the story behind unsuddenly
Is it possible to discover something else beneath who you are, what you do, what you like, what you think...your personality?
Unsuddenly describes the breakdown of an identity and a subsequent breaking through into a new doorway in life. What i am calling identity is what i knew as myself, and the center that provided me with security, friends, respect and success. Over time i also learned that it was a way of living that tried to keep despair, loneliness, hurt and depression far away. I had entered into my late 30’s and was beginning to experience failure and alienation in life, both at work and in my relationship. I had begun to feel on the outside of things and alone. I tried to compensate for these impressions with career dedication, seeking approval, comfort eating, alcohol, sex, cigarettes, sugar, caffeine, high expectations, material desires and so, so many action plans. I strove for success and diversion to save myself from a kind of dark place in me. However, the scenario of my life was fixed and held me in a dark gravity i could not escape, which drew me closer to one day and one moment…...Unsuddenly…. where in a second of time the whole world and myself changed forever…
On February 25th, 2004 at around 6:50AM or so, in a small church in warren NJ, i sat down to pray for help and insight. I came to this church in desperation and panic, fearing the simultaneous failure of my career, my relationship and of spinning out of control… This day was the culmination of a 20 year long stream of disappointment, depression and loss: the death of my father while we weren't speaking, being diagnosed with a serious disease, the failure of my company while president of that company and an increasingly deteriorating relationship with my wife. I had read heavily, traveled the world, gained success and explored the world’s religions yet this deep anxiety and loneliness had followed me to the furthermost edge of a cliff.
February 25th was Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51 was the first reading in the mass book for that day. I read it to myself and was deeply struck by the writing…the words and voice seemed to be my own…i was frozen...i completely identified with the situation of the writer, the sense of regret and fear. I went up to the altar in despair and began to pray for help. Slowly in the next moments, with eyes closed, i saw flashes of my life,… an independent perspective on my own actions over the last years. Watching this film, it was clear to me for the first time that i was directly and indirectly responsible for everything. My heart sank with sadness and regret…and tears came….the vividness of the vision was a grounding in reality ... i was profoundly convinced… and i made a promise to give up the behaviors that had come to frame my life. I came to this commitment with inner certainty as a personal duty to myself and in the manner of perhaps the prophets of old surrendering to divine will. With this assent, i felt a lighter, more open flow of life in me. This new feeling was familiar, but brand new… it brought a sense of deep connection with everything around me, and a walk in the first time of the world. Looking back on it now, i would say that my self-image and my support systems had failed, and i was forced to give up my self-concept and in so doing, i had fallen into a doorway that was not connected to the rationales and emotions of the previous life. The change brought a spontaneous image to view of a sheer ice cliff rising above the ocean, and, a huge sheet of this ice mountain sheared off, crashing into the sea, leaving a completely new facade exposed to the world. I had no idea of what was happening to me, but unsuddenly, i was freer and i was grateful and humbled, nothing portentous, the final step of a long breakdown, and the first step of many breakthroughs that would lead into deep insights and the process of reinterpreting my life.I woke the next day with the old feelings of despair, but there was a new witnessing awareness now and i asked myself, “how do i really feel, right now, at this very moment”. Deep inside i felt ok and i trusted the feeling. I had a new chance to interpret my life, but it was such hard work… the anxiety appeared every so many seconds, embedded in so many thoughts, reinforced by so many habits…and this was an enormous challenge…holding onto waves of emotion and craving that could have easily towed me back under or flooded over me.
I started to spend one hour a day praying, sitting or kneeling quietly trying to evacuate all thought. Though my mind was very active, i eventually discovered an empty space. I will say briefly at this point that many visions, images, and new concepts arose from this space. Often afterwards, i would feel dazed and would slowly remember the insights that came as though remembering a dream. I would spend an hour a day writing stream of conscious and journal entries to capture my experience and to keep me connected to my emotions. I started reading voraciously to find out if there were others who had these kinds of experiences. I read 2-3 hours a day, 2 books a week. I read audio books on my morning walks, on my commute to work, while cutting the grass and in checkout lines… overall i read about 700 books of research… into psychology, comparative religion, anthropology, natural sciences, history, cognitive science of religion, psycho-spiritual self-help, literature and more …all of this to find a way to understand the nature and character of these changes that had come to me. Eventually i did. I found a sense of connection with Zen Buddhism's Satori, Christianity’s Conversion stories and Jung’s individuation process. I gained a feeling of deep affinity with the mystics of history and i was encouraged and excited by the stories of more recent people like Bill Wilson, Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle. I took tremendous guidance from Julia Cameron, Thomas Moore, Wayne Teasdale, John O’Donohue, Karen Armstrong, David Whyte, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Campbell, Pema Chodron, Brother David Stendhal-Rast, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Merton, Parker Palmer, A. H. Almaas and Hazrat Inayat Kahn. I also went to psychological therapy with Jungian and Gestalt analysts…i learned to feel hurt and anger, sense despair natural fears, old feelings and notice their patterns. I began to use feeling as inquiry and a way to build a life on natural inclination. Through all of these gifts, i gained a greater awareness and depth of view into how I was shaped. I want to be clear though that a way forward was unknown to me and there was never a straight line. These were difficult times, but I had a strong dialogue going with myself and the universe and there were such strong synchronicities to follow. Small successes came from paradox and patience and there were good friends who listened and encouraged me and that made it feel more OK. The energies of this newness were intense in me. I was drawn by meaningful coincidence to the books “The Artists Way” and “Care of the Soul” on two separate occasions in used bookstores …and i was so touched by these works.
