Infinity and the sacred

Ganges sunrise

The priest stands on the edge of a concrete ghat before the dirty Ganges at dawn. He is naked from the waist up except for the sacred cord that runs over his left shoulder, symbol of the twice-born priestly-caste. He wears a saffron coloured dhoti and across his forehead are drawn three horizontal white lines, traced with ash, the mark of a follower of Shiva. The priest folds his hands in prayer, bends and scoops the water in his hands and drips it across his forehead, intoning his mantras to the sacred river. A few feet away a second devotee lights his butter lamp and pours oil while uttering his own quiet prayers. Over in the neighbouring ghats men, women and children swim in the dawn waters to wash away their karma while at Marnikarnika Ghat, the infamous burning ghat, a constant procession of corpses are carried into the Ganges before their subsequent cremation. In nearly every temple and every shrine in the city people are at their ablutions and ministrations for the rising sun. It’s impossible not to be moved at the fervour, the devotion and, dare I say it, the sanctity, of these morning rituals.

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You can’t travel through India for more than 10 minutes without the words ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ coming up, usually uttered by some backpacker setting new lows in new-age credulity; the term becomes almost meaningless in its ubiquity. On the other hand, there is no denying that there is something striking about India’s rampant and colourful religiosity. Compared to our secular West––lacking in belief and ritual, its celebrations anodyne––India is littered with rites, temples, gods and vibrant festivitie. Idols are commonplace, small shrines are housed in every building and throughout the day, wherever you go, you’re likely to smell incense or hear chanting, bells ringing or see people bowed in prayer. As someone deeply interested in both religion and language usage and abusage it got me to thinking about what it actually means to call something sacred and if there is any truth to the fact that India is a sacred country. Or is it just another banal cliché? I wanted to discern if the sacred was something that had an objective reality or was it perceptual, inherent only in the eye of the beholder?

Dr Peterson I preume?

I’ve been consuming a lot of Jordan B Peterson as I travel. I realise that he is a controversial and polarising figure with two public and sometimes overlapping personas: the erudite scholar of psychology and religion and the staunchly conservative cultural warrior. As a refugee from the culture wars, I have little interest in the second, though I think the former has some very interesting ideas to offer. Whilst this is not an endorsement of his views in toto, I do think we are adult enough to listen to the thoughts of people we may disagree with without being triggered by them. This is an integral aspect of a mature and self-aware society.

In my opinion, Dr Peterson has some great things to say regarding the nature of religion and the sacred, even if I don’t always agree with his entrenched Judeo-Christian perspectives that view humanity as inherently flawed, sinful, and nature as something other, a constant terrifying and existential threat to our lives. But that is a post for another day.

One of Dr Peterson’s core arguments is that we are bound, limited beings who are finite by nature; we are constrained by our physicality, mental capacity and comprehension, not to mention by our finite lifespans. By contrast, the universe we inhabit is infinite in nature: materially, theoretically and in potentia. Our finitude is less than a microscopic drop or speck in our universe’s endlessness. But to exist as limited and finite specks in an incomprehensibly infinite universe cannot do anything but leave a major imprint of existential anxiety upon our psyches. We are surrounded by a cosmos that could engulf us at any moment, which promises to do so when we eventually and inevitably die. And it’s not just our lives that will ultimately be engulfed but every trace and memory of our existence and the existences of those microscopic few who will even remembered that we briefly walked across the stage of existence.

We can barely comprehend the enormity of this state of affairs. Its immensity and scope go beyond anything we can imagine or anything we can physically encompass. At the same point we feel it fucking deeply. We feel it in our guts and in our bones and most of our waking lives are spent staving off that feeling of something lurking at the edges of our consciousness: a kind of existential dread synonymous with Kierkegaard’s anguish or Satre’s ennui.

