Deepened Connections, Deeper Love

In a post from this past Sunday, Christine at BlissChick gave us this line from Thomas Merton,

The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.

Christine carries her readers through a consideration of all the ways that we are so overcome by Christ’s example. Because he was too compassionate, loving , tolerant, we immediately give up on following his examples and teachings. We are mere limited mortals; it’s no use to even attempt to be so virtuous as the Son of God.

dsc00920When I started to think about her post and this quotation, I took the idea in a direction I had been thinking about for a while: the ways in which we simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the strength of our bodies and our spirits. A few conversations I have had over the last few days bring me to look at Merton’s wisdom in a completely different light, however.

I’ve talked before about the realization that everyone carries around his or her own universe. If we are ready to recognize that everyone we meet is as complex and nuanced as ourselves with their own childhood hurts and age old karma, buried hurts and secret needs, then we have to reset the way we look at everyone who crosses our path. We don’t have to love everyone or pretend we approve of their actions. We just have to realize that the reasons and impulses that drive people’s behavior can be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that we are never going to comprehend the full extent of their “this is why.”

With that in mind, I look to Merton’s quote and think not of the baffling behavior of those we can keep at arm’s length. I am thinking about the ways that we relate to the people closest to our hearts, those we love the most whom we are supposed to understand the best.

In a number of unrelated situations, I have been offered a glimpse into some of deepest stories of my dearest companions. Suddenly bit of their characters fell into place when they described their choices and their fears that had previously been inexpressible. Not only do I think it was cathartic for them to talk through their perspectives, but I felt honored and blessed to be given the chance to understand them better.

How often do we settle for knowing too little of the interior worlds of those we love? How often do we just throw up our hands and say things like “I love him, but he is just impossible to get through to when it comes to X”? How often do we just choose to hear only what we expect them to say?

I am not saying that we should push our way into corners of others’ souls where we might not be welcome. I am instead suggesting that we walk into our relationships with hearts and minds open and ask ourselves if we are settling for too little of the brilliance and intricacy of our friends and family.

dsc01452We’ll never be able to take up residence in a brother’s body to really see the world the way he does, but why do we then quit trying to understand and pretend to be content with the stories that we’ve made up about his life? It is a slow and unpredictable process, this discovering the innermost alcoves of people we are supposed to know like the backs of our own hands, but it can only lead to deeper connections and truer recognition of the miracles they are.

We may find secret and unexpected places, but under the guidance of compassion and love, so few stones will be too scary to overturn.

There is certain wisdom in the recognition that we are not our stories (thanks Brandi!), but we cannot abandon someone who still needs our help with the untangling of the loose threads that mar the tapestry of her life.

And First I Promise to Look Within: Healing the Self to Heal Others

Lugano, Switzerland

“Physician, heal thyself.”

I never actually understood what that meant, and until just now I did not even realize it was a proverb from the Gospel of Luke.

What sort of medicine people was Jesus addressing? How did the middle eastern doctors of 2000 years ago approach their craft? Would I recognize the roots of my own energy healing work or were they the precursors of the conventional western practitioners of today? Was it about getting deep into the causes of dis-ease or were they offering pills to treat the symptoms?

Undoubtedly, there are countless excellent, compassionate MDs out there, dedicated professionals who look at their patients as entire beings and not just a chest cold or an infection or a bout of depression. At the same time, the grueling nature of medical school and a health care system that is focused on quantity and expediency rather than quality and attention must make it impossible for most modern physicians to really focus on their own well being.

This is not intended to be a rant about the state of modern medicine or any claim that what I am learning and practicing is any better than anyone else’s path. Instead, I play with this quotation because I am considering how I must heal myself before I will ever effectively heal anyone else.

If I ever make any claims to have arrived as a healer or as a conscious individual, I am deeply sunk in a damaging illusion. This is not the self deprecating cry of a person lacking confidence. It is simply the awareness that I am new here in the world of healing and wisdom and faith and have more to learn during every moment of every day. I can only pray for an open heart and an open mind and the love of patient people who will help foster this new rush of passion I find growing within me.

Today I found myself growing frustrated by some whom I love and respect .  She just can’t seem to quit sweating the small stuff. I just wanted to ask her to evaluate the steady stream of complaint and reaction that kept flowing from her lips and help her realize how unhelpful it all is – both to herself and her audience.

Even as this urge welled up inside me and my look of disbelief began to play across my face as she continued to speak, I knew that I was listening with ears of judgment, not of compassion. I climbed up on my spiritual high horse and began to pity her for the ways she squandered her energy and let every setback shake her to the core.

