Turning Existential Crisis Into Spiritual Awakening
I was raised a pretty devout Christian. My family went to church, we read our bibles, we participated in extra-church functions. You get the picture. As an evangelical, the concept of death and afterlife are pretty set in stone with very little wiggle room. You accept Jesus as your lord and savior, then you go to Heaven. Don't, and you suffer eternally in Hell. Simple, easy, terrifying. Fire and brimstone is the only alternative. For the longest time, I was happy with my rock solid foundation of my own salvation in death and never had to think too much else about it. Things were perfectly set up for me already. Fast forward to college, and I begin taking courses on religious anthropology and find out things are not really what I first thought they were. Namely, the story of the virgin birth, death and resurrection, and practicing of specific miracles was an extremely common trope in many other religions. Some of them having existed hundreds or thousands of years before early Christianity.
I had started to concede a few of my previous beliefs but was holding on to many of the fundamentals. I began rationalizing my beliefs, comfortably coming up with apologies for any confusion that I might have, and slowly leaving behind some of the inherent flaws that I found okay with not rationalizing. Over months and years, I was finding myself wanting to research more and more of my faith. And why shouldn't I? If my faith was correct, investigating it thoroughly should only net me positive results and affirm my beliefs, right? Nothing could shake my still rock steady foundation. Unfortunately, that's not exactly how the story unfolded.
It was my research into the "end times" and the rapture that really piqued my interests. Mostly because the thought of the apocalypse was terrifying to me and I didn't want to be left behind. Nor did I want my friends or family to go through that horrible tribulation. Interestingly enough, most of the common themes popping up around the book of Revelations, and things like the mark of the beast and the Anti-Christ, were nothing at all like I thought I would discover. The book of Revelations was not at all a fever dream prophesy of the coming apocalypse. It was an allegorical political letter written by a banished priest warning Christians of the reign of the murderous Caesar Emperor Nero. The mark of the beast, "the mark of a man," was a Hebrew code known as Gematria that, when properly deciphered, spelled out the Emperors name. The "end times" weren't coming soon at all. They had already happened to Christians over 1,500 years ago! Although it did bring me some relief, the radical change from a long time belief in the second coming was the jackhammer that cracked the foundation for the first time.
Fast forward again, and we come to the most exciting time of my life. Married and with a baby on the way. My life is moving to fulfillment like any other man believes it should. The baby, still just an abstract thing, barely tangible at the time. Until, however, the gender reveal, which I was incredibly nervous about. My family had all predicted that I would have a boy, and I began to believe them. I just knew it would be a boy. My wife and I popped the last mystery balloon in a line, and... pink. I was shocked, but happy. I was definitely overwhelmed with the bombshell of finding out I was going to have a baby girl. To be honest, I wasn't even upset. I was, unfortunately, extremely unprepared mentally for the radical shift from thinking only about how I was going to raise a boy, to now having to think about a girl. School, first dates, prom, her going away to college, being safe out in the world, making sure she knows how to defend herself. Would I be a good dad? Would she hate me? What am I going to teach her? What if she asks me what happens when we die? So on and so on. To be honest, I didn't even ask myself that question for a long time after beginning my deconstruction. Now it was real. Now I was bringing a human life into this world and was responsible for its life and existence and had to make sure I could protect it and teach it. She would also have to go through the sometimes horrible process of human existence. The very fact she was alive also meant that she would inevitably have to die. I was destroyed. The ugly reality of human experience washed over me, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have an answer. The divine safety net I had my entire life knowing I was in God's hands was gone, and with it, my salvation and protection. The foundation was in ruins.
For the next several months, I would experience the darkest personal times of my life. The almost immediate emotional trauma of being faced with my own mortality and my waning faith in salvation or a promise of eternal life in heaven destroyed my mental health. I was ridden with anxiety and uncertainty. Panic attacks felt like heart attacks, and the idea of having a heart attack and dying was the worst possible thing I could imagine at the time. I constantly felt like I was about to die and I would never even see my daughter. I prayed with every ounce of faith I had left to let me survive long enough to see my baby and give me time to come up with answers for where I was going when my time came. All I could do was research death while alternating between the WebMD tab to see what disease or cancer was going to kill me at any moment. I became hyper conscious of my body and every heart palpitation, mysterious pain in my body, or some general discomfort left me sweating on the floor with my fingers ready to call an ambulance. It was a vicious cycle. My panic attacks kept me from sleeping, my lack of sleep gave me headaches and exhaustion, the resulting miserable feelings gave me anxiety, my anxiety gave me heart palpitation, my heart palpitations gave me panic attacks, and it just didn't end. It was the longest few months I had ever endured. Something had to give before I really did give myself a heart attack.
