by Cornelia Cacu
* This life experience was first published in “Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergencies“, a collection of 16 spiritual emergence stories edited by Jules Evans and Tim Read (May 2020).
Cornelia Cacu was born in Romania in 1984; she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Cybernetics and Bachelor’s Degree in Theatrical Arts, both universities having a major impact in her vertical development. She currently works in Finances and is a Founding Member of the “Sounds of Om Association” which promotes projects for sustaining the transformational processes and personal growth.
Spiritual emergencies are moments of messy awakening, crises of ego dissolution and rebirth that are often misunderstood and unskillfully managed by psychiatry. As more Westerners meditate and are drawn to psychedelics to foster their psycho-spiritual growth, mystical experiences are becoming more common―yet some of them will be disturbing and difficult. There is an urgent need for our culture to upgrade its understanding of what these experiences are like and what helps people through the turbulence.
Breaking Open is the first book in which people discuss their own spiritual emergencies and share what helped them through. The contributors are the experts of their own experience, and they share their wild journeys with courage, insight, and poetry. There are fascinating parallels in their experiences, suggesting minds in extremis go to similar places. These are beautiful postcards from the edge of human consciousness, testaments to the soul’s natural resilience. These people have returned from their descent with valuable insights for our culture, as we go through a collective spiritual emergency, with old myths and structures breaking down, and new possibilities breaking open. What is there beyond our present egocentric model of reality? What tools can help us navigate the emergence?
The Ball of Light
My journey began long ago, as a ball of light, traveling with unimaginable speed before coming to rest in this body. My experience of myself as a light being, without limit or form and existing in a pure frequency of love, profoundly changed my perspective.
I was five years old when I had my first awakening, feeling that my body was actually aligned with all of life. It was an experience of unity that became imprinted so deeply in my cellular memory that I never forgot it. I was one with the wind, one with the water, one with the earth, one with all animals, one with the plants, and one with all human beings.
This first awakening made my body melt in ecstasy; I had a visceral understanding that Life is made out of Love, that no matter what happens in life we are loved in a way that is beyond understanding.
This is a lot to take on board for anyone, especially for a child raised in a communist regime, with its oppression, fear, and superstition. My sense of self fluctuated between feeling rooted in ecstatic unity and constructing a personality to interact with the everyday world. It was hard for me to identify with this personality as it felt fragile and tended to lose its relevance when compared to the unitive state. I have since learned from Buddhist teachers that one can attain self-realization through suffering. Well, my suffering really began at that point.
So, there I was, having this mutative knowledge of cosmic oneness, feeling connected to this immense love and freely giving this love to anyone and any being. But I did not have the language to explain how I felt and at school I was being taught that we humans had been banished from heaven for eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden—moreover, women bore responsibility for this by listening to the snake. I found myself in a world that I couldn’t recognize as being part of the cosmic vision that I had been shown. People were fighting, killing, lying, and despoiling nature. Children were being beaten and punished in a corrupt educational system that operated through fear and denied self-expression. This world seemed nightmarish in contrast to the luminous, ecstatic experience that had showed me unconditional love for all living beings.
Shortly after this awakening, somewhere between the ages of five and seven, three things happened that shaped my subsequent journey. The first one was a sexual trauma. The second was a form of identification with one of the most rejected characters in history: Satan. The third was an overwhelming fear of being possessed by demons, after watching The Exorcist when I was six.
The sexual trauma led to a deeply ingrained feeling that something was seriously wrong with me as people seemed to relate to me in a sexually distorted manner and I seemed to keep attracting aggressors.
I developed a pattern of dissociation, of separation between mind and body and I remember feeling as though my feet no longer belonged to me. About once a week I would awake at night feeling fire snakes inside my stomach, feeling nauseous and vomiting for hours. I used to ask my mom if I was going to die. It certainly felt like I was dying, but I sometimes felt that death would be preferable to the excruciating pain in my body.
It was around this time that I began lucid dreaming. I knew that I was asleep, but I had a different perspective in my dream, and it felt like I was no longer Cornelia. It seemed that all my fears were surfacing in my dreams where I would be chased by demons and other symbolic figures that I now understand as emanating from our mythic consciousness. The memory and power of my original experience of cosmic unity was fading and I felt increasingly abandoned by God. So, I went into the darkness—it seemed the only option available. At fifteen my behavior grew more rebellious and self-destructive. I felt at the mercy of my emotions, which seemed completely out of my control. In an attempt to gain some sort of mastery over myself I began to self-harm, cutting my skin with a razor blade and punishing myself for being such a bad person. I didn’t feel worthy of being alive—indeed I yearned for death. I prayed with intensity and passion every night to God to make me die in my sleep so I could come home to that place of union and Love.
