REINS OF WILD HORSES by Sally Clay
The one truth is pointed to by a hundred terms.
This is the essential nature taught by a hundred signs.
This is the wondrous practice guided by a hundred methods.
Though you travel by a hundred paths, you arrive at just this,
This jewel of mind which dwells within.
-- Khacho Wangpo
Before 1986 I used to crack up regularly, sometimes as often as once a year. It was not pretty, at least when viewed from the outside. My friends tell me that I became a different person -- someone angry and wild, impossible to reach, ugly and even violent. I would shut myself up in my apartment, turn on my stereo, and play every record in my collection at top volume. Inevitably I would get in trouble with my neighbors, who found it difficult to cope with rock and roll blaring at 3:00 a.m. Sooner or later, somebody would turn me in, and the police would arrive. I would then fight with the police, refusing to open my door and sometimes throwing ashtrays and books through the window panes. At the emergency room the psychiatrist would pronounce me manic and force me to take a drug to control my mental state. This drug was usually Thorazine, and it usually worked.
That, in a nutshell, is what happened to me on a regular basis for nearly 25 years. At least, that is what it looked like from the outside. To those who viewed my behavior, I was transformed into something like a werewolf or a Mr. Hyde. It must have seemed that I was possessed by something unnatural, frightening, and even dangerous. What my friends and psychiatrists did not know was that there was a lot more happening on the inside than appeared outwardly. When I became manic, I entered another world. It was a world of several dimensions that included myth, magic, and spirit.
My extreme mental states started at the age of 20, the age when a young person makes the transition from dependence on parents to full adulthood. It is the time one seeks to become a person in one's own right, to pick up the mantle of authority from the previous generation.
Ovid, the great Roman poet, tells the myth of the young man Phaethon. Like most people nearing adulthood, Phaethon is eager to take his place in the world. Yet, unsure of who he really is, he wants to test himself. He has a lot to live up to. His father is Phoebus, another name for Apollo, god of light, music, prophecy, and healing. Every day Phoebus drives his golden chariot across the heavens, wearing the fiery crown of the sun. Phaethon wants to prove that he is his father's son, and he begs Phoebus to let him take the reins. "O let me clean my spirit of all doubt," he says. "Give me the signature of what I am. Give me your chariot to drive sun's wild winged horses through a day."
Phoebus gives his permission, but immediately he regrets it, and warns Phaethon of the dangers of his journey:
Can you ride counter to the whirling axis
Of space, of sky, and yet ride clear? Perhaps
You dream unearthly forests on your path:
Cities of gods, and temples pouring gifts,
Yet all the way is filled with hidden terror.
When I was 20, like Phaethon I too wanted to clean my spirit of doubt and to find my identity. I was a junior in college, approaching graduation filled with doubts about who I was and what I believed. Long ago I had made writing my vocation. Now the time was approaching when I would have to earn a living, and I was painfully aware that I did not understand life well enough to write about it. I did not feel like I was a part of the world I was about to enter. At the same time I yearned to explore my consciousness. I believed that by seeking inner truth I would find God.
Creating an altered mental state was very easy for me. From some years I had practiced an informal meditation that opened me to spirit, to the silence of the inner mind. Recently I had found that rapid drinking relaxed mental barriers. Now I used whiskey, music, and concentrated effort to turn my awareness inward. Sitting all alone in my dormitory room, I gave myself over to whatever would come. Lo and behold, as I sat there, a new world unfolded, a domain of brilliant light and color.
I felt I had traveled back in time to ancient levels of meaning. The present became a moment of eternity. The room seemed to grow ever brighter, and my red bedspread, along with the blue, and green, and orange covers of my books -- and even the greens and browns of my braided rug -- all glowed sharp and distinct. I looked through my books of poems and myths, and their words assumed multiple layers of meaning. All were messages directed to me personally.
I was at the still point that I had found before in meditation. Yet now I was simultaneously at the center and the circumference of the universe. Exhilaration replaced the vacancy in my heart. Yes! This was it! This was the leap of faith in which time present and time past came together in the truth of a moment! It was a dance, a dance of perceptions that easily flowed to harmony. Each new sensation was beautiful and precious beyond description. My journey across the sky was begun, and my mind rushed onward with an almost sexual impetus. Without a second thought, I rode into the unknown. This was not the peace of meditation. This was a light whose quality was joy. It was luminosity, a radiance that contained its own silence.
