Editor’s Desk: Life as an Emotional Ticking Time Bomb

The description of a metaphor of a personal, emotional ticking time bomb is a situation that will eventually become problematic if not addressed. I’ve had a few of these go off; one only causing harm to myself; the other causing harm to another.

The first time I became aware of my internal time bomb timer is when it exploded after a vision quest. Several decades ago I went on a vision quest led by my friend Sedonia Cahill and her then partner, Barton Stone. It was a moment in my life when I thought it was a good idea to pause and take a look at my priorities to get them to line up to empower my dreams. The quest consisted of five days, three of which were spent solo in a California desert with only a rattle, pen, notebook, tarp, and water. It was a tough three days with little or no sleep. The temperatures were stiflingly hot and the only animals that came my way were flies that incessantly and most annoyingly, buzzed around my head. I actually wrote about this in my book Small Pleasures in the chapter, “Serenade of the Flies.”

I traveled back north with Sedonia and Barton because I had left my car at their place. After enjoying a meal with them, I went to my car for the final leg of returning home. I recall being so relieved to, at last, be on my own and heading home to my own bed. I felt stiff from having to put on a good face to the other participants and leaders. Now I could relax and return to my “normal” self. But the cosmos played a trick on me and foiled my plans. It turned out that my vision quest was not over by a long shot; my car wouldn’t start. I lost all composure, my façade of being such a superb quester melted like some Dali clock. I beat the steering wheel as if that would magically turn the engine over.

It was then I knew that I had set some sort of internal clock to hold it together for the five days of questing. After that, I could go back to my “regular” life as if I’d not been on some rite of passage that might change my life. I lost all my cool and was reduced to a cataclysmic deluge of emotional hysteria. I became aware of my enormous capacity to bypass my true reactions to internal pain.

The second encounter I had with my emotional time bomb happened recently. It catalyzed a blowup that brought to the surface my vulnerability and low spirits. For three days I was suffering with diarrhea. Along with this disorder, I stepped on my cat’s tail and she retaliated with a vengeance by grabbing hold of my ankle, biting and scratching me, leaving me with several puncture wounds. I ended up having to get a tetanus shot and a round of antibiotics.

Heaped on top of my physical condition was my growing concerns regarding local and national politics: the California recall election (which thankfully did not pass), Texas abortion law, voting rights being impeded, thousands of immigrants fleeing from Haiti and living under a bridge at the Texas border, Congress being slow to take positive action, people left in Afghanistan, the anniversary of 9/11 being revisited by mainstream media, the gathering of white supremacists to protest indictments of Jan 6 insurrectionists, on-going systemic racism, lack of prison reform, the corona virus returning along with the wearing of masks and limited gatherings, climate change causing wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes, to name a few. I’ve been tracking these local and planetary issues with poise and restraint, writing congressional representatives and making phone calls.

There is a poem that is a favorite of mine by Rilke and one of the stanzas goes like this:

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Finding the deepest truth on which to base my life has been a life-long quest for me. I’ve been circling the “primordial tower” all my life and am proud of the progress I’ve made toward becoming a song. I imagine the theme of my song as loving kindness and equanimity.

However, recent events have made it apparent that I’m not manifesting my life as a song; I’m a raging storm. Not only a storm but a sustained storm—a hurricane.

For the past year and a half, I put on a veneer of calmness and equanimity. However, I was unaware of the subterranean ticking time bomb ready to go off and set me spinning like a Tasmanian devil. The trigger was an email from a friend who innocently stepped on my internal landmine and it exploded (much like my cat). I had no idea of the hurricane that was raging inside and was about to make landfall. It was a sustained explosion that lasted several days before I could shake it off. My friend graciously accepted when I offered my deepest apologies.

I believe that we’re sitting on a collective powder keg. We’ve been under a sustained attack by the Corona Virus for over a year and a half. You, like me, most likely thought this would all be behind us in two or three months. I never imagined that the new “normal” would have us wearing masks in public and one in every 500 Americans dying from this virus. On top of all that is climate change and the on-going polarization of politics. It’s no wonder that there are many reports of people losing their cool. Staying awake is what is being asked of us right now even though we have a tendency to put on blinders to certain issues such as systemic racism. We must not close the door to the light that is wanting to shine through. It remains a time to continue to be committed in creating and participating in conversations that will include all our fellow citizens toward an equal playing field.

I often use the metaphor of the caterpillar to butterfly for our current planetary transformation. I’d like to think that we are in the stage when all the imaginal cells of the butterfly are gathering together to form the butterfly. I’m also realizing that we have yet to reach the butterfly stage. In the biology of the caterpillar, there is a step that occurs before this total transformation can take place. Prior to the congregation of imaginal cells there is a great rejection taking place inside the cocoon. The imaginal cells that are beginning to appear in the soup that was once the caterpillar are quite strange and, at first, feel so foreign that the caterpillar’s immune system rejects them, attacking them as invaders. And that may be the stage we are inextricably in right now.

As the realization of the invasion of all these unaccustomed and strange new “imaginal cells” came to the surface of my consciousness, I went into a full-blown rage and upset. Today my thoughts are to give myself some slack. After eighteen months of living in a stew of uncertainty, complexity, and volatility, many of us are living with a short fuse, ready to react and explode.

I believe that the first steps toward relieving the pressure of post-modern life is to acknowledge that there is an immense change taking place planet-wide. We’re living in a time like no other with its extraordinary pressure and stress.

In reflecting on the metaphor of the transformation of the caterpillar, what gives me hope and calms my spirit is that, despite being rejected, imaginal cells persist and multiply within the caterpillar. These new cells resonate at a similar frequency, communicating with one another, self-organizing to eventually join forces to overwhelm the caterpillar’s immune system. I’m convinced and comforted by the thought that so many of us are becoming awake and reaching out to one another as “imaginal cells” to become the butterfly of transformation for a better world for all.

I’ll leave you with this poem from our former guest Mark Nepo as the final word.

-Justine Willis Toms

Disrobing in Time

Nothing is easy, but to tell the truth.

The truth of what I see and feel.

This somehow cleanses my eye

and it becomes clear what to do.

In my pain I forget to admit what is

true and things get worse. Because

I don’t want to be sad, I don’t admit

that I already am. Then I feel like

I’m drowning.

Because I don’t want things to change,

I don’t admit that they already have.

Then I feel like the wheel of life

is tearing me apart.

The greatest power we have when

feeling powerless is to admit what

is already true. Then the stepping

stones of Eternity rise out of the

mud, showing us where to go.

Mark NepoMark Nepo