Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hell's Vestibule

In our largely secular culture you don't hear words like heaven or hell or sin very often. For as long as I can remember I’ve thought of heaven and hell as inner states, not literal places. When I was seventeen I wrote in my diary that I thought sin was that which came between me and my sense of a living loving presence (God) that was larger than but always with(in) me. I could pretty much stand by this today. I didn't know then that the origin of the word sin meant "to miss the mark" but I think I was intuiting a meaning that was in alignment with this etymology.

I’m thinking a lot about hell these days because I am studying Dante’s 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy. It begins, with Inferno which chronicles a pilgrim’s journey into hell (to be followed by Purgatory and Paradise.) Part of the fun (yes, I am taking the U of Toronto course for fun) is allowing this allegorical poem to stir the pot of reflection.

I studied this poem thirty-five years ago. Rereading it recently, I remembered that it started with the pilgrim in the proverbial “dark wood” midway through his life. Not sure what I thought the “dark woods” was when I was twenty but now, being mid-way through adult life, I am all too familiar with confusing times when “the way” seems lost. I also remembered Dante’s depiction of various circles of hell where each sin brought its own corresponding punishment.

But I had forgotten what the pilgrim encounters at the gates to hell. There, in hell’s vestibule, he sees a group of souls who are considered the most wretched. These are the souls of those who are barred from heaven and will not be admitted to hell- those “who had never truly lived,” those who have been “neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God.” These souls are doomed to forever be stung by wasps while running behind a banner that moves in circles.

Now Dante’s Inferno has no shortage of suffering, but what struck me is that the souls of those who never really committed to living life fully- are considered the "most wretched." Even in the world of 14th century Christianity (where all sins were listed and punishable with terrible suffering) the worst thing you could do was to stand for nothing, to refuse to commit to your own choices in life, to fail to live your life fully. It reminded me of Mary Oliver's poem “When Death Comes.” In the last stanza she writes:

When it’s over I don’t want to wonder if I have
made of my life
something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened and full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

When I read Dante’s poem this time, my breath caught at his description of those in hell’s vestibule. I suspect that when I read it at twenty, failing to live fully was unthinkable. With the clarity and energy of youth I was full of hopes and dreams and resolve. I did not know how life can sometimes wear you out, how you can watch your dreams dissolve or be buried beneath practical considerations that seem imperative. My breath caught because I know now how hard it is to get up every day and commit to living fully present with whatever the day brings, because I live in a culture where spiritual materialism and ego idolytry, addictive consumerism and religious fundamentalism (including New Age fundamentalism) continually whisper, “Go back to sleep,” to a population running on too much caffeine and too little poetry.

Even in a time and from a perspective of strict religious rules, Dante was able to see that the larger crime would be to turn away from life, to refuse the gift and the challenge of human existence. So, knowing we will make mistakes, knowing we will at times make bad choices that cause suffering, knowing we will often “miss the mark” when aiming to live at the divine center, knowing all of this- we are urged to choose life anyway, to be as Mary Oliver writes in the same poem a “ bride married to amazement,” and a “ bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Amen!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Body-Self Beautiful

Well, I had some time to lie around this week- literally. A week ago, I picked up my watch off the dresser next to my bed and threw my back out. Two chiropractic visits, one doctor’s appointment, a few muscle relaxants, and many epsom salt baths later, and I am no longer shuffling around as if I'm one hundred years old. All very humbling and more than a little enlightening.

As I laid on the living room floor (because I felt a little less pain lying on the floor than I did on the firm mattress of my bed) studying the plaster on the ceiling, I started thinking about all of the time, energy and money I put into taking care of my body and the precariousness of my health. Mostly this is because of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that moves in and out of remission, but sometimes it’s because of something as unpredictable as a muscle spasm. (In fairness, given the legal and emotional upheaval in my life over the last few months, it really is not that surprising that I would have a bit of tension stored in my back.)

So, I was feeling frustrated. After all, I know people (or people who say they know people) who never exercise, eat junk food, drink excessively, stay up late, never go to a doctor or chiropractor or massage therapist and they seem to be feeling no pain. I take care of my body, I practise self-care. So shouldn’t I be healthy, pain-free and strong?

