In one etched moment last Friday, what was happening in our outer world impacted my inner world. I’d had a friend visiting all week, so after she left I came to my computer feeling tired but happy after a week of juggling her presence, Bruce’s birthday and my work. My heart was wide open, and so news of the violent attacks in Paris struck me particularly hard.
My practice and commitment to expanding my capacity to be present to each moment of life usually stands me in good stead, I’m generally pretty centered. But not in that moment. How on earth do I find the courage to not turn away from this, I wondered?
I found myself feeling confused and uncertain; there were lots of questions and things I didn’t understand. But even here, some things were clear. I wasn’t going to pretend I was fine. I wasn’t going to numb out or zone out. Nor was I going to make myself wrong for feeling the heartache, confusion, fear, and uncertainty I was feeling.
Even though I had no idea exactly what it would mean, ultimately, my curiosity about what it might take for me to experience the freedom of being powerfully and authentically present won out. So last Saturday when I went online, the filter through which I was engaging life was set. I was actively looking for something I look to my community for – reminders of things I know to be true, but can’t in that moment access. And I found those reminders – in 3 different posts – on Facebook. Who knew Facebook was a place to find such powerful support?!
The first was a friend sharing her experience that morning of raking leaves with a heavy heart. As she raked, her dog was doing her best to spread them again! The lightness of this moment reminding her (and me) that even in the midst of heaviness, “the love and beauty in our world can never be hidden.” I realized how easy it is for me to become hyper-focused on the painful parts, and I was again reminded of Jack Gilbert’s powerful poem A Brief for the Defense, in which he says:
“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
Instantly, though nothing changed ‘out there’, my perspective expanded, allowing me once again to notice – right alongside the painful parts – some of the incredible beauty and gifts of privilege I enjoy, and appreciate them more fully. As I did that, the ache I’d been feeling in my heart began to ease.
Later that day, I noticed on Facebook another reminder of something I’m deeply committed to. This time in a powerful excerpt from Vol. 1 of the documentary Human that I’d watched earlier this year. In the 3 minute segment below which I hope you’ll watch, is Leonard’s contribution. Quietly, and without drama, he speaks of growing up with a stepfather who along with his regular beatings, also delivered the lie so many of us have heard “This hurts me more than it hurts you. I only do it because I love you.”
For many years Leonard believed that love was supposed to hurt, and he hurt those he loved. It was only after he came to prison – as he says “an environment devoid of love” – that Leonard began to gain some understanding about what love actually was, and was not. Through the gift of someone who saw past his condition, he gained his first insight and best lesson into what love was. This person was Agnes, the mother and grandmother of the woman and child he had murdered. As Leonard acknowledges, “by all rights, she (Agnes) should hate me. But she didn’t. And over the course of time, and through the journey that we took, it has been pretty amazing. She gave me love. ……. and she taught me what it was.”
Being reminded of this story so moved me, I shared this video clip on my Facebook page. Beside it I wrote:
“THIS. This is the kind of fierce loving that CAN actually change lives in our world. And sometimes, we’re called to love in this way in the face of unfathomable pain in our own lives.
May we have the courage to expand our capacity to love in this way, AND (in those moments when we can’t) honour our own, and each others’ humanity.”
Since then I’ve seen others whose lives have been directly and indirectly impacted by the violence in Paris, also standing in their commitment to fierce loving. AND, I’m also aware there are many who (for all kinds of reasons) can’t yet, and may never, find their way there.
Last weekend, I was able to find my way back to expansive, grounded possibility pretty quickly. But this week, in a moment when I found myself caught up an experience where someone I care for was making choices that were different from ones I would make, the consequences of which impacted me, I again found that familiar and scary old pattern of feeling unsafe triggered in me.
Even though my conscious self was clear that link between ‘control’ and ‘safety’ is illusory, and I was in theory committed to both seeing the bigger picture, and to fierce loving, other parts of me were caught up in a familiar old struggle. That part of me that has for years kept me safe by becoming very good at figuring things out, and has created practices that make a huge difference both in my life and in the lives of many that I work with and so is something I highly value, was being asked to step back for a moment. This temporary stepping back was in order for me to honour the deepest value I hold – the ‘R’ in RICH Relationships – respectful.
What being respectful meant here, was letting go of continuing to promote (read control) what seemed to me the best way for that person to move forward, instead choosing to honour them, and the choices that felt true for them. I was clear this was only way for me to move forward with integrity. There’s an irony here that doesn’t escape me. This value I’m committed to of honouring the rights of others to make choices different from mine, is the antithesis of that held by the ISIS leadership and many of their followers. They are equally committed to go to great lengths to destroy any who don’t agree to follow the very narrow expression of faith and way of living they have chosen. I hold a very different vision for the future of our world.
Another part of my being in integrity here was not turning away from those parts of me that were upset. Instead of a continuing focus on the other person and their choices, I recognized my job there was keeping my first attention on me – being present to, witnessing and soothing the waves of sadness and fear that were in that moment washing over me.
Here’s where the third gift via Facebook came in. This reminder was from David Whyte, who had that Saturday reposted a powerful chapter from his book Consolations. This chapter was on Despair. For those of you with Facebook access, you’ll find the whole chapter, along with his gorgeous photo of Paris here.
In this extraordinary piece of writing, David said “Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty and of self compassion, it is the invitation we accept when we want to remove ourselves from hurt.”
He continues “The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, … We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here. We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again. In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do, from the beginning.”
Whether the painful emotion we’re bearing is despair, or some other difficult emotional season, David reminds us of the importance of this practice of being fully present to what is as he writes “A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.”
Sometimes that shift in seasons takes a long time. It was 7 years after he murdered her daughter and grandson that Agnes reached out to Leonard and they slowly began to build a bond forged out of their need to understand each other and heal, and another 5 years before they began to co-create a book based on the letters, poems and vignettes they shared over the years of that healing journey.
For me, this week, that same afternoon as I was out raking leaves in the warm fall air, engaging my whole being in that combination of exercise, caring for my surroundings, appreciation of the whole of my life, my fierce commitment to respectful loving, and my curiosity about what else might be possible here, I found myself coming back home to the sense of freedom that comes with a capacity for powerful, authentic presence to whatever is.
Have I felt tendrils of fear resurfacing since then? Yes, of course – that’s why I call this a practice! But with each iteration, those new neuronal pathways are deepened, and the ease with which I can navigate that shift of seasons increases. I’m holding all of us in possibility here. If you’ve got supportive community around you, as you, too, expand your capacity for powerful, authentic presence in our world, wonderful! And while I’m always delighted to hear others’ experiences, if supportive community is something your heart longs for, and you’re feeling some resonance with what I’ve shared here, please do be in touch.