Joy and grace can be present in difficult experiences – healing from a non-dualistic perspective.
I was listening to On Being’s podcast the other day, excited because Krista Tippett interviewed Richard Rohr. His newest book, Divine Dance, was recently released and Ms. Tippett asked him all manner of important questions and referenced his earlier works as well. As I always say after listening to an interview of Fr. Richard Rohr – I highly recommend it. (He has also been interviewed by Rob Bell and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve listened to that one interview 7 times. So far). I try not to fangirl over people. I recognize it’s not healthy for me or for the person I’m feeling awestruck about. Richard Rohr would be the first to agree, but if I had a chance to meet Fr. Rohr, well, that would be something else.
In this interview, he shared an experience that resonated so deeply with my experiences that I had to write about it immediately.
MS. TIPPETT: Just coming back to this both/and thinking that is a quality of the second half of life, of spiritual deepening, you talk about this quality of “bright sadness” that in that deepening, there is a gravitas and a lightness both. Say a little bit about the bright sadness.
FR. ROHR: I remember some of the times when I was most happy, after — I used to spend the whole of Lent in a hermitage alone, and I’d come back just sort of glowing, like a bliss ninny, for the next couple weeks. But when people would look at me, I remember again and again, they said, “Richard, you look sad.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, do I?” Because in fact, I’m feeling exactly the opposite….So it’s the strangest combination of being able to hold deep sadness and deep contentment at the very same time. So I discovered that in myself, and my most wonderful moments were also my most sad moments, which leads you to a kind of participation in what I called earlier “the one sadness,” that your very fact of enjoying grace and love carries with it a dark side that I didn’t deserve to know this, I didn’t earn this, and most people think I’m crazy if I try to talk about it. So the two intense emotions very often coexist in the contemplative mind.So that’s what taught me this both/and world view, that opposites do not contradict one another. In fact, they complement and deepen one another.
The act of intentional healing does not wipe away sadness or the other uncomfortable feelings. Rather, in my experience, as I heal, I learn to hold many seemingly opposing emotions or energies altogether, at the same time. Each is informing the other. The more grounded, Light-conscious energies are present and informing the other, less grounded, blurry energies. What is healed and balanced brings what has been in darkness into the Light so that more balance can be experienced. But this doesn’t eradicate pain or the shadow.
I recently wrote an article about depression and uncomfortable feelings. I shared a personal experience I had in early April with depression, including the depressive episode’s conclusion and lessons learned. I received a few messages from people who, after reading the article, wrote to express concern and care for me, hoping that I was feeling better. It’s very kind and I’m deeply grateful that I have people in my life who do care and are willing to express that. But I was also surprised to get this kind of response. In the article, I had shared that the experience was past-tense and even more important – it taught me so much! That’s a cause for celebration!
In trying to be a more succinct writer, I sometimes leave out important bits. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to stay on topic, maybe it’s because trying to put words to these types of experiences is very difficult. What I didn’t share about that depressive episode is that, in addition to it being a teacher, there was an enormous amount of Grace present. While it’s true that I didn’t – couldn’t – feel anything, still I was aware in a way I hadn’t ever experienced before during a depression, of an overwhelming okay-ness. I couldn’t directly access it emotionally, but I was aware of its presence and it was bigger than me.
As I’ve healed my emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects over the years, I have fallen into the trap of thinking after a particularly difficult lesson, “Okay, whew. That’s over and I’ve learned my lesson so I won’t have to go through that again!” But that’s not how healing works. It’s not dualistic. It’s not linear. It is never completed – as in, “It is finished.” Nope. How many times have I had a particularly challenging time, gotten through it (rather than skirted around it), and thought “that’s over!” only for that lesson to reappear weeks, months, or years later? Many times. Depression and anxiety are two such lessons.
But! (I know, it sounds so dreary. “You mean this difficulty will never go away?” Well, no. But …).
The Big But is that as we intentionally heal and become more aware, we can’t help but experience each instance differently than we did before. Ten years ago, a depressive episode would have knocked me flat on my ass. I would have experienced what the pros call “suicidal ideation.” This time, many years and many similar-but-always-different experiences later, this depression was simply noticeable. This time, I didn’t think about death, rather, I noticed my previous aliveness and knew that would return. I thought, “Oh, you know what’s coming, that ALIVE feeling – pay attention and notice it more deeply this time!” I found the event so interesting even though it was a very detached interest. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have taken a shower for days on end, and I wouldn’t have left my room. I would have slept weeks away. This time, I allowed myself to relax, but I was still engaged with my life. I slept normally. And instead of weeks, it lasted a total of 3 days.
