Jennifer will be sharing excerpts from her upcoming book here. Stay tuned for updates on when it’s complete and you can get a copy.
“The Spirit is Not Broken“
~A Life’s Journey of Tragedy, Awakening, and Learning to Dance with the Divine in All Aspects of Ordinary Life. By Jennifer Byrd Rubacky
Even within the seemingly most unacceptable and painful situation is concealed a deeper good, and within every disaster is contained the seed of grace. ~Eckhart Tolle
My hope in sharing my story is to open your mind and heart to seeing crisis in a whole different way. The truth of who we are is so much greater than what we can possibly imagine and crisis is a profound doorway into this realization if we choose to embrace it as the great teacher of consciousness that it is.
When I was eight years old, I was shown that life can change at the drop of the hat and that nothing is safe in the world of experience. Tragedy struck, my dad, who was healthy and only thirty-three years old suffered a massive heart attack one night while playing basketball with his friends. It was a cold winter night on January 21, 1980 – a Monday night, no different from any Monday night. My sister and I had just finished watching our favorite TV show, “Little House on the Prairie” and the phone rang. I ran to the phone, excited to talk with my grandfather (Papa), who always called after the show so we could recount everything that happened. Though, when I picked up the phone on this Monday night and said hello, my Papa wasn’t his usual happy self. He was very nervous and asked me to put my mom on the phone right away. I heard a fear in his voice that made my stomach uneasy so I called up to my mom right away and told her that Papa wanted to talk with her. I waited on the line until she picked up, but I didn’t hang up. I was too curious why my Papa was so eager to talk with my mom so I listened quietly as they talked.
“Susie-Jane, Mike has had a bad asthma attack and is in the hospital. You need to get over to the ER right away”, my Papa said. What I remember after that is my mom getting my sister and I bundled up in our winter gear as quickly as she could and into the car – off we went to my grandparent’s house. She kissed us goodbye and told us not to worry, that everything was going to be ok. My Papa was there to greet us as my Gram was still out playing bingo. Off my mom went to the hospital. I just remember feeling scared and as the night progressed and we didn’t hear from my mom, I felt more worried. While I don’t remember when we went to bed, I do remember many family members and friends coming by that night to see us to make us laugh and provide support.
At some point, I believe the next day we learned that my dad didn’t have an asthma attack. He had suffered a massive heart attack and had been pronounced dead but they resuscitated him back to life. He had lost oxygen for seventeen minutes on and off. Finally, they were able to stabilize him and get him breathing on the respirator. He remained unconscious in a coma. The report was not good. I can remember my sister crying as my mom told us the news. She was two years older than me. Through her tears she asked “what’s going to happen to Daddy??”, I just stood there listening. I was speechless. The lump in my throat felt so big it hurt to swallow. My mom told us that it was too soon for us to know anything but that the doctors were trying very hard to make my dad better. She told us not to worry but to pray.
In the weeks to come, the news became grimmer. My dad had suffered so much brain damage that the doctors told my mom that he would never regain the ability to talk or walk again – he would never be able to function like a “normal person”. My mom decided it was time to remove the respirator from my dad. She knew that my dad would want this so she agreed to move forward with the procedure. She told my sister and I that it was very likely that our dad would die. It was in this moment that I could no longer hold back my tears. The lump got so big and I could no longer swallow it down. I cried so hard and kept saying no, I don’t want him to die. My dad was the kind of dad any kid would be so grateful to have – he was caring, sensitive, engaging, funny and always believed in you. He just made me feel like I could do anything. I was crushed. Though, at this very young age, I had no idea how to move through all of the emotions so I kept closing down. The pain was too big to feel.
The day came when my dad would be taken off of the respirator and miraculously, he breathed on his own. As my mom said, all the prayers helped and my dad was kept alive by his own will to live. This gave us all so much hope and I just went on praying every night, the same prayer that became my mantra through all my years of childhood and growing up “Dear God, please make my daddy better, Amen”.
Though, he never got better. He went on to live for close to twenty-five years and never regained his ability to speak, walk or function normally again. He died in his hospital bed in 2004 from pneumonia.
