I once met a guy with only one arm. But I had no idea. I thought he had both arms.
The guy with the missing arm and I sat together daily at a cafe one summer in 1987. I was in college and his older brother had introduced us at a party. By this time I had decided on getting an art degree after four years of studying everything and changing degrees several times.
Jerome always wore a flannel shirt over the t-shirt underneath. He was soft-spoken with blue eyes and a shy smile that drew me in. I wanted to be his friend from the moment I met him. Sitting there over coffee it felt like we spoke for hours about everything. Jerome had a presence. He grounded the space we were in.
Sometimes we sat in silence. Jerome liked to sketch and doodle in his journal. I loved to read and was in the middle of Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. We found natural pauses to talk about life. Yes, maybe that’s what I liked about him. We both sensed that the world was full of adventure.
Jerome was only there for the summer, visiting his brother. We both sensed this season of friendship would end. Knowing this we hung out together nearly every day for the next eight weeks.
I had a summer job a few blocks away from the cafe. It was not full-time and after work I would find a table outdoors, either joining Jerome or waiting for him to arrive.
I had other friends and some of them were around for the summer. None of them knew Jerome. Many of us knew his brother though.
Arriving at the cafe one day I saw Jerome already sitting there sketching. Three of my friends waved me over to their table before I could join him. One of them asked me if I knew why Jerome only had one arm.
“Huh?” I asked in disbelief.
“He has no left arm,” one of them answered as if to prove a point.
“He’s missing an arm? Really?” I replied as if my friends were lying or pulling a gag.
Looks of surprise on three faces. One looked at me as if I was blind and said, “He only has one arm dude!”
My look of puzzlement continued.
“You mean you don’t know? How could you not know?” another friend asked.
“Well, I will go ask him,” I answer and head over to Jerome’s table.
Sitting down, our eyes meet. “I have a question,” I say.
“Ok,” is all Jerome says.
I am looking now at the long sleeve flannel shirt and the left arm is clearly missing. I cannot believe my eyes. “What is going on?” I silently wonder.
Taking a breath I lead with, “Until a moment ago when some friends pointed it out I never knew you were missing your left arm. They want to know what happened.”
His head nods and he leans back in the white plastic chair.
“It was really stupid. I had decided to hop on a moving train. When I reached out to grab a handle the force was so strong it ripped my arm right out of its socket.”
We sat there eye to eye for a few seconds.
We all do stupid things in our life.
A flash image of me at six years old showing off to Toni, the girl across the street.
I am braced in a reverse tabletop on two low brick walls in her yard. I told her I could remove my hands and put them back before my head hits the wall. A gleam in her eyes egged me on. I failed. I walk calmly home and into the kitchen where my parents are entertaining guests. “I have a problem,” I said. They all look puzzled. I reached my hand up to my hair and turned the palm to them. It is covered in blood. An emergency room trip and six stitches later I was fine.
No stitches could fix Jerome.
“I’m sorry man,” I say
He shrugs and says, “It happened.”
Jerome had such composure and grace. That is what I remember from that summer. Sometimes we struggle to get hold of so much in our lives. You may think or worry about your impact on this world. I carry his story 35 years later.
Note: A big shout-out to Cam Houser who first heard me tell a part of this story in his wonderful Minimum Viable Video course. Today he asked me if I had told this story in writing. Here you go.
My introduction to the shamanic underground of Port Townsend began one summer weekend in 2019.
Daily Morning Yoga
Every morning I went to a yoga class at the Madrona MindBody Institute in a converted-for-the-community military building at Fort Worden State Park. The class helped me stay positive while taking care of my mom in Port Townsend – a town not too far away from Seattle, Washington.
One day after class as I was putting on my shoes I noticed a flier for a Summer Transformation Workshop. The image of Heather Gatto half-hugging a tree with a bit of mischief in her eyes made me want to learn from her.
Breakfast at Aldrich’s Market
After class I take a short drive to Aldrich’s Market in uptown. Sitting outside in a wooden chair in the morning summer sun I thought about the workshop over a cinnamon roll and a cup of black coffee
I was surprised because the workshop combined yoga and shamanism. I had no idea what shamanism was. I had a memory of a black and white photograph of someone sitting on the ground wearing animal skins playing the drum with their eyes rolled back in their head. I would be jumping into something with no idea of what I was getting into – exactly how I had started yoga.
I talked with my mom about it and her curiosity and enthusiasm helped confirm my initial spark of interest.
“You have always seen the world in a different way since you were a child. You want to do it and that is enough. You do not have to justify your dreams,” my mom said.
I nod my head.
“Do not worry about what others think. Some people live such narrow lives and then they die with regrets,” she continues.
Maybe I have been raised by a shaman? Or is this just the wisdom of old age?
Workshop Day One Morning
I arrived at the institute on a Saturday – a two-story Victorian house with polished wooden floors – with only my yoga mat, a journal, and a bottle of water. We are downstairs in a large room that once served as a pharmacy and a dancehall for the soldiers. The workshop opens with us arranged in a circle on our mats to learn a song. We sing several rounds.
I feel grounded in familiarity as we shift into the asana movement of yoga.
After some yogic breathwork, experiential shamanism began. We laid down on our yoga mats and closed our eyes. Heather explained that we would journey to the lower world to meet an animal guide while she played her drum. I felt a sense of being outside of time in some eternal space as I listened to the rhythmic beat. All thoughts of “will this even work?” had vanished. I found myself on a beach greeting a playful raccoon who was excited to be my friend and guide.
Lunch at Reveille Café
We all walked over to the Reveille Café for lunch, a cozy room with a dozen tables. Over soup, salad, sandwiches, and tea we got to know each other a bit. I had no idea that close friendships would form with those sitting at that table.
Poetry at Copper Canyon Press
After lunch we moved outside and sat on the grass in a circle. My view from the circle faced Copper Canyon Press which has published poetry since 1972. I had already visited and picked up a collection of thousand-year-old Chinese poetry by Cold Mountain – a hermit sage who felt like a shaman to me. I also had a broadside of The Snow and The Plum by Lu Mei-P’o written down 800 years ago. Before today this was just a beautiful poem. Now it is a magical incantation by a poet turned shaman inviting us to celebrate our intimate connection to nature.
