The Ones We Leave Behind

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One of the most telling stories of the mystic journey comes from the Talmud. As told by Rabbi David Cooper in his book God Is a Verb,

The Talmud contains a famous story of four scholars who “entered the Pardes” (garden/orchard). The Pardes in this context was not an ordinary garden, but a realm of expanded consciousness, some say Paradise. The experience these four sages had was so overwhelming, one died, one became demented, one gave up his faith, and only one, Rabbi Akiva, survived unharmed.

That seems right to me: about one in four survive. Many should have been dissuaded from the journey to begin with. Then there are those who did not really survive the journey but remain among us, cautionary tales of how giftedness and good intentions can go awry.

Jewish mysticism has a dictum that states, “The work of the chariot may not be taught to anyone, unless this person is a sage,” but as this story illustrates, even sages get wiped out by waves larger than they can handle. And what happens to those fragile sages, teachers themselves, when the wave breaks and they become search and rescue stories?

I had the unsettling experience last week of meeting one of the fragile ones, a former teacher of mine whose psyche was not quite stable enough for the wisdom that could come streaming through it. I’d learned a lot there for several years, and a few years ago when things started to feel “off,” I found a way to bow out gracefully without burning bridges.

Our chance meeting brought that past connection flooding back, and I fell into a deep sadness. It was not fun to see someone I cared about so unmoored in space and time, and I saw how concern and right action on anyone’s part could easily feel like betrayal from the other end.

One of the first things we learn from our teachers is discernment: the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again. Discernment is also one of the last things we learn, when our paths diverge and we must separate from our mentors in order to stay true to ourselves.

There is little comfort right now in knowing that I made the right choice. I do not enjoy seeing people suffer, nor do I take pleasure in watching my concerns come to pass. My sadness is not just about this particular person, though. It is also a reminder of the limits of my own ability to fix things.

The Talmud doesn’t mention whether Rabbi Akiva had survivor guilt, or what he might have said to the followers of those other three rabbis. I imagine that then, as now, everyone had their own story about what happened and what healing was possible.

For me, with a lifetime habit of too much caretaking, it is very important to see exactly what is, and acknowledge that I can’t change it. Equally important is the ability to talk about it openly, with compassion. There is a huge stigma around mental illness, and a strong culture of denial, in the realm of spiritual teachers. And yet…one in four. It is so important to know which one that is.

5 thoughts on “The Ones We Leave Behind

  1. Vivienne Grainger

    Thank you for this post. It points out as nothing else can that if we give ourselves to the Craft, we may not come back from that experience. The Craft is not to blame, nor is the individual. We really can’t tell what we came here to learn; perhaps we came to make sacrifice of ourselves, even of our very sanity.
    Humbling to come across that kind of courage.
    Painful to encounter those who are merely lost; perhaps, they did not lay a foundation of self-awareness strong enough to support their dedication.
    My first coven priestess is, last I heard of her, living in a van, selling coke as a way of life. Should we meet, I hope that I manifest the grace you presented to your former teacher.

  2. Reya Mellicker

    People become unmoored for many different reasons. Probably no one knows why some survive and others don’t – within and outside of spirituality. But I’m sad to hear that someone you cared about and respected fell off the truck. Thinking of you with love.

  3. T. Thorn Coyle

    Sensitively stated, Anne. Thanks for writing this.

    The limits of our ability to fix things… that awareness is often with me, with myself, students, teachers, other relationships.

  4. Labrys

    Oddly, I thought of the story of these four scholars only last night. I was reminded by re-reading an old novel called “The Secret History” wherein the story is about some Classics students trying to find Dionysus; to actually experience a bacchanal fully, to utterly lose control. Four of them attempted this and achieved it. They killed a man in their maddened state. Later, one killed himself, another abandoned his studies, and two fellow students drawn in after the fact also had consequences to face.

    There are no guarantees. Even making your own map as you go forth may not guarantee you can find your way back to where you began. It keeps me solitary, I fear to take others where I might find myself.

  5. Henry Buchy

    That’s an aspect that entwines with many other issues in the craft.
    It’s one of the reasons for the perceived ‘secrecy’. Some things are dangerous enough for the prepared let alone the general population.
    Some make availible all sorts of practices to the public, with no supporting system with ‘caveat emptor’ as the attitude towards responsibility.
    There’s a cavalier attitude towards the use of magic, coupled with the notion of all benevolent, all forgiving beings, which won’t allow one to harm themselves. It’s a subject which really no one wants to even discuss.

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