Sunday, November 27, 2016

Personal Reflections On the Gifts of a Broken Heart, the Possibilities of These Times, and What We Can Do

Photo by Molly
  A person's world is only as big as their heart.  
— Tanya A. Moore


We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.   
Thích Nhất Hạnh


For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you.

— Rainer Maria Rilke


Embracing the Work of Open-Heartedness

There are many experiences over the years which have been great teachers to me. Among the powerful lessons I have learned is that as we grow older we are moving, consciously or not, in one of two directions. As life throws its sorrows, illusions, losses and fears at us, we humans are either learning how to open our hearts more and more deeply or we are shutting down, shutting up, shutting out. We are growing more expansive, loving and kind, or we are growing more contracted, rigid, bitter and brittle.  

I notice the impact of these conscious or unconscious life decisions we all make along the way as I visit my 90 year old mother each week at her assisted living ten minutes from our home. There are two women in their 80's - who reflect so many of the residents there - who share the same unusual first name and who otherwise often appear very different. One is nearly blind and has lost her husband. The other has her sight and her husband. One is upbeat, smiling, warm, engaging, curious, caring, and kind. I can see this radiance about her and feel the openness of her heart. The other woman often shifts her focus and the conversation to judgments and what is wrong - with her family, with those who don't share her religious beliefs, with those gays, and with others. My heart feels with compassion how this second woman, the one who has not lost her sight or her husband of over 60 years, is cut off from deeper loving connections within herself and others. And I smile as I reflect on the nearly blind woman who has obviously experienced many losses but has not lost touch with joy, kindness, meaning, loving connections, and gratitude.

I write and speak often about "shadow work," about awakening, about remembrance of the Sacred, about suffering and joy. These reflections often center around themes of tears and laughter, violence and beauty, ignorance and wisdom, grief and gratitude, harm and healing, loss and love. When sharing what I have been learning and absorbing over many years now, I am also more deeply integrating some of the most precious teachings of my spiritual journey. It is also true that these themes are reflective of experiences, opportunities, choices, struggles, and more that in one form or another we all encounter as human beings. Our specific situation on the surface may look very different, yet under it all I believe are deep and universal themes which connect us all within the human family. They also have the potential to awaken us to our interbeing with all of life.

There have been so many junctures over the course of my lifetime when I could have chosen to go one direction or another. And, indeed, for over thirty years my unconscious focus was on surviving, separation, shame, and fear rather than a conscious focus on healing and wholeness, kindness, connection, and love. The first time a therapist used the word "process" over thirty years ago, I had no idea what he was talking about. I also had no idea what anyone meant when speaking of "shadow work" or "awakening." It was all language from another planet, nothing I could identify with or comprehend. There were many ways that I was asleep.

Several years ago, one of my teachers, Michael Meade, gave voice to how it is that we humans often want and expect life to be - simple, easy, black and white, and straight forward. Michael stood on one side of the stage talking about how we all start out "here" (point A) and want to get "there" (point Z), pointing to the other side of the stage. It is like we want to catapult ourselves directly into happiness, love, peace, and spiritual wisdom while bypassing the necessary and difficult work of consciously walking through the messy middle. Exactly, that is what I unconsciously understood and what made sense to me for a long time. For many years, I simply wanted to be the person I thought myself to be without any threatening introspection or exposure or threat to my reality or challenge to see with new eyes and a more open heart.

The reason that I love Michael and other teachers so deeply today is that over time they helped me to understand that there is this messy, disturbing, unfamiliar and frightening middle ground of life that is the doorway again and again and again to living our lives with greater authenticity, integrity, humility, empathy, compassion, wisdom and love. There is no bridge over, there is only the road through. When we avoid that scary and winding journey through the heart and soul of our lives, we stay stuck over in the beginning (point A), often without even knowing it. We may like to think that we are living our lives aligned with the values we profess (point Z). However, when push comes to shove, when fear or shame show up, when there is risk of the world as we know it being threatened, when our family or our culture or our church or our political party or our familiar group we hang with encourages, supports, and validates that which causes harm and suffering, often subtly and sometimes blatantly, we can unknowingly get sucked into acting out of our blind spots, our triggers, our wounds, our lack of conscious understanding and empathic awareness.