Later, worried about my own reaction to the situation, I described it all to a kind and generous friend who helped me talk through it all until I realized that I was not really upset with this woman’s behavior, but by the shadows of myself that I saw in her. The moment I allowed myself to sit behind my eyes and toss my enlightened mane, I was not greeting her with healing energy, but instead with the cold detachment of someone relieved that she knew a better way to live.

I needed to feel this flash of shame so I could step back and remember that I am a novice at this pursuit of living a wise and graceful life. The good work I can offer to the world must first flow through me, body, mind and spirit. Only when I have drank deep my own medicine can I reach out and confidently offer it to others.

Embracing the Need to Heal

Since I have started reading David Edwards’ Burning all Illusions, as I have discussed in the last two posts, it is amazing to me the new lens through which I gaze at my experiences. One of the topics that he has illuminated for me is the uncomfortable degree to which we are forced to bear the mantle of modern society, “the way things are” in that resigned fashion that is meant to excuse all of the excess or the pessimism or the difficulty that marks the age.

In accepting “the way things are” we must stomach living in a state of constant contradiction. We’ve all listed those ridiculous phrases that roll off the reporters’ tongues and only begin to fester in our ears when we take a little step back: “peacekeeping missiles” is the one I find most odious. One of the less neatly packaged paradoxes that we encounter all the time is the celebration of both senseless strength and fragile victimhood in our culture. On the one hand, we are told face the world with an aggressive, competitive stance, to quit whining and arm ourselves with a stiff upper lip (whatever that is – I notice it is my bottom lip that is most likely to betray me when I find myself on the verge of pouting or crying). Yet, at the same time, as Caroline Myss discusses at length, we use our wounds as currency; we let all of the bad things that have ever happened to us be our defining elements and we demand others recognize what we have suffered.

Images of soldiers in distant deserts on one channel and confessional talk shows on another.

A conversation with my chiropractor the other day brought my own struggle between these two poles into perspective. I have been visiting this network chiropractor for over three years for various issues with my back and have been to see him more often lately as I struggle with sciatica. After a month away from his table and almost that much time away from my yoga mat, I returned last week with that same nagging pain in my right leg. After my treatment we chatted for a while – he was telling me that I needed to come more regularly to deal with this issue and I was trying to express the fact that I had spent more than enough time in his office. Thing is, I know that what he does can work for me, but what does it mean that I end up “broken” again after only a few weeks away?

I am a healthy young woman, so how is it that visiting alternative health practitioners has become a pastime that eats up a significant portion of my “discretionary” income? I do plenty of yoga (or at least I do when I am not afraid of a forward bend damaging this cantankerous nerve I never knew I had until this fall) and I know how to breathe healing energy into my body. I’ve been practicing Reiki for years and I understand a good deal about the connection between body, mind, and spirit. What is it that makes me so passive in my healing process? How did I become so dependent on these people with their gentle touch and well-placed needles and singing bowls? I never thought I understood that old adage “physician, heal thyself” until I realized that I was applying “body-attuned creature, sort out your own aches and pains” to myself.

Upon expressing these competing concerns to my chiropractor, I think a moment of true understanding blossomed between us. It was not that I wasn’t committed to healing, it was just that I felt guilty plunking down a $15 copay a couple times a week instead of doing the work myself. As we talked, I realized that placing myself under someone else’s care did not make me weak; it just proved that we are all part of a connected universe that hums along by creating constant webs of interdependency.

The other thing that he reiterated to me, but which finally made some sense, is that the symptoms I experience are just part of my body’s reaction to stress. Previously, this just made me more annoyed with myself – what was wrong with me that I was not using the ample tools at my disposal to deal with this alleged stress? What was I forgetting to do that made it possible for all that stuff to get lodged in my vertebrae?

This was the moment that I recalled all that I have been reading in Edwards’s book. If I truly believe that something is out of joint in terms of how we live in this world, if we are forced to conform in millions of insidious, soul compromising ways, then it only makes sense that my body is under more pressure than a human form was ever meant to bear. Since I believe so strongly that emotions manifest themselves in the physical form, it seems inevitable that my body would find her own way to rebel against the ideas my mind is only beginning to comprehend.

I have spoken of compassion many times before, and it seems time to employ such lovingkindness in the way I treat this body of mine. She is neither soldier nor victim; she is my soul’s home that deserves to be cared for and understood.

