Category Archives: the shadow

The Moment and the Messenger


tayatha om bekandze bekanze maha bekandze bekandze randze samu gate soha

I learned this mantra years ago, while living in the garden oasis guest house of my dear friend Shui Lan. We listened to it together as we sought and claimed islands of peace in our chaotic lives. Shui Lan taught me to use this mantra to overcome both physical pain and the deeper pain of believing I am ever separate from the Oneness.

I have returned to this Medicine Buddha mantra over and over again as I surf the changes and excitements and pains and disappointments of this life. The words translate, I am told, to this:

do it like this:

start with OM, the undercurrent of the universe

do away with the pain of illness

do away with the darkness of ignorance

do away with the great separation

send this prayer to the highest, the widest, the deepest

offer this song and then relinquish it.

I offer this song, and then relinquish it. Because we don’t get to keep anything, do we? Sometimes at night, just before sleep, I review the golden moments of the day in my mind: the tickle of my son’s soft hair as he squeezes me tight, the deep joy in the clear eyes of my beloved as he laughs, the steam rising from a cup of perfect tea in that first sweet hour of the morning. I don’t get to keep any of that. I savor it, and breathe it in, and then relinquish it. Spring is bursting out in delirious joy all around me, a song to the sky that rises and then transforms. It doesn’t stay.


This dance of offering and relinquishing has become more subtle and complex as I grow older.  When is self-acceptance called for, and when do I need to change? When am I being lazy, and when do I need deep rest? When should I retreat with a cup of herbal tea and when should I jump madly into the fray?

Where is the sacredness in the afternoons I spend engrossed in paperwork, allowing the stress and frustration to mount until I lash out at my family?  Why do some days feel infused with magic and play, and others so heavy and purposeless? How do I reconcile the world of deep reverence and joy with the world that allows a friend to lose her child?

Lately I’ve been drawing the Raven card over and over again, the messenger from the great mystery. The message is: pay attention. The moment is a message, and my job is to pay attention. IMG_6648

I have come to accept that I will never arrive at the perfect balance between these poles. Each is as true as the other. The afternoons of waiting endlessly on staticky hold for the IRS while children screech at each other are just as real as the afternoons of liquid light and synchronicity. Life is a surge between them, a spiral of coming to peace and being devastated and coming to peace again, a little deeper each time, a little wiser each time. Yesterday I learned Pema Chodron’s definition of compassion:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

This strikes me as being deeply true–true not only in our relationship to others, but in our relationship to our own lives. My life is not an interaction between the healed and the wounded. I am not wrong or broken when I am sick, or out-of-sorts, or reeling from loss.

Can I learn to relate to myself in those moments as an equal–not try to fix myself, or paper over my sadness and frustration with deep breaths and positive thinking? Can I learn to approach ALL OF IT with reverence and grace, to understand that ALL OF IT is an expression of an underlying Oneness?

Maybe not–not yet, anyway–but I am certainly being called to try. Again and again, life teaches me to stay on board through the hard things instead of wishing myself away to an ideal future. Sitting with friends who have just suffered unimaginable loss is every bit as sacred and important as sitting with friends who have just given birth.

IMG_6649This is especially scary, I think, because I have a fear that if I pay attention to the darker parts of life, I will somehow lose my way and fall entirely into darkness.  This is a shadow of the relentless “spiritual” drive to purify and enlighten and transcend, and it comes at the expense of authentic experience.  Somehow I have taught myself that joy is more valuable than sorrow, that happiness and idealism are more important than anger or fear.

Really, all of them are just temporary states, weather for processing experience. Yes, happiness and joy are much more pleasant to experience and socially waaaaay easier to explain, but are they innately more valuable? My times of deep anger, rage, and pain have all led to phenomenal growth and courage. I don’t particularly wish to return to them, but they propelled me forward to where I am now.

There is a fear, too, that if I find the sacred in the painful, I will somehow negate the misery, the wrongness, of suffering. I don’t want to ever be okay with the fact that there are hungry children or women who cannot vote. Instead, I want to be able to stay with my life when it takes me into these experiences: to let the righteous anger and sorrow and terror lead me forward into action rather than paralyzing me, and all without losing my reverence for life and beauty.

Life is short and full of unexpected joys and sorrows. Don’t I want to be able to welcome all of it? Don’t I want to be fully present for each moment, rather than wishing half of it away?

So here I am, balanced as usual on the fulcrum. I live in a beautiful city filled with incredible friends. I am deeply loved and I love deeply. I have just learned that I am going to IRELAND in a week for the Expressive Arts Symposium, which is like a thousand million dreams exploding into truth simultaneously, and all because of the support of incredible friends and family. It’s almost too much joy to take in—can I really deserve to be this happy?


