That Time I Died.

I’ve shared the below ramblings in case there is someone, somewhere, out there who has had a similar experience or is going through one right now, who may be able to relate in some small way. So much of ourselves is locked away inside our minds, unable to be expressed through language. This is my feeble attempt to capture a tiny portion of my experience in words, for anyone out there struggling with a transition, questioning their life’s purpose, or looking for a sign that it’s time to change.

I think I died recently.

Not physically, of course; but some piece of ‘me’, the person I was, passed on and left a naked, shivering soul in its wake, a soul whose layers of identity have not yet fully developed. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. The process started a few months ago, subtly at first, when I began feeling the unrest that comes with an acute bout of doubting one’s life path, one’s career, one’s values. Then the pangs of unrest grew to waves of questioning what I should change, what direction I should aim for, who I should be, what I should let go of. The universe reached down into the churning water and offered me a hand in the form of a career change – one that would pull me out of academia, out of science communication, out of the safety and security of a well-worn path. But that safety and security had been suffocating me, even if it allowed me to work from home and make my own schedule and not feel huge amounts of stress.

Why was I so unhappy in that security? I still don’t fully know. Partly, I felt that my growth was stunted – even as I was finding joy in new hobbies and interests, there was a nagging feeling that I wasn’t realizing my potential, and that my heart wasn’t beating with joy in my work. And that troubled me. My work colleagues and supervisors were lovely people, and I appreciated the mission of the work – it just wasn’t my mission anymore. I had also become jaded with some of the aspects of my line of work, had lost enthusiasm for communicating on social media, for aspects of academic science and the disconnect I felt between that science and what we should be doing to heal our planet. It was a lot of things really.

So when the universe reached down to me as I churned in those waters of doubt and curiosity and fear and wonder, I took a leap of faith and grabbed that hand. It came in the form of a completely different line of work, with a non-profit focused on ancient yoga, meditation, philosophy, and wellness practices. I know this non-profit intimately, as I’ve studied with the head monk for a number of years. Now I would be working for him. My heart leaped, but stomach dropped, my mind whirled. I listened to my gut as best I could but still had no real idea whether this was the opportunity that would push my personal growth and nurture self-fulfillment. This is not a chill yoga studio job, this is a job that requires huge inputs of energy, attention to detail, dedication, vision, and stamina. In fact it’s more than a job – it’s a commitment to a vision about how to live, about preserving sacred knowledge and upholding traditions that I still don’t fully understand. It’s about opening oneself up to scrutiny, shedding any sense of what ‘should’ be, and of diving head first into a different worldview. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to do it successfully. All I knew is that I had asked for a shift, and the shift came to me. I had to at least give it a shot.

Before officially starting this new job, I journeyed up to Monterey and Carmel, California, a region I used to live in and where part of my heart still lies to this day. It was a beautiful week of reconnecting with dear friends, building deeper relationships, wandering the magical coastal trails and marveling at Monterey pines, oak woodlands, and fields overflowing with wildflowers. My heart grew as I spent time gardening, cooking, connecting with beautiful people in ways that I could never adequately express gratitude for. Every little moment was a deep joy. And, as a dear, wise mentor once told me – Joy and Love vibrate at the same energetic frequency.

Then came the day I had to drive back home. It was a strange mix of feelings – leaving a place I had already left years ago, to go back to a place that was both older and newer to me. But this time it felt different. My body tried to hold me back. The magic of that place had caught me in its delicate web. As I began my drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway, the visceral pain hit me. That’s when the tears burst forth, my heart exploded, and my death began.

The convulsions were like little earthquakes of emotion that had stored up for years, waiting for this moment to release and rip me open. Tears rolled down my cheek and neck and soaked my shirt as my beloved Monterey faded into the coastal mist in my rearview mirror. The sobbing was unusual for me, foreign, as if I was watching someone else’s emotional outburst from outside my own skin. I let it flow as best I could as I stared out over the crumbling cliffs and deep roaring ocean below, mentally telling myself to keep both hands on the steering wheel. There was a point along the drive where Big Sur was behind me and I knew that after this next curve of the road it would be gone from view. It felt like a definitive transition point from north to south, from my past self to whatever self was about to manifest. I had to pull over at a dirt turnout and just breathe. I wasn’t ready yet. I needed to soak in that past for just a bit longer. I watched deep blue waves crash in slow motion against the cliff bottoms, white water swirling and disappearing back into the blue. I absorbed the layers of mountains stretching beyond view in both directions, linking land to water, capturing clouds, pouring themselves into the ocean. I reminded myself that that place is still there, it will always be there. That place and those memories and love I have for it exist and evolve just as I do (or don’t). You can never go ‘back’ but you can always circle forward.

