I felt the impact before I knew what was happening. A blow to the side of my head sent me staggering sideways. The man must have been standing behind me and to my left. Before I felt the pain, my knees began to buckle. I grasped onto a table in an attempt to stay up. Blackness started seeping into my vision from all sides. I looked up; the door was open and only a few feet away. Daylight was pouring down a cement staircase into the entry; I remembered thinking it looked like the gates of Heaven. I was so close to escaping. Then everything went black.
At the righteous age of 16, I had made India my home for the next year. I arrived as an exchange student, expecting a cultural experience. Four months later, my trip had become a search for the meaning of life and death.
Soon after my arrival, there had been a terrorist attack (Read more here). I helplessly watched as eight people were murdered and dozens were severely injured. In the aftermath, The United Nations, my exchange program, my family, and everyone else I knew begged for me to come back to the states for my own safety, but I couldn’t. Something had changed in me; I needed to know what it was before I could return home.
I left the program, I left my school, I cut all ties to the friends I had made, and took off on my own across India like a homeless ghost. Never had the mechanics of life and death been so abrasive to me. I had never believed in a God, Soul, or an afterlife, but now I craved something supernatural. Either my existential wanderings would come to some Holy conclusion, or I would seek the emptiness of death; either way, I was determined to end this pain. A word of warning — when living with such an ultimatum life is dangerous.
I set off on my journey into the unknown. After traveling solo for a month, the isolation began to only feed into my death wish. I sought out companionship to ease the pain. Using my exchange program directory, I contacted an acquaintance, a seventeen-year-old German student who invited me to visit. He lived a day’s trip away, and with no better place to be, I caught a train and arrived early the next morning. He gathered all the local exchange residents at an underground dive bar. It was only 9am—a potential warning sign. In my excitement to speak English I overlooked it.
The social scene quickly disintegrated as my new acquaintances ordered one pitcher of beer after another. I soberly played pool in the corner; getting belligerent was not what I needed at the moment. The German who had organized the whole drunken frenzy had brought his blonde American girlfriend. She hadn’t spoken a word all morning except for a few childish whispers with the German. After another pitcher, he began to publicly make out with her. Some background information on India–public displays of affection are not only extremely offensive, but also illegal. The barkeep, a short and muscular man, approached the boy and his girlfriend. With clear tension in his voice he asked them to stop. The boy shrugged his shoulders, like some high school cliché, then stood up and walked, with his girlfriend in tow, directly into the women’s restroom. Some more background information on India–to walk into a women’s restroom in India crosses so many cultural gender taboos, it’s equivalent to spitting in someone’s face–more particularly, in the face of an already fuming bar tender.
I watched as the furious barkeep flexed his fists. He stormed into a back room. He returned with a crew of taller, more menacing-looking men. They waited in silence until the boy showed his face again. “GET OUT!” the barkeep shouted. I was shocked, but it was nothing in comparison to what happened next. “F*CK YOU!” The boy shouted back. Then to my even further dismay, all of the exchange students joined in “Yeah, Go F*ck Yourself!!” These kids were seriously missing the point of cultural emersion. (Later, this same group of exchange students ended up in court for desecration of the Indian flag; they had signed their names all over it for a keepsake.)
Like a naïve cartoon character, I stepped in. “Now, now, everyone, let’s calm down.” Everyone continued yelling. I continued trying to pacify the situation and herd the exchange students out the door. “Let’s go, it’s not worth it,” I coaxed. Every student was almost out the door, except my acquaintance, the instigator, with myself behind him. The German had one foot out the entry when he grabbed the waiter closest to him and threw him into a table. Then the boy leapt out of the doorway, like an evil peter pan, and ran. He had left me alone, with five full-grown men behind me. The first swing was to the side of my head, and everything went black.
When the light came back I was surprised to see I was still standing, but I couldn’t move my arms. Struggling, I felt two men behind me, bracing my arms back. Three of the men were now standing in front of me. They did not look happy. The first punch hit my ribs, knocking the wind out of me. The second hit my stomach; nausea and pain surged through my body. I was dizzy, disoriented. I frantically tried to pull my arms free; they didn’t budge. The next hit was straight into my left eye; my head swung back. When my vision straightened again, I was met with another blow in the face. Then everything slowed down; I felt like the room had been submersed in molasses. My mind teetered as it made sense of my situation; they could beat me to death; I might die.