Workshop Day One Afternoon
Heather read us a passage by Angeles Arrien, who was one of her teachers, from the book Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life.
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”
This foreshadows what will be coming for the rest of the workshop: singing, movement, storytelling, and silent contemplation.
More practices followed that first afternoon under a clear blue sky.
We opened our journals and filled in the blank for receiving is… with our non-dominant hand and then switched to our other hand to write giving is…
My responses to the prompts end up being open-ended pointers to further reflection. Some are direct opposites of each other. I have no idea why I wrote “Receiving is a spiral” but it hints at something hidden to explore.
The woods surround the institute on two sides. Through the woods are cliffs that are met by the Puget Sound. Port Townsend is on a peninsula. We are asked to take an oracle walk.
Holding a question in my heart I set off on a path into the woods. There are so many kinds of trees – I do not know the names of them all. I heard crows and warblers and see butterflies and ants. I recorded my observations instead of writing them down. I walked past a direction sign for Memory’s Vault and I imagined all the stories the plants have inside of them. I came out of the woods and my eyes were drawn to the horizon where water meets the sky. All during the walk, I said thanks to everything I met.
Back on the lawn I strung the phrases from my observations into an oracle – an answer to my question.
The circle reformed and we spoke about our oracle walks focusing on gratitude. This leads to identifying four teachers in our lives and writing a physical letter of gratitude to each one. As we wrote in silence, two hawks and an eagle flew overhead.
Dinner at Hanazono Asian Noodle
After the workshop, I had dinner with my brother downtown at Hanazono Asian Noodle. I thanked him for taking care of mom. My brother and I have lived separate lives and so it is nice to share a meal together. Caring for the family has brought us together.
At home, my mom can tell from my smile I had a wonderful day. We sat together on the couch holding hands. Outside the sliding glass door was a full moon in the sky.
Breakfast at the Food Coop
I woke up excited on Sunday. The scene outside the window has been replaced by a mother deer and her fawns nibbling at the leaves of a giant hedge. My brother arrived and I headed out for the second day.
Down the hill from my mom’s condo is the Food Coop – a local establishment since 1972. I picked up a breakfast burrito and a cup of Crack ‘O Dawn coffee from local roasters Sunrise Coffee Company. I added a sandwich and juice for lunch into a cloth tote from the store. There will be a potluck dinner so I picked up everything needed to make a killer salad – mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cashews, an apple, and some lemons.
Workshop Day 2 Morning
The second day of the workshop, Sunday is outside of town at Heather’s home which is on several acres in the Cape George neighborhood which overlooks Discovery Bay.
We gathered in a space that looks out onto a flower garden. In both room and garden are stone sculptures Heather carved. Not only does she teach yoga and shamanism, but she is also an accomplished artist! There are hoop drums (I later learned she and her husband made) and masks hanging on the walls. There is an altar that holds sacred and meaningful items – bronze statues of Hindu gods, rattles, photos of her teachers.
The morning started with learning a new song with the line “spiraling into the center, the center of the wheel.” I reflected back to yesterday when I wrote with my non-dominant hand “receiving is a spiral.” The spiral has always been an important shape I am drawn to – showing up in labyrinths and spider webs.
“The Spiral symbolizes the process of growth and evolution. It is a process of coming to the same point again and again, but at a different level, so that everything is seen in a new light. The result is a new perspective on issues, people and places… The life-renewing potential of the spiral appears in the spinning and weaving stories from all cultures.”
Angeles Arrien in Signs of Life
We flowed to a yoga routine and practiced more breathwork. I felt alert and relaxed.
We laid down for another shamanic journey. Both Heather and her husband Angelo drummed. We journeyed again to the lower world to be with our animal guide. Afterward we took a walk in nature. We were asked to reflect on what we received from the journey.
We sat together for lunch out on the patio overlooking the garden. We got to know each other more and talked about our experience in the workshop.
Workshop Day 2 Afternoon
The entire afternoon was an art workshop. We worked with colored pens, watercolors, and stacks of magazines to create our spirit animal. We all started with a circular piece of paper.
I dove into the magazines finding images of birds, masks, plates, scarab beetles, a suitcase, a branch, a couple dancing, and even one of my Zen teachers, angel Kyodo Williams. I am attracted to all of these images. I found a topographical map mixed in with the magazines.
I drew an outline of my raccoon and began gluing images to the paper. I added watercolors. I found a poem that resonates deeply, Lost by David Wagoner, which I wrote onto the collage.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Early evening we placed the completed images in a circle. We moved around the circle using a pen to add a single word. The raccoon received: mystery, visionary, expressive, power, possibilities, messenger, challenge, awareness, and found.
The final event of the workshop before the potluck was a sweat lodge. Angelo had prepared a fire and heated the rocks. The lodge is only branches tied together in an inverted basket shape. Dressed in shorts and swimsuits we add blankets until the lodge is ready.
Before entering the lodge we were smudged with sage, the smoke brushed over our body by an eagle feather. Bowing to enter we arranged ourselves around the pit in the middle. Angelo asked if I will help with the heated stones. He passed them on the tines of a garden fork and I placed them in the pit with two deer antlers. Once completed Angelo entered and the door flap was closed.
We sang songs and offered prayers as sage and water were placed on the rocks. The steam from the rocks and our voices transformed the space.
I felt held and seen. I felt a connection with those in the lodge, my ancestors, and the earth.
After wiping sweat off our bodies with towels we got dressed and made our way into the house for dinner. Casseroles were heated in the oven, two of us assembled salads, and we discovered many people had brought dessert – apple pie, berry pie, pecan pie, dried fruit, and fruit salad.
We enjoyed our time together eating and chatting. There was a cat who loved chasing a piece of yarn.
I drove home to my brother who is still with our mom. He took off to sleep and I helped my mom get to bed. The full moon was still in the sky. I sat up for a while watching the moon and enjoying the silence.
I had my first experience of shamanism – the drum journey, the oracle walk, the sweat lodge – integrated with other practices. I wanted to do more of this. Three domains mixed together I had seen as separate – yoga, shamanism, and art.
