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The Radical Spirituality of Generation X, Part 10: Being in the Skin

When the desert people first see each other, they say, “Oh say ko.” It means thank you. They say thank you for being here crossing my path, thank you for being a part of this village, thank you for being alive because your life affects mine in some small way. Thank you.

The next question is, “Jam bah doo nah?” Are you in your skin? A better translation would be, “Is your soul present and alive in your body right now?” The response is always, “Jam core doo may!” I am in my skin! It’s as if the very question gathers the soul into the body with a vibration of life energy. Like a bell being struck, the soul releases its sweetest music as it rejoins its earthly form.

During my two year Peace Corps service in the desert, “jam core doo may” became more than an answer to a question in an African language. It became a state of mind, a practice of being present, a way to ground and center in my body, in the moment, and in the country I was serving. Answering the Foulbe question with “jam core doo may” became my soul’s journey. It was a conscious step closer towards understanding my oneness with God, alive and present and in my skin.

Embarking on a spiritual journey and taking the first step was the easy part. It was staying on the path that became the challenge. When a seed is planted, hope about what will sprout and blossom is buried in the soil with it. Similarly, as I planted the seed of a spiritual life with the Foulbe question, “jam bah doo nah,” I had hopes of what would emerge. I visualized how my life would look with God walking along beside me. I could see amazing beauty, smell the perfume of my spirit’s blooming, and taste the fruit of all my hard work, service, and prayer. However, when I didn’t get these instant results, I got frustrated. My life hadn’t changed one bit and I was still in pain.

Gradually, though, I began to understand that when a seed is planted, the roots must go down before anything peeks out above the ground to bloom. The gestation period is a time of darkness when we have to step out on faith. It is when nothing seems to be happening, when everything is forming and getting ready to be born. Though there was no apparent movement happening within myself and in my every day life, and there seemed to be an absence of light, I had to believe that the seed would grow and I continued to nurture it. For me, this was the most difficult period, because deciding to live my life from a spiritual place meant healing everything that was getting in the way.

The silence of the desert and the isolation from all I had known brought my wounds up, one by one, for me to examine. I needed to forgive but I didn’t know where to begin or how. Letting go and giving it up to God through prayer and meditation was the only choice. I offered up the healing with every answer of “jam bah doo nah.” I vowed that this time I would stay alert and deal with the pain. This time I would not numb myself out with alcohol, drugs, bad relationships, and long hours on the job. This time I would remove the thorn embedded deep in the flesh. But in order to take the thorn out, I would have to open the wound up and dig deep.

Trail of Shame

When I was seven years old, my father moved my mother, brother, and me into a Zen Buddhist Monastery. We sat za-zen during the week and went to catechism and mass at a Catholic Church. As a result of my father’s religious fanaticism, I learned that life is suffering and I must desire nothing. At seven years old, I learned to fast to purify my soul, to whisper instead of speak, tiptoe instead of skip, and sit za-zen meditation before sunrise. I learned that an insect’s life was more sacred than my feelings and that I must kneel and pray and ask God to forgive my sins and make me worthy to receive Him.

Later in the year, my father took my brother and me to the beach. While they fought the waves, I swam far away from their violent play. I pretended to be a dolphin and swam accidentally into a stranger. As I apologized, he grabbed me and held me to him. Suddenly he put his gigantic hand over my mouth and with the other, he pulled down my shorts. I was seized with a sensation that I thought was a knife that would split me in two. I was completely paralyzed by the pain until the man started to run with me, carrying me away from my father and brother.

I cried out and got the attention of a lifeguard. Later, when they wrapped a towel around me, and the policemen asked what had happened, I could only stare at their feet. I looked up at the impatient faces of the policeman, the lifeguard, my father and the stranger then back down at their feet. All I could say was that he touched me. I was too ashamed to say anything more. I was afraid they would say it was my fault. I was terrified that I would never be “worthy” to receive God because I had been tainted.

Later that night, I watched through a crack in the door as my father told my mom what had happened. She was upset that he hadn’t watched me more closely. They started to argue about me, and when she got up from the couch, he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head into the wall. My legs gave away, and I slid to the floor, crying silently, just like my mother, as he slammed her head into the wall another time. After what happened to her, I couldn’t tell her what had happened to me. I felt their argument was my fault because I should have stayed by my father; it was my fault that she got beaten, my fault what that man did to me. Later that night I got up from bed and put my bloodstained underwear in a brown paper bag and hid it in the garbage.

Months after the incident, I grew to hate myself for not being able “to forgive and forget.” I was ashamed of what had happened to me and grew more ashamed that I was unworthy of God because I was not able “to love my enemy.” My father suggested that I not press charges and “turn the other cheek” because he didn’t want me to go against the words of God’s only Son and “cast the first stone.” But I couldn’t just forgive that man, I didn’t want to love him and offer my other cheek. At eight years old, I wanted to kill the man who hurt me. I wanted him struck down by lightning. I wanted him to suffer in prison like I was still suffering. I grew angry with God and blamed him for what happened to me. I grew furious with myself for not being “spiritual” enough to forgive. I grew to hate the New Testament for asking me to do what I felt I could not. In order to protect myself from ever being hurt again, I closed my heart and cut myself off from God.

