Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Initiating Wound

I don’t know how to start this piece. I don’t know if I’m writing what I intend, because I want to inform my reader, relieve some heartache, or praise the beauty of Creation. This piece, I suspect will be a hodge-podge of all of those things. I don’t think I’m gifted enough to tease those things apart. But maybe, I’m reverent enough to just let them be; connected, beguiling, and some mysterious expression of the miracle of humanness. Surrendering before the Mystery of our being here is all I can muster.

What I want to write about is the initiating wound. I don’t know how this recognition of Life’s wily compassion first came to me, but I remember writing an article for a men’s journal in 1985 that held the first seeds of this perception. At the time, I didn’t have the advantage of the perspective granted me by my long life-experience, my years as a therapist, or my dive over the edge of the abyss. But somehow I already knew. Life stained me just right. It gave me the right quantum of agony and uncertainty to deliver me to real richness.

I don’t know how such a thing is possible. I don’t even know if others have anything like this experience. I believe so, but I don’t know. What I do know, because I’ve experienced it, is that I’ve been propelled through many sensitizing moments that hurt like hell, and been delivered to a place where now I can see that what hurt me opened me. What limited me, gave me an outlet for incredible creativity. What was filled with heartache, became a fountain of meaning and poignant freedom.

I now have a strange bittersweet feeling every time I hear someone lament the particular gash Life has doled out to them. I know better than to celebrate, but inside I feel a sense of ironic praise. I know and believe the hurting, the searing cost of being granted a painful gift. My compassion gets so activated.

I can get angry too. I know this is a sign that I haven’t totally accepted this awareness yet, but I rankle, when someone collapses under the weight of what they have been granted. When they spend too much time complaining about how much it hurts. I know I’m in no position to judge. Life has its own rhythms. I still have a lot to learn about sitting in the cleansing fire.

Recently, a guest on our radio show (Growing an Elder Culture on KOWS fm.) said of elder awareness that it contained “the burning of one’s past.” By that I think he meant that the wounds and heartaches of one’s childhood no longer haunt and limit one. I tend to believe him. I don’t think that fate or angels, however, swoop into one’s life and remove them. I think that they morph as one begins to have a different relationship with what once disabled one. What once was full of limitations, failures and shame, through Life’s poignant alchemy have grown into extraordinary sensitivities. Poisonous pain has become the nectar of awakening.

How is such a thing possible? I don’t know a therapist, doctor, or any kind of human healer that aspires to do what Life does. It just happens. Not to everyone, I’m fairly sure. Some destinies, keep us guessing. But some, give us reason to look deeply into the mysteries of existence, and wonder.

It is as if the wondering is some active ingredient in Creation.


I live in the fire-riddled north bay. It has been a couple of weeks since we were all shocked by the vehemence of the firestorm. In those first 7 to 10 days, an aura of crisis accompanied the smoke. People were missing, homeless, and uncertain. The flames burned at more than some of our favorite spots, but at our hearts. It was a time of terrible vulnerability.

I have noticed, over the years, that times like these tend to bring the best out of people. There was an opening of hearts and homes, of supplies and of volunteerism. Life slowed its steady pace, and became a gradual offer of arms, tears, and gratitude for others. Gratitude and grief flowed over the fire-ravaged landscape. Along with the heartache, there was a great feeling of togetherness. For the time of the fires, reflected in the light of the flames, emerged a sense of community.

It is with this that I find myself dwelling today. I am heartened that so much of the general populace of this area rose up and cared about each other. This showed me something. We are social animals, we respond to each other’s pain. We want to address the damage done. We will help each other (even if we don’t know how). I could feel the way differences of skin-color, social status, or religious affiliations melted in the heat of the moment. Strangers cried and held each other.  We just knew we all shared the same vulnerability — something so awesome and unstoppable assailed us.