To give us an idea of how limited and finite our comprehension of the universe is, Dr Peterson uses frame theory as an example. In short, frame theory says that there exist many frames that we are conscious of but an infinite number of frames that remain outside the scope of our consciusness. A frame is “a frame of reference”, a point of perspective. Think of it this way: you go through your days aware of yourself as a cohesive unit. You have thoughts and feelings, you experience hunger, cold and tiredness and you engage with other people and tools during the course of your day. This experience is all mediated through the lens of your conscious personality and sense of self-identity. Yest this is a single perspective, an ego-driven frame. But there are many more possible perspectives than that of your conscious and ego-driven identity. You exist on an atomic level: a bunch of atoms that have come together to make up the being that is you. You exist on a microbial level. Bacteria crawl across your skin eating away the dead flesh and any dirt that covers you, while your stomach is a forest of micro flora and more bacteria. You have glands that regulate your bodily functions all day and night while you have a vast unconscious and perhaps even a higher, spiritual you (if you are that way inclined). In the other direction, there is aframe of reference that sees you as a unit in a small gathering of closely-related bioligical material, a family; a greater mass of people linked by genetic material, a race; or social conditioning, a culture. Zoom the lens in and out as much as you like and you will soon realise that the possible number of frames is literally endless but we are only capable of comprehending an incredibly tiny and, of course, necessarily finite amount. To try and comprehend this infinitude is to descend into Lovecraftian-style madness.

Defining the sacred

It’s this place, this edge where our finiteness meets the infinitude of the universe that we find the sacred, says Peterson. It’s the liminal space between the finite known and the infinitely unknown and it’s a great starting point for a definition. But I don’t think it goes far enough. What is required, I believe, is an embodied sense of this threshold between the two worlds. It’s not enough to merely comprehend this liminal space; rather it has to be experienced, to be deeply felt. The sacred, then, is where the place where we physically feel our finiteness meeting the infinitude of the universe. The reason for this is because what we feel often contradicts and regulalry undermines what we know.

The movement of the earth around the sun is a good example of this. Why is it that even the most scientifically minded among us still refer to “sunrise and sunset” instead of “the earth’s rotation bringing our current global coordinates back into a direct line with the sun”? Nearly five hundred years after Copernicus we might mentally know that the sun does not rise but physically, in our bodies, we feel the sun sinking below the horizon and into the underworld and being reborn each day, a feeling ingrained over six million years of experience. Although science tells us that the earth will complete its orbit, in our bones there is a deep embodied fear that it will not rise again. That it did so the previous day and every day preceding that, in our small and miserable existence, is the only consolation that it may do so tomorrow. So the movements of the sun take on a sacred flavour and, thus, sun adoration rituals have been commonly practised by many cultures around the world and throughout the ages. It’s also a central reason why solar rituals form a central tenet in my own sacred practises. I know conceptually that the earth revolves around the sun and that the sun is not moving across the horizon but that’s not what I feel when I sit on a hill and watch the a spectacular sunset colouring the bush in red and orange hues and filling with a sense of wonder and mystique.

Another example is death. We know rationally that one day we will die, although we spend most of our lives avoiding that thought. Why? It’s an embodied fear, a felt sense of our own finiteness being swallowed and brought to an end by the endless stream of existence. Which is why death has a sacred flavour and honouring death and its sanctity is an important element of our living existence. Death rituals are a sacred part of life. Peterson calls this state a tragedy; the internal knowledge that our own finiteness is dwarfed by the infinity of the universe. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, precious and sensual, even. The sacred cannot omit the sensual because the senses are fundamental to feeling the sacred. Which is why sex and death are so inextricably related: the mystery of procreation is creating the finite out of the void and the mystery of death is leaving the finite back to the void. And if you don’t believe that childbirth is a sacred mystery ask any new parent about the sense of awestruck ‘wonder and amazement’ they feel about the human they have made.

Peterson goes on to suggest that honouring the sacred, this edge of our world, where everything falls away into the unknown vastness of life and the universe, is a necessary aspect of existence and a counterpart to the dryness of rational, material life. In this I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s aphorism that in life we must strive to honour the mystery of ourselves through the mystery of the universe. And the way we honour this is not rationally, because the finite and rational mind cannot comprehend the infinite, but through rite and ritual, prayer and supplication and through sacrifice as these are all modalities that are resonate somatically and in the deep unconscious sea.