This event seemed to rob me of my innocence so abruptly – it made me feel an undeniable sense of dread and horror – that life could be so harsh without any warning at all. It sent me into such a state of shock, I had no idea what was real but my eight-year-old self had no place to house these intense feelings, so I went on in shock and created a life on top of the deep sense of loss and terror that I felt, with prayers that were seemingly never answered.
I could never have imagined the gift that was in store for me. This tragic event awakened me to the pain of separation at such a young age. Although the adults around me desperately wanted to protect me from feeling disillusioned by the lack of safety in this world, what I discovered many years later is that I was one of the lucky ones.
Wisdom dwells in the heart that remains open and undefended, even amidst the worst of times ~J. Rubacky
As I grew into a young-adult I began having a lot of existential thoughts. One of the main questions my mind kept returning to was – “why are we alive if only to die?” This question would always come up strongly for me especially when I would go through a life transition. It got really loud during my senior year of college and I began to experience panic attacks because I didn’t have a reference point for what was happening to me.
I can remember walking home from class one day and all of the sudden my consciousness entered into a state of absolute vastness. In this place my sense of self was obliterated and I could not define anything. Definitions held no meaning to me. There was no ground to stand on or any reference point for what was happening. My mind looked to grasp onto anything familiar as I was taken over by stark raving fear. These episodes continued throughout my senior year in college and all I could think about was death and annihilation. I felt trapped by these thoughts and desperately wanted answers. But when I would describe what I was going through to others, no one seemed to be able to identify with my experience of the vastness. This left me feeling extremely isolated and like there was something terribly wrong with me. I can remember making a conscious decision to do everything I could to distract myself from this and go on living like everyone else. However, that didn’t really work.
Throughout my twenties I found myself contemplating God a lot and reading books about the after-life. I had grown up Catholic, believing in Jesus but never felt connected to religion or God. After my dad’s heart attack, my mom experienced what is known to many as Shaktipat (an act of grace given by the Divine). At some point during her darkest moments, she found herself on her knees praying to Mother Mary asking for her help to lead her to Christ. She felt there was nowhere left to turn and the question “why did this happen” overtook her being. It was right then in the midst of her deepest suffering and vulnerability that she awakened to Christ’s presence (or what many refer to as Christ Consciousness), and had a glimpse of her true nature. She said that this left her with an undeniable knowing that no matter what happened with my dad, she knew it was going to be okay, that it really was all okay because she felt this energetic presence that was “not from this world”, as she called it. This gave me hope that there was some kind of God, but it didn’t take away the profound fear of death and annihilation that I continued to experience on and off throughout my twenties. I continued to feel isolated deep down but just kept running and put my attention on creating a successful life for myself.
My mom kept surrendering in the midst of it all, continuing to serve my dad as he laid bedridden all those years. She never turned her back on him or cut off from the love. She kept opening her heart and stayed connected with him, even though it was painful…even though there were no guarantees that he would ever get better, she kept on loving. Her demonstration of love, surrender, sacrifice and service informed me deeply and eventually became the wisdom teachings and heart practices that saved my life years later.
I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside. ~Rumi
Over the years it appeared as though I was doing quite well. I had moved out to San Francisco with my then husband, Jason, had become highly successful in business at a very young age, achieved some major fitness goals and ran a marathon. I convinced myself that I had gotten through the hard times. Though, every time I went through a major transition, I would feel that place of fear start to tremor, just like before a huge earth quake hits.
It was around the fall of 2001 that I first learned about a spiritual teacher named Valerie Vener, now known as Satya’Ama Adyota. A friend of mine from work, who later became my husband and deepest spiritual comrade, had been studying with her for several years and after confiding in him about some relationship issues, I was having at that time, he recommended that I meet her. During the first few sessions, I shared my experiences about the vastness that I had felt in my younger years and my fear of death. She immediately put me at ease around it. She was the first person that was able to explain what was happening to me in such a way that made perfect sense. There wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with me; the vastness was actually my true nature making itself known to me. She also normalized my fear of death and encouraged me to see it as a doorway into awakening into the deeper intelligence that lives and connects us all.
About six months after meeting Satya’Ama, my marriage had broken up and I had moved into an apartment located in her multi-until home. I was deep into learning about spiritual awakening and how to use our relationships to embody our deeper consciousness. My inner life was thriving and I was beginning to feel more at home in myself.