The greater gifts of my life have come through embracing the hard work of going through the middle  of vulnerability, of making the unconscious conscious, of recognizing and gradually letting go of my defenses and resistance, of surrendering into not knowing. The courage and humility of recognizing and owning my ignorance opens me up in an ongoing way to being teachable and learning over time and again and again to seeing more and more with the eyes of my heart. I love the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes that was first given to me by my oldest son, Brian, many years ago "I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." Today this wisdom deeply resonates with me. And it reflects the true and courageous journey from the simplistic black/white on-the-surface reality of "A", through all the dark depths and confusing and painful messiness of the middle, and ultimately to the gradual awakening discovered in "Z". This is where the Sacred is recognized and remembered, and where deep love abides.

However, this journey of the heart is not something I embarked on until in my early 30's. The "heart-work on all the images which have imprisoned me" was something I have needed to wade through much reactive resistance to over and over again. Life was presenting me with "growth opportunities" which for a long time were only something to reflexively push away and run from. I stayed stuck in the familiar ground of assessing what was wrong and needed change in everyone else. It is a courageous thing — to truly look within oneself, to embrace what has long been neglected within our hearts, to come to recognize the injured instincts that have sent us down deadend or heart-deadening roads, to recognize belief systems that once were normal and now haunt us with somehow not being right or real. As e.e.cummings states, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." True!

The journey of awakening is also not one we can make in isolation. It was only as I was able to begin to build resources of support that I was able to tentatively first recognize a new doorway that was presenting itself, then gradually peek in, and eventually walk through. Among the early quotes I heard that illuminated something I began to grasp was so important is this one: "We will only go as deep as the support we perceive is available to us." We cannot maintain our emotional and/or physical isolation and do the work of bringing down the protective walls we have unconsciously built around our hearts in reaction to life's pain, loss, injustice, abuse, and betrayal. We need the wisdom and understanding, empathy and compassion, courage and caring,  and kindness and love of others who have gone before us to assist us in our awakening. It is hard work to recognize, heal, and transform the belief systems we may have internalized in our families, our schools, our churches, and/or our culture that are harmful. It is also very hard on our hearts, spirits, minds, and souls to stay in the safe and familiar territory of "A." That safety is an illusion that cuts us off from deep connection, joy, and love.

We all have those times in our lives which invite us to wake up, to awaken more deeply, to allow our hearts to break open rather than harden, to grow more into the wholeness of who we truly are, and to better understand how it is that we are all related, all connected, all in this together. Often the circumstances which  most rattle our foundations are indeed asking us to open to allow the ground beneath us to gradually shift and the world as we have known to fall apart. This may sound terrifying and too hard and like we just can't and won't go there. I understand. I've been there so many times, in this great resistance, denial, shock, refusal, fear. An early therapist also gave me a gem when she suggested that we lean into the resistance rather than deny or run from it. Embrace it, make friends with it, give voice to it NO!!!! I hate this! This is bullshit! No way! And over time I learned that the path through the resistance is through the resistance. Today I am grateful to understand that there are gifts to be found through the doorways that we resist. We just need to push ourselves through, or ask others to help.

These are some of the larger life experiences that I have had which have shaken my reality and the world as I thought I had known it to be, which ultimately broke my heart open again and again, plunging me into new awareness, change, and deepening awakening:
- Motherhood: Becoming a mother, recognizing that there was so much I did not know, and committing myself to doing the work of learning how to mother, learning how to raise healthy and whole boys/men, and how to break a generational cycle of trauma, addiction, loss and suffering
- Spirituality: Becoming aware that I felt separate and disconnected within myself, with others, and with any source of spiritual understanding that truly nourished me and committing myself to doing the work of opening to Spirit/God/Goddess/Creator
- Addiction: Becoming aware of what addiction is, recognizing how I had been impacted by my own addiction and that of others, and committing myself to doing and sustaining the work of sobriety
- Childhood Trauma: Becoming aware of my childhood trauma and committing myself to doing the healing work around how I had been impacted by the shame and fear-based belief systems of our family system, the addiction and mental illness of my mother, the suicide of my twin, and the early death of my father
- Being a Wounded Woman: Becoming aware of my wounds as a woman living in our culture and on a planet that has oppressed and harmed, denied and disrespected, demonized and disparaged women over the course of thousands of years and committing myself to my own healing as a woman and to supporting other girls and women in their healing.
- 9/11: Becoming aware of cultural trauma and belief systems that cause harm and suffering and committing myself to healing and seeking new understanding and stories to live by
- Divorce: Becoming aware of unhealthy patterns in my marriage/relationships and committing myself to expanding my capacity to be in healthy relationships with myself and others
- Global Warming: Becoming aware of our warming planet, learning  and committing myself to deepening research and action.
- Black Lives Matter: Becoming aware that the suffering and oppression of blacks and other minorities has never relented and committing myself to expanding understanding and action.
- Standing Rock: Becoming aware that the suffering and oppression of native peoples has never relented over all these centuries. Becoming aware that indigenous peoples are standing in protection of water, children, Mother Earth. Becoming aware of the poisoning of the Earth — and using all this to push me to deepen my commitment to being a force for justice, healing, peace and sanity.
- The election of Donald Trump: Becoming aware of national and political stories and belief systems that cause harm and committing myself to stepping up more deeply than I yet have to work toward a more just, peaceful, sustainable, loving world

