Still I RiseYou may write me down in historyWith your bitter, twisted lies,You may trod me in the very dirtBut still, like dust, I’ll rise.Does my sassiness upset you?Why are you beset with gloom?’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wellsPumping in my living room.Just like moons and like suns,With the certainty of tides,Just like hopes springing high,Still I’ll rise.Did you want to see me broken?Bowed head and lowered eyes?Shoulders falling down like teardrops,Weakened by my soulful cries?Does my haughtiness offend you?Don’t you take it awful hard’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold minesDiggin’ in my own backyard.You may shoot me with your words,You may cut me with your eyes,You may kill me with your hatefulness,But still, like air, I’ll rise.Does my sexiness upset you?Does it come as a surpriseThat I dance like I’ve got diamondsAt the meeting of my thighs?Out of the huts of history’s shameI riseUp from a past that’s rooted in painI riseI’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.Leaving behind nights of terror and fearI riseInto a daybreak that’s wondrously clearI riseBringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,I am the dream and the hope of the slave.I riseI riseI rise.
“I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24? The way that things are going, I don’t know.” ~ Coolio, from Gangsta’s Paradise
It is a weird time. A powerful time. A scary time. COVID-19 sweeps across the planet.
George Floyd is murdered, which brings to the surface another pandemic that’s been with us too long: racism. The stink of shame and despair hang in the air.
Hope lingers on the sidelines.
Lately, nature is my refuge: illuminated trees in the morning light. The chaotic beauty of birdsong from these illuminated trees. Grass racing across the meadow in a sudden gust of wind. Sleek, silver fish flashing in the pond. Am I running from the realities of the world, or running towards it? Am I just fed up with the horrors human beings create? Ashamed of my white skin?
I watch and listen to the news, which fractures my heart in a million pieces. Will our nation ever, ever heal from racism? Is the ugliness of it too hard to look at, let alone learn from and change?
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came on to the scene, he brought us hope, heart, wisdom, and a path out of this ugliness. As a sheltered young white girl my eyes were forced open to see racism by his powerful speeches and his non-violent demonstrations, which he taught to others and empowered the lives of African Americans (Although at the time, I lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, ours was the only family that owned our home, all three floors of it, while my neighbors lived in apartments buildings. At that time, I didn’t understand why the difference, but, as time went on and I educated myself, I began to painfully awaken). His words and the passionate way he spoke were so inspiring, that in my naivety and white ignorance, I thought soon, “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join bonds with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers”.
But no. Killing after killing continued and continues. Videos taken from phones now reveal to white people what African Americans already have known too well – that at the ground level, racism is alive and well. We may have elected a Black president (and oh how I miss him), there are famous and wealthy and University-educated African Americans, but there is still blatant and systemic racism that doesn’t seem to go away, and I get overwhelmed.
So now, after I watch the news, I go outside and watch how the morning light changes the color of the landscape and the shadows move across the meadow. I smile at pine cones that litter my driveway when I walk up to get my mail. At night, I wonder at the deep thrum of bullfrogs and my heart awakens and soars when I hear coyotes yip in the hills.
I thank David Cates for permitting me to post this timely writing (original post March 30, 2020).
“It’s Time To Stop Avoiding Death: You can’t have the life you want without letting go of the life you have”
I’ve been stunned by how thoroughly a tiny virus, barely 0.0001″ across, has brought our human world screeching to a halt. In a few short months, on a global scale, it’s kicked over all the old bedrocks, nation by nation, and clearly revealed the dark, wriggly underworld hiding just out of sight.
That sense of unease we’ve had — about governments and politicians, scientists and institutions, economies built on hope and lies, nature gasping from our poisons, societies splintering into dry tinder — all that is laid bare. And in the deafening silence of shutdown, there’s nowhere else to look. The veil’s been lifted. The world’s turned upside down. The roots are rotten.
This is what we have become.
Some of us still sneak out to the streets; some pull the netflix covers over their eyes. But as the days wear on, in quarantine, we’re being forced to see our lives, our jobs, our relationships, and our selves without those layers of frantic busyness and protective gauze. Exposed. Naked, squinting at the sun, unsure who we are, uncertain what to do.
