The Broken Girl and the Darkness

flickr photo by Bill Abbott

flickr photo by Bill Abbott

Fifteen years ago, she broke. In retrospect, she’d been broken a lot longer than that, but she did not yet know that truth. She sank deeply into darkness, craving light, clawing towards it like a trapped animal, but to no avail. It hurt, knives tearing through her soul again and again. She wept without end.

But of course, there was an end. She could pretend the pit wasn’t there, that she wasn’t trapped in a cage. She laughed and studied and looked like a real person, but she wasn’t. A part of her was always in the dark, in the deep.

This wasn’t random, this couldn’t be random. There had to be meaning, purpose, to this suffering. If there was a purpose, then that purpose could be achieved, and then it could end. She could walk away with her prize.

The only ones who could see it left her, not strong enough to see her through to healing through no fault of their own. Those who were left had the best of intentions, and patched her with comforting lies, because they could not see the truth. And eventually, neither could she.

It was a thin fog – not the stifling midnight of depression, but a watery veil that subtly distorted everything. Even today, she does not know where that veil came from. Surely, no one forced it on her. But without the iron belief that her pain meant something, the veil appeared

She lived. She loved. And she built herself a home on the edge of the precipice. It never quite let her go, because she never quite learned its lesson.

She learned things – little truths, little magics – and they accumulated day by day, like pebbles on the shore. She learned to dive deeply into the essence of the world, and through dream and trance and ritual she met some of those who lived there.

When she slipped into that abyss again (as she always would, from time to time), she saw their faces full of an inhuman love, and so sad. Sadder than any mortal could comprehend. And she knew that it was because of her despair that they felt that pain, and that more than anything drew her back to the surface…. but she always fell again. Eventually.

She knew they were waiting for her to comprehend, but she didn’t know what. Or how to speed that process along, which she longed to do with all her soul.

Finally, she couldn’t take it any more. She walked out, into the rain, and planted her feet in the river. She raised her hands to the sky, and called out to them.

“What is it I am meant to learn? I am here! I am ready! I can’t stand the waiting any longer!”

And an answering voice replied, from deep within, “Only this: you are loved.”

And she replied, “Seriously? That’s it? Because you could have said that fucking years ago. In fact, you have said that! Lots of times!”

“Yes, but you weren’t ready to hear it.” And it flowed into her: the ecstasy of spirit journeys and the quiet of a cup of tea; the sweet exhilaration of catching a chipmunk unawares and the reflection of watching the water flow past; every moment that she had been truly alive and aware flowed into her at once, and she understand what had only been words moments ago. And finally, after so many years, it was enough.

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Introduction to Sitting

riverHave I told you guys about sit spot? It’s a wonderful nature based practice – possibly the key nature based practice. It’s a dead simple way to connect with nature, practice a bit of inner peace, and restore some of the equilibrium that’s maybe missing in your life.

Super short version: Find a place outside and sit in it, for at least 20 minutes.

Slightly longer version: While you’re sitting, try to remain aware of the present moment. Notice what you can hear/smell/feel/taste/see. This isn’t empty mind meditation – you don’t have to still every thought – but do try to keep your awareness on what’s going around you, rather than what’s going on in your head.

Step by step version, for those who like explicit instructions:

  • Go outside. Sit down.
  • Take a moment to find something that you feel grateful for. Maybe it’s a beautiful day, or there are flowers in bloom, or you had a delicious lunch. Just find some gratitude.
  • Do a sense meditation. Close your eyes, and focus just on what you can hear. There are probably cars, and that’s ok. Notice what else you can hear. Holding on to that, add in your sense of smell – what can you smell here? Maybe hot road tar, maybe the rose bush next to you. Don’t judge, just notice. Holding on to hearing and smell, notice what you can feel – the ground you’re sitting on, the wind on your face. Just notice. Now, holding on to hearing, smell, and touch, open your eyes and add in what you can see. Maintain that awareness for as long as you like. You are in no way expected to continue with that sense meditation for your entire time sitting (unless you’re enjoying it, in which case feel free to continue)
  • Sit. Look. Listen. Smell. Avoid the temptation to check your watch constantly. If you notice your awareness turning away from the moment, gently bring it back.

This is most powerful when done every day. The idea is to pick a single spot (ideally really close to your back door) to return to daily. That lets you build relationship over the weeks and the seasons, and is really powerful. But I have to admit that is not what I do. I have a sit spot in my yard that I return to again and again, but I also have sit spots further afield. I was going to Mount Auburn Cemetery a few times a week for awhile, but now I’m trying to go down to the Charles River as many days as I am able. I recommend starting your practice by focusing on a single spot, but in the long run, you make it your own.