I knew that crisis is a powerful community-builder. I’ve known that for a long-time, although I’m always touched when it does happen. Still, I catch myself wondering about the human spirit. Why does it take a crisis for us to come together? I want to always feel strong in the ways I have found strength in our neighborhoods, schools, and cities. There seems to be something in our shared vulnerability that catalyzes a caring response in us. Thank God, but what is it about us, that sheds protective layers for the sake of others?

Whatever it is, crisis arouses it. I’ve come to believe that it is shared vulnerability, although, of course, I don’t know. I am so impressed by the sense of kinship that arises when people go through hardship together. I am sometimes envious, but mostly awed. Identity has suddenly been transformed, and teammates become buddies, neighbors become family, and housemates become life-long friends; all because they survived something life-threatening together.

I marvel at this. Others have noticed. In the nineties, many groups tried to replicate this sense of emergency to bring their people together. The pseudo-crisis worked, it brought people together short-term, but after the emergency, real or imagined passed, so did the cohesion of the group. Something more is needed to make the feeling last.

In my mind a lasting crisis is what it takes to provide an on-going sense of community. Something so threatening, at an existential level, that vulnerability is an everyday, everyway experience for all. But, I’m not even convinced of that. You see, in my mind, the crisis of living should be enough. After all, no one gets through this experience alive, and it happens to all of us, there are no exceptions. Isn’t the assurance of death enough? Isn’t aging challenging enough to soften the heart? It is for me. Isn’t the amount of unknown we all live with great enough?

Somehow we manage to block out of our awareness just how vulnerable we are. Maybe this is what it takes to go ahead with life, but I tend to think that if we humans actually felt our day-to-day vulnerability, we would be both more alive and more connected with each other. The vulnerability, we share with all of Life, passing so quickly, could, if we let it show, be just the thing that evokes in us, the tender regard for all, that is the true source of our strength.

Elder Absent-Mindedness

This is what paradoxical awareness does.

It’s already nearly November, the year has just flown by. My life, this gift from Mystery, has gone by so fast. Now I’m getting old, and I’m just beginning to get why I might be here. At the same time, I’ve waited a painfully long slow slog coming to some kind of recognition of what I am, what we all are. There have been eras of heartache, loss, and wondering, that passed so slowly that I thought they would never end. “This too shall pass,” was a speedy way of saying this might last awhile. I live in a world that is going faster than I want, and slower than I can bear. Both are happening, bewilderingly, at once.

I’m old enough now, that I’m starting to penetrate the fog of rushing business I kept myself (and my world) under control with, and I feel like a toddler walking on the freeway. It seems like everything is zooming by me. It took me this long to show up, and I am about to die. Old age is a human accelerator guaranteed to get me up to a speed up to where I can pop out of this body. Old age is an eternity of slowing down that makes me forget the little stuff in favor of what matters. I’m dizzy from going too fast/slow, I can hardly tell the difference anymore.  The moment is looking pretty good right now.

I am much more facile with my feelings now. What used to take me forever to notice, and express, now comes in little intense bursts. Wake-up calls that arouse me, leave me shaken, and more vulnerable than I ever knew. I like feeling this alive, and this near death. I want to walk through it all like I’m in some unanticipated cathedral, and I find myself running for my life. It is uncanny — feeling how grief and praise intermingle in my body — I feel lighter when I’m swept before a wave of grief, and heavier if I keep my head above the storm surge.

My relationships have a patina of wonder to them now. I am more connected and more alone than I have ever been. I know that the more I know someone, the more wonder and uncertainty about who they are haunts and freshens what transpires between us. I also know that my relationship within, determines the depth of my relationship with others. And, as the mystery of myself grows, so my sense of unknowing wonder increases. In some strange way, getting better acquainted with others, is acquainting me more with myself. The boundary between self and other is becoming both more solid and more permeable.