“The answer to having a better life is not about getting a better life, it’s just about changing how we see the one we have right now.”
angel Kyodo Williams
The Reverend angel’s words came to me as I looked at the collage I had made. Shamanism will not get me a better life, but it will help me get perspective. The spiral will help me get perspective. I am not lost. I am here. Here.
Coining a term like FOMO can be challenging. How do I come up with a new word? My rational thinking above ground mind is not going to be useful. Taking a breath and surrendering to my intuition a single word appears.
At first this play is conscious, maybe even a bit forced. I am still above ground. The underground awaits. The underground awaits us.
Hearing this refrain may leave you asking, “How?”
Reflecting on my childhood, make-believe jumps out as the answer. I put out my thumb. I am going to hitchhike into my subconscious, into the underground.
Getting a haircut during Write of Passage, a cohort based online writing course, may be the most brilliant thing I ever did. Reactions vary from “Looking sharp dude” to “I am still getting used to this new you.”
“There is a story there in your hair cut,” one woman says.
I immediately think – hair story. People’s reaction to your haircut. Your own reaction to your haircut. A story of perception. Stories of embarrassment and empowerment.
I bring this coined term to the Feedback Gym. Working in pairs we silently read each other’s essay and then give spoken feedback. I am paired with gym runner Michael Dean. He is exploring the term newsletter junkyard, a folder where he files everyone’s newsletter. His piece is filled with playful language – slang parrots, corporate hucksters, escalatory robots.
This playfulness leads to hair story collapsing into hairstory. The individual story of hair shifts to the collective story of hair. As in American Hairstory or WWII Hairstory. The history of anything told through hair.
During the silent hour of the Writing Gym I was doodling. I have doodled more since a writing mentor asked us at the beginning of the session to draw our faces without looking at the paper. Looking at a small triangle shape I wonder if it is a nose or a sailboat. It’s a noseboat of course! I write:
Is it a nose or a sailboat? Oh, it’s a noseboat of course. The smell of the sea. The smell of travel. Travel begins with the senses. The nose leads the way.
Slowly out of my mind tumble grumple doors (a sound play on Gryffindor from the Harry Potter books), niggle noors (no idea) and button drawers. And something is unleashed. I dub it the Dean effect or being in the Dean field, after Michael Dean.
A flash of memory comes. I am sitting with a friend in his pale blue 1971 MG-B in the high school parking lot. We joke that from this point forward no matter what happens in our life we will always be in this car in this parking lot.
I realize my hitchhiking in the underground started inside the MG-B, but as the make-believe becomes real I find myself on a bus.
There is more room now.
The inside of the bus is covered in graffiti. The walls, the floor, the ceiling are covered in words – coined terms.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
This is not real in an everyday sense. And yet it is. Everyday reality is inside a larger non-ordinary reality. I surrender and release to mystery. I am not merely stepping sideways into a daydream. I am walking into that which surrounds and sustains us.
Looking at the walls of the bus I start writing a list of coined terms.
“I am making shit up. Words hop, skip, and jump. They rhyme, they don’t rhyme. Mind zip zap zops. I make doodles and oodles. I giggle. I frown. I play.”
I combine something from nature with another term and get tree consciousness, wave thoughts, sun dreams, and water poems.
I switch to animals and get cat tea and bird leash.
I love books and looking at the stars and thus bookstronomy is born.
A relative is off to have a colonoscopy and I am sitting in my library. I become sillier and arrive at colophonic. Yes, a book colophon combined with a colonic for a colonoscopy.
The coined phrases fall off the wall onto the journal page almost faster than I can write.
The list continues with lawn showers, golden hours become purple hours which tease at rainbow hours, blue sours, lost ours (a play on lost hours and lost intimacy), abundance aversion and loss attraction (playing with opposites), JODE (joy of doing everything), JOJO (joy of jumping out/off), phonehenge (a time in the far future when archaeologists wonder what cell phones are), the cook’s cookies, and the writer’s eraser.
In a mentor session I am asked to find the essence in my essay, the shiny dime. Focus on the shiny dime and the emotion it evokes. When I arrive at the feeling, I may also arrive at my coined term. I reverse engineer since I already have a list of terms. Picking bookstronomy I write:
The Little Prince, sailing on a sea of stars, pulls out his telescope and looks down through the seaweed to see an underwater palace of books. The Little Prince has always loved stars and books.
During the same mentor session, I am in a breakout room where fellow students are struggling to come up with a single coined term. I suggest playing around and read some of mine.
This sparks a new way of playing.
Make up something using a last name. What about the Tillotson Effect or the Pimental Pivot? Or use someone famous – the Feynman Hypothesis, which is something about how the 12 Favorite Problems work.
You can get snarky. “Oh he is so DKC.” There is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where a person who knows little about a subject feels really knowledgeable. DKC is Dunning-Kruger Confidence. A false confidence where the person is full of hot air.
This playful mood infuses my day. Like Alice following the rabbit underground I find myself in an amusing, creative and topsy-turvy space where I am hitchhiking in the underground. Catching a ride into my subconscious. Riding the rails of non-ordinary reality.
I arrive at an underground river where I must pay the ferryman to cross. I offer a coined term and step aboard. Looking up I see the Little Prince looking down through a telescope.
We are breathing all the time. So why would we need to meet our breath?
Just as we can have a shared history with a partner and yet fall out of intimacy; we can fall out of a relationship with our breath. We always have an opportunity to become reacquainted with our breath. We can become friends with our breath.
Breathing grounds us in our bodies, provides an opportunity for awareness, and connects us with the natural world all around us.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Directing attention to the breath allows us to slow down and become fuller. Our breath and our nervous system are connected. Slowing down and fuller breaths create a space to rest and relax. Feel the quality of your aliveness.
There are many breath techniques. They can be used to help recover from physical illness, improve concentration, let go of trapped emotions, reduce anxiety, release negative thought loops and beliefs, and even find your voice.
The following practice is an invitation, a single step on a path of discovery.
You can practice sitting or lying down. You may like to have a glass of water to drink either during the practice or afterward. Finally have a journal or even a piece of paper to write on after the practice completes.
