Friday, April 16, 2010

How Will I Meet This? (Part 2 of 2)


In the book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales tells the story of a firefighter who winds up lost on a mountain. For two days, he thrashes about, grown more and more panicked. In his disoriented state, he keeps believing he is just around the corner from his destination -a fresh water lake that should be right over the next crest if he's where he thinks he is.

But of course, he's not where he thinks he is. He's misread the map - several times - and wandered into deep wilderness. Now, his frantic searching only takes him farther from his goal.

Finally, at the end of the second day, exhausted, depleted, seriously dehydrated, with the beginning signs of hypothermia, he makes a choice that will, ultimately save his life: He stops moving. He builds a fire, constructs a makeshift shelter out of a rain poncho and a pile of sticks and hunkers down. He rests, regains his strength, looks around. He stops trying to escape his situation - and turns to meet it.

By doing this - accepting his situation and asking: How will I meet this? - he was able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation and live until a few days later, when he was rescued.

Though few of us will ever face that kind of wilderness, each of us will face our own. We will, inevitably, lose someone we love; some of us will suffer grave illness; some will face financial losses and the loss of identity, community and self-esteem that brings. Alzheimers, broken bones, allergic reactions, fire, floods. I don't mean to depress you - but this is how it is. It's just life, all messy and tossed together.

Sooner or later, we will be thrust into the wilderness - and we will have to decide how to meet it.

As I write this, my daughter is meeting a different kind of wilderness. A freshman film student, Katie shot 15 rolls of film for her final assignment only to discover, during the editing process, that she'd forgotten to get any closeups - and that the script she'd been shooting from simply wasn't holding together. And she had 14 days to fix it. And she didn't have any money. And the teachers said: If you don't hand something in, you're out of the program.

Given what I'd learned from Gonzales's book, I knew Katie would be fine. Her resilience will allow her to adapt, adjust, and learn the new terrain of her situation. She'll build a fire and make a shelter out of whatever materials she has. She'll throw out the old script and write a new one, a better one. What I mean is, she won't wait for rescue: She'll rescue herself.

But given what I've learned about my daughter these past 19 years, I also know that Katie may have to spend a little time sobbing first. It's one of the ways that she meets things. Always has.

She gets that from me. We emote. We let stuff build up - and then we let it out. And that's fine. In fact, it's important.

Feel your feelings.

My friend's therapist told her that the best way to meet suffering is often, “Turn around and sit down inside of it.” I love that image. Turn around and sit down inside of it. Stop running. Don’t push it away. Let it come toward you and when it does, turn around and meet it. Sit down inside of it.

In other words, cry if you feel like crying; pour your heart out to God, if that's your thing; let all the black tar of the thing loosen and shift, and if there's a geyser of icky junk that needs to spill forth, let it spill.


The other day in yoga class, our teacher read us a poem, from the Sufi poet, Rumi. In it, there were these lines:

Learn the alchemy of what true human beings know
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given
The door will open.

I've had my doubts about this principle in the past and today, I lay on my yoga mat at the end of class and I thought about it. What does it mean to "accept what troubles you've been given"? And then, as so often happens when I am holding a question open in my heart, life answers me.

I was walking to my car when a friend, whose teenage son is struggling with a serious illness, caught up with me. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Everyone says, 'Accept it. Accept it.' I don’t want to accept this. I want to run a million miles away from here. I feel like my head is going to explode.”

And then I understood...

What acceptance isn't”

Acceptance or “embracing what comes,” does not mean we should talk ourselves into being happy that we have this pain, this cancer, this headache, this divorce, this sick baby, this death in the family. It doesn’t mean we are throwing a party, pretending to be happy, denying what has been dropped on our doorstep.

Conversely, acceptance isn’t giving up. It’s not saying, “Oh well, okay. I guess I will let this thing drop a bomb on my life and I will just lie here and let it roll over me.”

Acceptance means turning to meet what comes. It means feeling your feelings - crying when you’re sad; shouting when you’re angry; wailing when you’re in despair. It means including the bad stuff into the wholeness of our lives - not pushing against it, not denying or burying or disowning the problem (or the person who presents it to us.) Embracing says to the problem: Okay, here you are. Let’s see what you’ve brought to me.

And then, if we are into this kind of thing, we can call upon the forces of the universe. Dear God, we can pray. Please, help!

The angels won’t just swoop in and fix everything that isn’t working in our lives. More often, they let us know: We are here; supporting you, and this reassurance may be enough.

Or it may not.

We may need more time in the wilderness - more tears. But sooner or later we will get to the bottom of this thing, sooner or later we will sigh and shrug our shoulders and say, "Okay, here I am. What is there to learn here?" We will build a fire and put up a shelter using the materials at hand: Our curiosity, our determination to feel better, the support of our own particular kind of angels.

