Saturday, June 23, 2007

Before We Can Rise Up, We Must Go Down and Through

I've been reading a book recommended to me by bobJuan, a Zaadz friend -- The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life by John Tarrant. This is good stuff, although not (so far) incredibly deep. But the message is a good reminder of why we try to be more awake, and the ways that we come to that decision.

I've posted several articles on change -- viewing it as a ritual process -- and offering ways to navigate the challenges and understand the processes at work [see the sidebar]. This passage from Tarrant might be a perfect summary of how this happens and why it is important.

The First Descent

Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood

~ Dante Alighieri

The journey into a life of awareness begins for most of us in a moment of helplessness. When our lives are going well, we do not feel any need to change them, or ourselves. We are content to go on as we are, coasting, serene as planets in their orbits, or caribou on seasonal migration. Our habits of mind are sufficient to sustain us through the days. We are unperturbed, and half asleep.

Then a crisis arrives: a child falls ill, a lover disappoints, or some vast, neutral power of the earth, such as a hurricane or a fire, strips us of everything we have relied upon to stay the same. We will have other descents in life, but this first one has a terrifying vividness. Change is sure, and change brings suffering, which is an inner as well as an outer event. Under the impact of a crisis, images we have worshipped, beliefs we have cherished, also break and fall away. We lose not only houses, photo albums, and people dear to us, but our idea of what life is. We find ourselves plunging unprepared, a weakness in every limb.

Yet this unexpected fall is also a gift, not to be refused -- an initiation ordeal preparing us for a new life. The enveloping dark strips us of our sleepyheadedness, our assumption that who we now are and the life we now know will be enough. The night is not interested in our achievements. Pitching headlong into this first descent of the journey, we struggle, we suffer untellable grief, but we also wake up -- we begin to see ourselves and our lives for what they are. We cannot return to the way it used to be, even yesterday. We realize that we have no choice: before we can rise up, we must go down and through.

It's too bad that it often takes a crisis -- a death, a failed relationship, the loss of a job, a natural disaster, and so on -- to launch most of us into a life of awareness, but this seems to be true for the majority of people. Even the great Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, did not come to the path until mid-life, after a failed marriage.

In order for us to view crisis as an opportunity, we must have some awareness already. Most people do not have this awareness. If we believe in God and a divine order, we might see the crisis as a manifestation of the inscrutable will of God and accept it as such. If we are rationalists with no spiritual beliefs, we might see the crisis as a random occurrence and go about our lives as though nothing has changed. Either way, we are missing the call to awareness.

But if we do understand that crisis provides us with an opportunity to question and reassess our lives, we must learn to navigate the darkness that such a challenge will lead us through. We must go down and through -- the initiation stage -- if we are to grow from the experience and become more aware. This is often described as the proverbial Dark Night of the Soul.

However, if we can learn to breathe through this time, to sit with our emotions, to accept that change is the only constant in the universe, we can begin to wake up:

Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time--that is the basic message.

~Pema Chodron

I'm not saying this is easy -- and surely I fail much more often than I succeed. But I try to be aware that loss, suffering, and pain are signposts pointing me toward more wholeness and awareness. Here is another great view on this issue:

Whatever you do, don’t shut off your pain; accept your pain and remain vulnerable. However desperate you become, accept your pain as it is, because it is in fact trying to hand you a priceless gift: the chance of discovering, through spiritual practice, what lies behind sorrow.

“Grief,” Rumi wrote, “can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

~ Sogyal Rinpoche

We will never grow as human beings unless we are confronted with pain, with suffering, with loss. But even if we are confronted with these difficult experiences, we will not grow if we cannot see them as teachers, as opportunities to awaken. Befriending our pain opens our hearts and softens them, makes more room in them for compassion.

We can refuse the call, of course, and try to return to business as usual, but we will end up facing the same pains again and again until we listen, until we accept the lessons being offered us. Within all of us, there is a deeper self that seeks health, happiness, and growth -- call it psyche, call it soul, call it whatever you wish -- and it will keep bringing us back to learn what we need in order to grow more whole.

This deeper self wants us to evolve, and it will keep finding ways to drag us into the fertile darkness of pain and loss until we wake up.

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