Why am I sharing this with you? Well, because I don’t think we’re used to hearing or reading about our teachers’/healers’/coaches’ difficulties. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable when the “person in charge” doesn’t have their act together. Many of us have that inner aspect I call the, “Who do you think you are?” aspect. We ask it of ourselves and we ask it of others. Prove it! Prove your knowledge/health/awakeness/education/joy/etc. Prove to me that I should pay attention to you and what you say. Prove to me that you can help me heal/grow/learn. Prove it! And the Prove It mentality turns in on us too, and if we’re unaware of it, it can keep each of us from becoming more and more of who we are when in community with one another. If I can’t prove that I’m perfect at X, I can’t teach X or help others learn about X!
And so we expect that people who are in any type of leadership have it figured out. People who are in positions of leadership in the healing community (especially?) let followers see only one side of their lives and only when that side is nice and shiny.
I am very wary of the teacher who stands (or sits) in front of a crowd and doesn’t express him or herself authentically – who doesn’t let imperfections and quirks shine. I’m confused at the idea that I’m supposed to learn how to be a healer from someone who doesn’t continually seek healing for him or herself. And so, I share my experiences with you not to make anyone uncomfortable, but because this is what is true. And I just so happen to be in a place in my life where, as I heal and expand, I can see it and learn from it and then share it with you. Leaders don’t lead by example by being perfect. Leaders lead by example when they are fully present, fully authentic, in their healing work.
I won’t ever share to garner sympathy or pity. By the time I can write about it, I have gone through it and have lessons-learned to share with you. And trust that even as I am going through my stuff, though perhaps not accessible in the same way, joy is present. And Grace. I am experiencing both/and. It is a bright sadness. And it is a holy moment.
We don’t need to require perfection from one another. We don’t need each other to always be happy and pleased and peaceful. We don’t need our teachers/leaders/coaches to have everything figured out. We can be authentic with each other, holding a space of compassion for ALL of it, without fear or pity, without extending sympathy. We do not have to feel responsible either for fixing anything or helping anyone figure out their stuff. This is a beautiful time of learning how to hold a space of compassion for each other and for ourselves. Allowing, allowing, allowing. This is where the both/and blooms.
As we await the end of this long winter, as we learn to maintain presence in a world that appears to be going mad, and as we deal with our own private lives and the issues we personally face, we might be experiencing spiritual, emotional, and mental discomfort more acutely. I have chatted with a few people in the last couple of weeks who have shared that they have been experiencing low-level anxiety, agitation, anger, and depression, for what appears to be no reason.
When people ask me, “How do I get rid of this?”, one of the first questions I like to ask is, “How does this experience feel in your body?” In other words, where do you feel tension or discomfort, irritation or inflammation in your physical body when you are aware of these feelings? What does it feel like? How do you respond to these physical expressions?
Turning toward the body and extending it care and rest can have a huge effect on the experiences listed above. It is unusual for most of us to do this however, because we are a thinking species. We are quite proud of our mental faculties and our abilities to analyze and plan and fix and solve. When these uncomfortable feelings arise, we tend to go to the mind for answers to “fix” whatever is “broken,” bypassing the body altogether.
Always be willing to question the premise.
What if nothing is broken when these experiences come? What if there is nothing to fix because these experiences play an important role in our expansion and evolution? What if everything is exactly as it should be? What if, instead of going to the mind to ask, Why is this happening? How do I make it stop? we chose to be present, focus on the breath, and get in touch with our body?
Choosing to pay attention to the body can help us ground and connect more deeply to our Heart. The mind can take a rest. We can stop thinking for a second, stop analyzing, and stop wondering why or asking how. When we are focusing on care of the body, our attention is diverted from self-judgment. And we can give the brain a little break from trying to form an escape plan.
Many times over the years, when I have shared that I had a cold, felt blue, threw my back out, had a headache, or stubbed my toe with well-intentioned fellow healers, I have been asked, “What do you think the root emotional/mental/spiritual cause might be?” Many believe that mental and physical maladies are untreated subtle energetic imbalances in almost all, if not all cases. The idea is that if we identify the emotional, mental, or spiritual imbalance, by identifying it and then healing it, we resolve the physical issue.
On the face of it, it makes sense. I think how we go about it might not. What this well-intentioned inquiry does is remove me from my physical body and places me in the seat of the mind through self-inquiry. It puts me in the roles of Identifier and Fixer – mind activities – when my body is asking me to be with the body. Awareness is wonderful and can be very healing. I believe in the power of self-inquiry and a willingness to be with and examine myself. But I believe there is a time and a place for this and that it must be done through the Heart. When the body is crying out, when a person feels like they are in survival mode – this is the time for rest, love, support, compassion, grace, and above all else – no judgment.
And sometimes a stubbed toe is just a stubbed toe. We are human beings living a human life on this planet where everything we do affects one another and sometimes stuff happens. Determining whether or not an experience is a “stuff happens” moment, or the result of imbalance in the subtle anatomy, for me, involves surrender and time. If there is something deeper to explore, there is no forcing it. To become aware of the unconscious, “deeper” underlying issues that might be present, I have to trust that I will become aware of those when they are ready to appear. In the meantime, I care for my stubbed toe, stay present, and breathe.