Human beings are remarkably resilient.

Ultimately, as the 14th century mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich once wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” And all will be well. After you’ve been through hell and are still here, after you’ve endured the storm, you may just find, as all of the women I interviewed did, that you’re stronger, more determined and more in love with life than ever before.

You will find that under the icky black glop, there's a clear spring of hope and even, joy. You will. I promise.

This is the gift of difficult experience – every locked door becomes a potential opening onto a new room of experience; every dead end, every barrier, is an invitation to draw a new map.

How Will I Meet This? (Part 1 of 2)

A man I know sits beside me, lights a cigarette. “Three weeks ago, my wife confessed that she’s been cheating on me for years,” he says.

A 20-year-old girl/woman crosses the room at a party. “I was in the hospital two days ago. My heart was racing really fast. I thought I was going to die." She tries to look impassive, as if she doesn’t care. But I can see how terrified she is.

A friend writes, “My mother told me that once she hits 75, she is done."

Each time I visit my father at the nursing home, he tells me, “Every day, I lose a little more function." He can't use one arm at all. Soon, the other will curl up as well. "I can't feed myself. I can't walk. I can't turn the pages in a book," he says.

How will I meet this?

In my 15 years as a magazine editor and writer, I’ve interviewed women (and men) who’ve been through horrific personal experiences, true dark nights of the soul. They experienced profound loss, battled devastating injuries and life-threatening illness and yet… every single one of them told me, “This experience changed my life for the better.”

Having cancer, they told me, had given them a new lease on life and health, losing a loved one had made them appreciate and hold closer their families and friends. Working through the challenge of rehabilitation – overcoming blindness, loss of a limb, third degree burns, brain tumors, heart attack – had made them stronger, more focused, more alive.

When I say this - or write it - people often ask me, What do you mean? They are often outraged, demanding, Are you saying that my cancer is a good thing?

No. That is not what I’m saying – at all. Your catastrophe is not a good thing; nor is it a gift. It sucks. It blows. It hurts.

But I am saying that, if you get through it and manage to come out on the other side, the experience will change you - for the better.

We misunderstand struggle - especially we in the so-called "spiritual" community. We have somehow twisted a spiritual principle into a kind of talisman against suffering - including our own squirmy discomfort with meeting the suffering of another.

Here's the truth:

Everyone struggles. Everyone suffers. The first noble truth of Buddhism is, "Life is suffering." But some people, like those that I interviewed, somehow manage to transform suffering into strength, to move from fear into courage. Some, in the face of the suffering of another are able to transform their resistance – and their need to solve or eradicate the suffering – into compassion, into witnessing, into presence.


When I started exploring this question, I had no answer.

But I kept asking and out of that asking, a new question emerged: How will I meet this? (It's important to say here, in case you don't know this about me: When I say that I am asking, I am talking to God. It's not required. You can ask the same question and get the same helpful response without believing in any kind of higher power. I just thought it was important, here, to say that.)

So anyway, with my heart open, I asked my question. These are the things I learned.

1) Suffering is not a test – but it does test us. We push against suffering as if we were under attack. But we're not.
2) Our problems are not punishments. They are not imposed on us by the gods nor are they assigned to us “because we can handle them.” Trouble isn’t a judgment against us.
3) What I mean is, our suffering is not our fault.
4) Everyone suffers.
5) That said: Hardship, illness and personal struggle wake us up. They draw a sharp and clear line around what matters. When you are writhing in pain, your priorities line up pretty quickly.
6) Still, our suffering doesn't earn us extra points in Heaven; just because we had diabetes on Earth doesn't mean we will have a special seat at the Haagen Dasz counter in Heaven.

The truth, when we really look, is this: Struggle is our response to what comes. Struggle is a choice.
And no, I did not say that PAIN is a choice. Pain is pain. It hurts. We want it to stop

I know. When I lie on the sofa watching one of my migraines come toward me, I am terrified.
But here's the thing: When I ask: How will I meet this? I get a choice.

I can cry and feel victimized and carry on about how unfair life can be; how much time I’ve lost; how afflicted I feel. (And believe me I have tried each of these options several times.) But I could try something else: I could get really curious about the headache. I could meet it with interest – with fascination. I could rise above the situation and observe myself having a headache.

I've tried this - and it helps. I investigate the thoughts that roll by; the feelings that bubble up. I surrender to the pain – and all the other related crap that comes with a headache – and meet the headache the way I want to meet everything that comes, as an engaged, curious person in love with life--even when life hurts.

Struggle is a choice.

From a spiritual perspective our problems are our best teachers, even, our best friends - but not because we're enrolled in some kind of spiritual university of pain. Bad things happen to everyone. But not everyone meets what happens in the same way.

