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. They are the same, simple yet profound reminders to come home to my heart.
This vision of something sacred that has been lost to me brings a disorienting sense of profound emptiness and the certainty: No where 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 offered.
No Matter What
There is a pattern that continues to emerge in my sessions with women. We begin with the surface story of what is 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 to no value. We work hard, pushing ourselves to gain approval in a culture that tells us we are never enough. When there is no outward reflection of the value of our being, we forget what it means to love and value ourselves. Signs of this? Not stopping to rest when tired, or eat nourishing foods when hungry, not allowing movement on a regular basis, feeling numb when someone expresses appreciation for you, believing you must be perfect/efficient/productive at all times. I encourage you to stop projecting this outward, telling yourself you would take better care of yourself, you would love yourself if only……
Instead slow down, check in with yourself and ask: What feels right to me? What do I need? What allows me to satisfy this need?
There is a wellspring of love within you, waiting for you to dip your toes in! Simply by honoring the knowing of these wondrous bodies and hearts of ours.
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. I am not talking about the surface level happiness or excitement we might be more familiar with, the “if they do this or if this happens…THEN I’ll be happy” kind, but rather the happiness that comes spontaneously from deep within, when we are at peace with what is here in the moment.
Can you remember a time you felt that? For me, it happens most often when alone in the natural world.
It is spring and where I live in California, 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. But 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 rain drops. There is no separation and thus nothing to want or need. Freedom! Joy!
Mine is an odd consciousness, granted; a peculiar mix of shaman, mystic, outlier. So I get that eating dirt in the rain may not be your thing. Yet each of us needs to find ways to happiness and practice 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 his 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 (bowing to Lorena)
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, or meaningful coincidences, which called me to pay attention to the threads that might be weaving together the personal and collective awakening. Very late in the game on both fronts, I must say.
What had kept me from allowing the truth of the matter to touch me in a way that would inform me and shape my life choices? I couldn’t claim ignorance. I was privileged to have a liberal college education in the 70s, which included extensive reading of feminist literature, psychology, and Eastern philosophy that should have given me all I needed to get it. I listened to the experiences of friends and later, for several decades, to patients, traumatized by unwanted sexual attention, harassment, battery, and/or rape. I followed the media reports of abuse scandals in churches, universities, athletic organizations, and the military.
Unlike so many of my friends who could see this clearly as systemic violence against women, I hadn’t digested this truth and made it my own. Being white and middle class gave me the privilege to keep this reality at a distance if I chose.
Yet, after many months of reflection since the training, I see that what has been more influential than privilege, is the power of denial. Denial: a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.
Knowing that sexual assault and harassment are about domination and power, not sex, helps me understand why the denial is so strong and effective. We hope not admitting it and not saying it out loud, will protect us from the pain of knowing the truth as well as keep us safe from more abuse by those in authority. 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, abusing children over a period of at least 15 years, Larry Nassar with USA Gymnastics with 360 cases of sexual misconduct spanning 20 years, and Cardinal Bernard Law covered up decades of child sexual abuse, fled to the Vatican when discovered where he served as a prominent archpriest. Not only are abusers seldom held accountable, often they are protected and even rewarded.
Until now, I have been in denial of the abuses I experienced as a girl and on occasion, as a young woman. I could sympathize deeply, nod my head in dismay or agreement, when I read about an incident or listened to a friend describe abuse, but to keep the confrontation with my unconscious personal wounds at bay, I had to stay distanced and apart. Denial may have saved me from pain back then, but it also kept me from acknowledging the diminishing of the sacred feminine within my own psyche as well as in the collective consciousness.
I wonder if this may true for you? For oh too many of us? Each with our own story of some form of violence that has shut us off from allowing ourselves to know the truth. The truth of what has happened to us, to our loved ones, and to members of our community. To all 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.
Denial only seems to shield us, but the reality is that the body registers everything. We experience the violence and stress below the surface of conscious thought as anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, or constant dissatisfaction. We eat, drink, and work too much. Or exercise, party, spend, and diet too much. All trying to keep the truth at bay.
As far as I can tell, it isn’t working. How could it? We cannot solve a problem within the same system as the problem. We are simply and sadly perpetuating more violence, now against ourselves, with this unconscious denial, avoidance, and excess.
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.”
It is strengthening inwardly to know the truth of the matter. To look it full on and not flinch.
And to know there is a path out of this suffering. Interdependence goes both ways, I tell myself. We are interconnected through the light in each of us as well as the darkness.
Something to consider for next time.
‘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 an awareness come together so randomly that they take on the feel of magic, of a 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, in 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 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 in 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 wherein lies the mystery and the magic.
‘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 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.
Later that day I was speaking with an intuitive young woman I mentor. She was deeply saddened by the account of the 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? And I immediately got– “Witness it, without flinching.”
Something within her naturally connected to the ancient wisdom of this phase. Her experience reminded me: We always have a choice. We often feel vulnerable, or even threatened, by a lack of control due to the losses we have suffered both personally and collectively. However, if approached with awareness, we can witness what is happening within us and in the world, without turning away.
Feeling deeply into the decline of our beloved natural world and into our love for all that is lost, we forge an inner strength to shift our focus from what is no longer available and look toward what is being given.
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
May you find your ways to come into relationship with the natural world and allow yourself to freely respond to it!
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