When I was 20 years old and a junior in college, I decided to do a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was 2003, and Argentina was emerging from a horrible economic crash and a period of great instability. My parents urged me to pick another place to study abroad, as they were concerned about how dangerous Buenos Aires might be. The news reports about riots and people being forced to trade food and services in the streets because their bank accounts had vanished overnight were not exactly comforting to my parents.
“What about Dublin?” they said. “You’ve always wanted to go to Dublin.”
I dug in my heels and insisted that I wanted to become fluent in Spanish and that it would be a fascinating time to go live in a place like Argentina. I wanted a whole new cultural experience, and Ireland seemed entirely too “safe” a choice.
Well, I got my way — and I most certainly did not end up taking the safe path.
I didn’t tell my parents until almost six years later, but within three weeks of starting my seven-month study abroad program in Buenos Aires, I was held up at gunpoint. I’m going to relay what happened to me that night: not for shock value, but because it revealed something to me about the nature of human existence that I only fully came to understand many years later, when I started to learn about the framework called “the three principles” that I describe in this book. That night taught me a truth about what we humans are made of, which is now the truth I help my clients uncover in themselves (and in a much less dangerous and dramatic way). To be honest, I couldn’t really understand or describe what happened to me that night in Argentina until I learned about the principles behind the human experience a few years later.
Along with two new girlfriends from my exchange program, I decided to go to a restaurant and then to a tango bar in a cool neighborhood of Buenos Aires called Palermo Viejo. It was similar to areas of Brooklyn, New York. Only a couple years earlier, it was gritty and off limits, but it had become hip; all the 20-somethings liked to hang out there after dark. Perhaps (or obviously) naively, the three of us felt relatively safe walking around the area, as we were surrounded by other people. There were certainly much more dangerous areas of the city. Anyway, I don’t remember feeling especially on guard.
After dinner, we set off for the tango bar, which included walking down a quieter street without any restaurants. About halfway down that block, out of nowhere we were cut off by two guys on a motorbike. Because the three of us would’ve been smushed too tightly for the width of the sidewalk, I was walking a teensy bit ahead of the other two girls, so I stuck out just a hair ahead of them. That hair was the difference that led me to have a profound out-of-body experience, as opposed to just getting spooked and running away … as my two friends did.
When the two guys on the motorbike hopped up on the sidewalk in front of us, the man on the back jumped off and grabbed me on my arm – by my upper bicep, to be exact. My girlfriends were able to escape before either of the guys could grab hold of them. In telling this story, I have often been asked about what happened to the two girls. Why did they leave me? Did we ever talk about the incident later? All I can say is, I don’t know. Maybe I would have run away, too, if no one had grabbed my arm. And because I am still here today and the experience actually ended up being quite amazing, I never felt the need to ask them, “Why did you leave me there?” It seemed much simpler to just go on being friends with them and leave the incident behind us.
Once the man had my arm firmly in his grip, he reached down his pants, and I distinctly remember the last couple of “Mara” thoughts I had (meaning the familiar, in-my-body recognizable voice I know all to well) were, “Ughhhhhh, seriously?! He’s going to pull his dick out?!” I felt a wave of fear and disappointment, as I figured, “OK, he’s either going to expose himself to me or full-on try to rape me. This is not going to be good.”
But before I could even finish following that train of thought in that familiar “Mara” tone of voice, I felt the cold metal tip of a gun against my temple. And the last thought I had was, “That’s not his dick he just pulled out of his pants. That’s a gun.”
And then, the world went silent.
That voice that was always yip-yapping in my head just shut up: the one that is constantly chit-chatting about where to go and what to do; asking how I am feeling, how do I look, what do I want to talk about, what’s next in life, yada yada, so on and so forth, all day long. It just stopped. It was as if somehow, it knew something. I say “it,” because in that moment, I felt myself go away, and some bigger intelligence kicked in that knew more than I did. It understood that Mara’s little yip-yapper was irrelevant. There was nothing in the realm of me that had any knowledge of how to deal with this situation. So without intentionally doing it, I simply shut up and got out of the way. Or it, that larger intelligence, knew to put me to the side, much like you would push a clueless, distracted pedestrian out of the way of an oncoming bus to save their life. All of my thoughts, all the noise that usually makes up the mind and the identity of Mara Gleason, went quiet.
In that silence, something amazing occurred. I will try to describe it, but I’m going to fall short. Words cannot capture it. You see, now I’m back in my little yip-yapping Mara mind, trying to describe something that was far beyond the littleness of me. So please forgive me if it sounds silly or trite. I’ll do my best to be honest and clear about what occurred with the language I have, but the experience was truly beyond me.
When my head fell silent upon feeling that gun against my temple, the sensation that emerged in the silence was indescribably huge, like a wave of vast energy. Not the personal energy that makes us feel revved up, but pure, impersonal energy. Beautifully quiet. The buzzing, raw force behind life, like a kind of super knowing. Not a brain knowing, but a much bigger spiritual knowing. Without the separateness of my “Mara” thinking, I was merely an energetic experience connected to the fabric of all energy: not an individual drop, but the whole ocean. I was not raised in a religious or even particularly spiritual home, but I knew that what I was experiencing was the definition of a power greater than oneself. Because my self, driven by my normal thinking, was gone.