My poor wife, God bless her, tried so hard to be my rock, though I barely spoke to her about what I was really going through. She saw my panic attacks and my all consuming hypochondria. She would talk me down from calling 911 and would keep reminding me to breathe while I was going through it. I told her it was probably just because the baby was now real to me, but nothing much more. I really did think at the time I was dying so there wasn't much else to explain. I was emotionally distant from her during her crucial last trimester and I felt terrible. I could tell she felt like she was going through this by herself and was getting increasingly exhausted from my wolf cries. I just couldn't help it and it took all the distraction I could find to not let one tiny thing spiral me out of control. My wife eventually came to me with some research she had done about therapists and counselors who dealt with anxiety disorders and encouraged me to do some more research on my own. Though I never went to see a therapist, the resulting research led me to a path to begin healing my shattered mental health.
Hitting a spiritual rock bottom felt worse than any worldly lows in my life. At least through some sort of faith you can believe you will get through anything. But losing your religion, you feel that not only is no one there to help you, you don't even have the ability to pray your way out of things or see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's just dark and full of pain. I took my wife's advice and looked into forms of therapy and through it I discovered meditation. First it was forms of mindfulness meditation or specifically for anxiety, then it went to more Eastern Buddhist and Yogic practices. This was all new to me. Being a now ex-evangelical, I was taught to regard any and all other religions as Satanic. Things like meditation, incense burning, chanting or anything not specifically praying to God himself was evil. But then again, so was playing D&D, watching Harry Potter, listening to rock music, and any number of things. Exploring other religions or spiritual practices was completely new to me, but I found that I was always secretly interested in Eastern philosophies and loved Japanese traditions. Maybe just some mindfulness meditation would be enough to test the waters. I followed some video tutorials and downloaded a few audio guides that taught you the basics of posture, focusing on the breath, and calming yourself to explore what you are feeling. I started looking up nightly stretching routines that included some meditation with it as a way of releasing tension in my body and resting my mind before sleep. I was getting a taste of what a new spiritual enlightenment was about and couldn't help but get a craving for more.
Each day was a different study or guide of meditation and I would always do a mindful body stretch routine for about 15 minutes before sleeping. This became a much better coping mechanism than spending sleepless nights playing video games to distract myself. I forced myself to go to sleep at a decent time and looked up tips on how to fall asleep faster including turning your phone off earlier. It's amazing how much better you feel just getting a good nights sleep. I focused on dieting and buying healthier foods, drinking smoothies and adding some vitamins into my regiment. I stopped eating a few hours before bed and eventually found a fasting routine. I did anything I could to make myself feel healthier and calm my mind. Believing I was being healthier was already starting to make my mind feel like I was going to get through this, and through exploring my mind during meditation I was able to realize why I was so scared and that my fears led to dead ends. I was able to subdue those fears instead of allowing my imagination to take the wheel. Looking a little further into Eastern meditation, I found chants that were meant to heal you and I would sing them to myself when I practiced. It felt good, so I continued to explore. I looked into Yoga and found Raja Yoga and Pranayama breathing and Kundalini meditation. I couldn't get enough. I bought books on metaphysics and started reading the Bible again with a scholarly eye and found that the allegory was so much more beautiful than the fundamentalist views. I compiled books of many sacred texts from Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and even occult studies and tried to understand what other cultures believed and where the origins of religion came from.
Believe it or not, so many religions are amazingly similar and have so many of the same important messages brought to us by different enlightened beings with slight variation. But what did I discover about death? Honestly, nothing that satisfied my need to know, but after hundreds of hours of listening to Alan Watts lectures and watching documentaries on Ram Dass and their talks on death, I began to realize one important idea: it doesn't really matter. That was the real start of my climb to true enlightenment. I don't need to worry about it. At best, there is some sort of afterlife I will discover, and at worst, I just go to sleep. So many near death experiences I researched talked about the same thing that comforted me. They all had an overwhelming feeling of love, and that was enough for me. If we focus on the fear and uncertainty, we miss what is right in front of us. All we have is this present moment and the people we love. Being distracted by things you cannot control or fearing the worst of a scenario you don't have answers to just takes away the time you could be spending with the people you care about and the world you want to create for the time you have available.
Enlightenment for me was coming out of that darkness and depression with the realization that I had no idea what the rest of the world was about but being excited to begin a new chapter of my life learning what the mysteries of the universe held. It was letting my old self who was ignorant and blind die like he was so scared to do, and emerging from the husk of my ego into an enlightened body that searched for truth and freedom outside the fundament of abstraction. The world was not as evil anymore as I thought. In fact it was spectacular and beautiful. The fear of learning new things I once saw as sinful was gone and the rejuvenation of discovery took over.
If I could leave you with one last thought it would be this: the world is nothing at all like we have been taught. The blinders our society puts on us as well as the indoctrination of political ideologies and religious dogmas are so very strong. It would be hard for anyone to break free. There is no "One Truth." There is only the combined knowledge of the world that you must sift through as a spiritually motivated being to discover how all the mysteries and magic connect. But we must be comfortable knowing we will never have all the answers. And as terrifying or beautiful as that may be, peace lies in living every moment like today can be your last, but loving like it will never end. Losing religion and finding spirituality may be one of the hardest things you will go through, but once the ego has died and the true self is found, a world of love, magic, happiness, wonder and fulfillment is waiting for you.