Throughout the years that followed, I searched for a name for what had happened to me. Since no one asked me any further questions, I learned to pretend it hadn’t happened. Many times I thought I would tell my mother after she divorced my father, but years passed and the shame and the guilt of not doing or saying anything strangled me into a silent submission. I moved out of my mother’s house when I was sixteen and moved in with the first man who said he loved me. Suddenly I was twenty years old with a husband who had a temper. One night, I refused to let him drive after heavy drinking. When I took the keys away from him in front of his friends, I knew I had made a mistake. Fury and humiliation flashed in his eyes as he punched me then slammed my head into a stone wall. I begged him to forgive me for what I had done. I had come to believe that this is what I deserved.

Only a small black bruise lingered under my eyebrow by the time my mother saw me. When she asked about it, I lied to her. She knew it and said, “You come home.” I tried to lie again by saying it was the first time. She asked, “Are you going to let him break your neck before you leave him?” That question was the beginning of the end of a painful marriage and the catalyst for my applying to the Peace Corps and taking a teaching position in West Africa.

Healing is in the Present Moment

In the desert of Cameroon, the memories of my childhood rolled themselves out like a rug and I walked over every single event that had happened in my life. I saw how I had never been present to each moment of shame, terror, sorrow, and pain. Instead I suppressed my feelings and never allowed my experiences to fully digest. With a lot of time on my hands and the open space of the desert, my buried feelings could finally come forward fully even though I didn’t even know where to actually start the healing process. An answer to my prayers came and I began to understand that the way to heal and get the pain out of my body was by writing down the stories of my life and those of my family’s history.

This part of the healing process didn’t feel good, it was stark, naked, and lonely. Like a cocooned caterpillar, I was in a dark void, longing to shed the old form in order to create wings to fly through my time in Cameroon. But in the process of becoming a butterfly, a caterpillar disintegrates. It becomes a glob of goo. Healing childhood wounds felt like my guts were being ripped apart by nature’s design. Everything that I had constructed myself to be was melting down. My reflection in the mirror was unrecognizable. I seemed out of place in my own skin. I was the goo, transforming into a butterfly. There was no distraction, nothing to numb the pain. There was nothing I could do to speed the process. I could only be in my skin in the present moment and wait.

Again and again, I turned to writing, beginning a journal and writing long letters home. I wrote stories that celebrated learning how to swing a machete and kill an intruding snake, how to carry a bucket of water on my head, and how to stand up to the village king. When elephants ransacked a nearby compound killing a Foulbe family, I described the gift of another day of living. Soon, though, I noticed that I wasn’t telling the whole story of what I was witnessing in Africa. Instead I censored my stories, paralyzed by the thought of writing about the everyday violence towards women.

At school my young female students were brutally beaten with a stick for being tardy. I witnessed a student die of malaria because she wasn’t taken to the hospital; her father saw it as a waste of money to pay to save a girl’s life - infinitely less important than a boy’s. I was invited to mourn the death of the young girl and joined the women behind the mud walls of a family compound. I took my place among the women as they began their ritual of wailing and pounding their fists on the earth, letting out their sorrow, anger, and pain. Their wailing struck a chord in me and I let out a powerful cry, wailing with them, shedding tears, pounding my fists on the sand and releasing the hurt. Later when I wrote about the experience in my journal, it became clear that I needed to write the whole story of what I was witnessing in the desert. By telling the stories of Foulbe women, I was also telling my own.

I began to dig underneath the skin for the pain hidden there. The more I got it on paper, the more I embraced those lost parts of myself and made them a part of who I am. I felt lighter and more present in my skin and no longer trapped by past traumas. I finally wrote to my mother about my childhood rape. This time, I didn’t run away and hide. I showed up and faced the fear, letting the tears come and confronting words I had never written before.

It was in this process of healing the flesh that I became aware that I am more than this physical body. Those unhealed wounds had kept me frozen in a limited identity. As they released, a greater spaciousness came. I realized that I had survived the physical traumas of my past; they didn’t kill me. There was an energy, a light inside that hadn’t been extinguished. The question, “jam bah doo nah” reminded me several times a day that we are more than physical bodies. There is something more powerful, something stronger, and more real than even my mind. My faith in God returned, but it was different this time. It wasn’t the faith forced upon me by my father. My faith in God became an experience within myself. I felt God beating in my heart and breathing in life all around me.