That’s why two people, handed the same circumstances can have two completely different outcomes. It’s why one person, diagnosed with breast cancer will take to bed and another will take up mountain climbing. It’s why my father, confined to a wheelchair, wakes up every morning at the nursing home looking for something or someone to engage his interest – and finds it!

So, though we may feel we are the victim of a system that is stacked against us; a bad economy; a bad marriage; a weak or broken body – none of that is true until we meet it as if it is true. When we act as if these ideas are true, we reinforce them, creating the same outcome. Then, we point to the outcome as “evidence”, throwing up our hands and sighing, “See, I knew it!”

But when we meet what comes with interest and courage, we may just get a different outcome.


Here's another perspective on a similar subject. In the synchronicity that is friendship, my friend and fellow blogger, Lisa Adams posted it today.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The importance of Story

This morning, super blogger Chris Brogan challenged: What is the importance of story in your life?

I could write a book about this - and I am - which is why I have absolutely no time to respond. It is also why I cannot resist this challenge. So today, here is a bit of that book in response to Chris's question:


You probably learned about metaphor—one thing representing another—in high school English class. I learned it from Mrs. Levy, a slim, hauntingly beautiful divorcee who sometimes cried when she read us poetry.

I learned that the pearl, in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, represented the way that the layers of time and experience form over us (as a pearl forms inside of an oyster, layer by layer). I learned that, the precious pearl was also a symbol of the price that we pay -in suffering, loss of life and injury to the divers-for our greed.

Who could have guessed that story - the gift I'd cherished since my mother read to me from her battered copy of Winnie The Pooh, contained such delights hidden between the pages? I spent hours re-discovering books I'd read before, and searching new volumes for symbol, metaphor and meaning.

From Mrs. Levy, I also learned about real stories. I learned that Simon and Garfunkel's song, "The Dangling Conversation" was about the disintegration of a marriage; and on the day that Mrs. Levy played it for us, i began to understand that teachers were whole people with lives that sometimes didn't work, that they had relationships that troubled them, and that sometimes, that trouble spilled over into their teaching. What I mean is, while the song was playing, she ran from the room, sobbing.

In college, I took a film class where I learned that rain or near-drowning (any sudden plunge into water) represents transformation. When I studied the tarot, I learned that water symbolized the fluid realms of the unconscious.

Later, in a workshop on the Divine Feminine, I learned that Holy Grail in Arthurian legend, symbolized the sacred container of Christ energy (as does the chalice used to celebrate mass in every Christian church in the world; I learned that said "sacred container" may actually have been a womb (that of Mary Magdalene), and that it just may have "contained" the living child of Jesus the man.

How cool was THAT? I thought - a whole culture, hidden between the cracks of this one.

Life had so many layers - so many meanings. Like the Steinbeck symbol that had first revealed the mystery of symbolic imagery to me, the world seemed a priceless, endlessly layered pearl. Because it wasn't just in books, sacred texts or movies. Everywhere I looked, these symbols of myth and fairy tale were woven into our lives—the same symbols that our subconscious mind draws upon to create meaningful dreams.

I began to have what I now call "Illuminated Experiences," waking events that unfolded as if they were dreams. Often, these experiences included dreams, which foreshadowed events or meaningful objects I'd see when awake.

The best example I can think of happened when my son was about to go to college.

I was very sad -and filled with dread about the empty hole he'd leave in our home, and our lives. One night, I dreamed I was driving behind him as he drove to school. In the dream, a great hunger overtook me and i had to pull over to get something to eat. He drove on. My hunger compelled me to walk toward one of those brick "Hot Shoppes" along the highway. On the way, a black cat began to walk along beside me - as it did, another black cat appeared at my other side.

Without words, they greeted me, saying: Hello, we are the books you are now going to write. We will fill your life and your heart now.

Great dream, right?

There's more. The next day, I was browsing the stacks at Barnes and Noble when my attention was drawn to a corner of the store I'd never visited before where they sell greeting cards and pens and other book related items. I always follow such guidance and headed over there. As I rounded the corner of a display, my breath caught. There, perched on the shelf were two black cat bookends.

Laughing out loud (Yes, right in the middle of the store) I knew I'd just received a confirmation that the dream was real, that I would indeed write books now and that, when my son left home, I'd be okay.

Carl Jung called this way of perceiving the world, the Symbolic Life - and he thought all of us should experience the sheer delight, and wonder it brings. Without it, he warned, "We cease to partake in the life of the gods (the divine and universal processes that are the very ground of existence), and so we miss celebrating the divine sacrament of a daily life lived with meaning.”

Why is story important to me? Because it is life itself. In a world alive with meaning, story is everywhere, in all things - it's not just a part of our lives; story is the very structure and pattern of our lives.


Here's the link to Chris Brogan's challenge if you want to respond, too.