When exploring the limits of our human potential, we can so easily confuse a breakthrough with a breakdown. The difference lies in how we respond to critical life-junctures. I recently recovered an old journal where I wrote about such an occasion in my life. Accident or deeper design? Breakdown or breakthrough? You be the judge.
No matter how far I look up or down the beach, I can see only four people walking or gazing into the golden pink of this ending day. Millions of people behind us, and yet, only the four of us taking sanctuary here at this edge of the world. Santa Monica Beach, the western edge of Los Angeles, the “City of Angels,” at Evening Tide. Mesmerized, I watch the sun lower itself into the sea like a weary worker settling into his favorite chair at the end of a day’s toils, its slowly fading radiance illuminating wispy clouds transformed into diaphanous bodies and wings.
With such angelic splendors above, the sea stretches below, promising in its unfathomable depths a complete cleansing of my diverse torments. Together, sea, sky and sand combine to fashion a sanctuary infused with powers of mythic proportions. There’s no small touch of irony here, too. The roiling waves of the Pacific frighten most people. For me only the wave-hands of the sea are powerful enough to massage away the kinks of my soul.
Ahhh. Mara. Mara Pacifica, Sea-Goddess of Peace. For me the sea-masseuse, the ultimate massage therapist. What an office! She certainly has Her own technique. She doesn’t lay her hands on me. No–I must lay me in them, totally, utterly, and with no ordinary surrender. This one demands that I dance with inner and outer elements of timing and balance, strength and gravity, flow and surge. And then there’s undertow; that most well known threat from the play of land and sea. It’s the ocean’s version of vertigo, compelling in its pull from under where cliffs on mountain sides beckon with a pulling-over. But it’s not as if the ocean is without its own cliffs, which demand skillfully, controlled falling, too.
So irresistible in the pinkish splendor of a smog-tinged sunset reflecting off the wet iridescence of her waves, Mara calls me like a Siren. I know well how She works. To get the best treatment I have to wade out to where Her body envelops me over my head and tread steadily within Her until She swells to just the right peak. I must then turn, and with practiced timing and strength, swim right with Her urgency to glide down Her silky power just ahead of its curling, crushing, roiling frenzy. Then, just before She is spent, I come into the foamy end-spume of that wave-journey where lie the gentle urgings of Her own massive stirrings, now released into soothing caresses of my puny form.
Enough power remains on some days to throw me around, more or less violently, in a kind of vigorous Swedish rubdown. Other times, most times, She plays with me more like the tossing and wrestling of a loving father with child. But always there is the healing, relieving knowing at this point that it is over as she delivers me upon the shore. I can choose at this point to continue to lie in Her spent spume where Her coming and going only splash harmlessly, sandily, deliciously salty. But that’s never for me. Our strugglings together always leave me excitedly finished, and I run, if not back out to Her for another round, then with a renewed vigor back into the city, the voices of turmoil quiet for awhile. Hope once again pumps excitedly through my muscles and refreshes my mind as I seek to find some way to express this reborn me in that denser realm of the land and the city’s collective sea of mind.
That’s how it was for a long time. Then one evening, I went to Her complacent, and maybe a little arrogant. I could see the clouds coming and feel in the growing chilly breeze that Sky was having His own way upon Her that evening. Mara’s aggravation showed in Her treatment of the beach. The fingers of Her wave-hands were coming straight down in forceful proddings of that sandy flesh, the kind that reshape the shoreline for several days into steep slopings downward into Her domains. I was seeing only from the corner of my awareness, though. I wasn’t paying Her proper attention, and I took my machismo intensity of that evening into Her.
Already an ill-omened Friday the 13th, Mara’s swells felt colder than usual. But I ignored that discomforting warning, too. After struggling around a short while, trying to match Her mood and realizing we’d not be able to achieve simpatico this time, I prepared to ride one of Her cresting, long traveled stirrings back to ground. I knew something was wrong when at the height of Her urge, I looked down a near vertical wall of water. More than vertical— actually, it was like being poised atop a yogini’s sucked-in abdomen. That wall of water was concave as it reared up, pulling the floor of the beachhead below into raw, sandy exposure, preparing to pile drive me into bloody, bony smithereens.
