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?

Obstacles, Legendary and Otherwise

All Legendary Obstaclesimageafter.com

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter’s lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

– John Montague

At yoga class tonight when my teacher spoke of obstacles and dancing with them rather than boxing with them, I thought first of the new limitations thrust upon me by an activist sciatic nerve. As I tried to breathe through the frustration that flared with each twinge in my right leg, I remembered the line that started Montague’s poem: “All legendary obstacles lay between us.” My dear friend Perspective slowly overcame the drama I was creating about being a blighted creature forced to wrestle with something as cantankerous and enduring as this mystery pain coiled in my hip. I came to realize that this was not an epic malady but another lesson, another opportunity for growth. No trauma seemed to have set off this affliction that I am trying very hard not to see as a betrayal of the body, so can only assume that some unprocessed emotion has been lodged in the small of my back.

Looking at this poem I am tempted to move beyond that wonderful first line and read it as an allegory for the self and the soul. The restless speaker is caught in the distraction of life even as he eagerly awaits the Beloved. Such distances separate them as to seem insurmountable even as he never gives up hope for their reunion. That doubt and elation he feels when he finally encounters her is the same that we all experience when we finally realize our greatest desire, to stand before the soul, all full of prayers that we are worthy and that this will be a perfect love. I dare read the old woman who accompanied the Beloved to be a spirit guide, a guardian angel, the one who watches from on high and protects us on the journey across what can appear to be unscalable mountains and infinite plains.

Suddenly sciatica seems to be less of a concern…

Courting Chaos, Contemplating Completeness

It is difficult to commit words to the page when I feel as if I am spinning in constant cycles between chaos and completeness. Every tempest is my own creation and a sense of solace is always a few deep breaths away.

photo by Samuel EichnerPerhaps because creatures trapped in perpetual motion attract one another, I know I am not the only one who manufactures her own state of flux. I have had countless conversations that start “look at us, we are so lucky, but how can we keep catapulting ourselves into such misery with all this over-thinking and self-obsession?” More than a few late nights have been spent discussing why one friend or another and I have hyperactive minds and restless spirits that make us refuse ourselves the permission to settle into daily routine It’s as if we have an aversion to “life” with a lower case “l” as we force ourselves to constantly ponder the capital “L” questions of “Life.” At such moments we imagine it would be nicer to watch John Cusack movies and discuss recipes and shoes and curse our radioactive brains, even as we know we would never give up the internal debate.

I think that all of this ferment makes me feel more evolved; a soul in this much upheaval must be on the route to a truly amazing breakthrough. Plus, it is an excellent excuse for why I cannot settle into a steady meditation practice. Sure, I am aware that meditation would quiet the whirling dervish within and that you don’t wait for perfect serenity to close your eyes and seek stillness, but who has time for such wisdom when one is so busy, well, seeking wisdom.

I’m reasonably certain that this addiction to spinning in circles is a response to a culture that tells us that we can never get enough and that perpetual motion means you must be moving up the ladder. In such a banal maelstrom it is nearly impossible to cool the chaos and realize the Eastern ideals of living without attachment and desire. I am learning that an existence free of attachment does not sentence one to an ascetic cell without sensual pleasures, but is instead about accepting rather than reacting to situations. Happiness is infinitely more attainable if emotions are permitted to pass right on through rather than constantly getting trapped in the body and clouding up the mind. It seems, however, that the more relevant and perfect I perceive such philosophies to be, the more scattered I become.

To my own detriment I have equated contentment with complacency for far too long and have feared stillness and acceptance. As soon as peace seems too palpable or I really consider embracing the person that I am and the way life flows around me, I seem to veer off into another drama of my own devising. It’s like constantly chasing my shadow because I have confused the false outline of my being with my true self.

In some ways I hesitate to even put such thoughts on the page because to discuss them is to give this perpetual game a sense of power and reality, but I dare to hope to name chaos is the first step to its undoing.

