March 11, 2013
Today is Saturday. The sun has just dipped below the western mesa and the face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is about to be washed with the scarlet glow from which the range derives its poetic name. Shabbat is over and, in the tradition of my ancestors, I mourn a little. The Sabbath, they say, is a taste of “the world to come” — a day so sweet that the Holy One, in His infinite mercy, gives us 25 hours instead of the standard 24 so that we can have a little more time to dwell in tranquility and delight.
Or Hers. Her infinite mercy. Shabbat is drenched with the Sacred Feminine. When the sun sets on Friday night and we kindle the Sabbath candles we call in the Shekhinah, the indwelling feminine presence of the Divine in the form of the Sabbath Bride. The Shekhinah has been exiled from her beloved Israel, which stands for all people. Jewish mysticism teaches that when we rise to meet the Bride in song and thanksgiving she enters us and renders us whole again. She infuses us with a second soul, an additional spiritual resource with which to navigate the holy temple in time that is Shabbat. Filled with her radiant presence we can pray more deeply, study more insightfully, enjoy food and sex and all the other blessings of creation with greater gladness.
I grew up in a family of secular Jews who were no more familiar with concept of the Shekhinah than the Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or the Apostle’s Creed. While they reluctantly identified with Judaism as an ethnic heritage (my mother often pointed out that if we had been around during the Holocaust, the Nazis would have picked us up and thrown us into the gas chambers regardless of our belief system), my parents distrusted the entire enterprise of organized religion and raised us with a kind of free-floating orientation toward the Golden Rule. They were anti-war activists, champions of human rights, defenders of the poor and marginalized, but seemed to have forgotten that this commitment to social justice is the living core of the religion they rejected: Judaism.
In my teens, hungry for a container to hold my growing passion for the numinous, I looked to the Eastern Regions. Much later I began to reconnect with my own Jewish roots. As I gathered with my community on Friday nights to sing the ancient Shabbat prayers it did not occur to me to carry this practice into the next day. To actually “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Until once, around 10 years ago, when I was interviewing a Jewish artist on Shabbat and he was nestled in his studio with a cup of warm tea and a copy of the Talmud. Entering his space was not just a physical experience. There was a palpable sense of the sacred. I wanted it.
“I have always wished I could take a day a week to rest and study,” I sighed.
“Oh please,” he said. “People always say that to me. Just do it.”
And so I do.
In case you might be thinking (as I did) that you are too busy doing to simply be, indispensable in your self-imposed responsibility of holding the fabric of the universe together, I am here to say that the intention to unplug from “ordinary time” and drop into sanctified time functions as an alchemical transmutation. Suddenly, there is enough to go around. The world morphs to accommodate us. The base substance of our overextended lives becomes the gold of pure presence. The Shekhinah makes this possible.
For me, Shabbat is a two-fold experience. It is a practice of mindfulness, in which I turn off my computer and put aside my to-do list in effort to fully show up each moment. And it is also an act of social and environmental justice, because for that one day a week of voluntary simplicity I refrain as much as possible from consuming the earth’s resources and decline to participate in the machinery of commerce that causes so much suffering. I hope in this way to leave a lighter footprint on the earth.
The practice of Shabbat, then, is not only a spiritual response to the timeless commandment given to my ancestors to keep the Sabbath holy. It is a political act. I am keeping the Sabbath radical. That too is my heritage.
January 14, 2013
The other day I heard myself speaking during a radio interview about the power of mindfulness practice in grief and loss. I was aware that there would be people listening who were at that moment swept up in the flames of fresh loss, and here I was cheerfully directing them that they drop down and sit in the fire.
I explained, of course, that this was not a theoretical suggestion, and that mindfulness practice had saved my life when my daughter was killed in a car crash. Not that I was able to meditate during those first months; I could barely place one breath in front of the other. But the fruits of years of meditation practice prior to the accident had given me just enough courage and strength to show up for fleeting moments and soften into the reality of what was happening: the trauma of Jenny’s death, the loss of my child and my identity as her mother, my own shattering. Into those moments of presence, a tender spaciousness opened, and I found that I could, miraculously, be with it.
During my meditation this morning, it occurred to me that what I forgot to mention in that interview, and what I do not always remember to share with my bereaved brothers and sisters, is that I made the choice to be present with my loss not to practice my mindfulness skills but to honor Jenny. I had felt a sense of urgency about not turning away from death because that seemed like turning away from my child. I wanted to offer her the gift of my unwavering commitment to accompanying her on her journey away from me, even if to do so meant merely dedicating my breathing to her, and paying attention.
And so I have come to see that it is not so much a mindfulness practice I am teaching to people who are navigating the desert of grief, but a heartfulness practice. When we choose to be present to our loss–to sit in the emptiness, the mystery, the sorrow and the rage–as a way to honor our loved one who has died, we are offering the fullness of our hearts. What greater gift can we give to our beloveds?
August 14, 2012
Here is my latest HuffPo piece:
There is an apocryphal story about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s workshop to make a statement about the absolute unity of the Divine. As the legend goes, one day an elderly woman comes by Terah’s idol-fabrication establishment with a basket of bread to offer the gods in exchange for some sort of worldly favor: a good fig harvest, perhaps, or a decent husband for her last unmarried daughter.
Abraham sneaks into the shop in the middle of the night, tips over the breadbasket and scatters the loaves, smashes most of the stone effigies with a hammer, and then places the weapon in the hands of the largest idol. When Terah surveys the damage the next morning and demands to hear what Abraham knows about it, Abraham informs his dad that the gods fought over the offering and the largest idol won the contest.
“That’s ridiculous!” Terah bellows. “It is made of stone. It has no power.”
“Then why worship it?” Abraham asks.
