Everything is Illuminated

“Embracing the hurt, we learn to trust that there is something greater, something mysterious and full of grace.”                                      Thanissara

The phone rings in the night. The father’s heart, long struggling, has finally broken. He is gone. A neighbor slips away in a mysterious pandemic. Headlines scream. Yet the early spring opens into its extravagant bounty. The thrushes are back, singing in the woods. A baby moves through blood and slime and pops out, alive and well.  There is a tender moment of intimacy and grace with a perfect stranger. In the midst of all of my busyness, there are moments of delight as well as difficulty.

As I see and soften identification with myself and other and all that needs to be so urgently accomplished, I experience moments of enlightenment, when my insistence and my opinions about life all slip away and all simply IS and is known. “It’s like this now,” wide and spacious: in its own way, perfect. I open in compassion and deep care. Just this. While there is sometimes the huge challenge of just being alive, called to living and loving in the midst of so much gaining and losing, there also are unending miracles.

It is said that on the night of his enlightenment, Siddhartha remembered such a moment when, as a child sitting under the rose apple tree, his mind and heart had opened as wide as the world. As he later recollected that moment, the grown Siddhartha saw the possibility of resting in wise and spacious, heartfelt and simple awareness of the comings and goings of all that arises, moment by moment, by moment. In that awareness, there was no struggle, no complaint, nothing to fight, nothing, even to accomplish. He rested in the “middle way:” a heart that knew the joys and sorrows of this human life and seeing what response was wholesome, wise and possible in that moment. Sometimes we see images of him at that moment: the Buddha smiling at the mystery of it all.

These moments come, seemingly unbidden, like gifts of grace. As the ripened fruits of awareness. They are not produced by my deliberate effort or by my conscious mind. They are allowed and received as I learn to open and rest in presence and mystery.  As a psychotherapist, there is kind being-with, a relative ease even as a client struggles: fully present and caring, but not caught in a drama, not identified, not resisting, not running away. Allowing all of my own experience, even if unpleasant.   I am available to understand but not requiring understanding. Available to help but not needing to help and not even needing to be seen as helpful. Often, this simple resting in presence opens into a surprising moment of grace.

My client Marie struggled with relationships, both external and internal. With a long-time and very sincere and serious spiritual practice, she tried hard to bring presence, love and care to everyone she met. Yet her intimate relationships remained relentlessly conflicted and they often ended badly. She was speaking in one session of the collapse of her current relationship; this one, too, another failure. As I listened, aware externally, aware internally, I kept seeing my mind wander off. My efforts to stay focused were caught in struggle and, ultimately, my own failure. I investigated and saw the difficulty.

Shortly before Marie had arrived, I had received a troubling phone call. My mentally challenged mother had been sent to the hospital in a medical crisis. Several difficult decisions needed to be made. Soon. By me. Back in session, no matter how I tried, my attention would not stay only with Marie; my problem-solving-for-my-mother brain was having its way. Out of care for Marie, I told her. I said that I was distracted by something of my own and by a phone call I had just received. I knew that, whether or not I spoke of it, at some level she would perceive my lack of full presence. I told her that I wanted to speak of it so we could together bring it into awareness and so she would know that my difficulty being present wasn’t because of her and that it wasn’t her fault.

“So, focus,” she said.  “Come back.” “I can’t, quite,” I replied. “I’ve been trying and I see that the best I seem to be able to do at this moment is to tell you what’s happening so you won’t feel responsible. It’s like this just now, for me, for you. It’s like this just now.” She became disappointed and frustrated, then enraged that I couldn’t be what she wanted just then. For her, the narrative had such a familiar feel: I was a failure, she said, just like all those other relationships in the history of her life.

I saw her anger, acknowledged it to her and to me, and felt the unpleasantness. I knew my own wish to be there, also, and knew that the best way of being there at that particular moment was for both of us to know very clearly the limits of my ability. It was “like this” just now. It continued for the rest of the hour in much that way and she left the session in a huff. I contemplated what I might have done differently, bowed to my limitations, and blessed us both.

When she returned the next week, Marie had had an epiphany. After our session and still upset, she had courageously turned to mindful awareness and then a kind investigation of her troubling experience with me. She had slowly unfolded into more and more clarity. She saw her own anger and disappointment and grief. Moving even deeper, however, she saw her own relentless drive to always be some particular way: what she thought she should be at any given moment and her own unforgiving expectations of herself and others. She saw that her struggles to be “perfect,” borne out of historical conditioning and conceptual mind, pushed and pulled her every thought, her every behavior. She saw her demand that others be perfect. Embedded in her conditioning, she had simply assumed this to be the only way, the only choice. My willingness to be present and at ease with my own imperfections, to name them and not push them off on another, had ultimately given her a space in which to cultivate the same ease of mind with herself. It was a true gift of grace, borne out of our shared mindfulness of the experience of the moment.

So, I fix things when I can. I go back to the house for a jacket and I take my car for an oil change and a new tire. I make soup for my children and offer a loving ear to friends.  As a psychotherapist, I learn valuable techniques to address childhood trauma and I study ways to help people with disordered thinking, biological mood swings and addictions. I explore my own conditioning as I study about racism and sexual and gender traumas; I write letters and vote and march in the streets. I offer care and prayer and help when I can. At the same time, I remain human and not, ultimately, in control of very much.

I am not even in control of what the Maries of my life might choose to do with their own experience or their responses to my abundant limitations. I am not even fully in control of myself. My own work is, at every moment, to “chop wood, carry water.”  Over and over, I am invited back to just this moment, just this experience: just this. I come to trust that everything, in its own way is illuminated in the mysterious unfolding of life. I know that my practice is to bring as much presence and care as I can to my own being and my own relationships. I am invited to rest my heart and mind in the larger awareness: the mystery of the unfolding that is beyond my individual comprehension and certainly beyond my  own control. I am/we all are invited into grace.



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