September 1993: Rhinebeck, New York
It began with a string of beads. Large, rounded, wooden beads painted white. The string was perhaps two feet in length--a simple, unadorned necklace without a clasp.
My friend Susan invited me to a gathering at her house. Her home’s architectural originality, like the majority of the houses in her shady hamlet, was created in the late nineteenth century. I walked into the octagonal back room, a recent addition, about forty feet in diameter. Red, blue, and yellow concentric circles were painted on the floor. The diagram was used for vajra dance, a Tibetan practice performed to harmonize the individual by integrating the body, the voice, and the mind in contemplation. My friends were Tibetan Buddhists and traveled in circles of spiritually like-minded people. There were fifteen other people there, most of whom I knew well. None of us really knew why we were there, or what was going to happen.
It was dusk. Candlelight illuminated the room. Everything twinkled--the glass windows, the polished wood floors, the Tibetan bronze statues placed in a circle around the room. I removed my shoes and walked over to the only person I didn’t know, a tall, middle-aged man who introduced himself as Brad. He was massive, bearlike but not at all fat. His hair was long and unruly, and he wore a kind of Hawaiian shirt and sweater combo over khakis. His smile lit up the room--I was immediately struck by his charisma.
Brad asked us to arrange ourselves in a circle. On one side of the circle was a makeshift altar. He turned to it and began moving rattles, stones, and feathers.
“Please don’t touch any of these private artifacts,” he said. Woo-woo time, I thought. I’m not much of a group participant. I don’t do workshops. Rituals and mystical experimentation en masse always put me in a rebellious mood. I saw in my companions a longing to believe in something transcendent. For my Buddhist friends the universe was populated with bodhisattvas, celestial deities that assisted and inspired them. What grace, what luck for them, I thought. I didn’t believe I’d ever be able to follow any form of religion.
Brad began moving among us singing softly, praying, and laying his hands on some. He’d touch one person gently on the crown of the head, another at the shoulders, or pass his hand down along an arm. “I received a blessing and want to share what I’ve learned,” he said. He began singing primal syllables such as OOOOs and EEEEs and AHHHs. His voice was loud and penetrating, sounding almost like Native American chanting. It created a force in the room. The atmosphere sizzled. From the altar, Brad carefully lifted a white bead necklace.
He approached one of the group members and invited him to touch the necklace, then--still singing--he moved to the next person, and around the circle, one by one. About ten people handled it. I smelled a kind of woodsy fragrance coming from Brad as he sidled over to me with the necklace. I reached out and touched it.
Suddenly, my head jerked. My hands started shaking, then my arms, my torso, my legs. I lurched erratically, as if electrocuted. I tried to break free, but the necklace held me. I felt as if a lightning bolt was inside me and I was fused to it. I couldn’t break away. Grunts and low growls erupted from deep in my gut and turned into howls. I spun around, still locked on to the necklace Brad and I held. I felt I was being consumed by a powerful, mysterious force. I felt no pain. My mind was blank.
What was happening inside me was as uncontrollable as the contractions of childbirth. Some part of me--separate, watching--felt froth gathering at the sides of my mouth and bubbling over onto my chin. I focused on Brad’s eyes, my mouth open in a bloodcurdling scream. His face grew large, intense. “Hold on to the power. Take it in,” he said. Spit, honks, and rapid-fire utterances flew from my mouth. I shook even more violently. I felt my head snap back, seizing, and my body contort into an arc. My body felt as if it was plunging from the top of a roller coaster, up and down again. Brad was holding the necklace; it still had me. Interlocked, we began whirling faster and faster, spinning in ever tightening circles. The room, my friends, forms, and colors were bleeding into streamers.
Suddenly everything stopped. I’d been unplugged. Brad and I were separated. My arms and legs returned to me. I was stunned but once more in possession of my body. The charge in the atmosphere dissipated. The group began to move about.
I was in a state of shock, but I felt very much alive. I looked at my arms and legs almost expecting them to have been charred by fire. What was that energy that ran through me? Why couldn’t I let go? How could such force take me over? I felt embarrassed, as if I’d publicly revealed a strange and intimate history long known between the force and me. It felt almost pornographic, worse than if I’d lifted my dress and peed on the floor while everyone stood watching. Mortified, I wiped the drool from my chin. Clutching the back wall, I slid outside the room.
My God! What had happened? The power scared the daylights out of me. Confused as I was, I couldn’t doubt something happened to me that hadn’t happened to anyone else who had held the beads. There were witnesses. I kept reliving the moment trying to figure out why, why, why. I felt as if something was pulling me into its world. Beneath my fear was a feeling of exhilaration. That force seemed to have picked me. The necklace recognized me. What did it recognize?