Yet there were small glimpses of little, personal “Mara” thoughts that came to me. Like a “Whoa!” that popped in as I realized I was looking at the gunman’s hand on my arm, but I couldn’t distinguish a physical end to my body and a start to his. Everything blended together. Then, when I looked beyond him to a tree that was growing out of the sidewalk, I couldn’t really separate this singular blob of energy that was he and I, from the tree. Again, no end and no beginning: just one continuous flow. And then I vaguely remembered that when he originally put the gun to my temple, he’d said “Dame tu billete.” (“Give me your wallet.”) I had not made a move to find my wallet, as I was too absorbed in this experience of one, continuous energy.
What was perhaps the most surprising and lovely aspect of that oneness was that I felt an enormously profound love for the man holding my arm and a gun at my head. Not the kind of love we normally think of, like the love we have for our romantic partners or our family. But rather, a deeply impersonal love that goes beyond our separate selves, our ideas, our preferences, our expectations: a much more universal love. Something that could only come through silence.
As I was having this experience, which I would describe as an “out-of-body” experience, he, my mugger, began to have it, too. How do I know? I just know. Because for a moment, he and I were the same. I was in him and he was in me. We were one. As well as the tree and everything else, I suppose. I recall feeling completely confident and at peace. Whether he shot me then and there, or whether I walked away and kept living my little Mara existence, I knew that there was a greater intelligence behind life and there was no real end or beginning.
And then, a thought came through. I felt a wave of fear wash over him (or us?), and I opened my mouth to speak the only words I would say to him during the entire experience. I said, “You’re scared, and that’s OK.” I do not remember if I spoke the words in English or Spanish, nor do I know if I spoke them out loud or just “energetically” (believe me, even I don’t know what that means, but I’m telling it exactly as it happened). And really, I don’t know if I was speaking to him or to me — or if that bigger it was saying it to both of us. Was that a comment on that moment, or a larger comment on the experience of life? After the words were said, he looked into my eyes, and his whole body softened. We exchanged a moment of knowing, of acknowledging what had just happened. And then, I gave him his hand back. I took it from my bicep and put it back down alongside his body. Then I turned and walked away.
After a few slow steps, I picked up the pace and started running down the sidewalk. Heading back in the direction of bars and restaurants, I remember having a loud, clear “Mara” thought come back into my head: the first one, it seemed, in a very long time: “You should go into a place with people.” I caught up to my friends, and panting, I walked with them into the first bar we came across. Funnily enough, it was named Diablo.
And then it all came back.
Once I was inside the doors and could see the safety of other people sitting and chatting, all of a sudden all of my “Mara” noise came flooding back into my head. It was like a marching band coming down the street, and my mind quickly went from total silence to loud, blaring, clashing, banging noise. That feeling of vastness, peace, love and total knowing had vanished, and I became horribly uncomfortable, terrified and doubtful as I heard that voice in my head start yelling at me: “What the hell just happened?! Why didn’t you just give him your wallet? Holy shit, that was scary!!” My heart was racing, my head was swimming and I thought I might pass out. I also remember feeling incredibly tight inside my body, like I’d gained a lot of weight and tried to put on a tiny pair of jeans.
But within seconds of having that anxious voice screaming at me in my head, I suddenly thought, “Wait a second. STOP! Stop it, Mara! That wasn’t scary. Why are you scaring yourself right now? You’re fine. You’re alive. You’re not in danger. And actually, that was an incredibly beautiful experience. That was the most ‘safe’ you’ve ever felt in your life. Not in a personal way, but in a spiritual way. You were just an energy and for once, there was nothing to be afraid of. And now you’re just scaring myself with all of your thinking.” In that moment, I realized that you could only feel fear through thought, that you could only feel separate or alone through thought.
But for thought, we are OK. Truly, deeply OK.
I calmed down again and realized that I was just a girl standing in a bar with her friends.
After a brief exchange of, “Are you OK?” “Yeah, you? Yikes, that was so crazy. I’m glad we’re OK,” we ordered a round of beers and carried on – for the rest of the night and the rest of the semester.
The next day, I tried to explain the experience over the phone to my boyfriend who was back in New York, but he didn’t get it. All he said was, “What?! Are you fucking crazy?! Why didn’t you just give him your wallet?!” I tried to explain that what happened was not in my control. It wasn’t something I did on purpose, but after a few moments I gave up. I couldn’t explain my experience, and frankly didn’t even understand it myself, so I tucked it away.
I remember feeling sad that I couldn’t explain that huge, impersonal love I’d felt, and that I’d never come close to feeling love like that anywhere in my life. Even today, when I share the story with clients, they try to explain it away according to their personal experiences, citing things like “Oh, that’s just adrenaline,” or “Well, you’re lucky that guy didn’t just pull the trigger.” It’s understandable that people have that response, and I probably would have, too, had I not experienced it firsthand, but they’ve missed the point.
I’ve had adrenaline rush through me many times in my life, and that’s not what happened to me. I’ve been bungee jumping and skydiving. I’ve been woken in the middle of the night by the burglar alarm while staying at my house alone. That’s adrenaline. It’s a far more personal experience in the head and body, and your thoughts go crazy. This was wholly different: beyond me or my body, and it seemed to emerge as a default when my thinking became almost nonexistent.
Yes, I am lucky he didn’t pull the trigger, and I am certainly happy to still be alive today. Yet I hesitate to even say this, as it can so easily be misinterpreted as arrogance or bravado: I don’t think it’s luck or coincidence that kept him from pulling the trigger. I think something profoundly transcendent occurred that made that outcome obsolete. For a brief moment, he and I experienced a oneness and an impersonal love that made any action such as pulling a trigger a non option. Temporarily, we were not separated by our thoughts. We were the formless energy of life having a shared experience. Everything was perfectly … OK. And it was beautiful beyond words.
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