This is a book about transformation. We are taught to celebrate when things are acquired—birth, education, marriage, promotions, awards—and to grieve after the losses—divorce, being laid off, illness, and finally death. Yet nothing in my upbringing prepared me for the changes of the past 12 years.
I was baptized by an Episcopalian priest and confirmed at a Protestant church, but religion was ultimately nothing more than an obligation my parents wanted me to fulfill. My education through college felt more like an indoctrination than a process of inquiry or a preparation for the inevitable changes that lay ahead. I followed a safe path of getting married, having a child, and creating my own business. But even the comfort zone can be dangerous because transformation is how Nature—and hence the world—works. My own changes were prompted by events that gave no advance notice or chance to prepare. These next few pages are the story of how I had to shift or perish, and the learning process that ensued.
If given a choice between my waking life and my dreams, I’d choose my dreams. There, I have been surrounded by walls of fire approaching like a storm, seen faces come off like masks to reveal true identities, and rested my head on my mother’s lap in a small boat on a placid lake as she described my obstacles to happiness. I’ve never dreamt about flying. In dreams, I have heard John Coltrane perform “My Favorite Things” with his quartet in a gym, engaged in a conversation with Joni Mitchell that felt like an interview, and had Keith Richards show me how to play the opening lick to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” (The next day I pulled out a guitar and played what I remembered from the dream. The lick was just like the record!) That my dream life exceeds the conforming expectations I was raised with makes it that much more thrilling.
It’s with a dream that I want to enter my own story. In the dream, I am at a party at Jack Nicholson’s home in Aspen. Jack gently pulls me into the kitchen, apparently wanting to tell me something. We’re standing by ourselves when he leans toward me and says in a gruff, serious whisper: “Rick—Vail’s got no soul.” I had been a property manager for a couple of decades and divorced for a few years. My son had moved to Texas to be with his mother. My time in Vail was done. In reality, I had known this subconsciously but had been unwilling to acknowledge the situation, much less do anything about it. In another year or so, I developed a loud ringing in my right ear severe enough to result in several panic attacks because the sound wouldn’t go away. OK, I finally get it: it’s time to move.
My then partner and I settled in northern New Mexico, but within a couple of years, that relationship came to an abrupt end. I have been visiting Hawaii regularly since the early 1980s, and a trip had already been planned to the Big Island. This time I went alone to find solace, solitude, and the hope of normal sleep again. I had fallen into a pattern alternating from one sleepless night to one with perhaps a couple of hours of sleep. This had been going on for about a month. At a grocery store in Pahoa, I watched my hands shaking as I paid the cashier. Things were deteriorating.
Playing it safe, I spent my days mostly near the water reading the poems of Hafiz and desperately trying to find some distance. It was there where two stanzas from “We Have Not Come to Take Prisoners” leaped from the page.
Run my dear,
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.
Run like hell my dear,
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
Kilauea was erupting in Volcano National Park, so I planned a trip to witness fresh lava flowing. That day in my rental car I was listening to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” There are three movements: an old lament; a message, converted into song, written by a prisoner on a Nazi prison wall; and a folk song about a mother looking for her son, who had been killed.
On the Big Island, driving from Hilo to Volcano is rarely a sunny affair. The elevation gain totals almost 4,000 feet in 30 miles. On this particular day, the clouds grew thicker and darker the farther I drove. Add to this the songs of sorrow I was listening to, no sleep the night before, and a fragile mental state at best. I was using most of my attention to focus on the road and be safe when suddenly, out of nowhere, the possibility of suicide became real as the steering wheel in my hands.
This caught me completely by surprise. “So this is where the process begins of taking one’s life” was my first thought, followed by a feeling of standing at the end of a gun barrel. I had never imagined myself at a place so desperate, yet here I was. I immediately turned off the music and rolled down all of the windows. I had to breathe. My body was in a panic. Cool air rushed in but the feeling persisted. If I had the courage, how would I take my life? Was this really an option? How could I possibly do this to my 19-year-old son?
Driving on, I turned into the park and decided to stick with the original plan of viewing lava. It was the only plan I had. Fresh air felt good, and as I descended the Chain of Craters Road, the clouds dispersed; I was returning to sea level. Here the road comes to an abrupt end because of an older lava flow from 1986. Still very much feeling the possibility of suicide, I set out on the two-mile hike to my destination. At night, the lava glows from red to orange before being cooled by the air. But during the day, the colors are muted, and once the surface has cooled, it takes on a silver-gray tone. This can be deceptive, as this metallic-looking surface appears the same whether the flow is a week old and solid or brand new and still liquid underneath.
There were a few signs announcing the area of the new flow, with a caution to be careful. In my fragile psychological state, I was just happy to be on my feet again, back in the sun, hiking and checking out the eruption. I began to see the heat rise from the surface of the 1,200-degree lava. But this was a slow flow, and small rivulets branched out everywhere. Before long, I was in a slight indentation of the terrain that opened downhill in the direction of the sea. Surrounded by the silver-gray and feeling the heat, it was an amazing experience to be present at the birth of new Earth. Little did I know that just below the surface, the lava was slowly surrounding me.
Between the midday sun and the eruption, the heat was starting to take its toll, so I took a step to leave—the ground beneath me felt like Jell-O. Wrong direction. Another step—same sensation. Then I looked around and saw heat rising almost everywhere. I felt a moment of panic, realizing that I was surrounded by new lava and no one was near enough to even notice, much less help. What a state to be in: sleep deprived, suicide knocking at the back door, and trapped by lava with the only option of escape involving severe burns to my feet. In that moment, something inside me got grounded like never before. Suicide has its options to ponder over time, but survival is really black and white in the moment. My well-being depended on getting it together to find a way back out.