The appropriate feeling here is instilling reverence or awe, rare qualities in our modern world. If we stop and think for a minute the world abounds in miracles: robots and AI, space exploration, nanothechnology, the internet, cloning and so on. Yet, we are so used to these wonders that we take it all in our stride. We can barely conceive of how significantly the world has transformed in the past hundred years and it is even more difficult to experience the same sense of awe and reverence for the world and cosmos that was felt by our ancestors. We have become blase and with that has come environmental degradation, disembodiment and dissociation from our animal roots. Yet there is good evidence that feelings such as awe and reverence are beneficial and promote pyschological wellbeing. Awe and reverence imply a certain degree of respect for those things which we don’t understand or that are greater than us in scale. Thus an embedded sense of reverence for our place in nature, for the mysteries of the universe, may act as catalyst for us to protect nature and these very mysteries. When we realise our place in the scheme of things, no matter how insignificant, then we are less likely to meddle in our environment.

So I have to acknowledge that the cliché’s regarding India are true. India really is a sacred country because Hinduism is a religion par excellence for honouring this liminal doorway between the finite and the infinite. There are lingams and yonis in every shrine in every village worshipping that sacred act of creation. There are a plethora of sun temples and moon temples and elaborate rituals regarding how the dead are farewelled. There are celebrations for everything in between. If you are in the thralls of the dead hand of rationalism you could do much worse than immerse yourself in India’s sacredness, throw away all reason and allow the terrifying edges of existence to rear up in your awareness in all their awe-inducing power.

Or you could do 400 micrograms of LSD; it’s tantamount to the same thing.

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At the same time, it’s not necessary to be religious in a traditional sense in order to venerate the sacred in our lives. I like to think that the idea of the sacred is not important from either a secular or theistic perspective, but from a personally pragmatic and psychologically-grounded approach, as a concept that is incorporated into our lives for growth. In practise, this is performed by physically meeting the sense of our own finiteness through symbolic gesture and ritual in whatever meaningful way we can devise.

The concept of the sacred goes hand in hand with the necessity of religion as a personal practise, given that one of the purposes of religion is to create room for us to face the sacred. But as I have written in other posts, this does not entail that you have to subscribe to a mainstream religion, shave off your hair and join the Hare Krishnas or any other cult for that matter. If we take religion in its literal meaning to re-bind, what the sacred asks of us is practical and conscious engagement, not empty participation mystique. Your own rituals and your own belief systems are enough. It’s not what you believe but that you believe in something and you take concrete action to honour and concretise those beliefs and symbolically honour your own dismal finitude in the endless universe.

Paying death’s wages

A while back, I posted about how a couple of encounters with my own mortality had served as deeply personal initiatory experiences. The post garnered a lot of feedback from a range of people, both online and in person, which took me completely by surprise. What surprised me even more was the disparity in the tone and flavour of the feedback I received. Most people seemed to get the post and gave supporting comments about me showing vulnerability and insight, which was nice (flattery will get you far); more than a few, however, seemed to miss the point entirely and I was flooded with messages along the lines of ‘get well soon’ or ‘I hope your results are in the clear’. This confused the hell out of me and led me to wonder if I had communicated my experiences with a lack of clarity.

My intention in writing the piece was not to garner sympathy but to attempt a personal meditation on a recent cancer scare and show how encounters with illness and death can lead us into deeper states of being. Yet, sympathy I received in abundance.

After mulling it over and speaking to several close friends I came to several conclusions about why my post wasn’t received as I’d intended:

  • I’d failed to communicate the story as effectively as I could and therefore people had drawn the wrong conclusion (however, this doesn’t explain why many people did get what I was writing about)
  • It was published on Facebook and nobody actually reads anything on Facebook, not being the greatest medium for nuanced communication
  • The piece had cancer as subject matter and some readers were too triggered to actually absorb the contents. As a friend said to me: “people lose their shit when cancer is involved”
  • Some readers just didn’t want to know about it, for the same reason that they don’t seek out initiatory experiences or encounters with death in their own lives

I don’t claim to know which of these is the correct answer or even if there is a correct answer, but I do think the last couple of these raises some interesting issues.

