Remember the despair of being a teenager? When I felt alone in the world, different and isolated—especially as the fullness of the world around me started to become so present and vivid that it was impossible to ignore?
When I was a senior in high school, I tried to explain the idea of seeing beauty in all things all around to my English class:
“Even in a bird poop, there’s beauty,” I insisted. Mr. Faison said maybe I was going too far. But I knew what I meant. Its brilliant whiteness, how different that excrement is from another species’ and what that means about the movement of nutrients and the building blocks of life we all share. And the beauty in its plainness—how it reflects endless evolution and lifetimes that have come and gone unnoticed. A whole Mary Oliver poem in a bird poop.
Having been air dropped back into myself after nine years in relationship and marriage, so much is resurfacing from my earlier years: A devotion to my deepening Buddhist/spiritual practice, a drive for physical activity and exploration (climbing, cycling, diving), a call to live in spiritual community and renunciation, and a call to the ocean and islands.
Practice, Step 1: Triage the pain and reduce the trauma. Build concentration through awareness of breathing meditation for at least a few years.
I recognize this intense loneliness and openness from my adolescent years, too. I now know it as the combination of isolation and heart openness that Chogyam Trungpa calls the spiritual warrior’s heart of sadness. In my teens and early 20s, it was so raw that it could only sting. It seeped into my eyes and burned so badly and I couldn’t wipe it away, no matter how frantically I tried. It colored all that I saw and made me desperate.
When I began the relationship that would lead to my marriage, I was just emerging from this time of jumping in front of moving crises. I had begun to meditate seriously and was dropping in, deep and fast. I was even becoming enamored with my skills on the cushion. And then, whoosh! I ran head first into Sweetheart and was off on a different path than the one I had formulated of being a monastic, teaching the Dharma and living close to the land.
A month ago, when I received two invitations to Hawaii within five minutes—one to scuba dive and one to visit a Zen temple—I realized that I’m right back where I was nine years ago. History, as it has a habit of doing, was rhyming if not repeating. And I asked, why?
In that moment, I picked up where I’d left off in “The Power of Myth”, a dialog between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. I walked right into this line about how mystical experiences and psychotic breaks are both similar and different: “The mystic swims in the water the crack-up is drowning in.”
I remember how out of control I felt in the face of my emotions a decade or two ago. If I had continued on that path at that time, maybe I’d have ended up a crack-up. I have seen my share of psychotic breaks and dark nights on the meditator’s path.
I often bring my attention to the feeling of the wind on my skin these days. As if I were swimming and feeling the movement of the water around me, moving my arms gently and feeling my body sway. Closing my eyes and floating. Moving the intense emotions and energy of these times through me and remembering that, as Katherine Woodward says, life is happening through me, not to me.
I raised my arms like this as I came down a hill in the headlands north of San Francisco today, cycling fast and free on the flat stretches and the downhill. Touching the yellow, blooming tips of the wild anise on the roadside with my fingers. And my heart broke open a little wider still, bringing tears to my eyes. The intensity of loneliness, being accompanied by the whole universe, beauty and plainness flowed through me all at once. I listened close and heard a full throated cry—no, a wail—in my heart.
Practice, Step 2: Give the child within what it cries out for through self-directed loving kindness. Nurture that inner child’s resilience and feel the power and love of being the caretaker for another few years.
But instead of being frightened by it, made desperate to do something about it or needing to extend to it nurturing and consolation, I found I could rest there and hold space for it. I hear it echoing and feel it stretching my sternum still.
I‘ve still been turning over and around the concept of courage. When I brought up my ambivalence about being called brave or having courage to a dear and wise friend, she suggested the alternative: I could be checking out. She saw me rising to face what confronted and offered itself to me, instead. Courage, we suggested, could be a way to describe choosing to be awake.
And, indeed, I have a vivid memory of sitting on the edge of the bed as I spoke my desire for separation. I felt the pull to lie down, put my head on my husband’s chest and fall back asleep; to stop facing with eyes wide open what was holding us both back in our marriage. I was startled by how strong the pull was—so overpowering that I could only imagine it being similar to the pull of addiction and thought immediately of the Lotus-eaters.
Practice, Step 3 of ?: Let go and surrender.
The ache is no more intense than it was in my teenaged years. Only now, I have the strength and the context in which to hold it. I have the physical energy and the fatigue of life experience to face it like a mother patiently waiting, arms crossed, for her child to end her tantrum. To face it with a love that is persistent, yet plain.
This is how I bear witness these days to my heart breaking open, to a fearless warrior spirit emerging. This is how I discover a greater universe and a fuller and fuller broken heart.