Now there are lots of factors that go into creating illness or physical health and some (like genetics, exposure to pathenogens etc.) are out of our control. But the thing that stopped my internal tirade was the tiniest sliver of a question: Do I really CARE for my physcial self or do I take care of my body? Because there’s a difference.

I take care of my body. I exercise, eat well, take supplements, go to alternative and main stream health care practitioners. But, if I am honest about it, I do these things the way a conscientious car owner schedules regular maintenance appointments with the local mechanic- as a means to the end of keeping the vehicle tuned up and ready to go wherever the driver wants to take it.

But my body is not vehicle. I'm not a car. I'm a human being, an embodied soul. Of course, I experience things that are not just physical sensations: intuitions, feelings, emotions, thoughts, dreams, visions etc. But I experience them as an embodied being. When I die, I don’t know what will happen. But I will cease to be an embodied soul, a human being. I may become something else- spirit, energy, a disembodied soul, something looking for a new life or blended with a sort of wholeness beyond my current imagination. I really don’t know, and to tell you the truth I don’t worry about it. I’m okay with not knowing.

But while I am alive, although I am not just a body, I am never not a body. So, my body is not just a vehicle I drive around, directed by some more essential part of me. It has a wisdom, and intelligence of its own. It teaches me. I experience through the body. We know from a vast array of experiments that body and mind (consciousness, emotions, thoughts etc.), although spoken of as two separate things, are indeed co-mingled, inter-dependent, or two aspects of one substance.

So, if this is true, perhaps I need to start caring for my physical self instead of just taking care of my body. It may be hard to tell the difference from the outside, but from the inside the difference it clear. Think of how a baby is cared for- how food that is offered lovingly is different than a child that is propped up with a bottle; how a gentle bath in warm water that includes blowing bubbles and playful splashing is something more than just getting clean; how lotion can be slapped on quickly to prevent dry skin or massaged in with full awareness of the skin texture, the shape of muscles beneath the skin, the intimacy of touch (and I mention these examples with full awareness that mothers often have more than one child and employment and many other responsibilities and so are not always able to provide all of these all of the time.)

Caring for a vehicle is a mechanistic job done from the outside. Real self-care is an inside job. While knowledge of which exercises or supplements most meet my physical needs can be helpful, I don’t think the right combination of activities and vitamins can replace real loving appreciation for my physical self, for embodiment as it is right now, in this body- not the one I had twenty years ago, not the one I imagine or hope I’ll have if I work out or drink the right herbal tea this year.

So, as I laid on the floor I started to do one of the Tibetan Buddhist somatic meditation practises- exploring, sensing and releasing all tension from each part of my body, starting with my toes and working my way up. I have been doing this every day since my back went out and I am continuing, even though my back is better. Each time I do it, I feel both a great sadness that moves me to apologize to my sweet natural body-self for forgetting to appreciate life in physical form as an end in itself filled with beauty. And I also feel a sense of release, a deep heart-relief at having arrived home.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting Here from There

I write from where I am, as truthfully as I can- although I don’t always share everything I write (that sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief from my sons and ex-husbands.) Today I tried several times to write and this is what came:

I feel like I have nothing to say. I can feel those of you who know me personally smiling. I know- must be two moons in the sky.

Ever have a day or a week where everything feels. . . . old, empty, meaningless? Where you want to snap the head off the waitress who tells you brightly that perhaps she brought you the noxious tasting immune boosting drink you didn’t order instead of the chocolate shake you did “because everything happens for a reason.”

Ever want to just behave badly without having to apologize or feel like you have failed to be the calm compassionate human being you claim (and some days know) is your essential nature?

Yes, I’m grumpy.

I know all the things that should, could and often do help: good nutritious food, exercise, my daily practise of meditation, prayer and writing. And I am doing them. Sort of. Most of the time.

Now, it occurs to me that if I post this as this week's blog and you are a new reader expecting or hoping for some deep wisdom or inspiration this little diatribe may send you running. Sorry, but this blog is written by a mere mortal. Some days I know life is good, but that’s not the experience I am having. I don't know how to get there from here. I am experiencing a restless, peevish (now there’s a good word,) impatient, disgruntlement.

