Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Committing to a Human Life

The following is a story from my book, The Call. It begins with an account of being interviewed by Paula Todd of TVO.

I tell Paula about the healing that occurred for me when I attended a martial arts course on the Mojave Desert many years after I was raped.

At the end of an intensive two weeks course the women who had been trained were tested by being attacked three times one-on-one by men committed to helping women empower themselves to walk safely in the world. The men wore protective gear, the women did not. We were told that the attacks would be no holes barred and would continue until the instructor, Dawn, a petite woman who worked as a bodyguard in Los Angeles, called out, “Cut!” We had to deliver one or two blows to the man attacking us that would have incapacitated him long enough for us to get away if he had not been wearing protective gear.

As we began the women who wanted to be tested stood along the edge of a large matted area. One at a time the men wandered around within the circle watching the women and seeking to attack someone when she least expected it. Shortly after we began one of the women broke her leg struggling with a man who’d grabbed her. We all heard it snap beneath her as she went down heavily. It shook us, but most of us stayed to be tested. Many of us had been raped or beaten. We needed to know we could defend ourselves.

The first time I was attacked I made a slow but steady response, finally delivering a blow to the man’s protected eyes that would have given me time to get away if this had been a real attack. But the second time, the man who attacked me had been wandering around the circle joking. I was laughing, unprepared, my guard down. When he grabbed me and threw me I arched through the air and landed flat on my back in a way that closely resembled how I had been thrown when I was raped. The man participating in the testing did not know this, but the women on the circle did. Earlier in the week we had re-enacted the rape scenes experienced by women in the group, looking for possible ways each woman could have protected herself if she had had the skills and knowledge she was now being given. The man attacking me heard the sharp intake of breath amongst many of the women around the circle when I hit the ground. He could see I’d had the wind knocked out of me and was badly shaken, but his instructions were to go for it until the instructor told him to stop. So he continued to come at me.

I struggled to fight, but I didn’t want to. I felt as if I had landed in a large tub of warm bath water. Suddenly I didn’t care what happened. It felt like it just didn’t matter. I heard Dawn calling to me as if from very far away. “Don’t do that Oriah,” she yelled. “You’ve been here before. Don’t check out! Fight! Fight for yourself!”

Hearing her voice I struggled to come out of my lethargy as the man landed on top of me. It was like moving through molasses, but slowly and steadily I began to fight and finally, after five minutes of constant struggle, I managed to deliver one of the blows that we had been taught to incapacitate an attacker. Shaken at how I’d responded to the attack I hesitated to be tested again but I put myself back at the edge of the testing area. The third time a man grabbed me I flew into action without hesitation, landing repeated take-out blows almost immediately. Dawn had to yell, “Cut!” four times before I heard her.

When I finish telling this story to the TV interviewer, she asks me, “So you would tell a woman who was being attacked to fight?”

I respond calmly but without hesitation, “Absolutely. I would tell her to fight. Fight as if your life depends upon it, because it does.”

Watching the interview on tape I cringe and feel the gap between the self-acceptance I hope and sometimes pretend to have achieved and desire to be different than I am. I have answered her question without thinking, from my gut. I could not tell a woman or a man who is being physically attacked that they should not fight back, and I would physically oppose anyone who was actively trying to harm myself or another, in an effort to stop the aggression. But I struggle with this. There is a difference between using whatever minimum level of force is necessary to stop violence that is happening in the moment and dropping bombs on those we suspect might do us harm in the future. But I also know it can be a slippery slope from one to the other. I imagine that a more “spiritual” person would have across-the-board-rules about never using force against another. At the very least I want to be someone who, even if she is willing to physically defend herself and would advise others to do the same, would do so with an air of regret or hesitation, with less conviction and certainty.

But that’s not who I am. Self-acceptance is a practice, a willingness to slowly expand our ability to see ourselves as we are and simply be with what we see. I am a passionate, outspoken woman. I have a tendency to want rules but a mind and heart that simply will not let me settle into one-size-fits-all ethical absolutes. I think fast- which does not always mean clearly- and talk faster. I want to be wisely quiet, mysteriously silent, deeply contemplative. And sometimes I am all of these things. But when I am with the world I am more often directive, opinionated and passionately expressive. Sometimes this makes me discerning and effective. Occasionally it means I can be downright inspiring. But sometimes it just makes me relentlessly judgmental and annoyingly bossy. I realize that other personalities have their own challenges but I have on occasion convinced myself that I have been over-burdened with a personality that does not make it easy to live a Spiritual Life.

The truth is no life is inherently more “spiritual” than another, no personality or set of ego characteristics more readily available to an awareness of the still and sacred presence we are than another. All personalities have slightly different struggles on the road to waking up to who we are and why we are here. Some will have to sit with the urge to strike out when angry while others will have to struggle with their tendency to repress anger and the consequences that brings. Some may have to learn to be quiet more often, while others have to learn to speak out. Some may need to act more quickly or more often, while others need to more frequently sit still and wait. We all have patterns of behaviour and preferences that come from a combination of our inherent temperament and developmental learning, just like we have certain physical characteristics as a result of nature and nurture. Wanting to wake up tomorrow- or at the end of a vision quest- with a different personality, a transformed ego, is a little like hoping I will wake up in the morning five inches taller: a desire that continues my war with reality.

This does not mean we are doomed to unconsciously live out the patterns of our ego. It means that we have to know ourselves, have to bring to consciousness with deep honesty our tendencies and patterns, our strengths and weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and fears if we are to access real free will choices in how we live. When I told the TV interviewer that a woman’s life depended upon fighting someone who was trying to harm her I was not merely referring to the chance that she could be physically killed if she did not effectively defend herself. The biggest opponent I faced during that martial arts testing was not the man who was attacking me. My real struggle was with my own feeling that it did not matter if I was harmed, did not matter if I lived or died. On some profound level I had to make the choice we all have to make if we are to respond to the call at the center of our lives: I had to choose to be here, in a human life. Choosing my human life in that moment required that I physically defend myself.

Ego-awareness, an individuated sense of self that identifies with patterns of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, sensations and life situations, is necessary to make this choice. Essence-awareness, the consciousness of the eternal inherent being we are, is not particularly concerned with the details of the life I am living, knows that all thoughts, feelings and situations will pass and that what is eternal and infinite within us will remain. But essence-awareness alone does not make a human life. A human life is lived in our very particular and real daily choices. Essence-awareness can give us the perspective needed to ensure we do not drown in the minutiae of daily living or become so exclusively identified with our egos that the constantly changing reality and others’ ego-agendas feel life-threatening to our very existence. But ego-awareness is also needed if we are to fully inhabit the life we have, if we are to consciously make daily choices about what we do, where we go and how we live. Lack of attachment to having things work out the way we want them to is not the same thing as the indifference that comes from not fully committing to a human life. When I was lying on that mat during the martial arts test feeling like it did not matter whether or not I fought to protect myself, I was not connecting to the lack of attachment to outcome that can come with an awareness of my essential nature. I was, in that moment and more generally at that time in my life, unable to cherish and choose to occupy fully my human life.

Life without essence-awareness lacks meaning and connection. Life without ego-awareness lacks fire and direction.

from The Call by Oriah (c)2003 Published by HarperONE, San Francisco.


  1. This is such a good distinction and melding between essence and ego. I teach a system of personal and spiritual development called the Enneagram, and when people first come to it, they are sometimes in despair at the negative and compulsive behaviour their ego often manifests. But it's essential for survival, it's just a question of degree and perspective.

  2. Oriah, I feel a force; a fire coming through your words in this article...
    really appreciated this, this morning. much LOVE.