Writing a meditation on illness and death is a little against the grain for the way in which our culture tells us to direct our attention. People don’t want to know about death. It’s saved for the end of life when, having been staved off for so long, it makes its presence known with interest. I suspect also that people aren’t interested in discussions of illness or death because they would then have to contemplate their own deaths. It’s that superstitious mindset that says if you don’t think about or mention a thing then it may never happen. And if you contemplate your death than you really need to start contemplating the meaning of your own individual life.

As Stephen Jenkinson writes, we live in a death-phobic society. However, in order to fully live, we need to pay the wages of death. It’s an interesting, gnomic turn of phrase and I think it’s absolutely spot on.

We must pay death’s wages by carrying death in our pocket through our entire lives. Death is present from the moment we are born, from the second of our first inhalation, the imbued, deeply embodied knowledge that life is preciously finite and infinitely precious. Initiation, a different kind of birth, wakes us up to this: welcome to life; one day you will die.

Initiation shows us that death is the price we pay for being alive in this world. Death is the final word; without it our lives have no meaning. In mathematical terms, a life is a set that is composed of all its elements. Any contemplation of life in its entirety must include its own death as an element. We can ignore death but we cannot exclude it. We cannot forestall it. Death doesn’t make deals and it exacts its due eventually. The problem is that generally we can’t afford to pay in a lump sum at the end; the price is too high, the suffering too great, and then we do anything to avoid going gentle into that good night. By honouring death, the little death present in every single moment as it bursts into existence and vanishes into the past, we give meaning to life. Death must receive the acknowledgement that it’s due. When we carry death at our side our lives are deeper, richer, more purposeful.

Furthermore, we must leave room for death’s voice in our lives not just for ourselves but for those we know and love. To love someone is also to carry the weight of their death. When my mum died five years ago, my dad and I took quite divergent paths to how we processed our grief. My route was to try and ‘let go of it’, as if the grief was something that needed to be processed and resolved. In contrast, my dad had my mum’s ashes interred in a metal box (painted in Collingwood colours, no less), which he placed in a part of the garden surrounded by wombat figurines, a totemic animal for her. Even to this day he sits out there and talks to her as he has his morning cigarette. My brother and I worried at first that his inability to ‘let go’ or move on was unhealthy. It took me some time to realise that the opposite was true; that my desire to move on was the unhealthy desire whereas my dad’s was perfectly natural. It is the duty of the living to bear the dead. We need to retain that kernel of grief in our hearts to keep the dead alive, to remind us of the imprint they have left upon us, in our hearts and souls. That grief reminds us that we in turn will be grieved and begs the question of how we would like to be grieved.

Even though I had begun practising ancestral rituals at the time I was blind to this truth and it took me a long while to realise it. In fact, it was only upon looking my own death in the face did I fully understand my obligations to those ancestors who have died. This knowledge took my ancestral practise to greater depths than I could have even realised without it.

Before departing overseas I had the pleasure of writing up my own death plan. It was an interesting experience contemplating how I wanted to be remembered by my family and friends and my hope that my personal values, what I stood for in life, would be honoured. I’d like my death to be a celebration of my life: music, poetry and dancing are mandatory. I would like my ashes scattered along the Black Spur in Healesville and I want a Thelemic ritual. Yet, such is the taboo of discussing death in my life that I felt awkward telling me siblings that I had done so. Though it was received as I’d hoped, it was that case again of not wanting to name a thing unless it happened. I suggested to my dad that I do his death plan too.

“What do I care, I’ll be dead,” he responded.

“Okay then, we’ll play the Carlton Football Club theme song at your funeral.”

No you will not!

“So you do care what happens at your funeral,” I replied, laying down my trump card.

And we do care, as much as we try and avoid thinking about it. This is how we pay death’s wages; contemplating the legacy we leave behind us and for future generations. Death will eventually be paid. We can pay it in instalments or in a lump sum and this choice informs the depth and meaning in our lives.