Strange and mystical things happen where there is silence, open sky, and solitude. I began to hear an inner voice speak to me, communicating through a lizard guide. He told me there was no one to do the healing for me. I would have to go inside and carry out the lost parts of my soul. I often wrote questions to my guide in my journal and after awhile, he wrote back. I asked why my father committed suicide. The voice inside said that from every situation, every person, and every hurt, there are only gifts of love. The gift from my father was an opportunity to further my understanding of myself as a Divine being in a human form. My father was not dead, the lizard wrote, he had simply chosen not to be in his skin. And I had chosen to heal in my skin, to bear witness, to give a testimony that I am still here. I am alive! I am in my skin! Jam core doo may! I had survived and others, women and men, young and mature, would find strength in hearing my story.

Returning Home In My Skin

I came back to America believing that I had been “fixed,” that I had gotten “it,” the big ah-ha that would change the way I thought about myself. But there was still more work to be done. I got a job teaching English, entered a new love relationship and began to write a book about Africa’s lessons. The challenge was to say jam core doo may, to remember spirit alive and present in my skin when I got scared, when old thoughts of being undeserving of love and success came to haunt me. I learned to take little steps, to stop and breathe, to show up with my intention and let spirit do the rest.

Through healing work with hypnotherapy, I began to change the seat of my identity from human mind and body to pure spirit. As the sessions progressed, I began to feel myself as a radiant light full of love, clarity, and wisdom. In that soul place the traumas and pain did not exist; indeed it seemed as if they never happened at all. In that place, I could visit the human parts of me that I needed to heal the most.

After many years of working with the healing of childhood wounds, finally it was time to release the anger and to heal from the rape. I was guided to experience the Divine light of the man who hurt me. As I felt the holy presence within him, without any words, without any actions, I understood that he was a spiritual teacher for me. I received so much joy in the realization that what had happened to me was a path to this moment of understanding God within this man and God within me. I understood for the first time that there is no separation between us all and no separation from God. There is only one of us here. In feeling that we are all one soul, having a Divine experience on Earth, I could at last get past the traumas because those incidents are not the last word - they are not what is finally real. There is another view. What is real is the light inside us, the Divine essence experiencing itself through us in this lifetime. Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook, rather it is about understanding that the only thing that is real is love. God is love and that is what we are. Forgiveness of myself and of others is done in that one realization.

Writing Down the Heart and Bones

The work that I did in hypnotherapy gave me the energy to write my experiences of the spirit that the desert of Africa inspired. When I completed the first draft, I was struck by the fact that I had left out all of the past that had come up for me while living in Africa. In the second draft I got a little more daring and wrote how I felt about women not being allowed to ride a bike or have their own identification card, about the violence and oppression I witnessed. Finally, in the third draft I wrote about my childhood and what needed to be healed.

Facing the demons of my past was a step, writing about them was another, and going public with them a third. In the final editing stage, I realized that my purpose for writing the book was to be of service to others. I had to include the rape. It was still too hard to tell it directly so I relayed it through lines of poetry in the voice of the lizard guide. It was only a small step and not the leap of faith that I had hoped to make, or so I thought. When the book was published, I decided to teach the lessons Africa taught me to one of my high school English classes. I was surprised to find out how big of a step I had made.

In the discussion of the reading, which included the painful poem, no one brought up the violation. I decided not to point it out if they weren’t ready to see it on their own. But after class, one student stayed to speak to me privately. She asked me how I could write about being raped and publish it. She didn’t understand how I could want something that was so personal and “gross” shared with thousands of people, especially my own class. She got angry with me for writing about it, accusing me of “being proud” of it. It came out that her anger was really a mask to hide her own shame at also having been raped as a child and having kept silent. As she cried, I told her that it was not her fault and that it wouldn’t matter now if no other person ever read my book - she had broken her silence. I felt at that moment that I had written the book for her, to show her that it is possible for a person to heal from the shame, to create more room inside to be “in your skin.” And most of all to show that we can discover ourselves to be as powerful as we think and dream we can be.

We are greater than the sum total of all of our experiences. We are Spirit. When we remember this, we give far less weight to our past and who did what to us. When we can dissolve the strength of that illusion we can begin to identify with our spiritual essence. “Being in your skin” begins to mean identifying first and foremost as a Divine being having an experience in the human skin. Then we can be fully present and available for Divine energy to come through us.

There is an inner light that is constantly on, a light that demands no work. It is always there. We only need to be in our skin to feel that place deep within us at one with all things. It’s our very divinity. And, in touching that place, we can answer with all the passion and power of our being, “Jam core doo may!”

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Susana Herrera is a writer and a teacher. Her first novel, Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin (Shambhala, 1999) chronicles her spiritual journey in a desert village in Cameroon, West Africa as an English teacher in the Peace Corps. She now teaches Literature at Santa Cruz High School in California and is writing her second novel Laughing Girl, Howling Woman, which focuses upon four generations of her Navaho/Spanish family history.

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If you would like to purchase the Radical Spirit book from which this essay was drawn, please email us at manage@universespirit.org and we will email you back details.

Every week we will post another article on generation X spirituality from the book Radical Spirit. For more articles and more about Evolution Spirituality and who we are, go to universespirit.org

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