Long after midnight, I was still listening to records. I allowed the music to bypass my ears altogether, to permeate my body as I remained for hours at the still point. I was utterly happy. This joy was clear and sharp, something not to be doubted. My body responded as if blood had been replaced by the empty vastness of space. My body was transfigured -- although still the same in appearance -- and I felt weightless, yet imbued with power. Every cell of my body was a instant of truth, converging as one moment, and I embraced as truth everything on either side of that point -- which was everything. As I picked up and examined several mundane objects, I discovered that I could work as easily with my left hand as with my right. I stroked and studied an empty water glass, a piece of clothing, a mystery novel. Each was, for me, filled with wonder, with pure elemental color, and with hidden archetypes. Each expressed the glory of the universe within its singularity. By morning my body was beyond physical pain or discomfort of any kind. I found my mind peering into time future, while still balancing on the still point that was the essence of the universe.
I embraced all viewpoints. From the standpoint of the miraculous, I found truth everywhere, in all phenomena, whether trivial or momentous. Instead of finding out what is true and what is not true, I had discovered, to my delight, the joke of existence -- that any statement, any action, any belief is, in a secret way, an expression of ultimate Truth. My body had learned magic, and my world had become myth.
Each new revelation was marvelously funny, yet not absurd. The joke was that the wildest dualities were equally valid, and equally good. Truth encompassed all particulars, and each particular revealed Truth. I was eager to share this realization with a friend who had recently returned from a long visit in India. She had brought back with her a seven-foot-long Tibetan horn, used for Buddhist rituals. I persuaded her to let me take the horn out into the hall, where I lay down full length with it and blew vigorously. A mournful, devotional tone echoed throughout the dorm and beyond to the winter campus.
I knew little of Buddhism, yet felt instinctively that my present experience had some connection with it. Although I considered myself a Christian, I recognized that my altered state and its revelations had little relevance to the Christian religion as I knew it. After all, I was under no illusion that I had found "God." What I was experiencing had more to do with the nature of reality than it did to some cosmic personality. To my friends, I explained that I regarded all phenomena as expressions of God, but these were merely words to label the ineffable. What I actually perceived was a bright energy, like the light of the sun. It was not a white light., for it was clear and transparent. It was a light that illuminated all reality. All questions were answered, all dichotomies resolved.
Although I did not know it, this was the apex of my journey. Giddy with the beauty of my spectacular perceptions, I rode my chariot of light, and urged my winged horses forward. Had I listened to the voice of inner silence, it might have said, like Phoebus:
Hear these plain words, my son: forget the whip,
But hold the reins with all your strength; these horses
Race at their will; the difficult art is
To control their speed.
In the plane where I found myself, it was annoying that my college friends could not understand the truths that to me were obvious, even self-evident. My good humor began to evaporate, and I felt a twinge of panic.
Passionately I wanted to continue my journey. Like an explorer discovering a new world, I rushed headlong into the unknown. Its secrets were turning out to be so familiar that the "unknown" was really nothing more nor less than the "already known." I did not, and really could not, stop to appreciate that this wonderful new territory was really a chasm of danger as well as delight. It was the abyss of the open sky, and I did not have the skills to traverse it. Nevertheless, I pressed on, determined to capture Truth.
I sat cross-legged on my bed, and began playing an Al Jolson album. His lyrics were laden with the icons of popular American culture. Songs such as "Mammy" and "Swanee River" spoke to me of my Southern childhood and the black servants who had taken care of me when I was very young. As I listened to these songs, I realized the tragedy of the American conscience. Our greatest cultural achievements came, I noted, came from Negro spirituality and from Jews such as Gershwin and Goldwin who translated this American sensibility into motion pictures and popular culture. What we Americans adulate is the creative expression of those we privately revile. Years later I came to understand that this same stigma applies to madness, and to those who experience it.
Awareness of this paradox filled me with my own pain, and with a greater grief. For years I was witness to constant and bitter squabbles among my family. Although I loved them intensely, I could do nothing to resolve their conflicts. All I could do was to continue loving them, even when my love for one person wounded the other, even while I struggled to forgive them both for hurting me. Now I realized that, among all this discord, my family aspired to the same ideal of goodness. Because they themselves denied their shared beliefs, they remained at odds with each other. I loved this goodness in my family, and now I loved it in the American culture that I understood for the first time. Our shared and hidden faith co-exists with our fear.