For this blasphemy, Abraham is thrown into the village furnace to be burned. The following morning when the death chamber is opened to retrieve the remains, Abraham steps out, unscathed.
It might be tempting to conclude that the moral of this story is the supremacy of the One God of the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — over the silly little pantheistic and polytheistic superstitions of our ancestors, as well as of much of the non-Western world. This kind of religious elitism is not only misplaced, it is antithetical to the heart of spiritual experience: all is one and we are all interconnected. And the essential unifying principle is love.
Monotheism — the belief in One God — is not about an extra-special Deity who wins the contest and gets to be the boss over all the other deities. It’s not about the Christian God being better than the Muslim God, or Allah as the true Divine Being while Krishna is relegated to the status of a fairy tale. It is about the oneness of all that is. As such, true monotheism demands that we treat one another and the rest of creation with reverence and care, because we are all limbs and lashes, organs and angles of a single sacred body, whose name is Love.
As I write this, Sikhs and those in solidarity with them are gathering in Wisconsin for a vigil. On Aug. 5, a neo-Nazi opened fire at a Sikh temple as members were gathering for worship. Apparently, the turbans they wear as symbols of their faith struck the killer as some kind of threat to white America. He summarily killed as many worshippers as he could before killing himself.
Sikhism, an intermingling of the pure monotheism of Islam with the devotional expression of Hinduism, is a peaceful path, grounded in a balance between hard work and joyful praise. Any Jew, Christian or Muslim who bothers to look into the face of Sikhism will find the face of the God of Love looking back. The same is true for any of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. Wherever human beings gather and reach out to the Divine Mystery, in song and in silence, in supplication and in thanksgiving, within the walls of a temple or in the vast sacred spaces of the wilderness, we are touching the One, and affirming the the absolute unity of being.
May this tragedy serve as another heartbreaking reminder that any notion of the Other is an illusion we cannot afford to indulge, and infuse us with the courage we need to smash the idols of hatred and ignorance.
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. –Deuteronomy 6:4-5
And Jesus said, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. –Mark 12:29-30
Say: He is Allah,
The One and Only;
“Allah, the Eternal, Absolute.
August 3, 2012
Book Launch at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, sponsored by the Remarkable Women of Taos team—themselves a circle of remarkable women. Toinette Lippe flies in from NYC to introduce me and speak about the two bookends of her editing career: the 1972 translation of the Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng with black & white photos by Jane English, and God of Love, by me. Tessa Bielecki drives down from Crestone and takes the stage to talk about God of Love as a contribution to peacemaking among the People of the Book. Jenny Bird sings the interspiritual chant she wrote just for the occasion. Over a hundred Taoseños show up to bless my journey.
Panel discussion for the “Remarkable Women of Words” festival at Mabel Dodge with Toinette about the writer-editor relationship, called “The Alchemy of Editing.” Another panel on mother & daughter writers later that day with my mom, Susanna. Dinner that night at the Love Apple with my closest circle of support. It snows 6 inches. The restaurant has built a little snowman on the patio.
Reading & book signing at the Ark in Santa Fe, one of the oldest spiritual book stores in America, founded by beloved Lama friends, Jamil & Arielle. The Ark has been a champion of my work since my the publication of my first book, Dark Night of the Soul.
Presentation on “the Interspiritual Quest” at the Spiritual Directors International Conference in Boston. Video interview on interspirituality in a penthouse suite of the hotel where the conference is held. John Phillip Newell is the keynote speaker. Everything he says is what I say in God of Love. I try to point this out to him later, but I feel shy.
Anicca, who I’ve known since she was born at Lama, and whose Mom, Ruthie, died in my house of cancer a couple of years ago, picks me up in Massachusetts, where she has a new job as an English professor, and drives me all the way to New York City. We have dinner at a trendy Asian fusion place with Steve, the wonderful husband of my wonderful agent, Sarah Jane, while Sarah Jane is at some kind of fundraiser for Tibet. Spend the night in their guest room, which I call “my room,” because they make me feel so at home whenever I am in New York.
Meet up with my publicists, Meryl & Rachel, at their office in the Upper West Side and walk over to the office of Reb David Ingber, the leader of the Jewish Renewal community, Romemu. David and I are instant soul-siblings, and gleefully gallop through our conversation. He is funny and irreverent, and also deep and wise. It’s clear that God of Love is speaking his language.
My beloved Ganga Das flies in to meet me. GD has not been to New York since he drove a taxi here while living in an ashram in the 1970s. We hook up with Bub, who drives us up to his place (which is KD’s place) to make a nest for the rest of the week. Bub and GD are old friends, and they’re both rascals, so they crack me up the entire time they’re together.
Satsang dinner. Bub cooks an Indian feast. Old friends gather to greet us, and eat, and sing chaleesas. Wherever Maharaji devotees are becomes home. My sweet Melissa comes down from upstate to take care of me, which God-of-Love knows I need (though GD does a damn good job too).
Speak at Romemu after the morning service. Great turnout, provocative Q&A. Kurt Johnson, spokesperson for the late Brother Wayne Teasedale’s vision of interspirituality, shows up and spends the rest of the day with us, most of which is spent stuck in traffic on our way to Brooklyn, where I am scheduled to do an evening event at the Brooklyn Yoga School. Jeremy and Lily cook us a vegan extravaganza at their apartment ahead of time. Ambika, Nina, and Shyama join us there. They have bought me a box of cupcakes, which I have made sure everyone knows I love. We head over to BYS and praise the God of Love all night—alternating readings from my book with kirtan by Nina, Shyama, and Ambika. This is what I was writing about: transcendent moments just like these.
