The Journey Begins | An Excerpt from The Jeweled Path

When Life Changed Forever

The Jeweled Path

Off to Colorado

Life changed forever the day I set out in my sky-blue VW Bug heaving with everything I owned. An old carpenter’s chest, a gift from my mother and stepfather, had been carefully packed with watercolors, paintbrushes, and other art paraphernalia and small, cherished belongings. A single suitcase that easily held all of my clothes cordially rubbed sides with it. Add a futon and a sleeping bag—purple, of course—neatly tucked into the back, and I was ready to go.

My mother, June, did not bid me goodbye that morning. Instead, she wished me well. Love encompassed us. Tears welled. She was sad to see me go but was excited for me too. I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime and she knew it, maybe even more than I did at the time.

She waved big as I drove off, and I caught a glimpse of her in my rearview mirror. She leaned long and to her left, stretching to capture the last hint of me. The view shrank until all I could see was a shock of white hair glowing in the distance like a star. I turned my sights to the road before me.

As I rounded the first corner, a strand of memory connected the fading star of white to the vivid mental picture of making my announcement that I was leaving: “Mom, Sandra is going to Colorado with a friend to work there. She’s asked me if I want to come along. I’ve decided to go with her.”

I had no particular reason to leave. The comfort and opportunities of the Bay Area in California were plentiful in the early 1970s when Silicon Valley was booming, but it was empty for me. I had hoped she would understand without my having to explain why I wanted to go, and I felt anxious that she might not let me off the hook.

The yielding, soft intensity of her sea-green eyes had set the tone for our conversation. After a time, she looked away briefly, then returned her attention to me. Quietly but in her usual forthright manner she simply asked, “Why are you going?” She held her gaze steady, slightly squinting. The question hung in the space between us.

Beyond the brief explanation I had just given, I couldn’t articulate any reason for this unprecedented departure. No job plan and an uncertain living situation made me cautious about telling her that I felt a deep feeling of rightness about it. Above all, I did not want her to feel I was abandoning her. I wanted her blessings, her support. I desperately wanted her to know that I was moving toward something important.

This mysterious pull I wanted to follow was not strange to her. She had known such a feeling, and it had guided her in her own life. From the time I was young, my mother had welcomed the unknown, taking risks that challenged convention. June embodied the conservative and wild creative spirit, with Doris Day looks and an artsy, beatnik take on life—and a bit of Mary Poppins thrown in. Her sense of adventure had instilled in her four children the lust for life. I was hoping this out-of-the-blue idea would appeal to her daring side.

“I don’t know. It just really feels right for me, Mom,” I answered her.

Her eyes moistened just enough to increase the wattage of her eyes. She smiled with sweet acknowledgment. No judgment. I felt she knew exactly what I meant. I relaxed into her loving embrace.

“Follow your heart, honey,” she said with a breathy whisper in my ear. And three weeks later, that is exactly what I did.

It Began in Childhood

I was an average kid in most respects. A relatively happy child at home, I was quick to laugh and vigorously engaged with my siblings as we played games and teased one another. But my first years in elementary school were awkward; I became ever more shy and quiet, finding it sometimes difficult to connect with other kids. This may have been due to something that no one else I knew seemed to experience or understand: I saw energy around things. People, plants, and animals, mostly.

This may have been due to something that no one else I knew seemed to experience or understand: I saw energy around things. People, plants, and animals, mostly.

One day, I asked my mother about it. I must have been about six or seven because as I write this I can see myself looking a long way up to catch her attention. “Mommy, why do people have lights around them?” She kneeled down next to me, and her eyes softened as they narrowed to probe and console at the same time.

“I don’t know.”

When I saw her expression of wonder and mild concern, I realized that although she didn’t know what was going on with me, she did not think I was strange or bad for it. She just didn’t want me to feel even more out of place at school. I was a chubby girl, and this, combined with my unusual vision, made me a target for ridicule. The title “class cootie” had been bestowed on me and was flung at me on more than one occasion.

I remember coming home numerous times at the end of the school day, hurt, confused, and even frightened by what I had seen. It was not uncommon for me to arrive at our front door red-eyed, my cheeks flushed and wet with tears. I often felt like I was from another planet. Still, one advantage of this alien capacity was that I could tell whether someone was telling the truth or not. This was handy.

Still, one advantage of this alien capacity was that I could tell whether someone was telling the truth or not. This was handy.