In my heightened state of awareness, I heard and appreciated nuances of sound and lyrics I never had before. Every note was clear, every word significant. As I listened, I realized that these songs of the American unconscious foreshadowed America's future. In these archetypes of an inner world, I foresaw specific events.
At this time in 1962 the Civil Rights Movement had not expanded beyond the black community in the South. But I had been well aware of the implications of the Brown Decision of 1954 when I was in junior high school. And now, listening to American music, I realized the importance of civil rights, not just for African Americans but for all of us. Freedom would mean the fulfillment of our common dreams that are now unacknowledged except in music and in movies. The final liberation would evolve from an entirely new form of spirituality, one somehow connected with the wisdom of the "blues." This spirituality acknowledges suffering but adds to it an energy of hope and power. I could hear its wisdom in contemporary jazz artists. Music would be the key to a coming revolution.
Much popular American music is not about romantic love at all, but instead expresses a spiritual appreciation of American women. The songs that I heard seemed to foretell the importance of a certain kind of woman, one who did not conform to standard definitions of femininity but who stood for a kind of friendship. I thought here especially of the song "My Gal Sal." These perceptions frightened me, because I suddenly felt singled out as the "new woman" invoked in the music. Was I the "Sal" that appeared so frequently in the old songs? And what did that mean? Was I the Christ?
I did not like this notion at all. At the thought of such a responsibility, my clarity dissipated, replaced by a dark fear. Had I come this far only to be saddled with the incredible and impossible burden of the whole world? It was a monstrous thought. It was, in fact, ludicrous. How could I be the Christ? If I were Christ, I would heal people, and I had never done that. If I were the Messiah, I would be talking to God, yet my current experience scarcely included the idea of God at all.
The revelations that I was experiencing came easily; they seemed simple, even obvious. Yet I had already discovered that the insights so clear to me eluded my friends completely. Did this mean that I would be called upon to teach other people? I panicked. For a few sober moments, I turned off the phonograph and sat in silence. I looked around my room. Silence was saying to me, like Phoebus:
Your wish is a dangerous one
That asks too much, too far beyond your strength,
Or anyone's. Your destiny is mortal;
What you would do, or ignorantly try
To do, only divine skill, power, art can hope to do.
I began listening to a Charlie Mingus recording, hearing the pain and the spiritual potential expressed in the "blues" of jazz and the "roots" of gospel music. Emotions uncovered, all of my suffering welled to the surface. At one with chords and rhythms, I faced my irresolvable conflicts -- victim of my parents' battles, an outsider and stranger in society, and a spiritual seeker reaching adulthood unprepared. I turned off all the lights in the room except for a small gooseneck lamp near the phonograph. I gave myself over to the music, knowing that the musicians were expressing their deepest feelings. When one cried out, "I know! I know!", I understood. This was a knowledge of suffering from the depths, a wisdom that transcended the impersonal light that I had seen earlier. It was a primordial grief and a prayer. Through the welling up of my own pain I felt and understood the suffering of humanity itself.
Here was a wisdom that was not merely ethnic or American or twentieth century. The raw emotion evoked by the music reached the core of all that was both human and divine. It expressed both suffering and the transcendence of suffering. This suffering was the common truth of all humanity, and it was the courageous "I know" shouted in the midst of pain that could redeem us, that could transform suffering into the triumph of the spirit. Sometime in the early hours of the morning I began to understand that, although I may be christ, the time was coming for a great spiritual awakening, in which all people would be called upon to be christ. Indeed, each of us was already christ, if we only knew it. This knowledge came with both relief and apprehension.
At this point, insights started coming to me as unspoken messages. I heard no voices and identified no messenger; nevertheless, information came to me as if from an outside source. Toward dawn I sat on the floor near my bed, listening to the messages. I understood then that the end of the world was at hand. But it was not to be a violent end or even an elimination of the world as we currently know it. The light that I experienced would soon become manifest in everyday reality. It would be in the ordinary events and details of life that the truth I perceived would be revealed to others. Nothing in our day-to-day lives or even in world events would be materially different; nevertheless, everything would be changed. The ordinary would become magical and we would be living in a new world.
