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The Threshold Of The Unknown

The Threshold Of The Unknown

Dreaming Awake - The Threshold of the Unknown

My life has been haunted by this restless sense of never quite belonging where I was. Do you know that feeling?

Mother once told me I used to cry when she left me at kindergarten because I thought the other children were aliens, bird-peoples with long beaks who came from other worlds. They made strange noises that I could not understand. I was frightened by their beaks and their sounds. Probably it was me who was the alien in their world. I don’t know where I got such crazy ideas because I grew up in a communist country without Walt Disney or Hollywood entertainment, with only one channel on black and white television that aired news (or state propaganda) and an occasional, badly acted local movie. Once every couple of years there were James Bond films playing in the cinema and my mother used to go with her girlfriends. They were all secretly in love with Roger Moore.  

My first exile, when I was 9 years old, was not chosen by me. My parents fled Romania as dissidents seeking political asylum, and for many years they remained apatrid (stateless, without nationality). The temporary Austrian passports we received in the asylum center in Vienna said “Fluchtlinge,” which is translated as refugee, but literally means flight-things, escape artists. Growing up in the gray jungle of New York City, the people I encountered seemed even more alien than the Romanian bird-children, and I developed a discomforting awareness that my environment was uncanny and somehow out of joint. I did go through a brief period of adolescent angst when I really wanted to be a normal American teenager more than anything else, probably because I sensed the others suspected there was something wrong with me. But by my twenties it passed, and I began to feel that I had no place and no connection to this strange culture of big cars, shopping malls, Kmart clothes, fast food and MTV. It all felt weirdly distorted to me, even the language. 

After I moved away from New York for my graduate studies, the most memorable moments were when I visited my parents for the holidays and they would tell me stories from my childhood, in my native language. My mother asked, “do you remember when you were 3 and we went to the Black Sea and you would run to meet the waves and then run away when they rolled in, giggling ‘ma sfiesc, ma sfiesc’ (an untranslatable expression, meaning something between I’m afraid, I’m shy and I have cold shivers). And my father asked, “do you remember when you were 6 and you made your big swim across Snagov lake, and you were terrified by a little fish that jumped in front of you and you cried for me to let you climb into the boat?” He had been rowing alongside me to aid in the crossing in case something went wrong. I didn’t remember any of it, but I felt it in my heart as real, in a way in which everything else in my world seemed false at the time. 

I was doing a PhD in revolution – or theories of revolution created in a cocooned ivy league tower isolated from the realities of everyday life. Until one day my world sort of cracked, like a mirror that can’t be mended. Maybe it wasn’t so sudden or so dramatic. But still, I recall there was one day when an epiphany came to me as an avalanche of inner knowing without words – that this was not who I was, and that in order to not sell my soul to the devil I had to walk away from it without looking back. For many years I’d been feeling a growing discontent with leftist intellectuals in academia and their erudite language and separation (mental, emotional and physical) from the “people” they claimed to represent. And I longed to know what it meant to be a real revolutionary. My second exile from America, when I was 29, was self-imposed. I knew I was choosing to become a flight-thing again. And it wasn’t an exile just from the shadow-world of academia. I felt I could no longer live in the only country that claimed me as its citizen but whose privileges and identities were not my own. They felt familiar and counterfeit. 

After I abandoned the US, I became something of a perpetual nomad, wandering the world with no country and no ties. Mostly. I did return to the city of my birth in Romania for a few years, in search of something I-know-not-what that I thought I had lost in my childhood. But in my heart, I knew I would not find it. Even though I could pass for being a native, I felt as if the country’s culture, and ways of being, and mental landscapes fit me like a tight, crooked dress made of patchwork fabrics. Berlin is the only place I’ve lived that felt oddly comforting, and which I chose to make into a makeshift home. For a while. Perhaps because Berlin is not really a place, but an in-between zone of erased identities and reinvented histories, neither here nor there, settled by foreigners and punks and other misfits who make the overall vibe feel disjointed, as if it’s a marooned island that has floated into Germany from another dimension. I’ve lived in 7 countries and have traveled to 22 more in between the living … to the point that the living and the traveling have become blurred.

Sometimes it feels like I’m on an endless voyage, which is not only without finality, but also without a real destination. In a sense, this is because the destination has been and still is my self. This may sound like a narcissistic cliche, and as cliches go, there’s an element of falsehood in it as well as a kernel of truth. The journey has been an attempt to leave behind the “my” and to discover the “self.” The “my” is the small I of the personality, a creature of habit and conditioning, who has silly thoughts, neurotic habits, emotional stories that seem like big dramas, and, sometimes, a few loftier desires. The “self” is something I have only glimpsed in moments of silent illumination, in the gaps between rational thought and the whims of imagination, but which I have not really understood. The self is the gaze of the soul behind the mirror of time, who resembles an old grandmother made of thorny, green branches and the feathers of a golden peacock – wise, gentle, and grotesquely beautiful, like a Medusa. She speaks to me in the language of nightly dreams and waking reveries. 