Before I end this post, I want to clarify as emphatically as I can that I do NOT have leukaemia. I have precursor cells to leukaemia in the same way that a mole is a precursor to a melanoma. And a very mild form of leukaemia at that: so mild I probably wouldn’t even notice that I had it. The likelihood that it will develop into anything is 10-15% so that’s 85-90% that it won’t. Given that there is a 30% chance the average person will develop cancer at some point in their life, I’m already winning. Also, I maintain a very healthy lifestyle, so knock those odds down a few percentage points and I’m winning even more. I’m fit, healthy and have a deeply rich life.

At the same time there is a great unknown attached to all of this. Leukaemia is a scary concept to contemplate no matter how benign. A course of immunotherapy isn’t exactly a holiday, so there is a sense of some Damoclean sword hanging above me. But here is the crux: I am incredibly grateful for this. I am grateful for these experiences that remind me of my own mortality, of the fragility and ephemerality of life, because they also make me appreciate the preciousness of life. Without seeing my life flash before my eyes in a Balinese hospital or contemplating my own mortality in the Bardo that is waiting for an appointment with a cancer specialist, I would still be skimming on the surface of life without recourse to contemplate my own death. These experiences remind me I only have one shot and drive me to live more deeply. I want to carpe the fuck out of that diem.

But even in the midst of a deeply rich life death must be paid. One day my life will end. It is this death and the grace in which I depart that will provide my life with its ultimate meaning.

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Notes on an initation

The dark clouds look like an angry dragon coming in over the water at sunset. They move and coalesce as the dragon soars overhead, taking the remainder of the daylight with it. Facing the windows I intone the words of Liber Resh to the vanishing light and sit down to meditate, in preparation for the night ahead.

I am holed up in a cold apartment in a different city, awaiting my initiation as a Neophyte into the A∴A∴ To say that I’m shitting bricks is an understatement. I’ve been through plenty of initiations in my time but this one feels like it’s going to be a true ordeal, in every sense of the word. Naturally there’s nothing out there in the public domain of what I am about to endure, but I’ve heard whispers and read stories. I know of Crowley’s escapades on Cefalu and if I know anything about the A∴A∴ I know that it doesn’t fuck around.

I unconsciously put on some music and then immediately and consciously turn it off. Music, any media, diffuses tension and I’m trying to prevent energy leaks: those actions or devices that depress the latent energy or relieve the tension in any situation. These might be physical tics, habitual actions (the way in which people mindlessly scratch an itch by checking Facebook or phones) or putting on some music to cut through the overwhelming silence. The power of an initiation rests in the unknown and initiatory tension is like a volume dial: the higher you go, the more intense the experience, so it helps to ratchet it up as much as you can.

I consider just packing it all in and going home. I wonder if I really want to go through with this. I have a sometimes difficult relationship with Thelema. There is no doubting the genius of Aleister Crowley and I know his system, as a path of mystical and magickal attainment, works. I also love the central premise of a society based around the individual (as an evolutionary step up from the family and, before that, the clan), the concept of finding one’s own individual will, respecting the autonomy of other individuals, rejecting old-world values of sin and restriction and the idea of a personal relationship with a philosophy that is accountable to no other. Also, the melding of Eastern practises with Western Hermetic Traditions tickles my syncretic fancies. On the other hand, I find the overly formal nature of the published rituals, the Victorian-era pomposities and the bloated levels of title and rank (in a philosophy that supposedly values the individual over the collective) to be at odds with my own values. And Uncle Al’s personal attitudes towards women and non-whites are troubling to say the least. So Thelema is not a system that sits easily with me. But that also makes me grateful. I’d rather a constant struggle with a belief system that keeps me vigilant and thinking, than to swallow something whole without a skerrick of critical thought.

The groundwork for this initiation has been the most difficult of all. As a Neophyte within the order I am symbolically a corpse. Below Neophyte, as a Probationer, I am not even that: qlippoth husks in the Abyss. This is the Path of Great Return. So through this initiation I will symbolically die to the profane and mundane world I have lived in all my life and come alive to the true, initiated world. On the Qabalistic Tree of Life I am at Malkuth. Kether beckons far above me. It is a long climb up.