And also–real too– deep sadness. In my family, a child with mysterious symptoms that frighten us. In my community, children dying in a fire; dear friends losing close family, children losing parents. In my country, the rise of fear and hatred; in the world, waters rising, terror and devastating loss in Turkey.

Does the one experience negate the other? Or, somehow, can I live in such a way that I treat all of it with reverence?  I want to learn how to hold it all. I want to learn the art of finding the sacred in the devastating.

I found myself discussing all of this with my friend Maeve on a sunny patio on a beautiful spring morning last week. She has been exploring similar themes in the yoga classes she teaches and told me about the 5 kleshas, or causes of suffering: ignorance of the truth; labeling/judgment; attachment; aversion; and clinging to life.

I find such beauty in this framework: envisioning aversion and clinging to life not as forms of suffering, but as causes of suffering! It was in talking to Maeve that I once again remembered the Medicine Buddha mantra, and that fundamental sickness of thinking any of it is ever separate.

I am neither Buddhist nor Yogi, but I am profoundly grateful for the wisdom of those who have gone before and tangled with these questions so gracefully. Maeve and I have decided to explore this together, one klesha at a time,  through yoga and art and sacred slowness. We’ll attempt to welcome the shadows and the suffering with reverence and presence. (We’re meeting to explore the first klesha on April 21st, Lunar Beltane. All are welcome—if you’re in the area, we’ll be at our studio in the Phil Mechanic building; if you’re not and want to join in, let me know…we may try to structure it as a live webinar).

I offer this song and then relinquish it. I am filled with deep, heady joy even as I am devastated with sorrow.

Each moment is a messenger. I am learning not to turn any of them away.

teyatha om bekandze bekandze maha bekandze bekandze randze samu gate soha




March 21, 2016 · 7:14 pm

golden rule, retooled

handsThe Golden Rule has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds so simple.  Such a helpful, obviously correct guideline. Except when it isn’t. The thing is, in trying to maintain a warm, unassuming, unconditional love for my “neighbor”, I have at times driven myself deeper and deeper into resentment, despair, and martyrdom.  There are, in this world, people who will take the loving intention of the well-meaning and manipulate it to achieve their own ends, caring not for the suffering of those whose resources they are subverting. How does one apply the Golden Rule to those who will take advantage? How does one forgive oneself for an inability to love these neighbors? And what is the value of a rule, however Golden, if it cannot be universally applied?

There is a particularly intransigent fellow in my own life who has called into question every belief I ever had about myself, about “goodness”, about relationship.  I watch in stunned amazement as, once again, he emerges from the background to bring into my own life the shadows that play across the world stage.  This is a man I have tried to love as my neighbor, only to watch each of my good intentions twisted into ammunition that is used against me. This is a man whose needs and emotions I have tried to consider, only to see my consideration treated as a weakness and exploited on the battlefield of our interaction.  This is a relationship to which I have applied every tool in my experience: listening. attention, meditation, space, lovingkindness, forgiveness, nonresistance, understanding.  All met with reactions varying from hostility to abuse. 

I stand before this man as if before a dark mirror, watching all of my own faults spit back at me larger, more gruesome, more hideously apparent.  I am not faultless in this exchange.  All of my uglinesses are drawn forth by this interaction, making the accusations he slings at me more than partially true.  It is true that I stand between him and what he wants.  It is true that I will not do as he asks.  It is true that I have some culpability in the misery he has made of his life. 

moonWhat does a person do when her moral code fails her?  How to proceed when even the Golden Rule proves ineffective? Are there simply problems we face as people, as communities, as nations, as a species, that will never be resolved? Or is there something here that I am missing?

As I sat in meditation this morning it occurred to me that a rule considered Golden for much of the written history of humankind might in fact be equal to my titchy problems.  Might it just be possible that I’m the one failing it ? From a very young age I’ve assumed that loving my neighbor as myself meant to love my neighbor with boundless compassion, unconditional love and understanding, and complete forgiveness. 

But the Golden Rule says to love my neighbor as MYSELF.  Since when did I ever love myself with boundless compassion? Hmm. Unconditional love? HA! Complete forgiveness? Never.

If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would be with constant criticism, unceasing awareness of my neighbor’s faults, constant expectation of failure, intense frustration with lack of potential achieved, and anger at faults displayed, mistakes made, important deeds left undone.

If I were to love my neighbor as myself it would be in rueful resignation to the fact that, flawed as she is, she’s all I have, and I must make my peace with her daily if we are to go on.  

