An Early Morning Revelation: Chuck St. John
by Chuck St. John, Sep 9, 2008
Are there pivotal moments in life, those moments where nothing is quite the same after?
If you asked me for my strongest experience, I would offer you this. It is the spring of 1968; I was living in Berkeley California in a small house up on the hill with my wife and two young sons.
Like almost every other night of my life, I woke up needed a trip to the john. And there, standing in front of the toilet bare naked, reality somehow made a very strong shift. It was a physical sensation, as if life were blurred - and had been blurred and fuzzy for a very long time - but now the lens of perception had somehow been adjusted and brought into sharp focus. It was really me, standing there peeing - really me.
There was an acute physical sense of presence and life, and recognition of myself quite distinct and strong. There was a unique sensation of my bare body standing on bare feet, slightly cold. I could feel blood moving in my veins, and my breathing in and out.
I finished, and turned toward the bathroom door very aware of my nakedness, the cool of the air, the weight of my body on my feet, the feel of the bare floor on the soles of my feet—all sharply distinct.
“Strange.” I said to myself, “How did I get here?”
It was as if I had awakened from a long sleep.
Yes, at one level, I knew where I was. It was all familiar. Yet, at a most concrete level, just at that exact moment, the question; “How did I get here?” was very real. I felt somehow I had just arrived here from a long time past and was standing now at the toilet.
I paused at the door of the bathroom looking right and left down the short hallway that connected the bathroom with two bedrooms. I just stood there, taking it all in as if I needed to relocate myself. All the inner automatic processes of orientation were felt, as if something quite separate was watching some human man locate himself in space and time.
I looked to the left through the open door into the bedroom. I saw a bed, the shape of a woman sleeping, illuminated by the moonlight coming from the big window over the bed. Words came, “Yes, that’s my wife.” And the events of the last six years came like remembering a story, as if lived by me in a dream. How we met. How we had made love in the backseat of a car in the Florida woods. How she had gotten pregnant and we married as a result. And all the events that led to this moment of my standing there, naked in the hallway.
“How did I get here?”
This time I almost said it out loud.
“Who lived these years?”
The shock of this left me almost paralyzed. Slowly I turned and looked to my right toward the other bedroom. A couple of steps and I looked through the door at a crib, and a small bed. Two young boys slept illuminated by the moonlight. "My sons" a voice said in me.
There was this taste of knowing them like characters in some story I'd read recently, or seen in a movie watched last night - as if I myself had not lived the story that led to this moment.
“Who lived these years?”
Not me, somehow.
It was not a speculative statement. It was a statement of fact. I did not choose any of this. It had all just happened to me as if I had been in a long dream.
I was shivering. Not from the cold but from this incomprehensible fact that somehow I had arrived here at this place in time and space without my participation. It was as if my life had lived me all by itself.
In a state of shock and bewilderment, I walked into the center of the small living room in front of me. I could not sit on the furniture. Somehow it wasn’t mine.
I just sat down in the middle of the floor, still stark naked. I could not move, could not comprehend what I was experiencing, and did not want to disturb the sleeping household. I was sure I could not face anyone like I was.
Some hours passed, the dark slowly changing to morning’s first light, I was cold and stiff but my mind and presence were alive and as if completely turned upside down. Finally, I heard some stirring. One of the boys was waking up. I needed to respond to the day at hand, somehow. So I got up, walked into my bedroom and began my day as if nothing had happened. I just did not know what else to do. It was as if I was in a play and needed to say my lines and play my part as best I could and not to let the other actors know that I knew this was just a play.
There was breakfast and the commute to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge in my blue VW to the office of the Addressograph Multigraph Corporation where I was a salesman for small printing presses. I talked to people as if all was perfectly normal.
And the days followed one after the other. I had no power to change anything. I found myself lost in the “theater” for hours at a time, in and out of the “story.”
Tentatively, I raised questions about this experience with my wife and my friends, in the form of something I’d read or as if it were somebody else’s experience I’d heard about. I was afraid to reveal it as mine. They all looked at me with an empty look, like what I was saying did not make sense to them at all. In fact, my wife asked me not to talk about it any more as it made her uncomfortable. She suggested I had been reading too much science fiction and needed be get my feet back on the ground.
So, I stayed silent with my growing questions, living with this acute certainty that everything I was doing—in fact everything I was—was a lie, intrinsically false. And yet, there was nothing within my power to change anything. There was nothing to do but go on as if playing a part in a play that someone else had made up and was directing.
After some weeks, I became numb to this experience. Sometimes I remembered it, as if it too, were just part of the story. It was as if I'd awaked for a short time and now I was back asleep in my dream. Something was content with all this. Yet, something had shifted, at a profound level. I just could not trust myself, my thoughts and my actions in the same way. There was a hopeless sense that I was inside another person who I could not control and could not trust. Again and again, I found something had just been said by “me,” or just done by “me,” that did not correspond at all with what I really felt or really thought or really wanted.