I felt that they were speaking directly to me and outlined a possible path of self-expression and discovery. For inspiration and to feel more connected, i listened for hours to the music and lyrics of Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens and Adam Duritz. To me these books and CDs were religious works and they seemed to be using a voice that felt so familiar to me… i was so inspired and began to imagine my own self-expression in music and writing…but… there was an enormous paradox: i wasn’t exactly prepared to take my life in that direction…even in the slightest…i knew no writers or musicians, had no knowledge of musical theory or notation, did not know how to play guitar, write music or sing… i didn’t think too much though, there was a strong feeling in me, so over the next 4 years, with my full time job and the constraints that come with 3 children and a house, i bought an acoustic guitar and started exploring it when i was alone. I found in it a way to mirror my emotions. I felt very inspired by this work and compelled …so i began traveling 3 hours round trip after work into New York City. I felt like such an inadequate musician, but by finding songs on the guitar and by translating my emotions into lyrics, i was able to acknowledge my emotions and give space and hold onto the complex situations facing me… and that felt good.I think you probably get by now that this work was not easy to do. There was so much effort to expend, and i was overwhelmed with time constraints and contradictions. This was a time of frustration, growing pains, embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and confusion….many times i felt defeated, intimidated and foolish. In response, i gradually developed a structure to keep me centered and focused. I constructed a way to organize my work. I used my expertise in change management disciplines, in self-help psychology and my familiarity with the world’s religious practices to re-envision these together into a new system designed to keep me closely focused on myself through the very turbulent business of personal transformation (this is the subject of a book called Closer, soon to be released). I formally wrote down the problems i was encountering and found close to 30 major issues generating fear and siphoning off my energies. Using the “Closer” process, i have done some things which were awfully good to me and awfully difficult to take on: i have had two operations on a damaged pinky which now makes playing the guitar possible,
i equipped myself and taught myself to be a musician and writer, i have changed my career twice to create more space for creativity and self-development, i have addressed my broken relationships to release the emotional anxiety and ultimately, when the creative work required full time attention to move forward, …i quit my job. All of this work cleared emotional space for me…and with good amounts of the former fear and dependencies gone, my energies were released and this album and a host of other works came into form. The songs of Unsuddenly are intended to share a sense of the feelings and thoughts i went through in the process of personal breakdown and breakthrough. It is a first-hand description of transiting breakdown, and encountering traumatic change. The songs describe what it was like to not feel at home in my own life, the feelings of rejection and despair i had for so long. They try to recapture the experience of loss that left me with no choices and no way back. The latter songs communicate the growing awareness that followed Feb 25th ... the precious sadness, the new openness, the responsibility for myself and the interconnectedness and oneness that became so much clearer to me. We can never really share an inner experience…but this experience was devastating to me, and my intent is to share it as a way of empathizing with others facing the myriad forms of traumatic change. Not all of the stories in Unsuddenly are true now... but they once were… i have been working with them for some time…some are stories i actually lived through and others i just imagined to be actual. The stories display my emotions and impressions while following this long road. I have described the feelings of fear, loneliness, despair and breakdown with vivid images and emotion. Those of you experiencing traumatic change may recognize the sincerity and risks in the writing of the words and sense a connection with the emotions placed in the music… I felt great risk in writing and performing these lyrics, and a humbling reality as i struggled to re-educate myself. So here it is…Unsuddenly… after 4 years of writing and 2 years of recording. It is a work long in progress...and it is time to let go. I would like to share it with you from my heart along with my deepest intention:
That it acknowledge what i kept hidden, and offer a touch of beauty to my struggle,
That it might serve the world as a companion in dark times and as a precursor to change
That our lives be a spring, continually rising from the dark depths of an inner well, entering the world to fully quench our own thirsts and to offer comfort to those nearby.
What is heard and seen in the darkness, may we bring to life; what we feel whispered may we live…and with each of our efforts may we find a way closer…
Will James, June 2010
released July 1, 2010
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