These are just a glimpse into what may appear like just separate stories and experiences. However, there is a connecting theme through them all. One is that I found in each of these a call to go deeper, to expand beyond my current level of understanding, to grow in consciousness of my own limitations. That was followed by a conscious commitment, a spiritual vow, to grow and expand how it is that I perceive and act in the world. All were rooted in the power of intention, commitment, prayer. All were key points of change in my life, with each one collapsing another layer of the world as I had known it. This collapse is a death of sorts, an allowing of a dying away of what needed to go in order for the new to be born. Each one called for deepening levels of awareness, healing, and transformation. Each one broke my heart wide open.

It is my perspective that these times are calling each of us to step up and more consciously add to what it is that is most needed within ourselves and this beautiful world we share. I believe it is for our awakening, for our growing in understanding of ourselves and others, and for our acting out of that understanding. And as author and inequality expert Chuck Collins invites us to do — "Try to scale the empathy wall. You cannot hate people you understand."

So how do we grow in understanding, in empathy, in compassion and kindness and love? I can only share what my experience is and what I have been learning over these past 30+ years. I humbly offer this as just a partial list of what comes to me to spontaneously share, any of which are possible options for what we can do, or strengthen, today to heal ourselves and our world:
- Be mindful of the power of intention, commitment, prayer
- Whatever our religious or spiritual practice, commit to an even stronger practice of lovingkindness and compassionate action
- Make a commitment to walking a path of no harm
- Commit to recognizing and intervening on our judgments of ourselves and others
- Practice gratitude
- Learn how to love ourselves
- Connect with beauty, nature, wildness, our Earth Mother
- Pray for deepening awareness and remembrance of the Sacred
- Commit to mindfulness of our circle of caring and to expanding what and who it is that is included in what we truly care about in an ongoing way
- Commit to being a lifelong learner. If we are alive and breathing, there is more to learn
- Commit to a path of heart, to doing the work of identifying, healing, and letting go of whatever obstacles we may have internalized that limit our capacity to love and care about ourselves and others.
- Commit to ongoing and deepening mindfulness of which "wolf we are feeding" with our actions, attitudes, belief systems, emotions, and words —
- Commit to exploring and expanding what it is that we each come here to do that is rooted caring for the children, of other beings, of the planet
- Commit to the exploration of what needs healing, whether in ourselves or elsewhere, and act on what we find
- Commit to kindness
- Commit to deep research into stories within ourselves, within our community, and within our culture that cause harm and act in some way on what we discover
- Imagine what new stories would look like, feel like, be.
- Commit to discernment of where we seek our information and stick with only that which is grounded in truth, in integrity, in caring, in healing and transformation, and is in a higher good for all
- Commit to nourishing that which brings joy and laughter and connection and love.
- Commit to journeying under our anger and judgements, allowing our hearts to break open, and with great tenderness embrace what we find there
- Set the strong intention, commitment, prayer to ongoing awakening from the illusions that keep us stuck and separated from our own hearts and those of others.

I am called to write today as an antidote to what is often experienced as a dark and scary time where so many of us have lost our way and forgotten our deep connection with one another and with the Earth. I have extended these thoughts as possible threads to illuminate a path which further awakens us to the Sacred. It is my belief that the healing of the world is through the doorways of our open hearts and remembrance of the Sacred.

With love,


Photo by Molly
The below is what one of my bumper stickers says:

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