Early morning phone call. My dear friend, Bill McNichols, the iconographer-priest with whom I collaborated on Mother of God Similar to Fire, has had a heart attack and is in a coma in an Albuquerque hospital. He might make it; he might not. I yell at God (who I’m not even sure I believe in, or ever have, in spite of all appearances), and then I surrender. Fr. Bill lingers on the border between life and death for weeks, and miraculously recovers. He undergoes heart valve replacement surgery, and begins his return, forever transfigured.
Drive to Boulder with my mom for a Sounds True interview on Tami Simon’s “Insights on the Edge” pod-cast, in which she strikes up a conversation with different teachers about the places in their own inner lives where they may be encountering new territory. I speak about radical spiritual intimacy, and Tami definitely draws me out, provoking my wild and uncensored self. She calls the interview “Naked With the Beloved.” It attracts quite a bit of attention. I can’t help but wonder if I need to find alternative language to “spiritual promiscuity.” It may be sending the wrong message.
Drive to Durango with Kelsey, my brilliant and helpful intern. Give a reading from God of Love at Mercy Regional Medical Center. Impressed by the gorgeous architecture and landscaping of the hospital—truly a place of healing. They even have a labyrinth. They put us up at a restored Old West hotel downtown.
The community of Durango has endured a staggering array of losses over the winter, and have brought me in to work with both health care professionals and bereaved family members. We spend a day together in deep dialog and prayerful silence, in naked sorrow and outbursts of irrational joy.
Fly to Seattle, where I am met by Tessa’s old friend, Laura, and her companion, Jean, who have now become my friends. They take me home to stay with them for a few days, where they tend me with boundless generosity and loving care. Lunch with brilliant and funny Brenda, with whom I share agent and friend, Sarah Jane, at the legendary Elliot Bay Bookstore.
Hosted by the bard, Tim Feetham, at St. Stephan’s Episcopal Church. The room is sprinkled with incognito priests among lay people. Confessions by deeply identified Christians about unexpectedly encountering the presence of God in other holy houses (such as Jewish synagogues). Tears of religious guilt mingled with profound relief. I begin to suspect that the God of Love is doing her job, and doing it well.
Hosted by the great sage, Jamal Rachman, at his legendary Interfaith Church of Seattle. Slip in early and participate in the interspiritual chanting, praising the God of Love in Arabic and Hebrew, Latin and English, Pali and Sanskrit. Bliss. Another full house. More great stories about people’s encounters with the Divine outside their identified faith traditions. I begin to think I should tape these sessions, but decide to stay in the moment and simply bear witness with the fullness of my attention.
My friend Jules, who lost her soul-mate to cancer a couple of years ago and navigates her grief with more presence and wisdom than almost anyone I’ve met, picks me up and takes me home with her to her little apple farm near Bellingham. I am getting weary of traveling, and my back is in spasm. Jules and I walk and talk, eat and sit in silence. I am restored.
Jules drives me all the way to Portland. My daughter Daniela, who moved from New Mexico to rural Washington a few months ago, meets me there with her children, Bree & Niko, who I have been mightily missing. They come to my talk at New Renaissance Books, and then stay with me at the Inn at Northrup Station–an adorable boutique hotel–a splurge treated by my mom.
“Dying Into Love” retreat with my friends, Will Keepin and Cynthia Brix from Satyana Institute, and Father William Treacy, founder of Camp Brotherhood, where the retreat is being held. We speak of the transformational power of walking an interspiritual path, drawing from the wisdom of multiple traditions as we make our way home to love. I hang out as much as I can with Fr. Treacy, who I wrote about in the section called “Fire on the Altar” in God of Love. He is 93 and a pioneer of interfaith dialog, along with the late Rabbi Raphael Levine. I give Fr. Treacy a copy of my book and he reads it in two days, commenting on it in great and insightful detail. I stay with Will and Cynthia the night before the retreat and the night after at their home on Whidbey Island. We drive across the Island to get to Mount Vernon, stopping along the way to hike down to the shore. It’s a stunning day—clear and sunny—the only one of its kind the entire time I’m in the Pacific Northwest. A bald eagle lands on the beach as we are walking, and I burst into tears. On my last night in Washington, Will and Cynthia take me across Puget Sound on the ferry and treat me to a lavish dinner of grilled salmon and crusty sourdough bread.
Fly to Atlanta, where I am met by my friends, Bob & Judy, who are hosting me for several days of interspiritual talks and gatherings. I first met Bob when he brought me to Chicago in 2004 to speak at an interfaith gathering at the legendary social justice hotbed, Lake Street Church, where he was the pastor for 25 years, until recently retiring to Atlanta to be closer to grandchildren. I always have such fun with Bob and Judy. They do not take the spiritual life too seriously, which I find refreshing. Reading and book signing at the Phoenix and Dragon bookstore, where I am beautifully received by the visionary Candace Apple, who feels like a long-lost sister. Meet Carl McColman, whose books on Christian mysticism I have admired. His delicate daughter Rhiannon sits in rapt attention in her wheelchair, laughing at all my jokes–much more affirming than plain old praise.
Bob and Judy take me on a tour of Atlanta. We visit Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King and his father both preached. A continuous stream of pilgrims, African American and otherwise, flow into the pews and sit in holy silence in the space where one of the greatest peacemakers of all times bore witness to the God of Love. Bob and Judy host an elegant dinner party that night with diverse members of the Atlanta interfaith community. I lead a Havdalah ritual to close Shabbat, which I have never done before (though I don’t confess this), and my Southern friends collectively decide that they will start integrating the observance of Shabbat into their primarily Christian (with a smattering of Hindu) practices.