I am drowning in a sea of conflicting sensations. Bereft, at the turn of political events, and elated, about the unifying response to that encroaching darkness. I’m so close to others, and yet so far away. Laughter and sobs intermingle, defining my grief and my orgasms. Living seems to be a form of dying. I get away with nothing, and yet I feel supported. The days go by, in accelerating patterns, but kaliedescopically broken and slow. I want this life to add up to something, and it is filled with nothingness. I am tossed by the waves, and enjoy a head wind, all carrying me beyond myself into some other alien being. Life has tricked me into thinking it matters, but I have no idea how. Openness, flexibility, and unknowing, seem to be my fate, yet I like to know what’s going on.

This feeling of being connected, and in the flow, is a strangely solitary experience.  I feel the other humans around me like a star feels the other stars that surround it. The distances in an expanding Universe, are growing. The more I subjectively link with someone the more I notice how far away they actually are. The void has its binding power. I am relaxing, knowing that quicksand is my fate.  All of these tricky sensations tell me I’m on course, but my trajectory is carrying me beyond any gravitational pull I know.

Freedom dominates my attention now, but it seems to mean moving into a larger unknown space. It is wonderfully unbounded and terrifyingly unrecognizable. I am being drawn into a vast unknowing, just as I have learned how to be here. Life is pushing me to be more, as it is making me less. I am at the mercy of the unknown, at just the moment when wisdom is supposed to be dawning in me.

Maybe, all of these cross currents make of wisdom, not something you have, rather something that has you.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Elder Relationship

“two solitudes salute, border, and protect each other.”
                                                                                                      Ranier Marie Rilke

Recently I was at a meeting where a friend of mine (someone I admire) brought us to discuss one of the most important attributes of elders that is emerging today.  He had recently compiled a list of conscious elder developmental characteristics (see below), which he shared with us.

   Essentializing                                                Letting Go
   Embracing Paradox                           Embracing Uniqueness
   Facing the Unknown as a Way of Life         Increased Tenderness
   Increased Awe                                               Presencing Evolution
   Re-becoming Playful                                     Welcoming Death (as Ally)
This list prompted a discussion. It was a good thing Xan was there, because between the two of us, it was clear something was being left out. For us, relationship had changed significantly, and we now considered that attribute to be one of the most important attributes of elder life.

Here is my best recollection of what we added. It had become clear to us that aging brought with it, to some people, a decrease in the tendency to be emotionally reactive.  This increased relationship capacity mightily. In our case, it meant less conflict, greater emotional intelligence, and a much greater capacity to talk about what mattered. We found we could rely on the sharing of honest perspectives. We could also explore feelings and thoughts together, thus we knew a lot more about where each of us stood.

There was also a genuine intrigue into our differences; instead of being put off, we found these differences increased our sense of reality, and actually became something that would bring us delight and insight. We were constantly finding the world was much bigger, and more complex and nuanced than either of us thought. Relationship, for us, involved more engagement with each other’s “otherness” than we had ever experienced before.

Added to that was the fact that both of us could “hold onto ourselves” like never before. Life experience with our selves translated into a deepening capacity to relate to another. There is something heartening about the freedom to be oneself, and to be with someone else who has that same freedom to be them selves. We have never had a lot of power struggles, or anxiety about someone feeling forced to be some way.

All of these elements led us to have more intimacy than before, and they have created a relationship field like neither of us had experienced before. Some of these skills came because of who each of us is, but some have appeared unbidden, they are the consequences of getting older.

On a more general level, I think it fair to say, that older people, at least those that have kept themselves alive, have acquired  a capacity for interdependence, that is, a greater skill at relating with the complexity of Life. This is a development many old people don’t know about, despite the rising capacity they may feel in themselves. In my opinion, the Universe is a relational place, and now with  ripening, we humans  are also capable of relating, like never before.

