Tuesday, June 7, 2011

opening to presence

One of the most crystalline of memories I have from childhood is my 4-year old self in bed as my babysitter was about to close the door and turn out the light. My Jungle Book soundtrack was on the record player, and she had let us stay up late watching a show on orcas (which, I was convinced, were big magpies). As she went to close the door to a crack, I called her back in and asked, "What will happen when my mother dies?"

Now, I don't know about you, but these are not easy thoughts to sift through with a 4-year old on a Friday night to the tune of "Trust in Me." I have tried my best to remember the identity of the unfortunate witness to my early existential crisis, but so far she hasn't been tracked. Nor do I remember what her response was aside from an initial "Oh, honey, that won't happen for a long time" that was quickly trumped by my "But what WILL happen?" Suffice to say, I am sorry to have unloaded that on you...if it helps, I still grapple with it all the time. Especially in the wake of having lost one parent already and too suddenly.

Last week I was hiking along listening to the NPR podcast of the always satisfying show, On Being. The guest was Kate Braestrup, a Maine chaplain to game wardens who go on search and rescue missions that end in tragedy as often as in recovery. She refers to her work as a "ministry of presence," at the "hinges of human experience when lives alter unexpectedly — where loss, disaster, decency, and beauty intertwine." This woman kind of rocked my world.

Her "ministry of presence" embodies, so sublimely, what "the divine" means to me. What yoga means to me. What sitting with discomfort means, what showing up means. THE miracle, as Braestrup sees it, isn't in the inexplicable events or the tragedies. THE miracle is that we continue to show up, to be present, even as we know the way the story--all our stories--will end.

"The question," said Braestrup, "isn't whether we are going to have to do hard awful things, because we are. And we all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone." In her years as a chaplain, and having lost her own young husband in an accident, Braestrup recognizes that "god" is the force that shows up, is present. "What we are less apt to be aware of and reconciled to," she explained, "is that we will lose everyone we love as well...the loss is going to be real, and there is no anesthesia."

And the power of this is, we know it. We already know it. We have always known it.

And yet, we continue to show up.

What I DO remember about the night of my crisis, however, is a feeling that kept me up that night. In spite of early signs of a brooding personality, I was still relatively untouched by any suffering...so I cannot project onto the little me what the older me would call it now. It wasn't anxiety or fear, though there was an element of urgency to my question. It was like I HAD to know, and I wasn't worried about what would become of her, per se (like, is there life after death or do we just dissolve into dirt or is there a god and is he/she/it nice?)...no, I wanted to know what would happen to me.

That seems reasonable, as I read it. Kids think about themselves, people tend to worry about their own lot. But that wasn't the obsession that night. It was this: somehow I felt that when she dies, so would I.

And I was too young to be feeling that as a metaphor or thinking symbolically about the ways we are grafted and shaped by our lives. I was a literalist. Snakes could sing, orcas were magpie mothers, and life was intimately bound to my mother.

To my father as well. Which I learned on a Thursday night in late October, 2004 when I said over and over to my brother on the phone, "No no no no no." As though I could revise the moment. Backspace, edit. In that moment, I felt something we might as well call a root, go cold and hollow. And in the days and weeks that followed, I felt the hunger of a dead root. Felt it seeking a sap that would never again whet its thirst. Uprooted. The world rocked.

There was who I was before. And then there was who I was from that point forward. Death is a tough teacher, especially a death that you know in your own bones and feel in the cells is a death of you, too. The raw material, the quickening, the sprout, the emergence, and then the felling. Who you were and who you are. Ne'er the two shall meet.

When someone you love dies, no matter how much warning you have or how prepared you may be, something fundamental shifts. Grief happens at a molecular level. Grief happens at the invisible vibratory level. Which is why grief, as an experience, is a lamentation. It's a song.

Braestrup noted that amidst a world of natural disasters, wars, unspeakable and even evil acts of violence, these catastrophes are almost always followed by courage, care, love, and generosity. We tend to treat the BIG EVENT as the thing--the place to look for god (or awaty from god) and we learn to treat our stunning capacity to care for one another as "unusual." But really, love and care--in the face of the loss and the suffering--this is the ongoing narrative of who we always have been and will be. Though there are those horrific stories of suffering where no one shows up and no one speaks up and no one helps, the usual way is to be present for those who need us to live on.

I have come to see that the reason people turn away, turn a blind eye, go into denial, or "don't want to know" is NOT because they are shallow, uncaring, or ignorant. I believe what they fear the most is their capacity to feel--to feel love break you open and make fragments of all you once thought you were. To feel loss empty you out and leave you with nothing more than the ache that is itself an undying love that must remain beating while the corpse continues on its journey.

We are afraid to feel, because the power of our feeling doesn't fit into the neat and tidy categories of our language, our logic, or our limitations.

Bearing witness is a part of many spiritual traditions and practices--learning to sit with and be present for what IS happening instead of checking out and running toward what we prefer, remember, or want. Braestrup' s ministry of presence reminded me of this witness consciousness--sakshi. As she explains, suffering alone is the worst. The stories that leave us feeling most helpless and powerless are the most tragic. When we know there is pain and despair, it is our innate response to want to hold one another.

