Writings

Anatomy of an Empath Part II

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PART II

7. This is Who You Are

In 2010 I remembered again. It was one of those “burning-bush” moments when God revealed itself to me—the kind that I tell my students not to look for.

Why? Because the Divine doesn’t usually speak to us this way, and looking for it is a distraction. The Sacred lives in the subtle. The quieter we become, the easier it is to hear the “small, still voice” within. But we’ve become conditioned to ignore the small, still voice, and look for the sonic boom. We expect our spiritual experiences to mimic the pace of adrenalized movies. Our brains want jump cuts and dopamine hits, and those of us who are spiritual seekers sometimes become addicted to peak experiences, breakthroughs, and intensity. We expect God to crack us over the head with a 2 x 4, and sometimes it does happen that way. Usually when we are too stubborn to pay attention to the small, still voice within.

I was that stubborn.

It was summer and I was in a windowless hotel conference room, attending a workshop with an energy healer mentor of mine. There were about 20 of us gathered. I remember the pattern on the carpet—a maroon fleur-de-lis-like grid that turned psychedelic if you looked at it too long.

My mentor had been training us in advanced techniques in reading someone’s energy field. That day, he invited us into a deeper reading of our own. He walked us through a meditation designed to bring us into contact with our Sacred Purpose—what it is we are doing here in these bodies, on the planet, at this time. I thought I already knew mine—to help people in the wake of trauma to heal and find their spiritual gifts. And this was true, but only part of the picture.

My back was hurting that day, so instead of sitting upright in my chair for the meditation, I chose to sprawl out on the fleur-de-lis carpet instead.

The meditation started innocuously enough—offering a prayer, sending our roots down into the earth, opening our crowns to receive the light of the Divine, and opening our third eyes so that we could perceive the subtle information that wanted to come through. Then my teacher invited the energetic imprint of our Sacred Purpose to appear, and that’s when things got interesting.

I’m not sure if my eyes were closed or open. But at some point, I “looked” over at the chair I would have been sitting in, and instead of seeing it empty, I saw an impossibly beautiful being sitting there, radiating white light. It was a sudden flash of grace—one of those moments that takes your breath away. I felt like I was in the presence of God.

th Open Arms. Double Exposure Filtered Photo with Bokeh.
“Who is that?” I asked, and by asked, I mean the question burst out of my heart in a half-panicked fluster of excitement and terror.

“Is that an angel, or God, or… ?”

And then it became clear—that radiant spiral of white light in my chair wasn’t an external God, it was me. I was being shown my own Divine essence. I started to shake and weep uncontrollably.

“Is this my Sacred Purpose? Is this what I am meant to be?” I silently asked, of no one in particular.

I immediately received a response: “No. This isn’t who you are meant to be. This is who you are. You are a light in the darkness. Here to help others embody their light as well.”

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8. Give Up Perfection

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”— Marianne Williamson

In my mind, I was an unlikely candidate for embodying God. Yes, I could be sweet, and open-hearted and generous. But I was also sharp and intense and often cranky. I was irritable, acerbic, edgy. Just ask my friends, former boyfriends, and teaching partner. I was more Kali than Lakshmi, more Carolyn Myss than Amma, more Eeyore than Piglet.

I was blown away when I received the vision of my Sacred Purpose, and too touched by grace to question it. But in the months that followed, the doubt crept in: Who am I to be a light in the darkness? And of course, quickly on the heels of that thought came Marianne Williamson’s reply: “Who are you not to be?”

Years prior, when I was even more attached to being perfect and believed that I’d only be able to help others after I had rid myself of all flaws, a raven-haired, Native American Medicine woman (who herself was cranky, opinionated, and acerbic), told me a story that I never forgot. The story went something like this:

A young Navajo girl loved to weave. More than anything, what made her happy was making blankets. She wanted to be the best blanket maker there was. She diligently studied her craft. One morning she approached the eldest elder in her village, a master weaver named Grandmother, with one of her creations. Grandmother took one look at the young girl’s work—a beautiful, red and black, tightly-woven blanket—grimaced and asked, “Who do you think you are?”

The girl ran out of Grandmother’s home in tears, devastated but determined to try again. She undid the blanket thread by thread and painstakingly rewove it, this time being even more careful to make sure it was perfect. She bravely reproached Grandmother’s home and laid the new blanket at her feet. “Grandmother,” she said, “I hope my blanket pleases you.” The master weaver held the blanket in her hands, running her bony fingers over the impeccably woven design, and looked up at the child from her place on the floor. Again she asked, in her gravelly, Grandmother voice, “Who do you think you are?”