In June 2002 Satya’Ama asked me if I wanted to do Toad medicine (also known as 5-MeO-DMT) and participate in a sacred journey with a Shaman. Toad medicine is derived from dried venom secreted by the Bufo alvarius toad and gives you a death experience that lasts on average around 20 minutes. Satya’Ama said that we could use the experience to support us in our awakening process because you get to see what you do in the moment of death (do you surrender or resist letting go). While I felt scared, I decided to try it. When I first inhaled the medicine, I was taken immediately to a deep calm in my being. I remember looking all around me and was surrounded by benevolent energetic figures. I couldn’t make them out, all I saw was energy moving with a loving presence. I remember saying – “this is amazing, I don’t know why I was so scared” – I felt bathed in laughter, love, and light. Though, shortly after that it was as if someone turned off the switch and pushed me into outer space with nothing to hold onto. I was in complete darkness. The room became cold and I was brought right to the place that I had been running from all those years but was unable to distract myself away from it. It was the place of total annihilation of the sense of self I had identified with as “me”. The fear was so extreme I thought I would go mad. I cried out for help from Satya’Ama and told her I was terrified. She didn’t seem phased by my experience and told me to relax into the stillness. She pointed me to my own breath and I let go – there was no bottom or top, just this free-flowing current of energy – and there was no problem what so ever. Then I would regain a sense of consciousness and pop out of it, screaming “Help! I’m scared!”. Again, Satya’Ama would tell me to relax deeply – to sink into the exhale of my breath. I would follow her direction and surrender where again I experienced a sense of total okay-ness. There was no bottom to my exhale or top to my inhale, just the perfect formation of energy infinitely flowing. I have no idea how long I would stay surrendered to the mystery of Being – what I mostly remember is the popping out and feeling stark raving fear and madness, only to have Satya’Ama point me back to my deeper consciousness and this mindless state.
At some point, the Shaman let me know that I was done. I remember looking around the room. I still felt extremely disoriented and not really here. I told this to the Shaman and he said that maybe this is how I always felt in life – that the Toad medicine exaggerated my current state of consciousness. This felt very true but I didn’t know how to shake it or come out of it.
My Toad journey lasted for two years, or perhaps it just unveiled what was already the case and accelerated my process. I felt no relief from what I experienced during Toad (the part where I was resisting). I’ve tried to describe this state many times but I never feel like I do it real justice. I felt severed from myself and all of life. Nothing felt familiar or known – the ground was not solid and I didn’t know what was real. Though, I found Satya’Ama’s perception of what I was going through profoundly helpful. In her eyes, I was having a spiritual crisis and only continued to feel the stark raving fear and bouts of insanity because I was resisting letting go deeper into the mystery of my Being. This actually helped me feel empowered, instead of broken, like there was something terribly wrong with me and I’d never come out of it. Had she pathologized my experience and treated me as if I was broken, I might have remained in the black hole that had totally consumed me.
During this time period, I emersed myself in Satya’Ama’s teachings on surrender and surrounded myself with others that were in her spiritual community. I also began a graduate degree in Transpersonal Psychology. While I felt completely disconnected from myself and life, I willed myself to keep showing up and inquiring as best as I could. What I experienced during Toad showed me very directly that when I let go into the unknown there was freedom and an undeniable sense of calm. Popping out of the mystery made the fear unbearable and I would have a panic attack and feel like I was going to go insane. I began to realize that I could choose to let go, even though I didn’t know what I was letting go into. My practice was to allow the fear to move through without contracting around it. As the fear would arise, my attention would immediately want to shift away from it, but the more I practiced, I began to develop the discipline to stay with my breath and allow the fear to move through. Right before I would allow the fear to move, I would always feel the insanity arising and I thought it would get worse by letting the fear move, but it was the exact opposite. I began to develop a trust in this practice because I saw that every time I kept my attention on my breath and I didn’t resist the fear, I felt better and my panic attacks started to dissipate.
It became evident that I was creating the sense of panic and insanity when I contracted away from the fear that was simply moving through. Just like in childbirth, when the woman resists the intensity of the contraction, the pain gets worse. This was exactly true and what I discovered about the panic attacks. After about a two-year period of testing this out, over and over something shifted permanently in my consciousness. I could tacitly feel that God or Consciousness Itself was real. Not just a belief to comfort me, but in fact it was real and alive as this very moment and I was not separate from it in any way. The only thing that made me feel separate was caused by my own doing. What I put my attention on made all the difference in how I experienced life. This realization put me on the map of reality and gave me the courage to keep exploring.