And so it makes perfect sense, really, that sometimes people cannot "go there." They may be fine with CSI or the local news or a remote and uplifting tale of struggle that ends happily. It's a lot tougher to face the suffering that calls upon our own capacity to feel--even when feeling doesn't mean we can change a damn thing. Especially when what we feel doesn't mean we can change a damn thing.

Our capacity to feel, and to feel so deeply and profoundly that it can literally restructure our very being, is terrifying. In the great epic, The Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna begs to see Krishna (the lord) as he really is. After Krishna essentially gives Arjuna god-glasses, and reveals himself in his full manifestation (AS manifestation itself), Arjuna is overcome and cannot bear it. Glasses off. It is too much, too beautiful, too terrifying, too everything. It is everything at once. It is his own divinity, his own limitless beauty and power, too. All of it, unbearable to witness. To behold.

Before I lost both of my beloved great danes to their respective deaths (both hideous and painful), I used to remark on how teary-eyed I felt when they would look at me so longingly and adoringly. It's like I was somehow preemptively feeling the loss that would inevitably come. One winter day on a long hike through knee-high snow, Peanut (a cow-spotted Harlequin dane with unfettered enthusiasm) bounded up to me and just plopped down, pink tongue lolling out the side of what could only be described as a smile. I looked straight into his eyes, and he just stared at me, panting joyfully.

I burst into tears.
Right there on the trail, in my red snow hat and ill-matched mittens. And it was cold enough to freeze those tears to my cheeks so that they tickled and itched and distracted me enough to pull myself back into self-mockery and some silent comment about PMS.

But here is what I have learned. In those mahogany eyes, I saw my own divinity--my own capacity to love and be loved, unconditionally. And it was too much. It was ecstasy and pain--a momentary sense of really being SEEN. Seen and loved. And not loved in spite of what was seen, but because of it.


And yet we DO bear it. And yet we do survive, continue on, live, however haunted, in, among and within the ghosts.

Among the many beautifully simple things Kate Braestrup said in the interview was this: "God is love. If nothing else...god is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other."

I stood on the snowy battlefield somewhere between who I had been and who I was becoming, moment by moment, and I was given the sight to see that force, god, the divine....and it was too much. Glasses off.

Lately I have been doing my morning practice outside, on the grass overlooking the woods. I like to be on the ground, close to the wet earth before the sun fully rises. It's a still time, punctuated here and there by the first hummingbirds of the day and the occasional dismissive caw of a nearby sentry crow. There is one in particular who seems to recognize me...perched each morning in the same tree branch. I start with bakasana for him. Hawks circle overhead, and deep in the threads of the grass I watch ants climbing and descending like little black beads. It's lovely.

Except the cows.

And here is what I mean by that: I am living on the land where I was raised, which means 80 acres of serene pine forests and wildflower-dotted fields. It means solitude and sanctuary, and for a woman who was trying to navigate too many sudden losses and a health crises that sent me spinning, solitude and sanctuary are good medicine.

But it also means living on land my stepfather uses to raise cattle...and for a woman who has advocated for non-human animals (and farm animals in particular), this presents some challenges.

For years, as a vegan and animal rights advocate, I operated from the position that my way was the right way. And even as I did my best not to outwardly judge or collapse into proselytizing, I still harbored the belief that I was right--which means my stepfather is, well, wrong.

Wrong for raising sentient beings, no matter how humanely or free-ranging and grass-feeding and lovingly tended to (all named, all roaming the fields and forests). Because at the end of the proverbial day, they go to slaughter. No matter how you dress it up, slaughter is a messy business. No being wants to die. And even the most skilled, small-scale operations (like the one my pop uses) are ending a life in a violent way. "Humane slaughter" is a euphemism that can only comfort those who profit from and feed upon the suffering of those whose voices are literally snuffed out in the act.

This is usually when people turn away. This is where they don't want "to go" and don't want "to know." I don't have the choice, as I spent over two years researching animal exploitation as it relates to identity construction. Simply put, I have subjected myself to daunting hours of the worst kinds of footage, reports, and frontline narratives detailing the most atrocious and institutionalized forms of brutality and cruelty inflicted upon those beings who have no voice, no choice, and absolutely no power. The gentlest among us are the ones we brutalize and literally dismember into objects, pieces parts, according to our own tastes and preferences.

Like cows.
Who are gentle, maternal, playful, easily scared.
Easily subdued.

Kate Braestrup works at that place where "loss, disaster, decency, and beauty intertwine." The heart of her ministry is being present to it all--even as it may feel unbearable, bearing witness and opening oneself up to the true miracle that emerges in that presence, that willingness to be there EVEN AS WE KNOW the end of the story. And it is ALL there--the tragic and the beautiful.