And again the girl ran home, devastated. But she loved weaving so much that she wanted to try one more time before giving up. This time she selected the best wool in the village, and the best dye, and prayed and chanted as she wove each thread. She stayed up many nights weaving, and when she was done, returned to Grandmother’s home, blanket in hand. “Grandmother,” she said, as she again laid the blanket at the elder’s feet, “I selected the finest wool and the finest dyes. I hope this blanket pleases you.”

Again, Grandmother took the blanket in her hands, tracing the design with her fingers. The girl could hardly breathe as she waited for the elder’s assessment of her craft. After what seemed like hours, Grandmother spoke. This time, she took pity on the girl and said, “Child, I can see you worked hard on this blanket. You prayed and sang as you wove. But this blanket is no good. It is missing the essential ingredient in all of our blankets—a mistake. Only the Creator is perfect. Don’t try so hard; don’t try to be the Creator. You cannot make a perfect blanket, you are a girl. You are human.”

It is not our perfection that makes us perfect candidates to usher in the light of the Divine. On the contrary—it is our humanness that allows us to be God.

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9. Where Mystery Lives

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”—Rilke

The first time I remembered who I was, the light was dimmer. It was in 1999, and I was in an earthen kiva on Anasazi land in Utah, praying to receive a vision of what it was that was mine to do. I was in on a retreat with a group of people dedicated to the path of Soul. We had all come to the red rocks of Utah to learn how to have conversations with the Unseen World. I didn’t receive a 2 x 4 that night in the kiva, or a clear answer to my prayer, and I went to bed discouraged.

The next evening, sitting in circle with the group members outside, rocking in my Crazy Creek chair and stroking the desert earth with my hands, I recounted the information (or lack thereof) that I had received in the kiva. As I was talking, I saw flash of light in the far off horizon and two yellow eyes that pierced the dusk. “Was that an animal? Were those eyes really there, or was it a vision? And what did it mean?” I asked my Soul and received this message—“be a light in the darkness.” I didn’t know what it meant at the time.

So I took the message into my dream world and asked for clarification. That night I dreamt of my wooden Native American flute and a hidden message that existed at the bottom of it.

The Soul often speaks like this, in clues and fragments and images. In cryptic hints. Not all at once. Not in words, usually. And rarely in chronological order. It’s our job to let the images work us, to piece it all together and to piece ourselves together in the process, so that we can, literally, “re-member” who we are.

The next day, I went out on the land to play my flute to see if I could discover the message at the bottom that my dream was pointing to.

As I played, I noticed my heart start to soften. I began to awaken to the beauty around me—the red rocks to the west, the horizon line, the ravens, the blossoming spring fruit trees by the river below. I played some more and forgot, temporarily, about my quest for meaning. Eventually, the sound from my flute grew less clear and I paused to clean it. As I did, I looked down into its dark, hollowed-out shaft and noticed that because of the way it was carved, I couldn’t see clear through to the bottom. It was dark down there, where Mystery lived. Although I didn’t receive a message per se, I did get an intuitive hit as I gazed down into my flute: “Be patient. Give up your striving. Don’t try and be perfect. Keep spiraling down to the center of the flute. And eventually maybe you will, ‘gradually without knowing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’”

It took me 17 years to spiral into that flute, into the “truth at the center of the image (I) was born with.”

The next time I remembered was in 2003, in a private shamanic journey in Machu Picchu in Peru. I was there with a small group of shamans-in-training and we were granted special permission to do ceremony at night up in the rocks of that sacred city. In the journey I went deep into the underworld to ask my perennial question: what is my Purpose? This time I was taken into a beautiful green crystalline city, and from the center of it, rose up like a pure white light, a Divine, Christ-like being.

“Who is that?” I asked, awe-struck. I received the same reply that I would be given years later in the hotel conference room with the fleur-de-lis carpet: “This is you.” I was shaken when I came out of that vision, crying, and broken open.

When I returned from Peru, I brought with me with a parasite that would wreak havoc on my immune system and render me nearly housebound for four years. This, like many subsequent initiations, forced me to practice everything that my Soul had been directing me towards. It required me to find faith in the midst of despair, to grow my relationship with my light, and to find God in the underworld.

These days, as I sit with clients in their suffering, or listen to the news, or talk with a friend about a tragedy, I practice what I learned from those visions, and from the heart of my illness—how to reach for and inhabit the light without pushing away pain. How to open to grace on a bodily level and allow love to penetrate every cell, without polarizing myself against suffering. In other words, to be a light in the darkness.

Like anything worth devoting oneself to, this is a practice. One that I haven’t yet, nor perhaps ever will, perfect. But like that little girl in the story, I am beginning to learn that perfection is beside the point. Our Sacred Purpose is not something we achieve. It is something that, if we are lucky, through devotion, love, and daily unraveling, we become.