"Why am I being told this?" I asked wordlessly. "Nobody believes me when I tell them what I know."
Now it seemed that my messages were coming not from a single source but instead from a group of patriarchs just above my bed. "This is the way the prophets in the Bible received their messages," they told me, also wordlessly. "The prophets and others were persecuted for what they believed. But they talked to us, too. They went through just what you are going through."
I was then informed that there would be much resistance in this country to the new revolution, but that an army of knights would form in England and would come across the ocean to bring the message. This reassured me somewhat, and I finally got into bed and allowed myself to catch a few hours' sleep.
But I was unable to sleep for long. I awoke within a few hours, excited about the end of the world, which I assumed was to take place momentarily. I wanted to do my part; even more than that, I was curious to see what happened to all the other people when they, too, became christ. I switched on my radio, and was amazed to find that the universal truth was, indeed, being broadcast in the form of rock and roll.
I jumped out of bed, not bothering to change the clothes that I had slept in and that I had now been wearing for several days. I called a taxi and caught the train to New York City. Grand Central Station seemed a vast underground, a symbolic Hell from which I and all of my "companions," or other passengers, would emerge reborn. I studied all the faces around me on the streets of New York, looking for Christ and finding it in a face here and a face there. My heart swelled with love for all these people. I think I probably spoke to a number of them. But the truth was that I had not had enough sleep, and I was becoming exhausted and overwhelmed. I was becoming more and more agitated about the imminent end of the world, and I was also becoming very confused.
When I got back to the college that night, I settled again on my bed and turned on the radio. All of the messages were there -- the call for a new woman, the prophecies of a new age, and the transcendence of suffering through the blues. There was also an important link with show business. As I listened to the music, I gradually lost contact with my surroundings and entered a state of insistent energy. The new age was here! I encased myself in this fantasy, knowing all the same that something was wrong.
Something was wrong because I had not been able to communicate with my best friends. I needed to know that the miracle was taking place, but despite my encouraging day in the city I had seen no headlines announcing it. The thin thread of honesty that I had maintained between myself and my perceptions had slipped imperceptibly away. In the frantic sequence of messages and revelations, I now accepted everything as instantaneously and literally true. I did not understand that prophecies and psychic messages are always revealed outside the conventional framework of time and measurable reality. They become actual only when they occur within time and on earth. So now the relaxed clarity that had kept me alert and aware turned instead to aggressive anxiety, and hardened into fixity. I was determined to hold on to my spiritual visions at any cost, even, as it turned out, at the cost of losing my humanness.
I stayed awake all night, sitting or lying on my bed listening for news on the radio. My mood vacillated between wild hope and black foreboding, as I interpreted rock and roll in archetypal terms. I always arrived at the conclusion that the spiritual revolution was beginning, along with my frightening mission as Christ or the "new woman." To me, popular music was revealed to be nothing less than prayers for the common destiny. But now, instead of listening from the confidence of my own knowledge, I became obsessed with the music, following its words until they tyrannized me. My mind raced along them, devising ever more bizarre scenarios for the spiritual event taking place at that exact moment. I did not dare lose or let go of that moment.
My mind became a hodgepodge of musical phrases and messages from external sources. More and more desperately and fearfully, I reviewed my role as a christ. I lost all track of time, and the next few days now seem murky puddles in an ocean of confusion that roared and rumbled like a maelstrom. In the story of Phaethon, the boy loses control of his wild horses galloping across the sky. He drops the reins, and his flaming chariot careens through the heavens, igniting everything in its path. The Earth herself burns, and all creation is threatened. Phaethon even loses control of himself:
His chariot white-hot beneath his feet,
Blinded by flying cinders, ashes, he
Wore a grey pall of smoke and in his darkness
Knew neither his direction nor the will
Of flying feet that drove him anywhere.
The infirmary nurse was sent to my room to persuade me to see the school psychiatrist. I had seen him before and found him to be a cold fish ignorant of the needs and passions of young women. The nurse was even less sophisticated, and she was consumed with terror at having to confront a student who had "gone off the deep end." A well-groomed middle-aged woman, she could not understand the combination of despair and conviction that ruled my mind and body. She tried to reason with me, unaware that her very language and demeanor taunted me with the conventional mindset that, from my point of view, had driven me to despair in the first place.
