Writing with Soul
or, why I hid mine for so long — how to write authentically when the real you is woo-woo?
When I was 21, I read La casa de los espíritus. A newly minted Spanish major, I wanted to keep the momentum on my language studies going and see what all the hype over Allende was about. I couldn’t put the book down. It was the first magic-realist novel I’d ever read. But after all these years, after all the specifics from the story have faded, here’s what I remember most about it:
It didn’t feel unrealistic to me.
Characters casually read cards and spoke with spirits. That struck me as perfectly ordinary. Granted, somebody in the book had naturally green hair, which did strike me as odd. Someone also recently reminded me that one of the characters disappeared into thin air, or floated away, or some-such that I can’t even recall, and yes, I grant that’s not ordinary either — but I probably just saw it as a metaphor at the time.
My point is, I didn’t think the contents of this book were so bizarre as to require a special label to set it apart from conventional reality. Because conventional reality can be, well, pretty magical.
I was raised within a family for whom it felt natural that the veil between worlds was permeable. In childhood, I learned the story of when my aunt fell and broke her leg on a patch of black ice at college and my mother — over 100 miles away — saw it happening so vividly that not only did she know it occurred before she was told, but she could even describe the appearance of the stranger who came by and helped my aunt to a clinic. This was around 1980. There were no cell phones. My mother didn’t learn this because they were video-chatting as it happened; she learned this simply because she saw it as it happened.
My own childhood and adolescence were full of experiences of hearing, sensing, or smelling things (or people) that were not physically present — and then finding these experiences corroborated by others. For example, when I was a teenager, my mother and I once both heard nobody at all shout my name, clear as day, at the same moment, in our otherwise-empty house. In middle school, I started noticing that I saw glows around people and that, unlike after-images, these glows preceded the movements of the people they surrounded.
These are just a few examples. They don’t make scientific sense.
And yet, such is life.
I believe coincidences happen. In fact, I rush to rationalize them away. But some things are too specific, consistent, and unlikely to be pure coincidence.
And so, whether I wanted to see the world this way or not, these experiences have shaped how I experience being a human. And what I have to say.
It’s hard to feel empowered about, or accept within yourself, something that your society, from the depths of its biases, has taught you primarily just to fear. I was raised Catholic. Even though I haven’t identified as Catholic in a very long time, the religion left its mark. Christianity at large, the dominant religion in the place where I was raised, has long taught that the kinds of experiences many in my family seemed to have — spontaneously. naturally. — were “wrong” or “dangerous.” Thus, while my inner literature nerd eventually became fascinated with interpretive intuitive arts like the reading of birth charts or cards and concepts like energy healing struck me as a cool extension (of sorts) of prayer, I still felt uncertain and startled when the surreal got real.
Even though my experiences were entirely benign (and often outright loving) — hearing no one call my name, catching music faintly from a silent room, someone invisible whispering the “Hail Mary” beside me while I prayed it — I knew these things weren’t typical.
School was how I tuned out the unexplainable. In the academic world, every mystery can be confronted; every question has a methodical process of investigation. I felt safer retreating into academia, where everything could make a concrete kind of sense. I also relished the fact that, if I just kept myself “sufficiently” busy and stressed, I couldn’t hear whispers or music from the invisible at all. School promised as much busy-ness and stress as one could possibly reach for, so I overachieved, enthusiastically. I was a star student, a nerd of all trades. Teachers encouraged me to pursue careers in math, science, writing, foreign language; I excelled in just about anything. But with the high GPA and the sharply analytical mind came the expectation (from others) that I was also “too smart” for spirituality.
(With all due respect: wtf?)
I still remember the day a high school biology teacher wondered, with barely-masked reproach, how someone “like (me)” could be interested in “that stuff.” I immediately recognized that there was a respectability threshold, and certain spiritual interests and experiences were not welcome beyond it.
You can be, say, an esteemed professor or engineer and most people won’t consider you unhinged or intellectually lacking for believing Bible stories about shapeshifting, a talking bush, or miraculous resurrections. And that’s wonderful. But try — outside of any organized religion — admitting that you believe in Spirit communication or that you’ve had past-life memories, and you’ll get more than a few raised eyebrows.
So I shelved that side of myself (along with my astrology books and tarot cards) for very long periods of time. No matter that I felt more peaceful, more wholly “me” when I was nurturing my intuition; alternative spiritualities are discouraged across much of society, and I got that memo early on. And I was desperate for society’s approval, because respect brings opportunity, and opportunity is crucial for getting out of your economic sinkhole of a coal town. So I continued nerding hard, prioritized the cerebral over the spiritual, and the good grades translated into jobs and scholarships — and eventually a Ph.D. program.
