Monday, February 22, 2016

"I navigated my own path in life."

An American woman who spent time in Afghanistan and other warn-torn regions? Who loved both men and women? Who sought a spiritual path? I knew I had to read her book, My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker, for my Books That Inspire series.  Currently available for pre-order, it’s coming out March 1. I was able to get my hands on an advanced copy and had a lot of questions for Melissa.
Melissa in Afghanistan, 1982
You've had a pretty amazing life. You spent time as a photojournalist in war-torn Afghanistan and the then-U.S.S.R. You were involved in love relationships with an Afghani fighter and, later, a woman artist-activist. Action was a kind of drug that medicated your anxiety. You also talk about using food for a similar reason. How do you deal with anxiety these days?

Now I don’t have anywhere near the level of anxiety I had in my twenties. Maybe I was at a 10-plus then. Now it comes and goes around 1 or 2. So I notice it, sense it, sometimes give a mantra like “Blessings on all beings” then let it go.
Why do you think you have less anxiety now than you did in your twenties? What would you say to your younger self?
Lots of emotional and spiritual work. And doing what feels right. Joseph Campbell said "follow your bliss." I did this, even when it didn't feel blissful after I chose it! I navigated my own path in life, didn't follow anybody else's idea of what success is. I would tell all 20-year-olds to do what feels right—and teach them how to pay attention to their senses in their bodies so that they can start having a trustworthy feedback loop for life.
In the book, you write about affairs you had while you were engaged to George. You've now been married to him for 25 years. Did you worry about revealing those things to him and/or anyone else? What does George think of your book?
He knew from the beginning. We’ve always had a very transparent relationship. He’s been a big fan and supporter since the beginning when it was at the shitty first draft stage. He read all the drafts except the final final version! He says he loves it.
Melissa and George in Tinos, Greece, where they now live.
When you were in Pakistan in your twenties, you had an ecstatic awakening, a kind of a merging with (or sudden awareness) of the Divine. Why do you think that happened at that time?

I think being out of normal routine, adrenaline, and I think I had a born leaning (in homeopathy it would be called susceptibility) to mystical experiences.

Do you still get "shot with a blissfulness" at surprising times?

Yes, now there is more knowing of the experience then the dramatic first time.

I was especially struck by the scene in Afghanistan where instead of being afraid of death in one dangerous situation, you felt peacefully accepting of it. Why do you think that happened?

I think part of it is adrenaline, the other is there is often a pause, a peacefulness others have shared in near death experiences. My theory is that the right brain kicks in. Maybe it’s a form of survival, or maybe again my susceptibility.

Interesting you’d say this because that calmness came over me—after the initial terror—when I was having a seizure caused by a brain tumor in my right hemisphere. So, do you still have that type of relationship with mortality?

Even more so. I took 5-MeO-DMT for my 50th birthday. As described in this article about the shaman I worked with, it’s a “spiritual medicine from the Amazon, used shamanically by indigenous peoples there to contact the spirit world.” I never really did drugs—once pot at a party in high school and hashish on the border of Afghanistan, and didn’t feel anything both times. But with 5-MeO-DMT I experienced an intense going into a tunnel of light and merging with an intense energy source beyond anything I could imagine or had experienced before. I was that drop in the ocean of energy, and there was me like a garment I could put on, comforting and familiar. This gives me a deep insight into what death could be.

Now that you had such an experience, does it make you want to do the drug again?

No, it was really a one-time thing, truly intense and lesson learned!

What do you wish Americans knew about Afghanistan today?

We are causing extreme suffering over there. The invasion, bombings, drones, torture are hurting people.

The book also deals with your time after Afghanistan. I enjoyed reading about your creative life in New York, where you and a group of women decided to work together to make art and independent films with complete freedom of expression—beholden to no gatekeepers. Can you say more about where you stand with this notion today?

I think writing has a similar freedom. It’s low cost and a way to get out ideas quickly and with depth. I’m also interested in the collective process. I lived in community most of my adult life. I’m interested in both the challenges and benefits of working together and how to make that work better, with more diversity and authentically.

What advice would you give to people who want to write a memoir?

I think journal writing is the best place to begin and then see where that leads. Write everything, all the memories. For my second memoir I was more organized. I typed and wrote on index cards every memory/story and then saw what themes appeared and how it all connects.

Melissa Burch is an author, filmmaker, producer and former war journalist for the BBC and CBS. She is also a spiritual practitioner. For more information and a special gift visit

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