Balancing Service with Self-Care

September 8, 2011

Four deaths in as many weeks. First a dear family friend recently diagnosed with late-stage cancer embraced her dying, reluctantly at first, then with astounding grace, surrounded by a tribe of remarkable women singing, soothing, feeding, and finally praying her across the threshold. Then my best friend (in the midst of tending our mutual friend dying of cancer) found the body of her beloved ex-boyfriend who drowned in his cistern which he had been sealing and, overcome by fumes, fainted and fell in. Then the son of dear old friends was beaten up on a dark street, sustaining fatal brain damage, impelling his parents to make the hardest decision a family can make: to remove life support. Then a beautiful baby girl died at eight months of injuries sustained at birth in a botched delivery, and we buried her in the cemetery where my own child is buried, two days after my Jenny’s birthday, chanting the kaddish and sitting shiva with her parents and three-year-old brother on the adobe floor of an earthship high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between, I facilitated a circle of beautiful broken hearts at Omega Institute for my annual Beautiful Wound retreat, bearing witness with the fullness of my body, heart and soul. Meanwhile, our grown children grapple with ongoing life challenges, requiring our continuous intervention.

I am empty. Not in the positive sense of having managed to step out of my own way and rest in the space between the thoughts. This is not a mystical encounter with sunyata. This is exhaustion. I have been sick for two weeks and cannot seem to shake of this flu bug. I think I know why. I have lost the balance between responding to the needs of my community and the necessity to tend my own vessel. So I am trying to pull back a little now, draw my focus inward for a while, returning my attention to my writing. I feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein though: I have created this monster, and now it has a life of its own, and will not be so easy to subdue. My intentions were good, but the price seems to be higher than I can afford.

I know I am not alone in this syndrome. Many of us who have experienced shattering loss feel compelled to show up and sit in the fire with other members of our human family as they endeavor to bear their own versions of unbearable sorrow. It’s the only thing that makes sense. We clearly recall how comforting it felt when a friend sat quietly on the couch and held our hand while we sobbed, how lovely it was when a neighbor dropped off a pot of homemade stew, how strongly we needed to tell every detail of our loved one’s final twenty-four hours of life and how someone dropped everything to listen. We want to be that person who throws a lifeline when a grieving person is drowning. Yet after a while we fatigue, and risk going under ourselves.

I wish I had good advice for you, but I’m afraid this is a case of the blind leading the blind. What am I going to do? I’m going to make an effort to eat and sleep a little more. I am going to walk in the woods no matter how tired I feel, because my connection with the earth is a guaranteed infusion of life-force. I am going to decline requests for grief counseling for a while. I am going to write and edit my new book, teach my college philosophy classes, go on dates with my handsome husband, and forgive myself for not being able to heal all the wounds of the world.

17 Responses to “Balancing Service with Self-Care”

  1. April B. said

    So much to go through…

    I’m glad you’re taking care of you. By tending your own light, you give warmth to others.

    Bowing to you,

  2. Kelly said

    What a beautiful tribute to the human experience of suffering. It all seems so complex, yet we forget to forgive ourselves for not being able to do enough, that should be simple right? Sometimes when we have free will, we forget that we are not superhuman and we have a hard time making choices to heal ourselves at the sacrifice of others. That is what we are supposed to do, because ultimately the beauty that comes from the losses and suffering on this earth are about the lessons we (the living) take and the light and energy we continue to hold for others here. The lessons learned are never truly about the ones who have suffered and are gone; for they are in a greater place of existence, a place all of us strive to get to once our lessons are finished here. I am sorry for the losses you have had and for the families affected. Sending you light and love for your strength to come back as well, you certainly will find it within the earth and loved ones! 🙂

