It’s not a topic many like to discuss, it’s downplayed and left in the corner because it doesn’t attract, it doesn’t shine, it doesn’t fly. No one wants to touch it, in fact, but most people come face to face with it during the course of their spiritual search. And it’s on this ground that the soul’s struggle to be great and free is usually broken or won.

What happens when you find what seems to be the path of magic, the path of transformation, the path of rebirth, the path that will lead you out of tedium, meaninglessness, and suffering - and, after following that path for some months or years of inflated spiritual enthusiasm and hope, you suddenly reach a stark dead-end, finding that old troubles remain, or come back stronger than ever; that unhappiness and failure continue to haunt you; that the path leads nowhere? How do you survive the downside of the spiritual high, the crash from bliss, when the cruel, cold, hard world you tried to rise internally above suddenly smashes back into your heart, leaving you with the demoralizing impression that all your work and prayers may have been in vain; that you have gotten nowhere; that you are back at the same dismal starting place where your spiritual journey began, dark and abandoned, with one less illusion to believe in?

"O Father, why hast thou forsaken me?" can be said in a thousand ways, and from a thousand crosses.

I have seen strong and great spiritual searches, and mediocre ones, alike, reach this point of disillusionment and depression. In many cases, the answer to the pain of being disappointed - spiritually shipwrecked on the same lonely island one sailed from, months or years before - is to run to another vehicle of escape. In this way, some individuals I know have changed religions several times - gone from Christianity to Buddhism to Jewish mysticism (Kabala), for example - or moved from one spiritual emphasis to another, as from auric healing to past-life-regressions to shamanic journeying. These "changes" are not necessarily acts of evasion, they may represent very legitimate and ultimately worthwhile attempts at finding the "right suit of spiritual clothes" to wear, the clothes that most naturally fit a given individual, and most productively accommodate his/her spiritual potential. They may also be progressive steps in building a deep and workable personal belief-system, over time: acts of enrichment that slowly put together the puzzle-pieces of a soul’s development, until a coherent and organic whole has been created. On the other hand, there is no doubt that in many cases, the movement from religion to religion, and from spiritual system to spiritual system, is part of a pattern of flight; a pattern of embracing the high of discovering something new, then running from the let-down once one’s search runs into a snag. The truth of the matter is that for most people, every avenue of spiritual searching will one day lead to disappointment and to dead-ends; belief will be tested, doubt will grow strong, pain will return, one will have to face old demons. How will one react? Will one run to something new, try to move too fast to be hit? (By the time astrology has failed, one will be safe in the arms of the I-ching, by the time the I-ching has failed, one will be in the haven of rune stones.) Or will one give it all up, adopt bitterness and iconoclasm as one’s new faith? Return to a world without spirit? Surrender like John Lennon in the song "God" ("I don’t believe in magic/ I don’t believe in I-ching/ I don’t believe in Bible/ I don’t believe in tarot/ … I don’t believe in Buddha/ I don’t believe in Mantra/ I don’t believe in Gita/ I don’t believe in Yoga/ … The dream is over…") Or, will one persevere, finally wake up to realize that there is no holy shortcut, no sacred way out of the battle - that spiritual paths are not avenues of escape, but rather, ways of facing the battle?

I once heard the story of a father who gave his son a thick wooden board and allowed him to make one cut into it, with a saw, every day. When the board was cut in two, the boy would win a prize. It was a great lesson, of course. The boy learned that worthwhile things often require time, patience, and persistence to attain. Every day, the boy would take the saw, and deepen the cut he had already made in the board, working methodically in the same place. If he had become demoralized with the slow pace of his labors, and attempted to start another cut, in another place, hoping to get through the wood board more quickly by escaping from the seemingly fruitless cut he had already started, he would only have delayed himself even more. In the same way, although there really are times to transfer one’s spiritual journey from one path to another - to seek a change in form that will be more productive for one’s growth - there are also times when progress depends upon continuing on the path one is already on, in spite of the obstacles that appear. Every path will have its snags, and every journey will face its "moments of truth" - the key to spiritual growth is to have the will to face these "moments of truth" on some path. Sooner or later, one must make a stand. As (one version of) the saying goes: "The greatest treasures are guarded by the most terrifying dragons." If your spiritual priority is to avoid dragons, you will only go so far, because there is no spiritual path without a dragon. The Golden Fleece - the Holy Grail - Enlightenment - are not items that can be bought in a New Age mall; they do not bend to the mores of our instant-gratification-culture. There is no equivalent to "dumbing down" THE JOURNEY.