That’s as far as I could get. Then something happened: I was scheduled to resume my one-on-one counselling work with people today. I did two ninety minute sessions with two different individuals on the phone. I’ve been working with each of them long distance for a couple of months. Although the sessions were for them- something happened for me.

I stopped feeling grumpy. My heart opened as I heard their honesty, their struggles and their hopes. I celebrated their growing self-awareness and self-care and gently challenged them to live more of who they are. I laughed with them at our shared human foibles. I mirrored some of their courage and beauty back to them. I asked questions and listened deeply to their answers. In fact, it was truly a privilege to be present with each of them for ninety minutes. I was inspired. Their lives are different than mine and yet, as so often happens when we are truly with another, we discover how connected we are. In extending myself to them and in receiving the gifts they offered to me, I reconnected to the goodness I know is life in each of us.

And where I was grumpy, now I am grateful.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Living Alone

For the first time in my life, I am living alone. Thirty-eight years ago, when I moved to Toronto to go to college, I shared a home with five other students. I lived alone for a brief time after finishing college, but quickly became involved with a man and moved in with him after only nine months of solo living. No regrets- I was, after all, twenty-three. Young love and hormones were influencing my choices. Eventually, we made two beautiful babies -my sons- together.

There have been times when I’ve spent a lot of time alone, particularly since I often worked out of my home, but there were always others (my sons who were at their father’s for a week or my husband who was at work all day and at evening events) who would be returning. At times I spent time alone in the wilderness- often weeks- but I knew I would be going home to others when my solo time was complete.

It’s different to live alone knowing no one is coming back to a shared abode later in the day or week or month. Once in a while- usually in the evening- I feel a little. . . antsy, experiencing a twinge of something that is not completely comfortable. When I sit with it and ask, “What is this feeling?” I occasionally think, “Oh, this is loneliness.” Although rare, when it does arise, I just notice it and am careful not to start telling myself a story about it. Like: “I will always be alone,” or “If I was loveable I wouldn’t be alone,” or "Loneliness is unbearable" or any of the other infinite number of stories the mind can conjur. In fact loneliness, like other feelings, comes and goes and is quite bearable if we can refrain from adding painful (and imaginary) stories to temporary discomfort. Sitting still I realize that what I call loneliness is most often a vague desire to have someone around to distract me from some deeper discomfort. Like the knowledge that I am resisting working on the new book or some anxiety or ambivalence I would rather ignore.

The truth is that most of the time, when I pay attention I become aware that I am truly enjoying being alone. Some of this enjoyment is pretty mundane: not having to pick up or clean up after anyone else; being able to eat when I want to or follow the thread of whatever I am doing (reading, writing, sleeping) as long as the impulse is there simply because there is no one else’s schedule to consider. But some of it is appreciation for the privilege of having the means and the time to simply be fully with myself.

Last week, I walked home at twilight after visiting a friend. I stopped at a market and bought yogurt and blueberries and a bunch of pale yellow roses for my apartment. And as I walked past the spectacular gardens of the homes in my neighbourhood I felt a deep sense of contentment. I walked slowly, savouring the scent of flowers on the warm night air, anticipating bringing the beauty of fresh roses into the two small rooms that are my home. I looked forward to reading in bed and listening to the sounds of the city slowly subside.

I am blessed to have friends and my two sons in the city where I live. So, when I want company there are those with whom I can connect. And the city itself is offered to me. When I have spent enough time alone at the computer, I can easily walk to a bookstore or the market or the community centre and be around others living their lives, feeling how my little tributary is part of a much bigger river, how we are all interconnected as we live our own lives.

And then, I can go home, alone. The gift of living alone, of having a space that is simply my home, is finding that I do not have to choose between being with myself or being with others. Of course, I never had to choose between these two- but when I live with others I often unconsciously turn too much of my face toward the other and away from my own life. Some of this happened with the inevitable requirements of raising children. But some of my inability to be with another and not abandon myself came from an unconscious strategy developed early in life- trying to earn my place to be by taking care of others’ needs. While I now know this to be unnecessary for belonging it is in living alone that I learn to truly enjoy being fully with myself. And I am grateful for the blessings and the challenges this solitude offers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Healing Happens

Well, as many of you know, I took a break from blogging and Facebook and most other forms of communication for the month of August. After my marriage ended unexpectedly in April (no, I did not see it coming) I spent a couple of months swinging between emotional agony and logistical details. With the legal separation signed in July, I decided a I needed some time of stillness. I leased a campsite in a wilderness reserve in northern Ontario and set up camp. I was planning on spending August there alone, fasting and praying, and resting in the landscape I love- the rocks and water of the Canadian Shield.

