Have you ever had one of those dreams where you accidentally leave your baby at the gas station and drive away? Maybe you don’t have a baby, have never had a baby, but the dream still feels real and you still feel anxious. Your dream-self can’t believe you could space-out such an important responsibility.

I have a little time right between my latest workshops and the start of a new semester at the university. So, when my husband asked me to join him at a resort in Phoenix where he has a job for a few days, I happily agreed. I could use this as an opportunity to do some undistracted writing and thinking.

As we were driving west on I-40, through the beautiful red canyons, I noticed a familiar free-floating anxiety. Where were my children? Had I left the baby at the gas station?

It’s been almost eight years since my youngest daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash at fourteen. She would be twenty-two now, long past the age when it was my responsibility to monitor her whereabouts. But the maternal part of me may never relinquish that psychic vigilance. Every time I unplug from my regular life and go away, these primal antennae scan for my offspring, until I become conscious of the impulse and will myself to let go.

Of course, the death of a child may be the ultimate experience of loss, a sense of having failed our most essential mission. We are programmed to keep our children safe at all costs, even our own lives. To find that we are alive while our child dead is to scramble the program beyond repair. No matter how much healing we may do over the years, something inside will be forever broken. Every so often, our psyche will default and try to reestablish that basic connection, and when it fails to so we become anxious and confused. It requires self-awareness and self-compassion to move through those moments and come back to the way things are.

Whether or not you have lost a child, you may be resonating with this experience. I think when we love someone very much, when our lives are entwined with theirs, deep grooves develop in our psyche, so that even if they are no longer with us we have this instinctive impulse to track them.

A few months after Jenny died, I spent a night at my mother’s studio, where I was trying to write about my daughter’s life and death. As I was beginning to fall asleep that night, the candle flickering beside her picture, I had a vision: I was rowing a small boat upstream through the underworld. I could feel the dark walls towering on either side of me. I could hear the splash of my oars as they dipped into the cold water. I knew I did not belong here, but I was determined to get as far as I could before I was sent back. I wanted to follow my baby to wherever it was she had gone. She had never been this far away from me, and I had to make sure she would be okay.

Of course, she was not okay. She was dead, and there was no way I could follow her on that journey.

And, she was completely okay. Nothing could ever hurt her again.

Snapping back to my waking consciousness, I realized that I would have to expand beyond anything I had ever known to be able to hold these two seemingly opposing truths for the rest of my life. I sat up in bed, wrapped my arms around my own shoulders, and I sobbed.

Sitting in the Fire

August 12, 2009

Wisdom teachings from all traditions suggest that the practice of mindfully showing up for the experience of each moment is the most fruitful way to live.

That’s easy to say when you’re talking about being fully present for a kiss or a sunrise, for weeding the garden or singing a child to sleep.  It makes sense when you’re talking about withstanding a storm of envy or a bout of anxiety.  It’s crucial when you’re talking about grappling with self-doubt or righteous indignation.

But what about catastrophic loss?  How do we stay present when someone we love has left us, and the world as we knew it has gone up in flames?

Rumi says that “there is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they cannot hope.”  In fact, he goes on to say, “the hopers would feel slighted if they knew.”

What I have found, both in my own experience of grief, and with the mourners I have had the privilege of sitting with, is that in the midst of devastation simple, courageous, counter-intuitive mindfulness practice gives us the miraculous ability to survive, and even thrive.

Like Abraham who emerged unscathed from the furnace when the villagers tried to execute him for smashing the idols in his father’s workshop, we sit in the fire and are galvanized.

Like Rumi’s bird who “by falling is given wings,” we hurtle through space with no solid ground to stand on and discover that the laws of gravity do not operate here, and we are held safely in our free-fall.

Plunged under by the waves of grief, we hold our breath until we can hold it no longer and then, just as we surrender to drowning, we notice that we have grown special gills and can breathe underwater.

The magical key to each of these moments of unbearable anguish is the willingness not to turn away from the experience, but to lean into it.  By offering our “yes” when everything in us is screaming “no!” the grace comes pouring through the shattered vessel of our hearts, and we can endure, and flourish.

Bearing Witness

August 7, 2009

I sit with people who are sitting with their grief.  I don’t consider myself to be a counselor, though I have a piece of paper that certifies me as one.  I am someone who bears witness.

The people who call on me know this, and so they come without expectations that I will take their pain away.  This frees them to share the mystery of transformation into which their pain has plunged them.  It can be a relief for them to be with someone who is not trying to fix them, someone who can share the awe they are experiencing in the face of the Mystery.