I sit in silence and listen to the waves crash on to the beach outside. I could lose myself in their white noise. Apart form anything else, some time away from the heaviness of the past few months is welcome. Time to reflect and recharge. I’ve always found initiations to be a good way of taking stock of my life. Leading up to this initiation I have certainly at times felt dead. I’ve been struggling with my energy again: perpetually tired, short of breath, my body a field of hitherto undiscovered sensations and aches. I fear that I am undergoing yet another period of post-dengue fatigue and wonder if I have pushed my adrenals too far in trying to charge through. With my recent cancer scare I also dread something deeper. My most recent initiation in the OTO, back in December, also pertained to death. How much of my recent health experiences have been bound up in these initiations? It seems like every initiation I go through has some real-life significance either before or after.

What is an initiation, anyway? Initiations are found in every culture at all junctures in history upon earth. There’s a solid argument that much of our current societal woes stem from a lack of formal initiations in society. Boys don’t become men, they just drift into a nebulous and indeterminately long adolescence. Women too, to a lesser extent. We live in a society that does not empower or teach its children to become adults. This was traditionally the role of initiation ceremonies.

Put simply, an initiation is a ritual that symbolically transports the individual from one state of being to another: from child to adult, from adult to elder, from outsider to club member and so on. A good initiation ritual also imparts some of the teachings, wisdom and responsibilities of this new state or new group onto the candidate. For example, in indigenous Australian initiation rituals, boys are taught the traditional songs and the responsibilities that go with them. Then their front tooth is knocked out. This symbolises that they have suffered an ordeal, passed a test, to wield this lore. This is a common motif.

Initiation is part of life. Some are formal: ceremonial initiations such as those of the OTO or freemasons. Some are group-hazing rituals like in US fraternities. Where a culture lacks formal initiation rituals they will be subsumed informally into society and may even be self-directed. Think of kids trying weed or acid for the first time as a rite of passage. In every case, the intent is the same. It is to step into a new degree of experience and responsibility in life. There is something about initation that seems intrinsically necessary to us as humans. We require these experiences. Any process of waking up and re-enchantment must have initation as its first step. Initiation has been a solid fixture of many of my endeavours for a while now.

Ramsey Dukes, who is one of the finest thinkers on magic and the occult, argues that the initiatory experience is the crown of attainment. We don’t get initiated into something and then receive the fruits. The truth is, that the initiation is a confirmation of one’s attainment. When I take my initiation to become a community elder I do not become that elder post-initiation, I take the initiation to recognise that now I am an elder. I like this approach. Initiation is a reward for all the hard work getting there.

It’s been nearly 3 years of hard work, study and practise that has gotten me to this place. Despite my apprehension it’s far too late to turn back. I won’t leave. I can’t leave.

So I’m looking forward to this being over, to see what will unfold in my life next. I’ve had enough of death and ill health the past ten months to last the next ten years. I hope that these are the experiences I’ve needed to have to attain this level of initiation and no more. Enough to birth me into this new world.

There is a knock at the door. It is time. I’m ready to go willingly and blindly into whatever it is that awaits me. All I know is that when I come out the other side I will no longer be the same person as when I entered.

The magic of not having leukaemia (tales from the Department of Ironic Suffering)

‘I’m going to say a whole lot of things to you today,’ my doctor said, ‘but you’re probably only going to hear one or two words of it. That’s quite normal.’

I prepared myself to hear every one of his words. I didn’t want to be normal.

‘So you’re tests have turned up something and they’re consistent with the precursor stage of leukaemia and lymphatic cancer…fnord finarkle…LEUKAEMIA…fnord fnord fnord finarkle…CANCER… finarkle fnord probably nothing but we need to be sure…derp derp derp fnord…BIOPSY…fnord…so you’ll need to go see a haematologist at the Peter Mac. Look, there’s about a 10-15% chance it will develop into leukaemia, which means that there’s an 85% chance it won’t. You’ve got a one-in-three chance of getting cancer anyway, so it could be worse.’

