What Within You Is Ready To Be Unveiled?
The fourth in a series of gorgeous questions for self-reflection, creative exploration, and simply for the pleasure of it.
The hum and roar of traffic noise is already a presence in the room as I open my eyes on yet another day. Even early on a Sunday morning, there is no respite from this constant reminder of how busy the world is. When I wake feeling dissatisfied or out of sorts, perhaps from the remnants of a dream or an unresolved issue, I do not allow myself to get out of bed until I listen for what needs to shift. I don’t want to face the day with anything less than gratitude for all I have been given, or if I can’t manage that, at least a sense of humor about the absurdity of being me.
There is no one way that works; every day seems to require a slightly different series of associations to trigger the necessary cascade of chemical reactions in the brain that make it possible to face the work of the day with a semblance of awareness. Today I roll over and pull the soft alpaca blanket around me. I notice its deep blues and reds and the striking geometric design. Images appear of my son and me in the market in Otavalo, Ecuador last year when the fierce image of an ancient Sun god caught my eye. I wanted to purchase this completely outlandish thing, the garish design the equivalent of a glow in the dark Elvis painting, but thankfully his good sense prevailed and we bought this very tasteful blanket instead.
It is this “and yet” that starts the process of finding my way into the day. What was it about that image that attracted me? Looking around for clues, I notice the framed picture on my desk of Kali, the Hindu goddess of divine protection and destroyer of illusions. She too is angry and fierce and I have this photo as a reminder of when she dropped by during my husband’s birthday celebration and caused more than a bit of trouble. (More about that in a minute.)
In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane speaks of “Anthropocene unburials”…when due to climate change what has been long buried in the earth, rises to the surface. “…permafrost is no longer perma; it is melting and slushing, and as it does so, it’s releasing ancient methane deposits. It’s releasing the bodies of reindeer killed by anthrax. And the spores are alive and in the air again and setting off epidemics. It’s releasing 50,000 year old wolf pups in the Yukon, perfectly preserved. And structures, too: An American Cold War missile base in the north of Greenland is rising to the surface of the ice cap. It was left because it was thought that it would always be buried by snowfall, but now snowmelt is exceeding snowfall, and so it’s coming to the light. And it’s frightening. [laughs] It’s frightening.”
As the Earth reveals what has long been hidden beneath the surface, we, too are experiencing these unburials within our own bodies and psyches. Illnesses, injuries, memories, and long-buried wounds are calling for our attention. It seems there is no more time to avoid what we see when we look with attention at the world nor when we look into our own eyes in the mirror.
Women are telling me they feel an inner strength forged through years of experience which is allowing what has been hidden to rise to the surface. We are determined to face it, no matter how uncomfortable or frightening. And it can be frightening, make no mistake about it. There is good reason we have denied our experience, burying our wounds and anger as far underground as possible.
“The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as threat — not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes: the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks….People are more likely to use words like “bitchy” and “hostile” to describe female anger, while male anger is more likely to be described as “strong.”
This article on female rage, by Leslie Jamison, is insightful and worthy of your time to understand how society has manipulated women to repress our life energy. When hearing a woman say, “Oh, I don’t get angry,” I remember myself saying those words in my twenties and pay careful attention to listen for what else she may not know about herself.
Image of Kali
Back to Kali’s visit. I had been feeling strange most of the day, but I assumed it was due to anxiety about the party planned with over a dozen guests in our home that evening. Once we have all gathered, my husband introduces each person and speaks of their relationship to him and is received with much warmth and appreciation. In contrast, I notice myself being an impersonal, detached observer. I am last to speak and, completely out of the blue, I say “Yes, that’s when the transformation began (referring to when we got married). It hasn’t been a lot of fun, but it has been good.” I feel the shock and hear the collective gasp of having breached some societal norm, so I say, “I am just telling the truth.”
It is now clear to me that something other than “me” is in control for now and I am strangely content to go along for the ride. I go back to the kitchen and busy myself with the meal I am preparing. The party continues. The food is delicious, friends are joyful, music is played, songs are sung. Sitting quietly in the midst of the party, I notice the strong energy buzzing inside me and filling the room. It requires considerable effort to stay, but leaving doesn’t seem to be an option; for some reason, having a direct experience of the immense tension between outer surface appearance and my inner reality is necessary until the party blessedly ends.
Later I realize my “normal” self would not have blurted out those words because I hadn’t known them before nor would I have wanted to upset anyone. However, once I said it, I knew it was true: Our marriage was a vehicle for the transformation of our souls and as such it had been quite challenging, heart-opening, and ultimately, liberating. Knowing this and saying it out loud was oddly satisfying for me, but very distressing for everyone else as some felt compelled to share with us the next day. Now I felt ashamed for having brought this unwelcome energy into our home and frightened by how vulnerable it made me feel.
