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.
With deep gratitude,