I’ve been meditating lately on the vast, hidden networks of nature: the mycelium, bacteria, microbiota and yes, the viruses. The original organisms from which complex lifeforms evolved, and likely, the ones who will take over again when humans disappear from this world, adapting to eat up our plastic pollution and radioactive waste, and more immediately, to compost our physical bodies as each of us dies.
Nature is a web, innumerable networks in constantly shifting yin/yang balance. Death is an essential element in that balance. Embracing death brings us back into harmony with the underlying game as it’s played in this world, at every scale, from insects to empires.
Resisting death puts us at odds with the whole natural order.
These past few years, I’ve been pulled down into an underworld initiation. I accompanied first my sister and then my mother through the final months of their lives, sitting with them as they took their last breaths. Death is ordinary, terrifying and beautiful all at once. It cracks our hearts open in a way that nothing else can.
So before this new virus appeared, I’d already made friends with the dark and wriggly worlds under those flipped-over rocks. My naked skin had goose-bumped in the cold shadows. I’d felt the grief pooling in my lungs, and seen the world strangely magnified through tears.
I may be a bit further along this path than some of you. But maybe not. For in the bright light of these revelation-times, many of us are showing our hidden battle scars and secret hurts, the ancestral wounds we carry, the loves we’ve lost — all the tiny deaths we’ve not yet mourned and celebrated.
Apocalypse: the uncovering. What happens when the Emperor has no clothes? What happens when I lose my job and social place? What happens when I’m locked in a house alone with my family? When we can’t get food or medicine? When one of us starts coughing? When my competent identity crumbles, and you see who I really am, underneath the facade?
I’ve been reluctant to speak these questions out loud.
Many people have reached out to me for soothing, for certainty, for reassurance that we’ll soon be back to normal. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been holding my tongue.
I don’t think we can go back to “normal”.
Forgetful as we human creatures are, I can’t unsee this revelation. On every level, from the meta and systemic to relational and personal, this is where we are now. In the midst of the sixth mass extinction, pounded by climate change, with 20,000 children dying of hunger every day.
Much of our generalized panic about this situation, I believe, is misplaced. We’re focused on personal human deaths, our own or our loved ones. But when I step back, relax my gaze and focus on the bigger pictures here, it’s clear what’s really dying.
Our old, “normal” world has been rotting on its deathbed for decades. That stench in my nostrils is not from a few thousand (or even, soon, a few million) human bodies.
The social order has already broken down, politics is lethal, and nature is drowning in poisons.
Underneath the rocks, below the foundations, the roots are rotten.
And everyone knows it.
Our avoidance of death hasn’t actually stopped our world from dying. It’s just left us delusional, little children with our eyes squeezed shut, fingers plugging our ears, tongues babbling nonononononono.
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has burst that dam of denial. It’s an equal opportunity killer, impacting every nation, rich and poor alike. No more bullshit. No more hiding.
Death is everywhere.
As we quarantine in place, isolated in our homes, the truth couldn’t be any plainer.
We can’t survive alone.
We’ve got to come together.
We’re social creatures, relying on each other for food, healing, touch, kindness, understanding, information, and a thousand other services.
Without others, we’re doomed.
And, as this current situation makes abundantly clear — as the virus passes from person to person, from hand to mouth to lungs — we’re also doomed with others.
Doomed if we do, and doomed if we don’t.
That’s the basic fact of life we have forgotten in our modern, go-go-go, scrambling-for-survival world.
Life is short. Death is certain.
Here it comes.
I’ve been short and ruthless with my closest friends and students. “I’ve made my peace with Death. You won’t find peace with this virus until you do, too.”
Certainly, protect yourselves and others in the ways that you can. Don’t be foolish. No need to race toward death.
But also don’t be foolish, thinking you can beat death forever.
Let’s take this precious time-out-of-time (while the world is holding its shocked breath, the rocks are kicked over and the curtain’s pulled back on the Wizard of Oz ) — and look deeply into why we’re all so terribly frightened of dying.
So frightened of dying that we’re willing to hide in our houses, let doctors and nurses do our dirty work without protective gear, abandon our grandparents to die alone in nursing homes.
So frightened of dying that we hand our power over to despots, and sacrifice a world worth living in together.
This is a moment of truth.
This tiny “enemy” we’re trying to defeat is just another face of Death. (Not to worry, Death has millions more.)
The entire natural world, for billions of years, has been an intricate, ever-changing dance of life and death. That’s the game here on this planet. We’re all just borrowing material from other lifeforms to make our own bodies. They dance together for a number of years, and then decay and are recycled.