I felt at home in academia. I appreciated its healthy skepticism; its empiricism; its rigorous, methodical analysis; the checking and re-checking, the role of expert peer review, the value placed on hard data. I loved the scholarly dialogue, whereby deep thinkers share big ideas with other deep thinkers, and innovations to better the human condition are born. My inner nerd can still happily read hundreds of pages a week, enjoy the challenge of communicating high-level concepts with clarity, LOVE being privy to the cutting edge of research in my current work (academic editing)…
But the academic world was a world in which I sought safety. And while there is freedom in safety, and there is safety in freedom, the two kinds of safeties and the two kinds of freedom are not equivalent.
This is the crossroads where I find myself now.
Many years ago, when I was still a Ph.D. student, I hooked up with a guy who started musing about Chinese astrology while we lay there in my bed, talking about anything and everything in the afterglow. He confessed that he believed in astrology somewhat. I was amused by his confession, as most people don’t reveal these kinds of things to strangers (much less was I used to men confessing any kind of New Age bent, socialized as they are to be eminently pragmatic). I reciprocated appreciatively by sharing with him that I read tarot cards.
But then, immediately, I remembered my “role” — a budding academic in a number-crunchy field (demography). I self-consciously laughed that “we” weren’t supposed to believe in such things, were we?
And he agreed that no, we weren’t.
That memory finds its place within a life-changing encounter: something in that evening and that partner reminded me of who I truly was. Reminded me that I wanted to BE who I truly was. Embracing my true self would mean leaving grad school (and the statistics-driven career prospects it offered me), traveling more, and writing. So I did that: I left school, found ways to spend extended periods abroad, and set about building a freelance lifestyle to maximize my creative freedom.
But here’s the thing: nearly a decade after deciding to leave academia, I still don’t fully embrace myself. I’ve embraced the inner nomad and the inner creative, but not that other vital piece: the inner mystic.
That’s not sustainable. You can’t pick and choose core selves. You can only integrate them.
(If you want to be whole.)
How truly actualized can you be if you continue ignoring a huge piece of your being?
Everyone talks about how writers need to be authentic in order to shine. They’re right; you can’t insist that your soul sit silently in the corner and still expect, somehow, to bring it to the page.
It’s kind of like trying to rock a business meeting while asleep; your mind is checked out. Or trying to forge a deep connection with your dream-partner by flaunting a fake persona, such that they can’t possibly fall in love with the REAL you, because the REAL you isn’t in that rodeo.
Nope. Can’t happen.
Maybe in order to go where we really want to go in life, we need to start by getting our whole selves in the damn car. The ride won’t start until all limbs are accounted for.
For the first few years out of grad school, I did make my spiritual side more of a priority, and began experiencing healing and transformation (physical, emotional, circumstantial) that my ivory-tower self never imagined I would. In that time, I ran a blog that grew relatively popular. I began by writing about my real life experiences — mystically-tinged though they were, I didn’t hold back very much — and I was amazed and delighted to see that a lot of people found my stories relatable.
In time, that blog began receiving daily questions from readers who appreciated my New Age-tinted glasses, who were hungry for relationship and self-help insights from somebody with an “alternative” worldview. Writing there, I felt very “me” and felt like I had purpose. Meanwhile, because I was pouring so much into my passions (writing, philosophizing), I was constantly full of energy for my creative projects too.
But when life changed and I felt pressured to pursue a “normal” job, I abandoned that blog, opting to carve out a niche for myself as an academic editor instead. (Ironic: I went through that whole, difficult quarterlife crisis of leaving academia, only to reach back toward the ivory tower for a lifeline.)
I like what I do. I love working with words, reading brilliant new ideas, and supporting people in their dreams of earning advanced degrees and getting their ideas heard. I especially love that, by chance, most of my clients are in healing- or education-related disciplines, or otherwise devote themselves to questions like how to level society’s playing field or advance the cause of peace. (Is this workload purely coincidental when I’ve entertained thoughts of being a healer or a spiritual teacher since childhood? A New Age type would see it as a “sign” pointing back toward my own dreams.)
There’s so much I could say about how much I appreciate my academic work. However, still, something inside me grows naggingly unfulfilled—because I’m not writing. That is, I’m not living from my soul.
Two pieces recently inspired me: Steve Campbell’s honest reflections on the future of his publication (The Ascent) and his encouragement to write boldly from experience (“Don’t be afraid to tell your story.”), and Mitch Horowitz’s balanced and provocative “In Defense of New Age.” Campbell astutely observed that the most inspirational writing comes from sharing one’s actual story. Meanwhile, Horowitz pointed out how profoundly New Age sentiments and philosophies often enrich the lives of their subscribers — and yet how we, as a society, poo-poo the woo-woo (he said it far more eloquently than that!).
