leaving the New Age. I mean, I was in all seriousness telling another person this story (and other stories of similarly dubious origin), yet no one ever questioned me! I think I could have said anything and gotten away with it. People gave me absurd amounts of power and authority because I was spiritual, which meant that I was an advanced being and unquestionably correct. Which was why I left.
That kind of power is a very bad thing for everyone. It turned otherwise intelligent people into followers and it turned me into an isolated leader, but most egregiously, it turned all of us into something less than human beings. It was wrong and I was finding it unlivable.
I told that Atlantis story in the spring of 2003, just as the people in our country were being lied to, bamboozled, and manipulated into a disastrous war. As I awoke that morning, I had to ask myself if I wasn’t part of the problem – since I was helping people live in a fantasy world populated by Atlantean pelvis aliens.
It didn’t matter that I meant well, and it didn’t matter that my student and I totally agreed on the story – before I even told it – and used it to get to some very useful and essential truths about life. What mattered was that I was blithely passing on stories that I didn’t know (but just felt) to be true.
I wasn’t any better than the people who imagined weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because they wanted them to be there — and because they wanted to make someone pay for September 11th attacks. I wasn’t any better than the people who fought school districts to include a literal six-day creation story based on the Bible because they wanted it to be true. I wasn’t any better than people who denied global warming because they couldn’t face the implications.
The devastating events of September 2001 already had me seriously questioning the limits and responsibilities of religion and faith, and now in 2003, I no longer felt that it was ethical, moral, or helpful to focus on cherished beliefs as an alternative to the messy and complicated truth.
I wrestled myself out of my career later that year, and by January of 2004 I was back in college studying the social sciences. One of my first self-chosen research projects was on the history of the Atlantis utopian* myth, which first appeared in the Greek philosopher Plato’s works, Timaeus and Critias, in 500 BCE. More about that in a later post, but wow! The moral of the New Age version of the story is the exact opposite of the moral of the original story of Atlantis.
*The word utopia was coined in the book Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516, and it refers to an imaginary and idealized island society with perfect social, legal, and political systems. Interestingly, the word literally means “nowhere.” The best definition of a utopia was written by editor George Haight in his introduction to a modern reprint of Sir Francis Bacon’s 1626 classic, New Atlantis. Haight wrote that Atlantis was “… one of the famous utopias, those accounts of an ideal world in which authors reveal what is wrong in their own (Bacon 1942, xvi).”
What I found in studying Atlantis, and continue to find when I look at the actual story behind things we believe is this: The truth is often hundreds of times more interesting than any mystical story. Because, you know, it’s true! And because it’s exciting to see how humans can take one true idea and turn it into any number of increasingly complex fantasies.
When I left my old beliefs behind, I thought that I would become educated and find a better form of certainty, this time based on responsible research and solid information. But truth isn’t like that. The more you discover, the more there is to know, and I now view unbending certainty, or the wish for it, as something that actually gets in the way of knowledge.
Since 2003, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at how perception, cultural expectations, our need for certainty, and our natural storytelling skills play into and off one another, and I’ve tried to discover the underlying meaning and purpose of the stories we tell ourselves and each other. This has been in turns a fun, shocking, exciting, saddening, and ultimately rewarding thing to do.
I’m thankful that I left the New Age behind me, because it was certainly time for me to go. I’m also thankful that I left alternative medicine behind, because I finally discovered the true cause of my back pain (a tilted sacrum that becomes unstable if I sit at the computer too much). With the help of physical therapy, I know how to fix it now, without acupuncture, herbs, tinctures, meditation, energy work, endless chiropractic manipulations, or supplication to an angry alien with a whopping sense of entitlement. Whew!
But truth be told, it was a very wrenching thing to leave my life’s work, my career, my past, and my future behind. So my approach in telling this story is not a simplistic one; this is a series of essays about missing the solstice in every sense of that phrase.
My hope is that things will turn out well, but I no longer have the certainty I once did. When I was a psychic healer, I might have told you an intricate story about what all of this means. But the truth is, I really don’t know; it’s an adventure.
Here’s to the adventure: Missing the Solstice ~and~ Discovering the World.
Next post: 2. Discovering the magic