It’s a beautiful system, when I surrender to it.
So many cells and atoms and microbes come together to support my personal creation! So many beings give themselves to feed and nourish me each day!
When I stop and really feel that gift, I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude.
But rather than live with humble gratitude, and die with grace, we humans get selfish. Personally, relationally, economically, politically. We want to grab and hoard and hold on forever.
And in doing so, we miss the point. We may gain a few years, but we lose our hearts and souls.
We can see that clearly in the selfish 0.1% who hoard more wealth than they can ever use. We see the results of our collective greed as it kills off entire species and trashes the living biosphere.
We see that greed and fear strangle our own lives and relationships. Mememememememememe…
We may have separate bodies, but we’re not designed to live (or die) alone.
For better or worse, we’re part of an intricate, unimaginable, mysterious whole.
And when we turn away from Death, we lose our connection to that whole.
When my mother died, and the muscles in her face let go, her individual “personality” vanished: the twinkle in her eyes was gone, the way she smiled, the tilt of her head. But in their place, the bones revealed themselves, and in that distinct marble sculpture (the slope of the forehead, the thrust of the jaw) I saw her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother.
She was clearly part of something bigger, a temporary form borrowed for a handful of years, one face of a lineage that stretches back for millennia.
The rest was compost and ash, returned to the earth, gifts now available for other creatures to create their own turn in this world.
I want to be that let-go, that surrendered to everything: life, death, love, fear, all the beauty in this unfathomable mystery.
I want to enjoy my time in the sun, and then enjoy my time in the dark dreaming night. I want to remember my place in the whole.
All the best things in my life were unpredictable surprises. They came when I surrendered and let life take me somewhere new. New love, new work, new place in the world, sometimes even a new sense of self.
The trick, I believe, is not holding on to what life has already given me.
When my time comes, early or late, ugly or beautiful, I want to surrender again, and let death take me somewhere unfathomably new.
I wish the same grace for you: to turn toward apocalypse, curious, open, not knowing who you are, loving all that you’ve been given, maybe scared, maybe not… ready to let go of the old familiar world, and begin to assemble, from the strange scraps and compost and imaginal cells all around and inside you, something humble and connected and new.
Reach out to others. Share your heart, your joys and fears. Give your gifts. Connect to something bigger than yourself, human and more-than-human too.
Embrace the unknown. Be willing to die. A new world can’t come until we finally let go of this one.
We can let a tiny virus do the heavy lifting for us. We can wait for the next virus, and the next.
Or we can push through this birth canal together.
A few days before my mother died, when she was getting frustrated and frightened and losing her anchors to reality, I told her, “You’re doing such a great job, Mom! You’ve never tried to die before, and this is all new to you. I think you’re doing this perfectly.”
She smiled the most glorious little-girl smile, and content with herself, finally stopped fussing with the blankets and let go.
And as she died, she showed me that death is not the enemy here.
Death is a doorway to love.
In the same way that birth blows hearts open and changes lives forever, so does death.
Don’t turn away.
Don’t turn away from all that’s dying.
Face it, feel it, mourn it, grieve it.
Let it blow your heart open.
This is the doorway to a new world.
Here, in your lost and scared and grieving heart.
This is the opening.
We’ve never done this before.
But now the lights are on, and we can see where to begin.
Follow David Cates https://medium.com/@kauaidavid
A poem by Mary Oliver
A blue preacher flew
toward the swamp,
in slow motion.
On the leafy banks,
an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings,
was the kind of dark silk
that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind
or is splashed upward,
in a small, quick flower,
by the life beneath it.
made his difficult landing,
his skirts up around his knees.
The poet’s eyes
flared, just as a poet’s eyes
are said to do
when the poet is awakened
from the forest of meditation.
It was summer.
It was only a few moment’s past the sun’s rising,
which meant that the whole long sweet day
lay before them.
They greeted each other,
rumpling their gowns for an instant,
and then smoothing them.
They entered the water,
and instantly two more herons–
equally as beautiful–
joined them and stood just beneath them
in the black, polished water
where they fished, all day.
