I signed up for The Great Ballcourt Initiation Fast one year in advance. I was serious about ‘dying before I die,’ about making this 12-day wilderness rites of passage ceremony in Death Valley a big marking of change in myself.
Not much happened and everything happened . . . things that are too little and too big for words to hold. What happened can only be pointed to with stories; and there are many stories! Some are still brewing in me. So, today I am going to tell just one little story. A story about walls and fear and death.
Like most people in the developed world, I sleep at night surrounded big, thick walls. It’s safe and warm and comfortable. My journey to the Valley of Death, among many things, was a thinning of those walls, and an exploration into the nature of fear; specifically my fear.
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On the night before I left home, I slept in my own comfy bed in my house in the city of Salt Lake.
The first night on my journey, I slept in a bed at the house of some friends. They live in a very quiet development near Ivins, Utah that has been designed to blend into the desert landscape.
The second night of my journey, I slept in the back of my new car, on a back road in Red Rocks National Conservation Area. The car creaked and snuffled in the dark, the moon was waning, and there was not another soul around.
The next four nights I slept in my tent, in a nice flat space at the end of the Hole In the Rock road in Death Valley. The rites of passage trip had begun and I was with the community I’d be spending the next nearly two weeks in deep relationship with. The sky was immense. There were no trees. The sun and wind were intense. The moon continued to wane, growing thinner and thinner each night after slow days of preparation; receiving teachings, speaking our hearts, and just being.
On the fifth night in Death Valley, I was out at my solo site. I slept next to a big, reddish boulder on the shoulder above a shallow wash, under a tarp I had set up, which would be my only shelter for four nights while I fasted. The weather was good, with the days becoming hot and the nights comfortable. I slept well that first night out by myself, my body fully under the tarp. I could see the stars out the sides of the tarp, and the last sliver of the moon appearing early in the morning.
The next night, I folded one corner of the tarp back, so I could lie under the stars from the waist up. Gradually feeling more comfortable without walls.
By the following night — the third night of my solo time — the walls were gone. I slept completely out in the open, under the full night sky, exposed as the wind kicked up strongly early morning. And the fourth and last night of fasting, I slept out as well, next to a small sandstone overhang. Now there was no moon. I would fall asleep watching Orion move to the north, and wake at first light, before the dawn.
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As often happens when a rites of passage ceremony is in one’s immediate future, things heated up and unraveled a bit for me before the trip. One Sunday evening, a few weeks before I was to leave, I had casually decided to try a quarter of a cannabis edible candy some young friends had given me. When it kicked in, I was not prepared for its effects. Under the bemused but watchful eye of my husband, I spent the next six hours lying flat in bed with my brain exploding in geometric patterns and generally experiencing a primordial fear beyond anything I have felt for a long time — maybe ever. It got worse when my husband turned the lights out so we could try to get some sleep.
Luckily, I was somewhat experienced with this kind of thing and knew it was all happening in my head. Moment by moment, I stayed present to keep the fear from overcoming me. It was challenging, but I knew I could do it. I was grateful when I finally felt the smooth gentleness of normal reality began to reassemble itself in my brain again, and the fractured, dancing shapes faded away.
In this unexpectedly intense cannabis trip, I was taught that fear generated by my own mind is powerful. But I also knew, as frightening as it felt, the was a product of my own brain and that I could see it as an object in my awareness, and manage it. An important preparatory gift!
Two weeks later, just a week before I left for Death Valley, a good friend died suddenly in a climbing accident as a result his own small miscalculation. Mark had just turned 50 and thrown himself a surprise party only a week before (“Don’t tell me” he wrote in the invitation). A man full of life and love —wham, suddenly gone. The reality of death hit me and others in our climbing community hard. This was the closest that sudden death had come to me so far in my life. The thin veil between life and death felt torn away, and days of weeping was the only response possible.
Just a few days before I left, I had a strong nightmare. In my dream, I walked into the spare bedroom to help a young woman who was kneeling on the bed, with eyes both shut and open, as invisible evil energies swarmed wildly around her. When I stepped into the room, I felt the energies full force, and could not move. My husband woke me up because I was moaning. I lay awake terrified for a while after I awoke, my lower back stinging with energy. It took me some time to generate the nerve to get up to pee. I could not remember the last time I had had such a horrifying dream.
By the time I packed my car to leave for Death Valley, my heart was raw and open. I was ready to face my deepest fears and meet death. I was apprehensive but also committed. Committed to venture out beyond the safe walls of my life and be with whatever was on the other side.
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The biggest teaching I received about fear was a subtle noticing that happened that second night on the trip while sleeping in my car in Red Rocks. (This is how the Universe/Creation teaches me most of the time — with subtle noticings.) I noticed that I felt slightly nervous in the dark night. I locked the car doors from the inside. I was used to sleeping behind thicker walls. Who knows who or what might be prowling around out there in the dark? Fears generated by my mind. But, luckily, I had to pee several times in the night, as I always do, and so had to emerge from behind the steel and glass walls of my car to find a prickly bush to water. And when I climbed out and walked a bit away from my car, I found myself relaxing. I was IN the dark now. Not separated from it by any walls. And here with my feet on the desert ground, surrounded by Night Herself, I felt none of the fear I had felt when I was inside the car.
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The Great Ballcourt Initiation Fast was, for me, about death — about my own personal death. It was my intention to touch it. And I did. The walls that normally keep me separate from death were worn down by the events before I left, and then by fasting, by the wind and sun, and by simple ceremony I did while out on my solo time. I spoke with my father, who died a year ago December, and with Mark. They were beautiful, joyful, tearful, connected conversations. I felt the gentleness of death — the process and space of it in those days of fasting. I saw it everywhere around me, mingled in with new life.
And as I touched death, stepping out from behind walls of civilization and self-concept, I relaxed. I was IN death, had spoken with it. I saw and viscerally felt my own death inside of me, as something very intimate and personal and even sweet that I carry with me, always.
Even now, over a week after returning home, a certain kind of fear is not there inside me anymore. A new understanding has been born.
Or course, in my journey back, the walls have slowly come back. They must. But I know what is beyond the walls, and understand why I must, every now and again, venture out into a moonless night and sleep under the stars.