I was five years old in 1976 when my two-year old sister Kristin began to choke on a Life Saver candy that I gave her. Luckily our dad was with us in the kitchen at the time, and he went into life-saving hero mode. After a few terrifying moments spent not solving the problem by clapping his little Kiki on the back with his hand, he reached into her mouth with his index finger, and triggered her gag reflex. After a quick stomach convulsion followed immediately by an even quicker head dodge by my dad, my sister projectile vomited a stream of yellowish, mostly-liquid puke that splashed down a few feet away all over the light green linoleum floor. The offending yellow Life Saver was expelled along with the contents of her stomach, and the hysterical sobs that immediately followed confirmed that Kristin was breathing easy again. This harrowing experience turned me into someone with an irrational and, at times, overwhelming fear of vomiting, also known as emetophobia.
My sister’s Life Saver-choking incident led me to conflate nausea and throwing up with the risk of imminent death I think, so future bouts with vomit-inducing, contagious infections in our house became stress-filled, nerve-wracking ordeals for me. I’d have these psychosomatic-nausea-panic attacks where I’d end up sprinting to the bathroom convinced I was about to barf. I’d be down on my knees, staring into the toilet bowl with my index fingers pressed hard into my ears desperately hoping to prevent myself from hearing what I thought was about to happen. Knowing that I was abnormally troubled by the prospect of throwing up just piled embarrassment and shame on top of fear and anxiety for me. While I only threw up a few times as a child, every encounter I had with every vomit-inducing infection over the subsequent decade was one accompanied by paranoia, fear and stress. My search for solace from these ills led me to make a remarkable discovery when I was just eight years old.
It was at the end of the summer of 1979, and Kristin was sick again, this time from an infection apparently. She’d thrown up twice after dinner the day before. As a matter of habit given my infection-evading regime, I retreated to the bedroom that I shared with my older brother Mark. He wasn’t there, so I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of my bed facing a window that looked out onto the front yard. My head was positioned so I couldn’t see any part of my body when I looked straight ahead through the window.
Branches of a birch tree swayed up and down in the gentle summer breeze. With my gaze fixed and unfocused, I fell into a comfortable state of silent reverie as I thought about what was going on: I thought why did Kristin have to get sick? Why am I so afraid of throwing up? Why do people throw up? Why does it have to be this way? Why does it have to be like this? Why is it like this? Why is it the way it is? Why is what is happening, happening? What is going on? What is… is? What is… existence? What is… is? What is… existing? What is… is? What is being? What does that mean, to be? What is is? I repeated that last question silently to myself over and over again. What is is? What is is? What is is?
After about half a minute or so focused on contemplating that question something extraordinary happened. I lost my sense of self. The voice in my head went silent as I stopped thinking… completely. I forgot who I was and what was going on in my life. My ever-present frame of reference for the world vanished. With it went my sense of time and awareness of my body too. The scene in front of me remained the same, the branches of the birch tree were still rising and falling in the breeze, but the sense that I was looking at the tree from somewhere behind my eyes was missing. There was just the world and my selfless awareness of it. It was a blissful state of mind where all that was felt interconnected. Gone was the sense of being separate from my surroundings. Everything that existed was part of the same one thing. Complete. Unbound. Free. Whole. All that was, was one. And I… my sense of me… was nowhere to be found.
This detached, egoless state of consciousness didn’t last for very long—maybe five seconds at most—but it was a mind-blowing wonder to me. It made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip. I saw my legs, and my brief taste of this selfless awareness came to an abrupt end. When the spell broke, my sense of self, memories of my past, and knowledge of my present all snapped back into place in an instant. I was a stressed out eight year old emetophobe again, re-oriented once more to the story the voice in my head had been narrating for years. I had stumbled into and out of a state of self-transcendence, without recognizing it as such because I had no context to do so. Instead, my eight year old mind, so accustomed and comfortable with its own sense of self, misinterpreted the experience as some kind of self-induced, momentary spell of amnesia. This seemed unlikely to me, so I had to try to do it again. I wanted to know if forgetting myself and my worries was something I could do on demand.
I focused my attention from the start, on the final question from the first time: What is is? Just like before, after about thirty seconds of intense concentration, I lost my sense of self again, and entered that same timeless state of consciousness like before. I felt free, at peace and connected to everything. Complete and whole. Once again, the few awe-filled moments I spent temporarily unencumbered by my usual mental luggage made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip. My second visit to this ego-transcendent state was as brief as the first, but delight displaced my disbelief when the spell ended this time. Finding the blissfully discombobulating state of consciousness again, with such relative ease, convinced me that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Plus I seemed to have some grasp on how to make it happen on demand, and I was quite content to have this know-how at my disposal for future bouts with barf-inducing infections that I knew I would inevitably face.
Many years later it seems that the most remarkable aspect of my chance discovery was my monumental misunderstanding of what I had experienced. At eight years old, I was already married to the idea that my self was the essential part of me that was located somewhere inside of my skull behind my eyes. I saw my “self” or “I” if you prefer, as the general manager of my consciousness, the controller of the voluntary actions of my body, the thinker of my thoughts, the decider of my decisions, the chooser of my choices and the imaginer of my imaginings. “I” was the subject of every experience I experienced, and the source or the author of the ever-present voice in my head. As an altar-boy-to-be who was raised by Roman Catholic parents, I referred to this essential part of me, this nucleus of control that I believed was guiding my consciousness, as my spirit or my soul. This was the supposedly free-willing, supposedly eternal part of me, that my mother told me would survive the death of my body, and continue to have experiences of a kind that were unimaginable to me while I was still alive. I was so attached to this view of myself as the central controlling authority in my life that I mistook my relief from emetophobic distress as a brief escape from reality versus what I view it as, almost forty years later. Now, it seems apparent to me, that my spontaneous, impromptu meditation provided me with a momentary glimpse of an incredible truth about the human experience that I wasn’t able to comprehend at eight years old:
As I see it, there is no essential “self” there’s no central “I” or “me” anywhere inside or outside of my body that controls it or the thoughts, intentions and feelings that arise within my consciousness. The voice in my head that I previously self-identified with and saw as the genuine controller of every decision I made, isn’t in control of anything. Just because knowledge of what I’m about to do arrives within my field of consciousness before anyone else’s, doesn’t mean that I consciously decide the course of history. Thinking that any single individual possesses that power stems from a confused and necessarily egotistical view of personhood. Instead, I believe that we are miraculous, meaning-making, storytelling animals that are playing our roles in the unfolding of the cosmos, we’re not authoring them. No one consciously controls the events occurring in their brain that they are unaware of and that lead to every single thought that pops into their consciousness.