We regarded each other with mutual horror, she like a Christian fed to the lions, and I like a frightened but noble animal caught in a trap. All the primordial energy that I had been playing with concentrated itself in the center of my body, and I lashed out. Swiftly, I kicked the nurse across the room, throwing her against my bureau. She stumbled to her feet and left, and it was only months later that I learned that I had broken her arm.
Finally, I could no longer maintain the tight pitch of energy that had kept me going for days with little sleep. Something in me let go, and the weight of the entire black universe collapsed on top of me. It enveloped me like a cavern, pressing tons of empty darkness over my brain. I could no longer stand or sit, so I stretched out on my stomach with my hands covering my head. The leaden darkness pressed on my back until I could not move, and I felt an unbearable grief and horror. Under this dark, pervasive weight, I was speechless.
In my awed silence, somber images came to me in relentless succession. Again I felt the group of messengers hovering over me, trying to tell me something which only now was I able to hear. Their presence was solicitous and grave. What I received from them now was a chastisement and a warning, a gloomy postscript to the revelations that I had welcomed when the light was bright and clear. I was compelled to listen.
Somehow my miraculous vision of the "new world" was incomplete and premature. Before the end of the world could take place, I would be called upon to suffer a great deal, and for a long time. This suffering would be so great that I would be abased and humbled. The misery and the pain would be so persistent that my spiritual experience, so impulsively welcomed, would hardly make up for the suffering that followed it.
Other images were revealed to me. They came and went rapidly, but I had neither the time nor the health to interpret what they meant. Much less did I have the courage to question the messengers about what they were showing me. I was too wretched at hearing my personal destiny of suffering to understand more. My great adventure was now revealed to be only a first step, an exercise in vanity that was nevertheless the first step on a painful journey from which I could not turn back. I had been naive to assume that the christ consciousness would bloom unobstructed.
I saw incomprehensible images of spiritual and social awakening in America and the world cut short by abortive deaths and senseless conflict. This image was couched in a tableau that included all of my visionary revelations of Negro spirituality, American music, the role of "show business," and even movement toward the "new world." I did not understand these prophecies, which at first seemed to represent deaths of individuals of some kind.
Larger images of war, and deaths in war, appeared. These, too, were undefined, except that they seemed to portend insurmountable barriers to spiritual enfoldment. These and other images, or messages, came and went in the darkness of my mind, and I gradually sank deeper and deeper into misery and abasement. I lay prone and immobile, finally unable not only to move but to think.
Phaethon, fire pouring through fiery hair,
Sailed earthward through clear skies as though he were
A star that does not fall, yet seems to fall
Through long horizons of the quiet air.
A few nights later, I heard a rude knocking on my door. After scarcely a pause, several people burst loudly into the room, talking to each other. I caught only bits and snatches of their conversation:
"Is this the girl?"
"You take the arms, I'll get the feet."
"Watch out for that chair"
"Okay, you ready?"
There was a lot of shuffling, then I felt rough hands on my arms and legs, and I was pulled sharply to my feet. My knees buckled, and I felt a third set of hands bolstering me upright. I did not recognize any of these men, but I did glimpse a couple of white coats.
"Okay, ready? You take the left arm"
Now one man held each of my arms; his grip tightened, and the man holding my left arm twisted it backward until I cried with pain. There was more shuffling and tugging, and I realized that they were forcing something over both of my arms. It was a strait jacket. Now I realized what was happening to me. I was being treated like a crazy person, the kind of thing that every human being dreads the most, the ultimate humiliation. I tried to scream, to protest, to tell them that I was not going to hurt anyone. But they were too busy shuffling, grunting, and struggling with the ties of the restraint. The front of the strait jacket pressed too tightly against my chest, and my arms crossed each other painfully, tautly. I was again a trapped animal, and this time the trap was real.
Someone else grabbed my slacks and pulled them down around my knees. I felt a sharp jab in my right buttock; this was followed almost immediately by another jab on the left. It was Thorazine. A wave of sickness swept over me; the room swam, and the voices receded into a dream. I was aware of being dragged out to the hall and thrown onto a stretcher, where I was strapped in. I was also vaguely conscious of other students, many of them my friends, looking down at me, following the stretcher with their eyes as I was wheeled unceremoniously out of the dormitory and to the parking lot outside.
