Hold your experience with tremendous gentleness. Stay with yourself–always, always, always. Be kind, feel kindly, be loving… As you become friendly toward yourself, you see that actually you can trust your own mind and heart. From this trust and friendship arise unconditional self-confidence. ~Susan Piver
About a month ago, I went to a retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) led by Susan Piver. This is the second retreat I’ve been lucky enough to do with Susan at SMC. It was an Open Heart Retreat, “a weekend of meditation practices, journaling, small group dialogue and an exploration of ways we can bring our raw and tender hearts home to the world of family, politics, work, and love.” For me, it was perfectly timed. That morning, I had met for the first time with a new doctor, and she told me “you are obese.” I left for the retreat confused, irritated, and sad.
The retreat provided a safe, supportive space in which to process. And yet, it was not easy. Meditation practice can be difficult because when you sit, the thing that needs your attention, that you’ve maybe been avoiding, is the thing that shows up. And as Susan said at the beginning of the retreat in reference to another activity we’d practice that weekend, “journaling is a very potent way to begin a dialogue with your own heart.” So essentially, there was no place to hide.
On the first full day, we did a practice I’ve done with Susan before. In the most simple terms, you sit across from a version of yourself, imagining who she is and how she sees you, and then you switch perspectives. You start by being your smallest, most scared self looking at your strongest, most brilliant and actualized self, finishing by taking her perspective and seeing your small self from that side. Later, we spent time journaling about, telling the the story of our small, scared self.
The next day, we spent time remembering both perspectives, and wrote a letter from our wise, strong, kind self to the person who is small and scared. It had to begin with “Dear Jill, this is what I have to say to you,” and end with “I love you.” I wrote,
This is what I have to say to you–It’s okay. Cheer up. You’re perfect. Yes, there is a tender spot, like a splinter in your foot or a paper cut in your finger. But, it is that small–that irritating and present, but still small and impermanent. It is there so you know, understand the shape and flavor of this particular suffering. It is there to speak to you of darkness, but also of compassion and wisdom. It is a path.
Look for the exit, the off ramp, the sign. It’s there. You have a GPS that is set to lead you into your own open heart, into your life, into wakefulness, into space. It is an open door. It is a blanket you can wrap around yourself. It is your mother.
Ask for help, allow people to help you. You know Eric is there to help and love you. He said this morning in that way he does, “We’ll figure it out,” and you know you believe him, that it’s the truth.
There is nothing to be afraid of or worried about, no rush, no reason to push. You can simply be with this, ride it, be curious and gentle, relax. In this are the seeds for compassion, for love, a fuller life–more time with the dogs, more time with Eric, activities that make you feel nourished, that feed what you are truly hungry for–love, connection, activity, movement, breath. This will all come together and you will take it out into the world with you.
There’s no failure, only trying or success. There’s no end point or goal, only breath and life. This is genuine, truth, love, and you are open to its wisdom and compassion.
Remember what Lisa Field-Elliot said, “it’s not about the accumulating, it is about recognizing and eliminating what does not speak the truth.” Let go of thinking any external validation, truth, wisdom or acceptance has any meaning. You can save yourself. Your body is wise and if you listen to it, to your heart, it will tell you the truth, always the truth, and you never need to apologize for it. You never need to explain or justify it. It is, as you are.
You are your own mother, your own doctor, your own guru. You will ease your own struggle and suffering, and go on with a deep knowledge, an understanding of truth that will benefit others. You will ease suffering, in yourself and in the world, through the good effort of your practice and your open heart.
I love you.
After we wrote our letter, Susan sent us aimlessly wandering. This is a particular mindfulness practice, “exploration without destination,” movement without intention or judgement, a walking meditation. As I walked, I was drawn towards my favorite trees at SMC–two pine trees, one straight and one bent, but so close together they almost look like a single tree, growing mostly by themselves in the corner of a meadow. I stood between them, looking out at the land, and the wind blew, a cool gust that filled my lungs, pushing against and past and through my body like a physical thing. In that moment, a voice inside me whispered, “you can let go.” I made a deal with the wind, with the pines, with that sacred land and vast open sky that I would.
Looking in my wallet, as I’d packed to come to SMC, I’d found a rock, picked up, collected and kept from our trip to the beach this past summer, carried with me ever since. It was a joke from Eric. I’d been finding so many heart shaped rocks on the beach, that one day he came home from a walk with the dogs and said, with a crooked grin on his face, “I found you a heart rock.” What he put in my hand was deep red and meaty, shaped like an organ, rippled like muscle, a tiny petrified heart.