In his brilliant book After The Ecstasy, The Laundry, American Buddhist Jack Kornfield penetrates the mystique and the high of experiencing spiritual ecstasy with a detailed, and badly needed follow-up on the aftermath. For often, the euphoria of enlightenment is followed by a let-down, even by a "crash", as one awakens from awaking to find oneself living in the same complex, difficult, destabilizing and unbalancing circumstances as before. It sometimes seems, then, as though one’s spiritual high-point has been a mere vacation from reality; and depression and a sense of recapture may set in, the same as if one were a worker in the coal mines who had just returned from a vacation by the sea. Can one’s new high, one’s new light, really be carried into the depths of the coal mine, and preserved there? Or, to put it another way, can one’s high-altitude flight be maintained, or must one always come back to the heaviness of the earth, as the bird, whose wings brush, in intimacy, with the sky, before the power of gravity inevitably pulls him back down to what he can only rise above for a moment?

One thing is for sure. What drove one to "seek", remains to test one after one has "found." Unlike in the fairy tales, in the tale of spiritual development there is no "happily ever after, period." Enlightenment is not the end, it is only a medium for further struggle.

As Kornfield writes in After The Ecstasy, The Laundry, the first awakening or enlightenment that occurs as the spiritual seeker’s heart opens to hitherto unfelt and uncomprehended truths, is only a beginning. As the Eskimos, whose knowledge of the arctic world is intimate, have many different words for "snow", each one conveying a different texture or state of something they know well enough to know beyond the injustice of a single world, so in the "Theraveda tradition of the Elders of Southeast Asia" ‘Enlightenment’ is understood not as a single, definitive achievement, but as a concept of different layers, and different meanings. The first level of attainment is known as "Entering the Stream", and while many, if not most, seekers expect this one to be the first and last, as Kornfield writes: "Further purification remains necessary for us to transform our character and embody this new understanding in our life." From here, the Elders map out stages of "Returning Again", "Non-Returning", and "Great Awakening", each representing an increasing clearing of old habits of not seeing, and not transcending, until complete freedom is attained. (After years of denial or unawareness, old fears and unhealthy attachments may finally be looked at in the face, and yet, still not be swept away. Just as one may take the mask off of an abuser - a great first step - yet still remain unable to break free of him. "Entering the Stream" is, in this way, only a first step: only the first shade of meaning of "Enlightenment", its most peripheral meaning. It is the doorway leading into a great house, not the rooms inside the house.) In this vein, Kornfield writes: "Most masters agree that after the first illumination, there can still arise periods of fear, confusion, loss of spiritual bearings, and unskillful conduct. No matter how compelling the vision, how profound the initial sense of freedom and grace, a process of maturation must follow… If we fail to acknowledge this truth, we simply fool ourselves. When a proud mother once announced to Mullah Nasruddin, ‘My son has finished his studies,’ Nasruddin replied, ‘No doubt God will send him more.’ It is like that for us all." As for going from initial enlightenment to a deeper and fuller shade of enlightenment, Kornfield writes: "Attaining [a truer enlightenment] … requires a continual and heartfelt attention to the suffering that comes when we cling to our desires and fears, to our ideals and ideals. As these forces of human life are understood, they lose their hold on us. Finally, in a deep realization, the strongest forces of desire, grasping, anger, and fear … drop away." [1]