The cure for the pain is in the pain ~Rumi
The years that followed this realization were difficult, but I now had a reference point and I could practice turning my attention to what was real. While it was excruciatingly painful at times, it was my only relief and place of refuge from the existential fear and madness that my mind created. Turning towards painful feelings and difficulty became a beacon of light to feel the Divine more deeply in the moment, and therefore my own heart and connection to all my relationships.
It was December 2004 and I had planned to visit my family back east for the Christmas holiday. I was excited to see my dad since things had shifted so profoundly for me. I had recognized that what happened to him was the catalyst that led me to seek what was truly real in this life.
The last time I had visited my dad, about a year prior, I was still struggling with panic attacks and felt a deep despair around life. I remember going to visit him alone that day and confessed all of my pain to him as he lay completely still in his hospital bed. I can remember weeping over his bed and telling him how hard it was, that I didn’t know how I was going to make it through. He gazed off into the room with the same blank stare that the brain damage had left him with twenty plus years ago. Maybe it made it easier to tell him all of my deepest suffering because he couldn’t look at me or talk back, but either way I felt the need to share what I was going through with him. I laid my head on his chest and cried some more. Then I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him so much and asked if he could wiggle his toe to confirm that he heard me. This is how we had communicated all these years with him – we would say “can you give me a wave Dad to say hello, yes, no or I love you?” His right toes were the only thing that he could move on his own. I stared at his feet waiting for him to acknowledge my confession to him. The second toe wiggled and then the others followed like a wave. He did it a few times and I knew he heard me. One of the neurologists that examined my dad years ago had confirmed that he was able to understand us ninety percent of the time, but was left with very little ability to communicate back to us, other than through his toes. I squeezed his foot and thanked him for listening and then left.
Something changed for me that day, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Crying over him like that brought to light how much I longed for him to hold me in his arms, to tell me it was okay (the essential wound of my childhood). Somehow this felt healing to experience the loss so deeply, to let my heart yearn for his love made me feel more grounded. My teacher helped me make the connection that when we turn away from what’s painful in life, we cut off from the love that is always here. The heart can either be open or closed, and this is something we can actively participate in. I began to practice allowing the painful feelings while staying connected to my deeper consciousness, just like when I practiced with the panic attacks. The feeling arising was never the problem, it was only the contraction away from it or around it that made it feel unbearable and like it had consumed me.
The more I embraced my pain with an open heart, the more connected I felt to myself, to him, life and God (all one in the same). I felt bathed in the love that is inherent to who we are – that connects us all. This practice became my place of refuge and deepest guide in life. If I felt disconnected from myself or life in any way, I knew that I was choosing to avoid feeling discomfort with whatever was arising. Then, I could actively turn my attention towards it and open my heart to the love that was before me.
So, this trip home that I had been planning in December had been to see my dad with new eyes and thank him for everything. But life had other plans in store. It was December 11th, a week before I was going to fly home for my Christmas visit. The phone rang very early in the morning, it was my sister. I picked up quickly and she told me the news. My dad had died from pneumonia. He had battled many viruses, flus and pneumonia over the years, but this time his body had given out and he let go. I listened to my sister tell me the news and at first, I felt the same shock I did when my mom told me 25 years earlier what had happened to him. The room became cold and I could feel the void and darkness creeping in. I allowed it to move but didn’t follow it. I brought my attention to my sister and received her shaky, sorrowful voice as she told me the details. My heart began to break open and I started to cry. It felt so good to cry with her and feel our love together. It was a beautiful opening and while I really wanted to see my dad again in person, I knew that he was able to let go of his body because he knew that I was here, at home in myself – and that I was okay. He waited for me and I will always be grateful for the sacrifice he lived as so that I could realize this profound wisdom.
We had a beautiful celebration of his life during my visit home. My mom, sister and I went through pictures and made a collage together of his life. We listened to all his favorite music and made a CD to play at the funeral. We laughed, we cried, we sang songs together and I felt more love than I ever allowed myself to feel.