Friday, May 19, 2006

Manifesto: Coming Undone

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago and have worked on it ever since. It has made the final round at a few magazines before being rejected. So, I decided to post it here. It's a manifesto of sorts -- a statement of my life's mission and purpose as I now see it.

Coming Undone

In 2002, I moved from the lush, fertile rain forest of the Pacific Northwest to the hot, dry desert of the Southwest -- Seattle to Tucson. I moved for love: for love of a woman, for a chance to learn to love more deeply, and with the hope that the hot desert sun would burn away the barriers to seeking my soul’s passion.

Making the move was a willful act of undoing. I gave up a stable, comfortable life, with all the boredom such a life entails, to start over again in a strange land. I took a $15K a year drop in income (a situation which has since resolved itself), gave up a small but intimate circle of friends, and released my hold on the stability of having my life down to an automated routine.

And it’s working. My capacity for love has significantly deepened with the presence and support of my partner. Her love and witnessing have made the process much easier. Together we create a synergistic energy for growth and healing that astounds us both and leaves us grateful to whatever forces brought us together.

From this foundation, we are undoing our wounds, dismantling old, unhealthy patterns of behavior. We each have come undone. But within the alchemical vessel of our relationship, we are contained, held safely, able to surrender to the undoing -- to the purification.


Everything comes undone. Change is the one constant we can never escape. Yet we struggle to maintain our youthful appearance, keep alive dying relationships, and delay all forms of change as long as possible. We try to push the river uphill, as the saying goes. But what if we allow the undoing -- knowingly release our hold on who and what and we are in order to become someone new?

Allowing oneself to be undone is a way of living best exemplified in the prayer, “Do with me what Thou will.” To allow the undoing is to surrender to forces greater than the ego, greater than the finite “I” who holds so tightly to its sense of identity. It is to recognize that ego is not the most important aspect of self, that there is a greater power. The reward for this surrender is alignment with a higher purpose, allowing our lives to be directed in ways we could never imagine on our own.

Yet surrender is a bad word in our culture, a sign of weakness. How foolish are we. Surrender is the key to undoing what is in order to make space for what can become. Surrender is an opening to the sacred, an entry into the liminal space between past and future. This moment, right now, if we can be fully present to it, is our doorway into sacred space. We practice mindfulness as a tool to enter into the present moment, to awaken our ability to surrender to now.

I am learning to surrender, and with each lesson in mindfulness I come undone in my sense of self. Old patterns are falling away. But mostly I reside somewhere between who I was and who I am becoming.

In fact, the more I am able to practice mindfulness, the more fluid my sense of self becomes. Sometimes the intense gaze of introspection acts as a heat lamp, melting old patterns of behavior and perception I have used to define myself. I sit on my couch, staring at the desert outside my window, reflecting on some aspect of my life that troubles me, and the deeper I look, the less it seems anything other than an illusion. Some days I feel everything I know about myself is an illusion. On other days I feel so solid and static that growth seems out of the question.

The process is not void of anxiety. There is a certain amount of fear and uneasiness inherent in living in liminal space for any length of time. But I have chosen this for my life. I am actively seeking to be undone, and it actually feels quite liberating.


A few years in the desert and I am humbled. When I leave the city and walk in the Santa Catalina Mountains, I am amazed at the subtlety of the desert. Where the land of the Puget Sound area was lush and vibrant with life and foliage, the Sonoran Desert is a million pale shades of green. Life here isn’t conspicuous--it’s harmonic, hidden, difficult to see. Everything blends, perhaps a result of the intense sunlight burning away distinct lines.

This is the effect hiking in the desert has had on me. I am less defined. I am undone. I came to Tucson with a hope that this phase of my life would be my metaphorical 40 days in the desert. As I walk among saguaro and ocotillo and gaze at the high Santa Catalina Mountains to the north, I am reminded how small I am. In humility, I feel an opening. I have drawn my symbolic circle in the sand and I wait, hoping the voice of Spirit will whisper in my ear.

In ways only the soul can fathom, I believe in the old stories. I believe Jesus went into the desert to hear the voice of God, but was instead tempted by Satan to renounce his path. I believe he had to face the demons within him to be free to follow the life of Spirit. He sought light and found his own personal darkness. In contemporary terms, Jesus had to integrate his shadow self so he could freely practice the loving-kindness we seek to emulate in our own lives.

In the intense desert light of these last few years, my shadows have no place to hide. I become more full with their presence -- and lighter, more energized. If I had known the desert would undo the defenses that maintain my shadow, would undo my internal boundaries, I would have been afraid. But I would have had even more reason to make the move.

Looking at the darkness within is never easy. However, I can never fully be undone if I am not willing to embrace all of myself -- the darkness and the light. It can be frightening to see those parts of myself I have kept hidden. I have been terrified and ashamed of some aspects of myself. As much as I am capable of kindness and compassion, I am equally capable of cruelty and selfishness.

But there is also light within the shadow. I am rediscovering compassion, the tender heart of the warrior that I have kept hidden from the world. Coming undone is challenging and disconcerting, but I am grateful that in coming undone I have found within my shadow some qualities I never knew I possessed. I did not know I can be deeply moved by the world if I simply allow myself to be present to my feelings. I have that warrior's heart, and I am learning to cultivate the tenderness that marks true strength.

I also did not know I had the fierceness to fight for the life I want, a life of service and purpose. But I do have that fierceness, and it serves both my becoming and my sense of what is right and wrong in the world. There can be no undoing without the fierceness to stay with process no matter how out of control I might feel.


Several years have now passed since I began this process. My life has changed in ways I could never have imagined back in Seattle. I still don't know who I am becoming or how my life will unfold in the future, but I am much closer than when I wandered into the desert for the first time.

Several times I have consciously chosen to allow Spirit to direct the path my life would take, to truly surrender my life to a purpose greater than my ego's desires. Sometimes I have been puzzled, unclear of what I was supposed to learn from a given outcome, and at other times I have been rewarded with situations that allow me to express myself in soulful ways.

I am still seeking opportunities to come undone. Recently I was presented with a situation where I had the option to hold tightly to who I have always thought myself to be, or to release that version of myself and allow room for change. In the moment I froze, clinging to an old, safe, worn-out definition of myself. But I awoke the next morning with a sense that I don't have to be confined to that old self, that I can continue to undo him and make room for a newer, more fluid sense of who I am.

I still need to be undone in as many ways as possible, to be stripped of years of pain and self-doubt. When I made the move to the desert, I needed to get to the bedrock of who I am, to that deeper self who is always a witness to my life. I needed to become completely undone, to surrender to Spirit and allow myself to be molded into a tool to serve a higher purpose, whatever that may be. I now make my living helping other people become more healthy and in charge of their lives. The more I work with other people's pain and fears, the more I have access to my own and can work to undo them.

I'm catching glimpses of how my life can be aligned with Spirit, but I am not there yet. I am still undoing myself, and being undone. I am grateful to the process, wherever it leads. And like the Hanged Man of the Tarot, I remain suspended in liminal space, in a state of surrender to the mysterious powers of transformation that mindfulness can unleash.

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