Surveying where the heat was rising and where it might be safe to walk, I noticed a possible cool spot about 4 feet away. Now for a literal leap of faith—my only exit. Over the hot lava I jumped and landed safely. Freedom depended upon this harrowing process, which I repeated several more times until I was out of the flow and safe on solid ground again. The thought of suicide had vanished, and I wept tears of gratitude for whatever had allowed me to survive unharmed. I’d had several close calls in the past, including a near drowning off Maui and hitting an elk head-on in a car at 75 miles per hour on Interstate 70. But that day on the Big Island had taken me to my edge twice within a few hours.
That moment was the turning point in the dark night of my soul. Hafiz had given me some direction, but those two occurrences—the suicidal thoughts and the near catastrophe at Volcano National Park—broke me down enough to admit that I needed help. Within a couple of days, my former partner had arranged a phone session for me with a therapist in New Mexico. The therapist urged me to go to an emergency room to get some sleep medication, and a compassionate doctor in Waimea wrote a prescription for Ambien, which gave me sleep again, albeit without dreams. This was the end of the nightmare and the beginning of the work.
Returning home, I was still quite fragile but decided to make recovery a full-time job. The fear of annihilation convinced me that I had to change. What did I do? There was weekly therapy, attending group meetings to talk about healthy relationships, reading book after book on everything from attachment theory and abandonment to forgiveness and compassion, learning the Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono (reconciliation through self-forgiveness), exploring ego identity at the Amenti Mystery School in Santa Fe, volunteering at a shelter for troubled youth, seeing a doctor of Oriental medicine once a month to get my body back in tune, and becoming a Noetic Balancing practitioner. This last practice, in particular, has given me a view into human behavior that goes straight to the core beliefs that determine how people live their lives. I had no idea how invaluable this information would become.
And I spent hours and hours alone in Nature, my childhood refuge. Partly out of fear stemming from my experiences on the Big Island and partly because I felt that I had no choice, I was covering all the bases I could. Repeating old patterns of behavior clearly didn’t work. Change, and with it the possibility of a new life, seemed like my only option. I believe that most, if not all, people who live long enough will face this crossroads at least once in their lives. To put it simply: continue to suffer or transform.
As difficult as the work of transformation is, it is the only reason that I am alive today. Between the Jack Nicholson dream, the ending of that relationship, and the events on the Big Island, life itself was conspiring to make me grow. With all of the avenues of learning explored, I was acquiring tool after tool to help myself—and, in turn, perhaps to help others.
As a child, I always wanted to make sense of the world. My parents were not religious beyond ceremony, so no answers were provided there. Logic was great for working on a car or learning the skills to get a job, but it didn’t help with being in a relationship either with myself or with someone else. The required philosophy course I took in college left me wondering how many philosophers would be willing to work at a soup kitchen to feed the poor. There was too much talk.
I had encountered Charles Olson’s poem “A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul” in college as well. This was the seed. Water was added through reading Iron John by Robert Bly and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés after I was divorced. These were loose curriculums for men and women, respectively, but something else was beginning to coalesce on the horizon.
Back in Hawaii at a dance camp a few years later, I encountered many conversations about poetry, mythology, and fairy tales. Through these discussions, I verbalized for the first time the idea of creating a new curriculum of the soul. This led me to making an outline and then forging ahead with the actual writing. Perhaps my background as an English major might actually serve a purpose beyond letter writing as a property manager to homeowners.
In addition, I had already been combining poetry with music on a radio show in New Mexico. I choose a different topic for each week, ranging from the celebration of holidays and seasons to the exploration of themes such as kindness and surrender. I began adding poems used on the show to the outline for the curriculum. The pieces were coming together. As I began writing, I realized that with all that I had learned in the past few years, I was finally starting to make sense of the world, on my own terms.
It has been 15 years since the dream with Jack Nicholson. My dreams and waking life are no longer so far apart. ((I recently had another Jack Nicolson dream where he was younger and saying, “No more supporting roles.”) I’ve learned that my behaviors are symptomatic of how much or how little I love myself; eating outside of my usual diet, for instance, indicates that I’m hungry for something other than food. When I’m exercising regularly by swimming, hiking, and dancing, I feel good and usually sleep better. Sometimes I find myself upset, particularly when driving. Then I ask: “What is this anger really about?” What I’ve come to understand is that the external reality is usually a mirror of what is going on inside.
Now it’s time for me to step aside so that my story doesn’t get in the way of the larger perspective I want to convey. The curriculum is not a method, a plan, or 12 steps to happiness. Instead, it is a general guide that needs to be interpreted individually to find what works for you. If there were an alternative title, it would be How to Retrain the Linear Brain. This is what I’ve been attempting to do for the past 12 years. In that time, I have learned through the practice of ho’oponopono the possibility of taking total responsibility for my participation in life. This is asking for a huge paradigm shift, as it eliminates the possibility of shame or blame—this shift alone would change the world forever. If you have any curiosity about how you can shift and transform, then perhaps this book will have some influence on your journey toward living a soul-centered life.
I’d like to make one suggestion for the reader. Because of the length of the book, a full reading could be a daunting task. Instead, since the individual chapters were created so that each could stand alone, read the introduction for an overview. Then select the chapters that resonate with what is going on in your life at the moment. This way, the reading can truly become a curriculum for your soul.
— Rick Haltermann
Hafiz: “We Have Not Come To Take Prisoners” from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz. Copyright © 1999 Penguin Books. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky and used with his permission.