I had no way to communicate about any of this. Mommy wanted to help and didn’t know how. This was painful for me at times, but her love for me was never in question. As I became more and more distressed, she found a psychologist who helped children to cope with these sorts of experiences. She specialized in “sensitives,” as they were called at the time, but that term also implied being psychic.

I have vivid memories of much of my childhood, but I can barely remember these meetings with the therapist. My mother claims that after the third and last session, I felt protected from having to see and feel so much. I vaguely recall the psychologist guiding me to visualize a protective shield around me.

By the fifth grade, I no longer saw the colors and forms around people; I got to know my peers by interacting with them. I had multiple friends for the first time and was eager to go to school each morning to see them and learn new things. I felt normal. I liked myself. I wasn’t looking for any more than that. But something happened one day that reminded me of the realms I had glimpsed before.

A Need to Understand

It happened on a very normal day as I was reading the very normal Palo Alto Times. I was not yet in puberty but was no longer a little girl, so I must have been around eleven years old. Sprawled out on my soft belly, soaking up the heat from the cork floor in our Eichler house in Palo Alto, I was leafing through a section of the newspaper to find an article for current events class. I was dimly aware of my father and mother discussing an article about a girl who had just died in a car accident.

My attention zoomed in when I heard my mother reading aloud to my father—as best as I can remember it: “As she lay on the ground, dying, with her father holding her hand, she looked up at him and said, ‘Don’t worry, Daddy. I know where I am going.’”

An intense need to understand the meaning of birth, death, and the events in between these two inescapable markers burst out of me. “Where was she going?” I asked with all the passion of my little heart, not addressing anyone in particular. My eyes searched the air but found nowhere to land. I was entranced with the question itself; at the same time, I wondered about Mom and Dad—what were they thinking and feeling? Half-audible comments sputtered out of them, then dissipated like puffs of smoke. No satisfying answer came from above either.

The question of death and the hereafter dropped into my chest like a rock and wedged itself next to my heart as an unopened secret. It haunted me for months.

I guess you could say that this was my first existential crisis, although that would be too fancy a word for a kid that age. The death of that young girl, coupled with my early experiences of the energetic universe, propelled me into a search for meaning beyond this physical world. I knew there was more to it than meets the eye. The urgency to meet that “more,” to know it, only became stronger. A significant shift had occurred: I was no longer afraid of the unknown or unexplained. I was curious.

I guess you could say that this was my first existential crisis, although that would be too fancy a word for a kid that age. The death of that young girl, coupled with my early experiences of the energetic universe, propelled me into a search for meaning beyond this physical world. I knew there was more to it than meets the eye. The urgency to meet that “more,” to know it, only became stronger. A significant shift had occurred: I was no longer afraid of the unknown or unexplained. I was curious.

It is natural for children of that age to become aware that life ends, people die. Questions come, questions fade away, as explanations are given to a child to fill the void. Often those explanations so fill the space of wonder that the queries disappear entirely. In some children, the curiosity is channeled in all manner of creative and interesting ways. My dissatisfaction with the usual explanations persisted. I kept my antennae up for anything that might offer clues.

Religion and the Search for Answers

Religion began to play a role in my search for answers. The religious influences in my early years were varied. My mother and father, both of Scandinavian descent, had a fairly traditional Lutheran upbringing but didn’t bring up their children with the same rigor. There were several reasons for this lax attitude. Some dark stories regarding the church had left them ambivalent about whether and how much to involve us in a strict religious training. In spite of its shortcomings, however, they felt that religion could be a positive influence—in small doses.

On a more positive note, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side—from County Cork, Ireland—married a Chippewa Indian chief and lived on a reservation in northern Wisconsin for about ten years. She had left her first husband by whom she had three sons, one of whom was my grandfather.

Chippewa legends and beliefs are passed down from generation to generation through pictures and stories, and although as a child, my mother went to church regularly like her mother did, she eagerly drank these stories in. She learned very young that everything is alive and filled with spirit—the stream she sat by with her grandfather to receive the sacred teachings, the trees that listened in as they spoke, even the big rock she was sitting on. So it was probably not the big surprise it might have been to the average mother in the fifties when I reported seeing spirit all around me.

Even so, my parents would get on kicks about providing a consistent churchgoing experience for us kids; every few years, they would resolve to find a place to land that would give us a solid ethical focus. We finally settled on a progressive Unitarian church in Palo Alto, where the Sunday school teachers encouraged independent thinking in the kids and taught us about many different religions.