Reflect on your experience and write down any insights that may have occurred. If nothing seems to have happened during the practice, that’s fine.
Integrating an experience is an organic process. Trust that your body knows what to do. Any benefit of the practice will naturally emerge. You may feel called to make meaning or look for coherence in that which arises naturally out of the process. Trust your intuition and your senses to provide you with a beautiful gift.
“The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.” – Terence McKenna
I walk daily on a group of trails. Evergreen pine trees, ferns and moss greet me most days. Yesterday there was a colorful dinosaur climbing a tree. I have no idea how the dinosaur got there, presumably it was left by a child playing. I wonder what the child was imagining as they played. My childhood — a distant memory, a blurry color-washed polaroid photo. Barely surfacing is an image of myself playing with a small plastic dinosaur.
During a conversation with fellow writing group member Chris Wong, I said that maybe we are hallucinating all the time because our brain naturally produces a chemical called DMT, short for dimethyltryptamine, that is structurally related to LSD. This led to Chris challenging me to write an essay considering the question: Is reality a simulation? Taken aback and my curiosity piqued, not only would I consider this question, I already began to process my reality. In my mind’s eye I reviewed my life, the movies that explore this idea, and my reading in diverse areas.
Before the walk when I met the plastic dinosaur, I was in a group call with an older Lakota Sioux woman who began a meeting talking about her morning.
“First of all I want to tell you how my day started because it was an unusual magical day. And I think it is a precursor to us meeting. I woke up this morning to solid snow, thick snow falling. In about a half hour the sun came out and it continued to snow, and the clouds moved away, and the sky was bright blue, and it continued to snow. And it snowed for twenty minutes with the sun out. So I think it’s a miracle. And even if it isn’t a miracle it’s absolutely gorgeous, and it’s unusual, and it can be done. If anyone told you it snowed for twenty minutes without any clouds would you believe them until you saw it?”
Later in the meeting she said, “We are not here by accident.”
Our lives have meaning. Being alive is a miracle. I believe that each of us is here to walk a good, true, and beautiful path. And nobody can tell you what to believe. Instead let’s journey together. I will share some pivotal life experiences that have made me question the nature of reality.
Saving A Cat
“…the mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.”– Douglas Sirk
Computers and virtual reality headsets have changed how we literally and figuratively perceive reality.
Computer adventure games – I love them. These games are a mixture of puzzle solving and immersion into an interactive story. I played a variety of these games. Playing text adventure games such as Zork where you type instructions such as “north” and “open door” immersed me in the world of the game’s creators. It was like reading those choose-your-own adventure books from the 1970’s where you made a choice and turned to a random page, instead of reading cover to cover. With games like Zork you ended up making a map on a piece of paper to denote your progress. Later I was amazed by the graphics of Myst. Wandering around on a seemingly abandoned island, solving puzzles and piecing together a mysterious story.
While living in Tokyo a friend and I went to a virtual reality exhibit at NTT’s Intercommunication Center. At one exhibit there was an actual steel beam on the ground and at the end of it was a stuffed cat covered in sensors. I put on a VR headset along with a pair of gloves that contained sensors. In the simulation I rode an elevator up to the 50th floor and then walked out on the steel beam to rescue a frightened meowing cat. I was sweating, short of breath and felt my muscles clenching as I made every attempt to not fall to my death. My fear of heights had kicked in and I failed to rescue the cat. The cat remained on the end of the beam plaintively meowing for rescue as I carefully backed up to the safety of the elevator. I then watched on a monitor my friend successfully rescue the now purring cat.
The use of physical objects to improve the simulation was fascinating. Also multiple live views of the same event. Watching my friend in real life walk out on the beam and pick up the stuffed cat while also watching what happened on a video monitor gave me the illusion I was voyeuristically seeing the world as my friend privately saw it. Close friend Shirley Rivera delighted me by reflecting, “SOMETHING i LOVE about this – which is like watching the reality of someone else’s virtual reality – in YOUR REALITY.”
The multiple views reminds me of a scene in the 1973 German science fiction film World On A Wire. Inside the mirror-filled Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, the staff watch identity units on a bank of television screens, computer simulated people based on those who work at the Institute. The units are unaware they are just a simulation inside a generated world called Simulacron. The lead character and hero of the story, Fred Stiller, says the doppelganger identity units are “like people on TV dancing for us.” Stiller ends up entering Simulacron which in part leads him to realizing that we are all living in a simulation. One is able to exit the revealed simulation of this world and enter true reality, which in turn may also be a simulation, like nested Russian dolls.
The movie was originally shown as a two-part movie on German television as viewers watched this story about simulation from the reality of their homes.
Indistinguishable From Magic
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”– Arthur C. Clarke
Psychologists have written books on how our environment can affect both our mood and our perspective.
I had a strange experience in a float tank — lying naked in warm water mixed with epsom salt so that my body floated. The lid on the tank was closed. The lights were off. I wore ear plugs. At one point I saw Egyptian looking hieroglyphs before my eyes. They were glowing with a green light like text on an old computer terminal. As I looked more closely at what I thought was a drawing, I realized it was lines made out of tiny ones and zeroes. Yes, binary. I thought of the protagonist, Neo, in the movie The Matrix as I reached to touch the drawings on the roof of the float tank. The drawing remained. Fascinating. I know it was not real but still it was happening. I believe our minds are hallucinating like this all the time, but we are so busy with our lives that we do not notice.
After a while the hieroglyphs went away. By so drastically removing visual and auditory stimuli, and allowing my body to relax with the floating, I was able to see a subconscious reflection of my thoughts. I am reminded of the phosphene patterns we see by closing our eyes and gently pressing on our eyelids.
In this McGurk Effect demonstration, you hear and see a person saying “ba.” The image of the speaker’s mouth is then changed and they appear to be saying “va.” If you close your eyes you correctly hear “ba” but if you open them you hear “va” even though you know the person is saying “ba.” This effect is created by manipulating video. It is fascinating how our sense of sight overrides our sense of hearing.
Perhaps based on our environment and mental state we are subtly manipulating reality, but being able to alter reality is not the same as reality being a simulation.
