I feel weird right now.
I’ve been bouncing between different frequencies of vibrational intensity, that shake and move me. These surges of intensity might build gradually, or furiously overtake me: when a friend shares devastating news (and I’m trembling with the thwarted desire to hold them), when I’m reading a book and a random line strikes me as utterly alive, when I’m riding the undulating waves of collective presencing, or when I walk by two people slowly kissing on the street, oblivious to the world around them. Sometimes, they are bright and high-pitch, filling me with so much energy and pleasure that I suddenly skip on the street. Other times, it’s deep, sacred and primordial, like a gong is vibrating through me. My dreams, both during the day and at night are also acquiring a kind of vivid intensity. I hesitate to say this, but sometimes, they have a numinous quality to them: I’m starting to get these recurring images that fill my head, and they stay until I draw or write them out.
I’m also laughing more, in sudden, unexpected eruptions. The laughter cuts through the heaviness of the intensity, suddenly makes everything feel delightfully absurd.
All this weirding is happening in the background of quotidian pandemic living. X and I wake up every morning and we get our morning cortados at the local cafe, where I engage in easeful small talk with the two rotating baristas who know us. I continue to work on projects around affordable housing, coach students around the existential torment of their precarious futures, make dinner, do yoga, snuggle with Meowbot.
Yet at the same time, it feels like I’m being nudged deeply and delicately at my core. It amplifies as it rises up from the oceanic depths of my soul and psyche, and suddenly, I’m caught in the rolling waves. I don’t really know what to do or how to channel this intensity. So I’m just trying to move with it, sway with it. I remind myself to just stay with the mystery unfolding.
I sense that practice of trying to stay with this energy, rather than to indulge my usual impulses to either avoid it or make sense of it, is helping me learn how to attenuate with it. It’s been a curious process of phenomenological self-inquiry, of noticing the somatic peculiarities of how the energy pulses through me, moving through the fractal, mycelial networks of my polyvagal nervous system. I’ve been participating in “The World that Could Be”, guided by my friend Edwin where a small group of us are collectively exploring the reconnection of mind and body. His somatic coaching keeps me accountable to everyday practice of noticing what’s showing up, off the meditation pillow. He asks us to notice and stay with the phenomena rather than jumping to the story, to pause and ask: “okay, what else is here”? I told him the other week that I feel like the practice has been changing me, mutating me.
Mutating. This Self-Directed Masters is the permission space I’ve granted myself to step from the known, to let my membrane become more porous and allow for my contamination by new and unusual ways of seeing. I think I’m going through this experience of weirding because I’ve been exposing myself to so much: various courses, book clubs, personal and intersubjective practices, and they are all changing and weaving through me. I just started Jean Gebser’s The Ever Present Origin, and the experience of reading it has the properties of being psychoactive – it’s lighting up and revealing layers of something that feels like it’s always been present with me. I like how Jeremy Johnson, who is leading the Gebser course, calls it “catalytic reading.” It’s similar to my experience of unfamiliar homecoming while reading Ria Baeck’s Collective Presencing book.
I’m reminded of the Octavia Butler quote: “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” All that I touch is changing me. And of course, the risk of surrendering to mutation is that at the edge of that unfolding, you truly do not know who you are becoming.
There is also a shimmering, almost alien quality to the way I’m noticing my awareness and deeper consciousness shift. It’s not sinister, but it is unsettling (less Lynch and more Vandermeer vibes?). I’m reminded of the rapt way in which I drank in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation in one sitting, or when I watched the film Under the Skin. Something is blowing off the dust of something deep in me that hasn’t been touched in a long time, vibrating at a weird frequency that makes me wonder if it’s getting inside me — shaking inside my skin, my bones, my cells and atoms. It also makes me nervous, like I’m surrendering to something that I can’t quite control.
I feel like I’m mutating into an alien under my human skin. Or maybe I’m realizing that I’ve been an alien all along?
(Re: the Images: This is the first time I’ve noticed how these scenes from Annihilation (top) and Under the Skin (bottom) mirror each other – both capture a moment where the woman protagonists face the strange, uncanny, alien version of themselves. In Annihilation, Lena confronts her refracted doppel-ganger; In Under the Skin, the alien “woman” finally sheds and stares at her human skin.)
I’ve also been listening to and meditating with a dharma course by Rob Burbea around the Path to the Imaginal. What I appreciate in this course is that the practice of experiencing the intense, vividness of image or story, is premised on a foundation of emptiness. It follows the Buddhist wisdom that all phenomena are co-dependent-arising, which also means that nothing has independent or inherent existence (at least, that we can access outside of the ways that we see). This is actually quite liberating, because I release myself from the tyranny of asking: “Is this Real? How do I know this is Truth?” and allow myself to be curious and wonder: “What is showing up here? How is it mattering?” Or really, I stop asking any questions at all, and become fully present with the glorious, ephemeral quality of what unfolds. One of the Presencing engagements I’ve been nursing with two friends invokes this kind of “playful reverence” for how we can step into and explore the Imaginal spaces. We can be simultaneously playful with our ways of seeing, and reverentially respectful of what shows up in this sacred space.
So yes, I’m also having gleeful fun in feeling like an alien right now.
