Finding the Pit
When I was young, I fell into the “Pit of the Void”.
I was too scared to tell anyone, I didn’t know what was happening.
I’d always been a sensitive curious child.
Was “meditation” was explained to me or did I come up with the idea by myself? I can’t remember.
I lay awake trying to see my thoughts; not think them.
As I did, I started to feel spinning, faster and faster, my mind never quite going blank exactly, but becoming more and more aware of how much nothing was there in my mind, how trapped I was in my own conscious brain.
It would be years before I would feel okay again. 4 long, terrifying years of trying to avoid the Pit of the Void in my mind. With people, I was okay, kept in the present moment by their vibrancy, their “realness”. I felt safe, or at least safer.
Living with the Pit
But when I was alone the Pit would creep up on me. A crawling falling spinning sliding sensation, dizzying and disorientating, coming up from nowhere. Clutching me, bit-by-bit, until my whole body felt paralyzed with an existential terror…
Sometimes these spells would last for seconds. Others probably lasted no longer than a minute, but felt like a lifetime before they finally broke, leaving me gasping and racing for sanity. I always came back to reality, but it always felt conditional. Panic attacks were the best parallel I could find, but this was the cause of my fear, not a symptom. I don’t think I related well to people before, but seeing the strangeness behind our world didn’t help.
I felt like a character in the Matrix, convinced there was more than the eye could see, and it petrified me. Why would anyone want the mysterious “red pill” if their reality was stable? It was all I longed for. Adventures in spirituality or science fiction could pass me by; all I craved was to feel safe again.
Years passed, and still the Pit beckoned to me. I began to visualise it, learn to avoid it, and listen for the cracks and tremors that signaled the start of an attack. I learned to think “around” it, not “of” it, so that it wouldn’t suck me in. I was fascinated and horrified at the same time. I still hadn’t managed to tell anyone.
Questioning the Pit
It sounded like normal kid questions: “Why am I me?” “What happens when we die?”…but I’d stepped beyond normality, and no answers would console me. The Catholic belief I was raised in dismally failed me. Eternal life side-stepped the question, and demanded faith in the super-ordinary, when I barely had a grip on normal life.
Instead I added shame to the problems I had – why did no one else freak out about the effervescence of life, the flimsy curtain on which we all lived, the delicate plane of existence vs non-existence? Already feeling disorientated and alone, now I felt burdened with being the only person broken enough to question my reality.
No, we weren’t a spiritual family. Perhaps it would have helped? I began to cultivate a mild obsession with death, both out of suicidal fear and of intellectual curiosity. If I could conquer the fear of non-existence, I knew the Pit would have less power over me.
Climbing the Pit
A few years in, and I was beginning to think the pit was forever. I struggled to sleep, was scared to be alone and overwhelmed to be with people. I’d forget about the pit for days or weeks, only to be struck down by pants-wetting fear when I least expected it. I was nervous, pre-occupied, never quite able to relax, still horrifyingly alone, still living as if everything was fine and normal, still hoping to feel okay again one day.
And then one day I found something.
An ordinary school day. Alone during an assembly. It was quiet – the most dangerous time. To avoid the pit, you must keep your brain occupied at all times.
Grab a book. It’s a hymn book, of course, it’s Catholic school. The religion doesn’t hold any sway over the Pit, if anything it makes it worse, but it’s better to read, keep your eyes busy, than for one second let your guard down against the Pit.
Turn a page. Check out the weird bits at the back. Read the prayer right at the back on the very last page, titled simply “Desiderata”…
GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
And with that, the knot tying inside me for years, impenetrable, heavy, overwhelming, unforgiving…starts to loosen.
I read that poem over and over again. The world, just slightly, stops spinning quite so much.
I don’t even know what Desiderata means (I later came to realise it’s Latin for “Things Desired”), or where this prayer came from. It has no author in my hymn book; it is gifted unexplained.
Desiderata becomes my anchor, my one relief, my one grounding escape. The Pit, now simply a “pit”, doesn’t go away overnight, but it doesn’t terrify me so much any more. I’m no longer broken or outside of reality, I’m part of the universe again, like the poem said. My weird thoughts and terrible secret can no longer be so terrible if they come from the universe itself, and I can’t be responsible for reality if I am simply part of it.
After that day, my life gets easier. I finally have an anchor, a lifeline, to an enormous, scary, invisible and confusing problem. I’m still awkward, anxious, and now I’m more than a little traumatised too, but at least I have escaped the Pit, and it seems to be for good.
Re-Discovering the Pit and Realising It Has A Name
Years pass, and the Pit subsides. My mind thatches over the hole, and I get on with my life, not existential angst. I heal from and cut off my family who blamed instead of saving. I learn about the ordinary lawyer who wrote Desiderata in 1927. I get into self-help, get my autism diagnosis, get therapy, start yoga. I connect to someone who lives with the pit, becoming his salvation. I learn about the death-positivity movement, and philosophy, and accepting life as interconnected. I’m political, philosophical; I try to be a good person. I blog, try to keep good habits, try to find meaning in life now I’m free from the pit.
Then I re-discover the pit.
A familiar feeling has been lingering at the edge of my meditative yoga practice recently. It’s a slight spinning. It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t feel right. I let it spin out and I open my eyes.
I lay there beyond my alarm, feeling the anxiety, watching now as an adult with more control. Slowly, as the spinning slows, I get up, and I finally turn to google: “Why am I scared when I meditate?”.
And I find answers. Almost unbelieving, I read a Vice Article about the dangers of unsupervised meditation for beginners. With shock, I realise my nameless pit has finally been given a name in the real world:
“This phenomenon, within the Buddhist tradition, is sometimes referred to as ‘falling into the Pit of the Void.’ It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self.”
It isn’t just me! I’m genuinely not alone! I’m truly not strange or broken!
It’s like running into a brick wall and feeling overwhelming relief that the wall is solid. The pit was not a figment of my imagination, or of a broken mind. It was a genuine phenomena, common among inexperienced solo meditators.
Now my whole life feels differently lit.
I had to write it down, get it out there, now I’m not alone.
Sharing the Pit – It’s a Meditation Thing.
If you’re reading this because you too have “fallen into the Pit of the Void”, then I hope this makes you feel less alone. You don’t have to listen to forum posts about demons, karma, other spiritual planes if you don’t want to, there’s still a way out. It’s not entirely scientific, but it’s not entirely spiritual either. It’s vertigo, from the stillness, and it does real strange things to the mind, that you might not have signed up for.
Perhaps other people won’t be lost for the words like I was for my strange and scary meditating experience. Then again, some of the guidance online about “kundali” demons is almost more terrifying than being alone and mad. Some people might feel intrigued, but it doesn’t have to be demons if you don’t want it to.
I’m especially worried about kids like me, who’ve experienced this without the skills or language to get help from well-meaning adults. I’m only now, at 25, realising it isn’t just me. All my healing has been guesswork, and alone. Maybe now I might feel less ashamed about this buried, secret trauma in my life, and how it’s shaped me.
As for yoga, I’m still going to meditate. Only for small chunks, and cautiously, but now empowered with the knowledge that it’s all been done before. It’s naive to think otherwise.
No one’s original, you’re never alone, it’s never “only you”. You’re always part of what came before, like the atoms of the universe, you’re just recombined. Like my favourite line of Desiderata, you really are a part of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.
I hope you find that reassuring.
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