I considered it— forfeiting, surrendering to death. It was in the confronting clarity of this moment I was faced with the conscious choice that had been unconsciously following me for months. After the terrorist attack I had been submerged in survivors guilt. Having lived a privileged life on a small, safe island, India was a revelation. The intense poverty, illness and incredible contrast of a spiritual homeland and unsettling death, had been haunting my dreams and gnawing at my psyche. Where was the meaning of life or God when the streets were filled with scattered bodies? I was weighted down with the decision and integration of how to live in a world suffocating with so much pain. Where was my will to live?
This whole time I had not fought back. The impulses of my nervous system seemed to be skewed. I didn’t know if I should resist or submit. I still didn’t know what I wanted more, life or death? If life was purposeless, why does any of it matter? Why prolong it? Another swing hit my side; I sheepishly looked around the room.
The dirty cement walls, spilt beer, and hanging lamps glowing low–how strange this bar was the last place I might see. This place was my gateway, to either a homecoming in the afterlife or a deep dark sleep in which I never awoke. I looked into the eyes of the men in front of me. All I saw was pure rage. They were so angry, so misunderstood. I was so misunderstood. They didn’t even know me, yet I could feel the hatred pulsing in their faces. So bizarre, this not-seeing-one-another could end in my death. Had they always been this angry? I imagined them as children, hearts-open, pure and playful. The next fist landed in the center of my chest. I was entering an altered state of pain and passivity. Now, on the brink of non-existence, I could see deeper. No, there was not only anger looking out at me, there was something else. Behind their eyes the layers peeled back; at first sorrow, then fear, then loneliness, and then unknown.
The next thought hit like an electric shock down my now-feeble body.They didn’t know themselves! They could not see beyond what they understood themselves to be. And there was something else there, something other, something deeper. I had not been introduced to this palpable mystery, but it was suddenly more than enough to fight for. A wave of newfound energy hit, and my body heightened with animalistic instinct. To this day I still don’t know how I accomplished what I did, except for a pure will to live or maybe a pure will to love.
I lifted my feet off the floor; the two men holding me up, leaned forward to counteract the weight. Then with all my strength I kicked my two feet off the ground, tipping them backwards. They didn’t fall completely, but enough to temporarily loosen their grip. I wrangled my arms free, and in a forward charge, launched my shoulder into one of the men in front of me. He toppled over a chair. I swung at the man directly blocking the door. My fist hit his cheekbone, and he stood stunned for a moment. I lunged for the door, and to my surprise started climbing the staircase.
I came up on the sunny sidewalk. The city was bustling, vendors on the streets, rickshaws honking; life looked jarringly normal. I jogged a few blocks until I saw no one was following me. I walked on, noticing all the noises and people around me. The sun was dazzling.
My journey continued for another six months in India, but now with more purpose. I sought out gurus, sadhus, mystics and all spiritual teachers. I had seen something beyond, and I could not shake it. The bombing remained a narrative in my life for many years, yet I now had a hint that there was a bigger Love story unfolding in my life. The thick mud of trauma was parting to reveal a lotus of hope blooming underneath. My mind still did not trust this new unfolding story, but a deeper part of me marched forward. There was more out there; I knew without knowing.
I call this the day God kicked my ass. On the edge of death I was taken to a state of seeing beyond. I was shown a glimpse of divine beauty within the contrast of pure hate–Just as the spark of stars are masked by daylight, but in the space of darkness their heavenly eternal allure is revealed. Soul is always calling to wake us up, but if we can’t or refuse to hear, sometimes he yells and sometimes he beats you to a pulp.
Today, I know the Soul. For more than a decade I searched the world, I sought the teachers, but most importantly I met the people. Now, I can look straight into the Soul, anyone’s Soul. Not because I am an expert, but because I have found where to look. Not with the mind, not with the thoughts, not from searching, but with knowing. Becoming spiritual is a process of shedding everything we thought we knew to unveil what we truly know. And then a voice speaks. It’s a voice that feels like infinite goodness. A distillation of every hunch you’ve ever had, every heart-stopping beauty you’ve seen, and every haunting melody you’ve heard. It is like drinking the source of Love itself. And once you have heard the voice you will recognize it, because it belongs to you. You are Soul. And Soul can never die.