At the beginning, if there are beginnings, I think my desire for traveling to exotic places was sparked by a kind of escapist promise. The promise of an antidote to the dull weariness of our contemporary condition as restless cosmopolitans inhabiting global cities of standardized identities and mass consumption. But over the years the journeys became less about a search for an escape route, or even a desire to experience newness for the sake of its utter strangeness. The journeys became an attempt to erase my familiar identities and to experience the unknown dimensions of myself – the primal chaos, the undefined energy from which all worlds take form. The journeys have transformed into something like pilgrimages. 

I don’t mean pilgrimages in the Christian-Islamic context of visiting a certain holy site to encounter traces of God, but as something deeper and more occult. The root of the word pilgrim comes from the Latin peregrinus, which means stranger, foreigner, wanderer. Peregrinatio was originally conceived as a form of wandering without any specific geographical goal at the end. The pilgrimage was undertaken as an intentional exile from the profane self (from the me and my), and from the world of everyday life with its comforts, routines and obligations. It required a willingness to undergo a period of discomfort and disorientation in order to encounter the divine or sacred Self, as an altered state of being-in-the-world. Of being-as-the-world. And to make this transition between the two selves – between the my and the self – it was necessary to venture into the wilderness as an archetypal zone representing the perilous unknown. That’s why wandering for 40 days or 40 years in the desert is still the most appropriate allegory of the pilgrim’s journey.

I came to understand the meaning of pilgrimage not by traveling to specific places in space and time, but within the inner worlds of psychedelic journeys. I was called there by a strange, fateful invocation that I could not refuse. I was teaching inner alchemy and had developed my own practices that came though inner visions. I had zero interest in mind altering “drugs,” which I considered a diversion from the true path. And then, one night, in a psytrance bar called Nomad, I met an ayahuasca shaman who said he was not a shaman. He listened to me catalog all my prejudices and complaints about psychedelics and replied, “You’re mistaken in thinking you know the path because you have not yet learned humility.” He invited me as a guest to his retreat, and I ended up apprenticing for more than a year. The encounters with ayahuasca showed me that what I had been seeking in all the outer journeys to far-away lands was really a voyage to a non-place, into the wilderness of consciousness itself. And that to get there it was necessary to pass through the eye of the needle, through a threshold where things are turned upside down, and the familiar structures of ordinary life collapse. Completely, and in a way in which thought cannot imagine or describe. The threshold is not where you venture to discover identity, but where you go to loose it. It’s an initiation that requires embracing the fear of an in-between void where everything that is solid trembles and is dis-created. And, for a moment, it hangs in a space of pure potentiality before it is reassembled anew. It was by surrendering to the threshold and riding out the void of the unknown that I began to hear the quiet voice of the self, and to meet the gaze of the grandmother soul who promised to turn my illusions into stone.  

After a year of training, I accepted in invitation to work with Shipibo curanderos who came from Peru to organize ayahuasca ceremonies in Berlin. As an exchange, they invited me to come to an indigenous village near Pucallpa to apprentice with them. But it got put on hold, and life unfolded in its own unexpected direction, which is more intelligent than the best laid plans. My parents became very ill – my father had become an invalid following a stroke, and my mother was caring for him as a full-time nurse, despite obvious signs of Alzheimers. I began to have recurring dreams of being in a mountain village of small hobbit-like dwellings, with my father beckoning me to enter his house, saying, “Come home, it’s time.” I intuited that things had reached some desperate turning point, and that I had to go to Romania to face the crisis. I ended up staying for 18 months, struggling to take care of parents who had become like helpless small children. They both died within a year of each other. 

When mother died, I was in Berlin. I had returned to take care of things left unfinished from my old life, including the formalities of my divorce. During her last year, her Alzheimers had gotten worse, and she had been sinking into a black hole of physical and mental deterioration. I had felt her death coming for a while, but it still caught me by surprise. The phone call came 6 days before my flight back to Bucharest to see her. I decided not to change the flight but go as planned. Mostly because I felt overwhelmed and like I could not deal with it – as a way to postpone the inevitable. I had given power of attorney to her caretakers to deal with the legal bureaucracy and receive the state money for death expenses and asked them to handle the cremation. When I arrived a week later, I picked up not a fancy urn but a black, plastic container from the funeral company that arranged the cremation. When I looked at her ashes, it felt strangely surreal – like I was walking through a half-remembered dream in slow motion, awake, but with a feeling that it wasn’t real. 