The other day I sat outside with my binoculars for a long time. I peered out at the other side of the pond and noticed a few mallards gliding along the water. For some reason they are not coming as often to “my” side – perhaps word is out that a person is regularly checking them out. I don’t know. But as I was watching these ducks, I noticed movement from my peripheral vision, so I turned slightly to see what it was. A great blue heron was inching its way to the pond on its spindly legs. I was so excited! I’ve seen one before, a few times here, when I first moved to this place, but that was years ago.
As I watched, it stealthily tip-toed this way and that, peering into the water, hoping for something to eat. Very patient, waiting. Then it walked behind some cattails and I couldn’t see it anymore but sensed its presence. Just like it did, I watched and waited.
And it paid off! Within five minutes, to my amazement, it emerged from the water with a large fish in its mouth and after a few awkward tries, gobbled it up. I was awestruck. This I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to be a witness to the private, scared world that this heron lived in.
With all the stress around COVID-19 we all need something to calm us down, give us focus and feed our spirits. A friend of mine, who loves to sew, is happily making masks and handing them out. Another is going through boxes of old family photos and letters and archiving them.
For me, right now, it’s nature that gets my attention and supports my well-being. When anxiety rears its ugly head and wants to take over, I step outside and listen to a neighboring quail, watch turkey vultures overhead or I lie directly on the earth and look up at the oak tree next to me and watch a tiny wren land, its tail twitching. I take in the smell of freshly mown grass. I watch pollen float through the air, a lizard doing “push-ups” in the shade.
It’s all simple stuff, but it helps. It really does.
What are you doing to nourish your spirit during these uncertain times?
Five minutes after writing the above, a young buck appeared in the yard, no more than ten feet away from me. We were both a little startled, but stayed still, watching each other. He then turned and walked slowly through the tall grass, then leapt into the woods below, leaving me to rest in the stillness of his wake.
Remember: There are beautiful surprises everywhere. Slow down. Pay attention. Listen. Watch.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I am up and out at 8am on my deck again, listening and watching. I hear what must be a mourning dove cooing. A sound so gentle emitting from the trees, underneath the squawking of jays, the caw of crows, the joyous singing of the red-winged blackbirds. Two ducks come out of the cattails, dark in the shadows of the morning light, and head for the edge of the pond where I can longer see them. Are they nesting there? Is this their time to nest? So much is going on outside. So much to observe and contemplate. What are the wrens singing about? Are they telling each other something important, are they broadcasting sheer happiness? What happened to the wood duck that was there the other day? Do mallards and wood ducks get along?
Is there a way I can watch and listen to nature that will guide me during these uncertain times? Even though I live in the country, I can get caught in distraction and restlessness.
This coronavirus hovering about can lead me to feel anxious and fenced in, sometimes overwhelmed. Again and again, nature encourages me to live in the moment. It also awakens me to a childlike curiosity that feeds my spirit.
My meditation group, now no longer able to gather physically, is still sitting at the same time, once a week. This week, we are invited to envision a better future. What is coronavirus teaching us? How well are we listening? What needs to change, within and without? There’s no doubt that, by sequestering ourselves, we bring more peace to the planet. The air over large cities all over the world is clearing up. Animals are coming out of hiding, understanding we humans are pulling back, taking a break.
Coronavirus is forcing us to look within and ask questions. Are we living a life we can be proud of? Are we listening to Mother Nature and what she is telling us? Can we help others who are suffering more than us? Can we befriend our neighbors at this time, even the ones who differ greatly from us? Can we create a warmer, cooperative, more functional society? A society that is all-inclusive, or are our differences too fundamental? Is it too late to change?
After I ponder these questions, I come back to the sound of the mourning dove’s soft cooing, as other birds carry on, fluttering about and hopping from tree to tree. Her voice is consistent and calm beneath the chaos and activity, her feathers, I imagine, soft and unruffled.
After Reading Peterson’s Guide by Linda Pastan
I used to call them
Morning Doves, those birds
with breasts the rosy color
of dawn who coo us awake
as if to say love . . .
love . . . in the morning.
But when the book said
Mourning Doves instead
I noticed their ash-gray feathers,
on the underside
When the Dark Angel comes
let him fold us in wings
as soft as these birds’,
though the speckled egg
hidden deep in his nest
I am all over the place lately, leaping from fear to peace. I am reflecting what is happening all over the globe: Chaos and fear, yet a slowing down of activities. Sometimes I obsess about all kinds of things: Will I get this illness? Will I die a horrible death? Do I have enough tp? What if one of my caregivers gets sick and spreads the virus to others? What if I am left with no caregivers? How do I clean properly? Did I wipe down the doorknobs after someone left? What if I forgot? Anxiety loves this kind of stuff. It thrives on it.