Yet, even so, the idea of enlightenment as some kind of permanent refuge from human failings is, in itself, most likely, flawed. Kornfield quotes Suzuki Roshi as saying: "Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity… What we are speaking about is moment-to-moment enlightenment, one enlightenment after another." [2] And Kornfield goes on to write: "In India there is a saying that even a ninety-year-old saint is not safe. We are vulnerable as long as we are alive. The great Zen Master Hui Neng reminds us how quickly the mind can change: ‘As far as Buddha Nature is concerned, there is no difference between a sinner and a sage… One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person.’" [3] None of these concepts of enlightenment extricate us from the risks and struggles of being human, instead they envision spiritual practice as a way of life rather than as a destination that will one day bring us "out of range" of the "slings and arrows" of the world. In the same way that the martial arts of aikido and jujutsu encode and teach ways of dealing with struggle, so all genuine spiritual paths encode and teach ways of dealing with struggle, in other forms and on other levels. Learning aikido does not banish struggle, it prepares one for struggle. Practicing a religion or spiritual modality cannot exonerate one from the difficulty of human experience, and one of the first keys to advancing on one’s path is to learn not to be disappointed by the way reality keeps breaking in the windows of one’s progress.

Whereas these words apply particularly to the Buddhist path, the general idea that there is no magically transcendent, all-powerful finish line to any spiritual path, after which everything will make perfect sense and become effortless, is important to grasp, and to be able to live with. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, New-Ager, Pagan, everyone, except the one who buries his soul’s head in the sand, will face the time of doubt and stagnation, when the journey seems to become paralyzed, and useless; everyone who reaches for the light will face a night of being pulled back down by dark hands into the pit of where he is coming from; everyone’s quest for understanding will be tempted by halfway places and by what hurts less, by pacts of pretending, and by shortcuts that leave out the most important part of the road.

How will one face these challenges? What will one learn from them?

In my own spiritual experience, nourished largely by Stoicism, Zen, and Native American beliefs, past-life regressions and synchronicites have played a major role. They have been the highest-flying components of my spiritual life, and perhaps for that reason, the ones that have disappointed me the most. Past-life visions, of course, are widely regarded as extraordinary acts of self-discovery, with the power to utterly transform one’s life by shedding light on one’s motives, one’s blocks, and one’s unutilized potentials, as a precursor to personal liberation, as well as by broadening and deepening one’s sense of self, and showing one, beyond death’s depressing shadow, to be a timeless being. Synchronicities are hair-raising "coincidences" or "signs" that seem to connect one to a higher power, or by means of a higher power, to other people, situations, and potentials. James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy and other related books, popularized this concept, so important to the investigations of C.G. Jung, and portrayed them as a form of guidance which could lead one back from the frustrated and dreary existence of modern/ "rational" man into a new and magical life - a life no more alone, connected to a higher power leading one, subtly but surely, towards new opportunities: towards love, towards the job one always wanted, towards success in one of its many forms, towards Destiny… Adventure, excitement, belonging, hope - I have no doubt that it was Redfield’s emphasis on "spiritual coincidences" as divine "signs", and on the possibility of "re-enchanting life" by means of returning to a magical perspective [4] - that was the key to the phenomenal sale of his books.

In both cases, I committed myself deeply to the growth and worldview offered by these (for me) new outlooks and approaches.

Regarding past lives, I was influenced by the writings of Brian Weiss, Roger Woolger, and others, and worked with a skilled regression therapist in Maryland, as well as on my own, to uncover a series of past-life memories which seemed to give renewed meaning, as well as a more comprehensible trajectory, to my life. I was already headed in a particular direction, but the visions confirmed and strengthened my commitment to that direction. However, the high of these fascinating episodes, and the power of these vivid revelations, soon came under attack. My life became more difficult and challenging than ever. Relationship problems, problems at work, problems with making a living, problems with surviving as a physical being in a material world, began to overwhelm me, wear me out, demoralize me. The fact that I may have been an Egyptian warrior in the past, or a Native American warrior, or that I may have been a healer in Germany, or a writer in China didn’t help me to pay my bills, get a job, keep a roof above my head, build the kind of life I wanted to in the here and now. And whatever motivation my discoveries offered to me was compromised by a deepening sense of isolation - for what had become the center of my life was also so marginal that it made me more secretive and unable to connect with others than ever; while strong forces of skepticism, planted in me by years of conditioning and by the imaginative power of my doubt, perhaps linked to some traces of self-destructiveness, further weakened the energy of my visions by pulling me away from them. While one part of me went ahead, down the road of my discoveries, another part followed close behind, whispering in my ear: "It was only a dream. It was only a dream." It’s hard to live, or to die, for a fantasy. Pulled in both directions, I went nowhere. (Or perhaps it is better to say I have gone nowhere up till now. A huge amount of inner work in the present is needed to unleash the power of the past. Or, to put it another way, revelation will not rescue me, I must rescue revelation.)