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10. Open to Everything

“When your heart opens, the world around you changes.” –Mingtong Gu

Lower energies can be overwhelming, heavy, and scary. Many empaths reach to shield themselves in the face of darkness, to imagine or erect some sort of energetic boundary between ourselves and others, to try and safeguard our light. Most of the time this doesn’t work.

A couple of years ago I reached out to a mentor for a reading and guidance on how to work with my empathic abilities. He opened the session with a beautiful prayer inviting in my animal guides, my spirit guides, and my dead grandfather, who I had been quite close with, for support. As he did so, I could feel the presence of Spirit at my back; but rather than relaxing me, the visceral experience of something Unseen scared me. The frequency was stronger than I was used to; it felt like a physical person was actually standing behind me. I instinctually moved to protect myself, drew my energy in, and put up a shield.

The mentor saw what I was doing and called me on it: “Ground through your feet,” he invited. “Soften your back. Relax. Surrender.”

“But how do you know that it is the Divine and not an invasive energy?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” he responded. “Shield against nothing. Open to everything. Open to God.”

Open to everything? This, for most empaths, is radical advice that goes against our instinctual animal body impulse to protect ourselves. It takes a leap of faith. But as I have come to learn since then, it is the one method that is truly infallible. There is no more powerful force in the universe than our own light. 

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11. Let the Black Bees Fly

“Cast your burden upon the (Divine), and He shall sustain you.” – Psalm 55: 22

Three years ago I remembered again; this time the message was even clearer. I was getting closer to the carved out bottom of the flute.

It was a shamanic journey, this time with plant medicine—not something I usually engaged in, yet my intuition guided me to say yes. So I tied the proverbial sacred rope around my waist and entered into the inner chamber.

I went in skeptical. No, that’s not quite right. I went in scared.

There were 17 of us, women. The gathering was called the High Priestess Convergence. We were entrepreneurs, coaches, healers, visionaries, shamans, and Amazon warriors (literally, one woman worked in the Amazon and was about 6 feet tall. She kicked ass).

We came together for the purpose of ushering in the new paradigm of feminine leadership and of supporting one another in the embodiment of our gifts.

This time, my question approaching the journey was different. I trusted, finally, that I knew my Purpose and was living it. The visions, the illness, my time on the land, my apprenticeship with my teachers, mirroring from my soul sisters, my work with clients, and everything else in my life had shown me what I was here to do: To help healers alchemize their suffering and bring the split-off parts of themselves back home so that they can become the initiated adults they are meant to be, embody their gifts, and shine their light in the world. But something was still missing.

I had been doing this in private practice and in my programs, but from the wrong side of the equation. Even though I had convinced myself that I had moved all the way through from wounded healer to healed healer, I hadn’t. By the end of a day of seeing clients, even though I grounded constantly, I was overloaded and exhausted and only had enough energy to watch an episode of crappy TV on my computer. And worse than that, I was in constant, chronic pain. I clenched my jaw and grinded my teeth, my shoulders kept inching their way towards my ears, and my body carried a layer of inflammation that I knew didn’t wholly belong to me.

So this time, my question wasn’t, “What is my Purpose?” it was, “How do I live my Purpose without taking on other’s pain? How do I live as the light that I am without drowning in the darkness?” Now I was on to something.

When the plant medicine kicked in, the entry was bliss. Lilting devotional chanting was playing in the background, a love song from God.

Don’t look back, open your heart / right now is the perfect time to start
/ you don’t have to try / just let your self go
/ don’t ask why, ’cause you already know.”—Bachan Kaur

At first I was surprising relaxed. A rush of light permeated my cells and I felt like I was floating in the undifferentiated bliss space of God. Then came the fall. I’m not sure what triggered it. Perhaps it was the shadow material of the sisters around me that my energy body was unconsciously courting. Or perhaps it was my own fear. Or maybe the medicine was simply showing me what it was that my energy body did all the time, in an attempt to wake me up—an exquisitely uncomfortable answer to my prayers.

I started to feel burdened by doubt. Had I betrayed myself by taking plant medicine? Did I open myself up to something that I shouldn’t be getting into? Was I failing in my mission to embody the light? Why was everyone around me having such an easy time of it and I was in struggle? And the empath’s credo—“What’s wrong with me?” On and on into the night the dark thoughts came, and although I had moments of synchronicity, connections with my sisters, and even laughter, for the most part, I was in hell.

I remember bonding with one of the shamans as I lay on the floor that night. She kept saying, “Drop into your heart. Go to the center of the pain. It won’t hurt you,” and chanting sweet songs into my ear to help the waves pass. But instead, I kept stubbornly trying to diagnose the swirl of thoughts, anguish, and despair that I felt in my energy field. I kept trying to think my way out of them, to find a reason to explain away the pain.