Today, I went through the emails that have accumulated in my Inbox. There were messages of encouragement and support (much appreciated) and quite a few from people anticipating some wisdom from my time of solitude and retreat. Many who have suffered similar losses expressed confidence that I would be able – after my month away- to tell them how I have healed, created a new life for myself and found joy once again.

So, as I sit down at my computer, the pressure is on. Have I healed, moved on, created a new life, crossed a threshold into wonder and wisdom? It’s tempting to try to reach for something profound. But I think I’d better stick to the truth.

When I told my sons (now twenty-seven and thirty) that I was going away for a month of solo camping and ceremony, they shook their heads and expressed their dismay. They pointed out that I have a tendency to set myself up for ordeal without consideration for my physical health or age (I protested: “I’m not that old!”) and often get ill or return exhausted. They questioned the wisdom of going to a place where there were physical challenges and risks without any way of summoning help at a time when I was clearly recovering from emotional and physical stress. Mostly they heard and objected to what Nathan called my “gung-ho attitude,” something with which they are all too familiar.

I was. . . offended. And defensive. And then. . . . I lay down on the floor of my apartment amidst piles of camping gear and reconsidered.

I did go camping- alone some of the time and for a few days with a dear friend. I lay on the sun-warmed rocks, swam in the cool clear lake and listened to the loons call out to each other at dusk. I sat on the earth and did my practise of prayer and meditation. I ate when and what my body wanted to eat and made sure all food was stored where it would not tempt the family of black bears roaming the area.

And then, I went home to the city for a few days, for warm baths, a soft bed and meals that could be prepared without gathering kindling, sawing logs and lighting a fire. Then I returned to the campsite, going back and forth, letting my intuition guide me. I tried something new: I became. . . .flexible! I listened to my body, letting go of expectations about what I could or should or would do, giving up my attachment to The Amazing Story of My Time Alone in the Bush, (and oh, how I love a good story!) surrendering my secret belief that I could “earn” my healing by putting myself through ceremonial trials.

In the middle of August some friends gathered at my apartment in Toronto and did a healing ceremony for me. And where I had felt a vague sense of being frozen, things began to flow. From the minute the Sacred Pipe ceremony began tears coursed down my face. It did not feel like I was crying. “I” was not “doing” anything. Tears were flowing. Only later did we notice that the air conditioner in my small apartment had flooded the bedroom during the ceremony. That night both the kitchen and bathroom drains became mysteriously blocked. The next morning sinks overflowed, and then the drains were unplugged and water flowed freely again.

During the ceremony, when it came time for me to offer a prayer, between watery breaths I said, “I am so grateful for these women. Thank you." I paused and then said the only thing I felt I knew in that moment, "I am broken." Feeling lost and more than a little hopeless I added, "Forgive me for my lack of faith. Help me, please.”

And I was helped. I don’t know that I can say how. But more and more I find myself noticing that I am. . . . happy, enjoying my own company, returning to my writing, taking in the beauty around me. I packed up my campsite at the end of August and with prayers of gratitude returned to my small apartment renewed. Without ordeal. Without proving how tough I am or how much I can endure. And still the grace of healing flowed toward me, and the pain eased.

It is not, of course, a linear process. Grief still comes, although less frequently and with softer edges. When it comes I give it time and attention. And then I get up and do my yoga or go for a walk or write or meet a friend. Because life really does go on, and we really do have the capacity to move (or be moved) forward, to heal, to see beauty and feel gratitude even when the heart feels it has been broken. It’s a bit of a miracle really- this ability we have embedded in our very being, in the cells of our hearts and bodies, in the essence of our souls- to heal and expand and choose life again and again. I don’t know how healing happens, but it does. It is a kind of quiet, ever-present grace that can fill us with wonder and bring us great joy if we let it.

My heart is whole and very full.