Dream: I am in a cafeteria service line. The servers are all Buddhist monks, dressed in orange togas, with shaved heads and a single cue of black hair hanging from their crown. I get a plate piled high with food and join my friends. I eat all the food, and then go back for a second helping. I hold up my plate and the monk serving me says, “This has been waiting for the one whose soul hungers. This is all you need.” He then reaches under the counter and brings up a simple empty white cup.

Two days later at a Science of Mind Class, the minister told this story that correlated closely to my dream: “A Master and his pupil have tea together daily. It is the duty of the pupil to serve his Master in silence. One day the Master tells the pupil he will serve the tea instead. He pours tea into the pupil’s cup, and when it reaches the rim, the Master continues to pour. It overflows the rim, then the saucer, and spills onto the floor. Finally, the pupil can stand it no longer and shouts, “Master, my cup is overflowing!” The Master responds, “Yes, my son. Only when your cup is empty is there room for you to learn, and room for you to grow.”

My plate was too full. I needed an empty cup in order to fulfill my dreams. As a reminder of these two clear signals that I was to practice “emptiness,” I bought a white cup and saucer and placed it where I would see it every day.

My bookshelf was full of the self-help books that I collected over the prior three years ⎯ they did help me to sort out some patterns in the drama called my life. However, it was time to stop filling myself up with other people’s advice and learn to trust myself. I took the books to the used bookstore so they could be of service to someone else.  

That evening, I sat in contemplating the bare wall in my apartment. I enjoyed watching the shadows from a vase of tulips dance larger than life on the wall as the sun waned each day. As the shadow art fleeted with the light, I recognized yet another message ⎯ that I was to treat my life as a blank canvas.

When I look back on that summer eighteen years ago, I see how completely I allowed the message of the empty cup to guide me. I practiced being mindful. I minimized multi-tasking, especially at home. For example, when I prepared a lovely meal, I was not also on the phone. When I ate that meal, I did not also read. I had the attitude of starting each task empty, giving space for the creativity arising from the dormancy of my inner self.  

The creativity came flying out and I spent my free hours writing, painting, gardening, preparing beautiful meals for one, and dancing. Since I lived far out in the country with no visible neighbors, I danced at night, joined by images of mirrored dancers in the windows and shadow dancers on the walls. 

The Cole Slaw Event: 
That autumn, I recall standing in my tiny kitchen, chopping the ingredients for my famous spicy cole slaw that I was taking to a huge potluck barbeque. As I chopped, I took inventory of my life. I had no relationship. My family was far away. I was not successful in my work.  

In short, nothing special was happening, and yet, I was content and completely at ease with myself. In that moment, I had a vision of dropping dead on the spot, and the bits of slaw—purple and green cabbage, carrots, and radishes — sprinkled over me like farewell confetti.

It would have been a good death. To feel so empty and so abundant at the same time was a new and joyous experience for me. After all, only three years before I considered taking a hard right into the wall of a long tunnel and ending it all.  

The Tunnel Event:
It was my birthday and I was on a road trip, driving through Kansas. I was depressed and contemplative as I drove into the tunnel. I had no relationship, my family was far away, and I was not successful in my work. In short, nothing special was happening. I felt like a complete failure, simply taking up space on the planet.

As I despaired, it seemed as though an audible voice commanded me, “Take a hard right now.” Smashing into the wall of the tunnel at 55 mph would have most certainly meant my death. I hesitated for a moment — then recovered my senses as I realized the voice had directed me to a quick ending. I drove on, pondering what had just happened. I found out later, without soliciting the comments or speaking of my experience, that both my sister and my mother could not get me out of their mind during the time I was in the tunnel.

Perhaps they saved my life that night. Perhaps it was my darkness trying to take control. Perhaps it was an attempt from my subconscious mind to shock me into acknowledging that I was in deep emotional do-do.  

For the prior months, I had toyed with the idea of suicide. I even talked to a friend of mine that I knew had considered it when he was my age. His advice, “give yourself a deadline (so to speak), and if things have not gotten better by then, then kill yourself.” He had given himself 15 years, and at age 50 had lived past his deadline. I decided to give myself seven. I considered the fact that there was nothing actually wrong with me except my state of mind. Why not give myself a little time? I decided if things were not better by the time I was 40 years old, I was checking out. 

I had been on a downward spiral for a few years. I also had a lot of fun while on that downhill path. In fact, it may be that the fun threw me off the scent that I was in trouble. I was predominantly an upbeat person, generally happy. However, the surface of my life appeared that way because I was numb, deaf, and dumb to the calling of my inner self. I pushed any flutterings of intuition down, down, down. The more I pushed that inner voice down, the more my overall direction was taking me further into anxiety, tension, and depression.  