7 Meaningful Things We Can All Do to Succeed Here on Medium, Together
These double as your new Ascent submission guidelines.
In Defense of New Age
A historian argues that it’s time to reclaim and reform alternative spirituality
While Campbell’s piece spoke directly to my inner conflict, Horowitz’s piece crystallized a huge part of its foundation: I’ve been scared.
I recall messages from younger years — like the well-meaning teacher who frowned that I was interested in “that stuff”—or from my own time in the ivory tower, and I worry. Relying on academia’s respect in order to feed myself, I’ve felt great pressure not to write what I most want to write, lest I be seen as frivolous or silly. For instance, I hesitate to cover everyday topics I’m passionate about, like love, sex, and relationships. I feel inclined to stifle my poetic bent, too, because poetry and quests for “statistical significance” usually don’t mix. But most of all, there’s the fact that I love to write about daily life, and I “inhabit” a genre where things like reincarnation; clair-senses; profoundly meaningful, ridiculously improbable “signs;” Spirit communication; and energy work are just a matter of course, and bring to bear in deeply consequential ways on the unfolding of daily experience.
What can I write from, if not from life?
What I’m learning is: nothing at all.
If I stifle the words I most want to share, I end up tongue-tied. And if I don’t write about what moves me, then nothing moves me to write at all.
I live in Berlin. Berlin today is a beautiful, life-affirmingly live-and-let-live sort of place. But Berlin is also sobering. Memorials here, museums there, thousands of bronze placards in the cobbled sidewalks, all over town. I do not at all equate anti-New Age sentiment — in magnitude, kind, or consequence — with anti-Semitism. Nor with the Third Reich’s policies against healers and fortune tellers. Much less with police brutality, hate crimes, torture, or genocide. Rather, I reflect on this all because, where I live, my environment was designed to offer small (or monumental) reminders each day that intolerance is a real social problem, across history and across the world.
Here in Berlin, I finally recognize that my nearly-lifelong fears about openly embracing a non-mainstream spirituality have been rooted not in personal “failures” of courage nor in utter nonsense, but in unfortunate social and historical truths we all absorb: people of non-dominant spiritualities can find themselves ridiculed and excluded. Sometimes, our societies even condone and encourage those biases. Whether we notice or not.
The case of New Age spirituality (including non-ordinary experiences, which often get filed away under that label) is curious. It seems to me that while we’re more keenly alert to intolerance directed at organized religions today, we are still content to deride alternative spiritualities.
What does it say that the faiths we most openly embrace and most vigilantly commit to accepting are the ones built on centuries and millennia of groupthink? Why DO we, as a society, turn up our noses (or, worse, get hostile) at spiritualities built instead around self-inquiry? At individuals who commit to finding truth independently?
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with organized religion, that New Age “has it worse,” or that organized faiths and deep personal reflection are mutually exclusive. But it bears noting that the former rely heavily on turning the masses’(/mass’s) attentions toward a central authority, be that a book or a cleric, to find “God,” while the latter largely emphasizes turning within and recognizing that the same divine nature rests equally within everyone. The latter approach organically leads toward empathy, and with that, policies that prioritize peace, brotherhood, and environmental stewardship. But it doesn’t reward obedience to external authority.
Could this be why we’re so quick to dismiss and deride it, and why biases against it often run un-checked?
There are many flavors of New Age spirituality and of self-help, which often overlap by quite a lot. It’s not my purpose to identify and analyze them all here, sifting through them to pronounce, “This resonates with me, and this does not.” If you will read me long enough, you’ll come to understand how I see things. (If I can find the courage to write from my truth, that is: if I stop bowing to society’s pressures to eschew all spiritualities that are not part of an organized tradition.)
That said, my personal feeling is, if someone’s path is rooted in a genuine sense of brotherly love and do-no-harm (including genuine self-compassion), and coexists with a healthy respect for science, what is the problem?
On that note, if someone’s genuine life experience involves “magical” occurrences that science, reason, and organized religion can’t explain… why not just accept that sometimes life is beautifully weird?
Perhaps it’s no accident that it’s while living in Berlin that I finally choose to reconcile with and decide to reclaim these facets of my spirit. No accident that here I finally face the fears of judgment, of ostracism, of loss that have held me back from daring to openly proclaim my own spiritual truths.
I don’t know.
I just know that those fears have held me back for too long. And now my soul would like — my soul deserves — to speak.