Hosted by the twinkling Brother Shankara for a morning talk at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta. The room fills, the group is vibrant, the silence deep, and the questions challenging. I am at home in the Eastern traditions and do not feel like an imposter here, which I sometimes do in the Judeo-Christian household. That evening I speak at the Baptist Church of Decatur, sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book. I read from the “Feminine Face of the Divine,” which could be shocking around here, but instead is met with courage and delight. Lo and behold, I find a place at the table of Christianity after all. The God of Love is everywhere, just as I suspected.
Fly to NYC for BEA (Book Expo of America, the yearly publishing industry extravaganza). Dinner with my Monkfish publisher, Paul, who has put me up in a fancy Park Avenue hotel. Three nights of solitude—what bliss! We go over my notes for the JBC presentation scheduled for tomorrow, in which I will have exactly two minutes to pitch my book to around a couple of hundred representatives from various Jewish community centers and educational organizations around the country in the hope that a few of them will invite me to come and give a talk to their group.
BEA. Thousands of publishers, editors, agents, and authors mill about the enormous Javits Center checking out the latest developments. I am like a child from the hill country in the city for the first time: dazzled. I take a cab to Hebrew Union College at NYU to make my JBC presentation. As I pull up to the venerable old campus I realize my late father went to college here 6o years ago. I feel connected to him, and wistful. In the company of 50 other authors, I race to the podium and try to tell my audience how vital (and entertaining!) interspirituality can be. I don’t get to most of what I meant to say, and then it’s time to move on. We retire to the ballroom, where we are meant to mingle with our prospective patrons while grazing at the kosher buffet table. I can’t even think about food. I stand there awkwardly, trying to look like I am at ease, waiting for someone to find me interesting enough to talk to. I feel like a cow at a cattle auction. A couple of people chat with me, but most of the interest lies with the award-winning sitcom writers and war correspondents.
BEA book signing this morning—not an easy slot to get, and Paul got me one. One of many authors in a row, separated by velvet ropes, our respective followers line up to get a signed copy of our new book. Then I hop in a taxi and rush over to Wall Street where I have been invited to a special leadership meeting for the Occupy Movement. They are trying to introduce contemplative values and interspiritual perspective into the global conversation about economic justice. I am aware that I am in the presence of history unfolding. Lunch with some of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders of our times. This long day closes with a “spiritual publishers” dinner party at a Soho restaurant. When it comes time to introduce ourselves and say which press we are affiliated with and what we do there, I say, “Hi, I’m Mirabai. I’m a Monkfish author…. and a Hampton Roads author, and a Riverhead author, and a Shambhala author, and a Sounds True author.” Everyone laughs. I feel like a publishing hussy. Which I kind of am.
Fly to San Jose with my 13-year-old granddaughter, Bree. GD is already there. He was installing the electronic locking system in a fancy hotel in Napa and stayed an extra week to go surfing in Ventura afterwards. He picks us up at the airport and takes us to his mother’s place—an apartment in the upper story of a converted barn on the property of his sister-in-law and brother—our home base for the California leg of the book tour. My mother-in-law is 92 and still drives a red mustang convertible, stick shift. She is a natural philosopher and I depend on her for perspective on the meaning of life. GD, Bree and I head straight for the beach. Bree has never been to the ocean. She rushes to the shore and wades right in, splashing and shrieking. In between events, GD will take Bree boogie-boarding.
Reading, talk and book signing at Chochmat Halev, the Jewish Renewal Community in Berkeley. Old friends show up, like my beloved student Shambo from almost 30 years ago when I was 25 and he was 15 and I had my first job teaching creative writing and Spanish at a private high school in Palo Alto for gifted yet troubled kids. Now he teaches comparative religions (and something much deeper and harder to define) at a private school for gifted adolescents! Shambo brings his two moms, who I also love. We spend the night at the home of Tot, my oldest childhood friend who is an extraordinary tile artist, and her family in the San Geronimo Valley in Marin. The next day we walk and walk the wild beaches of Pt. Reyes.
Yahya, who has been reading my work for years and encouraged me to bring God of Love to California, has arranged all my Bay Area events and accompanies us almost everywhere, serving in his quiet, heartful way. Tonight we have an evening of readings and kirtan at Open Secret Book Store with our satsang sister, Uma Reed. Tamam Khan, author of Untold, fellow Monkfish author, has been promoting me on her blog, and shows up to support me in person. This means even more than usual, since Tamam and her husband Shabda have recently become members of the club no one wants to belong to: parents of children who have died. Their son, much loved DJ Solomon, was killed in an accident in Thailand. Phil Novak, whose book, The World’s Wisdom, I have used for 20 years in my college classes along with Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, also comes to the event and asks the juiciest questions. Phil is Huston Smith’s closest protégé, and agrees to arrange for me to meet my 93-year-old hero next week. Uma’s kirtan is pure and grounded. I could sing with her forever.
Yahya takes me to tea at the home of his teachers, Kabir and Camille Helminski, in the foothills of Watsonville. I have read their books and followed their work with great appreciation over the years, but somehow this is the first time our paths have actually crossed. It is instantly clear that we are family. Before I leave Kabir wraps me for a moment in Maharaji’s blanket, which he was given at Kainchi Ashram over 40 years ago. I have an exquisite moment of my guru’s darshan accompanied by a rush of shakti and a flood of tears. That night I give a reading and book signing at East West Books in Mountain View. Full house, lively Q&R. GD records a video on my i-phone.
The cup of this day runs over: a meandering drive up the coast along Highway 1 all the way from Santa Cruz to Pt. Reyes Station. A radio interview with Wendy McLaughlin for “The Feminine Mystic;” tea with the incredibly supportive and generous Llewellyn & Anat Vaughn-Lee on the patio of their new Sufi center; an early dinner of homemade soup and salad from the garden with our old friends Devi & Allaudin Matthieu, before which we retire to Allaudin’s studio where he plays his legendary piano for us and Devi sings a Rumi song and they talk me into reading a section from God of Love; talk and book signing that evening at Many Rivers Books & Tea in Sebastopol, after which we return to the community house of our hosts, Rob and Stuart, where we drink good red wine and eat dark chocolate and talk about our lives, which for Rob & me includes the obscure blend of an academic background in archaeology and a vocation of interspirituality.