Recreating The Past
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”– Rap song
A reality simulation does not just recreate the matter of the physical world, time is also recreated. What is past, present, and future become interchangeable. Memory becomes a time travel video game.
False memories have led to people being found guilty of crimes they did not commit.
Classic. Ronald Cotton was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 years for the rape of Jennifer Thompson. During the rape Jennifer focused on remembering the face. When questioned by a police detective and shown a photo lineup she was sure she had identified the correct person. DNA evidence led to finding a different person. Ronald and Jennifer have since become friends and worked to change the laws around how police interrogations happen.
Dramatic. A woman Beth who was experiencing anxiety and received counseling from her church. Thru counseling they uncovered that she had been raped by her father and had two abortions, one that she had given herself using a coat hanger. A gynecological exam by a doctor revealed that Beth was a virgin.
My friend and fellow writer Laila Faisal mentioned that memories can be imprinted in our genes. Did Beth’s mother or grandmother experienced rape and abortion, and this was imprinted in Beth’s genes? The scientific term for this area of study is “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.”
Cinematic. In the film Blade Runner, androids are implanted with false memories of childhoods. One android carried polaroid photos of a life they never lived. Zooming in on one photo there is an image of a child near a tree playing with a dinosaur. Rizwan Virk who authored the book The Simulation Hypothesis poses a question with a follow-up: “If our memories of the past can be modified, does this also mean the past can effectively be modified? Is there a meaningful distinction between these two?”
I am reminded of Joe Dispenza speaking about an emotional becoming a personality trait in the documentary The Science of Changing Your Mind.
“And if you do not know how to control your emotional reaction and you allow that emotion to linger for hours or days, you know what that is called? That’s called a mood. What’s wrong with you? Oh, I’m in a mood. Why are you in a mood? Well this thing happened to me six days ago and I am memorizing my emotional reaction. And now if you allow that emotional reaction to continue for weeks or months, that’s called a temperament. What’s wrong with him? Oh he just has an angry temperament. Why are you so angry? Well this thing happened to me nine months ago and I’m memorizing my emotional reaction. And now if we keep that same refractory period that’s connected to a past experience running for years on end that’s called a personality trait. So would you agree then, by very definition, people memorize emotions that are connected to their past that they begin to wear as their personality.”
I am struck by how not only can we have false memories – but also we can inherit memories and even practice memories until they become a defining part of our personality. The malleability of memory may make me question what is true. Yet, does this extend to reality being a simulation?
Humans are malleable.
The Baby Thing
“You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.”– Terence McKenna
November 2019 I went to Prana Del Mar in Mexico for a week-long retreat with people I knew from a local yoga studio. It was lovely to feel such warm weather and to be right on the beach. One sunny late afternoon we gathered in a large room named the Sun Studio to practice conscious connected circular breathing. We placed our yoga mats and blankets in a large circle. Shades of woven fiber were let down at the windows but the sun still snuck into the room.
Lying down on the floor we covered ourselves with blankets. We inhaled actively and exhaled passively. Over and over like the turning of a water wheel. There was no pause at the end of the exhale or inhale. It was intense, short of hyperventilating. The facilitator began playing loud rhythmic music over the sound system and guiding our journey.
My mind was busy. I was working to pay attention to my exhale and inhale. And then suddenly “I was being breathed” as practitioners put it.
Sometimes one experiences an altered state of consciousness.
I sat up, looking around the room. With no shirt on, I was holding a baby. Surprise! I looked down at this baby in my arms. I felt the baby’s skin and warm body against my own. Amazing. I knew this was not real, and yet it was. To me, this was real. I could even smell the baby. Who is this baby? My son – I wondered? (Granted, my son was 25 years old at the time.) No! The baby is not my son. It dawned on me. I was holding my father. I was flooded with emotion. The rush of love. And forgiveness.
A week later I told my wife about this experience. She looked at me puzzled. We now jokingly call this my experience of the Baby Thing. I can tell the story without mentioning the baby at all. I can say I was circular breathing in Mexico and realized how much I love my father and forgave him for some childhood memories.
I hallucinated with all my sense that I was holding a baby while lying down on the ground. Oh yes. I never sat up or looked around the room. I was wearing a shirt the whole time. I imagined all of that.
This is what I remember.
Entering With Your Left Foot
“In this world, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers”– Kobayashi Issa
One of my teachers told a story of her teacher telling her to always enter the zendo, the meditation hall, with your left foot. Is the foot you enter a room with that important? No, it turns out. But paying attention is deceptively deep. Paying attention is important.
Rewind. Out walking in the woods, a plastic dinosaur left behind by a child causes me to reflect on my childhood, as if seeing an old photograph. An elder woman provides a beautiful reflection on the miracle of snow falling from a blue sky. An attempt to rescue a stuffed animal cat from a simulation which can simultaneously be viewed from a monitor leads into a reflection of a German television audience watching a movie about reality being a simulation which the actors are able to view via a bank of television monitors. An experience in a float tank with sensory deprivation led to reflecting on how our visual sense can override our hearing. Next up, a brief reflection on false memories and practicing memories. Finally the mind does not even need a stuffed cat to conjure up a baby in the present moment.
Life is a beautiful gift. This life is a beautiful gift. Our life is a beautiful gift. There are rational arguments for the simulation theory, but the wonder and love evoked by this gift makes my heart say, “We are not living in a simulation. Humans are malleable.”
When I looked into his eyes it was like meeting a friend you have had your entire life. There was a mixture of delight, mischief, and curiosity. He awoke these same qualities in me. “I will be your teacher and friend,” he told me as he looked into my eyes. This was the day I met a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon, on a beach after swimming across a dark sea.
Our meeting was a new experience. I lay on a yoga mat covered with a Mexican wool blanket in a Victorian living room on a former military base converted into a state park. I closed my eyes and listened to two people playing frame drums.
I entered a door in a tree trunk I saw when walking in my neighborhood and descended into the earth on a winding dirt path. I came to a cliff and dove into the sea, swam with the stars shining above me, and came up onto a beach. Walking ashore, I was determined to find my animal teacher as instructed. This first journey was a meet-and-greet where he became one of my shamanic guides.