Recognizing a Valley… and a recommendation

I have been trying to collect my thoughts and find a way to describe the trough between hard won realizations and the invariable upswing when all that knowledge is assimilated into my being. But really, is there a point to describing stumbling around with one’s eyes half open and forgetting to see the possibilities in the world through those narrow slits? Such moments call for silence to allow it all to integrate, to ground itself in life so these new lessons can become practice rather than rhetoric.

If you are seeking words and wisdom, I invite you to have a look at this beautiful place called HearthTalks created by a Catholic nun named Kathryn Knoll. “The whole of creation has been waiting for you to finally put your feet on the road to greatness.” I think my eyes are shining a little brighter already…

Just Three Breaths – My Practice

“Like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre… [the] Divine Mother and Brahman are one.” (full passage)

When Andrew Harvey first quoted this bit of wisdom from the nineteenth century Indian saint Ramakrishna I had my first introduction to the intertwined nature of transcendence and immanence. I began to realize that the adoration of the Goddess did not preclude God and that, in fact, the two faces of the divine are inextricably bound to one another.

For whatever reason, these metaphors made sense to me almost immediately, as if they were elucidating something I had always known but never understood. Brahman is the supreme spirit in Hinduism, the unchanging heavenly power associated with the transcendent Father God. The Mother is the energy that dances through us and all of creation, the universal love of the heavens in action upon the earth. All that we know is the union of these two aspects of God.

At the conference at which I first heard these ideas everyone was high on potential spiritual power (both real and imagined), yet there was a palpable sense of worry because people did not know how these feelings would translate back at home in reality. I think this little practice that I cobbled together from the ideas I gathered that weekend is my response to the concern that I would forget the resonance of such words. It is informed both by Harvey’s description of the divine and Caroline Myss’s journey into the soul, Saint Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.

* * *

After closing my eyes I search around to find my center for a little while until I remember yet again that only in stillness can one find that peaceful place of silence within. When I have stopped struggling with my own mind, I can just experience what it is to be for a few moments until a breath that seems to come from the earth itself begins to fill me. It is the power of the Mother, the earthy glory of the Goddess that I have identified with for so long, but here there are no rules or separations, just the wash of creation and growth itself. It is green, it is gold, it is the rich black of fertile soil. I pull this breath up and all the way through my body, filling with the Mother’s love and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

The second breath comes from above, the transcendent essence that arches over us all. It is the peace that lifts me out of my body to a place of complete freedom. There all human definitions of God might fade away so that the power that is the Absolute can wash the ego away. It is white and silver, it is cool and warm all at once. I pull this breath down through mind and heart, down and down to root the heavenly in my feet, and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

Finally there is the breath of synthesis that pulls every facet of creation into my own soul. It comes from every side, it is the very air around me. It is every color, texture, scent, taste. The beautiful mixes even with the horrible because to be truly present is to recognize all threads in the tapestry of this life. With this inhalation I realize my place in this incredible universe, this constant interplay of the divine with itself, of the sacred with the material. Rather than retreating from the world because I find solace in the spirit, I am driven to delight in all that is so that I can see the spiritual in everything.

Om Tat Sat

Honoring the Teachers

A japa mala is a string of prayer beads used in meditation that help count the number of times one has chanted her mantra. I was first introduced to this Hindu practice by my yoga teacher and I use it on occasion when my mind is too buzzy to find stillness on its own. There are 108 small beads and one larger one that I was told was not used for the mantra but to thank your teachers.mala

I never was initiated into a mantra by going to the local ashram as I intended initially; life got in the way and then it became less of a good idea to align myself with one tradition in such a manner. It seemed rather suspect that I could stop at the Tibetan store in town and essentially buy what looked like a necklace and then step fully into a new spiritual practice because I though Saraswati was neat. At this point my mantra is not even in Sanskrit and it has its own sort of ritual beginnings.