Sometimes I find that a profound loss in the life of an acquaintance turns them into a heart-friend.  This happened to me recently with Cliff, a local roofer and environmental activist.  Cliff is a neighbor of my mom’s in the rural Arroyo Hondo valley where I grew up.  Last winter, Cliff’s wife of thirty years, Vadan, died of cancer, after a ten-year dance with disease and healing and surrender.

Vadan’s death — the courageous and conscious way she approached her dying — changed Cliff.  The rush of spirit that accompanied the participation of an entire community who gathered to breathe with Vadan through her final few days, remaining to prepare her body with herbs and sacred poetry after her life had ended, changed Cliff.

But more than anything, it was Cliff’s own commitment to be still and show up completely for the experience of his wife’s transition that seemed to quietly set Cliff’s heart on fire and burn away whatever separated him from a direct and complete connection with all life.  This dismantling left Cliff in love with all that is, alternately drawn to deep silence and passionate connection.

Sitting with Cliff brought me into the living presence of that love, and I wept with him as he tearfully confessed to the miraculous beauty that was unfolding in the wake of his loss.  In having been shattered myself, I am not afraid of the shattering of others.  And, in stepping into that fire as a witness, I find myself blessed again and again.

Deep thanks to each of you who shared reflections on your own experiences of grief and transformation in response to my maiden blog voyage.  Your accounts and your willingness to show up so fully for the journey are powerfully inspirational to me.  I look forward to hearing more Tales from the Road!

There are two mystics whose teachings closely mirror my own path of suffering and transformation: the sixteenth century Spanish monk, John of the Cross, and his mentor, Teresa of Avila.  I had already been swimming in their poetry and prose for years, but after my daughter’s death I completely submerged myself.  It was in that descent that I learned how to breathe under water.

John of the Cross, known for introducing the term dark night of the soul into the vernacular, was referring to the kind of spiritual crisis that squeezes every drop of devotional succulence from our senses and entirely dismantles the edifice of our religious concepts.  In the throes of the dark night, we cannot feel the presence of the sacred anymore, no matter how many tricks we use to conjure up old feelings of connectedness.  We can no longer even conceive of such a notion as God, which has become a mere word, devoid of meaning.

While this ordeal carries an intense emotional charge, it is not primarily a psychological experience.  The catalyst for entering these depths may be a disaster – the ending of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home or a community – but the mystical darkness John speaks of transcends trauma.  It is deeper than depression.  It is a dissolving of the separate self into the blinding light of love.  Yet the divine radiance only becomes visible when our old eyes have been utterly consumed.  This annihilation is excruciating.

Teresa of Avila speaks about the beautiful wound of longing for union with God.  The soul that has tasted even a fleeting sip of his love will catch on fire and only absolute union with him will end her terrible suffering.  She will be unable to speak of this agony, and yet silence melts her bones.  In the very depths of this predicament lies the solution.  Our yearning for connection with our divine source is in itself the divine response.  The call and the answer are reciprocal.  Only the empty cup can be filled.

Both of these mystics testify to the necessity of enduring the profound pain of separation on our path home to God.  Both remind us that the divine dwelling place lies inside ourselves, and is in fact none other than the truth of who we are.  Both reveal that the joy and peace that lie on the other side of our shattering so far exceed any pleasure we have ever imagined that it would be like comparing the light of a candle to the blazing of a ten thousand suns.

Finally, both John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila teach us that the only real purpose of the mystical experience is to be of simple service once we have returned from that garden of blending with the absolute to the relative desert of our ordinary consciousness.  We are back, but we are different.  Transfigured by the encounter.  Disabused of our illusions.  Divested of a false sense of separation and rooted in the certainty of interconnectedness.  Once we have witnessed everything we ever believed to be true go up in flames, we have trouble ever again identifying with the story of our own thoughts.

When  Jenny died, I became fearless.  The worst thing I could imagine had happened.  What did I have left to be afraid of?  And with that loss of fear came a desire to give comfort, to give sanctuary, to call out to my companions drowning in the darkness: look for the treasure that lies only at the bottom of the well of grief.  And, when you have found it – and you will, I promise, you will — bring it back.

If we can collectively recognize the gifts that lie in the stripping away of all our false constructs, and, as a human collective, surrender to knowing nothing, we can reap the fruits of this transformation and get on with the task of feeding each other, both spiritually and materially.  The dark night of global crisis will reveal itself as a state of pure luminescence, where nothing is at we thought it was, and the only possible response is compassionate action, rooted in shattering sorrow and blossoming in radiant joy.