In the case of synchronicities, I had had a relationship with signs long before James Redfield came along; and yet, I am sure that the "let-down" I felt as powerful signs came to nothing, was similar to the disappointment expressed by many of his readers, as their initial plunge into the magical world he described - their first bold, hopeful steps into the unknown, as the tarot’s "Fool" - led, after a period of initial excitement and promise, into a reawakening within "the same old life" - to the sense of confinement and exhaustion of the "Ten of Wands", or the pain and weariness of the "Ten of Swords." While living by synchronicities greatly enriched the lives of many, for many readers, a period of disillusionment followed the high. The signs seemed to lead to a dead-end. Life didn’t want to be magic, it wanted to stay boring and hard… One day, on a trip cross country with my family - I remember this incident now because it seems so metaphorically appropriate - we entered a small South Dakota town looking for food and lodging. There didn’t seem to be any traveler-oriented facilities around, so we moved on, back out onto the highway. After another bunch of miles down the road - it seemed like 20, but it must have been less - we took the next exit off, hoping to have better luck this time around. But much to our chagrin (and surprise) we hadn’t gone far when we found ourselves back in the same town as before, passing by the same people, who were standing in front of the same little movie theater, on the same little street! It seemed we couldn’t get away from that town where we didn’t belong, no matter how hard we tried! - In just the same way, the magic journey of The Celestine Prophecy ended up bringing many back to the same dark and lonely place where they had begun. They drove away, only to come back.

In my own case, I encountered many spectacular signs throughout my travails. One day, looking for a new job, I saw a hawk fly off of a city building (the first and only time I saw this one, on Queens Boulevard). The hawk’s appearance corresponded to a passage I had just read from The Iliad, referring to divine protection given by Zeus (via the eagle, which he sent as a sign to Priam that he could safely venture into the Greek camp to reclaim Hector’s body). "So he prayed, and Zeus Allwise heard him. At once he sent an eagle, most unfailing omen among birds that fly, the dark one, the hunter, the one that men also call dapple. The stretch of his outspread wings was as wide as the bolted door of a rich man’s lofty treasure-house. They saw him on the right sailing over the city; all that saw him were glad, and their hearts were warmed within them." [5] I was sure I would get the job. But I didn’t. At another job interview, I saw a picture of an eagle hanging up on the wall; then, on another wall, I saw a large banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe, who is very sacred to me. I felt protected and safe: that the economic collapse I was going through at that moment was about to be reversed. I didn’t get that job either, and things only got darker. Then, there was the time I had a vivid dream, with flaming numbers in the sky: I was sure it was my time to win the Lottery, time to break out of my economic prison and help many struggling friends, as well. I played the numbers I had seen, but didn’t get a single one. Another time, I played three numbers I had come on in a newspaper while reading about an incident that was very sacred to me. The numbers won, but not the way I’d played them (I played them straight, not box, meaning I had to get them in exactly the right order to win). Along similar lines, strong signs came to me suggesting that certain love interests would bear fruit - tie-ins to names and places surfaced in books, on the lettering of passing vehicles, on papers blowing on the street - but these loves, momentarily prophesied by the cosmos, never materialized, except in my fantasy world, and in my poems.

For the skeptic, of course, the explanation is simple. All of these "synchronicities" were just statistically rare, but not impossible, coincidences, kidnapped from their meaninglessness by my mystical mind, which was intent on constructing meanings that did not exist, for my own benefit. My flight from pain and my craving for hope illegitimately personalized and combined unrelated events to create a caring and responsive Universe, which was only a projection of my own need. In reality, the Universe was quite uninvolved with my soap opera.