When I first learned about offering thanks to my teachers, I hesitated. Thanks to the guy on the cover of a book whose only chapter I had read was specifically on the mala? Thanks to Mrs. Clark from first grade? Thanks to my yoga teacher who was a friend of mine, a real world person? I knew just enough about the guru system to know that I had never encountered a teacher to whom I wished to offer that kind of fealty (though the professor who taught us that “Yeats was a genius” came close).

Beyond being concerned that the lack of alignment with any specific tradition separated me from a significant teacher/student relationship, I was deathly afraid of becoming an adherent, a groupie, a fan, someone who abdicated her own individuality in the face of another’s wisdom. Perhaps this was born of the fact that I had never found something I could embrace unquestioningly or that I wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Maybe it was because I was afraid of endorsing another’s beliefs by becoming her student and then later finding out she was in fact human and flawed and just in it to make a buck or to revel in the power of it all.

I am coming to understand that a healthy resistance to placing my fate in another’s hands does not necessarily exclude me from acknowledging my teachers and offering them my gratitude. Certainly the authors that I have read over the past few months have shaped me in profound ways. The works of Andrew Harvey, Caroline Myss, Stephen Cope, and James Martin S.J. are incredible, and I can state that freely even if I have my reservations about aspects of their philosophies or business models. Naming those whose works have been filtered through publishers and editors is to recognize only the most obvious form of knowledge, of course.

The only answer to all of this worry about “who will guide me?” is to realize that I am guided by every experience in this life, both positive and less so. The luxurious stretch of a cat. The friendliness of the mailman. The closed bud of a rhododendron in the cold. The love of my family. My curiosity to understand it all. I can only hope that I can come to realize that my meditative state is not so fragile as to have to exclude all of these little daily examples, because what is meditation if it is not rooted completely in the pedestrian beauty of life?

Hoping and Fearing and Sliding Into the Sea

Yankee Beach on a slant

I took this photo this summer on Prince Edward Island’s Yankee Beach in honor of Nanna who always took pictures on an angle (now granted, this was in the days of square photos, so she had some noble artistic license on her side). When I came across it today I was struck by the way this picture encapsulates one angle of my world view. I can find myself in great tumults of panic at the state of the world and can start to believe that we are on a steep slide into oblivion. Granted, this wash of emotion is often related to the ocean rising and swallowing the land rather than the other way around, but the spirit is the same.

I am sure that there are basic personality archetypes that make one more or less likely to spin into alternating fits of passion and despair at the state of the wider world. As I have moved from thinking that fiction then poetry then women’s rights then law then environmentalism then spirituality was the most pressing concern during this particular chance I have on the planet, I realize I am most certainly one who cannot get the state of the universe off of her mind. Another aspect of this need to engage with the broken world seems to be the belief that this is the worst it has ever been – I mean look at the carbon crisis and nuclear proliferation and preemptive warfare and global epidemics and the poverty and sexism and racism that just will not go away! While I am certain that many wise people could talk about natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature and the evils of typhoid and the fact that we have an African American and a woman running credible campaigns and all the rest, for me these issues just will not go away.

When certain members of my family hear about the fact that I have my doubts about saving for retirement because I don’t really think the banking system will exist in the forty or so years that separate me from my 401K (but I save anyway because, as we have established earlier, I am a really well meaning hypocrite – aren’t most of us?) they always tell me that I just don’t know how good things are now. I’m told to consider the politics of assassination or that the Vietnam casualties were more than ten times that of the wars now and that hey, we fixed that hole over Antarctica, didn’t we? (Wait, did we? I remember lots of talk of CFCs and the ozone layer in elementary school, but we seem to have lost interest in that particular angle…) I just leave the conversation wondering who is fooling themselves – those who cannot bear to imagine that we are on the path to a social/political/environmental disaster or those who are desperately afraid we are on a lethal collision course of our own making?