My personal experience – with depression, anxiety, sadness, grief, and more – has taught me that there is no real and lasting escape plan that the mind can offer and that there is no eradicating the issue through the mind. In fact, trying to out-think (run away from) an uncomfortable experience can intensify and draw out the experience. I think this is because the energy wants to be seen and acknowledged through the Heart with compassion and faith. Sometimes a willingness to stay in the room and be with that feeling is all it takes for it to dissipate. Other times the energy desires more attention and time, and if we allow that – if we surrender to it, the experience is a lot less painful. There is more grace and compassion present.
My recent reminder….
A few weeks ago, on a Thursday, depression descended out of nowhere. It had been years since I felt that plummet but suddenly down, down, down I was falling, unable to breathe deeply into my toes and suddenly unable to bring myself to care about, well, anything. I couldn’t make weekend plans with my husband because I didn’t care and I didn’t foresee a moment when I’d be getting out of my chair in the near future. My brain started to send warning messages, “If you don’t snap out of this, your students and clients are going to get upset!” and “Oh no, remember last time? This could last WEEKS!” But it was too late – I couldn’t care. It’s not that I didn’t care. I literally couldn’t care – about anything. Depression is a strange and difficult thing to experience let alone explain.
I had been here before. I recognized it immediately. Though I was surprised that it felt the need to visit, I shrugged, opened the door, invited it in, made it sit right in front of me so that I could look it in the eye and acknowledge it. “Hi. You’re here. It’s been a while. I see you.” And then I let myself off the hook, trusting that nothing lasts forever – even when it feels like it will never end (kind of like this past winter). I chose to focus on my physical body, turn the mind-games off, and just exist as-is. I decided to be be with that energy as long as it wanted to stick around. I decided to be kind to myself in the process.
Over the next couple of days I noticed moments when my mind would try to sneak in and “take care of it.” How can we get rid of it? How can we heal it? What’s wrong with you, Tana, that this is here? Identify that and BAM! Problem solved! Each time my brain tried to elbow its way in, I felt the sensation – or lack of sensation actually – weigh more heavily. I backed off each time, saying, “I see you, you are here and I am here and we are here together.” I stayed with it, giving it and myself compassion and grace.
On Sunday evening of that same weekend, just as quickly as it arrived, it left. I caught my breath and I suddenly felt everything again – concern, awareness, motivation, responsibility, desire, movement, appreciation. I also noticed something re-enter which I wasn’t aware of before the depression visited: feelings of insecurity I had been holding, worry that I was inadequate in a certain area of my life, and anger seated from a place of judgment I was holding against myself which I was extending , as tends to happen, to others. In this particular case – there were underlying issues that I wasn’t aware of that wanted to be brought into the Light for healing. I can promise you that had I tried to force myself to make inquiries or tried to “fix” the depression, I would have missed the awareness that arose as the depression lifted.
That experience lead to writing this blog post, Burning Man – on being a healer and our responsibility to self, in which I share, “Love and Light” is a phrase often used. And it can have tremendous potency when uttered by a person who is intimately aware of their own capacity for “Hate and Darkness,” as well as all the energies in between. I have since learned that nothing can truly be swept under the rug or warded off with spells or talismans. The energy is present and it wants to be seen. This is the Age of the Mirror.”
People sometimes look at me like I’m crazy. “Just BE with it? That’s your big solution? That’s how you heal?” Yes. It’s part of my healing. And it took years of clearing thought forms and beliefs, of learning how to ground in my own body, of experiencing the Heart and learning how to become more and more intimate with and trusting of it before I could “just” be with it. I fought it for a long time. There were a lot of thoughts and beliefs I needed to clear or transmute. The experiences of depression and anxiety showed up for me time and time again – giving me ample opportunity to lean into them and learn how to exist differently, how to shift my perspective, how to surrender and find in that surrendering great freedom.
I relied on mentors and guides and healers and teachers who helped me to reframe or release my inquiries, to show me where my thinking was blinding me from the Light of my Heart. It was a group effort, make no mistake. Can we go it alone? Sure. Sometimes we even have to. When we can ask for help though, I believe we thrive when we do. Asking for help is a lesson unto itself. As much as we’re wired to think our way through “problems,” we’re also conditioned go it alone. But that doesn’t make it the ideal way of being in the world. We’re allowed to buck the system. In fact, I strongly encourage it.
If you’ve been struggling with finding your footing in the midst of challenging emotional, mental, and spiritual experiences, I encourage you to reach out. Find a heart-centered mentor, healer, coach, guide, counselor – someone with compassion and grace, who understands the role of the mind in relation to the Heart, someone who will be neutral and honest with you. Someone who will help you see the gifts of self-care, as well as self-inquiry. Someone who will help you consider when to cut yourself some slack and when you can dig deep. You can begin this search simply by asking your Source to send someone your way. Healing – it can be simple. And sometimes it is not. Both are accepted. Be kind to yourself in the meantime, and don’t forget to breathe.