Leukaemia is one of those words one never wants to hear uttered in a doctor’s surgery, not even in jest. I felt suddenly heavy and depressed. The irony was that I was the healthiest I’d ever felt: I was reasonably fit, my diet was good and I had a pretty mature understanding of nutrition and how to take care of myself. The prognosis came out of the blue and a little seed of doubt entered. Had I just been fooling myself: was I actually that healthy? Underneath this veneer of wellness was I being betrayed, slowly undermined by a fifth column of mutated lymphocytes? Was this the aftermath of my wild youth or the lingering product of intergenerational trauma? These are the questions that went through my mind as I left the doctor’s surgery.

I wanted to reject the whole thing. The whole reductive Western medical model sits uneasily with me. It makes diagnoses in isolation. The idea that a bunch of white blood cells had gone rogue didn’t tell the whole picture. It didn’t account for how they got there, what caused them to spread or the impact of diet, emotions, exercise, family history and environment, for example, as catalysts of illness.

There’s nothing like a brush with your own mortality to make you appreciate the finer things in life! The initiate’s face-off with death is a stock-in-trade motif for most indigenous and even Western Hermetic initiation ceremonies. Wake the candidate up from their slumber into the mysteries and experience of the ineffable. I’d experienced several formal initiations in my life, as well as a few more informal enocunters with death. Each one had woken me up to a deeper level of being and some were akin to transformative spiritual experiences.

Last year while on a writing holiday in Bali I got dengue fever and I got it bad. Alone in a foreign country and responsible for myself, I became too sick to comprehend how sick I actually was and it turned into a disaster. I have a stubborn streak so strong you could build a house upon it and, in my sickness, I thought I was okay to manage myself. For several days I convulsed in a febrile mess: sending fevered and disordered messages back to my partner, staggering to the end of the alley and back from my guesthouse for water and periodically attempting to put solid food in my mouth. On the fourth day of the fever I fainted on hard concrete. The doctor urged me to go to hospital and reluctantly I agreed. Returning to my guesthouse however, I found my fever had plateaued and for the first time in four days I was able to put away fresh food. I decided to stick it out. I only had two more days to get through before the fever ended. My thrombocytes were hovering at just above 100, the critical threshold where haemorrhage becomes a danger, and it was a gauntlet I thought I could run.

The next day the fever returned in full force and I was ill to my eyeballs. I booked in for some acupuncture and in one of my greatest ever moments of stupidity, thought that I could walk to the appointment from my guesthouse. In the depths of fever, I walked for forty minutes in the Ubud heat to the clinic. Whatever I had left in me was gone by the time I arrived. The acupuncturist broke my fever and that night I went for dinner, a bowl of pumpkin soup. If I can’t eat this, I thought, I’d call it quits. I couldn’t even swallow a spoonful. I was done.

In hospital my thrombocytes plummeted into haemorrhage territory, down to 78. I was due to fly home in four days to attend the Mankind Project’s men’s initiation weekend. The doctors refused to tell me what was going on, how in danger I was of haemorrhaging or the likelihood of me making my flight home. Being sick in a foreign country is one kind of hell; being sick in hospital in a foreign country where nobody will tell you what’s going on is another kind. I had a permanent drip that I had to remind the nurses to empty or otherwise they wouldn’t come and change it, and the tubes would fill up with blood. My arms were bruised from regular needles and the hospital food was a still from Twin Peaks.

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Thankfully, four days after arriving in hospital my thrombocytes finally crept up above the golden 100. I was allowed to fly home that night, sore, battered, tired and somewhat broken.

But that wasn’t even the worst of the ordeal. What followed was. Coming back to Australia I couldn’t do anything. I missed the MKP weekend and for two months I practically lay on the couch, lethargic, depressed and uninterested in the world around me. If you could label it, it would be chronic fatigue. I’d always been one of those people who’d been a little bit cynical about chronic fatigue. I thought it was a case of mind over matter and that all you needed to do was will yourself to energy, to action. But every time I tried to push through the fatigue I ended up back on my arse again, wondering if it would ever end. If you could have given me the most ironic illness for my life, one that prevented me from busy would be number one. Before getting sick, I was the man who did everything. I always had a million things on the boil. My interests were diverse and competing: I wrote, I studied, I worked, I ran a counselling and shiatsu practise on the side, I did magick, I juggled relationships and family, I danced and a myriad of other things. Try as I might I often struggled to stitch them together and I felt pulled in different directions at once. Now I was stuck on the couch, barely able to cook dinner of an evening.

