I Want So Badly To Believe. So Why Am I So Scared?

I Want So Badly To Believe. So Why Am I So Scared?

I so want a mystical experience. What does that mean? I want to touch some kind of realm, energy, mind, or something that gives me a clear sense that there’s… more. So what does that mean? Oy vey.

To put it simply, I am not satisfied with surface-level reality: the earth as we know it, people as we see them, our lives playing out from beginning to end. I want our selves to be more than our physical bodies, our sense of time to be a narrow simulacrum of a far more glorious system: one that allows our minds and souls to thrive and grow forever. I want more – and not only in the sense of success or money or this-worldly passion. I mean, I would take all that with joy and gratitude, but it’s not the core I seek.

At bottom, I want access to a new lens that opens up a truth, place, or mode of being that is inaccessible from my current vantage point. I want to say: “Aha! Now I understand. Now I know. Now I see why day-to-day life always seemed so gray to me. There’s so much more, and I was sensing it but unable to commune with it until now.” The moment could be subtle or fiery, soothing or wrenching, as long as the lasting effect is peace and transcendent understanding. What do I mean by “transcendent understanding”? Well, I hope my mystical experience provides an answer that exhilarates and calms me. That may sound contradictory, but the thing I seek would juggle it all, and make it happen.

In the end, I don’t care very much whether there’s a God in any sense that humans currently envision that concept, or whether this religion or that one might come closer to some ultimate truth that powers our existence. I mean, I like the idea of God because I like the idea that goodness infuses our existence, and humans tend to define God as being some sort of ultimate good.

But goodness can come directly from us too. Maybe I could create my own goodness if I knew how to harness it from the depth of my own self. If I can do it, surely you can too: I tend to be very inept when it comes to creating anything concrete. And maybe our potential to bring what is positive and right to fruition is God. It doesn’t matter much one way or another; it’s all a matter of semantics. Some might call it God and others might call it inner power, or some such. As long as the kind of “beyond” realm or reality I crave is real – and I am able to access it – the rest is ancillary.

So… I could just kind of hope that the experience I crave will happen, but I’m too nervous and worked up over the question to embrace that approach. I want to be one of those mystics – or whatever you might call them – who talk about “meeting God,” or “penetrating the veil,” or “seeing the other side,” or… again, the terminology doesn’t much matter: they’re all grasping for similar ideas. I want some kind of powerful truth to grab me, from outside or inside or maybe even somewhere beyond either of those concepts, and pound into every fiber of my awareness with a clear message that our souls are permanent, nothing can kill us, and, in the end, there’s nothing to fear because the actual, large-scale truth is wonderful and all-embracing. Somehow, according to my vision, the big event, or series of events, will leave me joyful from the reality I’m finally able to perceive.

You’d think I’d jump eagerly into any opportunity to have the kind of experience I crave. It’s the only thing that could possibly bring me contentment: what could be bad? But I’m terrified. Whenever I’ve sensed the possibility of penetrating some kind of realm that would bring me peace, I’ve run away, pulled the covers over my head, turned on the lights to bring me full-blast into my usual mode of consciousness… whatever it took to drown out any potential revelation and keep me wallowing in terror that death will bring the end of our individual universes of consciousness.

There was my week in Lily Dale: a small hamlet in western New York filled with professional mediums and related activities. Each summer, the community transforms into a kind of spiritual fair, with tourists from all over the world mingling with locals and soaking in afterlife-oriented workshops and classes, public demonstrations where the mediums attempt to communicate with deceased souls connected to the audience members, and private sessions with the mediums.

Most out-of-towners only stay for a few days: the area is small, and you can fit several medium sessions and other activities into a day if you plan efficiently. Me being me, I spent a full week there, because I wanted time to hang out in the local café, slowly get to know people, and develop a sense for daily life in a community infused with conviction that the soul is eternal, and that deceased souls are constantly communicating with the living. I hired several mediums for private sessions — and most of them were utterly useless beyond the entertainment of seeing their homes and hearing their vague pronouncements and their ways of fishing for information, which a few of them would turn around and use as fuel for their alleged contact with grandparents and such.

One medium did guess exactly how my grandmother died (it was a stroke, so nothing rare, but still) after going into some kind of trance that looked and felt very real. Another one, as part of a group session, managed to tap into many of my strongest desires and goals, even though she had barely looked at me. The others in our group got very different messages that didn’t remotely speak to me. Worth considering, for sure, though far from reaching the level of specificity I’d need to feel bowled over.

But did I want to feel bowled over? I chose to stay in the area’s large hotel, not the bed and breakfasts that received much better reviews, largely because some claimed they’d made contact with deceased souls at the hotel. Some felt it was haunted with deceased personalities associated with the area; others believed that something about the atmosphere made it possible to connect with their own late family members and friends.