Trying to understand what happened, I sit and do active imagination with the experience and this is what spontaneously arises:
I am dancing wildly, spinning in circles, ever faster, raging in the darkness. I know this is Kali. I spin and the sword I carry cuts off the heads of the guests. This is the same energy during the party and it is here now, big and powerful. I/Kali destroys the house and then walks serenely out the door into the night. I walk to the forest, to a river, swimming effortlessly upstream in this dark water, feeling free, wild and natural, at home finally. I become a fish, then a hawk circling the sky, a fish again, a salmon that is eaten by a she-bear. I am now the bear sitting, fed and contented, on the bank of the river in full sunlight.
I understood that these creatures simply are. Each lives its nature and is free. I, too, must live my nature if I am to be free, allowing the raw, instinctual part of myself in this overly controlled, civilized world even though it makes others uncomfortable. Cutting off the head of all that is conditioned or false within me, including my need to be liked and to belong. Clearly, the power is not for me nor mine but resides in allowing the energy of life to move through me, no matter what.
It was the beginning of a long process of learning to honor the reality of my inner world and be receptive to its teachings, to use Kali’s sword to set clear boundaries so my resources of time and energy could be used to get into relationship with archetypal figures and energies within me, and to turn away from the demands and comforts of “normal” to reclaim my own way of being.
What did that look like in daily life? My days were spent doing the essentials: working in the clinic, cooking and taking care of my family, being in nature, and meditating. Intimate moments over tea, a shared meal, or a walk with a friend rather than random socializing. This turned down the noise and stimulation from the outer world and freed me to be available to the mysterious process going on in my psyche. Fortunately, my beloved husband is on a similar path, with his own inner experiences, and we share our love for family, travel, and being in the natural world so we are still together.
How could I have forgotten such profound teaching? And yet, I did. Because I am much more ordinary woman than goddess and the need to belong to a family, a belief system, and to any collective in which one lives is perhaps our most powerful need as human beings. And to pay for this belonging, we may be willing to sacrifice what is most valuable in ourselves….. until we realize that these are the very aspects of our being essential for our own individuation and for the evolution of the whole.
Many of us have completely misunderstood the powerful, forceful, creative energy we call anger. To rectify a terrible injustice or reclaim a part of ourselves that has been disowned tremendous energy is needed. When used appropriately, anger or rage can provide that energy. This is the energy of life wanting to continuously re-create itself and move through us into the world; the very same expansive energy that compels seeds to open deep in the thawing ground, to push up and out with all their might toward the air, light, and warmth so they may grow and flourish.
There may be some awkward, messy times ahead as the way is cleared to allow more life energy to move through you. Kali, with her bloody sword and necklace of severed heads, is most likely not going to manifest dancing joyously with you in the light of your creativity (or whatever your particular fantasy might be). She is, after all, the Destroyer of Illusions and if you pay attention, her energy may guide you to reclaim what is rightfully yours.
What is your nature that needs to be lived? What within you is ready to be unveiled?
How Can You Offer Yourself To This World?
The third in a series of gorgeous questions for self-reflection, creative exploration, and simply for the pleasure of it.
It is so interesting to me how life will often bring just what we need, in her own time, of course, without any requirement other than an attitude of receptivity. This happened a few weeks ago while having dinner at my friend Colleen’s home when her daughter mentioned a commencement speech given by Ursula LeGuin. Her message is so powerful that I hope you read every word and have conversations about what it means to you.
She has brilliantly articulated something I have been struggling to understand most of my life: how to live and communicate in a way that transcends what she calls the language of the father and mother tongues. How to be in this world as a woman in a skillful way, a way that is alive and true, not in reaction to nor defined by the limitations of this culture?
I want to share the essentials of what I hear LeGuin saying. The father tongue is the language of social power and public discourse. “If you want to succeed in business, government, law, engineering, science, education, the media, if you want to succeed, you have to be fluent in the language in which “success” is a meaningful word….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard…In our Constitution and the works of law, philosophy, social thought, and science, in its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful.”
The mother tongue is the language of private experience and is “repetitive, the same over and over, like the work called women’s work; earthbound, housebound. It’s vulgar, the vulgar tongue, common, common speech, colloquial, low, ordinary, plebeian, like the work ordinary people do, the lives common people live. The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word the root of which means “turning together.” The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting.”
Windows by Chagall
There is such tension between these two tongues, between any polarities, really - woman/man, matter/spirit, body/mind - that many of us avoid and withdraw in defeat, not able to hold the tension within ourselves until we find a way to unite them.
Carl Jung said, “Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damming up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an insupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new, uniting function that transcends them.”
It is with this unbearable condition that most of us live, our life energy repressed until we create a bridge to this new, encompassing, transcendent way of being that is of necessity unique to us and of our own creation.
LeGuin: “Offer your experience as your truth… How, after all, can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? Even if I’ve had a lot more of it, your experience is your truth. How can one being prove another being wrong? Even if you’re a lot younger and smarter than me, my being is my truth. I can offer it; you don’t have to take it…There’s no way you can offer your experience as your truth if you deny your experience.”
