I admit it. I was a strange kid (and some would say that I’m still a strange adult). Strange as in unusual, often going against the grain, even the grain, if you can call it such, within the small, third-world country, Suriname, where I was born and raised. There, my odd passions were fed by exposure to ancient mystical traditions more so than anywhere else, but I still felt different because I was aware that I sought these out and relished in them longer than most of my peers.
For instance, it was not unusual to learn about our colonial history from the perspective of runaway and rebel slaves, who were portrayed as heroes for freeing thousands of other slaves. Their descendants established six distinct Maroon villages (with different traditions, languages, and dress) that lived in peace for centuries following their escape and were better able to preserve their heritages in the rainforest of Suriname than in their own native African countries.
What I believe set me apart from other children was a certain awareness and aspiration to become a freedom fighter whenever I heard stories about the lives and deeds of these brave hearts, whether or not they were still alive or already dead. Similar to how we can be inspired early on by dancers, singers, boat builders, or teachers, I had similar longings and deep passions starting in childhood that fueled my later life and career choices, even though the people who inspired me didn’t carry the job title "freedom fighter" and were from many different walks of life.
I had no conceptual or cognitive understandings or words for my feelings until the third grade when I learned about a slave who taunted his master while being torturing to death. “I’m more free than you’ll ever be,” he claimed.
I was aware and awake enough to know that there was irony in that. That what I’d read would be hard to logically conceive but that this statement nevertheless resonated as true inside my small body. It felt as if a switch had been turned on, and I had discovered light. Freedom meant transcending suffering and injustice, which sometimes already dragged me down in despair and frustration while desperately trying to crawl out of the quicksand of my thoughts and logic.
I knew that most of my friends had other interests, mostly playing and talking about all that was happening in front of us, in the moment. I found myself quickly losing interest and pretending to be engaged while in my own inner world, puzzling through big questions and feeling release and freedom when I somehow ended up in the center of some labyrinth, aware that I had once again found an opening to freedom.
My sources of inspiration shifted to girls my age. Anne Frank, Helen Keller, and Joan of Arc became my best imaginary friends when finally alone, either playing in the rainforest, climbing trees, and wandering through the uncultivated areas of my neighborhood. What these imaginary friends had in common and what most appealed to me was their ability to dislodge from the shackles that bind most minds. I gobbled up their wisdom and courage, imagining to be them.
A few years ago, when trying to pay Anne Frank homage during a visit to Amsterdam, I smiled when unable to get into her old family home in Amsterdam because the lines were too long. This little girl, who spent years trying to ‘get out’ her prison has inspired millions who are now dying to ‘get in’ the small, cramped quarters where she and her family were locked up just to absorb a bit of her free mind and wisdom.
Books like Night by Elie Wiesel crossed my path as if to further my spiritual development. Treating them like forbidden pleasures similar to other mature subjects and adult material, I snuck them into my room and read a few pages at the time until I felt my edge and dark and scary emotions were about to flood me. I took a step back, figured out how to digest and integrate Elie’s wise words, and returned to them for more, just like kids with special talents and high aptitude continue to seek out athletic or intellectual challenges due to an insatiable inner drive.
My greatest teachings happened at night, while dreaming, indicating how much this hunger was self-propelled and emerging from deep inside. The most important lesson -- after many recurring dreams bordering on nightmares -- was realizing, after being killed in a very memorable dream, that death wasn’t final. I commanded myself to get up and felt barrels of unnamed fear fall off my shoulders.
I realized on some unspoken level that real life and death worked in the same way, and that once we realize that our consciousness never dies and can’t be captured, controlled or tainted, we are free. I understood that our spiritual integrity and wholeness were compromised by fears related to our physical survival, pain, and our five senses (by exploring and studying all kinds of pain ranging from scrapes, to being yelled at and humiliated, to watching others suffer), but that our true essence and consciousness transcended our situational experiences.
Fast forward to today. Does this understanding of freedom make me more prone to dismiss and bypass suffering? No, on the contrary. It makes it easier to sit with and process the most unbearable feelings, such as rage, powerlessness, shame, and despair, both my own and those experienced by others. And I feel much more attuned to and aware of both the suffering and the potential for “PTSD growth”— i.e. transformational healing brought on by trauma — that victims of mistreatment are able to access when enduring extreme conditions.