And then, suddenly I am peaceful and feel wide open and content. Calm. And more connected to nature. The trees around my house seem more vibrant than ever. I watch the ducks in the pond happily waddling about, and I breathe more deeply. The red-winged blackbirds sing their delight at being alive and dive in and out of the cattails. Sometimes I go outside and sit on the earth and cry. I don’t know what I’m crying about, but tears run down my face. I sob. It feels good to do so. And I feel supported by the earth when I do.
Yesterday, while I was out there, Simon, our cat, came and sat with me and then curled up in my lap. We both surveyed the pond, the meadow, the hills. And I thought: If all humankind died, the earth would heal and that thought gave me peace. I love my friends, family and community, and sometimes am able to love all humankind, but, as my mother used to say, “We are the most destructive species on the planet.” She was right and it’s a hard fact to sit with.
Sometimes, I open my heart to not knowing. Not knowing if certain people I know and love will survive. Not knowing if local businesses will survive. Not knowing how long the virus will survive. And these thoughts take me to the big “I Don’t Know” – the mysteries of The Universe. And this thought leads to Freedom.
Sufi Master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan advised his students about the pain we all have and carry with us and share through life.
Not directly-quoted, as there are many versions from various sources:
Overcome any bitterness…
because you were not up to the
magnitude of the pain
entrusted to you.
Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart,
you are sharing in the totality of this pain
and are called upon to meet it
in compassion and joy
instead of self-pity.
This morning I go to my friend Rainbow’s house to pick up a CD she has made with her “old man” Donovan. Rainbow is an old hippie who has basically tie-dyed her hair purple and green recently. We get to talking about all sorts of things and then she says, “We’re both the sensitive type. And sometimes that’s hard when life gets really dark.”
I nod my head agreeing, and give her arm a squeeze, wondering what she’s been going through lately.
“But I think that sensitivity is also a gift,” she adds. Yeah, I think. I forget this, but it’s true. “We feel things so deeply, don’t you think? And others! Real empaths.” I nod again. “Sometimes I feel I don’t have any skin.” “Yes, yes!,” she says enthusiastically. She can become easily excited. “That’s it exactly! But that sensitivity gives you the ability to write poetry. And the free hugs you used to give at Mariposa.”
I consider this. “I guess you’re right. That sensitivity we share has a positive side, although when things become really difficult, I forget that.” “I know! I know!” She’s almost jumping up and down. “Me too! But we can’t forget the flip side! Energy is energy! Sometimes we name it “anxiety,” other times we can name it – oh I don’t know – “The buzz of creativity.” We can’t forget that buzz! It’s magic!” Rainbow has a unique way of putting things. “Like you and your music and your big heart,” I say.
She ducks her head momentarily embarrassed, then says, “When we feel other folks’ pain, that can be draining sometimes. But it also means we can offer folks a lot of love.
“You’re right,” I say. I’m glad to hear these words from her right now. Lately, I have only seen the downside of sensitivity: The inability to use computers for too long because how it affects my nervous system, how I get almost every flu and cold in the winter because of a compromised immune system from too little sleep over too many years, and anxiety that shows up too frequently as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention epilepsy.
“Plus,” she goes on, “It seems like other folks don’t experience deeply the sweetness of the world. Like dew: It’s fantastic how it sparkles! Or how the sun can pierce through the dark clouds and right into your heart. They see it, they feel something, but it’s not a Big Event, you know? They’re on to the next thing.”
“I get what you mean. I often wonder what it’s like to be other people. To feel not what they feel, but how. Often, they seem to me – oh, I don’t know – not hardened exactly – but… more protected somehow. Some people hardly ever cry.”
“I know,” Rainbow says, “Can you imagine?” Her eyes widen in wonder.
I think about my mother whom I could count on one hand the number of times I saw her cry. And I never saw her sob. I remember her saying once, “Why do people have to talk about their feelings all the time?” She wasn’t a cold person. Warmth emanated from her. She just had thick skin – she was born that way.
We go on to other things: her upcoming gig, what movies we’ve seen lately, our very different upbringings: hers Catholic and strict, mine, unorthodox with few boundaries.
