Have you ever been really, really, REALLY unhappy for a REALLY long period of time? One of those stretches in life where you feel like nothing’s going right, nobody loves you, and the future looks like a whole lot of storm clouds and very few rainbows?
In the South, they’d say, “By god, I’m so down I’d have to look up to see a snake’s belly.”
The Hanged Man shows someone who’s been through that experience. He’s suffered so deeply that he’s barely survived and now he’s about to travel down a road of spiritual rebirth. In the meantime, he’s just hanging there in space and time trying to figure out what it all meant and why it happened.
Willam James, the founder of American Pragmatism, wrote a lot about what The Hanged Man goes through in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Penguin American Library) He called it a conversion experience. In simple terms, that just means that a miserable, unhappy, deeply depressed, highly dysfunctional human being is somehow converted into a person who is happy, joyous and free.
The most fascinating examples of it are when the conversions appear to happen very rapidly. A person is full of despair and totally heart sick on Tuesday, but they wake up on Wednesday full of joy and love.
Shazam! Brand new person!
The classic example of that, of course, is Ebeneezer Scrooge. I’ve often wondered if Dickens hadn’t read Varieties of Religious Experience. “Hmmm . . . miserable son-of-a-bitch turns into a happy, compassionate person over-night . . . what an interesting plot . . .”
We can find modern day examples of that experience in a couple of the New Thought leaders: Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie. Tolle was, by his own account, an overly sensitive, deeply depressed, frequently suicidal person. Katie was an alcoholic drug addict who found herself locked in the attic of a woman’s rehab facility because the other women in the house were afraid of her. In both cases, they suddenly, “woke up,” one day, finally understanding what life is all about and totally joy-full.
Shazam And A Half!!!!
Of course, the thing they don’t much talk about is that it wasn’t an overnight miracle. In fact, both of them had been stewing in their own misery for years and years and years before something popped, before that shift in consciousness occurred. The shift in consciousness took on the qualities of a, “miracle,” simply because the shift appeared to happen so rapidly, but it had been processing in their subconscious minds for a very long time.
Now, I’m not meaning to denigrate either of them or diminish the help that they’ve provided to other people. I’m actually a huge fan of Eckhart Tolle, but the fact remains that both he and Katie have done a very good job of marketing their, “miracles,” to other people. Tolle is currently offering a virtual spiritual retreat for ONLY $997.00 (that’s a $300 discount by the way, and DON’T WORRY, you can put it on your Visa, Mastercard, or American Express.) Katie offers a 9 day workshop for ONLY $3,500 dollars or, alternatively, you can stay at her, “Turn Around House,” for 28 days at ONLY $20,000.
There’s another saying in the South, which is, “Never trust a fat preacher.” Since I’ve gotten old and fat, I’m going to modify that to, “Never trust a preacher who wears a Rolex.”
In other words, if someone is selling you spirituality, if they’ve decided that you can put a price on miracles – and it’s exactly $997.00 – it’s appropriate to approach with caution.
Tolle has a deep background in philosophy and psychology and he IS a very profound thinker. Katie, not so much. In both cases, though, they aren’t just selling their philosophies or their ideas – they’re selling their miracles. They’re saying, “HEY! I was a miserable, unhappy bastard and I got Shazammed. If you sit real close to me, it might happen to you, too.” And there’s a definite messianic flavor to their gatherings and their followers.
The unfortunate thing, though, is that you can’t borrow someone else’s miracle. You can’t even buy it. Not even for $20,000. You kind of have to make your own.
Another person who had what appeared to be a, “rapid,” conversion experience was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. After decades of hopeless alcoholism, dozens of jobs lost, and hundreds of relationships destroyed, he had a sudden spiritual revelation while lying in a hospital bed waiting to die. In a phrase, “he got struck sober,” and he never had another drink.
Wilson realized that by far and away, most people will never have a sudden, dramatic conversion experience like he had. Using Varieties of Religious Experience as a sort of a manual, though, he set out to create a method to consciously create slow, gradual conversion experiences in other alcoholics. The result of that effort was the now famous 12 Step Program.
And the price of it is . . . nothing. It’s absolutely free. Well, they do appreciate it if you drop a dollar in the basket when they pass it, but you don’t have to.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and adopt the 12 Step Program for their lives, and neither would Bill Wilson. In fact, he designed it specifically for people who were serious alcoholics, and by serious he meant, “almost dead.”
Where I think we can get some helpful insight, though, is that Wilson designed a program for spiritual change that involves a sort of a miracle in slow motion. He was wise enough to realize that his, “sudden,” conversion was the result of many years of deep suffering and affliction. He tried to set up a program that would shorten that period of suffering, but he never denied that the suffering was a necessary part of the whole package for alcoholics.
And isn’t that a drag?
I would LOVE to get Shazammed. I’d love it if an angel would suddenly appear to me at night and say, “Danny, boy, you’re cured.” Or maybe Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, could whack me with her wand and tell me to just click my goddamned heels together.
I mean, damn, why can’t I have one of those really FAST miracles?
Because – for most people – they never happen. Most of us have to take the slow, sometimes intensely painful, sometimes tedious – occasionally joyous – route of creating our own miracles. We have to take the time to sit down with our therapists and do our own emotional work, we have to actually sit our butts down on the meditation pillows and do our own spiritual work. We have to create the miracle that is us.
In a very real sense, we have to design our own programs. Maybe they’ll involve 12 Steps. Maybe they’ll involve 36 Steps. Or 210 Steps. But they’ll never involve 1 Step. And they sure as hell shouldn’t involve $20,000.
The bad news is that miracles can take a lot of work. You can’t catch one by sitting next to someone else who had one. The good news is that they’re free.
Well . . . maybe a dollar.
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