At one of the book sales that were held after every Sunday service, I was drawn to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I became fascinated for two reasons. First, in addition to having seen the camps right after the end of World War II, my father had also been at the Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals. Mother said he came back a changed man after both experiences. He told us stories about the atrocities he had seen and frequently used them to point out what human beings can do to one another.

Second, Anne Frank’s diary presented me with a perspective of someone near my age—I saw a whole other face of that war. Anne’s bravery and faith in the face of adversity inspired me. She had suffered far beyond what I had experienced and somehow managed to find something she could be certain of beyond the physical world of appearances. This added more fuel to the flame lit by the newspaper story about the death of the young stranger.

These two girls had met with such a tragic end, but they seemed to have had some kind of magic key. Two vibrant lives cut short. I had mine to live. What gave them such courage and strength, so much love and kindness? Even though Anne faced fear every day, she never lost faith in the good in people or in her God. She sought answers and searched herself for them. Did Anne also know where she was going? Did she know about the realm beyond this world that the girl dying in the accident was so sure would welcome her? What did they know? What did it mean? More important, how could I know?

Our family always said grace before dinner, and Mother always said prayers with us before bed. I began to pray on my own, and it became a way to feel my heart’s yearning for God, for love, for companionship. I looked forward to praying every day. The form my prayer took depended on whether I was feeling joyous gratitude and celebration, yearning for something or someone, or sad about an event in my own life or someone else’s that made me want to ask for help. Sometimes, while praying, I sensed love mingling with my salty tears, melting the rock that had wedged itself in my chest when I read about the little girl.

In hindsight, I could say I felt a sense of devotion, though over time, God had changed from the familiar Sistine Chapel image to a presence with no specific form or face. I didn’t know how Anne and the girl in the newspaper understood God, but I began to sense what they might have known: I felt that I, too, would be okay, no matter what. Deep in me were goodness and strength. Not in an I-am-a-good-girl kind of way—just plain goodness. I felt lucky, too. I had found a doorway to my heart. I opened it.

This explicit sense of underlying goodness arrived just in time. Circumstances in my life forced me to grow up rapidly. My mother left the family when I was twelve to join the man who would become my stepfather. This was a painful, empty time for me. I was often overcome by loss and inner chaos. Although the years immediately following her departure held deep hurts, the void eventually opened to blessings.

The timing of these events is rather a blur for me. I can still feel the fuzzy sense of myself as a teenage girl gobsmacked by the loss of my mother and being left in the care of my emotionally devastated father. It felt like I was the one who needed to take care of him, as well as my younger sister and brother. My big brother had gone off to college, so I became the I-can-do-it-all girl. Cooking, cleaning, laundry—whatever needed doing, I found a way to manage it. This, of course, left all the mess underneath the strength, which would have to be dealt with later. Meanwhile, I kept pulling it together.

To top it off, my sister left to be with our mother a few months afterward. She and I had shared a bedroom for most of our lives. A piece of my heart went numb with pain that day, shot through to the core with the loss of her and scabbed over with guilt. I had failed to provide her with what she needed emotionally and in probably every other way. The family was torn asunder. I felt responsible for that and was trying to make it right.

The blessings? June found her true love, Russ—yes, he had the same name as my father—and he was a good match for her, and when I moved in with them later on, Russ became a sturdy, loving stepfather for me.

Meanwhile, junior high school became a haven for me. It gave me structure. I didn’t miss a single day during the entire three years. Much to my surprise, I found I had a passion for science. Maybe my need for more structure stimulated the interest. Also, I had one of those teachers who is so inspiring that it was difficult not to catch his exuberance for the subject matter. He turned the complex world of scientific theory into a fascinating playground of discovery. He saw my enthusiasm and encouraged me to pursue the sciences, but I chose to continue with what I had loved and felt most confident in for as long as I could remember, which was art.

A Time of Self-Exploration

Mother was an artist, so we had always had a place at home for painting and playing with all types of creative media. She taught me art as self-exploration. One of my first lessons was to color outside the lines in the coloring book. I resisted that initially. But art quickly became a language I easily understood; I could express myself with it more directly than with words. Once you learn the basic nature of the medium and have the correct tools to apply it with, my mother would say, you can just let it be part of you. Let it speak. And then listen.