Although I felt desperate when I was alone, I enjoyed being a teenager and explored the myriad opportunities and possibilities that came my way. But my naivety caused me difficulties; it was difficult for me to distinguish between what was real and what was illusory. I tended to trust everyone without exception, and this made me very vulnerable.
So, there I was, with my low self-esteem, caught in the social programming of people pleasing, and in the perpetrator-victim-savior pattern, doing my best to fit in a world in which I was loved and hated at the same time. My fantasy life centered on planning on how to erase humans (including myself) and save Mother Earth from the virus called humanity.
It took some years of training and personal development to make friends with one particular character that seemed to inhabit me. He whispered to me that I had to die in order to be free, that I wasn’t worthy of being loved. I called this character Satan. He talked to me in tones that seemed a combination of my father’s voice and my own. The voice was in my own head and I knew it was a part of me and this made it more frightening as I couldn’t escape it.
But this Satan had also this immense love for all Nature, for all animals, for the wind, and sky, and waters and flowers; he cried at movies and helped people; he held in his heart a memory of a world full of peace and harmony, the memory of the first arrival, of the true essence of Unity. So how could he ever be evil? So there was an epic battle going on inside me between good and evil, and it was a process that seemed to take a step or two forward and then a step back.
I was trying to distinguish what I thought was true compared to some of the conditioning that I needed to discard. I often thought I was mad because other people seemed to see things so differently. I developed an autoimmune disease that affected my skin causing rashes and swelling when I felt under pressure.
The communist regime that was in power in those days marked us all. The atmosphere was suspicious and mistrustful. Back then we feared that any expression of dissent could lead to imprisonment with the possibility of torture or being beaten to death. On the other side of the divide Communist party members were favored and there were obvious advantages to being part of the establishment.
I think some of these patterns of behavior can still be seen among Romanian citizens as a remnant of the unprocessed collective shadow from that communist era. It was only many years later that I began to wonder how my father had escaped the attention of the system, as he was a really rebellious personality. I realized that my dad was good at gaming the system. He was intelligent and strong-minded but kept himself in the shadows because he could not afford to risk imprisonment for dissent while he had three daughters to raise. While the outside world seemed oppressive, home life was gentle and supportive.
My mother had her own strong personality and ideas. She had a deep interest in the energy field, consciousness, alternative healing methods, and she meditated. I remember her teaching me how to feel my energy; how to focus my attention in my palms then place them onto my body to relieve the pain. My parents had undergone their own transformative experiences; my dad had been in a coma for two weeks and my mom had had a near death experience. Both of them felt strongly that consciousness was not confined to the physical body or the confines of the skull. I felt fortunate to be born in a family with such a perspective.
So, this story is not only about my journey, it is also about our journey as a family; how we grew and developed together. When I was fifteen, we moved in with my mother’s parents and the family expanded to twelve in a four-room house as a fourth generation made its appearance. Life became very difficult: The intensity of feelings and emotional toxins in our little community escalated dramatically; there were fights, alcohol abuse, physical and verbal abuse. Sometimes it felt like a war zone—it was as though all the drama of humanity was being played out in our family, with us all playing our allotted roles as puppets of the unconscious shadow. I was self-harming and exploring a very dark version of my inner world. But gradually I became able to pay more attention to my thoughts and emotional patterns and became more aware of my triggers. As I developed a greater understanding of myself, I felt less like a puppet and more optimistic about the possibility of change.
I discovered the work of Stephen King, the horror book writer.
His work influenced me deeply and gave me a better understanding of the darkness that I found inside myself, and indeed humanity. I learned about criminal minds, the psychology of the dark realms, and it felt as though an invisible world was opening up to me inhabited by all the rejected figures of demons, ghouls, and ghosts. I had a powerful insight that these shadow figures are actually born out of separation, abandonment, and pain. All the psychological material that humans were unable to accept as being part of the human experience turn into this symbolic form of expression of fear. I understood at last that my identification with Satan was myself as a wounded fearful child responding with aggression and manipulative behavior in order to survive. And yes, Stephen King actually taught me this by the way he developed his characters.
I became very interested in personal development.