“No matter what you do, I belong to you/no matter where you go, you’re held in my glow/
you can never do wrong, sing and become my song/no matter what you do, I belong to you /no matter what you do, you’re me – I’m you”—Bachan Kaur

I’m pretty sure I never slept that night. I paced the private acreage where we were holding our ceremony. I lay near the other women. I curled up in a ball. I sat next to the fire. I talked to the trees. Nothing seemed to help.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning when the grey light was appearing in the California sky, my somatic tools kicked in—I remembered my power.

I got up from the bed I had been restlessly tossing in, stepped into the bathroom, and took a look at myself in the mirror. My eyes were wild like an animal’s and scared. “Hey,” I said to myself, firmly yet with kindness. “You are ok. You know how to move energy. This is what you do for a living. Don’t fight this. Feel your body, breathe, move, surrender. Let the energy sequence through.” Right there in the bathroom I found my feet against the cold tile and began to sway. I came out of the freeze response and into motion.

While everyone else was asleep, I walked out into the forested back yard. I felt the soles of my feet and the dirt below. I got down on my hands and knees and pushed like a woman in labor, and then pressed my cheeks against the earth and let the soil coat my face. I remember the smell in my nostrils of dew and wet earth. I began to moan like a keening, indigenous woman who had just lost a child, to howl and cry, and to let the pain move through and out and into the earth.


I saw the energy as it poured out of my mouth—it looked like a stream of swarming black bees.

I rocked back and forth on my knees, crying and moaning and finding my power from my belly and letting the black bees fly.

I was giving birth to something—myself.

I had seen those bees come out of my mouth once before—on a backpacking trip when I had inadvertently stumbled upon land where Native Americans had been slaughtered. It was an unprocessed pocket of terror, rage, and grief waiting for someone to come along and release it. Waiting to be honored.

“Bhariai hath per tan deh, Pani dhotai utras kheh. / Moot piliti kapar hoe, Deh saboon laieh oh dhoe.
/ Bhariai mat papa kay sang, Oh dhopai navai kay rang…”

(“When our hands, feet or body become dirty they can be cleaned by water.
… When the mind is burdened by duality, heaviness and illusion from past actions,
meditating on the Holy Naam can wash it clean again and fill you with Divine Love.”—Bachan Kaur)

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that was leaving my body in that moment, but it was old, and deep, and beyond me. It was my clients’ calcified suffering that I had unconsciously carried in my muscles. It was the terror of my ancestors who were killed in pogroms, and the hardened shame of those who had caused the killing. It was the pain of conquests, rapes, inquisitions, and genocides. My people. The people. The pain of the world. And it wasn’t mine to carry—I was being asked, finally, to let it go, to hand it over to the earth and to God.

The point wasn’t the pain, I remembered again, as I moaned and spit and cried. The point was the light that remained when the pain was released.

As empaths, we were never meant to carry that much suffering. And certainly never meant to carry it alone.

If we set out to do our Sacred Purpose but lose touch with our spiritual support, then we suffer. Without love/God/the Divinity within, or whatever you want to call it, all that we have to go on is our personal will, the conscious and unconscious patterns and habits that act as hooks and bind us to suffering.

But if we stop trying to do the Divine’s work for it, and hand over to the Sacred what belongs to the Sacred, we will feel the love holding and permeating us as well. We will take refuge in the task that we truly took birth forto realize our own Divine nature. This, I am coming to understand, is what it means to be a light in the darkness.

Something permanently changed in me that night.

The chronic tension in my jaw released and never clenched again in quite the same way, as did much of the pain I had been carrying in my shoulders. I began to feel a stream of light move though me on a regular basis. I started to recognize the drop in vibration when it appeared in my thoughts and emotions, and stopped identifying with it. I quit thinking that it meant that “something was wrong with me” and instead, viscerally reached for the light and practiced handing the energy over to the Divine. I began to stop my addiction to emotion and intensity, and my attachment to suffering, and began to practice opening to grace instead…

Click Here to Read Part III of Anatomy of an Empath

Click Here to Return to Part I of Anatomy of an Empath

Click here to read about my upcoming course, Empath Mastery: Sacred Tools for Highly Sensitive Healers.

Finally, head over here to sign up for my upcoming free tele-call, Empath Master Class: How to Find and Embody Your Light in Dark Times.

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About Sweigh Emily Spilkin

Sweigh Emily Spilkin, MA, CHT, PhD is passionate about helping people transform challenge into soul-centered growth. She is the founder of Thresholds Healing, through which she offers Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Somatic Soul Retrieval, and workshops and classes for therapists, healers, and other individuals ready to cross the Threshold into the full embodiment of who they really are.

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