There is nothing grand nor glamourous in what I offer and, having internalized the judgment of the father tongue, I have devalued it, believing it too mundane to be given a voice. Perhaps you too know of this devaluing and neglect of one’s self and one’s gifts?
And yet it is in the creative process that we discover our ways to unite the tension of opposites unique to each of us. I have found that engaging with poetry, literature, art, music, singing, dancing, cooking, gardening, and being in the natural world helps me gather clues about the struggle as well as experience relief from it, even if but for a moment.
Sharing what I have learned through direct experience as a practitioner of East Asian medicine is one of my offerings. Check out these Five Essential Life Practices to support your skillful and powerful ways to be in this world.
To now know in my bones how vital it is to remain curious and explore the inner and outer landscapes that shape us; to re-member and then offer ourselves to life in ways ordinary or otherwise is both a blessing and a responsibility.
How can you remember who you are? How can you offer yourself to this world in such need of your experience as a woman?
What Needs Your Attention Now?
My husband and I refer to living in a cohousing community as our grand experiment. Like all unfamiliar experiences, it has had its ups and downs and the learning curve has not always been easy on us or our neighbors. Several years into the experiment, I see we each arrive with who we are, no way around that! Idiosyncratic temperaments, communication styles, and expectations come together in both delightful and distressing ways.
The small, individual homes are beautifully designed to fit together on this piece of land, with front doors opening onto a common pedestrian walkway so we encounter our neighbors on a daily basis. Native plants and trees grace the yards and 10 acres of oaks behind our house provide a natural play area for the children and a lovely place for my daily walks. The Common House provides us with a gathering space for meals and other social events.
This is certainly a well thought out foundation for a community of more than 80 individuals of all ages. And yet, once the human element is introduced into the form, the unpredictable enters the equation. Accustomed to our culture’s way of living separately to reduce any possible friction as well as nourishment from others, this has been a challenge for me. Sometimes it seems we are trying to do the impossible, that living closely with others in harmony is a fool’s dream in this country at this time.
The last few days have shifted my attention to an appreciation for the totality of the experience, the times of coming together and the times of separation or discord. Yes, it IS foolish and somehow that now delights me!
On the eve of Halloween, one of the sweet spots appeared unexpectedly. A group of about 14 gathered to share a simple meal and memories of those who had come before. After enjoying the minestrone soup, salad, and pumpkin cheesecake bars, the stories of remembrance began.
It wasn’t the kind of celebration one finds in Mexico with Dia de Muertos, with all its exuberance, creativity, and multilayered sense of cultural identity. Yet a poignant sense of connection was palpable in this group of ordinary people taking the time to remember those they loved.
There was such softness in the eyes and voice of one neighbor, a man in his seventies, speaking of his own father. “During the Depression he was a hobo for several years, riding the rails along with thousands of other men, finding odd jobs here and there. My father was one of the most honest people I’ve ever known. He once went back to a cafe to return 55 cents too much they’d given him in change. I was fortunate to be with him when he died so I could tell him what a great father he had been. With great effort, he took off the oxygen mask and said, “Pass it on.”
His wife then showed us a photo of a strong, handsome young man, their son Tim. She told the story of his life, his illness, and his death at 34. “You know when people tell me how sorry they are, I am not sure what to say. He lived his life so well, and his death was a good one, a conscious one, that I know he had a full life,” she said with a smile and tears in her eyes.
As others told their stories, I noticed a deepening sense of appreciation for my neighbors. Each one of these people is so much more than what is apparent. Of course, we all know that we must look below surface appearances, but how often do we take the time to do so? It was as if a veil were lifted and I could clearly see the beauty of the totality of each person. And I too was included, a thread of common humanity weaving us all together.
Silently, I pray for some of the dignity, strength, and humor of those whose stories I have just heard. I know I’ll forget again, will feel separate again. Until the next time grace brings an unexpected moment of sweet remembrance.
As we walk out into the night, four-year-old Mila in costume and bike decked out with blazing white lights rides around us singing her joy for tomorrow’s festivities. Laughing, we celebrate both life and death at the same moment, a perfect Dia de Muertos!
What Experience Helped You Move Forward?
This is the first in a series of gorgeous questions to be used for self-reflection, creative exploration, and for the pleasure of it.
It is mid-morning of New Year’s Eve and the two of us are sitting with our backs against large eucalyptus trees, surrounded by verdant farmland outside a small town ninety minutes north of Quito, Ecuador. We are settling in for a plant medicine ceremony in a beautiful meadow with expansive views of Imbabura, the dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted in 14,000 years. Here we sit undisturbed, silently setting our intention for the day, making noise with a rattle to attract the attention of the spirits, the devas of the place, and our own psyches. Basically saying: I am here in this place, in this moment, reaching out to you, remembering you. Please. Remember me.