The upshot is, that with aging I have become much more capable of understanding someone else’s need for solitude. I am also much more likely to admire and protect our mutual solitude. I now know that our uniqueness, our feeling of freedom, of belonging to ourselves, our place in the spectrum of things, depends on it.  Without trying, I have become a much more relational being than I have ever known myself to be, and that development seems to rebound to the benefit of everything around me.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Precariousness of Life

I had to go down, despite all of the relationships that buoy me up, the careful support structure I am grateful to have around me. I sank somewhere into the darkness, beyond all the resources of love I knew. It was a descent like none I’ve known since my stroke.
And, it reintroduced me to a vulnerability I don’t want to know or feel. Yet, I do. 

Grief has carried me into the realm where I have become Lucky, and felt the enduring connection that calms and sensitizes me. Here, I am surprised by the vibrancy of all that lives, and by the incredibly precious precariousness of Life. This is a vulnerability that adds a great deal of poignancy to the vital connection that carries me, and is responsible for my delight in what exists. This level of vulnerability shocks me. It puts me into a state of necessary wonder. I share it with you now, hoping that as I do so, I can find a better way to be with this perception.

My knees begin to quake. I can barely stand this awareness. It takes all of my resolve to remain in touch with this level of poignant strength and fragility. For a moment I curse the paradoxical sensitivity that has come over me as I have aged. It allows me access to what seems too much. I don’t want to know the suspense of being. I like feeling connected, knowing myself as an almost insignificantly small part of the whole, but a piece never-the-less. I can, I have, lived with that. But this, the experience of how everything trembles before emptiness, this awareness, puts me on edge.

Can it be that everything can exist in some improbable way that seems always as if it could collapse at any instant? That perception makes me tremble. I don’t know if it is the improbability of it all, or the miraculousness of everything being here anyway. I want to creep everywhere, so I don’t disturb this delicate balance. Still I am here, and I’m obsessed with the human pursuits that have been allotted to me.

I don’t know what to do with this awareness. There probably is nothing to be done with it. I just have to feel the queasy uncertainty it sets off in me. The combination of the strength of Life, with its fragility, is just so mind twisting, so flabbergasting I’m unable to really grasp it. I guess this is why the Mystery stays so mysterious. I know that if I were really advanced maybe I could just sit with this perception. I might not even tremble. But — I’m not enlightened — I’m just overwhelmed.

Life fills up the darkness. It holds on, I don’t know to what. Maybe the reason for all the suffering is because something is entering and filling the emptiness. And perhaps, when this occurs, there is some time of incredible vulnerability, when uncertainty prevails, and another foothold, another niche, is being created. The whole process is miraculously exquisite and, for me, unbearable.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m really grateful that I get to be here, that I get to participate in something so dramatic and suspenseful. It’s just that I don’t know if I can settle my self down enough, being in the midst of such an unsettling drama? Maybe that is the point. I am more alive now than I was a while ago. Knowing of this paradoxical drama, what appears to be the drama of creation, not only shakes me, but it makes me more vulnerably alive.

My next breath is not guaranteed. It never was. I didn’t know that like I do now. There is a huge gain there, but it comes with an even bigger loss. I’ve been stripped of sureness, and left with uncertainty. I’m more alive because I’m more uncertain of life. Oh, the whole thing is giving me chills, or maybe they are quakes of life? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I used to like good mystery novels. I don’t exactly know how I feel about being in the midst of a good mystery. Life is a whole lot stranger than I ever imagined. Life is a whole lot more compelling too. Well, one thing I am certain about, is that I am here to live through this uncertain hour, this messy hubbub. I have been taken on a thrill ride of major proportions, which seems to hold both terrible and incredible surprises.

I’m becoming a very twisted soul, by enduring the arduous and miraculous twists of this fragile and enduring precariousness. I’d like to ask you, how you bear this whole incredible and heartbreakingly beautiful mess? But then I’d be asking you to share with me the way you relate to it, and I know that that would be to ask you what it looks like down your rabbit hole.

I’m giving you a glimpse of mine, I hope it helps.