For instance, I recently shared these reflections on Facebook about what’s happening at our border to families escaping the horrors of their native countries. If not sure what to think of illegal immigrants and refugees, just imagine for a moment, especially if you have small children, what would propel you to pick up your belongings and place yourself and children in often life-threatening situations. Things must be pretty bad and you must be pretty desperate to have your family go through such a dangerous ordeal.
My parents were in a similar position and it was with great reluctance and heartache that we left what was once a very peaceful and much beloved community and country of extended family and friends in hopes of a brighter future.
What were my encounters with immigration officials like?
Sickening. I have many memories of being with my parents and family at the immigration office, trying to take care of official business and paperwork at various intervals over the years until we became citizens. Even as a teenager, I felt crushed by the deliberate humiliation and said to my parents that they were intentionally treating us and everyone in the room “like cattle” on purpose.
They snubbed anyone trying to ask a question, sent you back to your seat, smugly shrugged their shoulders if you happened to step out for food or to use the bathroom and lost your turn, had you come in early in the morning (taking time off from school and work) and sent you home the end of the day without apology, explanation or a clue if you would be helped the next day, totally getting off on the sadistic domination.
And we were legal green card holders, mind you, didn’t need to cross dangerous terrain or pirate-invested waters, were not separated from one another, and were much older than many of these children who are going through horrors that are so much worse.
And I can still, decades later, easily conjure up the really bad aftertaste and contemptuous vibes that oozed from every official we dealt with. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for these kids being thrown in cages like animals and how this will impact their sense of self and futures, but I’m grateful that all these processes and institutions—some new, others newer, others that have been operating like this for decades— are getting greater critical attention than ever before.
I also have a feeling that the topic of freedom will interest these children as they grow up. Hopefully, they will realize as well that freedom is not avoidance or denying all the layers and nuances of suffering. Nor is it defeating your oppressor at her or his game. That’s just passing the buck along. Freedom involves deep study of suffering and learning how to unshackle yourself from the hold it has over you. It’s playing by totally different rules.
But what do you do if this doesn’t feel real? In the Soul Sanctuary Alchemy online course that I teach, the wise women in there got to witness a very special, spontaneous unfolding of a past-life healing that one of the participants underwent with my guidance and by trusting her own intuitive inner wisdom. She regressed to a pastlife as a slave girl who was mistreated and unloved by everyone around her, including her mother.
The whole session took 30 minutes. What helps in determining if our beliefs and direct experiences are real is noting what shifts they create in the body. Her symptoms of anxiety, unnerving fear, and lack of self worth that instigated this healing were instantly resolved after this past life self had a chance to emote, express herself, and tap into her true nature.
The lesson that we were all gifted and blessed with was that even this girl, who was born and who died a slave, intuitively embodied the grave injustice of her dire situation but still wasn’t trapped by it. Despite her pain, or perhaps as a result of it, she had an awareness of her inner resources and capability to access consciousness, freedom, and inner love and peace with just a little help from her future self who she anticipated would come back and rescue her some day.
So rather than denying or minimizing the suffering that we are experiencing, what we can do instead is expand our mind to envelop and conceive of all the additional dimensions of freedom, guidance, transformation and healing that exist alongside this reality. Dig deeper and go further to uncover the wisdom and wholeness that exists underneath the pain, intact no matter what, waiting to be reunited with us.
These incredible freedom fighters and conscious pioneers crossed my social media feed this week. I hope that their radical and concise messages inspire and guide you along your journey toward greater and greater freedom.
AMEN to this badass founding pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister of the house of saints and sinners! Her church is in Denver, CO.
I love everything about her, this visual and her message. Bows, sister.
Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, holistic psychologist, depth hypnosis practitioner, and shamanic healer from the Sacred Healing Well, is devoted to helping wisdom keepers, seekers, healers, and teachers dive deep into their self-healing potential and carve out their sacred dream paths in service of their dynamic whole self and the greater good.
Her memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper, is an eye-opening account of her spontaneous shamanic awakening and initiation during her graduate training in the mental health field. What gives her story an added twist is her ability to anchor into her rich cultural background and mystical upbringing near the edge of the Amazon rainforest when standing her ground, challenging indoctrinating double-binds in her field, and placing all bets on her spiritual integrity, intuitive wisdom, and clarity—each one severely tested after escaping the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in her native Suriname and losing almost everything that she knew and loved at the age of 13.