The Revolution of Compassion and Other Impossible Feats

Visiting my parents this weekend, I was greeted by a black lab who couldn’t contain her joy, Mom’s cooking, and a pile of junk mail from the various progressive organizations that will continue to have my childhood address on file until I retire. Eyes half open after the late night four hour drive from New York to the Cape, I flipped through the envelopes from NOW and Ms. Magazine and the Sierra Club. There was a small promotional booklet from The Sun, a magazine to which I had once subscribed with the best of intentions (I think there is a small unread stack in a closet somewhere).

The first thing I read was an excerpt of an interview with a fellow by the last name of Edwards in which he said:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people. […] Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”

As I said, I was exhausted and we had been listening to campaign coverage for most of the ride. I got into bed wondering why I never realized that John Edwards was such an amazing person, not just some guy who seemed to mention being the son of a mill worker more often than was necessarily interesting or sincere. The next morning, I was ready to read my mother this quote and tell her that we must have really missed something when it came to this man’s campaign. I was ready to bemoan the fact our country was just too taken with special interests and big money politics. I was ready to think that “Yes we can!” was an empty slogan compared to someone who talked about finding freedom through renouncing greed.

Before I started a rumor that virtue was still valued over power somewhere on the national scene, I realized this interview was with a guy named David Edwards. The passage was from a June 2000 interview with a British writer who had walked away from his corporate destiny and began to dedicate himself to “spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions.” Please do check out the piece – I think he just blew my mind a little, but it will take a a little time to let those ideas (all of which I had probably heard before) fall into the shape of an epiphany.

Am I suffering the pangs of cruel disillusionment when I realize that the words above really probably could not come from the mouth of an individual as firmly entrenched in the political machine as an American presidential candidate? Does it just figure that something I found so simple, true, and insightful comes from a man thought mad because he gave up so many of the accustomed Western privileges and luxuries? Am I saddened that countless people whom I love would shake their heads at my quaint, bleeding heart liberal, idealism should I bring one of his books along on vacation?

It is just becoming alarmingly clear that the sort of vision that appeals to me, that seems the only correct, possible way to be a human being in the 21st century is neither easy nor popular. It scares me to realize that I might be ready to accept that challenge. Almost as much as it scares me that I will not.

Deciphering the Shape of My Heart

Reflecting on my day as I drove home tonight I thought about compassion fatigue, a phrase I was first introduced to while at a disappointing writing workshop that seemed less about language and more about the airing one’s pain. In this situation, the women and I who rebelled and decided to sit in the sun rather than listen to people recount their childhood horrors in prose (which were most probably valid, though such narratives had much more to do with therapy than with wordsmithery and we wished to discuss the latter) really could not stand any more tales of fathers who never told their daughters they were pretty. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had paid for another sort of week entirely and that we fielded quite enough suffering in our workaday lives.

Roofus - stock.xchngSince I am not actually a professional caregiver, I probably have very little claim to compassion fatigue in what seems to be an official sense (I cannot speak for this website as I just stumbled on it, but apparently people are putting a great deal of thought into the subject). At the same time, I think anyone who pays much mind to the news these days must suffer from at least form of this nebulous syndrome. There are of course two options: absorbing reality television that has absolutely nothing to do with reality but quite a bit to do with avarice and cruelty best left on the playground, and actually doing something about the darkness in the world.

Actually, I take that back, there are many choices that lay between being a couch potato and quitting one’s job to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I must imagine that there are countless people who, much like me, would consider themselves to be decent creatures hoping to propagate some goodness and peace, yet are conscious of the risk of walking around with an open heart. How can one pass through the day and fulfill family obligations and hold the job that is expected of her if she is constantly consumed by all that is wrong out there? Perhaps these thoughts betray my own cowardice, but I fear I am not alone in my inability to act in the face of so many environmental crises and people in desperate need.

But I had to remind myself that there is so much to do without getting pulled out by the riptide of despair into an unmanageable sea of an imperfect planet. It all starts with the existence I actually do inhabit each day. That was when I started singing “Shape of My Heart” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (an album that, along with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy set the course of my high school soul). Something about love hidden beneath a gambler’s hand, passion masked by a card player’s face… My love for this world buried beneath what is expected and what needs to get done and who needs to be pleased – I am meant to be witty and a bit sarcastic and please the crowd with a punchline rather than with sweetness.

Really though, who is truly served if I berate myself for staying in and writing these words instead of volunteering my time somewhere or sacrificing all that I know for those who need me “more”? Isn’t there enough to do in living the truth of my heart and being profligate with my compassion to enrich the lives of those around me?