"They are doing this to me in front of all of my friends," I thought miserably just before they loaded me into the ambulance.
Then everything went black. I did not regain consciousness until some weeks later in a mental hospital. I awoke numbed and groggy from 1200 mg. of Thorazine. The drug had done its work, for my ride with wild horses, and the exhilaration of sailing the sky, seemed distant and unreal. I could scarcely remember what had happened, and when I did I was ashamed to think that I had believed in such beauty or hoped for freedom. That realm of consciousness was shut down.
When Phaethon lost control, Earth cried out over her burning rivers and incinerated forests, and Jove himself heard her. He unleashed all of his power and blasted Phaethon from the sky with a thunderbolt. As Ovid writes: "Jove's lightning quenched fire with greater fire." It is, I think, no coincidence that the name of the drug Thorazine means "thunder." It is named after Thor, a Norse god who, like Jove, was the god of impersonal authority. Thorazine is a drug that eradicates a realm of consciousness as effectively as Jove's thunderbolt killed Phaethon.
The death of Phaethon is not the end of the story. The gods were shocked at his violent end. His mother grieved, and his two sisters were so full of sorrow that they turned into trees that wept amber. In his grief, a distraught admirer of Phaethon turned into a swan. Even the Earth lamented Phaethon's death. His father wept, and he blamed Jove for his brutal use of power. Phoebus said:
Let him who will drive daily teams of light
And if none cares to, then let Jove take reins,
And put aside the blazing thundershaft
Which robs a parent of his child -- then he
Shall learn to test the strength, the will,
The temper of my swift fire-footed horses,
Shall learn that he who fails to steer them well
Should never earn death for his punishment."
To me, being forcefully brought down from mania was a kind of death. I always grieved for the vision of clear light, for the loss of something that I knew was important. I well knew that my experiences were spiritual, and today I realize that they also included much that was psychic or prophetic. Looking back on my first experience, I realize that I foresaw not just the coming Civil Rights Movement and the 60's revolution. I also had intimations of political disasters such as the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Kennedy, King, and other leaders. I foresaw the ensuing demoralization of our entire country. I saw the coming of feminism and the ascension of rock music as agents of world change.
In later experiences, I continued to believe in the new world coming. Long before Native Americans began to come forward as our teachers, I foresaw them leading us. Fifteen years before communism fell, I saw world change starting from the heart of Russia. I communicated with ancient spirits in Africa, and was surprised to envision native peoples in despair. I saw thousand s of them jumping from the shores of Africa into the ocean, trying to swim to America. Now with war and famine in Africa and Haiti, I do not find this image so surprising.
In 1981 I communicated with extraterrestrials. One group told me that they orbit the sun every 11 years, and they invited me to come home with them. I accepted, and collected a few personal items to take with me -- the Bible and a few photographs. Then the space travelers sent a message that their own planet was reduced to an arid wasteland. They did not think I would like it there. Still I wanted to go. I waited all afternoon by the door, but they never showed up.
What does all this mean? For one thing, it is clear that madness is not meaningless. An extreme mental state opens realms of consciousness that are not usually accessible More often than not, this event is like opening Pandora's box or taking Phaethon's ride -- the result is frightening. Still, the experience contains mines of treasure as well as destruction. After all, if Phaethon had succeeded, he would have learned to drive the wild horses of the sun. If he had completed his journey, he would have gained the wisdom of Apollo -- the gift of prophecy and the glory of light. He would have learned the mysteries of music and poetry. He would know the art of healing.
When Phaethon's body fell out of the sky, it landed far away from Europe, somewhere in the West. Phaethon was gently buried by water nymphs, who erected a headstone to his memory. The message on this stone sounds strangely contemporary, like a teen song from the 60's. It reads:
HERE PHAETHON LIES
WHO DROVE HIS FATHER'S CAR,
THOUGH HE FAILED GREATLY,
YET HE VENTURED MORE.
Khachö Wangpo (1980). The Rain of Wisdom. Vajra Songs
of the Kagyü Gurus. Boulder & London: Shambhala.
Ovid (1958). The Metamorphoses. Horace Gregory, trans.,
New York & Scarborough, Ontario: Viking.