After the weekend at SMC, I was ready to let it go, this closed, hard heart. I couldn’t drop it just anywhere, throw it away. It needed to go somewhere I could trust to take it, needed to give it away and have it accepted with kindness, to have it held it for me, to place it somewhere safe, to allow for a letting go. On that final morning, I walked back to “my” trees. I hugged the one that stands straight and tall, (I confess, I first looked to be sure no one was watching), this spot where I’d made a deal with the wind, where I could return my closed, hard heart to the earth, let it rest in that place.
It would release me, I would release it. I could move on, go home. I could leave the self there who hurts, who is afraid. She could stay there safe, comforted, and I would leave, cracked open, soft and tender and raw.
There was a spot in the bent tree where a branch had been cut off. It looked like an eye. I took the heart rock from my pocket, smooth and warm, and shoved it as far as I could into the center of the eye. Then I stood between the trees, in the same spot where the wind had touched me the day before, and looking out over the land, I let go.
I opened my heart.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
This morning, Eric and the dogs and I hiked the Cummins Creek Trail near Cape Perpetua. Hiking is for me what church is for other people, a sacred space where I can actively connect with that which is larger than myself, a way to worship and celebrate and surrender, to give thanks for the wonderful life I get to live and the amazing beauty in which I get to live it.
Our hike this morning reminded me a few things I’d forgotten about hiking on the Oregon Coast.
- I forgot: The way the wind contorts the trees at the very edge of the forest, where it meets the sea, permanently shaping and bending them.
- I forgot: Slugs and spit bugs, (those last ones are every bit as gross as they sound).
- I forgot: How much I love Hemlock and Maple trees.
- I forgot: How up in the big Hemlocks and Firs and Redwoods and Maples, the ground beneath your feet is nothing but tree roots and decayed plant matter, moss and fungi, and that all makes it super springy, spongy, soft.
- I forgot: That it’s w a y more humid than in Colorado. At one point on our hike today, I was completely wet, body and clothes, covered in a thick layer of sweat and water, dripping and soggy. I had to finally give up and put my sunglasses in my pocket because they kept fogging up, making me blind.
- I forgot: As in Colorado, you have to hike hard and far to get to the real sweet spot.
- I forgot: While in Colorado on a hike you might see up to 40 different plant species, on the Oregon Coast you see at least 400.
- I forgot: Sometimes, it’s so beautiful that you can’t hardly believe it’s real, and you love it so much it hurts.
Remember that this particular day will never happen again. ~Susannah Conway, from this i know: notes on unraveling the heart
A few moments from today:
Sleeping in until 6:15 am (yes, this counts as “sleeping in” when you typically get up at 4:30 am), Sam stretched out beside me, his warmth and deep breath lulling me back to dreams.
Roses from my garden, white and deep red, in a Mason jar on my writing desk. The open window lets in cool air, bringing with it morning bird song and the smell of rain, which mixes with the scent of the roses. I write in my notebook, but not about that.
Walking with Eric and the dogs, we see a man park his truck, get out dressed in nice work clothes (button down shirt and slacks), pull a pair of dirty work boots out and put them on. With a rake slung over his shoulder, he walks towards the ball field. We walk one lap around the dog park, and when we get back, he’s still raking lines in the dirt as if it were a giant zen garden.
I clean up the house a little more, folding sheets and sorting laundry. At first, the dogs follow me from room to room, but finally settle somewhere and sleep.
A blog post that brings me to tears of gratitude and recognition, exactly what I need to hear, and I wonder once again “how will I ever thank her?”
A shower while Eric barbeques steaks for lunch. The 1/2 side of organic beef we bought at the beginning of the year allows such extravagance, midweek and midday.
Another walk, at a different park. We try to identify trees, guess the types. Everything I don’t recognize, I call an Elm–Honey Locust, Kentucky Coffee Tree, all of them Elms.
In the backyard, reading this i know: notes on unraveling the heart, the sun making leaf shadows on the pages. Sam drops a toy for me to throw, and when I do, he jumps across my chest, over my lap and the chair to go after it, like some crazy agility move or circus trick. Later, both dogs are sprawled out next to me, Sam hoarding all the toys.
This particular day will never happen again…