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Gratitude is for the Living

Why is gratitude so hard to comprehend? We know that we have a lot to be thankful for. If you’re reading this, then you probably have electricity, running water, and sufficient food: many people do not. But talk about gratitude, and people get uncomfortable. Guilt, defensiveness, and a host of other unpleasant emotions fountain to the surface. I struggle with the concept as much as anybody – intellectually, I know I’m insanely lucky, but do I feel it most days? No. There’s a reason for that, and it’s actually fairly simple to solve.

Part of the problem is what’s called the hedonic treadmill – we get used to what is “normal” for us, and take it for granted. I’ve never lacked clean drinking water, so it’s hard to get excited about it, and it’s hard to remain truly grateful for my smart phone after a few months. This isn’t because we are bad people; it’s just human nature. But that doesn’t make it immutable.

Many Native American tribes, such as the Onondaga, give thanks before beginning any undertaking. They give thanks to the earth, to the flowing waters and the life giving sun, to the plants that heal and the animals that give their lives for food. Are these empty words, or do they truly feel that gratitude? I think it’s authentic.

I believe that it’s easier to step off the hedonic treadmill when it comes to relationships. I’ve known my husband for my entire adult life, so according to the hedonic treadmill, I should totally be taking him for granted by now. And sometimes, I do just that. But when I’m paying attention and being conscious, the sense of gratitude for all that he does and his presence in my life is very, very easy to find. I may not always access that appreciation, but it’s not hard to find when I look for it.

No matter how hard I try, I just can not dredge up authentic gratitude for indoor plumbing.

It’s hard to feel grateful for the sun, the water, and our food because we don’t see them as alive. They are things, not beings with which we have (or can build) relationship. And therein lies the problem.

Would gratitude for the sun, the earth, and the water come more easily if we saw them as alive and inspirited, like us? I think so. We are also very far removed from the source of most of what we consume. Water comes through pipes, not from a stream. Food is pre-picked and packaged in the grocery store – we never see the tree that grew our apples, or the field of grain that became our bread. We certainly don’t see the cow behind our hamburger, and that’s a shame. Not because we should feel guilty for eating it, but so that we can honor its sacrifice.

But how do we begin to experience that connection to the life that feeds and waters us?

Someday, this will be a full grown pear.

Someday, this will be a full grown pear.

Keeping a garden is probably the most obvious solution. Growing your own food, pulling it from the ground or off the branch, makes it virtually impossible to avoid gratitude. You see it’s alive, and you see it as a gift, or a co-creation (weeding and keeping the plant safe, in exchange for delicious tomatoes). If you don’t have the space or lack a green thumb, you can go to one of those pick-your-own places, and pick your own strawberries, raspberries, apples, or other fruit of choice.

I don’t grow much of my own food – not only do I live in a city, and thus have a very small yard, but my inclinations lead more towards native woodland plants and an overgrown aesthetic. However, I do have a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, and I go to the farm where my vegetables are grown once a week. I also have a raspberry hedge, two dwarf pear trees, and a Concord grape vine. When it comes time to harvest that fruit, gratitude is a pale word for the experience. Divine radiance, a blessing from the earth herself, would be a more apt description.

In general, anything that connects you to the process by which the things you use come to exist will help. Go to a wool and sheep festival, and see how sheep are sheered and wool is prepared, and think of that sheep when you get dressed this winter. Most clothing is produced in a much more mechanized fashion than this, but the exercise is still valid. At the very least, there is definitely still a sheep involved in your wool sweater.

We can be grateful for what we are given. Our parents taught us to say thank you. Once you can see water, sunlight, and raspberries as the gifts they are*, then gratitude becomes very simple. What is one way you can deepen your connection to the land and the water, and thus to gratitude? And how can you express that gratitude and say thank you for the gifts?

*Yes, we do pay for things like raspberries and sweaters. But we’re paying the people who harvested/transported/manufactured them, not the earth or the sheep who is ultimately responsible.

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The I-Don’t-Knows

flickr photo by Alex Bellink

flickr photo by Alex Bellink

“I don’t know” is aa epidemic. It’s an easy response to just about any question.

What movie do you want to see?
I don’t know.

What should we have for dinner?
I don’t know.

What will you most regret not doing in your life?
I don’t know.

Those first two examples are more or less benign – it might be frustrating for the person asking the questions, but no one is actually harmed. It’s when you say “I don’t know” to the big questions, like my third example, that you get into trouble.

What’s so bad about not knowing something?