I then tell her I need to get back home and we hug and say goodbye.
When I reach my car, she yells, “I love you!”
I blow her a kiss.
“Keep writing poetry,” she adds as I’m about to open the car door, “The universe needs us!”
I toss the CD into the car and turn towards her, fashioning my hands into the shape of a heart.
Thanks, Rainbow. Thanks for the reminder.
As people dealing with the ongoing struggle with our bodies, hope is a quality that is sure to enter our life at one point or another. When we wake up to the too-familiar pain in our joints or the weakness in our heart, or whatever is still waiting for us, it is easy to touch or give into fear, despair or bitterness. Hope is a wish that arises from the heart and offers us a chance at something better and keeps us going. Hope reminds us we often do not know the outcome of our illness, that science and technology are always expanding, that there are so many alternatives out there still to try. Hope whispers to us of all sorts of possibilities, and that whisper propels us forward and encourages us to not give up.
That being said, my own relationship with hope is not always an easy one. There have been times when I’ve lost hope, when I’ve given up hope, when I’ve clung to it. There’ve been times when it seems to me that to have any kind of hope that my health would ever change for the better was a dangerous tactic to take, as it could become a set-up for disappointment and then a plunge into dark emotions.
It is a good idea to look at our own relationship with hope and ask ourselves a few questions: What are we hoping for, exactly? A cure? A healing? An improved condition? A full recovery? Should our hope be “realistic” – whatever that is? Should we let go of hope altogether, because it creates a striving in the heart that just perpetuates more suffering? Perhaps if we’re to hope for anything, we should hope for an open heart to our on-going experience… but if that’s all we hope for, does it shut us down to any physical change?
At the onset of our illness, before we understand that it is a chronic condition, most of us hope for a full recovery or cure. Let’s be honest. We want our bodies to function as well as they did before we got sick. We miss how active our lives were and we yearn to “get back into the game”. But, as time goes by and we try various treatments and practitioners, we start to see that maybe a cure isn’t in the cards for us. We begin to see that yearning for such a thing takes us out of our life and away from the possibility of experiencing any happiness with things as they are right here and now. As we listen to our body’s needs and stories with compassionate awareness, we realize what we’ve been longing for all along is a healing and that healing is a wholeness that includes everything we experience as a human being: our bodies, our stories about our bodies, our fears, desires, our ups and downs, etc. This kind of healing doesn’t mean our bodies will suddenly be cured. “Healing” and “curing” in this case, mean two different things.
It can take us a while before we come to this conclusion. We begin by exploring beneath the surface of hope where there is often fear, loss and sometimes, desperation lurking. Having the courage to meet these powerful emotions from the soft places in our heart, encourages us to cultivate a kind of hope that buoys us, rather than feeds our fears of never getting well. Through the lens of this sort of exploration, we move into the spaciousness that allows the ultimate hope, the ultimate healing: We come into alignment with our innermost essence, from which all possible outcomes are born. This kind of open hope moves us away from a fear-based one that clutches at one particular outcome. Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist teacher and author, calls this “fixated hope”. She writes: “Fixated hope”…. like hope itself, resembles faith in that both sparkle with a sense of possibility. But, fixated hope is conditional, circumscribing happiness to getting what we want… when our hope for relief from suffering is based only on getting what we want, in the precise way we want it, we bind hope to fear, rather than to faith.”
“Buddhism regards fixated hope and fear as two sides to the same coin. When we hope for a particular outcome to arise or a desire to be met, we invariably fear it won’t happen. Thus, we move from hope to fear to hope from fear in an endless loop.”