However, sychnronicities, seen from the inside, are quite different from synchronicities as seen from the outside: skepticism becomes less plausible as the combination of perfect timing, improbability, and intimate relevance, experienced by one who is in a position to understand, produces a kind of "knowing" common in supernatural experiences. One who has seen a ghost, or a UFO, "knows" that they have encountered something extraordinary, although "outsiders" can always deconstruct the experience with an apparently plausible explanation, which the "insider" knows is merely dismissive. I felt the impact and realness of these synchronicities, and could not doubt that they were significant. But, in light of the let-down of them leading "nowhere", the question remained: what was their significance?

Regarding my dreams, I have no trouble in attributing some of my "failed" prophetic dreams to the classic dynamic of "wish fulfillment" - I can accept them as fantasies expressing hope. Whereas I believe that some of my dreams contain clairvoyant and esoteric material, many do not, and for me, it is hard to tell in advance which ones are foretelling an event to come, and which ones are merely expressing a desire, or working through a fear.

Regarding my synchronicities - the ones that meet the full requisites of timing, power, and emotional recognition - I cannot deny them: not even the ones that did not open any doors, or change my life, or bring me what I thought they were promising. At the moment I experienced them, the connection was too obvious, the intersection between the Universe and my life was too clear, the inner senses of my soul had no doubt. What then? Was I being played with? Abandoned? Misled? Betrayed? Was I a victim of the Trickster?

In moments of greater drama, on an entirely different level, beings of undisputed spiritual power were let down in their hour of need by spiritual forces they seemed to be living hand-in-hand with. Jesus called out, imploringly, from the cross, "O Father, why hast thou forsaken me?" Interpreted in many different ways, often with the objective of preserving the sense of Jesus’ infallibility for the purpose of defending religious doctrine, it is nearly unavoidable, when lashed by these disheartening words, to consider the possibility that Jesus might actually not have expected to perish on the cross without God intervening on his behalf. Perhaps, suddenly, after all his suffering and pain, he awoke from hope to the feeling of being utterly alone, and about to die. (At that moment, we may hope, faith returned to him, as he gave up the Earth to return to the Beyond.) Along the same lines, Joan of Arc passed from being chosen by God, to being left to die. This 15th-Century French peasant girl heard voices speak to her from the midst of a brilliant light, and later distinguished her divine guides as the Archangel Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Listening to them, she was inspired to take command of the downtrodden French armies and lead them to beat back the English invaders, raising the siege of Orleans in 1429, and enabling the coronation of Charles VII. However, after her great triumph, her voices began to warn her of her impending capture. Joan persisted in military action, in spite of the warning, and soon fell prisoner to the enemy. Once imprisoned, her voices then promised her "deliverance", simultaneously advising her that she should "bravely maintain a good face" [6], and yet, she was not delivered - at least not in any earthly sense - and perished, burned at the stake for religious heresy (really for political reasons), on May 29, 1431. Although Jesus’ and Joan’s connection to divine power was amply manifested in their lives, and they accomplished great things in their own ways, both reached a critical moment when the power that had guided and sustained them through their lives suddenly seemed to desert them, leaving them in the hands of cruel and uncomprehending enemies. Why?

It seems that we cannot forget: we are just a part of the Universe, a part of History, a part of the world. Even Jesus and Joan had limited historical missions to perform, and when their missions were done to the extent that they were meant to be done - when the perfect fitting between these great souls and history had been made - it was time for them to depart, for other players, ideas, and forces to take the stage. The painful ways in which they departed helped to convey the message - through their terrible sacrifice - that what they had stood for was, indeed, sacred, for they showed the highest level of commitment to it, valuing their belief in God, and their vision of beauty and justice, more than their precious, vulnerable lives. In Joan’s case, she was asked to deny the reality of the voices that had guided her (and thereby deny the legitimacy of her project), but after a moment of being broken down by long imprisonment and by exhausting lines of interrogation, she reaffirmed her belief in the reality of the voices that had urged her to drive out the English invaders, which sealed her fate before the tribunal that was judging her. Deliverance did not come on the level of earthly survival - but perhaps it did come, on the fiercely high level of upholding something pure and lofty until the end, in spite of all fear and pain.