I figured I was more likely to have an amazing mystical experience when I was relaxing on my own than while racing around to different appointments, and decided I couldn’t give up a chance to stay somewhere that might facilitate the answers I craved. But I stiffened when I turned off the lights on my first night. The slightest noise or shadow made me bolt up and jump out of bed.

For maybe five minutes, I tried to calm down, and reminded myself that contact from another realm would be wonderful: that possibility was, in fact, the whole reason I had traveled to this tiny rural enclave. I had to be open and let anything that might come my way wash over me, burrow into my mind, do whatever it needed in order to reach me.

I stood in the middle of the room, shivering at the sight of a hairball by the radiator. Was this inept housekeeping or something… else? I didn’t want to know, couldn’t bear to try to figure it out. So I turned on all the lights, every single one I could find, and got back into bed, light gleaming through my eyelids no matter how tightly I shut them. Somehow, bright light seemed to diminish the odds of something… you know… something along those lines penetrating my conscious world. In other words, I didn’t want the thing I desperately desired to come my way: I had to keep it away. Every single night in Lily Dale, I flooded my room with as much light as possible, burrowing under the covers to try to mute its power, but needing its presence all the same.

No spiritual revelations arrived in that hotel room. I was too mortified for disappointment.

You might think I’d be braver in my own apartment, but you’d be wrong. A few weeks ago, I had an intense conversation with a nurse who has worked with dying patients. She told me that she can tell whether a patient is living or deceased, because of an energy she can intuit. It has nothing to do with movement or noise or anything she can discern through her five senses. She tends to be very rational and scientifically based, and doesn’t know how to explain this ability… but she suspects that she can discern something along the lines of the soul’s presence in the body while her patients are still alive. When they die, she detects the change, somehow.

Soon after this discussion ended, I started to suspect… maybe something like the souls my friend thought she sensed. Fabulous, right? A potential glimpse into a fascinating realm: just the sort of possibility that obsessed me. But I shivered and decided to leave my bedroom lights on throughout the night.

I’ve had similar reactions on other occasions: just when a spiritual breakthrough seems possible, I shut it down with a fierce bang. And then I’m back where I started, lamenting the fact that nothing mystical ever seems to come my way, that I’m stuck in this-worldly terror, ferociously hoping for inner peace and never coming close.

Why do I slam and silence the very thing I crave? What do I fear? What could be more bone-chilling than believing the surface narrative I’ve been taught: that my life is moving on a clear, simple path towards the end for my consciousness and everything it’s loved and longed for? If I sense a chance at a different kind of knowing and interacting that could shift my perception and bring me the insight I need, what possible reason could I have to squelch it?

This seems similar to the fear of looking into God’s face, whatever that might mean. What is God, if such an entity exists? What would God’s face be like? Clearly this is a metaphor for something with colossal depth and mystery. We couldn’t possibly know or even imagine God’s face until it appeared.

So do we jump into seeing, knowing, experiencing, or even touching something that we can’t begin to imagine in advance, realizing that it could bring great danger or pain? I think the answer depends partly on how desperate we are for something new, and how satisfied we are now, without having this new adventure.

As I move forward in my life, I become more and more afraid. The end feels closer. The universe seems increasingly less kind. I feel constant confusion and little support beyond the few people who truly care about me. The surface level world – the reality I imbibe as a matter of course as I go about my days – is not enough for me.

And yet, with a click of my mind, I can create a little wall, and feel somewhat happy much of the time. Death feels far off. Anything could happen, both in this life and afterwards. I’m desperate, but the desperation doesn’t breathe against my neck, hounding me at every turn. My current life holds a certain comfort. Maybe I’m afraid to bring something new into it – shocking emotions or ideas that might make daily life harder to bear. And maybe these new difficulties wouldn’t bring any particular clarity on my deepest questions. Who knows what might happen if I allowed myself to slide into one of these seemingly mystical encounters? The unknown encompasses the best and the worst possibilities.

What I fear most is the future: in particular, some future time when death feels close, strength feels low, and despair about all that never happened and all I’m about to lose is raging. My terror builds slowly as the days and years pass. I hope that, at some point, I’ll slide through a kind of invisible door, and I’ll feel ready to tackle the biggest questions once and for all, no matter how destabilizing the process may be. I hope, of course, that I’ll come out richer in insight, spirit, and peace. May it happen while I’m still strong in mind, in body, and in soul, and while I still have lots of time to incorporate my discoveries into this life and share them with others who need to hear about them. May it happen when the right circumstances arise, whatever that might mean, and may it be good.

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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