I understand that loop intimately. And I understand another kind of hope; one that takes us out of that loop and inspires us to move forward. Some years ago, I had to detox from an antidepressant I had been taking for sleep, because it no longer worked for me. The process had left me anxious and fragile and my sleep worse than ever. On top of that, I had lost hope and became despairing that anything could help me as I had tried so many different remedies and medications – some of which worked for a while and then at some point, my body would habituate to it and no longer be of any help. This kind of process was a long and difficult one – one I’ve repeated again and again – first lifting my hopes, just to have them dashed again. The fragile physical state I was in at this point, deeply affected my emotional and mental states, and not only that, the specialist I had been seeing inferred that he had run out of things to try with me. What was I to do? Seek out yet another doctor? Find a new practitioner? I felt completely overwhelmed and was in a state of great anguish. As I often do when in dire straits and can’t see my way out, I called on people from my support system. One night a good friend came over to help out and when I told her all of my fears (what if there was nothing out there for me and I’d have to live this way for the rest of my life), she gently reminded me none of us knew what was around the corner, that the future held all kinds of possibilities beyond our knowing at this time. I listened to her intently and later stood out on my deck and looked up at the dark and clouded sky. Just then, like a schmaltzy movie, the clouds parted and revealed this glowing golden moon that I hadn’t noticed before, because I had been too caught up in my own despair. In that moment, my energy shifted, and that despair left my body. And in its place, hope moved in. Soon after that, I went back to my original doctor who determined that the combination of medications I had been on might have caused a reaction in me that made my sleeping more difficult than usual.
I want to be clear here. I am not suggesting that just because I was able to shift my energy, I was able to find better solutions — there are too many variables to know why any outcome comes to pass (see my January 3, 2020 blog post Creating Your Own Reality). I am suggesting that by moving into an open hope that has no set outcome in mind, aligns us with that which will work best for us in whatever condition we find ourselves. It allows us the ability to receive a new answer, whether it be acceptance or a step in a direction we may not have considered (or noticed) before. By letting go of fear (not always an easy feat for us) we bring about a greater potential for change.
Another element we would do well to cultivate here is equanimity. Living with the ups and downs of difficult symptoms, it is easy to emotionally feel on a roller coaster as well. We’re ecstatic when our blood work comes back negative after a long struggle with cancer, only to be devastated when, six months later, those same test results come back positive. Cultivating a kind of hope that is centered in equanimity, gives us an emotional balance with which to deal with the volatility of our lives. A good example of this, is the story of the old farmer. One day his horse ran off. When his neighbors heard, they dropped by. “How awful!”, they said, hoping to comfort him. “Maybe”, was all the farmer answered. The next day, the horse came back with three wild horses in tow. This time, when the neighbors came by, they said, “What great luck!”. “Maybe”, said the farmer. The next afternoon, his son attempted to break in one of the new horses but was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors showed up. “I’m so sorry, what a terrible loss!”. “Maybe”, replied the old man. The following morning, two military men came by looking to draft young, able-bodied men into the Army. When they saw his son, they moved on to the next farm. The neighbors congratulated him on his good fortune. “Maybe”, said the farmer.
Maintaining a hope with this kind of equilibrium while we deal with all our physical discomforts may feel like an impossibility, but I find it a good model to look toward. After years of struggle with getting good sleep, I’ve noticed that when I stumble upon a new remedy, etc., that helps me get a decent night’s sleep, there is always something inside that asks “Will this last?”. It so far never has. I have learned to develop a “maybe” attitude. Maybe it’ll be this way for the rest of my life, but maybe it’ll be better at times, and maybe worse. Meanwhile, whatever happens, my mental and spiritual goal is to maintain an even-keeled attitude, understanding like the farmer, that all mind states pass, eventually.
You can also practice the quality of equanimity to help you along. Just as with loving kindness meditation, you can construct phrases to meditate on (see my April and May 2019 blog posts Introduction to Loving Kindness and Loving Kindness, Part II). Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher and author, offers these phrases:
“May I be balanced and at peace”. “May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with equanimity and balance”.
Of course, you can create your own phrases that better reflect your circumstances.
“May I meet the arising and passing of phenomena in my body with ease and balance”.
Just like with loving kindness meditation, the more you practice, the more the phrases become a part of you instead of just wishful thinking.
In the end, I have found hope to be an essential ingredient on the spiritual path of chronic illness. Hope has come to mean for me a way of holding space for all possible positive outcomes. I make sure I leave space for miracles.
On the one end of my personal spectrum of hope, I Ieave space for the possibility of deep sleep and no seizure activity, to enough sleep to keep me functioning well enough and little seizure activity. Failing that, I hope to have an attitude and a relationship towards my health that is kind, compassionate and equanimous. Hope then, is an antidote to despair, bitterness, and a closed and fearful heart.
“When my house burned down, I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlit sky.” ~ Zen Poet Mizuta Masahide
For more information:
Jack Kornfield (equanimity, loving kindness meditation) https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-equanimity/
Sharon Salzberg (fixated hope) Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Riverhead Books (2003)