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View from my hospital bed in Bali

After about two months of trying and failing, I came to the realisation that I had to yield to the inevitable. There was little else I could do execept give up and accept that this was the new order in my life. Anything else was a recipe for enduring frustration. This came as something of an epiphany. Somewhere deep down, I realised that the only way I would get past the fatigue was to submit to it, to accept it and whatever came of it. In Bali, although it took me a few days of hell to get there, surrendering my stubborness to the reality of my situation opened the door to me receiving the treatment I required to survive. At home, surrendering to my inability to do anything began the process of recovery. For me, this was the equivalent of a initiatory or spiritual insight.

Clichéd as it is, what my life needed was a way to stop doing and a way to learn how to cultivate being. Yet it worked. As soon as I surrendered to the post-dengue fatigue it lifted. The way out was through submission. But in doing so my life had changed. My usual strategy of trying to push through to the other side, I realised, was stale and unsustainable. Soon after, I encountered a teacher who directed me how to cultivate presence and direct action through this presence. I learnt the art of allowing things to flow through me, to not try and force change upon the world but to be its agent in a state of flow. To say that this has been a revelatory experience is an understatement. The dengue was hell but it taught me the lesson I needed: to slow the fuck down and stop pushing. I am very grateful for that lesson.

The softest in the world

Surpasses the hardest in the world

What has no substance

Can penetrate what has no opening.

Thereby I know the value of non-action.

The value of teaching without words

And accomplishing without action

Is understood by few in the world.

– Tao Te Jing

The leukaemia prognosis followed on from the dengue, a consequence of the endless series of blood tests that I’ve had since. Dengue fever is not a very nice virus. It wreaks havoc on the body. And here I was staring at a potentially worse fate. I went home and held my love and we talked openly and honestly about it, we shared our deepest fears with each other, as well as our highest aspirations. I find it amazing that something so terrifying and debilitating could yield such depths of vulnerability and tenderness in our relationship. I thought of my family and how much I value them and I thought of my friends. I took a general inventory of my life; establishing what was important and what wasn’t. I realised how important it is to lead a life of value and purpose, that there is nothing worse I could think of than dying unfulfilled. I knew all of this anyway, but in the light of a terrifying illness it became magnified a hundredfold.

The ultimate story is that I don’t have leukaemia. I have a pre-cursor to a mild, non-aggressive form of leukaemia in the same way that a mole is a precuror to a melanoma. Doesn’t necessarily mean it will develop into anything and the odds are strong that it won’t. Nonetheless it’s still leukaemia, which is a scary thing. But leukaemia isn’t even the point of this essay. The value of appreciating our wellness and making the most of our brief years is. As is the depths of suffering it requires to bring us into the deep flow of life. Within every illness is a lesson. And I’m grateful for the lessons this luekaemia scare has taught me.

The irony seems to be that it takes the shadow of the reaper to coerce us into a state of appreciation for life. You hear stories of people with terminal cancer or people who have received a verdict of impending death and how they savour every available moment remaining, how life becomes beautiful, fragile and to treasured. They’re almost Buddha-like in their presence. Why do we leave the love of life to the dying? I find it somewhat sad that we are so complacent in our existences that we cannot truly appreciate the beautiful and fragile gift of life we have; that it requires the scent of death to instil in us this appreciation. Why do we need these initiatory encounters with death to remind us of the preciousness and ephemerality of our existences? Shouldn’t a love and appreciation of life just be part and parcel of being alive and at the centre of consciousness for every living being?

Everyday we are dying, we move one step closer to death, but we don’t celebrate the fact that we’re alive. Not celebrating our aliveness is an insult to the already dead and dying. Life is our birthright but we don’t appreciate it until we lose it. If dengue fever made me slow down, not having leukaemia tells me to smell the roses. So I will celebrate being alive. I will celebrate not having leukaemia, my good health, my sense of wellbeing and the deep flow of the Tao that moves through me. Life is brief. Time to enjoy it!