Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life’s mystery, and there we find faith.
I want to say I have never felt this much pain before this past year, but I would be lying. I have felt pain before. Physical pain, emotional pain, I have felt them both many times in my life. So it seems it’s not the amount of pain I have felt that has been challenging, that has taken me to my edge, my “outer limits,” as Sharon Salzberg calls them.
When I was a young woman, living in Vancouver in the mid 90s, my period or what I came to call my moontime, would always begin with a day or so of intense sensation in my womb. It was my uterus, shedding its dead layers of skin, the remnants of the egg being deposited mid-cycle. The time of ovulation, and possible conception, had ended without fulfillment, and in the waning of the cycle, the dissolution of the form that could have been, the promise unrequited became severe cramps which I had to learn to welcome and surrender to. There might have been one time I took some Midol, given to me by a friend who kept it in her bathroom cabinet, because there was none to be found in mine. I have been a non-medicator my whole adult life. So I learned to breathe through the tempests in my womb. It wasn’t easy. What helped was learning about my womanly cycle. I discovered the Goddess and her rhythms in my bleeding. I wrote poetry about her movements in my body, and in the process, created a female body mythology to enchant me to, and through the discomfort. Breathing in and out, I entered the fray, rather than numb myself away from it. I would tenderly hold my belly, and let myself be carried on her waves of intensity. It was an art, becoming an apprentice to the moon in me.
Other pains in the physical realm appeared. My fused spine—the result of surgery at seventeen to correct a severe scoliosis—impacted the way I walked in the world and how my body adjusted to its daily experiences. The discomfort in my upper and midback surfaced mostly when I sat for longer periods of time. I would find myself fidgeting, trying to get more comfortable. It wasn’t an acute pain. More of a gnawing unease. Massage therapy helped at times, as did other forms of bodywork, and keeping my body moving with yoga and dance. In my late twenties, when the discomfort leveled up from irritating to agonizing, I started seeing a chiropractor. His adjustments helped ease the tension, although I often felt strange in the mangled positions he would shift my body into before throwing his weight onto mine to execute the final shove. When I moved to Salt Spring Island in my early thirties, I met a kinder gentler form of chiropractic, which used a tool rather than the body’s weight to elicit similar results. This I continued for many years, until I felt my body had had enough.
But this is only the physical I have spoken of. The psychic, emotional pain was of an entirely other nature. There was no cure in structural alignment. It required more internal exploration. Talk therapy, journal writing, poem-making and performance were my chosen remedies, each in its own way alleviating some of the pressure. There were backward steps as well as forward ones. Eating way past full, picking the cuticles around my fingers till they bled, and chewing my cheeks inside my mouth raw and sore were alternative sources of relief. Albeit, they created more pain, not less.
But I endured. I survived. I even learned to thrive despite the discomforts of the body and heart. So why did it come as such a shock this “new” pain last year?
Besides it wasn’t a new pain, it was a recurrence of one I had experienced three years previous. However, the scope of it, the intensity, the extreme contraction felt like nothing I had previously experienced.
I am talking about a wrenching, stabbing, twisting, poking sensation. In the middle of my solar plexus, which also moved, to behind my ribs where it almost tickled but more precisely, grated, tenderizing my insides. Let’s call it excruciation embodied. Still averse to medications, I sought relief there anyway. Not prescription drugs, but herbals. That’s where I began. Yet even those were not satisfying. What could I do, but practice as I had practiced years ago with my bleeding aches. I sat with it.
Although between then and now my skills for sitting had developed and shifted. I had access to a different form of presence. Vipassana Meditation. It was the only thing that gave me lasting solace, augmented by the poetry and visualization of Metta, Karuna and Upekha. To these divine abodes I gratefully returned, again and again. If these practices didn’t make the pain go away, they gave me a gentler way to be with it. A way to relax and accept it, or notice how I was not relaxed and rejecting it. Being with the breath, sitting still, moving from the busy mind of thought into the stillness of body mindfulness, I saw how I could be aware of an unbearable pain in one part of my body while in another I experienced sweet calm and ease. It astonished me. How was this possible? I wondered and kept sitting.
It’s the calm and peace, the spacious stillness, the warmth and ease that wants to spoken of now. A space I alluded to in my first journal written when I moved to Vancouver. I was writing about home, wanting someday to find a home for my heart and body, where I would feel safe and at peace. I somehow understood, wise beyond my years, it was not necessarily a physical home I was seeking. “Rather it is the space within my own being, warm, quiet and comfortable. Perhaps the place where Shechina dwells. I believe it’s here where I will find what I have been looking for outside myself.”
In the journal, I had used a perspective shift, describing myself in the voice of she: “ … it’s here where she will find what she has been looking for outside herself”.
Today I am fortunate to be firmly planted in both: the home I have made with my husband, on a farm on a small gulf island in the Canadian northwest, and “the space within my own being, warm, quiet and comfortable,” found within the sacred walls of my studio, surrounded by the sacred landscape of the garden, and most especially, within the sacred skin of my body through the sacred presence of sitting practice. Call it Shamatha/Vipassana, or mindfulness, or Buddhist meditation. It is here I recover a wholeness, or discover how wholeness includes everything, the pain and the pleasure, the struggle and the freedom.
Salzberg suggests it is at the edge of our outer limits where we find faith. Yes, I certainly have found it there, and lost it, and found it. I wonder if this is a more apt definition of faith. Not something we always have but rather, something we keep recovering after losing it.
Recently I had been tested again, in the midst of a seven day meditation retreat, at a resplendent farm on Salt Spring where I have sat in silence for many such retreats. The pain I have referred to, the wrenching, twisting grasping, punching, had receded, thanks to some medications which did prove helpful. Then the retreat came and here was the pain again. I had nothing to do but sit. Not for an hour, after which I could distract myself with other things (work, writing, shopping, eating, watching movies) as I do in my daily life. Distraction can be another form of medication, a supportive palliative. However there are no such distractions on a retreat in which one is either sitting still and following the breath or another meditative anchor or walking and focusing on the body and feet in movement.
There I was sitting with the pain and the pain kept paining. Wrenching, wringing, balling, curdling, churning, wringing, punching, twisting, stabbing, gutting. Yes, Gutting. A new word to describe the lot of them. And the fear. Will I die? Can I handle this? I hate this I hate this I hate this. I was the yogi who asked the same question over and over again:
“What do you do with intense sensations?” I asked the teacher, during question period.
“You hold them,” she responded.
What if you can’t hold them? I added.
“Awareness can hold everything,” was her reply.
Awareness can hold everything. She was telling me it wasn’t up to me to be the holder of this pain. It was up to me to relax and let awareness do the holding. Which meant I needed to focus on being aware. Which meant I had to let go of my concern for what was happening and focus on how I was being with it. Which meant I had to relax and relax and relax some more. And receive, receive, receive. All within a space of compassion and care.
If you think we are doing nothing, us meditators sitting there with our eyes closed, I have to tell you, we are busy. Well, we are not doing nothing. We are practicing letting go of how we normally function in our lives, with an overactive mind and the fleeting awareness we are living in a body.
In meditation, we are moving in reverse. Attending with full presence on the body and relieving the mind of its busyness.
Later on in my individual interview with the teacher, I asked another question, at least twice: “How do you know when to sit with it and when to do something?”
“You don’t know. It’s trial and error. You have to trust and see.”
Faith. It’s in the doing, like the confidence which gets built when you see how awareness really can hold it all, Gutting included. Now I know why spiritual teachers suggest life is not for the faint of heart.
It’s for the faith of heart.