Nothing, in and of itself. The problem is that “I don’t know” generally precedes a total shut down. No looking at options, no exploration, no asking additional questions. You give up.

Giving up on picking a movie is one thing, but giving up when shaping your life is quite another.

What do we do about it?

The easiest way to start might be to tackle the little stuff first. Yes, deciding what to have for dinner is not the central question of your life, but that’s what makes it a good place to start. There’s less pressure. So start there, practicing having opinions and making choices.

A Caveat

Some people will suggest that you abolish the phrase “I don’t know” from your vocabulary, but I disagree. Sometimes we genuinely don’t know something

What needs to change is how we respond to it. When you find that you really, genuinely do not know something – whether that something is factual (what is the capital of Haiti?), experiential (how do I start a fire with only what I can find in my backyard?) or personal (what do I most want to do with my life?), don’t give in to the temptation to shut down. Instead, get curious. Start asking as many questions as you can, starting with “how can I find out this information?” and moving from there.

If you simply eliminate the phrase, then you run the risk of subconsciously telling yourself that it’s not ok to not know something, which can lead to forcing yourself to find answers and make choices before you are ready, or else pretending to knowledge you don’t have. That’s counterproductive in an entirely different way. Sometimes you honestly don’t have the information you need to make a choice. If you don’t know what movies are currently playing, how can you be expected to pick one? The same thing goes for the bigger decisions. You wouldn’t force someone on their first date to make a lifelong commitment!

* * * * *

I realized I was having a crisis of “I don’t knows” at the Wilderness Skills workshop a few weeks ago (mentioned last week). When it was time to build a fire, I was paralyzed by the unknown. I’ve never built a fire before! I have no idea how to do this! I wasted quite a bit of time and energy panicking over that before finally settling down to guesswork (lesson of the day: guessing is a perfectly good place to start). So I did eventually conquer that “I don’t know,” but it took a lot of effort. Then, my first fire didn’t light, and I was stuck. I had legitimately forgotten that I could admit that I didn’t know how to do it, and to ask for help, thus falling into the pitfall of demonizing the concept of not knowing. It wasn’t productive, and I wasted even more time and energy.

In the end, a thought is only useful if it encourages useful action. If saying “I don’t know” is keeping you frozen, then let it go! Pretend that you do know, or brainstorm options, or just do something to change things up. But if denying “I don’t know” is keeping you hidden in shame, then let it out! Ask for help, get more information, and remember that you aren’t expected to know and so everything yourself.

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Finding What Isn’t There

flickr photo by Luca Bove

flickr photo by Luca Bove

I recently attended a transformational workshop on Wilderness Skills, with Sagefire Institute. Good people! By far, the most transformational part of it, for me, was learning to make fire. Not only am I not (historically speaking) great at concrete physical tasks (I’m much more of an idea girl), but fire is just so damn rich with metaphor. Fire is life, passion, energy. It is transformation and soul. So you can see why learning to make it myself might be appealing.

The only drawback was that, as an urban edge dweller, there was no way I could recreate the experience at home. There just aren’t that many fallen sticks lying around, never mind acceptable tinder. So that sucked some of the excitement right out.

After I returned home, I took a long walk through Mount Auburn Cemetery, which is not only a cemetery, but is essentially an arboretum with headstones. What did my wondering eyes spy? Sticks. Sticks everywhere. Tiny sticks and larger sticks. Sticks with leaves and sticks without. New sticks and sticks that have been lying there long enough to go soft. Apparently, the grounds are not as meticulously maintained as I believed!

The funny thing is, those sticks weren’t new. And it’s not like I don’t spend much time in Mount Auburn – it’s around the corner from my house, and walking through its shady paths and around its ponds is a favorite past time of mine. But I’d never noticed all the fallen twigs before.

Why? Because I wasn’t looking for them, and unless we’re doing it on purpose (and sometimes not even then), people don’t see what they aren’t looking for. That’s why we have buckets of evidence to support long-held thoughts, even if they aren’t entirely (or at all) true. It’s also why it always seems like half the cars in the parking lot are the same model and color as yours when you can’t remember where you parked.

If there’s something you want in your life that you don’t believe is there, then it could be right under your nose, and you still wouldn’t see it. Figure out what that desired item/outcome/person might look like, and start paying attention! If you don’t think anybody likes you, I can promise that you’re discounting evidence – start really playing attention to what people are doing and look for evidence that they like you. The same thing goes for anything else that is missing in your life.

It may not be perfect, but it’s there. My urban fire problem is not wholly solved by finding sticks, since I still don’t have a location that is both legal and safe to light one. But I’m closer than I was, and closer than I thought was possible. I’d bet that you are, too.

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