There were daily examples that I lived helplessly in this way. I would be on the road home from work and observe that I was talking to myself about my life, my wife, about our relationship and my job and my duties and obligations— full of complaints and strongly wishing I were going somewhere else. This litany of complaint and alienation would continue even up to walking in the front door.
Then, entering the house, my wife would great me with a warm smile and hug, as if she was really glad to see me. I responded in kind, outwardly full of warmth and smiles, as if I too were very glad to see her and be home. And, at some level, this was all true, too.
Who was I? The one complaining and wishing to be somewhere else? Or the happy husband glad to be home? Both seemed true and false at the same time.
With two children and a wife to support it always seemed that no matter how much I brought home, it was gone before the next payday. I spent hours making budgets and looking at our expenses. On paper, we should have had enough money to live on if we lived fugally and carefully. But then I would go to the supermarket to buy food, and come home with many things not on the budget—a magazine, an extra toy for a child, a bottle of good red wine.
Instead of spending the amount allotted for food, sometimes I’d spend a third more. Not just once, but over and over and over. And something in me knew this while I did it. One part of me was running right over my good reason and logic like a truck over the pet dog.
When having dinner with friends, we would drink some wine - always more than I planned to - and then there would be stories. I found myself talking with great conviction about things that really never happened or, for sure, did not happen as I was telling them. Sometimes I would see that I was lying and boasting again. I’d make some promise to stop and not lie, not boast, but in just seconds there I would be again, boasting and lying and telling stories.
Over and over again.
In my quiet moments, I would see that my behavior often contradicted and usually had nothing to do with the good thoughts I'd had.
Was I crazy? Were other people also like this? Or were others as they appeared to be on the surface? Not like me at all, but sane and possessing some inner order I did not see in myself?
Years have passed. And now, in the shadow of 70, I revisited this experience I had at 28. It was as if it had happened yesterday.
In all the years in between, nothing quite so real ever happened again for quite a long time. I was led to read, to go back to college and get most of the way through a masters program in the Philosophy of Religion, to meet and speak with many interesting people. And finally I met with some with similar experiences. That led me to a path of inner work that somehow corresponds to the questions that appeared that night, standing naked in the bathroom.
But if I close my eyes, sit still and become quiet, really quiet, this inner fact still presents itself as true - that I am not what I think I am, not this “persona” who has led this life and who writes these words, who somehow contains the memories of a life.
In fact, I don’t know who I really am. Who am I? Who are we?
Share Your Comments and Reflections on this Conversation:
On Jan 25, 2022 glenn shifflet wrote:I would like to reply to Katherine. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow describes such altered states of consciousness as "peak experiences". He studied these in 1964 and claimed that about 1/2 of Americans have had such experiences. He considered them very important.
Katherine, i'm taken with your description of tatami. I had a world class judo instructor from South Korea. We threw people on tatami. I like your country. I live in the U.S.
On Jan 21, 2022 Katherine wrote:I was 4 years old when woke up in the middle of the night and sat up on the sleeping mat when all other members of my family were sleeping in same room on tatami floor. My mother, father and two sisters. I could see them sleeping on the floor through the pale moonlight that came through the race paper sliding door. I looked at them and I was thinking 'who are these people, and what am I doing here with them?" And I laid down again and went back to sleep. That was 70 years ago during the Korean war. I hardly thought about it until I read this tonight.
On Jan 12, 2022 glenn shifflet wrote:I am, I said â€¦
I too, have had such experiences. The first was when I was eleven years old. I was sitting on my bed, quietly, noticing the sunlight coming in the window, when all of the sudden a strange feeling came over me. I became tense and dared not move. A thought came to me: Iâ€™m alive!! It was startling, and I jolted back to normal eleven-year-old consciousness after a few seconds.
This rather amazing experience reoccurred when I was 25 years old. I had been working late, as usual, doing electronics engineering for a small company in a Minneapolis, MN suburb. I locked the building door, went out to my car - the only one in the lot - got in, put the key in the ignition, and Bam! There it was again. Only this time it didnâ€™t go away after just a few seconds. I loved just looking around, went for a ride just observing everything, feeling wonderful. But then I realized I had a wife and two children at home, and needed to return home and get up in the morning to do my job. I didnâ€™t want to return to normal consciousness but had no choice.
Over the next few decades, I had glimpses of these altered states of consciousness â€“ an out of body experience, seemingly impossible coincidences, and so on. Like you, life felt like a stage play and I was actor and audience â€“ but certainly not the director. I used alcohol and drugs to attempt to escape the pain of life and find a higher consciousness, to no avail. Then, rather magically, I experienced LSD-25. It was close to my earlier experiences. A short time later I crashed and burned, as we say, and found a new life.
Today, after many adventurous turns, I find myself in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Essentially, I have everything I have ever wanted, find serenity in acceptance of what I experience, and live on the cusp of that first Iâ€™m alive experience. Life is good.
On Jan 10, 2022 vic smyth wrote:We are angels in heaven playing a game of make believe: What would it be like to be an imperfect being in an imperfect world?
