By Daniel Scharpenburg
I’m doing a series of autobiographical posts, regarding what led to the path of a Buddhist priest. I hope you enjoy these posts. I’ll be talking about myself a lot, which isn’t really normal for me.
Part Two: Youth Exploration (See Part One here)
My spiritual context was probably similar to most people in America.
Spirituality wasn’t a big deal in my house growing up.
I mean, my parents took me to church sometimes and we had a kid’s bible in the house, but still, we never talked about spiritual subjects at home. So, we certainly didn’t talk about comparative religion or mystical experiences or anything of that nature.
I’ve heard it said that a lot of people have mystical experiences throughout their lives, especially in childhood. It’s just that most people either dismiss them and forget about them, or become afraid of them. I don’t know if that’s true. I can only speak from my own experience.
There may have been more before the one I’m about to write about, and I simply don’t remember. I was in the 4th grade and I was in class when it happened.
All at once a thought occurred in my head—no, more than a thought—it was like an insight. Like one of those riddles where once you figure out the answer you know you’re right because it’s staring you in the face.
All at once my sense of identity dropped away.
I became just the experience of sitting in the classroom, as opposed to the experiencer. It seemed that time was frozen and there was no ‘me’ in that moment. Then the moment ended.
My sense of identity came back, but not all at once. I was surprised to realize that I was an individual having these experiences, rather than some kind of witness, some outside observer.
I thought to myself, “I’m a real person. I haven’t been here forever and I won’t remain here forever.”
I almost had a panic attack, but I made it through the day, and I carried those thoughts with me when I went home. I had no context, as I said. I didn’t know words like Mystic or Shaman or Buddhist. And I wondered what could possibly be going on. I wondered if I was different from everyone else.
I never talked to my parents about it. I wouldn’t have been able to find the words.
I can barely find the words now.
That’s the first one I can remember. I had several similar experiences throughout childhood.
Anyway, I had no context for what happened to me. Who knows what would have happened if I had been in a different environment. I tried to figure it out. I tried many different things as a kid, but I didn’t have any real information. There was no internet back then for me to use for research.
I had some ideas throughout childhood:
For a while I thought I was psychic. I thought I would develop psychic powers any day and that day was just the beginning. I tried to practice moving rocks and things with my mind, but I could never do it.
For a while I thought demons were reaching out to me. There was exactly one book in my school library on the subject. It was called Curses, Hexes, and Spells. Looking back, I can’t believe a book like that was there. It was a nonfiction book about witches and demons and the target audience was children. I read that, but it wasn’t a very serious book.
I also found a book at a yard sale called The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. I read this book too, but a whole lot of it was over my head at the time.
For a while I thought I would transform—into an angel or a demon, I wasn’t sure. But I had this strange idea in my head that I was meant for something more than this life. Could it be that as a child I created a complex metaphor for spiritual awakening? Maybe.
And for a while I threw myself into Christianity as I understood it (which wasn’t all that well). I read the entire Bible as a kid and tried to really understand what was going on.
I spent a lot of time switching between a lot of faith and no faith as a kid. It’s not something most kids concern themselves with, but it was a big deal to me.
I actually had a friend who went through similar experiences in childhood, but we didn’t really talk about it until we were adults. He ended up exploring paganism because of it. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had decided to take that journey with him, but I didn’t.
My teenage years were significant.
I lost both my parents. I was alone, cast adrift at the age of 19.
And one night I had a mystical experience that really scared me. I was trying to sleep and I suddenly felt oneness. I felt myself as a part of the entire universe. This should have been a state of bliss, but instead it was a state of fear.
I felt oneness with everything, but I didn’t feel a God out there. That’s what I expected and wanted to feel, but I didn’t feel one. Spirituality had been a big part of my life, but all of a sudden it was gone.
Not long after that, I caught pneumonia and spent four days in the hospital.
I hadn’t had epileptic seizures since I was 8 years old. I had three of them when I was in the hospital. The doctors told me that those could occur in situations where I have a very high fever.
I felt like I had a near death experience. But instead of seeing light, I only saw darkness. Nothingness. Emptiness.
I became hostile toward religion and spirituality. I became one of those nasty people that looks down on others for their faith.
And I would remain so until I discovered Buddhism in college.
Then everything changed for me.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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