Eventually, the tears dried up a bit and an internal shift gently nudged me that it was time to continue my drive south, ‘back’ home, ‘forward’ into the next phase of my journey, where I was leaving the comfort of a ‘safe’ job for one that would undoubtedly push all my boundaries and test my limits. I felt overwhelmed, numb. But with a deep breath, I pulled my car back onto the highway and looked forward. New waves of tears hit me throughout the drive, but I kept going, kept being.

“Nothing comes ahead of its time, and nothing ever happened that didn’t need to happen.”

― Byron Katie

I didn’t know how to express it then, but more recently I listened to a recording by Byron Katie, a practitioner of self-inquiry (whom another dear friend brought to my attention). Katie described a difficult time in her life in which she ‘died to self’. She realized that the person she identified as herself no longer existed, had never really existed, and she had to come to terms with what that meant for her life and how she related to other people as a result. At first it was jarring for her – she cried for weeks, months, she said – but eventually she realized that the death freed her from false identification. The tears became tears of joy and wonder at the magic of life. She was, she is, we all are something, but we don’t need to be a certain ‘thing’. We give ourselves and objects names so that we can relate to each other, but beyond those names we are all connected in a continuum of experience.

Every word she said rang true to me. Katie described how telling people her name felt like a lie, even calling a chair a chair felt deceptive, because that’s not really what it is, it’s just the closest approximation we can give via language. More and more over time I’ve felt untrue when I describe who I am to people. “My name is Kristen,” I’d say, but I’d wince. Who is Kristen, really? “I’m a science communicator.” Lie! What does that even mean? I didn’t feel connected to my work or that description of myself anymore. I felt like the world was much broader, that I was a small piece of something massive, something indescribable, and my life’s goal was to understand what that was just a bit better. When I heard Katie describe a very similar process of self-shedding, of re-establishing what it meant for her to negotiate the world around her, it clicked into place for me. Aha! I thought. I, too, had died to myself. Perhaps I had not had the full spiritual awakening that Katie described, but it did feel like a death followed by the beginnings of a re-birth, painful and freeing at the same time, tears filled first with sorrow then with gratitude.

A large piece of my former self died after that trip, or thanks to that trip, and the emotional response that accompanied it told me that my body and mind were shedding the weight of that identity which had held me down for so long, like a chain keeping me just beneath the surface of the ocean. Identities can end up suffocating us, whether they define our job, our family role, our ethical standpoints, or our lifestyle choices. Shedding some of my identity was terrifying, heart-breaking, but ultimately so healing. If nothing else, quitting my previous job and throwing myself into the waves of unknown gave me that gift. At least I can now reach the surface and take a breath before dipping under again. Without death, we cannot have renewal. Nature knows this, but us humans tend to forget. Re-visiting Monterey, a place so meaningful to me, also gave me that gift. It opened me to the links between past, present, and future; of the beauty in each moment and the potential in the next. Even if my new job, or my new layers of ‘identity’ that inevitably build up like plaque, eventually need to be sloughed off again, that emotional release I experienced (and continue to experience) will have been worth it. And that’s what I have to remind myself each day, especially the days when I feel useless, or out of place, or wistful.

During the first few weeks of my new job aka my new ‘life’, my emotional state continued to fluctuate wildly. I was still shedding the last bits of that old layer of identity, often via tears. During my drives to work, I started listening to the podcast on Non-violent Communication by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (recommended by yet another wonderful friend).

Besides providing the soothing comfort of listening to the voice of man who sounds like Mr. Rogers describe concepts like compassion and self-awareness, the podcast also magically pulled together everything I had been feeling, experiencing, and learning over the last few months. Life is beautiful like that. You don’t necessarily need to know what you are doing or where you are going, just have enough faith to know you are where you need to be in this moment. And as I sat in my car on my new hour commute to my new job-that’s-much-more-than-a-job, I started to feel more confident about those little moments.

Nonviolent communication emphasizes deep listening, to ourselves and to others, as a way to express compassionately what our needs are and how we can honor and fulfill each other’s needs. Our entire language – how we speak to others and what we think about ourselves – can shift away from assumptions about who and what we are, toward more fluid and meaningful concepts about what we need to grow and how we can cultivate empathy together. I realized that my internal dialogue is incredibly judgmental and static (as is the case for many of us, presumably).

My recent ‘dying of self’ had cracked open a new way of seeing that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t have the proper language or context to understand it. How can oneself die? It’s only possible if we understand that we are fluid, changing entities that are always in a process of death and birth. Dr. Rosenberg explains how we limit ourselves and our needs through ‘I am’-heavy language that weighs us down and keeps us locked in identities (I am American, I am lazy, I am old, I am strong, I am weak), instead of language that indicates how we feel or what we need in a particular time and context (I am tired today, I need to rest). Society has used static language to reinforce power structures, create loyalty, incite war, and make people believe they fit into a particular box. We only exist in the boxes we create for ourselves.