Whilst I have been healing parts of my ever-shifting self, something in me had hardened in order to remain on these 80 acres during this sojourn. Something in me had numbed out so that I could deal with the fact that one side of a fence romped 4 spoiled, overweight, infinitely happy dogs...and on the other side romped newborn calves and lowing mothers whose lives will all eventually culminate in the garage freezer. In spite of all my years of practice and knowing better and leaning into the void...blah blah blah...there was right and there was wrong. Deep down that was how I felt. To be fair, at this point I value peace far more than I value being right, but I cannot deny there is a shrill and condemning voice inside me that has a very difficult time with all this. So, instead, I watched the voice, felt the feelings, and applauded myself for embodying peace over conflict. But the battle was not over, because I was the conflict.

Each time a calf was born and named, I would just go quiet, erring on the side of silence when the judgment and anger and frustration wanted to scream. Proselytizing and lecturing and so forth were, thankfully, no longer my methods. Still, those feelings have value and my response to them was, "don't go there." I turned off, I turned away. Because the pain is too much when you know there will be suffering, and nothing you feel will change a damn thing.

I recently attended...wait, scratch that, suffered through? Endured? Survived? (you get the idea) a workshop with Ana Forrest--a world-renowned teacher known for her intensity, abdominal work, and fierce honesty. It wasn't my first time with Ana, but this was the first time I had done heart opening with her. What remains with me long after the muscle fatigue wore off is Ana calling upon us to breathe into the heart, to feel the heart, to open the heart. "Practice one thing a day that brings your awareness into the space of your heart," she said. "Let the heart remain open, and if you can't do that, remain open to an experience, and if you can't do that, just breathe into your heart, and if you can't do that, just remember that it is there."

The heart is the bridge for the yogi, yoking together the more earthly regions of consciousness with those more elevated and esoteric. It's where the roots find flower. The heart center is the center of unconditional love and the willingness to see ourselves in all others. To keep the heart open, spacious, breathing, and feeling is no small feat in a world that so consistently asks us to be small, armored, defensive, and limited. It's hard to feel when what you want to feel is merely safe.

It's unbearable to feel broken apart and undone and shredded.
To feel it all.

Yesterday morning I was reminded of Kate and Ana and their words. I was reminded of Arjuna and Krishna, of my father, my mother, and my babysitter. In that mystical early morning hour, halfway through my sun salutes, one of the steer had wandered to the fence to watch me. Within a few minutes, the rest of his companions had joined him. I know they are males, because the western pasture is where they all go until they go to slaughter. These are the long-lashed, velveteen beauties whose eyes and swishing tails and obsidian hooves I have been avoiding. Looking away. Because I know the way the story ends, and after a lifetime of developing affections and attachments to the boys out back, I have learned that the storyline does not deviate.

But something happened yesterday. I got really honest with myself about some of the stuff that had been stirred up and eventually shaken out of my gut in Ana's class: "To open the heart, you have to open the gut," she had said to us as we panted with fat rolled-up mats plunging into our bellys as we lifted up into our 4th or 5th bow pose. "And when you open the gut, you stir up all your shit, literally...and metaphorically."

The gut is 3rd chakra--Ego, power, sense of self. Who it is we think we are, and who it is we think others think we are. And to open the heart, truly and fully, we gotta let go of some of that shit.

As I stopped and let myself gaze back at that boys yesterday, I knew exactly why I had been avoiding it for so long.

It felt just like looking into Peanut's eyes that cold winter day. These were the same eyes. The gaze was not judging me, it was simply holding me, exactly as I am. Seeing me. And the painful realization was that I had denied him, this doomed and lovely being, the same care. The same attention. As though knowing the pain and loss was ahead, and that I was powerless to change his fate, somehow excused me from showing up.

Kate Braestrup said that, "once you kind of accept that death is a given, that (the love and care) becomes the thing to look for and to mark."

This isn't just the tale of bearing witness to those who are made so completely invisible and unseen. This is also the tale of my love for my parents, for my roots. For all that is simultaneously loss, disaster, tragedy, fear, beauty, courage, and hope. It is an unfurling tale of how to reconcile all of it happening all at once as what IS. Just as surely as I hope to open my eyes and look into the eyes of the slaughtered, I hope too to look deeply into the eyes of my stepfather and my mother. To look deeply while I still have that opportunity--and instead of insisting on seeing me in their gaze (being like me, thinking like me), I hope I have the heart and care and god (or whatever I wanna call it) to see them. To really SEE them, hold them, and love them because I know how the story will end.

We are, each of us, held, however tenuously and awkwardly, by one another in our suffering--moment by moment, and from lifetime to deathtime. That suggests, to me anyway, that it is our nature to hold others in their suffering. Even as we know we will lose them, feel pain, and possibly be in the sad state of powerlessness to do anything about it. We can show up. And we can love and care and respond to and attend to it all--however glorious or terrible it feels. Because keeping the heart open to feel is what we are here to do.

And I suspect that I am not the only one who has a way of building up diligently-patrolled fortresses to protect myself from feeling the big feelings. It's so much easier to turn away from what we don't want to feel, and our culture is tailored to indulge that tendency.

So here is my promise to myself: One thing a day that keeps your heart open--just one thing. Whatever that thing is, let it in. Even when it hurts--because it hurts. Even when you are afraid. Most especially because you are afraid. Let it unmake you, let it break you. And let it take you more deeply into who and what you have always been.

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