How’d I get here? How could I be so careless after so much time with Mara and Her moods? Obviously, something else was happening. Something within me. Mara had Sky moving Her out of sorts. What was moving me? Because, hell, I knew how to abort at this point by bringing my feet down and forward while paddling furiously to get back into the body of the wave where I could ride its cushioning mass protectively down into the crushing maelstrom to follow. But no. Headlong I continued. Two ardent strokes of my arms and then my right arm thrust forward to propel me as if I could speed my body suspended across the concave surface to safety where the curl was only beginning to form. My strength only served to pull me over the top of the wave, just ahead of the weight of the water. For a moment there was a strange feeling of something absent, a being poised in non-space and no-time. Almost completely free of the water, falling not in the embrace of Mara’s substance, but alone, I fell out of touch with Her, ahead of Her, with a kind of fatalistic exuberance as my own strength combined with Hers into a plunge that would wake me up, transform my life, and nearly ruin me.
A brief timelessness later my head smashed into the sand, slamming the breath out of me and shattering the darkness of my closed eyes with an explosion of white-light pain. I immediately surrendered into Mara’s turbulent writhings as Her wall of water crashed upon me, roiling me and boiling me, throwing me over and over and over. With each roll I instinctively softened, letting the water have its way with my body. It kept me deep, and I began to feel a growing panic wondering how long before I could drive my feet downward to the bottom to rocket me up for a desperate gulp of air. Mara returned to our ritual about this time, and soon rolled me to my feet, the water just below my neck, and delivered me back to shore. The pain in my left clavicle began to grow. Fearing it broken and soon to explode again as the shock of my session with Mara wore off, I used the momentum of Her fading push towards shore to help me walk to my towel, bend gingerly to pick it up, and make my way to the van. Fearful of what we had done together this time, I drove timidly home, the voices of turmoil once again gnashing away—this time riled by no abstract issues of mind, but by very physical cries of uncertain damage to my physical ground.
Whatever was broken physically, emotionally I felt shattered by the end of my innocent play with Mara. Now psychological crosscurrents and undertow began to pull me under. Feeling abandoned by Her, a galling embarrassment also called me to responsibility for the arrogance I brought to this day’s play. Mine had been a very secretive affair with Mara. Outwardly I looked very much the heroic male, taking on Mara’s stirrings each and every day no matter how cold or how rough the sea. Only I knew how I hid in her embrace; how her physical dangers helped me dissociate from my own inner struggles. I’d always known the stakes. I knew what I sought from Mara day in and day out. My arrogance had finally cost me the omnipotence an innocent seeks from false union with a goddess.
Turned out it was my neck, not my collarbone. And how appropriate, the connecting link between those ten pounds of muddled mass and a body overflowing with muscular exuberance. It’s a risky business seeking succor from a Goddess, and Goddess healings have their own time and go their own ways. Mine required a God of Medicine, a Neurosurgeon, to complete my repair. And like Mara, His treatment plan went beyond the physical and demanded my psyche step in and do its share.
After an impeccable fusion of bone taken from my hip and inserted between my sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae, He came in to check on me the morning after surgery. Big as a god, He loomed over my bed, His thick jet-black hair crowning a head set with a face cut with indomitable confidence. So strong and perfectly scaled, His sheer physicality withered any attempt to escape His commanding presence. He had the voice of authority to match, and He used it on me with full effect. Looking down from on high as I lay there braced not to move while His artistry in spinal sculpting set, He said, voice oozing the righteous sarcasm only a god can use to humiliate one to become greater, “What a waste. Every advantage: health, education, intelligence, love and look what you’ve been doing with it. Let me tell you young man what it’s all about. Service. Service. And don’t forget it. Don’t waste this. Complete your healing, then get out of here and serve.” With that, He turned and walked out.
He was right of course. Oh, I still have my litany of justifications, but they wither before His specter over my bed. Indulgence can take on many forms and be insidiously hard to see, but between them, my Healers have begun to heal my bodymind and provide me new opportunity to learn to contain my youthful avoidance and wildness. Mara frightened me that evening, and I know it will take a long time before I approach Her again. Surely His strike that morning with a lightening bolt charged with responsibility and integrity will take its own time to unfold into a greater Wholeness.
Now, here it is, twenty seven years later, and I find my place and peace land-bound in the Rockies, no longer adrift when upon the land, no longer seeking succor within the margins along the edges of the world. Oh, I still surf, but now I surf the shorelines of the body-mind. I “dry-land” swim as the Chinese characterize T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but that’s only the shoreline of a larger landscape I serve. Yes, serve. For I retain my lessons learned that evening… and that morning, too, so many years ago.