On Jan 10, 2022 Lorraine wrote:I think to a certain extent we are all just playing roles in life ... Wife, Mother, Friend, in each existence a different part of me shows up... Maybe they're all "true" ...maybe they're not. Its so difficult in this society to be fully 'present' when everything shifts from moment to moment and the face we show to the world, to our mates, our children, our friends and our mothers, fathers, siblings seem to change with each circumstance. How do we become our true selves? How do we maintain 'presence' in life? Good questions. Worth seeking answers to.
On Jan 9, 2022 Karen wrote:This writing is a gift. Thank you. I have had differently flavored moments with the same substance realizing how little I have done to make and keep this body, or control the events and turnings of "my" life. I have also asked myself the question Ramana Maharishi suggested asking oneself time and time again: "Where is this thought coming from?/Who is having this thought?" It is a question that can't be answered and supports a new kind of seeing. "Our" lives are being lived through. We are not in charge. The one thing we seem given to do is be aware moment to moment.
On Jan 9, 2022 Marcia Zina Mager wrote:A beautifully articulated story. Thank you. I'm sure you've found spiritual teacher or teachings that illuminate this profound experience. I think of Mooji, the spiritual teacher, Jamaican, who lives in Portugal. He is always talking about letting go of the person. That you are not the person. Your story, Chuck, resonated deeply with me. I once wrote a short poem that speaks to it, titled The Great Escape
Set down the burden of your personality.
All that doing.
All that thinking.
All that busyness.
Isnâ€Ÿt it exhausting?
Who you are is not a Who.
It is a What.
Being right is killing you.
Being smart is not the way.
Surrender your God-awful intelligence.
Climb over the sharp, tangled vines of your cleverness.
On Jan 9, 2022 gail wrote:Perhaps CHuck St. JOhn's experience was a mystical one. He now knows he is not who he thought he was....perhaps he might read of others who have had this or similar experiences.
On Jan 9, 2022 Mary wrote:I think with Eliza...that this is in fact a sad story...someone who couldn't jibe with his authentic self. I kept hoping that at the end of the story some illumination would be revealed. But it didn't. A man who instead lived "beside" himself forever.
On Jan 9, 2022 Lynne wrote:Thank you. Thank you. Having recently had an experience that shocked me deeply, this somehow resonates. I appreciate your honesty and am grateful to have read what you wrote. James Hollis, Stephen Jenkinson, Terry Tempest Williams, Pema Chodron - reading their works helps me find ways of asking questions with an occasional grain of sand sized realization of something, but I know full well that the deepening of self must continue if I am to even begin to get close to the answers you pose.... Thank you;
On Jan 9, 2022 Helen Gennari wrote:An amazing story, Chuck. Thank you for sharing it with us. I agree with Avriane~~this is a most significant question we all need to ask at some point in our lives. I recall that in my early 40s I woke up one day to that question: "Who am I?" and became aware that I had been living someone else's life~~not mine. The years that followed became more about living from the inside out, following my own star, my own truth. Not always an easy path to follow.
On Jan 9, 2022 Annie wrote:What a spiritual gift of awakening & so beautifully described, much like a mystical dream, a loving detachment to the body & an awareness of ones soul...a dieing while living...
On Jan 9, 2022 David Durovy wrote:I realize that this story leaves many unanswered questions as Eliza said below. The story though is not unfamiliar as many people have shared similar experiences including my mother. I often feel like I live on the edge of a similar dimension but with fear of losing self. Little by little it seems the fear diminishes as I now 71 realize there is little to lose and find a more welcoming attitude. I believe the biblical reference is â€œI must decrease so He can increaseâ€.
On Jan 9, 2022 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:Profound and poignant. I want to reach through the screen to 1968 Chuck, hug him and tell him, 'I believe you.'
On Jan 9, 2022 Eliza Duade wrote:So many questions. His relationships, his family. Did he love them? Give them the joy and safety of a loving partner , parent. He does not mention the effect all this was having on them. He shows no concern for their well being. No guilt no struggle to get back to them. Instead they lived with a person who watched his life from afar. How did they survive with someone who didnâ€™t participate, didnâ€™t give his full mindfulness. Who felt a robot almost, with no responsibility for drinking to much, spending too much. The footnote says he lives in Italy . What of his family. Did he seek therapy to help him feel more present.
On Apr 30, 2011 Honor wrote:Reading,"it is as if my life had lived me all by itself" resonates as true inside me. I thank you for remembering and creating such a visual description of your experience.
On Sep 18, 2008 Avriane wrote:Comforting to have read this. Thank you for sharing. The most important question in our lives is indeed the question: Who am I? Who is this stranger looking back at me from the mirror? And to find an answer to this is - in the greater scheme of things - the most important task of our lives.
On Sep 12, 2008 samuel moses wrote:What he shared does really happen I believe to all of us onces in a while. For there are times that we are not sure about the kind of life that we are living. But we good relationship with the CREATOR, all things are made clear to us. therefoer is time for us all to know GOD the CREATOR!!!
On Sep 11, 2008 Lizzie wrote:As an insomniac who's always had trouble explaining to others just what it is that I do with all those still, quiet hours when everything sleeps but me I want to thank-you for voicing my thoughts so eloquently.