Together with my mother and one of my sisters I sought out and devoured spirituality and psychology books to deepen my understanding of my inner world. Because I was very attracted to sounds (still am), and could not meditate in a standing position because of the disconnection from my feet, I instantly resonated with Robert Monroe’s book about out of the body experiences and altered states of consciousness induced by binaural beats. This is a simple method that he developed with different frequencies in each ear, such as 100hz in the left and 104hz in the right. The 4hz difference allows the brain hemispheres to synchronize and work together in a different way that allows deep meditational states. A Monroe Institute center opened in Romania at that time; it felt like a synchronicity and it was the most wonderful gift. I attended a residential program and I would say that it changed my life. It transformed my level of awareness and reconnected me with my spiritual depths—the ball of light.
The knowledge I acquired from these experiences required persistence and hard work. I would go to sleep with headphones and binaural beats telling myself that if reincarnation is real then I want this to be my last life. I really do not want to go through the whole process of forgetting again and being lost in the suffering of the shadow realm.
I learned a number of healing methods from Monroe about facing fear and recovering lost, forgotten, and rejected aspects of myself. This seemed to gradually free me from the identification with and suffering of my body and allowed an opening to the cosmic dimension of the Self. I read about non-duality and attended meditation retreats, constantly asking myself, “Who am I?” Each time an answer appeared, I would let it dissolve and ask myself the question again, and again.
After two years of continuous work of this nature I entered a deeper level of disturbance. I think of this period as when the psychosis kicked in. I understand this now as a failure to process the traumas that were still locked into my body. I was doing my deep inner work on a mental level but wasn’t ready to feel or sense anything in the physical body—it felt too dangerous. Even when I was making love to my partner, I could not feel anything.
My skin felt like rubber, without any nervous excitability. I could tolerate a giant amount of physical pain but seemed unable to feel emotional pain. My life became very difficult at this point: I lost almost all my friends, my job, my relationships, and my dreams. Nothing made sense anymore. I had no idea what I was doing on earth because nothing, and I mean nothing could satisfy me. I could see the endless fractals of the human condition repeating themselves with utter futility. I felt such pain and grief. The nihilism and the hopelessness of this existential paradox felt so cruel and lacking in compassion—it felt as though I was losing my mind. I had an increasing urge to destroy my body as this emotional black hole sucked the life out of me. I felt unstable and in perpetual crisis. One moment I could be calm and serene, painting and discussing philosophical and spiritual issues; the next moment I would be biting my skin, damaging property, and struggling to keep myself safe.
With hindsight I can see that I was manifesting some symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar and borderline disorders. This period of deconstruction lasted about one year. I lost a solid sense of self; my experiences became increasingly symbolic and I encountered archetypal beings. The first time this happened was when I was painting a female form onto a canvas when I heard a voice whispering inside my mind—Ishtar. I had no idea who this Ishtar was until an internet search revealed her as the Babylonian goddess of love and war who went through seven gates of hell to purify herself.
So, I thought I was Ishtar for a while. After Ishtar came Eve, when I would dress in white to make a statement to the world that Eve is uncorrupted and innocent, that heaven is on earth and the Garden of Eden is within us. After Eve came Mary Magdalene, when I would make two cups of tea, one for me and one for Jesus. I would invite Jesus to join us and we would talk for hours about self-forgiveness and forgiveness of the world. Finally, I identified with Kali, the great mother of the universe in the Hindu traditions, the goddess of time and death. Looking back these identifications with the archetypal feminine were all about taking my power back and healing the wounded feminine inside me that followed from the sexual trauma.
During this period my mother and one of my sisters provided support while my aunt provided guidance and lit my way through the darkness. She still guides me when I feel lost or lose my sense of center. I had a lot of feminine support, but no masculine support—my crisis triggered great pain for my father and he could not contain me. At one point the pain felt unbearable and I asked my mother to hospitalize me. She looked at me with such a great love and told me: “If I take you to the hospital, I will lose you. We will get through this. It is only the dark night of the soul you are experiencing now, and I know you are powerful enough to get through because I can see who you are.” She gave me a tranquilizer pill to take as a one-off—“I won’t give you anymore medication because you can get addicted and that is not the way to solve your problems. You have to find a way through this.” She stayed by my side nursing me through the night just as she did in my childhood vomiting crises.