Many times I have tried to sort out why such a big part of me believes we are in such a terrible state. What do I gain from living my life with tinges of Armageddon on the horizon? Does a belief in humanity’s narcissistic penchant for annihilation a) get me off the hook since we are all lost anyway, b) give me a sense of purpose because I have obsession with someday playing some sort of savior or c) is it just an organic aspect of who I am, a(n) (over)sensitivity that whips me into a muted frenzy? And how do I explain that despite this worry and dread, I am still a hopeful creature who believes we can walk through the darkest times and emerge a stronger, more beautiful world?

But as I spend my evening writing this rather than considering how to quit my comfortable job with its terribly comforting benefits package in order to chain myself to a tree along the Amazon or join Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, I realize that enough of me must be able to deal with the ills listed herein. Or perhaps none of those terrible phenomena have yet hit quite close enough to home…

Discovering the Space Beyond the Silence

Long Beach treeMany months ago, before this whole unfurling of epiphanies began in earnest, I was rocked with uncertainties over something or other, or probably about everything, more likely. I read my tarot cards, I stared beseechingly up to the sky, I read a text about the Goddess that was full of footnotes. I just felt like I was trapped in the maelstrom of my own psychology.

There have been a few times in my life when a voice outside of all that I know has spoken to me. Once, it said “he’s not the one.” (I could regret not listening to that one, but the two years of kidding myself in the particular relationship that followed got me here, with someone who actually is “the one.”) This particular day in question, I heard as clear as the winter air outside my windowpane “Why don’t you ask the Goddess?” In my journal I simply wrote: SILENCE.

Ask the Goddess? I’m sorry, but I really wouldn’t want to trouble her, and there would be so many candles to light, and really, what is there to say that I have not already shouted a million times into the inside of my own skull? It was at that moment I realized the relative emptiness of the self-proscribed path I had chosen to study. And by “study” I do not mean in the way that one studies Talmud or even tea leaves, but in the way that one studies the periodic table or Shakespeare. I was reasonably certain there would be a test (not of the type that gets you through a set of heavenly gates or anything, more like the sort that proves you are intelligent and witty in a bar).

I want to wrap that lost version of myself in the enveloping soul I have discovered has always been here. I want to make sure that the me from last year understands that she can ask the Goddess whatever she needs to, and if she wants, she doesn’t even have to assign a gender to the divine.

Why do I write a post about something as intimate as the understanding that, when I address an entity outside myself, I feel like there is a sensitive power in the universe? This is not the sort of declaration I feel particularly comfortable with and I don’t think I am trying to vaunt my own spiritual development as another thing I have “achieved” (at least I hope I am a little better at transcending my ego). In part, it must be that this quiet realization that barely resides in the world of the explicable means that, when confronted with the chaos that is waking up in the morning, I find there is a force beyond the void of my own fear and questions. If I am to continue spiraling through epiphanies and trying to pin them to page, I must establish this new sense of something greater as my truth. The path I am beginning to travel now is still determined by instinct, and luck, and what I hope are occasional flashes of authentic vision, but that emptiness, that silence, is a memory as I begin to try to understand the hum that is the energy that binds us all.

A Sunday Drive Toward Reconciliation

This weekend my husband and I began the search for our first home. Dreams and make-believe were layered in with the grown up panic of 401K withdrawals and credit scores. We laughed and drank too much coffee and wound our way through the country lanes and modest neighborhoods that occasionally gave way to old orchards that now nurtured Hummers and McMansions. It was a day of escaping from ourselves completely even as we made plans that would structure the next phase of our lives.

In the same way that I lost track of all that I would normally consider essential while planning a wedding (a pedicure chosen over the time to cultivate some inner peace, etc.), I realize now that I am just as likely to lose sight of the ideals that cover these pages in the process of buying a house. In the same way that I am tempted to invest in traditional stocks whose profits are derived from guns (defense industry) and drugs (pill pushing, um, I mean medical innovation) and deforestation (development) rather than the “social choice” plans with low dividends and high feel-good points, I am guessing I will consider trading energy efficiency for a lower down payment.