  3. Parvati said

    Take care of the caretaker…

  4. Doug said

    Riding my bike home the other night I was thinking of you Mirabai as I often do from time to time. The lessons of love and loss you seem to embody. The message that in our profound loss lies the key to our own transformation should we decide to embrace it and not turn away from it. Lessons that might tell us, that in the end even our sense of loss is not real, if we go deep enough. Someone once told me, “I lack the proper understanding of why the world isn’t perfect.”
    More specifically I was thinking how whatever God gives us it will be taken away. Friends, family, our health and youth, the mountains, even the sun and the moon. It is in this inevitable loss of what we love there lays the pain and desire to ask why? An answer almost like when Jesus was on the cross and he is said to have asked God, “Why has though forsaken me?” and only got silence. Perhaps the most powerful of message one can give, silence. It beckons us to know, to look deeper within, and to know from another’s suffering our own connection to them and all things.
    I wonder sometimes about beating God to the punch so to speak and giving these things back before they are taken away from me (an inner renunciation so to speak). Simply and firmly tell God, no matter what great thing I want for myself or others, if it is temporary and of this world than I give it back to you and demand something more permanent. Yogananda might say, “Be satisfied with nothing short of God…Or, God as Yogi Bhajan once said, “Is a slave to compassion.” If you want God to do something, just act compassionately and God must do your will, you will not be ignored.” How interesting, you may not get exactly what you want, but you will know some how the world is right the way it is just by acting compassionately. In fact, one might see that it is in the wanting things to be differently that they there in is where the disconnect, discontent and suffering are.
    How do we show spiritual concern without getting emotionally pinched? How do we help others without trying to carry their cross and infringe on their right to take care of themselves? These are great questions brought up by an old Trappist Monk I know.
    If we are to lose everything and everyone we know and feel a profound sense of loss in the passing, then surely as Ram Dass might say, there in lays the “Grist for the Mill” of our own awakening. Here in as you so rightly say in your own way, lie the seeds of our humanity crying out for divinity. Here in lays the light covered by the darkest hour before the dawn. The dark night of the soul as it is refered to; the holiest of times.
    I was at Omega most of the summer and was hoping to run into you when you were there for the workshop several weeks ago. I did go to your open workshop on Tuesday night but there were so many people there I beat a hasty retreat…. 🙂 I am sure we will meet up some time; I am in many ways drawn to the same path and energies you are, though they often scare me. Perhaps because I know many of my own ego needs may not be met…
    If stories are medicine, as one lady told us at Omega this summer, I hope these words soothe the spirit for you and you find the time of rejuvenation and perspective that often come from slowing down and using gentle self enquiry…
    Take Care Mirabai….
    Doug from Traverse City…

  5. beverly said

    Dear Mirabai,
    You have done so much for so many people and now it seems to be time to do for yourself by slowing down, even if that means non-doing for others. I would suggest that you take your walks in the woods WHEN you are no longer tired rather than ‘no matter how tired you feel’. Listen to your inner guidance rather than your will. I know the earth is nourishing, perhaps sitting under the trees for now will suffice. Teaching and writing and dating your husband is already a full life. In serving yourself, you will serve others. Perhaps these words sound forward coming from me, but having seen you grow up, since grade school, into such a fine and generous person, I offer this motherly sounding advice with love and concern. Be well, reclaim your strength.

  6. Rachel Schneiderman said

    Ahhh, Mirabai, I can identify with your exhaustion. Learning that balance is such an act of conscious self-love, of prying ourselves out of the habit and autonomic reflex of helping those around us. Then to practice maintaining that balance is art in itself. Constant adjustment to keep the ship from leaning too much one way or the other. The whole thing’s a work in progress for me, too, as I’m relearning now that I need even more of that kind of healing solitude brings, for my mother died last week, a year and a half after my dad. Yes, they were both old and it was expected but it’s a shock when you love someone. I knew Mom and I were primally connected but not how much; only death teaches us that. May you walk your earthen path till you are fully nourished, refreshed and ready. Thanks for sharing your humanity with us, that we may love ourselves more consciously, as well, without fear of losing the love of others while we recharge. I wish you much love and the freedom of sanctuary.

  7. Bruno said

    Hi Mirabai,

    Your sense of utter exhaustion came through loud and clear. I understand very well your urge to help and absorb the pains of the people around you. But given your state now, I hope you will take some rest. I am just a very very beginner in the Christian faith. But I remember learning something like: (paraphrasing) God doesn’t give us challenges without also giving us the necessary strengths to handle them. You take your rest, exercise, eat healthy, and then you’ll come back stronger than before. Because if you’re too weakened to cope yourself, you certainly won’t be able to provide the support your friends need. So stay healthy, revitalize, and then go back to helping them!


  8. Emma said


    For one brief day
    my misty blue
    fluttering veils
    are like the sky
    in which I dance

    Velvet blue
    I wander midst
    the flowers of
    the realm of death

    First egg am I
    nymph am I

    In pearl grey light
    urgently quivering
    with life, with death
    I tear myself free
    from the earth

    I glide the land
    through rings
    of light and shade
    and sense
    the twilight calling

    Knowing my time
    is ending soon
    I will fly north
    lay off my wings
    become a soul once more

    Now rest, my dearest sister of the heart.
    With all my heart and soul, Emma

  9. Mitzi Linn said

    Sending you blessings Mirabai, and wishing you balance and well being. I don’t feel I do enough for others these days. Perhaps the balance is that people like me pick up a little more of the “work” Love, Mitzi

  10. Sheila said

    Mirabai, everything about you is here for me (us) whether or not the physical person is currently present. Bless you for all you share and may autumn’s serenity showers replenish your vitality.

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