Martin mixes a small amount of powdered huachuma cactus with water, squeezes fresh lime to improve the taste, and hands me the cup. I thank him and drink the bitter, gritty, and viscous liquid down to the last drop. This is the ancient system of plant-based shamanism he has embraced over these last few years in all its simple profundity: Nature. Attention. Listening. Spaciousness. Conversation. A system designed to open a door onto another level of awareness to see where you are on the journey of life. If you are receptive, approach the ceremony with respect, give it the time it requires, and perhaps more importantly, if the magic of alignment is present with the right time, place, and people, you may be shown what is needed to take the next step.
It seems so natural to be sitting in this meadow in the Andes with my 27-year-old son, noting the bright red bird flit by, the wind in the trees, the sound of an indigenous woman moving her three cows to another field a bit further away. It has taken years of discussion to address my cautious reluctance and bring us to this moment. I resisted the idea of needing to take a substance to alter my consciousness, preferring the discipline required to go slowly, allowing time, daily practice, and grace to effect change. Even more, I felt that doing so would be a serious, perhaps irrevocable, breach of the commitment I made to my spiritual path almost two decades ago.
The medicine begins to work on me, easing my habitually self-judgmental mind and making it easier to accept the situation as it is. At age 62 and retired, there has been a persistent sense of stagnation, inertia, and an inability to envision what life could possibly want of me that I haven’t been able to move through no matter how diligently I tried. No therapy, inner work, or spiritual practice, however profound in other regards, has been able to dislodge it.
I realize this goes back so long for me and is related to needing to be liked, to be seen as kind, caring, helpful, and extremely competent, but not powerful. Not uncommon for women in this culture where power is so often abused, used to dominate others, and hardens the heart of the bearer. I know, for I have misused power and this frightens me about myself.
As soon as I name the issue, a solution arises: Take one step away from yourself and accept the true power that is always in service to life.
Yes, and… how to do that? The desperate, absolute need to face what has been holding me back demanded that I act outside the box. So here I am in a grassy field in Ecuador relinquishing all the “shoulds” I have created and surrendering to a deeper instinct to trust myself, life, and spirit.
Rumi’s words come to mind:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
I laugh. Yes, I’ll meet you there!
Imbabura, Cotacachi, Ecuador. Photo by Mary
We separate and each finds our own place to lie on the ground for a few hours, listening to whatever arises. It was not a large dose and I think I feel normal yet much more grounded in myself and the sensory experiences of the natural environment around me. No hallucinations, no dramatic visions, nothing big, strange, or surreal happens at all.
I start to notice a subtle sensation of….what? Again, I ask myself a question and the answer is given: Life is returning. Yes, that is exactly what is happening even though I can’t understand how. I feel I am in the right place: My body, with this clear, penetrating and connecting awareness is the right place for me to be.
Relaxing onto the earth, I notice my breath and I begin to follow it, silently repeating the mantra I learned years ago. The next few hours pass quickly, following the breath as it weaves this moment to all the other breaths and moments that came before. I viscerally feel the attention to each breath weaving my life together, then and now, and gathering it here for me in this moment. Loose threads of joy, sorrow, pain, despair, and laughter, being connected by the conscious breath to make this stronger, richer fabric of being. How is any of this even possible? I briefly wonder but choose to continue in the experience rather than analyze it.
There is a lightness to these quiet hours lying on the ground that reminds me of when I was a young girl and spent a lot of time alone in nature, not doing much of anything. Memories arise, forgotten for decades, now facilitating conscious connections of past and present, heart and spirit, in surprising ways. This occurs so simply, without any conscious intention or struggle on my part, that I almost miss the meaning in this experience: This new life is not about my effort nor my ego. Ease and receptivity to what is given are essential qualities the medicine is teaching me!
A bemused smile appears on my face as I realize that this naturally creative, receptive part of me has been dormant, not unlike Imbabura, with no visible signs of life below the outer, functional shell. Until now.
Opening my eyes, the expansive blue clarity of the Andean sky is reflected back to me and I am filled by a powerful joy as I realize that it took the joys and sorrows of decades of ordinary life to wear down the conditioned patterns of the mind, ego, and body. It was all necessary to erode myriad layers of the isolated, false self.
A message from a dream years ago comes: “Love is a medicine that does two things simultaneously; it both destroys and creates you.”
Clearly seeing I have identified with the pain of all that has been taken away, I understand it is now time to look closely at what is being given. The end of one way of life and the beginning of another.
Okay. I got it. Thank you.
I stand, walk around a bit, reorient myself to Imbabura, the trees, and yes, there is Martin also moving around. We drink some water, sit with our backs against the eucalyptus, and begin the easy conversation that will go on for hours as the memories, dreams, and reflections arise and are woven into the fabric of the present moment.
The relationship established with your guide and the spirits is central to the mystery of this tradition. If all goes well, illumination allows the right questions to be asked for you to clearly articulate what is necessary for the next step on the journey.