I had a vision of how to perform the ritual of her passing in meditation. I saw that I would bathe in one third of her ashes, pour one third into her favorite lake where we used to go when I was a child, and bury one third in my father’s grave, so they could be together symbolically. It was a bit gruesome, but I decided to respect the vision. I mixed a third of her ashes with water to spread over my body while standing in the bathtub. I thought it would be like those clay mud baths I had once endured as a child at the salt lakes. It didn’t quite come out as I expected, the mixture of water with her ashes was not a smooth mud-like paste but a rough scratchy concoction mixed with small fragments of bones. As I performed the ceremony, I understood it was a symbolic act of re-entering her womb, by having her body cover my body again. But more than anything, what I wanted was to feel a sense of oneness and sacred communion with her in death that I rarely felt when she was alive. To thank her for the gift of life, and to acknowledge being flesh of her flesh. It was the first time I cried since the news of her death, and it was a deep sobbing with pangs of grief and remorse. I knew I had not truly been there for her in her hour of need at the end of her life. But the sadness was also accompanied by a peaceful relief that the whole drama of the previous years of my parents’ illness was now over. I felt free – free not as in freedom, but liberation, for there is a difference. Freedom has no boundaries, while liberation transcends them.

Liberation turned out to be a strange burden. If the bonds tying me to the past were gone, now I felt totally lost, not having a clue in which direction to move. In the two months that followed, I concentrated on the present as best I could – by wrapping up the loose ends of her life, meditating a lot, and walking in parks without purpose. I kept pleading with my intuition to show me the direction of the next step, but it was slumbering. It was when I stopped asking and gave up, that I had a prophetic dream in the half-light of early dawn. In the dream, I knew I was in Peru, but it wasn’t the jungle I had imagined I would travel to, to answer the call of the Shipibos. I was in a valley with mountains all around, not immense and snowy-peaked, but majestically imposing, with brown rocks and green foliage. With that distortion of time and space that is peculiar to dreams, suddenly I was on the terrace of an adobe house very high up on one mountain, looking across at another mountain who stared at me with all its sublime, unmoved hugeness. I could almost see its face appear in the crevices of the rocks. It spoke to me like the whistling of the wind before a storm. I heard its words in Spanish: “Llegar. Silencio es el principio y el final.” Arrive. Silence is the beginning and the end. So in the end it was quite simple – I decided to journey to the Sacred Valley by a game of chance that we like to call synchronicity. The choice of Peru had a heaviness of inevitability that I cannot explain. In part, it felt like the fulfillment of a lingering idea that was planted by the Shipibos many years ago, even if I no longer felt the call to go to the jungle or to meet ayahuasca on her own territory. 

Yet in part, I also knew that on a deeper level what was beckoning me was not Peru as a special, idyllic place. I was at a point in my life between the completion of a cycle and a new beginning, and I felt called leave my past behind and embrace the unknown. I had a disquieting feeling that it was going to be a journey of my own disappearance, and that I would be asked to let go of the familiar definitions of self and home that I had known. I felt that I needed to say goodbye not just to my parents and to my childhood home in Romania, but to an entire history that had constructed the deepest and most unconscious layers of my identity. And I knew that this was also a farewell to the life I had constructed for myself in Berlin, since there was nothing there for me to return to. I was in a limbo of uncertainty about my path and life purpose. With the anchors of my identity uprooted, the only choice was to take a leap into the abyss.  

I booked a one-way flight. As a gambling of the dice. I wasn’t sure how long I would stay in Peru, where I would end up next, or if I was coming back to Europe. I sensed that accepting the call to shed the skin of my past would mean walking forward without planning the next step but allowing the path to reveal itself along the way. I even convinced myself that I was playing the part of the Fool of the Tarot, walking forward without a care, not knowing if I was at the edge of a precipice, gaze turned upward, focused only on the brilliance of the sun. At least that was the romanticized image of my call to adventure. A wiser part of me recognized the self-delusion of the desire to start from zero, as if everything could collapse and re-materialize in a single instant through pure intent. The past is not a thin, translucent garment, resembling the crust of a snake’s skin that can be easily shed. It is subterranean and deep, like the layers of sedimented rocks in the earth. Which is why every culture has myths of odysseys that begin not by gazing upward toward the heavens, but with a long descent into the caves of the underworld. And with the initiation of crossing the threshold of madness and death.

This is a chapter of the book Dreaming Awake. Table of contents and links to other chapters are here!

Credit

Anna Nimm is a pen name, an anonymous literary double. Sometimes we all feel an itch to talk about our names and accomplishments, and to hoard recognition from others. Letting go of this itch has been especially difficult for me … and liberating.

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