At fifteen, I found my way back to my mother when I resolved to leave my father and move in with her. It was the first difficult decision of my adult life. My father was deeply wounded by Mother’s leaving and then mine. But leaving the wreckage behind seemed necessary for my survival. I just couldn’t look back. An inner sense of correctness and right action was coming through with strength and certainty. This was rare, for I was desperately unassertive at the time. Now I could make a choice for a real life and let go of the weight of responsibility that was far beyond what I could manage. You could say that a healthy dose of adolescent rebelliousness was rearing up and coming to the rescue.

My new stepfather gave me the great gift of bringing the dimension of the numinous into my world. He became what my father could not be—someone who could help me find the answers I was looking for. A great blessing hidden in a lot of pain, but before it could be received, we had a lot to work through. At first, I hated him. He had taken my mother from me and deeply hurt my father. But when he took me by the shoulders one day, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You can hate me all you want, but you can’t treat me like shit in my own house,” a sliver of light came through. From then on, I felt I could begin to talk to him about my feelings. He sat, he listened, and he understood. I could hate him for what he did, but I also saw that my negative feelings toward him weren’t the only truth of the matter.

Russ also helped me to see that I had potential in many areas and taught me how to tap into it. I became excited by challenges instead of being frightened by them. He introduced my high school friends and me to self-hypnosis, which became a vehicle for exploration along with the yoga and meditation he also turned me on to. By age sixteen, I was teaching yoga in my physical education classes at school. I spent many an afternoon at the East West Bookstore, which was then in Menlo Park, poring over books on virtually every religious and spiritual path. On my sixteenth birthday, Russ gave me Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. I devoured it and immediately joined the Self-Realization Fellowship.

Some of our weekends were spent on trips to West Coast centers of art and counterculture activities—Big Sur, Monterey, Carmel, Sausalito. Russ and June attended workshops at Esalen Institute with Fritz Perls and some of the early consciousness pioneers. They ate it all up and brought the knowledge home for me and my friends to taste.

I made trips north with my siblings and our friends just to hang out in Haight-Ashbury or at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach or to see the great performers’ outdoor concerts—not to mention those at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. And we wouldn’t have missed for anything the Be-In at Golden Gate Park during the Summer of Love in ’67.

With the guidance of my mother and stepfather, my friends and I would spend many evenings and weekends engaged in astral traveling, shamanic journeying, self-hypnosis, healing, past-life regression, and meditation. I began to have dreams about energy fields around people. The dreams came more frequently and I became anxious. When I told my mother about them, she reminded me that as a child I used to see these fields and wondered what the connection might be. With some trepidation, we began to investigate this phenomenon together.

The memories flooded back in. I began to see the energy fields again and discovered they had a name—auras. I found out that other people, some of whom had been experimenting with hallucinatory drugs, had similar experiences. As my understanding of myself increased, so did my capacity to perceive. My perception developed over time to include a greater empathic sensitivity—I could feel in my own body the sensations of other people’s experiences.

As my understanding of myself increased, so did my capacity to perceive. My perception developed over time to include a greater empathic sensitivity—I could feel in my own body the sensations of other people’s experiences.

In high school, I had many opportunities to refine my artistic capacities and express what I was learning about myself. Though I focused on painting and printmaking, I also discovered the world of theater through new friends who were deeply engaged in classical and contemporary productions. I had so much fun with these brilliant, creative people, and we immersed ourselves in a direct mode of learning. Instead of only reading about the Renaissance, for instance, we would make period costumes and stage big feasts in the backyard. We found out how to build a roaring fire pit and went about roasting a well-fatted pig on a spit. Interspersed among a few lusty songs, a dance or two, and some conversation in iambic pentameter, you could see me chomping on a hefty turkey leg with one hand and downing a pint of mead in the other, with a gleam in my eye.

So many things came together for me in those years. And I had friends, really close friends. We all cared for and loved one another. I belonged.

When the time came to go to college, I was reluctant. Not because I didn’t want to learn and be enriched but because I was happy to have found a home where so many interesting things were happening, where I felt loved, nourished, encouraged to question and seek answers, to communicate my feelings and ideas. I wanted to linger just a while more, nestled in the arms of the loving household that had become the womb of my spirit.

Alongside my hesitancy, the urge to try out my own wings was burgeoning. It was time to fledge.

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Karen JohnsonKaren Johnson is a longtime colleague of A. H. Almaas and cofounder of the Diamond Approach. See more about her here.