the crucible of stillness

Scanning the horizon

You have been forced to enter empty time.

The desire that drove you has relinquished.

There is nothing else to do now but rest

And patiently learn to receive the self

You have forsaken in the race of days

-John O’Donohue

Dear one,

One of the things we all are noticing during this pandemic is that it is revealing things about ourselves that we perhaps aren’t aware of, or can at least more easily deny, in ‘ordinary time’.  Stress reveals our human vulnerabilities- both physical and emotional.  Forced alone time, without access to our usual (functional and dysfunctional) ways of coping and covering, exposes those shadowy vulnerabilities. Weaknesses, fears, and flaws come seeping or screaming out of the now thin veneer. We cannot retreat into our usual behaviors, addictions and drives- even the healthier ones of those.

I see us all sitting down here together at the base of Maslow’s triangle—shelter, food, rest, safety— with all those things we piled atop them, crumbled at our feet.

This is happening not only in our personal lives, as aspects of our personality and the myriad ways we have been conditioned by our culture come undone, but in our communal ones, as well. We can clearly see what wasn’t really working for us, what was built on a flimsy foundation. So, with this newfound awareness, we hope that perhaps when we begin to rebuild that pyramid we’ll choose some different bricks, firm up that foundation. What does real belonging look like? What does meaningful work look like? Can human actualization be separated from performance and the (American) notion of ‘earning our keep’?

That so many of us are struggling so mightily with this call to be still, with the permission given, nay commanded, for retreat, when we have been so conditioned to believe that our human ‘doings’ are what make us worthwhile human ‘beings’, is such a potent revelation. We feel as if we must do something productive! We feel selfish for taking care of ‘just’ ourselves, even when we are being told that very (non)act saves others. We feel guilty whiling our days away. Even when we are being begged to ‘stay in’, we ‘reach out’ with offerings – some of them life-giving gifts of presence and connection, for sure, but many others perhaps are a cry to be seen and valued, so as not to become invisible. We are witnessing so many people making up new kinds of work, so unseated by the notion that their very survival is not dependent upon somebody buying what they are selling (or giving away freely), that they cannot let go into the invitation to do nothing, to trust that they truly are supported (though sadly of course, many are not, and this pandemic continues to reveal that societal disparity), loved without needing to add one more thing.

But if this lasts long enough, IF we can move past the fear of loss clinging to so many of us, IF we can feel safe enough for now, sitting still at that base of the tower, perhaps some of that anxious dust will settle, and we will truly enter Slow Time. The Slow time of our ancestors. And Small Time, finding our connections in the immediate intimacies of daily life.  And Self Time, relying on our own inner resources for hope, strength, peace, and quiet. (Note to self- trusting that others can rely on their own inner resources too)

Yesterday, I became aware of my own busy-making, the covering over of my own tender fears and vulnerabilities. It hit me like a thunderbolt of awareness. ‘Nailed it’, as they say. I’ve been writing a lot these last days of the ways that my heart is seeing so much, feeling so much, the way it has been breaking open—hopefully in order to hold it all more generously and compassionately. I’ve been writing to you about this desire that has been driving me to help in some way. (How can I sit by, when my fellow human beings are suffering?!) I’ve been writing to you about the counterbalance I have been seeking for that energy, searching for the heart of Julian in all of this (How did she hold in her heart all that she saw from the window?) I have been reaching out to all of my loves—realizing how wide is that the net !

Of course, you also know how I have struggled for so long with my sense of feeling overwhelmed by the impossibility of being enough to those whom I love, knowing of course I never could possibly be.  This is not a new dis-ease in me, but this is being re-vealed in me, laid bare by the stress of this time, for me to look at more clearly.

 I have been scanning my environment forever it seems, checking in on the state of those whom I love, checking in to be certain they are ok, feeling their sorrows and fears as my own, feeling their anger, of course, too. My own anxiety is relieved only when those whom I love are at ease… and at ease with me. Anger, in particular, fills me with fear. I take another’s anger, even if they are simply venting their own frustration about something that has nothing to do with me, personally, and desperately strive to diffuse it.  Putting out fires everywhere, a counselor 20 years ago, suggested.

Yes, those boundaries between myself and the other are blurry. I suspect that a small(?) part of the reason that I feel so relieved and freed when I go on a wilderness journey is that the physical distance creates that boundary for me and I am released momentarily of that which I feel and carry with me always. The discomfort I feel upon reentering afterwards is often guilt for having allowed such a time and space for me, ( so selfish!!) and, unless am careful and attentive, can bury my love with the need for recompense, when what I truly long for is simply to reconnect with those whom I love.

And so it is exceedlingly difficult, feels utterly selfish, to just sit here and do nothing when persons are suffering around me. And the truth is, that there are good reasons for me to be concerned.

Hypervigilance is learned, I expect, and so I can also practice unlearning it.

“I learned early on that I must be who others want me to be in order to be loved, so it’s important to see negative emotions like anger and sadness before they are overt, to pick up on someone’s energy in order to intervene or change tact to keep things pleasant. “

This experience is giving me ample practice sitting with my OWN anxiety–about the intensity of other’s , including loved one’s, fears, sadness, suffering and anger, which I can feel (sometimes quite strongly) and perhaps even can hold but, in reality, cannot take away from them. It is giving me practice making choices for myself without feeling guilt or shame, because I quite literally cannot step in to save them (and even saying that feels so indulgent, as if another person’s suffering is a source of practice for me!)

Oh yes, the moment of ‘nailed it!’ (I almost forgot) Yesterday, I opened my Enneagram thought for the day, (a daily mailing curated for my type, which is motivated  by the need for harmony.) It read simply this,

What would it be like if you spent your energy only on yourself today? Would you lose all your friends and connections?”

Sharing that thought with a friend, his response “Take good care of yourself today. You don’t need to worry about this friend going anywhere.’, brought tears of sudden awareness. That is the primal fear, of course, of being abandoned, unloved, disconnected.

Of course, this time of stripping away those veneers (which we are discovering are more fragile than we imagined them to be) is also revealing/redeeming our gifts, many of which are inverse expressions of those very same vulnerabilities. The flip side of my wound is empathy. Empathy is a powerful force of Love. I do not want to repress that, of course. Empathy is both a source and a sign of bonding, a means of support, a balm for healing, a vital aspect of a resilient relationships, and fosters true acts of compassion.

But I am being asked to very literally to take care of myself (to be ‘selfish), to restrain myself from ‘helping’ others for whom I feel so much empathy, to feel what I feel and to not act ( to hold the FEELING alone), to trust that another will survive without me, to trust that I also am deserving of protection and love. I am being invited/forced to strip away all the ‘doing’ that I engage in to make sure I am safe, to make sure I am loved (to make sure You are safe too, for the loss of you, my suffering one, is a loss that feels too great to bear.)

Maybe this is not perhaps so much a dismantling to the base of that pyramid as it is a stripping of veneer, a removal of impurities that have tarnished who we are. This really is the perfect crucible to burn away that dross, and reveal the gold that lies beneath.

I just can’t imagine what that jewel of compassion will look like. Perhaps this will teach us all how to be Love in a new way.

So, my dear one, I know that for you, there will also be this balance to strike. How to Be Love in your world, no matter what your culture has taught you about what that looks like. How to Love without Fear. It may also be hard for you to trust that each person you Love is connected to their own Source of strength and wisdom, especially when they are suffering. They may simply need you to trust that, or to model it, or to hold it for them for a bit. Calmly. Try not to get swept into the drama of fear, Stay seated in Love. This may be the only way that you can offer hope and strength, compassion and Love for another.

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