I felt that something was amiss. An entry in my journal during that time indicates that on some level, I was quite aware of that something was off even though I was in complete denial about many of the reasons for the state I was in:  

“I have this continued feeling that something is missing. Is it ME? I have this feeling that Spirit is hovering and I thought it was the spirit of a child waiting to be born. Is it actually me, observing my life, watching it, wanting to give birth to my full expression? Am I missing? The psychic last week told me that I was like a Macy’s parade balloon, floating and detached from my life. Am I, as he said, giving myself pep talks, coaching myself on how to be in life, on how to be present, to be real? Have I not touched down?”

After the Tunnel event, the downward spiral was palatable to me. I especially noticed it at night. It was depression but it felt much deeper than that — as if it lived at my core. I thought of it as my darkness, and in a strange way, it was also my comfort zone. I traced it back to when I was fifteen and referred to it as my black mood. It was my blackness. I felt it pressing in from all sides. I could practically taste it.  

I made a pact to give myself one year to turn things around and that I would do this alone because I did not want anyone to know how I felt. I was very proud. If at the end of a year, I had made no headway, I would get help. That year, I filled myself up with self-help books and analyzing my life. It was a useful exercise in that it opened up my mind to the fact that I needed help. 

The darkness was mostly dormant during the day and if I did sense it, then I pushed it down. However, when night came, it would lay itself upon me like a lover, sharing my bed and entering my dreams. I had nightmares for many years. It was so strong it felt like an entity. At the time, I did not know that it was a part of me wanting acknowledgment and would not be denied. 

The Rabbit Hole Event:
One night the darkness finally got through to me. Even though I had, in a sense, already claimed the darkness as mine, that night as I went down the rabbit hole with it yet again, something clicked into place for me. It dawned on me that the darkness was, in fact, also my creation.  

My creation! I created this darkness that was so powerful, so palatable, so real! In that moment of recognition, I was instantaneously infused with the fact: “If I have the power to create this level of darkness then I equally have the power to create light! 

That was a huge turning point in the middle of the night. I awoke with new purpose and new power, inspired to create light in my life with the same zeal that I once created darkness. That day was the beginning. I felt immediately lighter. I felt the hope that comes from empowerment. 

I set aside my pride and sought help. I started with professional counseling that helped me see my negative patterns. From there, I turned to mentors who had trekked a similar route as my own in their lives and could be wayshowers that I identified with. 

As I delved into the unknown territory that was challenging, I became aware of a feeling of emptiness. I thought of the emptiness as a void. It was scary at first. The tendency when a person feels empty is to want to fill up — with another person, a trip, travel, shopping, food, a movie, alcohol — anything to avoid that empty feeling.  

However, I learned to sit with the emptiness, following the guidance of my mentors who gently prodded me with, “You are in avoidance (a void dance), so dance! You must allow your pain, your fear to take you in— take you to the door, the gateway. Do not hold back from the fear. It is the entrance fee to your new life. You must walk into the darkness, without a flashlight. You are the light and you cannot be harmed. Walk through the fear. It will not keep you from joy. It is fun to walk through fear and come out the other side.”

What is interesting to me is that the most challenging times in my life in terms of my health and well being followed on the heels of the Rabbit Hole Event. I had many more dark nights of the soul to work through. Still, there was a difference, a quality to my passage that had not existed before that epiphany. It was the knowing that I was diving into my own depths with the benefit of my own inner light. 

Today, eighteen years later, it is obvious to me what was “amiss” during the dark times. I was. I had gone missing. My happiness sourced from outside people, places, events and things that served as distractions. As long as I was entertained with the illusion of happiness I could ignore the inner rumblings that all was not well. 

The coleslaw fantasy death was symbolic of a turnaround in my psyche — I was fully present that day as I chopped vegetables. The Coleslaw Event was three years after the Tunnel Event and the Rabbit Hole Event. My blackness that I pushed away for so long turned out to be the source, the calling of my essential nature. 

The Monk who guided me to replace the full plate with the empty cup, handed me the only tool I needed to embrace the void in myself. “This has been waiting for the one whose soul hungers. This is all you need.” I went forth with an empty cup and a willingness to see. 

Things were no longer amiss. And — I was ahead of my deadline. Age 40 came and went in celebration. 

by Donna Marie Pritchard 

As published in 11:11 Magazine, September-October 2013
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