In the blog last week, I talked about the two core qualities of awakening, “What is?” and “This Too,” and I shared a story from my book Belonging to Life that showed the power of “What is?” In this blog, I am sharing another story from the same book that shows how “What is?” opens you into “This too.”
“My journey into awakening has been a journey into tenderness and mercy. At one of the ten day retreats I used to go to every year, I made a list of all the parts of myself that I had formerly hated and feared that were now woven back into my heart. I cried tears of gratitude and mercy for I saw how deeply I had been locked out of my own heart and how this very prison of the judging mind had pushed and pulled me along the path of awakening.
“When we discover the power of allowing the disowned parts of ourselves back into our hearts, we may at first meet them in the hope that they will go away. The truth is they will become more manageable with every meeting, but they won’t go away. The good news is that they will be transformed into our allies when they are finally embraced as welcomed guests.
“It is the most unwelcome parts of us that hold the power for awakening into the healed heart. I discovered this at a retreat titled African Drumming, Dancing, Ritual and Art. “Aha,” said my mind, “that sounds like a weekend of rhythm, music, opening and fun.” Well, it was unlike any retreat I’d ever been to. Instead of being fun, it was an unbelievably painful but ultimately freeing experience that finally allowed me to embrace a core part of me that I had always run from.
“On the first evening, I began to get an inkling of what I was in for. There was no schedule, no idea when meals would be. A transformer had blown just before we arrived, so there was no hot water, heat or lights in the cabins and very little warmth in the big, drafty hall. At times I wanted to leave, but I stayed, for I knew that discomfort always brings up the next layer of what is ready to be seen.
“The second night, we began a ritual with very little preparation and with no guidance about how it was going to unfold or how long it would take. At 3:00 in the morning, after having gone through many phases—some scary, some boring and some enlightening—the leaders sat us in a circle of stones on the wooden floor with the admonishment that if anyone left, the ritual would be compromised for everyone. (Two people had tried to leave a few hours before, and we were thoroughly educated on how they could have opened the circle to dark forces). The leaders then left without any indication of when they would return.
“Up to this point, I had checked in with myself over and over again and had gotten the sense that it was important to stay with the retreat. But now, in the middle of the night, exhausted and cold, sitting on a hard, floor with no end in sight, I wanted to leave. Panic began to build in my body and mind as I was pushed to my limit and my body felt like it was going to explode.
“My awareness was obscured by a mixture of terror, despair and self-hatred. “I can’t handle this. When is it going to be over? I should have left. You are so inept, and besides, you’re such a wimp,” my old voices screamed at me. Then awareness kicked in. I asked What is? and my attention came out of reaction and back into the living experience. I recognized that of all the possible human experiences I could be having, I was sitting on a cold, hard floor with 50 other people. Moving out of reaction, I remembered that my life is a journey of awakening where everything is grist for the mill of becoming conscious. I then asked, “What is asking to be met?”
“I began to see with deep curiosity and a heartfelt compassion the feelings that were ricocheting through my body. As I made contact with the feelings flowing through me, from the depths of my being came flooding memories of other times in my life. Most of them were from childhood when I had similar experiences of feeling caught in an overwhelming situation with no way out and no end in sight. But this time, for the first time in my life, someone was there meeting me in this indescribably painful place. And that someone was me.
“I began to talk to this core feeling of no way out. It was too enveloped in fear to respond to questions. But I could say, “This too. I include you as a part of this experience.” As my heart opened, I could say to the terror, “I see you. I want to get to know you. You were a core part of my childhood, and I’m not going to abandon you or get lost in you. I’m here for you.”
“Rather than becoming caught in reaction, my heart cradled these feelings with a deep sense of tenderness and mercy. This softening and opening of inclusion warmed my body. When sensations of cold or panic began to seep back in, I found myself repeatedly returning to the warm glow of compassionate curiosity. As the room became colder, my heart became warmer.
“What had been an indescribably painful situation was transformed into one of the major healing experiences of my life. I knew as I packed to leave later that morning that I had been deeply opened and now trusted myself to the core. I saw that even when I am pushed to the maximum, I was now capable of being there for myself when I most needed myself.
“My ability to be that present for myself on that cold floor in the wee hours of the morning came from the accumulation of many moments, both in meditation and in my daily life, in which I met the core parts of my story rather than putting them out of my awareness and out of my heart.
“Because this was the first time I had ever been fully present for the experience of no way out, I now needed to begin meeting this core feeling when it showed up in my everyday life. At first, I could only be present for a moment before I would flip out into reaction again. But having learned from many skillful teachers that going towards a state that you formerly resisted is the way of freedom, I returned again and again to What is? and This too.
“Over time, I was able to sit with this fear both in my returning practice and during my daily life. I would watch what brought it to the surface, what words it would use, and how it would manifest in my body. At the beginning I would notice, after the fact, that fear had been present. But gradually I began to enter it, going through layer after layer so that when it was present, attention rather than fear would be triggered.
“In order to bring the amazing power of inclusion into your life, be willing to spend the next 24 hours working with This Too. Whatever comes up—whether it is indigestion, a cranky child, a sleepy body, an agitated mind—be willing to recognize it and then say, “This too; I can include this too as a part of my life.” If there is something that the mind refuses to stop struggling with—a bad cold, a major meeting at work, a difficult relationship—ask it, “Can I let this be as it is for just this moment?”
As we begin to stabilize our minds by strengthening our ability to pay attention and opening into compassionate listening, we discover that whenever we really see whatever is showing up with an inclusive heart, it is a profoundly healing moment. This is not the quick fix we’ve been taught to believe is healing—just give me a pill, a positive thought or a dose of denial and everything will be okay. It takes time to learn to truly meet what has been formerly excluded from our hearts. But this is the pathway to freedom. Every time we go towards something rather than away, we have another opportunity to lessen our identification with these contracted states, freeing the energy that is locked in them so that we can be more available for the living adventure that is Life.”