A few days after I started listening to the nonviolent communication podcast, I was sitting with Swami at the end of the workday as we wrapped up. “Our organization is based upon nonviolent communication,” he said to me. “Clear communication is very important for maintaining transparency and strong sense of fellowship.” I blinked and nodded my head. I hadn’t mentioned the podcast to him. This was one of those brief moments that countered all the self-doubt, the waves of fear and questioning, the agonizing over whether I made the right decision to change my life. Here was a little dose of magic, life connecting dots for me, of providing a little overlap in the various streams of thought and meaning in my life. Maybe it was a coincidence, but maybe it was a gentle squeeze from the universe to let me know it will be alright. Everything is connected, I am right where I should be in this moment.

***

On my drive south from Monterey, I made one other stop, at the General Store in Big Sur. I wanted to extend my time along the central coast for as long as possible, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. So I stopped and dawdled for a bit. When I came out of the store, I noticed a table strewn with paintings and sketches, in the middle of which sat a sign that said “Free Art.” Usually I’m too shy to approach people and risk opening up a dialogue in such a case, but today was unusual. I had nothing to lose. I walked up to the table and greeted the man sitting quietly beside it, presumably the artist. He wore an old baseball cap, his skin was ruddy and softly wrinkled from years of central coast sun, and when he smiled I saw he had a few teeth missing. He radiated a calm, gentle energy.

One of his art portfolios was spread open on the table and a painting caught my eye immediately. It depicted a spiral, emanating from sort of sea serpent that only materialized after a few moments of observing the painting. I was intrigued and asked the man about it. “If you asked me about any other piece of art, I could tell you the story of it. But this one, I don’t know. I just had to paint it, and I kept painting until I felt it was done.” He looked up at me and continued, “You should take it.” It reminded me of the Fibonacci spiral, a concept that had come up in recent discussions with Swami, and with friends. The Golden Ratio, found throughout nature and the inspiration for much of classical architecture and art. I gladly accepted the art, telling the man this meant more than he knew to me, especially on that day. “Wait one moment,” he replied. “Just sit down here, open up to a page in one of these poetry books” – he motioned to the stack of books on the table beside his sketches – “and I’ll be right back.” I opened one of the books to a page of poetry about surrendering to God and life, and one about just sitting without expectation. He came back within minutes, and handed me a sticker with an image of cliffs and ocean and sunshine, and the words ‘Love Warriors, Big Sir’ printed across the top. I smiled and thanked him. Magical moments of joy amidst sorrow. I continued on my journey south after that, retaining the memory of that connection even as I rolled with the waves of emotion that swept through me for the rest of the drive.

Fast forward to last week, I’d been working in my new position for a few weeks and while I’ve still been adjusting to the dramatic change, I’ve been finding my center a little more each day. I have no doubt the emotional waves will continue to pour in and out, but now I am grateful for those too, for how they clear out my system, allow me to feel deeply, and to guide me toward truth. One of our projects last week at work was to create an outline for our website redesign. My task was to research how to use the Fibonacci sequence and Golden Ratio as the foundation of the visual aesthetic. Boom, full circle yet again. The connections are always there, ready to pull you back into the flow whenever you feel yourself hurdling into the far reaches of deep space. I don’t know where the flow is taking me (if anywhere); maybe it’s meant to take us deeper into ourselves until we realize we are each the center – and the periphery.

For most of my life I’ve felt that I’ve walked in the cracks in between identities, always feeling the internal battle associated with seeing ‘both sides’. I shrink back from conflict and violence, because I feel the fear and sorrow on all sides that create that violence, and I understand it. I want to placate it, but that is not always my place. I see why people defend their values so strongly, yet I see how useless and hurtful that can be. I understand why people are drawn to patriotism, or individualism, or religious fervor, or a belief in the scientific method. But I cannot align myself with any of those things. It has been the main frustration in my life though perhaps it has given me opportunities to find clarity. I thought perhaps throwing myself into this new line of work would finally allow me to pull myself out of the crack and land on a shore of solid beliefs that align with a particular community – but now I don’t think that is my destiny. I think I will always be following the cracks in between, walking the harder path, the one with more shadows and shades, unable to climb up onto one side of the other for long. I’ve never ‘fit in’, but what is there to fit into? What I am now realizing is that perhaps instead I am re-calibrating. I am not denying one thing (e.g., science) for another (e.g., eastern philosophy); I am instead finding my way through the center, realizing the value of each perspective and slowly accumulating the wisdom to understand the limitations of any one lens, no matter how encompassing it may be. The path between need not be lonely, if you give fully to yourself.

But who am I to know? None of us really knows, and that’s the thing too. We are all spiraling around each other in this mathematical sequence that most of us never even recognize, creating a constellation of human experience meant to propel us toward self-realization, if we choose to flow in that direction. And if we don’t? Well that’s ok too. The universe is still here, and we are still floating in it. And there’s always Netflix. And when Netflix is no more, perhaps we’ll go back to the stories of the stars.

Fibonacci spiral in nature (it underlies plant growth, animal growth, galaxies, and the universe).