I made some progress. I took a part-time job in a finance department, which helped to keep my mind active and seemed to create some transformational space so I could start to settle and make sense of my experience. It was at that time that I came across the books of the anthropologist and shaman Alberto Villoldo, who became my third teacher. He explained my disintegration process with such understanding, coherence, and compassion. I felt that I was gaining important new insights and began to slowly accept myself. I began to understand the deep connection between mind and body so that if the body is not integrated in the process of awakening then the work is not complete. I continued with the binaural beats and I started kundalini meditation, which I did for a year. I continued to have physical symptoms with fevers and a painful swollen sacrum, which got worse as my kundalini practice deepened. I felt unable to relax my pelvic zone; it felt blocked so the energy couldn’t flow. I felt this was probably a consequence of the sexual trauma and the emotional shutdown that followed. Sometimes I would hallucinate, perceiving my emotions energetically inside and outside my body. At other times I would have powerful headaches and paranoid episodes where I felt responsible for the whole planet and if I took another breath of air the whole planet would die. There were periods where my ego was inflated to the point where only I existed, and everyone else was an illusion that I was creating with my “powerful” mind, indeed a single thought of my mind could start a war. I felt so alone, trapped, and invisible that it was unbearable.
When these feelings were at their worst, I would lie in a bath for hours crying. It was at this time that I was introduced to medicine plants. A friend told me about a type of ayahuasca that you can smoke called Changa and suggested it might help me. I found that Changa had powerful healing qualities, especially for my body. It gave me the realization that in hurting myself I was hurting something that was sacred, perfect, and divine. It was a visceral and transformative insight—that my body was truly and deeply alive. Each of my living cells was moving, beating, changing. I felt so connected with the field of energy, the web of life that I realized that form is simply the crystallization of spirit and there is really no separation between my physical form and life itself. I knew that another stage of my development was opening up.
I still had some inner battles to deal with, but this fundamental insight never left me. Then I met a prominent transpersonal psychologist who had a major impact on my life. He told me that although I might have some symptoms that were found in conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar or borderline disorders, I was not mentally ill but going through an important spiritual crisis. He understood, normalized, and validated my experiences. Suddenly I was not labeled as crazy anymore but as undergoing a spiritual crisis. It felt wonderful to be told with authority that there was hope and that my process was essentially healthy.
My confidence started to recover, I started coming out of my shell, I felt less of a victim and was able to progressively take more responsibility for my life. I started talking about my experiences and it was good to feel that this was useful to some of the people with whom I shared.
I began to feel that the torment I had been through was not in vain. This ongoing encounter with the male transpersonal psychologist was profoundly healing for me. He created a safe space for me, just by being present and containing, that allowed me to revisit the sexual trauma of my childhood. As we processed the abuse the safe space became more like a sacred space that became filled with love, forgiveness, and understanding. It felt as though the trauma gradually dissolved and became replaced with wisdom. I came to see it as part of my developmental journey. Then I had a second kundalini awakening, similar to the experience I had when I was five, except rather than being a traveling ball of light, I was a still, silent light form. My chattering mind stopped, I felt in touch with a deep sense of peace, and I knew at this stage that I had properly recovered from my sexual trauma. I became more and more aware of the sub-personalities and roles I was playing, what triggered them, what purposes they served, and ultimately, I realized that I needed to let them go. As I came to a better understanding of the impact of my lifestyle on my mental state, I began a deep cleansing of my behavioral patterns, my belief systems, and the lens through which I saw the world. I also did a deep clean of my house. I removed every object that fed and reinforced my old self (pictures, clothes, paintings, books) and created an empty space for the new me to be born into.
Then I had the opportunity of participating in Santo Daime ceremonies and met ayahuasca. The enormity of this experience is beyond description, but I can say it allowed me to see and sense what is beyond movement. I felt so humble and graceful in front of this Life Force and felt able to completely surrender to the wisdom of it. I wasn’t sure how to integrate my ayahuasca experience with my daily life, and the answer that eventually came to me was simple: “Let it be, let the experience change your life, take no action and do not think about it. Just let it be.”
I found a massage school where I met a wonderful healer. Each time I was touched in a part of my body, memories from my childhood would arise in the form of images and bodily sensations, allowing them to be released and reframed. I found that I was not only accessing my own memories but also those of my parents. I experienced a reliving of my mother’s paralysis when she was five years old and also my father’s coma. I began to understand that with each healing, we also heal our ancestors; each moment of awareness has a karmic imprint so that every choice we make influences the space-time framework that holds us.
It became clear to me that the transformational process is not simply an individual process but is actually a transpersonal process that includes all life. I increasingly put myself in the service of others and started to train people in the art of massage with respect, humility, and compassion—from a space where there is only love and acceptance. This is the space where our deepest wounds can be healed. Each body that I touch is sacred and holds the universe within it. So, each time I touch someone, I touch the essence of the universe. And each and every individual has also helped me to find self-acceptance and self-love.