The fact that life is a process of constantly balancing needs and wants, ideals and deals is well established. For me, I also recognize it as a perpetual act of reconciling my reality with the pictures I can paint of my perfect world in which environmentalism did not come at the cost of foregoing an extra bedroom and sound financial decisions were not based on taking every penny the bank would offer.

But then I remember the Sacrament of Reconciliation and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the act of reconciling invoices and payments. Penance and nation building and accounting all wrapped up in one word. I had to turn to my friends at Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: rec·on·cile
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French reconcilier, from Latin reconciliare, from re- + conciliare to conciliate
1 a : to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions> b : SETTLE, RESOLVE <reconcile differences>
2 : to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>
3 : to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant <was reconciled to hardship>
4 a : to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy b : to account for
synonym see ADAPT

It is beginning to seem that “reconcile” in all of its forms is the constant thread binding my ostensibly disparate planes of existence. I reject the connotation of the term that links it to the need for an Act of Contrition, but if I can step back and realize it is possible to examine all that I am and have been in light of who I wish to be, it seems possible to escape the mantle of guilt (and that painful memory of my first penance at age seven when I was afraid to cross myself because the chocolate I had been clutching in my hand while waiting for the priest had melted through my fingers).

How strange to understand that a single verb can encompass both the restoration of friendship and harmony and the submission to the unpleasant, but is it such a leap to say that the search for harmony in the face of suffering is itself the process of living?

Recasting the Emperor, Speaking Truth With the Children

This August while visiting family on Prince Edward Island (the most beautiful place on earth) I read Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, a novel about a passel of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers in the months before September 11. I had a backpack full of Rumi and Merton, but all I could do was tangle myself in the wreckage of these lives (and they were wrecked well before a tower fell).

I was restless because I was compelled to finish an inconsequential novel when I should have been contemplating the herons fishing in the marsh and the way the barley fields rolled into the sea; I should have been thinking deep thoughts about the soul and immortalizing them for the cold winter that would surely follow those exquisite summer days. This was one of the first pieces of fiction I had read since my spiritual studies had begun in earnest. The literary elite that I might so have wished to emulate once upon a time seemed to wage a constant assault on belief and believers, dismissing them as so many simple sheep, weaker minded fools to be pitied for needing such pablum. Because I was unable to find anything other than my own spinning mind in meditation and prayer just sounded like rhetoric that week, I felt vaguely assailed by their derision. Was it because the author cast these people as brilliant and famous and witty and worthy of recognition? Am I so susceptible to doubt? Did Messud hit such a sore spot that I was unable to sense the irony in her portrayals? The climate of this book, in which there really were no victors, made the option of relying strictly on education and reason seem more viable than anything else; the only “believers” were the sad and lonely types who seemed to find a comfort in a hard, cold pew, kneeling before an oblivious silence.

Why I began to think of this book today is unclear. Perhaps it surfaced in the course of one of the many inner dialogs in which I try to sort out what sort of person I am meant to be now that I declare my interest in matters of the spirit to be the most compelling of my life. Where do I fit in the country’s current religious continuum that seems to include only faddish atheism and cafeteria Catholicism (Judiasm/Presbyterianism/Unitarian Universalism/etc.) and religious zealots in the red states? I don’t chose to be counted with “New Agers” (a vaguely recognized footnote that doesn’t quite fit into the spectrum) even if my eclectic faith fits in best under that umbrella because such an affiliation invariably leads to collecting way too many paperbacks I’d never read and seems to call my own intellectualism into question.

Though I raise these questions, I do so with a pervading sense of optimism. I realize the solitary nature of my particular path at this moment, but proceed with the confidence that we will recover from the silliness that has infected the corners of society not preoccupied with body counts and global warming over the past few years. Certainly there will always be the naysayers and those who make a career of doubt, and surely we need to foster healthy conversation about the nature of both belief and disbelief. At the same time, I also trust that we will be able to move to a discussion of faith that does not draw exclusively on bestselling discourses on Godlessness and the predilections of specific voting blocks and embrace a constructive discussion based on passion and respect rather than sound bytes and judgment.