Just as the outer light begins to fade, and I think we are done, Martin says, “I never thought to ask before, but I’d really like to know. How did you meet your teacher?”
This one sincere question calls forth the story, the remembrance of which opens the door to what comes next.
The Zen Stick of Sourdough
Finding myself with some free time, I took my neighbor up on her offer to teach me to make sourdough bread. Karen watches as I follow her instructions to combine stoneground wheat flour, salt, sourdough starter, and water. I mix it together with my hands until it makes a moist ball of dough, put it in a greased bread pan, cover it tightly and let it sit for 12 hours. That’s it. The lesson took about 15 minutes. No yeast, no kneading, no additives, all the work is done by the natural process of fermentation.
To my surprise, the bread comes out perfectly when I bake it the next morning. Filled with flavor, both sweet and sour, with a dense yet smooth texture. My body responds to the first bite, slathered in natural Euro-style butter, as it registers
The alchemy of sourdough bread gives me joy. I value having a direct sensory experience of dry/wet/sticky as I combine the few, very basic ingredients with my hands, watching the dough rise as the hours of fermentation break down the cellulose structure and release nutrients into the dough, playing with the basic recipe by adding walnuts, raisins, honey, or rye flour, noticing the rich, comforting smell fill the house as it bakes and, of course, the pleasure of taste, texture, and smell as I chew it.
But there is an added pleasure bonus with this particular food: the full bodily satisfaction of actually digesting, assimilating, and being nourished by something I participated in creating. Being a part of the cycle of the wheat being planted, grown, and harvested so I may now grind the berries in a small mill to make flour for bread to share with family, friends, and neighbors
Like most of my friends, I had given up bread years ago, unable to digest commercially-made, yeasted bread. Naturally leavened bread, however, contains lactobacillus, which helps generate the intestinal flora essential for proper digestion and elimination and the fermentation neutralizes nearly all the phytic acid which interferes with mineral absorption.
I have always believed that whole food, made with awareness and love, becomes nourishment for the entire being, body-mind-spirit, but now there is a direct experience of it. It has felt like an “I’ve been lost, but now I am found" kinda thing, expanding my capacity to receive and giving me the strength to take in more nourishment, truth, and reality than I have before, which isn’t surprising considering the sacred nature and symbolism of bread.
A Secret Medicine
Rumi has begun speaking to me from time to time. I pick up The Essential Rumi that has accompanied me through numerous moves over the past 30 years and open it randomly. This was the most recent offering:
When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
That last line made me smile, having been a hoper for oh so long. The one before it brought a sigh of recognition. For the first time, I read the words and hear them spoken within my heart at the same time, so that I have a direct experience of the meaning the words were meant to convey. Words not as idea or concept, but as a direct knowing, spoken in just the way my innermost being can receive them.
This is what mystical experience is, I suppose, in its essence: a direct experience of life, of the divine, of the deep well of meaning at the root of it all.
And I knew that this experience itself was the secret medicine, given now that all hope was gone.
Giving Life to the Body
In our recent gathering of women, we talked about what it means to give both spirit and body what they need. As Rumi says, do not burden the spirit with what the body can easily carry. It is important that we pay attention to the needs of the body, for its own sake and because it is our vehicle for spiritual transformation. Energy gets stuck, weighed down, or numbed with all the sitting, worrying, consuming, and striving we do. When we clear the stagnation from the body - through breathwork, dance, shaking - we open the channels for the spirit to be more fully embodied. Breath, oxygen, and movement in the body give birth to more life! It can be subtle or dramatic, whatever is needed. I have had important experiences, dreams, and inspirations after using each of the following methods as I know many of you have as well. Try it out and be present for what is possible now.
Conversations with Women
“We are in the process of being created. We may not know exactly what is happening. But we feel the flow of life in us to be one with the universal life outside. The relation of my soul to this beautiful autumn morning, this vast radiance, is one of intimate kinship; and all this
Indian mystic & winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1913
Many of us feel alone in our efforts to create beauty, meaning, and joy in our lives. I know the pain of this longing for connection as I, too, have lived it.
And yet something new is possible when women come together to expand our capacity for listening and witnessing one another and life.
We find our conversations, woven from dreams and moments in daily life, elicit parts of ourselves not usually accessible to us on our own. Each of us is a thread that weaves through the conversation, creating the story that needs telling
What are you listening for?
Recently I was listening to Adyashanti, The End of Your World, and I heard this one line close to the beginning of the recording:
“Conflict keeps the egoic structure intact.”
I stopped the recording and let that sink in. I knew this one line was the reason for listening today. The daily political turmoil has been over the top for years and has me exhausted. And now conflicts from my own life arise quickly in my memory, and I knew: It is time to let go of all of this and listen to something else. As long as I cling to the surface appearance of what is being acted out on the global stage or to my personal anger and sorrow I am caught in it and distracted from what is real.
