diamond in the rough

The message keeps being whispered to me, its light (and lightness) of blessing shining through the cracks in my defenses (or is it burning off the fog ? Which metaphor fits best the way it feels today? Washing over me like grace? De-lighting me with wonder and joy?) From so many perspectives and angles, over and again, fairly sparkling like facets of a diamond, the message is repeated, and I am being drawn more fully nto its invitation.

The crack began – this one that is letting the light in- last summer. As many cracks do, it was initiated by failure and at first overflowed with tears. I’ve been pondering that ‘what went wrong?’ moment, a blip actually, which somehow felt so cataclysmic to me, though it was just a tiny shudder. (OK, the metaphor is not lost on me again here… perhaps that crack in the earth opened to reveal this diamond, though I have had to dig around abit to fully uncover it). I’ve journaled about it and mentioned it to friends repeatedly, digging to understand that summertime experience, when in the middle of my planning and coordinating of numerous canoe trips, I sat down to over my morning coffee to watch a video that had come up in my inbox, and found myself weeping. In it, a fifty-something woman was exploring what happens to what she (and many others of us) refers to as her ‘feminine’ energy when she is required to be acting overmuch from her ‘masculine’ goals oriented, directive, organized, self – how she can feel so disconnected from her deep self and so from love, is left feeling ungrounded, empty, lost, robotic or depressed. What ‘sparked’ those tears in me? They told me that something she’d said struck a deep mine of truth inside of me.

That was perhaps the first facet of the diamond that was to be revealed.

But it was a few weeks later that full brilliance of that facet was uncovered… when my brain failed me. Overwhelmed and trying to juggle too many tasks, it fired a miscue and I failed a tender commitment I had made – to myself, yes, but more importantly to someone who is terribly precious to me. I had thought I was carrying it all, but I dropped everything in that moment. I was left feeling both bereft and baffled by my brain. The grief of my failure overwhelmed me… perhaps washing away more of that soil beneath which I had been buried.

Fast forward through the remainder of the summer, through the distress I experienced while ‘leading’ a few of those canoe trips (something that I’ve so longed to do, but which has challenged my executive skills, and left me feeling disconnected and disoriented in a place where I have previously known deep connection, well-being and belonging).

Time’s pendulum swinging into autumn brought a deeply bonding, almost magical 2 week wilderness canoe trip with my husband.­, followed by the profound, almost mystical love and empathetic joy I experienced at my son’s wedding. Summer and autumn – two distinct seasons in life- one of fullness, one of ripening and release.

Those oppositions have both puzzled and beseeched me. What went wrong this summer?  What felt so right about fall? I have unpacked and now understand that a negative energy of divisiveness, beyond my control, was brought into one of those trips, and so instead of opening to beauty, wonder, and love, several of the participants closed down to the point where they could not see goodness anywhere- and especially not in their fellow wilderness journeyers. I have also understood that this experience affected me greatly, opening a well of sorrow in me. I have explored the ways in which I repeated old stories – not trusting my instincts when they were clearly warning me about a ‘wolf in sheeps clothing’ (my apologies to wolves), my attraction to and my misguided attempts to appease and to please toxic persons, and my taking undue responsibility for the insufferable behavior of another.

But beyond that specific instance, I have wondered about what is inherently lost for me — the deep healing and nurturing of my (feminine) soul — when I go into the woods as organizer/manager/leader and guide. Then, a few weeks ago, I was struck by a random caption posted beneath a photograph of a campfire.

Fire is a potent doorway into what environmental psychologists call “fascination attention”, an antidote for “directed attention fatigue” which plagues most modern people. For many millennia our ancestors ended each day gazing deeply into the flames. Our consciousness co-evolved with fire, it is a part of us, an ancient teacher, a true ally.”

I asked the writer if the same was true of gazing at clouds, or stars, as so often at the end of a long day of canoe travel, Don and I can find ourselves enraptured for hours just watching the sky change. He responded ‘absolutely’. It’s referred to in the scientific literature as ‘attention restoration’. In brain scans, it can be shown that the energy we direct to our prefrontal cortexes in order to be focused, organized and efficient in our modern lives is diverted away from that controlling part of our brain in an immersive experience of nature, and thus our brains are replenished.  (Aha… so, no healing replenishment while at the same time attempting to juggle more and more).  I’ve so often likened my experience of presence on canoe trips to ‘praying unceasingly’ or other types of deep meditation, having intuitively understood that such contemplative practices are somehow an attempt to recreate what is a natural state of being in the wild.