If great and powerful and spiritually-connected souls as these have gone through such moments of feeling alone and abandoned - if seemingly divine promises, suggestions, or expectations have not carried them out of savage ordeals - how should we expect manna to fall from Heaven every time we are in need?

In the case of my synchronicities that "led nowhere", I have come to understand, though not yet fully integrate into my heart, the wise saying of the ancient Greek Stoic, Epictetus, who said: "…What God wills, [a man] should will also; … what God wills not, neither should he will." [7] My will is not greater than the purpose of the Universe, nor the outcome of the whole, in which I do not understand my part. I aim to do my best, to draw up my plans, and accomplish them, but where my internal vision, will and motivation meets both the help and hindrance of outside forces, is where my true role will be defined, and my proper contribution will be crafted. Trust and acceptance are needed. When the Christian finds that not every prayer "works"; when the pagan finds that not every spell succeeds; when the seer discovers that not every prophecy or sign speaks in his language; when the Buddhist finds that more light comes from the dark not needing light, than from the light - that’s when spirituality breaks free of the shackles of "performance pressure" to become truly deep, and connected with the divine.

In the case of the synchronicities that did not ride to the rescue of my life - that did not come as harbingers of my salvation - I can now see their beauty, beyond the results which they did not bring. For they, nonetheless, showed me that I was not alone. That Spirit is there, and that there is a divine connection between each of us and the mystery of the Universe, even if we are not given what we cannot be given. "I’m here. I love you. You are beautiful and sacred." That was the gift. That was the magic, in the middle of a hard and unfulfilling life. The same with the love signs: "She is beautiful. You are connected." Connection doesn’t need physical love. Soul mates don’t need to possess or to be possessed, and it’s all right if they are only a moment. Flowers overpower the winter, yet they are only a moment. As for the riches of the Lottery: they are nothing compared to the knowledge that we are an inextricable part of something beautiful, deep, and eternal, beyond our fragile flesh - that the Universe and us are not really separate; that divine things flow into our lives and through our lives; that our intimate secrets are known so well that the vastness of Chance and Destiny, the very stars above, can sing them out loud.

When the specter of the stake was raised before her eyes, Joan of Arc chose to keep the sacred bond with her voices, over a hollow life. She chose the sacred - stripped of results - solely for the beauty that resided in it. Nothing I can think of better illustrates a true understanding of the divine.

And so I end this article, with heartfelt love for those who have read it and suffered enough in life to understand it. When "the magic leads nowhere", do not despair: it is really leading us to the deepest and most beautiful place of all, beyond the dreams we think we live for: to a place where miracles may still occur, but where life’s power and magnificence reign, regardless. Suffering and pain may persist, but they will be sweetened by insight - by the oneness that "desertion" revealed.

Whenever the magic dies, it is because of us. It is we who kill the magic with our unreasonable expectations, encircling it in a results-oriented noose, seeking to harness it without comprehending it - it is we who kill the magic by defining it according to places where it does not roam. The winged horse does not always let us ride him - but he is there - and it is still beautiful to watch him fly, even if we are standing heartbroken on the ground. We must constantly beware that our fragile hearts do not seek to kill what we cannot ride!

No, my hardship friend, the magic does not lead nowhere. It leads to the very center of our hearts, to the place where we meet God. Sometimes, the way to meet Him is down a road that leads nowhere…



[1] Jack Kornfield, After The Ecstasy, The Laundry: How The Heart Grows Wise On The Spiritual Path. P. 110-112.

[2] Kornfield, p. 122.

[3] Kornfield, p. 157.

[4] To borrow the expression used by Thomas Moore in his Re-enchantment Of Everyday Life.

[5] The Iliad, translated by W.H.D. Rouse. P. 288.

[6] Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin, translated by Jeremy Duquesnay Adams: Joan of Arc: Her Story. P. 116.

[7] From The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, translated by Hastings Crossley. CXXXVIII.


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