Of course, we need to both honor our body, feelings, and experiences and yet not get caught in believing this is all we are. At some point, we absolutely must let go of our habitual stories of how we have been wronged or how hopeless we are and listen deeply to what else is possible.
Listening in this way has a profound effect on how I go about my day, with a renewed sense of energy and hope. Rather than lamenting all that is distressing, my attention turns to the other reality that is unfolding.
Bring on the Real Women
I was on the stationary bike at the neighborhood club this morning, having to exercise inside due to the extreme heat. The TV monitors are directly in front of me: a report that Trump threatened Ecuador with trade sanctions if it introduced a UN breastfeeding resolution, video of immigrant children separated from their mothers, crying desperately or utterly withdrawn, Hoda and Kathie Lee drinking white wine at 10:00 am, laughing easily while talking recipes, and finally an endless infomercial for Crepe Erase, a skincare cream that promises “to smooth away the signs of aging.” In the latter, there is a group of color-coordinated women, hair and make-up done to look perfectly on par with the two celebrity hosts. Everyone is smiling, happy to demonstrate Before and After this miracle product.
After watching for a few minutes, I realize my mind has been automatically following the storylines as presented, while everything in me as a woman, a mother, a human being, rebels. This is so weird, creepy, and downright sickening! None of this resembles news or entertainment but is a strange, surreal, hallucinogenic take on reality.
I move to a machine placed behind a column, blocking the view of the screens. I continue on the bike, aware of living both in the version of reality depicted on these screens and in another where there is still dignity in the human being.
I want to implore, beg, scream:
Show us the real women! The women who aren’t painted, intoxicated and sanitized to death. Bring Toni Morrison, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Joanna Macy, Winona LaDuke, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Warren, and so many others into the discussion. Let their brilliant wisdom nourish and strengthen us. I am longing to see these other women, the ones with fire in their eyes and a steely determination that says No, this will not stand! The simply powerful ones who at work and at home nourish life with the fierce love natural to women, the ones with grey, wild hair, the ones on the front lines, at the border, in the courtrooms, at silent prayer. Women all, facing the suffering caused by rampant greed and needless cruelty.
May I, may you, may all of us find that wisdom within our own hearts, and begin to live it in whatever way we can.
The other day a young neighbor in our co-housing community came over and asked if I could watch her daughter for an hour while she went to the store. The little girl, not quite two years old, is just learning to express herself well enough to let her wishes/needs be known without screaming so I felt we could most likely get along just fine. She helped me water plants, had buttered toast on the patio, and then I put on some music. Paso de Lucia I think. She started to spin and I sat down, thinking it was time for me to rest. She looked at me, very directly, and in her commanding way said: Come. Dance.
This Hafiz poem came back to me and made me smile. What to do but join her in the dance?
The God Who Knows Only Four Words
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come dance with Me.”
A Heart Split Open
Rumi says, I want a heart which is split, chamber by chamber, by the pain of separation from God, so that I might explain my longings and desires to it.
It is spring and we are staying in a hotel built in 1467 near the town square of a small village outside Zurich. My husband rose early to go teach at the clinic and I am left to sleep a bit longer. The church bells are ringing and the loud, resonant clanging is on the edge of my consciousness, signaling danger or a change of some kind. Bells are an integral part of life in many small villages around the world, a vital way to communicate.
At once I feel the longing to belong to a place that honors our basic human need to mark the passing of an hour or of a life, and to bring our attention back from mundane tasks to what is holy and sacred. Images of early mornings years ago at the Hotel Poem in the ancient part of Istanbul, hearing the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. Tenderness envelops me as my whole being listens to the muezzin of the past and the church bells of this moment, simple yet profound reminders to come home to my heart.
This experience of something sacred that has been lost to me brings a disorienting sense of profound emptiness and the certainty: Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be.
The mind and ego rebel against nothingness, but a certain kind of heart, with grace, may know the pure joy of the freedom it offers.
No Matter What
There is a pattern that continues to emerge in my sessions with women. We begin with the story of what appears to be wrong in their lives and we inevitably approach what is below the surface: the unique ways we have each internalized a belief that as women we have little value in this culture; no matter what we do nor how hard we work or love, we will never be enough. When there is no outward reflection of the value of our being, we forget what it means to love and value ourselves.
Possible signs of this? Perhaps you do not stop to rest when tired or eat nourishing foods when hungry, nor allow your body free, joyous movement on a regular basis, or maybe you push yourself to be perfect, efficient, cheerful, upbeat, or productive at all times?
I encourage you to pause the next time you hear yourself saying you would take better care of yourself and actually do the behaviors that show your love for this precious body and being that is you if only…..
There is no need to wait; you can begin to take care of yourself now. Take a moment to slow down, breathe, and check to see what is happening inside you. What do you need in this moment? Perhaps you need a nourishing meal, a walk outdoors, a creative project, time with a close friend or loved one, or solitude and rest? Watch for hints of the authentic needs, the ones that satisfy something deeper within you than a fleeting desire of the ego. And then do what you can to satisfy that need, even if it is simply by acknowledging it.