New Dimensions radio interview with my old friend, Justine Toms, on the campus of the Institute for Noetic Sciences in Petaluma. Another joyful romp through the fields of mystical longing and social justice. The interview should be up in a month or two.
Final California event: a reading, talk, and book signing at Sagrada Sacred Arts in Oakland. This store defies description and transcends boundaries: books and art objects that reflect a rainbow of paths and practices. Beauty everywhere, especially in the hearts of our hosts, Mary and Carlo. We go out for a celebratory dinner in Berkeley with GD’s brother Lance and his partner, Lynne, and our old friend Jonathan.
We meet my former assistant and forever friend Kaysi and her daughter Isis Blu on the Santa Cruz pier for breakfast. My mother-in-law Bette joins us. It is one of those perfect pale blue beach days. If the weather was always like this around here, I might never return to New Mexico. Drive into Berkeley in the afternoon to meet my lifelong mentor, Huston Smith. Phil accompanies us because Huston is deaf and can read Phil’s lips. When I walk into the room where Huston is sitting I fall to my knees and touch his feet. He brushes off my reverence and makes me get back up. We nibble cookies and talk about why we have chosen to focus on what is most beautiful and good in the world’s religions and let other people argue about the historical atrocities and current strife. I am acutely aware that we are sitting in the presence of a living legend. GD takes a picture of me with Huston. I post it on Facebook.
We drop Bree at the airport and she flies home to the Northwest. We make our way through the Mohave, heading back to New Mexico. We listen to CDs of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth along the way. I have used up all my words. GD drives and drives.
May 17, 2012
Last weekend I led a retreat in Durango, CO, for a community that has been slammed by a siege of tragic losses over the past year. Sponsored by Mercy Regional Medical Center—an extraordinary new facility with soaring architectural elements, natural rock fountains and sculpture gardens, a meditation labyrinth and a free therapeutic touch service—our “day of reflection for those who have been touched by loss” gathered a balance of caregivers and bereaved loved ones.
We spent our time together building a container vast enough and holy enough to hold the full array of grief and loss. We did this through mindfulness practice and sitting in the fire of silence, lyrical readings from the mystics on the connection between the death of a loved one and longing for the Divine, and deep dialog about the sacred moments we have tasted when tragedy tears the veils from our hearts and an ineffable grace spills in. As always seems to happen when we make room for radical truth-telling, an unaccountable joy bubbled up and a room full of grieving people moved seamlessly between weeping and laughter.
My own heart had been heavy before I drove across that mountain pass between the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and the San Juan National Forest with my brilliant and incredibly supportive intern, Kelsey. One of my closest friends, Fr. Bill McNichols, the iconographer with whom I had collaborated on Mother of God, Similar to Fire, and the only other person besides immediate family and my best friend Jenny Bird listed on the “favorites” section of my cell phone, was in a coma in the hospital. I had gotten the news while on my book tour in NY, and the shock made me feel as if the foundation of my world was collapsing. Fr. Bill has been my intimate soul friend for the past eleven years. Our dangling spiritual conversation has been essential—feeding me on levels no other connection could provide. I like to think its mutual, yet Fr. Bill is a saint, and I… am not.
As the days passed, and Fr. Bill’s condition shifted and shifted again between healing and dying, slipping away and returning, my heart had practice in letting go. My prayer moved from fury at the universe for taking him from me, begging God to give him back, and finally, exhausted by my efforts to direct the cosmos, surrendering to the mystery of love. My only prayer became, “I love you.” And now Fr. Bill is awake and breathing on his own, speaking and eating and walking a little, slowly re-entering the stream of life. I know he will be forever changed by his face-to-face encounter with death—he told me so in a dream a couple of nights ago—and so will I. This is what I tell my students about the path of conscious grief: it is not so much about consolation as transformation.
I am grateful not to be grieving my friend’s death, but soon to be welcoming him home. It could have gone either way. And either way comes with secret gifts, discovered only in showing up—with curiosity and tenderness–for What Is.
March 15, 2012
Those of you who missed the bold declaration I made around my fiftieth birthday last spring may have been wondering about the shift this blog has made from a focus on the transformational power of grief and loss to… other things. Various experiences and insights created the combined catalyst for this: a fight with a reader about my inordinate attachment to my dead daughter; a storm of deaths in our community, provoking an unrelenting crisis mode in my life; and, perhaps most importantly, a new book project that brought me into a lively emerging dialog about the interspiritual quest (God of Love, coming out next month). It felt healthy for me, ten years after losing Jenny, to take a break from death to celebrate life.
As I round the bend on the next birthday, I am finding my life—and this blog—coming back into balance. Slowly, as consciously as I can, I have allowed the sacred work of collective grieving back into my sphere. I answered the recent call to step up and lead our community grief support group on Wednesday evenings (6:00-7:30 at the TeamBuilders office, for you locals). I agreed to teach a Beautiful Wound workshop in May in Durango, where the community has been hit hard this winter by a string of tragic losses. I will be presenting again at the extraordinary MISS conference next fall in Tempe, AZ, for families of children who have died (http://www.missfoundation.org/index.html). And I still sit with the newly bereaved in the fresh fire of loss whenever I can. It’s no longer the center of everything I do and am, though. My friend Ted Wiard affirmed this by noting, “Death doesn’t lead you anymore. It’s an integrated part of your whole journey.”