One of my favourite illustrations of the delicate balance of playful reverence and serious play is in the show Pen15, which stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing 13-year old sixth graders in the year 2000 (exactly my age during that time, so it is rich with cringe-worthy nostalgia). I rewatched the third episode in Season 2, “Vendy Wiccany” a couple of days ago (there is a good summary here), and am struck again by how it renders in heart-wrenching pathos why these two girls, in the torturous liminal space between childhood and adulthood, take comfort in becoming “witches” together. It folds together the intoxicating power and creeping danger of believing in beautiful stories. At first, Maya and Anna are delighting in imaginary play like all kids do, making up stories and casting spells to enchant the mundanity of their lives. Yet what happens with stories we tell is that they begin to influence how and what we see: we seek out and notice the magic coincidences, the “signs” that reinforce and materialize our story into reality. Maya and Anna become increasingly convinced that their spells are working, that they might really be witches with powers. The map starts to become the territory.
I write this as a reminder to myself that one has to be careful with one’s stories. The stories that we tell – about ourselves and about the worlds that we inhabit – are spells, are magic. They are beautiful incantations that change what we can see in the world through how we see it. They are a vital part of the ontological designing of the life worlds that we inhabit. And this Self-Directed Masters, this search for my “soul’s calling” at its core, is a project of becoming re-enchanted by the possibilities of worlding. I’m being more open, slowing down and dissolving the immune-response that automatically rejects anything that makes me feel weird or tremble.
Yet I also wonder about discernment? I sense that something at the foundations of my psyche is shaking a little, opening up cracks for something new to creep in, shake me, make me feel alien to myself. They raise the pervasive existential questions of: Who am I? How do I know who I am? How do I know what to let in or out, when I’m in this liminal state of Not Knowing? How do I navigate when I allow myself to be lost?
I suspect that it is based on cultivating deep trust – or what Jean Gebser describes as primal trust – in myself:
“So long as we do not find an answer to those questions, primal fear reigns. From it springs, to the degree that we become aware of those questions, the diverse, creaturely, psychic, and intellectual anxieties. It is also in the last analysis the trigger for aggression and depression… which can only lead to the destruction of others or of oneself. Only he who finds an answer to these three questions awakens to primal trust, and is freed from primal fear. What is almost incomprehensible is that in this case, he will have overcome the primal fear forever and is therefore not threatened by any relapse into it.”
-– Jean Gebser
I do sense that I’m coming closer to a deeper, primal trust in myself. That I will sense when to slow down when things get too intense. That I will know when to pause at an edge, so that I take a moment to notice the phenomena around me and inside of me. That I will not get paralyzed by not knowing where my next step will take me, but gather myself just enough to be courageous and take that leap into unknowing, guided by the trembling in my soul.
And the more I trust myself, the more I can discern who I can and want to trust around me. I’m aware that collective spaces, or “we-spaces” can also intensely self-reinforce the “shared story”, leading to closed-world culty vibes and dissolving anchors of self-sovereign discernment. X and I joke about being a Folie à Deux (meaning “madness of two”), two bodies spinning in such tight orbit with one another that we risk spiralling off into madness. Yet there is a difference between being lost, and losing oneself. Losing yourself can expose you to the potential of exploitation and harm, especially in conditions of isolation, meaninglessness and deep loneliness. When you feel so untethered from a centered gravity of self or foundation of groundless ground, all you can do is latch onto the lifesaver that saves you from drowning. This is why we check in with friends and neighbours, form community bonds, seek connection with loved ones.
I am enmeshed in a living ecosystem of social relationships, of rich friendships and kin. I continue to be anchored in close relationships with family members, who have witnessed my evolution from bratty infancy, with my high school friends who loved and accepted me as a dorky teen, friends from my masters degree, art practice and design work, neighbours and communities of practice. They ensure that I’m always in nodding terms with my past and present selves, no matter how much I want to pretend some of them don’t exist.
I’m now encountering and making new friends who I’m beginning to trust, who are a part of this new edge of alien becoming. This rich entanglement with other people, and with my selves – the teaming pantheon of my plural identities past, present and future – is the sympoiesis of my shimmering mutation. And I sense that this journey is yet another phase of an unfolding of something that’s been enfolded in me all along, under the skin.
At the end of the episode of Pen15, Anna and Maya are in a dark and isolating place – they feel like their families hate them, everyone at school hates them, and it’s their fault. So they decide to do a spell together that makes them disappear. I’m shivering even as I’m writing this, remembering the way that Anna just believes and accepts that she is disappearing, staring at her hands and saying wistfully: “Do you see my fingers? They’re leaving me. The pain’s going away too actually”.
In the end, friendship is what holds them together. Maya senses the truth of the agony and sorrow in her best friend, throbbing at the heart of their made up game of running away and being witches together. In an incredibly moving scene, Maya throws off the story all together, begging Anna to stop. She clings to her and desperately tries to anchor her disappearing best friend to what is true, what she can trust: “Anna, you’re right here. You’re not disappearing. You’re staying here. I love you.”
And suddenly, the dark forest they are in fades away. They are sitting in Anna’s backyard, her house in the background, crying and clinging to each other. Clinging to magic of friendship. Clinging to the spell of love.