There is a wellspring of love within you, waiting for you to dip your toes in.
A Moment Out of Time
Just as pain and suffering can be great allies in our quest for wisdom, so, too can joy. Yes, we absolutely need to consciously get into relationship with and feel the depths of our suffering and continue to witness the suffering in the world. Yet as the Zen Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) says, “Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.”
We are all more than our sorrow, more than the history of trauma, loss, pain, or illness. To free ourselves and others from unnecessary suffering and to live fully, we need to connect with, experience, and live our joy. Not the fleeting excitement of parties, travel, getting something we have wanted, or that is dependent on any outer condition. I am talking about the joy that comes unbidden, for no apparent reason, when we are at peace with ourselves in the moment.
Can you remember a time you felt this kind of joy? For me, it happens most often when alone in the natural world.
Plum tree blossoms. Photo by Mary
It is spring and where I live in California and the rains have finally arrived after many months of extreme drought. I walk out in a world changed by the simple fact of water. Energized by the change the rain brings, and the hope that Yes!, we may get through another cycle of seasons now there is life-giving moisture, I walk quickly at first. After the first burst of movement, something makes me pause and pay attention to the particulars: the newly vibrant green of the grass, the delicate pink plum blossoms, with bees hovering, even in the rain, and the deer resting under the oaks.
Sitting on the wet ground, my back against an oak, feeling the moisture through my jeans and the rain on my face. Breathing in the cool air, touching the damp earth, seeing the moss and lichen on the bark of the tree, I know I am here. Not just witnessing something outside myself, but here. Now. Participating fully. Taking a small bit of dirt in my fingers, I slowly feel its mixture of clay and graininess, smell its earthiness, and put it to my mouth, tasting and digesting this earth.
Unbidden, there is a moment out of time when the veil of separation between me and the world gets thin. I feel, I know, this body and this earth are one and the same. A smile on my face, even as tears mix with the raindrops. For a few, sweet moments, there is no separation, nothing to want or need. Only now. With the rain soaking into the earth and into me, I feel free and joyous.
Mine is an odd consciousness, granted; a peculiar mix of shaman, mystic, and most ordinary woman. So I get that eating dirt in the rain may not be your thing. I’d like to know, what is your way to joy? Because each of us needs to find our ways and practice them regularly.
As Thay says. “Whether we have happiness or not depends on the seeds in our consciousness. If our seeds of compassion, understanding, and love are strong, those qualities will be able to manifest in us. If the seeds of anger, hostility, and sadness in us are strong, then we will experience much suffering. To understand someone, we have to be aware of the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. And we need to remember that he is not solely responsible for those seeds. His ancestors, parents, and society are co-responsible for the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. When we understand this, we are able to feel compassion for that person. With understanding and love, we will know how to water our own beautiful seeds and those of others, and we will recognize seeds of suffering and find ways to transform them.”
Denial Ain’t A River In Egypt
In October of last year, as more and more allegations of sexual harassment were being revealed in the media, I was midway through training to be a crisis counselor for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. A moment of synchronicity that called me to pay attention to the threads weaving together the personal and collective awakening.
Knowing that sexual assault and harassment are about domination and power, not sex, helps me understand why denial is so pervasive and difficult to confront in our culture. We hope that not admitting it to ourselves or saying it out loud will protect us from the pain of knowing the truth and keep us safe from more abuse. But, of course, that is wishful thinking.
Denial actually enables those with power to continue to misuse it: Weinstein in Hollywood, Sandusky at Penn State, Larry Nassar with USA Gymnastics with 360 cases of sexual misconduct spanning 20 years, and Cardinal Bernard Law covering up decades of child sexual abuse. Not only are abusers seldom held accountable, often they are protected and even rewarded.
Until now, I have been in denial of how systemic and deeply traumatic these abuses are. Even though I genuinely sympathized when listening to a friend or client describe their experiences, and have been fiercely angry for years at how women are neglected and abused, denial allowed me just enough distance to keep the pain of both the personal and the collective wounds at bay.
Denial may have saved me from facing the full force of my pain, but at the same time, it kept me from acknowledging the truth: this centuries-long abuse that is only now rising to the surface has profoundly diminished the sacred feminine within the collective consciousness and within the personal unconscious of most women and men. And until we confront this devastating reality, there is no way for me or any other woman to live a fully embodied and empowered life.
I wonder if this may true for you? For oh so many of us?
We are a society in denial of our anger, rage, sorrow, and pain. And thus have become a society of violence, in denial of the extremes this violence has reached. This is just as true for the racial discrimination that has legalized a new form of slavery by incarcerating millions of black men, the epidemic of gun violence killing our children in schools, and the myriad ways we are destroying the natural world, as it is for sexual violence.