As I began exploring more of the science of environmental psychology and biophilia, I learned that numinous experiences- experiences of wonder and awe- release oxytocin into our bloodstream, the same as does lovemaking and breastfeeding. We literally ‘fall in love’ out there. (Of course, I’d ‘known’ that too— as have so many poets throughout the ages). So that explains the intense feelings of closeness Don and I experience out there … and perhaps also at least a part of the deep grief I experienced with those negative participants. Perhaps my heart was broken, for it has also been shown that experiences of awe elicit profound desires to share – deep connection with the earth invokes deep connections with others. So often those feelings arise in me, almost instantaneously in a moment of beauty out there, expressed best by the words which erupt from me, ‘Oh, he would love it here so much’! , or ‘Oh, I want to bring her here to see this!’ The evoked longing- to-connect is potent in nature … or perhaps, more accurately, being immersed in a natural environment reveals the reality of our already interconnectedness, our true oneness.

The problem is that deep connections are not forged in the prefrontal cortex where I am required to reside in my executive function out there as leader. That part of my brain is focused first on performing tasks and then is divided and distracted by attending to those needs, always thinking one step ahead to what must be taken care of next. Unfortunately, where our executive functions reside, so also does our rumination, our over-analysis, our feelings of being overwhelmed, and our anxiety.

Facets two… three…four… uncovered.

Ok. My brain is getting tired just trying to explain this.

So, yesterday I began listening to an interview with philosopher and child-development psychologist, Alison Gopnik. During the conversation she began unpacking the brain of a young child- the way it is open to presence and wonder and exploration, and the ways in which these new human arrivals invite those who tend them to see the world afresh—including seeing new possibilities, making new sorts of connections, and imagining new paradigms. They teach us to love altruistically and to move toward new ways of being human. Generation after generation, she asserts, this is how we evolve—because these new beings coming into the world are open to awe and unencumbered by the limits of a prefrontal cortex- which is later pruned to perform the functions deigned necessary by the existing cultural paradigm. Looking at the brain activity of the very young, Alison likened their way of seeing the world to adult breakthrough experiences of mystical awareness, deep meditation, psychedelic drugs—and numinous experiences of beauty or awe in the natural world.

Near the end of this conversation, she touched upon what occurs over the course of our individual lives as they also evolve. Sometime after menopause, for women, our prefrontal cortexes are relieved (yes, relief was the word used) of their role of juggling it all. Perhaps the loss of estrogen does the pruning. Of course, our cultural bias towards efficient productivity wants us to despair those losses. But the truth may be that this loss is a gift, a blessing to the world. Like the orca grandmothers who know where to find food, and without whom the pods would starve, perhaps we are as necessary for our species survival as are the new human beings who enter our world with each new generation. For we, along with our grandchildren, can see beyond the details of life that can bog us down in the short-sighted immediacy of our middle years. We can see the deep and wide connections and possibilities of life on earth- beyond a political cycle, and beyond the current paradigm in which our brains were pruned to produce the certain necessary (and often delicious) fruits of a specific generation or culture. We can see the long, or deep, view. We can see again through eyes of unity and oneness with the earth. Through eyes that see wonder and beauty, we behold the mystical all-is-well; through eyes of awe we can reembrace the mystery of life. We are released our small anthropocentric view that we are somehow the apex of life or the center of it, but instead are a part of a grander story.

And so, the diamond is revealed from its many sides…feminine energy, masculine energy, attention restoration, executive function, a little child will lead them, the wisdom of age, rewilding, domestication, wholistic seeing, detailed lazer-like knowledge, deep consciousness, wonder, mystical awareness, natural presence. This too is what it means to be human with a multifaceted and dazzling brain, resilient and adaptable and alive.  I am being called to fully embrace this new way of being (which is really an old way of being). My very brain, pruning itself, is ushering me in to a new stage of life, a new/old way of being human.

Lately, with what I now understand as a dazzling new kind of brain, I have noticed in myself a reclamation of Hope. It is a dazzling thing really, though quite unpopular. How dare I?

I dare because it is Who I am.

It is the Hope I carried into the world as a babe.

It is the Hope that I beheld in those luminous/numinous breakthrough raptures of mystical knowing in my middle years when I was unable to “function”, and so relieved/broken open enough to receive and to see the wholenesss of life as terribly beautiful, knowing that it is all Love.

It is the Hope that has repelled me from allying with forces that have sought to demonize the ‘other’ .  

It is a Hope that is not at all Polyanna-ish or naïve, though it is the Hope of a child.

It is a Hope that is my deepest Reality, despite what those ‘real world’ middle years of our lives often belie.

It is Hope that we cannot perhaps embrace at certain times in our lives because we have other important work to do, but that I can hold despite (or because of ) the fact that I can no longer juggle.

The diamond I have uncovered is the diamond of awareness, a diamond that sees through eyes of Love and Hope, a diamond that has lain buried for a time now. A diamond that is beginning to shine through the cracks in my falling-apart brain…. Or perhaps  the light that is shining through the thinning branches of my late autumn mind. Thank Godde.

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