Talking with an imaginary animal might seem unfamiliar, but it is part of an ancient practice that can support us with a new way to answer questions. The type of question should be important to you – Should I move? Should I take this new job? How can I deepen my commitment to this relationship? Before we start receiving answers to your questions you need to meet the teacher who will help you.
How Did You Get Into This?
A woman asks me in conversation, “How did you get into this?” The answer starts with living with my mother during the last months of her life. She told me several times to do whatever I wanted to in this life and not be concerned about others’ opinions.
Every morning while she was still asleep, I would do yoga at a nearby studio. I saw a flyer for a weekend workshop that combined yoga and shamanism. I wasn’t expecting an instructor who reminded me of a truck driver in her matter-of-fact approach to life.
A few weeks later, I did a second workshop where I made a drum and a rattle. I still remember being outside with a group of eight people on a warm summer day. I cut a piece of deer hide, stretching it over a round wooden frame.
I would share my experiences with my Mom. I saw her excitement as I learned new things. She would smile and nod. Sometimes we would talk for only 10 minutes, and then she would nap; other times we spoke for 2 hours. We both loved watching the moon in the sky together at night and the deer that would gather outside to nibble on the green bushes during the day. Shortly before my Mom died, she told me, "Be brave like me."
What Are Helping Spirits?
Shamanism is a study of the earth’s wisdom and a way to tap into the unseen powers of the natural world. Shamans have been doing this for thousands of years. One thing commonly found across all shamanic cultures is the understanding that the natural world is alive. Behind the forms of the natural world are unseen powers that can be understood and even directed to help human affairs. You often hear the term helping spirits, the enlivened and unseen aspects of the natural world. These helping spirits often take the forms of nature and meet the shaman in the altered state of awareness generated by the shamanic journey.
You are invited to do the journey yourself. The teacher who comes forward through the journey is meeting you exactly where you need to be met. The journey becomes a path of self-understanding and self-transformation.
The Role of the Drum
The journey will be taken listening to a drum. The repetitive sound helps you alter your awareness. We tend to live our lives in a fairly straightforward, rational, problem-solving state of awareness. Our conscious mind is good at helping us filter out non-essential aspects of our experience. The journey requires an expansion of consciousness, awareness, and the ability to step into a different way of knowing. We all do this every night when we dream. As we move into the dream state, our awareness shifts, and we have a different experience of ourselves and reality. The journey allows for a more directed way to access this altered state rather than waiting to dream.
A Three-Part World
Shamanism often describes a three-part world that is like the natural world around us. We have the upper world of the sky, the middle world of the earth’s surface, and the lower world below the surface. Shamans from many cultures report that only compassionate beings are found in the upper and lower worlds. The middle world has both compassionate beings and those that are not. A bit of practice and study is needed to enter into the middle world safely and without fear.
Finding Your Teacher
Lying down and listening to the drum, you will be closing your eyes. Choosing to cover your eyes may help you look inward more. The journey usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. You will want to have your journal and pen. You may want to record your journey if you say something during it. Make sure you are in a place where you can lie down and not be disturbed. For this first journey you will travel into the lower world to meet a teacher in animal form.
I am going down to the lower world to meet my teacher in animal form. I can enter through a hole in the ground, a hole in a tree, a cavern, or a body of water. This is not an imaginary place or a place from my dreams. I can walk, swim, fly or fall. I may move through some kind of transition or simply stop going down. I may find myself in a forest, in a desert, in the snow, or in a place I have never imagined. I may move through the lower world or stay in one place. I will keep my attention focused and ask my teacher to present itself. I may hear, see, or feel the presence of my teacher. When I become aware of an animal, I ask, “Are you my teacher in animal form?” I will pay attention to the animal for an answer. I may receive a verbal message, a telepathic message, or simply have a knowing. I will stay with my teacher learning until it is time to return. If the answer is no, I will simply look around for another animal to meet. When I hear the callback, a change in the drumming rhythm, I will turn around and come back exactly how I came.
When the music finishes, you should be back in the room where you started. As you come back, let yourself get oriented. Review your journey. And when you are ready, go ahead and write down your journey in as much detail as you can. Then take some time for reflection.
Asking My Question
You will return to the lower world for your second journey and ask your animal teacher a question. You will journey there the same way you did the first time and return when you hear the callback.
I am back on the beach with the tanuki and ask, “What practice can you offer me for when I feel overwhelmingly lonely?” Suddenly the beach and my teacher are gone. I am inside the lobby of a movie theater with multiple films showing. Looking down, I notice the hypnotic red and black pattern of the carpet. Looking up, I see no staff and feel I cannot walk in and watch any of the films. I reach into my pockets and feel no money or ticket. I have been here for a thousand years. Why is this nightmare happening? I thought I was alone before, but now I am alone. My forehead is dripping with sweat as I shake in fear. I do not know what to do.
There is no solution and no one to ask for help. I feel unable to speak but manage to whisper a feeble call for help. Suddenly I am inside a room with people, and there is a film showing. Tanuki is sitting next to me. He grins and then winks. Suddenly we are in a different room. We continue to teleport between rooms several times. Next a tree starts growing inside the theatre. No one seems to notice the tree except for the tanuki and me. The tree is large and continues to grow, branches sprouting and writhing with leaves. Hearing the callback, I returned to the room where I started.
Asking Your Question
The question you ask on this journey is a question of importance to you. It is on any subject, in any arena, and any level of experience. The critical thing to remember when generating the question is that it should not begin with “why” since why questions are challenging to answer. You want to have a question that starts with what or how, or where. The reason for this is because the answer needs to be understood in the context of the question. So when you’ve asked a simple one-part question, you’ll know that everything that happens in the journey and with your guide pertains to the question. When you have your question, write it down, so you don’t forget it. You don’t know what your teacher will do to answer your question. Stay close to the question paying attention to everything that the guide does.
