Fangs of an Epiphany

UA instructor Erec Toso writes about how an encounter with a rattlesnake changed his life

One muggy night a few Augusts ago, UA writing instructor Erec Toso was returning home with his sons following an evening swim. Walking across his darkened front yard, Toso wasn't exactly in the here and now. A new semester had just started, and Toso was already stressed out, obsessing about his substantial workload and more than a little irked about having to give up the freedom of summer.

Toso was brought back into the moment, however, when he came a bit too close to a rattlesnake coiled in the shadows. The snake bit Toso's unclad foot, quickly plunging him into an all-out struggle for survival. Toso lived to talk about the mishap, but his story goes far beyond gory details and physical recovery. His ordeal, as ordeals often do, marked a turning point in his life, radically transforming his perception of the world. Toso recounts these remarkable experiences in Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite.

A snake bite can be a real ass-kicker. Rattlesnake venom is one of nature's most toxic weapons, a complex blend of chemicals that poses a multipronged threat to the body. It attacks blood vessels (capillaries can liquefy, causing massive internal bleeding), muscles, tissues and the nervous and respiratory systems. In a matter of seconds, Toso's leg was virtually paralyzed, and within minutes, he was overcome with swelling and pain.

"As the venom spread," he writes, "my foot felt like corrosive acid had been poured on living tissue. A dragon had hatched and was uncoiling under the narrow confines of my skin. ... Its scales tore at my flesh and burned."

By the time he reached the hospital, Toso was sliding into severe shock, and it took most of the hospital's supply of anti-venom to stabilize him.

His recovery was slow and arduous. The swelling, which eventually reached his rib cage, took weeks to subside, and shortly after he returned to work, his wound developed a serious infection, triggering a second, extended period of rehab.

With tribulations like these, you might expect that Toso would have spent his convalescence bemoaning his fate and cursing everything that slithers. However, other than chafing over his inability to go running, Toso found himself, almost from the moment he was bitten, in a heightened state of presence and strangely serene.

"My world," he says, "was temporarily suspended outside of time by the surprise waiting for me in the summer heat of my front yard. In that gap of no time, no hurry, no motion, fear took a vacation. ... Anxiety fell through the windows that opened as my ship of life suddenly dropped anchor."

In an ambulance on the way to the hospital, Toso sensed that death was approaching--not the radiant, embracing light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel variety, but absolute nothingness. Yet, at the same time, he felt pulled into a chamber of tranquility deep inside himself where he seemed to detect some kind of auditory power source.

"It was like being underwater," he writes, "looking up at a surface tempest, knowing that ships were being wrecked but hearing nothing except a deep hum."

As the anti-venom took effect, Toso felt death ease away, but the bubble of calm awareness remained. Calling that evening "the most spiritually resonant night of my life," Toso reports a moment of ego dissolution worthy of a Himalayan yogi.

"Maybe it was the poison moving through my body," he recalls, "but whatever it was that was me began to break into pieces, to fragment, to dissolve and then float away on a flood like that running down out of the high mountains, the enormous watersheds. Whatever troubles I had been carrying broke up and were carried into an immense silence."

Feeling he had awakened from "a coma of years," Toso found himself in a world of joy, gratitude and acceptance, temporarily free of the distracting river of self-talk that often blocks access to the present.

Toso rode the ripple effect of his epiphany, attempting to reconnect with his family of origin, accept his mother's Alzheimer's disease, find meaning in the mundane activities of daily life, engage the wild inscrutability of nature, seek ways to forestall the destruction of the desert and revise the "mess of stories I call my personality."

This book is an inspiring voyage into the heart of a profound spiritual awakening, illustrating that our personal narrative of the world--largely born of conditioning and habit--is but one of many possibilities, and can change in the twinkling of a snake's eye.

"I am discovering," Toso tells us, "anyone can alter his or her perception, creating harmony rather than dissonance, art rather than cliché, wonder rather than ennui. This heady wine of potential possesses and consumes me."