They say that when Moses was young, the Pharaoh’s seers tried to test him by making him choose between a shiny piece of gold, and a hot ember. As he reached for the gold - which would have condemned him as a potential challenger to the throne - an angel appeared before him and directed him toward the ember. Moses, as most babies would do, put the ember in his mouth. He stuttered for the rest of his days. But he gained not only his life, but ultimately, his freedom.
Think of a time when you had to choose between two paths. Something pivotal, substantial. On the outset, the choice might seem very simple: One path looks shiny, and the other looks painful. No contest. But what happens further on down the line?
In December of 2013, the angel paid a visit to my classroom. I was standing in front of about 20 eighth-graders, but I wasn’t really seeing them. What I saw was a large figure leaning over me in a dark room. This was one of many flashbacks that had begun to plague me over the preceding weeks, of being raped at an early age. And
as this flashback seemed to project onto a thin screen in front of me, behind which 20 faces sat and had no idea why I looked so distracted, I was struck by a morbid realization: I can get through this. After some 30 years of holding this trauma locked up in the attic of my mind, I knew that I was capable of putting it right back where it had come from, and getting back to teaching my lesson. And my musical career, which was starting to show some promise. And my family. And my friends. And my apartment. And my hometown. And my health insurance. And my retirement plan. You name it.
But with that realization came another image: The kind of life I would be living if I held this down, and pretended that everything was ok. I felt the visceral pain of hiding my real feelings, of acting, of lying to myself, of making facial expressions that I didn’t really believe in, of using so much muscle to sit on the lid of Pandora’s Box and hold it down, for fear of what was in there. What kind of joy could I possibly hope for, with this kind of burden on my shoulders? Would anything ever feel real to me?
And what could I possibly offer my kids, 20 of whom were sitting right there in front of me, if I couldn’t be honest with myself?
I chose the ember. And fuck, it was painful. I left home. I left everything I had. I took my clarinet and lived on a boat in Richardson Bay. I spent three years and virtually all of my savings and earnings on therapy. I was generally hungry the whole time.
But I wouldn’t have given it up for a mountain of gold, or for anything. Because it was real. And I am so grateful for everything I experienced along the way, for the friends I made, the relationships I had, my family and friends in Israel who still love me, and the freedom I have found here, in a new home.
But that’s actually not what I wanted to write about. Or at least, that was only one part of the story.
I think that the hardest thing about living in a golden cage is the illusion that once you’re out, you’re out. It’s extremely tempting to use that experience for the rest of your life as if you’ve “done your work”. Pat on the back, cigar at the finish line, happily ever after. I think most people would agree that we all live in golden cages that we need to break free of. But one of the things I am trying to learn is how NOT to see my personal grappling with my trauma as a singular event, something that I had to do and now it’s over. The “golden cage” is not an event that comes and goes; it’s a characteristic of the human mind. We all get used to the way we live, and we all get entrenched in our habits, whatever they are. And as soon as we are free of one cage, our minds immediately begin to build a new one.
This can happen in different ways:
Sometimes it’s the same pain, that is not yet fully healed, and it is only coming back to plague us again: People free themselves from one harmful relationship, only to find themselves caught up in another. Or they run from one part of the world, only to find the same afflictions in a different land. Kuddos for passing the first hurdle. But what did you learn, if it is happening all over again?
At other times, one pain has been dealt with, but there are others that still simmer. We all carry many burdens, and it’s wonderful to have one off our shoulders. But if you stop there, you stay stuck.
At still other times - and this may be the trickiest scenario - the first cage feels like it is truly gone; but a whole new one gets built in its place. It’s great to celebrate your achievements with the first hurdle. But does your celebration and self-confidence blind you from seeing new hurdles on the way? It is extremely common: Seekers finally find a spiritual practice that can truly heal them, sometimes having to go against their own family and culture; but then they use this new practice as an excuse rather than a vehicle, splashing their feet in the shallow waters and always saying, “Look, I’m swimming every day!” even though they never really challenge themselves. Healers apply true healing to themselves, and overcome their own obstacles, and share their experience with others; only to become intoxicated by the fame it brings them. Spiritual masters “reach enlightenment”, and then they start denying their own bodies.
What about me?
I have fallen into all of the above, at one point or another. I have denied my own emotions and physical needs in the name of spiritual attainment. I have been tempted to believe that I have earned a medal of self-exploration that gives me some kind of status. I hope my friends call me out if I ever act that way. And it can be hard not to fall into a routine, surrender to the game, and stop asking real questions, because I've "done my work".
But enlightenment is not about finishing, it’s about seeing. It’s about living on the edge. It’s about accepting the real challenges. And no matter how enlightened we are, we can always support, help, and receive from each other.
So don’t ever stop looking at yourself, and inviting others to help you on your path.
Photo by Artem Mizyuk, pexels.com