Interpreting The Answer
How do you interpret the answer you received to your question? The journey helps you build an inner trust, learn to trust guidance, and receive knowledge from your own ways of knowing. Learning the language of the journey can take time and is not dissimilar to the language of dreams. As you learn to interpret the images, ask what they mean to you. Ask where you may have been exposed to the image before. Does the image remind you of something? Have I experienced this before? Spend time trying to understand your emotional experience and your emotional reactions in the journey. Spend time with the images, the emotions, and looking at the journey symbolically like you would a dream. The language of the journey and dreams is primarily one of images and symbols. With practice you will be able to trust your inner knowing more fully.
With my journey, I realized I am prone to indecision and can become lost in my sense of loneliness. There is a hypnotic quality, and it feels endless. All I need to do is to join with others. They are not avoiding me. We can share in everyday experiences represented by the films. On a deeper level we are all connected. I needed the gift of seeing that connection made clear with the tree growing before my eyes. That connection is both alive and needs to be nurtured.
What’s Next and Resources
You can take other journeys to the lower world. Next you can learn to journey to the upper world and then the middle world. Some parts of the journey may not be clear, or you may feel the process is not working at all, or you may even feel you are only making this up. Keep practicing. Be brave and seek answers to those questions that are important to you.
Shamanic drumming music is readily available from the Internet. Some possible sources are Sandra Ingerman, Michael Harner, and my favorite, “Sacred Drums for the Shamanic Journey” from sacredstream.org.
I never thought much about the question “How are you doing?” until Covid started. My family went into extreme isolation. None of us left the house except for walks in our neighborhood, and we had all of our groceries delivered. My father-in-law passed, and my wife went to be with her mother, who has dementia. She has been gone for six months now. Our twenty-year-old cat died. My computer died, and I lost essential memories not backed up. My phone died, and I lost some lovely chat histories. I am not sure why my response to this series of tragedies was not sadness. Rather, I responded with depression.
Swallowed up by nothingness, I lost track of who I was. Isolated and alone, there was no one to whom I could explain my situation. I tried to hide what was going on because I did not want the stigma of mental illness. My depression worsened, and then even that concern diminished. I had no idea how to change my lot. Intellectually I knew many self-care practices, but that did not lead to any action. Shipwrecked in my psyche, waves of sadness and futility battered me. In many ways, my inner realm mirrored the outer world’s tragedies. Maybe I had removed a final filter and was seeing the world as it is.
Was this a perverse kind of enlightenment? Or was I drunk where the hangover and recovery never came, constantly inebriated by nightmares and dread? No escape because I cannot stop being myself.
Conditions with Covid improved, and I started shopping again. Old friends from out of town visited. I drove out of town and took ferry rides for several extended weekends of spirit work training – house blessings and shamanic soul retrieval. I also took part in a traditional vision quest ceremony. My mental health slowly improved, but at first, I wasn’t sure. I came out of my depression after an evening drum circle at a friend’s house in the countryside. Before Covid, I gathered regularly in communities that sang—yoga kirtan, healing ceremonies, and drum circles. I had lost the sense of being alive, and then, as the poet Jane Kenyon writes, “… and suddenly, I fall into my life again.”
The evening in the country starts with strangers being introduced and eating a potluck dinner—my plate has chili casserole, pasties (a savory baked pastry), and fruit cobbler. The sun goes down and seven of us are sitting in folding chairs in the backyard around a fire. Above us, the stars are out, and the moon is almost full. Each of us has a frame drum and a beater except for one man with chronic finger pain. He is holding a rattle. We drum and sing and talk, sharing songs and stories for the next four hours.
One woman in a tie-dyed t-shirt wearing a straw hat shares about her partner passing and how she spent years being angry at others and herself. She talks about the Anishinabe, a First Nations people who live around the Great Lakes, and sings their Strong Woman Song for us. The song allowed many indigenous women to survive solitary confinement in a prison where they were abused for being native peoples. After the song, we talk about the recent mass graves found at now-closed schools for native children in Canada. School officials murdered children as young as three years old. In the evening’s darkness and for times of great challenge in our lives, we have this song as a gift.
Another woman wearing a long dress and a black vest jacket is a single mother raising two high school boys. They are becoming increasingly independent. She shares a Lakota Sioux song about two brothers who are each on a side of a canyon. They sing to each other to let the other know they are ok. She shares about being at a vision quest at Standing Rock Indian Reservation where a young man who fasted before the quest ended up dying. The vision quest is not an easy experience, but while you are alone on the land you are held by your community. She talks about her work at the local church for the youth. I love witnessing this mother’s love for her children and those in her town.
My friend mentions I had recently completed a traditional vision quest. The woman in the black jacket asks to hear about it.
I share that an 80-year-old Lakota Sioux grandmother ran my quest. There is a nodding acknowledgment—four days in nature, alone without food and water. My only provisions are a sleeping bag, a wool blanket, and a tarp to wrap myself in if it rains. It rains. I fail to wrap myself correctly so end up soaking wet below the waist. The following day it is windy and overcast. I have no drum to beat on or journal to write in. All I have is my voice, so I sing and pray for my four days and four nights. There are twenty of us scattered in our isolated sit spots. Each sunset the support community gathers, drumming and singing five or sing songs for us. We reply with howls and cries of gratitude. In the middle of the night, you can hear another singing. We sing for each other and for those at home who are here with us in spirit.
I sing in front of the fire the song I sang I sang for my fellow questers.
Spiraling into the center, the center of the wheel
I am the weaver; I am the woven one
I am the dreamer; I am the dream
A third woman, whose partner is the man with the rattle, shares about her adult daughter who is schizophrenic, not taking her medication, and addicted to crack cocaine. She lives in a run-down trash-infested trailer on their property. Her diet, if she does eat, consists of soda and candy. There is so much heartbreaking despair here. Parents unable to save or even help their child. I reflect on raising two children with my wife. We faced many challenges but none approach this. We listen. No one offers advice or solutions. We hear and our listening becomes a song, affirming the importance of prayer for me.
I have a new reverence for family, friends, and community. Even when it felt as if I was unable to receive their love and concern, I was. The sun and the moon continue to rise and set. Song has always been important to me but now holds a more gentle and generous space in my heart.
There is an Albanian proverb that goes: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” That particular configuration of people in that drumming circle in that time and place will never repeat itself. Yes, we could all get together again but it would be a new gathering. The flow of life continues to move and transform. Grieving and celebrating with others heals us and perhaps, just maybe, allows us to survive a period of deep sadness or depression.
