Oh, dear God, the things we do to each other—and to ourselves—the ongoing Boko Haram and ISIS massacres being but the terrible tip of the iceberg. I can barely stand it sometimes, and yet I must, if I am to be of service to the very ones among us who destroy each other. I’ve got to be able to stand it, and to stand in joy in spite of it all.
I’ve got to be able to stand it because the nasty stuff we do to each other is as much a part of the earthy, mortal mix we call life on Planet Earth as our good times and acts of greatness. We are all of it. It’s a complete package, the good right along with the bad and the ugly. We can’t have the stuff we want without embracing the shit that we don’t. And I’ve got to stand in joy in spite of it all because: is there any doubt we need more joy in the world? Also, I’m good at joy.
If we are born to enjoy life—and I believe we are—most of us aren’t doing a very good job. That’s despite appearances (but, boy, are we good at keeping those up). Or maybe we never did enjoy life much, and it’s the global drama on parade 24/7 that makes things seem way worse.
All I know is that until I can hold heart space huge enough to contain the unspeakable ways we spew hateful behavior, my work as a woman of service isn’t done. Until I can stand with Byron Katie—one spiritual teacher who seems to walk her radical talk—and love absolutely whatever is, I cannot let up.
I know, I know, I’ve said it before, and I’m sorry. I really am. I’d love to bring happier, fresher news.
Anyone reading my words (thank you for that) and looking to be cheerful may wonder why I focus on the awful and the offal now that it’s summer and I’m back at my blog at last. Viewing my life from the outside in you may well be baffled. Why can’t I just look away when I don’t like what I see, forgive and forget. No question forgiveness is a good idea, but I am far from certain I want to forget the suffering. We are one human family and your suffering has got to be mine. No, it is mine. I guess that’s the Buddhist way, though I don’t know enough to be sure.
As I often say, I am blessed beyond measure—with a remarkable husband, family and friends, gorgeous surroundings, relative affluence and good health. (What’s a case of Shingles, a bout of bronchitis and pneumonia or, my latest, Lyme Disease, in the face of all that and so much more to be glad for? Really!) Not least, I may finally be coming out of a long, decidedly unfun funk.
But the interesting thing I’ve noticed lately is this: the more I allow the pain of the world to seep in and bite me (right along with those three itsy-bitsy Lyme bugs I pried off me in the last few weeks), the more deeply I can savor even the smallest joy-speckled moment. To be fully open to any of it, I’ve got to be open to it all. I must be willing to cry as hard as I laugh. I know I have said this before too, but apparently it bears repeating, so please bear with me.
One of the terrible things we do to each other that has made me cry most is the sexual abuse of children. For years, I found it so unbearable that if I saw an article or heard the beginning of a radio report, I had to pull away, cover my ears, whatever it took. I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—hear of it. I now realize that because I shut myself down to that particularly hideous brand of bad news, I was shutting myself down, period. I was dulling myself to the wonderful things as well.
Our sympathetic nervous system can’t readily adjust around whether the next thing that’s about to happen is something we want to let in or not. After a lifetime of being more or less fearful, we are either relatively open to external stimuli—a.k.a. life— or we are not. If we are in the habit of closing ourselves down out of fear, we can’t quickly shift from “fight or flight” mode when we want to relish a yummy meal, take in a tender hug, or feel our heart leap at, say, the momentary flash of a bluebird (my favorite!) on the wing. We miss the chance to savor life deeply.
But there’s another compelling reason to stay wide open if we want to make a difference: we can only guide and support others in going where we have been willing to go ourselves.
It took a long ago yoga student to teach me that by shutting out abuse I was doing harm beyond shutting myself down to good stuff. She helped me see I had been limiting my capacity to serve up good stuff to others who were sexually abused, which turns out to be a shameful lot of us. By opting out of feeling the suffering of abuse, I was opting out of helping to end that suffering.
One day after we’d been friends for a while, that beautiful young yoga student told me her father had sexually abused her. Fortunately, she’d done enough therapeutic work around her extended trauma to have moved into forgiveness, or at least moved on as best she could. Still, when she first mentioned the incest, the scared little girl inside me desperately wanted to shut down out of habitual fear and revulsion, and run. How could I stand being with her and knowing this?
But, thank God for us both, my desire to hold a safe, open space to support my friend in becoming a yoga teacher must have been stronger than my fear of my own suffering. Instead of running, I gathered up my courage and plunged in.
Whenever the thought of her incest came to mind following her revelation, instead of my usual avoidance I tried to make room for it. I’d take deep breaths as I let myself descend into the darkness of imagining a father forcing himself on a little girl who was now a woman I knew and cared about. In my willingness to feel—and bear—the pain the thought of that horrific abuse provoked, I felt my heart grow bigger. I could be with my friend without the interference of fear.
My last, long-ago blog post was called “Summer Lessons of Sticks and Stones.” It described how I, who rarely encounter ill treatment, had been subject to a summer rife with mysterious, unpleasant verbal assaults and how I was trying to let them humble me and recognize my part. I got a break from all that over the fall and into winter. Then, after a rare spate of physical assaults, the emotional ones started hammering again. The latest arrows have been more painful than any I’ve experienced, and are harder to understand and, so, to let go of.
As with my yoga friend’s abuse, I’ve been allowing myself to undergo the pain I feel, in this case at being misunderstood and judged. I’ve ranted and wept when it’s hit me hardest, trying to let the pain break me open—for love, or at least acceptance. Gradually, I’m coming around to the lesson to be learned, or really re-learned. But I get it only when I can stop feeling sorry for myself and let go of the need to be right. I get it, in other words, when I can burn through ego and drop from my head down into my heart, where wisdom lives and prayers arise.
In her groundbreaking book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie wrote: If I had a prayer, it would be this: “God, spare me from the desire for love, approval, or appreciation. Amen.”
When I first encountered it, that prayer got my full attention—because it needs to be my prayer. As long as I look to anyone outside myself for love, approval or appreciation, I am bound to be disappointed—or afraid of being. So from that enlightened perspective, someone bent on misunderstanding and judging me is doing me a favor. The person spurning me is helping me burn up the self-same desire that keeps me from being free. I think I am starting to get that.
Am I loving what is? Not quite, but I don’t hate it as much either. I find I can stand the heat and slowly, I hope, let it move me to understand and forgive. That is my intention at least.
The sweetest fruit is this: that by doing my damnedest to let the recent unpleasantness soften me, I have felt a mounting inner strength and, sometimes, a sense of budding peace. Occasionally, like now, when a bluebird landed right outside the window by my desk and flew off in a sunlit flash, I may even be better able to savor a joy-speckled moment. How about you? How open can you keep your heart? And how do you do it? We’d love to hear!