by John C. Robinson
This is a story of metanoia, of a profound shift of mind, heart and soul long overdue in my life, and of the deep psychological, spiritual and mystical work Spirit asks us to do in the New Aging.
In 2000, I was a clinical psychologist in a busy private practice in Sacramento, CA. At the end of a particularly long workday, I felt my heart rhythm shift into a disturbing fibrillation and went immediately to the ER. Atrial fibrillation was diagnosed and cardioversion was performed—jolting the heart with an electric current to reset its rhythm. All was well, I thought. But it wasn’t.
In the weeks that followed, I began to experience strange and distracting sensations in my chest—numbness, tingling, tearing. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt crazy. When my family doctor ruled out physical causes, I went into therapy. One day I told my therapist that I felt like I had just come out of open-heart surgery. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had. Only the surgery had taken place four decades earlier and a significant part of that memory was buried until that moment.
At the age of fourteen, I underwent cardiac surgery for repair of an atrial-septal defect—a congenital “hole in the heart.” That I remembered. What I didn’t remember until that moment in therapy was that I had awakened during that surgery. It’s called intra-operative awareness and occurs when anesthesia levels fall too low to maintain unconsciousness but paralyzing neuromuscular blocking agents prevent the patient from communicating his rapidly mounting horror. I could feel hands working inside my heart. Freezing cold, eyes taped shut, body immobilized; it felt like a living autopsy. The good news was that my adolescent psyche repressed the whole experience saving me from a catastrophic breakdown; the bad news was that the trauma continued ticking like a time bomb in the darkness of my soul until the defibrillating shock triggered body memories that would no longer stay repressed. This delayed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder shattered my life.
After struggling for fourteen months to keep my practice together, I finally had to admit I was done. I couldn’t hold my clients’ pain anymore. I closed my office the week of 9/11, watched the twin towers crumble on television as I watched my own life implode, and lost everything that professionally defined me—clients, identity, purpose, colleagues and income. The kids were grown, my work was gone, who was I now?
Months of depression, nightmares, and inconsolable grief followed. With little left to hang onto, I enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at the University of Creation Spirituality to study interfaith spirituality with theologian Matthew Fox. It was a profound and life-changing experience. Through classes, papers, and “Art-as-Mediation” experiences, I came to see that my original surgery had unconsciously represented a shamanic-like adolescent initiation, an opening of my mystical heart center at the deepest levels. But it was still unfinished.
I realized that I needed to complete this sacred initiation. Something new waited to be born, something deeply mystical, and now was the time. Sensing the need for a ceremonial context for welcoming this new self, I enrolled in the Chaplaincy Institute, a wonderful interfaith seminary and community in Oakland, and was eventually ordained with the ministerial call to write about my mystical unfolding. Later I recalled a mythic tale from Muhammad’s childhood that put this final initiation into focus. Muhammad remembered being visited by two men dressed in brilliant white robes carrying a golden basin full of snow. They split open his body, took his heart, split it apart, removed a black clot, and then washed his heart and body with the sacred snow until they were pure. This was my story, too. The metanoia associated with my PTSD started to accelerate.
But what do you do when your identity and career disappear? Despite my new degree and credentials, I was bereft. I had no job and lacked the emotional strength to become a chaplain, and it was too much like being a therapist anyway. Holding this tension of opposites—fullness of heart, emptiness of purpose—my muse began speaking to me like Athena spoke to Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War. I suddenly saw that my personal deconstruction was in fact a natural part of humankind’s new aging experience. With retirement and the relentlessly progressive changes attending the aging process, our lives empty. We steadily surrender identity, profession, appearance, health, strength, family, and social roles. It wasn’t just me—but where would this process lead, I wondered?
Trying to make sense of my own experience and understand its connection to aging, I began writing. First out was The Three Secrets of Aging that describes the forces of Initiation, Transformation and Revelation that invite each of us to undergo our own metanoia. A PTSD reawakening event began my initiation. Watching my consciousness empty of identity, community, and purpose then uncovered the always-present mystical Self, which was honored in my ordination. My awakening perception then, finally, revealed the everyday world to be sacred, literally. I was now a full-fledged mystic and, true to my ministerial call, kept on writing. In rapid succession I published Bedtime Stories for Elders: What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us About the New Aging; What Aging Men Want: The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging; and the autobiographical novel, Breakthrough. But there was still something missing.
Along with two other couples, my wife and I moved to an island in the Puget Sound of Washington State for a new beginning. I wanted to do something for our deeply suffering world, but what? I began presenting in aging conferences, workshops, webinars, and classes to invite others into this same metanoia. It was a good beginning. Joining conscious-aging organizations, I was introduced to a variety of activism opportunities but I resisted joining them. It felt like I was reverting to my previous workaholic way of life. But what was the alternative?
The answer came one day as I stumbled into a profound moment of unity consciousness in which I knew reality to be a single living being, within which I felt fully immersed in oneness. I saw that everything I touch touches the whole; moving my hands and fingers moves the whole because I am part of the whole. I affect the oneness of being not just through goal-oriented action but by how I am as part of this being. I now knew that my gifts, however minimal by society’s standards, are infinitely valuable, and that in this unity, my love affects all.
Reflecting on this strange and powerful journey into mystical activism, I realized that not all paths are the same and that ongoing discernment had been important to me in finding my way. Specifically, I realized that to do authentically good work, I needed to honor certain fundamental personal truths: who I really am; what my soul needs from my ego; where I fit on the introversion-extraversion continuum; and how I am affected by the changing energies of age and the different ways men and women use their masculine and feminine potentials over their lifetimes. Wishing to share this realization, I conceived a five-factor model for discerning a person’s best fit in the broad world of Sacred Activism. I describe this discernment model, and my evolving mystical aging, in my most recent book, The Divine Human.
How does this discernment model apply to me? Growing up in a narcissistic, ambition-oriented family, I often betrayed myself, my ego demanding high levels of extroverted performance when my mystical soul longed for introversion, mystery, and quiet. With the reduced pressures of retirement and the freedom of age, soul now guides ego, which in turn supports who I really am and my deepest work. Soul has also become a distinctly feminine experience for me, a longing to open my wounded heart to the world and, like Odysseus, come home from the war to love the ones I’m with. In sum, I learned that the paths through Sacred Activism are as diverse as they are profound, that one size does not fit all, and that all our gifts are needed.
Major religions prophesize the coming of a world savior and the spiritual awakening of humanity. What they did not anticipate in their prophecies is that the savior is you and me, and that we are all called to become Divine Humans through the transformational power of the New Aging. I believe humanity’s spiritual evolution is still unfinished and that conscious, mystically-focused aging can be a powerful stimulus for our collective development. We are beginning to do things in aging that previous generations never imagined, going beyond the limitations of mind to change the very course of human evolution. Discern your own path, follow your soul, and join the metanoia of life on Earth.
John Robinson is a psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of aging, and a frequent contributor to Conscious Aging conferences, magazines, and websites. An aging Boomer, John lives with his wife on an island in the Puget Sound of Washington State, and is the happy grandparent to a gaggle of grandchildren now numbering seven! You can learn more about John’s work at www.johnrobinson.org.