I returned to work in September 2019 after a one-month leave of absence for my mom’s death. I was still deep in grief but decided not to hide it. I would be working at my desk and let the tears stream down my face. I did not run off to a private room to sob. I was like this for three months. Word spread through the office, and thus began dozens of conversations about grief.
My co-workers opened up to me about their grief. I talk with a woman who also lost her mom. She is not ready to grieve. A man opens up to me about losing his brother to suicide, another woman about losing her cousin to suicide. I meet a woman at a potluck who tells me how both her parents’ death was beautiful, but the grief is still there when talking about her partner who passed 18 months ago. My heart opened from all these stories. I welcomed them. None of these conversations felt easy but we are no longer strangers when we share our grief.
I received a voice mail from my mom in May 2019. She told me to call her because she had something important to say to me, but to call after Jeopardy. I learned she had gall bladder cancer. She came to Seattle for a diagnosis, and the doctors said she had six years to live. After talking it over with my mom and brother, I moved in with her in Port Townsend. She passed three months later.
When I arrive, I become overwhelmed with sadness and do not want to cry in front of my mom. I drove to a local market to get some food. I ended up going right through a stop sign before I parked. As I walked into the market, a man sitting on a chair outside said, “What an asshole.” I did my shopping, and as I left, I looked over, and he was glaring at me. I sat down next to him and apologized. He did not believe me and told me how he had been rear-ended while riding his motorcycle and now suffered from PTSD. I looked right into his eyes and said, “My mom is dying.” He nodded his head and told me his father had passed ten years ago. He was still grieving. I sat there with him in silence, and we end up becoming friends.
I cleaned her home for those three months as she sat on the couch telling me about every item. Each item had a story. At times I reminded myself to record some of these conversations with my phone. I realized I soon might never hear her voice again. She would share a story about wearing a dress out to dinner or from when she taught Spanish in high school. With books, she would remember the New York Times review she had read or tell me all about an author’s life from Miguel de Unamuno to Wislawa Szymborska to Pablo Neruda.
Every July there is a week-long jazz festival in Port Townsend. My mom really wanted me to go hear her favorite jazz piano player George Cables. I usually go to bed early and he was playing at 10:00 pm. My mom looked at me and said, “Be brave like me.” So I went and met George and let him know about my mom who came to see him every year. “Be brave like me” has become a motto I live my life by.
A hospice care nurse visited weekly. My mom asked the nurse, “How will I know when I am close to dying.” The nurse replied that a standard indicator is darkened rings around the knees. My mom lifted her nightgown, peered at her knees, and innocently said, “Oh, not yet, I guess.” The nurse began crying while apologizing. My mom took her hand and said, “Look how the beautiful color of your ring matches the colors of your shirt.” She was so present in the moment.
My mother passed on the evening of August 10, 2019, during the time her favorite TV show Jeopardy was airing. She was 84 and missed her birthday in October. On her bedroom wall is a painting of a wooden boat on a rough sea. A vase of locally picked flowers is beneath it. Her final words two days before were, “I see the river.” My younger brother and I are by her side, each holding one of her hands as she takes her last breath. My brother and I look at each other and he says, “She’s gone.” Much later that evening after phone calls to relatives and her body being taken away my brother returns home and I go to sleep on the bed next to my mom’s empty bed.
Waking up I emailed work to take a leave of absence. Grief hit me hard. I felt like a wave at the beach had knocked me over. Surprise, bewilderment, and sadness all at once. Every unresolved problem in my life was suddenly in front of me holding a ticket saying “Me first.” I had no idea what I should be doing. The entire month was a blur. I spent most of the time outdoors at a beach listening to the waves or walking in the woods getting lost. There is the story of Lakshman, in the Indian epic the Ramayana, sitting beside a river preparing to die and reflecting on his life saying “It’s like something I dreamed once, long ago, far away.” Eventually, my grief faded like a dream.
This January, my Japanese father-in-law died at age 91 in Tokyo. His birthday was two weeks earlier. A week before his birthday was the anniversary of his mom’s death. He was able to place an offering of food for her on the Buddhist shrine in his home. My wife says her grief feels like she cannot breathe, like walking up a hill and not catching your breath. She tells me that just holding her hand helps. She asks me questions about how I felt when my mom passed.
Today I took my wife to the airport. She is going to Tokyo to be with her mom for six months. Grief is not something to avoid or quickly recover from. Just as the oak tree is already in the acorn, grief, like love, shapes who we are. I miss my mom and father-in-law. I miss each of the people whose story was shared.
In the later part of January I sat down with my neighbor Anat Ben-Shaul to discuss relationships and matchmaking. We have been neighbors for 4 years and say hello to each other in passing. Anat has had longer chats with my wife and daughter. My daughter told me about Anat’s blog. I really enjoyed the blog and this led me to ask her if she would sit down with me and chat.
Anat started with a blog A for LifeStyle writing on a variety of topics. Her posts on matchmaking were a hit. She ended up reaching out and interviewing matchmaking experts from many countries. This led to a second website Making A Match. The idea behind the site is wonderful. Usually on a dating site you write your own profile. This can lead to some surprises for both people going on the date. To alleviate the cognitive dissonance you have a trusted person write your profile. There are no photos. This trusted advocate meets first with those who are interested in your profile. Your advocate will establish an initial trust relationship with this potential partner.
Anat also hosts a free talk from various relationship experts at the Redmond Regional Library on the first Thursday of every month at 7 pm. Details about the event can be found on the Making a Match Facebook page.
Finally since I had heard the amazing story of meeting the family of a favorite author I asked Anat to talk about the novel Reflections: A Love Story by the South African author Eleanor Baker. It all started with a blog post.
In the later part of January I sat down at Ophelia’s Books in the Fremont district of Seattle to talk with Jill Levine about what it is like to run a book store and about creative pursuits. Jill has two degrees, the first in philosophy and the second in studio art, specifically sculpture. Her art is on view inside the store and I am very happy to have one of her “thinking cap” pieces incorporating Hegel on my desk at work. She has also been writing a novel.