I could no more easily cut grief and loss from my life than I could change my height or the color of my skin, and I wouldn’t want to. My losses are a vital part of me, and I cherish each one as the embodiment of a love that transcends all boundaries and connects me to the source of Love itself. The bereaved are still among my favorite people to hang out with. Their losses seem to strip them of much of the bullshit that characterizes the human predicament, leaving them with a fierce authenticity and a wicked sense of humor. As one of the members of the support group remarked last night, “Grieving people seem to be smarter than everyone else.”
The other night I went out with a circle of friends who are involved with Golden Willow Retreat, my friend Ted’s extraordinary grief sanctuary here in the mountains of northern Mew Mexico (http://goldenwillowretreat.org/). We were celebrating the birthday of a young woman who came to Golden Willow as a client, and ended up staying to run the place. At one point I looked around, as people were blowing party tooters into each other’s faces and squealing, eating the most amazing Dia de los Muertos-style cake I have ever seen, covered with Mexican knick-knacks, miniature bottles of nail polish and lip gloss, tiny toys and instruments, and thought, “No one in this restaurant would ever suspect that this was a table of people in the grief business–people whose own losses have so profoundly changed them that they have dedicated their lives to being of service to other grieving people.”
How could I give this up? It’s the most sacred thing I know.
February 24, 2012
The other day I had an unusual and very special guest come speak to my Religious Studies class, author and activist, John Nichols. It was unusual for at least a couple of reasons: one, John is pretty much a recluse and rarely appears in public; and two, it is a course in Christian Scriptures, and John is an atheist.
Sometimes I think I am, too. What I mean, of course, is that the God many of the friends and writers I respect most reject is not the God I believe in or adore, either. My God does not cast judgment, neither punishes nor rewards, but simply calls me to an ever greater, utterly mysterious, direct encounter with love.
In this sense, there are atheists I know who more fully embody God-like qualities than any self-proclaimed believer. John Nichols is one of them. A passionate voice for human rights over the past five decades, John has gradually softened into someone who does not merely rage against the injustices of humanity but lives the teachings of love and compassion we find in the great sacred scriptures of the world’s religions. I have watched John’s ego identity—much as I have witnessed Ram Dass’—melt in the warmth of a life lived for the sake of love, until he simply exudes that radiance. Like any saint, John Nichols has become love. I had suspected this from afar for quite some time, but the other day I bore witness to it up close, and all I could do was to bow inwardly at his feet.
As you may know, I am the entire philosophy and religious studies department at my community college. The last few semesters I have made a point of offering classes that stretch me, and give my students a wider range of choices. In my naivete, I thought a course in Christian Scriptures was a great fit. After all, I have been translating the Christian mystics for years, and have steeped myself in the biblical teachings that inform their visionary wisdom. What I didn’t anticipate was that my class would fill with fundamentalists who are much more interested in testifying to one another and preaching to me than in exploring the socio-political, historical, and archetypal context for these sacred writings–in other words, engaging in critical thinking (with an open heart). In fact, they do not, for the most part, have the slightest idea what I even mean when I talk about inquiry.
So I was really curious to see how my atheist friend, John Nichols, might rock the boat when he came to visit. The reason I invited John (you might be wondering) was because we were discussing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount–which comprises the majority of his teachings on social justice, compassion, and forgiveness—and tying this in to Liberation Theology. I had discovered at my friend Sean Murphy’s birthday party a few days before, while sitting next to John Nichols at dinner, that he had been very involved in the Sanctuary Movement of the early 1980’s (I had too, as an interpreter for Salvadoran refugees). He had spent time in Central America, and had been deeply impressed by the powerful faith of the people, and how their religious beliefs were inextricably entwined with their revolutionary activities. My academic side (angel) thought his stories would be illuminating for my students. My rebel nature (demon) may have been hoping to provoke them into a more liberal state of consciousness….
As it turned out, my radical activist friend did nothing to shake up or any way offend my conservative students. Instead, he told wonderfully engaging stories of his own adventures, and in the end tied it all in to what is most beautiful and liberating about the teachings of their beloved Jesus. They were totally captivated. And so was I. And all the while, John exuded this lovingkindness, humility, and wonderment in the face of the human condition. His visit changed something deep inside all of us. That is enlightenment. That is radical and revolutionary action. I am the one who was broken free of my prejudices and preconceptions. At the feet of an atheist, I have caught a glimpse of God.
January 22, 2012
One of the best things that happened to me in a long time was connecting with Cynthia Brix and Will Keepin of the Satyana Institute about a year ago (http://www.satyana.org/conf_jun_2011.html).
Will and Cynthia are the ones who invited me to join them at Camp Brotherhood, the interfaith retreat center in the woods near Puget Sound, last June. I had the great honor to work alongside a luminous circle of teachers from different faith traditions for a gathering called “Heart of the Beloved.” It was a powerfully collaborative experience, not only among the leaders but also between the presenters and the participants. Will and Cynthia have this magical ability to build community—swiftly and joyfully—so that everyone involved drops their habitual self-defenses and opens their collective heart. I’ve never seen anything like it. I wrote about a transformational experience I had there in my upcoming book, GOD OF LOVE.
That’s why when they invited me to attend a “Power of Reconciliation” workshop at Ghost Ranch near my home in northern New Mexico last weekend, I moved mountains to show up (http://www.satyana.org/power_new.html). I would follow Will and Cynthia anywhere—I’m seriously tempted to join them one of these days for their remarkable service work in Africa or India. Besides, Abiquiú (where Georgia O’Keefe painted her stunning desert landscapes) is only a couple of hours away, and the drive is gorgeous.