No one is exempt or immune from the effects of this violence. Martin Luther King knew this when he wrote:
“As nations and as individuals we are interdependent. This is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
There is hope in this truth of our mutuality, hope in knowing we are connected through the light within us as well as the darkness. Now it is time to focus our attention on this light and use it to guide ourselves and one another to a way of living together that makes more sense.
‘Tis a fearful thing
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”
― Yehuda HaLevi
The elements of awareness come together so randomly that they take on the feel of magic, of synchronicity so precise it is powerful enough to penetrate the mind-numbing predictability of an ordinary morning at the gym. Listening to the Fresh Air interview with Scott Frank, the creator of Netflix’s Godless, the recitation of the above poem transports me to a timeless place deep within my heart.
How is it that the wisdom of an 11th-century Jewish philosopher/poet born in Spain comes to me through the unique sensibilities of an American director enthralled by movie Westerns? I laugh at how beautifully life makes these connections, seemingly, at this moment, just for me, even as tears well up in my eyes with tenderness at how love can bring us to our knees.
Later that day as I listen to a woman’s story unfolding in a session, we are both struck by how life tricked her into love. She was young, it was a traditional culture and the marriage was arranged, loveless for her. She gave birth to and raised the children, working hard and fulfilling her duties in every way prescribed for her both at home and at work. When the children are grown, she goes on a retreat and has real, meaningful spiritual experiences. But she is told, “Not yet.” She returns to her husband, cares for him during a long and terminal illness. Now here she is, realizing she is finally “free” after decades of waiting….. but she cannot move on. Something in her is resisting, holding her back.
I ask her to entertain the suggestion that life has its own ways, its own wisdom. What might that be for her? Through this process of trusting that everything she needs to know is available at this moment, together we weave through the sensations, images, and memories the body and heart are revealing. Sensing, feeling, knowing now what is true.
“He always loved me, completely. He told me that loving me was all he needed, he didn’t need me to love him in return. I never understood how that could be possible.”
She experiences now how over the years, despite her profound resistance, she grew to deeply love this man she had been forced to marry. The fantasies of the mind left unfulfilled, yes, but a real love that transformed her without her even being aware of it was growing beneath the surface.
Now she can consciously grieve the loss of her beloved, knowing the true meaning of their marriage. How it was meant to shape her and prepare her to live her full humanity. For that is required of all of us, to know love and to know pain.
How we get there, if we get there, is where the mystery and magic live.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”
Witness it, without flinching
The ancient wisdom of Oriental medicine tells us that the Metal phase corresponds with autumn, a time of harvest and decline. This is a time to reap the abundance of the fall harvest and the expansive, energetic work of the prior phases. Yet there is often a sense of melancholy at this time that may seem unrelated to anything happening in our outer lives. The shorter, darker days of autumn may touch a longing within us for something we cannot quite name, or remind us of a loss of connection to someone or something we valued very much.
Harvest and decline are not separate from each other, but rather equal parts of life’s wholeness. We cannot have a day without night, love without tears, a body without decline, or an in-breath without an out-breath. I was reminded of this as I joined in the joyful olive harvest on a farm near my home a few weeks ago.
As we were harvesting olives one young woman told me she felt deeply saddened by the recent death of a dear relative. “I can barely work with my own pain, how does one cope with the suffering of the people around us?”
Simply be with it, as much as you can. Witness it without flinching.
Nature does not see us as separate. We are not.
We are as woven into life as the deer, the whales, the clouds,
the rivers, the fires and the sky.
We are created from the atoms, molecules,
minerals and waters of this planet that have been here for billions of years.
We are not new, nor are we separate, superior or here to destroy life.
We are part of life, part of nature waking up to the nature of ourselves
and the privilege of these moments called ‘lives.’
As we fall from the false pedestal of bemused superiority,
we land in the embrace of a world calling to us to wake up
to the beauty of creation and our role to
cherish, restore, protect and love the miracle of life.
~ Clare Dubois
Living with the elements
This morning I awoke to find a young deer drinking from the cistern of water in the oaks behind our home. I sat with my cup of tea and let myself take in all the elements of the moment: dry, parched earth and grove of oak trees after a long, hot summer, the basic need all creatures have for life-giving water, and deep gratitude for the neighbor who thought to put out the cistern for her beloved bees housed in the oaks. Before this moment, I wouldn’t have thought of their need, assuming they would be self-sufficient. Now, suddenly and completely, I experienced our inter-relatedness.
My husband and I have recently moved into this home and inherited the responsibility for this place and its creatures. When we came to see the house last July, the first thing we noticed was a red tail hawk perched on the edge of the cistern drinking. The proximity of this wild, powerful bird gave us such a thrill of delight that we immediately knew we could be happy here. A felt sense of connection to the natural world seems so simple and yet is essential to our humanity. There is a richness that reveals itself only when we slow down and open to whatever connection the moment offers, not exerting our will or ideas in any way.
J. Krishnamurti wrote: It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. This Matter of Culture
Now is the time
Now is the time to know
That all you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God?
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live