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2/19/09

Suzanne Segal & A Sudden Loss of Sense of Self

Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head
(from Lapus Lazuli, by W.B. Yeats)

Waiting at a Paris bus stop, four months pregnant, Suzanne Segal was about to take a step that would change her life forever. It occurred as she boarded the number 37 line.

"I lifted my right foot to step up into the bus and collided head-on with an invisible force that entered my awareness like a silently exploding stick of dynamite, blowing the door of my usual consciousness open and off its hinges . . . All the body's signals seemed to take a long time to be picked up in this non-localized place, as if they were light coming from a distant star. Terrified, I looked around . . . All the other passengers were calmly taking their seats . . . I shook my head a few times, hoping to rattle my consciousness back into place, but nothing changed. I felt from afar as my fingers fumbled to insert the ticket into the slot and I walked down the aisle to find a seat. I sat down next to an older woman I had been chatting with at the bus stop, and I tried to continue our conversation. My mind had completely ground to a halt in the shock of the abrupt collision with whatever had dislodged my previous reality."

Her personal identity disappeared and she began to live in terror. Of her body she said it was "an outline empty of everything of which it had previously felt so full. " She also said, "Everything seemed to be dissolving right in front of my eyes, constantly. Emptiness was everywhere, seeping through the pores of every face I gazed upon, flowing through the crevices of seemingly solid objects. The body, mind, speech, thoughts, and emotions are all empty; they had no ownership, no person behind them. I was utterly bereft of all my previous notions of reality."

Although others acknowledged a change in her, she was puzzled that nobody else noticed what she saw so clearly: "as if there were an unseen doer who acted perfectly."

Later in her narrative: "The first response that the mind had to this completely ungraspable experience was absolute terror; but that terror never changed the experience for a moment. In other words that terror never got the reference point back again. There was no personal self, but nothing stopped; the functions continued to function just as before. In fact, better than before. Speaking was still speaking and walking was still walking. I even went to graduate school and got a Ph.D."

"I experienced this fear for ten years. During this time, I consulted a lot of psychotherapists because it seemed like something I needed to be cured of. Every single one of these therapists considered this to be a problem. And they all had a diagnosis for it. They couldn't quite understand how it could be that there was such great functioning occurring, but they took the fact that there was a lot of fear to be a sign that this was a problem. "

This, on sex: "Sexuality still functions, but without the lust or longing that are self-referencing aspects. Sex serves no personal desire and has no deeper meaning that makes it anything but what it is at the moment. Like all other functions, the sexual function is engaged when the vastness deems obvious, for a mysterious, non-personal purpose. When lovemaking occurs, there is no one making love to no one. How could this possibly be comprehensible to the mind?"

Segal eventually stopped asking therapists for help and turned to spiritual teachers. "Towards the end of the ten years, there was a clear awareness that this was not something that was going to go away. It was time to start investigating other possible descriptions of what this was. It was time to investigate it with people who maybe knew more about it than Western psychotherapists. I started reading spiritual books. . . ."

American Buddhist teachers assured her that her absence of self was not pathological, which helped her understand it in a different light, whereupon her fear subsided. "I realized that the mind had been clinging tenaciously to the erroneous notion that the presence of fear meant something about the validity of the experience of no-self. Fear had tricked the mind into taking its presence to mean something it did not. Fear was present, yes, but that was all it was! The presence of fear in no way invalidated the experience that no personal self existed. It meant only that fear was present. Everything occurs simultaneously--form and emptiness, pain and enlightenment, fear and awakening. Fear's grip broke, and joy arose at once."

After this understanding a further shift occurred: "I was driving north to meet some friends when I suddenly became aware that I was driving through myself. For years there had been no-self at all, yet here on this road , everything was myself, and I was driving through me to arrive where I already was. In essence, I was going nowhere because I was everywhere already. The infinite emptiness I knew myself to be was now apparent as the infinite substance of everything I saw."

She had referred to her bus stop experience as a "bus hit." In summer 1996 a series of powerful hits occurred, which at first were pleasant, rapturous, then increasingly disturbed her, causing her to rest after especially strong ones.

In early 1997 X-rays revealed a brain tumor. She had surgery and died on 1 April 1997, age 42. Her book is titled Collision with the Infinite.

Post script. The skeptic might argue that her disease provides evidence for the materialist position-- that she merely hallucinated.

As a response to the materialist, consider this in William James' classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience: "Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. . . . And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined. . . . "

"According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to . . . scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see "the liver" determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. . . ."

"To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our DIS-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor's body at the time."

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