It’s not that I thought I had any particular issues with gender wounding (ha!). After all, I grew up in the counter-culture, the daughter of feminist parents who taught me that I could do anything I could dream of (and I have). But it did not take me long to recognize all the ways in which I had been subjected to the cultural imbalance between the masculine and the feminine, and had been unconsciously complicit in contributing to my own suffering and to that of the men in my life. It was a potent awakening. But much more significant than my recognition that this issue is an issue for me after all was the realization that all the religions of the world, which I am so passionately involved in writing, speaking, and teaching about, have this shadow of gender imbalance at their core. All my efforts to point out the common message of love at the heart of all faiths are futile until I acknowledge this and deal with it. That journey began last weekend. What made it even more relevant for me was the fact that the gender work Will and Cynthia do is grounded in an interspiritual approach, weaving in prayers, practices and celebrations from many spiritual streams. It’s quite revolutionary. I urge you to experience it for yourself.
But the most powerful part of the weekend was meeting a group of young religious leaders who, though deeply rooted in their respective faith traditions, have this living love for all the world’s spiritual paths and wisdom ways.
Matthew has recently graduated from seminary and been ordained as an Episcopal deacon. He also prays the salat five times a day in Arabic (his smart phone erupted with Call to Prayer every few hours, and off he went with his prayer rug to a corner of the room). He also has a regular mediation practice in the Hindu tradition. This guy is not only extremely smart (he taught me a thing or two about the Gospels for the upcoming class on Christian Scriptures I was scheduled to start teaching at the University the following week), but he radiates love and joy. It’s as if Matthew’s entire purpose on Planet Earth is to open the hearts of everyone he meets. He certainly opened mine.
Gabrielle is a gifted singer who grew up in the Evangelical Church and is now beginning to shift and broaden her perspective to actively include the Sacred Feminine. This is a courageous act in her culture, but her heart is so on fire with love-longing, and she is so stunningly articulate, that I do believe she is going to start a revolution. Gabrielle had the inspiration to take a line from the Song of Songs, translate it back into Hebrew (with the help of a young rabbinical student also attending the retreat) and put it to music. Within a couple of days after our return from Ghost Ranch she had sent us an audio clip of a hauntingly beautiful chant she created. I told her it was if she had tapped into the ancient stream of yearning and awe in the Jewish tradition.
Adir is studying to be a rabbi in the Conservative tradition. He grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as a small village in the South of France. His parents have been actively involved with the Peace Movement between Israelis and Palestinians since long before most Americans had ever even heard of such a thing, and he has been surrounded by great mystical Jews and Sufis his whole life. He is also involved in the Vedanta path and has a contemplative practice. Adir and I led a Shabbat service together during our retreat, and we seamlessly blended our respective liturgical lineages to create a ritual of such simple sweetness that the people who participated were moved at a core level, and Adir and I are bonded for life.
Natalia comes from Colombia and has lived her entire life surrounded by danger, strife, and violence. Her response has been to meet fear with love, chaos with gentleness, despair with radiant optimism. Her innate goodness and insightfulness made me feel that I was truly in the presence of a young saint. Natalia has tapped her ancestral indigenous roots and is learning to incorporate Native shamanic wisdom into her work in the world.
These four young people are passionate about the intespiritual path—about walking it, talking it, teaching it, and letting it lead them to unexpected, not always comfortable, places. I am in awe of each of them, and I have this feeling there are many more young spiritual leaders like them emerging during this time of global crisis and planetary awakening. This gives me such hope! If you have any stories about this new crop of interspiritual beings, we’d love to hear them here.
Toward the One!
January 11, 2012
Last week Ganga Das and I drove up to Crestone, Colorado, to celebrate Epiphany with our Carmelite friends, Fr. Dave and Tessa, at their remote hermitage in the San Luis valley. Check out their website for a glimpse of the important work they’re doing with the Desert Foundation in an effort to breathe contemplative wisdom into the strife-ridden relationship between the Children of Abraham: http://www.desertfound.org/
Epiphany is the celebration of the startling incarnation of divinity into humanity, represented by the visitation of three wise men from the east—symbolic of all the ancient wisdom cultures of the world—to the newborn Christ child. I like to imagine that the baby Jesus stands for all of us, called to infuse every aspect of our lives with the sacred and embrace all of creation as unutterably holy. But then I also believe that when Christ says in the Gospel of John that he is “the way, the truth and the light” he means that we are also, and that when he says “no one shall come to the Father except through me” he means no one comes home to God except through love. I can’t help but see all true mystical teachings as universal, and universally liberating.
In the afterword of my new book, GOD OF LOVE (to be released in April), I challenge my readers to stretch beyond their spiritual comfort zones and check out a religious tradition different from their own. I encourage them to experience a ritual from another faith, open their hearts, and let in the love in which the practice is rooted. So celebrating Epiphany with our Catholic friends was another opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.
Ganga Das and I had just been through a family crisis, and we were reeling a bit as we drove the 150 miles from our home in northern New Mexico, and made our way up the mountain and crossed San Isabel Creek to join our hermit friends in the woods of southern Colorado. As usual, Fr. Dave and Tessa met us with all the exuberant hospitality with which Father Abraham greeted the angels disguised as travelers outside his tent in the Sinai Desert nearly 3,000 years ago.
Tessa and Fr. Dave escorted us to Tessa’s Hogan where we would be staying, and then left us alone to unpack. A small herd of mule deer wandered into the meadow where the Hogan is nestled and watched us through the vast west-facing windows. After we had settled in and the sun began to set in a glorious explosion of color, the two monks returned laden with trays and goblets overflowing with juniper boughs, candles, chocolate coins, and aromatic spices. They set up an altar beside the crackling piñon fire, handed us each a copy of a beautiful Epiphany liturgy they had crafted weaving poetry and song, and led us in a ritual celebrating the mystery of the sacred poured into the ordinary. Afterwards, Fr. Dave wrote the names of the three kings in Arabic with blue chalk over the lintel of Tessa’s doorway, where it would remain until next Epiphany.