If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would mean carrying the knowledge that today she is not at her best because she didn’t sleep well last night.  It would mean knowing that this day makes her sad because it is the anniversary of her grandmother’s death.  It would mean cutting her a little slack on certain days of the month and understanding when she snaps at her kids it is not because she does not love them. but because this is the seventy-second time today they have asked her this exact same question and she has already answered it with love and patience seventy-one times.

It would mean, in short, seeing her humanity.  It would mean being aware of her shadow, her faults, her imperfections, and forgiving her just enough to live with her every day.  It would mean a constant wariness tempered with the enduring hope that she may improve.  It would mean, if she is in a cruel mood, I keep her away from my children.  It would mean, if she abuses sugar, I try not to keep any in the house.

If I loved my neighbor as I love myself, I would never let her off the hook.  But neither would I completely write her off. 

Looking at the golden rule through this lens, I can see how I have erred in the past.  I have forgiven this man transgressions that I would never forgive in myself.  I have allowed him to behave in ways it would horrify me to have acted.  I have loved him, not as myself, but as some imaginary perfect being, even in the face of his obvious imperfections.  That is not love.  That is stupidity.  

Throughout the long and gruesome dance I have danced with this man, I have held this question:

If I cannot find peace in this one interaction, what hope can I have for the world?

There are players on this world stage that I find very difficult to love.  There are actions I find nearly impossible to forgive. What manner of love can we hold for these callous aspects of humanity that destroy people and planet alike–what world can we build that includes this particular scrap of shadow? 

Well. Here I stand, again, on the same ground, wrestling the same demons, and I don’t have any answers.  But it feels a little more possible to love these enemies with the kind of fierce get-it-together-or-else love I have for myself than it does to unconditionally forgive them. 

And if I am asked to love my neighbor as I love myself, perhaps that means I ought to spend some time contemplating how to love myself better, too. 


Filed under the shadow

tear up the art

swirlThis morning I had a far-ranging, heart-lifting conversation with the wonderful Michelle Wilde that set my mind spinning.  We were talking about the cyclical, eternal routine of the day-to-day and the incongruity of living that way when there are shattering losses everywhere in the world.  We were talking about relationship, and childrearing, and mental illness.

“We are always talking about setting boundaries,” she said. “Boundaries are what we set in politics—they’re imposed and artificial.  Nature doesn’t have boundaries.  What if instead of building walls we planted gardens?”

I thought about the deep love I have shared with people who have hurt me terribly. I thought about building walls around those experiences, trying to isolate them.  And then I thought about what it would be like if the walls were torn down, if I saw those incidents and relationships as strange soil–soil in which to plant the seeds that won’t germinate in the sun and rich humus of my daily life.

thornsThere is a gift that darkness gives us.  When I think about what there is for me to do in the face of the terrible losses we are sustaining right now, I think about the strange soil of my dark experiences.  I survived them.  Sometimes I survived them by behaving in ways that contradict my own moral code.  I think about some of the relationships I have sustained with people whose brilliance is matched by a searing lack of empathy.  In this strange soil, I can plant seeds that would not grow anywhere else in life.  A person without empathy does not worry about the judgment of others. She can live the kind of experiment that might greatly advance our species, because she does not fear social censure. But the personal costs of befriending her are terrible.  These are strange and vital gardens. They are frightening, and the impulse to wall them off is strong, but if we plant here we may grow answers that would not grow elsewhere.

It is only recently that I have had the courage to make terrible art. I asked my teacher, once, after having a profound art-making experience that resulted in a slab of what appeared to be gray vomit, if I had to keep this terrible thing.  She said I had to keep the message.  I could ask this art I had created: what do you have to tell me?  And I could hold onto the answer and let the form go.

I’ve been thinking about that, in the context of walls and political boundaries and activism and loss and gardens.  Where do I miss messages by holding on to forms?  Where do I refuse to notice the truth of my experience because it doesn’t look the way I want it to? Where do I build walls instead of allowing the soil to be what it is, perhaps not for heirloom tomatoes but for wild and thorny medicine?

When I do retreat to the soothing cycles of the day-to-day, when I do take nourishment from what remains the same, I want to bring the messages with me.  Those messages are an honoring of the terrible power of my own shadow and the shadows of others. On the days when I cannot even take action, I can pay attention to what is true.  Because nature does have boundaries, of a sort:  the edge zones of sand to ocean; the falling away of forests into grassland.  There are places that do not nurture life. But even these are not walled away; they too are ground down by water and wind, warmed by sunlight. We do not have to live there or look upon them every day.  But they are there, slowly becoming everything else.  And they are part of us.  We can tear up the art, but not before hearing its message.

(This song is another work-in-progress exploration of these questions. )


August 12, 2014 · 7:56 pm