In honor of “The Unknown” (and because a few loyal readers asked me), I delve deeper into my encounter with the unknown, begun last time….
One night, after I graduated my college and just before I moved to New York, I woke up in the middle of the night to see an apparition of a lovely young woman. Her features were very delicate and she seemed to be made entirely of white mist—picture an ice sculpture, except in dry ice. I had the impression that she was fair, or had been fair in life. She wore a long, exquisitely detailed lace dress (to this day, I can see the eyelets in the lace) and her hair was long and wavy. She smiled kindly and told me her name was Elizabeth.
And she delivered this chilling warning: “I came to tell you that if you don’t want your body, there are others who do.” She told me that she didn’t live in that ominous house, but that she was nearby and I could find her if I needed her. At the time, I took it as a warning that she was after me—along with unseen others. For years, I found her appearance and message so terrifying I never spoke of it—as if to speak of it was to open a door to the unknown.
Now, I see Elizabeth as a benevolent spirit, a guardian. Years in Manhattan, a purported “channel” asked me who Elizabeth was because when he sensed or heard that name all around me. Perhaps that was what she meant when she told me she didn’t live in the ominous old house where she appeared but nearby. But that night I thought she was warning me that she might take over my body—along with “others” who were dark. Don’t ask me how I knew they were dark, but that was my sense. They were dark spirits, hunting for bodies.
To see an apparition was terrifying enough. But that message! It presented a reality that was unlike anything I had ever read or considered in my life. I had been given a glimpse of something I could barely take in—that you can lose your life before you die. It planted questions in me that were just dreamy speculations before: Why are we given these human bodies? What does it even mean to be embodied? What is it all for? Is it all for pleasure and avoidance of pain? What are we meant to do while we are here?
But those questions came later. That night, I dug down deep into the earth of my existence. If the experience changed my view of reality, it also changed my view of myself. It turned out there was more to me than I thought—that my thoughts and dreams, were just the tiniest part of me, a wisp of fog on a mountain top. The mountain was life.
“No!” welled up from the depths of my being. I don’t know if I actually shouted it, but it lit me up inside like lightening. There was a surge of energy. It wasn’t anger. It was a wild animal certainty and fierceness. When I was a little girl, I pretended I was friends with a super strong and super intelligent invisible black panther named Striker. There are situations that are so grave and critical, we plug straight into instinct. That night, Striker woke up in me.
Instinct isn’t in the highest human faculty. It links us with the animal, not the angel. But it has is an animal strength and purity, and we need be connected with it if we are to thrive in this precious life—especially if we want to know the truth. There is a Buddhist sutra in which the Buddha is described as sitting in the center of courtyard or a house, guarding every entrance. This is the posture we are to take to achieve awakening. I’m not sure the commentaries mention this, but that is the stance a warrior. Instinctively, I assumed that posture. I knew that night that if wasn’t vigilant, guarding every window and door, I could be lost. I could be replaced by some disembodied and possibly dark force and no one would ever know.
These days, some scientists are researching the circumstantial, changeable nature of self. They are discovering that who we experience ourselves to be is constantly updating narrative, determined by the myriad influences around us. But that night, I discovered that we are much larger than these little selves. In the grip of instinct, I discovered our common connection to the vast, submerged mountain range of great nature. And I sensed (however distantly) that we may be meant to play a role in a greater drama than our endless personal dramas.
Before the Buddha achieved enlightenment, the demon Mara tried to distract him with beautiful women and temptations of all kinds. When that didn’t work, he unleashed fearsome armies. But the Buddha would not be moved. He reached down and touched the earth, asking it to bear witness to his right to be there. In the traditional teachings, this gesture affirms the Buddha’s many life times of seeking. But I think it was a gesture of connection with his larger nature—the awakening of the animal of the body. He needed to come down out of his thoughts and connect with the whole of himself to stand against Mara.
In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is not just an external demon but also all those impulses in us which distract us and pull us away from the spiritual path. But the Buddha would not be overtaken by desire or fear or hatred or any other dark force. The Buddha needed to be fully awake, in mind, heart, and body. Many great spiritual traditions speak of man’s unique position between the angels and the animals. On the night of his awakening, the Buddha discovered the Eightfold Path, which is not about accumulating facts, but literally about clearing a path inside.
Although it would take decades and many mishaps and adventures to fully realize, that night Elizabeth showed me that we may be a channel for different forces. The greater truth doesn’t just dwell “out there” in some abstract cosmic realm. It finds expression in the microcosm of our own life. What we are open and willing to receive…that is an open question.