Then we packed it all up and ambled back through the woods to Tessa’s casita, where Fr. Dave celebrated Mass for us. I was given the great honor of reading the Hebrew Scripture (in English) from the Prophet Isaiah. When Fr. Dave lifted the chalice, embedded with opals from Tessa’s late mother’s collection and the fire in the stones blazed in the candle light, my eyes filled with tears and I gave thanks for whatever it is in my life that has allowed me to so deeply drink from the most sacred wells of many spiritual traditions. After Mass, Tessa served us French Onion Soup and crusty bread with butter, and we popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate all that we have collectively endured over the past year, and the promise of peace to come.
Next, we made our way back to Fr. Dave’s hermitage for dinner. Tessa had spread layers of brightly colored cloth on the floor, covered with sparkling stars, more golden chocolate coins, cinnamon sticks and candles, and then began to serve us a Middle Eastern feast: two kinds of hummus, pita bread, a half-dozen varieties of olives, home-canned artichoke hearts, platters of raw veggies arrayed like star-bursts. And good red wine. For dessert we had dried apricots and dates, and slabs of dark chocolate. Fr. Dave and Tessa are all about the glory of the incarnation and praising the place where form and the formlessness meet.
All night the full moon poured itself across the latilla ceiling and log walls of the Hogan, and Ganga Das and I hardly slept. In the morning, I felt infused with a stillness I had not experienced in a long time. After breakfast (yes, more gorgeous food—scrambled eggs with leeks and peppers, and a Christmas bread baked by a friend of the monks—“We’re feeders,” Tessa shrugged), we four went walking up a forest trail in the perfect blue-sky deep-winter day. Then, without any other means to thank our friends for the gift of the holy they shared with us, we took pictures of Tessa in the new hard hat Fr. Dave gave her for Christmas, as she held up a log and he brandished the chain saw they use to put in their long winter supply of firewood (they live entirely off the grid). We drove home to Taos, the drained cup of our souls replenished.
December 30, 2011
My nephew gave me a beautiful blank book for Christmas. It has a hard cover with an elaborate Celtic design and a delicate brass closure. The paper is ivory-colored and the lines are generous. It’s a little temple of a journal, and I look forward to bowing down at the inner altar there.
Nick is a substance abuse counselor. He came by this work honestly: he was an addict. Like so many of us who have descended to the depths of darkness and been liquefied like caterpillars in the cocoon, the only thing that made sense to Nick after his miraculous recovery was to be of service. This is why I, as a bereaved mother, sit with other mothers. This is why Nick, at 21, is an increasingly sought-after youth speaker in his area.
Confession (don’t tell Nick): I don’t journal anymore. Since I’ve become a published author, my lifelong writing practice has fallen away. Where I used to fill a notebook every couple of months, now it takes me a couple of years. Most of my entries consist of dreams I don’t want to forget. But that’s about to change. Nick gave me a beacon for Christmas, and I’m going to follow its light back home to myself and start writing for me again.
Writing has saved my life. As a tormented teenager, convinced that no one understood me or ever would, writing was the way I came to understand myself. My journal was the vehicle for navigating the inner and outer worlds. Writing was not only a psychological exercise, not only a hearth around which I told myself stories, it became a place of prayer, a holy inner sanctum, and I knelt there to praise my Beloved. When Jenny died, I wrote my way through the fire. I observed and recorded the vast array of feelings and epiphanies, and I reached out for her in the pages of my journal, conversing with her, listening for her voice.
Did I ever tell you that I know Natalie Goldberg? Not only know her, but adore her. Natalie has been my big sister ever since I met her in 1973 when I was twelve and she was only twice-twelve. Natalie was hired as the English teacher at the little hippie free school I attended in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Sitting around the wood fire with a circle of a dozen preteens in the hand-made Hogan that served as our classroom, Natalie, who was involved with Zen, developed something she began to call “writing practice.” This led to her groundbreaking book, Writing Down the Bones, and to the many books that flowed from Natalie’s revolutionary blending of writing and spiritual practice. I was her earliest and most eager disciple, and we have maintained a close connection ever since. Natalie has been one of the most important mentors of my life.
I remember when I first started doing serious spiritual practice. I was around fifteen and was studying with a rather unskillful self-proclaimed Sufi teacher. He seemed to disdain my writing practice as too worldly, and so I tried to abandon the relationship I had built with myself through writing, and I closed my notebook. For a time. But I could not stay away. I found excuses to return to my journal: recording exercises he gave me so I could practice them on my own, and then reporting to myself on the results of my spiritual experiments. But poetry crept into my efforts to compose objective accounts. Passion infused my discipline. Pain ransomed my captive heart. I slowly sneaked home and entered through the back door. The charlatan guru never even noticed.
Have I abandoned myself again, this time in a more subtle, insidious way? Has my professional path become an excuse for betraying the sacred inner dialog that happens thorough journaling? Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. I think I’m going to open Nick’s beautiful blank book and introduce myself to myself again. How about you?
Happy New Year. Welcome home.
Here is an excerpt from an email I recently received from a student who attended one of my Beautiful Wound workshops a few years ago, in which she thanks me for introducing her to writing practice:
It [writing] has been a key to my healing. I have always journaled but this writing is different. It is more an observation of the world around me. The natural world, the nature of life…I am finding my spiritual path through this avenue and my God has become so big and so real. Not the God in the box so neatly tied with string that I had tried to accept in the past. (Babs Cashion)