It took about three years to integrate and deeply understand my ayahuasca experience. I continued my practice of body movement, massage, dance, and painting, and I wrote and published a novel based on my transformational experiences. Ayahuasca fundamentally altered my understanding of the space-time framework and my relationship with it. It seemed that I could sense my future self, my most conscious and aligned self, calling me to move forward to meet her. I remember thinking that if I can see my past self and my timeline, perhaps my future versions can see me. This made me feel more secure and allowed me to let go more and trust the process. I had the major realization that all matter is actually a process and each atom of our body and indeed of all matter was born somewhere in space. We originate from star matter and somewhere within us all lies the memory of the primordial Aum and the Home we never left. And this information is imprinted in everything we experience throughout our senses, even when we are not aware of it.
Ultimately death is unimportant because death is simply a transformation of our matter/energy into some other kind of matter/energy, while consciousness is a continuum. This is life. When we become aware, we can actually choose our responses to the stimuli of life and we can really maintain the silence and peace of Being in all aspects of it. I think this can only happen when we are present and listening to what life has to say. Sometimes the answer is in the way the wind moves through the leaves of a tree. All we have to do is pay attention to what is truly important.
The knowledge that we exist beyond the space-time framework became part of my daily life and has never left me. Time is more a movement through space, a framework where we humans, by mutual consent, live out our stories and perform our role in the great adventure in consciousness and the evolution of the organism.
By playing with my attention, dividing it and focusing it, training myself to be aware of my body, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and the simultaneous energy of inner and outer space, I began to learn how to weave myself into this deeper dimension of Being. I still find it hard sometimes to communicate with people about this style of living with-out seeming weird, but in recent years there seem to be more and more people experiencing these awakenings, which makes it easier. Because we are all in this together both as part of the Whole and the Whole. Each of us contains the Whole while being part of it.
I have learned to take better care of myself and to be more selective about the people I surround myself with. I learned how to let go of toxic environments and toxic relationships as it became clear to me that they formed barriers that restricted my potential for growth. Although such relationships may serve an immediate purpose, they just reenact old dramas that I no longer need. I try to stay in touch with my higher self and respect the beauty behind my existence and indeed all existence.
And yes, this does mean giving things up, loosening attachments to previous patterns of behavior and desires, but it has cleared space for me to learn how to truly enjoy solitude and living in moderation and simplicity. This couldn’t be taught—as Frank Sinatra famously sang, I did it my way.
From my perspective each individual has to take responsibility to work towards an understanding of his or her own personal dynamics and internal mechanisms. It’s like a pilgrimage. The process involves navigating the tension between letting go and holding on. To cleanse the doors of perception it is necessary to unlearn some of what we learn about ourselves, to be curious enough to go beyond our conditioning and to explore. We need to have the courage to dive into fear, into our shadow lands, our areas of darkness and learn how to see in this darkness. We need to become flexible so we can flow with the currents of life rather than battle them. The challenges are often the gristle— structures that ultimately help us to grow. I believe that each and every one of us will make this journey in our own way and in our own time.
And we will each find the particular tools and methods that suit us best—because the path is different for each of us, though the destination is the same.
I want to emphasize the crucial importance of set and setting whenever we enter expanded states of consciousness—whether with sacred plants, binaural beats, meditation, or any other method of opening our doors of perception. It is so important to have people that we absolutely trust to support and contain us in these transformative states. We are like plants in that we grow best in optimal conditions with fertile soil, plenty of light, and the right nourishment. We are so vulnerable in these states, when adverse experiences or poor care can make things so much worse.
Unfortunately, this often seems to happen in psychiatric units or hospitals where there may be no real support or understanding of the process. As a personal observation, the awakening and growth process of an individual seems to be most turbulent when there are major traumas in early childhood, or the conditioning of our formative environment is particularly powerful. The growth process is so difficult and complex because it challenges the conditioned mindset of society, so this triggers a recoil associated with society’s deep-seated resistance to change. But happily, we are living in times in which we have resources to support each other.
In conclusion, I would like to invite readers to trust their process, to trust life, to trust their own innate healing intelligence, knowing that it will never drop us and will always guide us through the process, no matter how dark it appears. But this is not something that can be simply taught—it has to be lived and experienced.
Life Is Music My Child. Just Listen.