"Do not think you have gained a virtue unless you have first been tried by its opposite." -- Saint Teresa of Avila
In my younger years, I was a geeky, skinny girl and a self-chosen tomboy. It wasn't until my teens that I started to develop into what others considered to be an "attractive young woman," and it wasn't until that time that it even occurred to me to care what others thought of how I looked.
I began to get a lot of attention for my appearance in my early teens -- a lot. And, at a level that was largely unconscious to me at the time, my appearance slowly became the center-point revolver around which I began to hinge my deepest sense of self-identity and worth.
When I was 15, I developed eating disorders, and I would spend close to two hours doing my hair and makeup every day before I could even leave the house. My entire mood and demeanor started to be shaped and determined by how good I looked, or didn't look, on any given day.
The amount of energy and obsession I put into my appearance always felt very contrived and fake, as if I was covering over some deeper feeling of dread that I couldn't articulate at the time. A repugnant falsity permeated my being. Waves of nausea continually resurfaced underneath my impeccably-applied lip gloss and my perfectly curled hair. A deep sense of fear gutted me from the inside out and silenced my deeper knowing. I had become plastic, fabricated, stiff and existentially bankrupt.
I tried to hold it all together by maintaining the perfect body posture and hair style and giving off just the right degree of attractive feminine allure in order to yield compliments from others. But the fear was constant underneath all my conscious and unconscious antics to try to be desirable. I felt a deep existential falsity in everything I did. I felt vulnerable and fragile -- like I could break at any moment.
It was when I was 22 years old that everything in my life changed. It was in that year that a series of painful and ecstatic spiritual openings, which had been occurring over the past six years in increasingly quick succession and intensity, came to their inevitable head and initiated my descent into Hell.
Deep shadows from my unconscious started to erupt into full view of my conscious mind, often showing up through vivid archetypal images, painful memories, or strange sounds, smells and colors. On a mental level, my internal thought processes no longer seemed to function in any coherent or rational way. My thoughts became chaotic and undirected meanderings that I experienced as banal and painful.
At a spiritual level, I felt my soul was being gutted out and put through a series of trials over which I had no control. This continued for five months straight without avail -- it was nothing short of excruciating.
During that time, I developed a very severe case of acne that slowly and steadily took over my entire face. I watched my worst nightmare and my deepest fear come directly to the foreground as I looked at myself in the mirror every morning. Within a month, there wasn't one square inch of skin on my face that wasn't covered in red bumps or large pus-filled pimples. I also developed deep red rashes across my face and all over my body, as well as shingles across my torso.
As a woman, the loss of my face was undeniably the hardest hit I'd ever taken to my entire sense of self and being. All the hinges of identity I had placed on my appearance and femininity were being challenged and unpeeled like layers of an onion, in rapid succession. I felt as though I no longer had any solid ground to stand on.
I started to see just how deep and subtle my identity and attachment to my physical appearance really was. How much of my value was linked to my looks, how much all the ways I acted, spoke, and even the way I laughed had been in some form expressing itself through this deeply intertwined identification with my physical beauty, and my fear of its opposite. The falsity of my being went far deeper than I could have ever imagined.
The subtle layers of that false identity continued to reveal themselves to me the more ugly my physical appearance became. The more I could no longer rely on my appearance to navigate my way through life, the more I felt I did not have any solid sense of who I was or what my value was. I had become invisible to the world and even repulsive. I had gone from being admired for my looks to existing at the lowest rungs of beauty privilege.
It was in this total loss of face, which became a total loss of self, that I eventually broke. At a very deep existential level, I gave up. I stopped all my attempts to control, to fix, to change, or to hide from reality. I let go because I had nothing left in me to fight, and I had nothing left to lose.
In that moment of honest relinquishment, something opened within me. My heart started to burn and a deafening silence began to permeate everything around and within me. I entered a still point -- like I had been thrust into the eye of a tornado. I felt an absolute peace unlike anything I'd ever known before.
I began to see and feel a beauty and radiance in the world around me that far surpassed anything I had ever experienced. It whispered gently to me from behind the bristling leaves, and it sung out in blaring yet quiet recognition from behind the eyes of every person I encountered. The radiance was subtle yet blinding, and it was everywhere.
In losing myself, I mysteriously gained an entire universe of light and indescribable beauty. It was so beautiful that it was painful. It was so ecstatic that it was unbearable. It burned my awareness and lit my entire soul on fire. I could barely withstand it.
Six months after my descent into Hell and my opening to radiance, my face had completely cleared and my rashes and shingles mysteriously healed. I was back to "normal," and back to reaping subtle benefits from the larger society because of my beauty privilege. But I would never be the same in any shape or form, and in many ways my journey through Hell and ugliness, and its implication on my life and my perception, had only just begun to unfold and integrate.
Surfaces are so incredibly fragile and fleeting, and ultimately empty of the deepest existential meaning or significance. Real beauty can only be known and experienced through a deep recognition and embodiment of its opposite. Only when there is no fear of the ugly and the dark can we truly touch into the deepest indestructible radiance that lies at the core of all things, and is each of our birthright.
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Flickr photo by Sthetic