Exit 0: Coming to the End of Suffering

New Jersey, where I grew up, is bisected north to south by two major highways, the Garden State Parkway and the Turnpike. If you’re a South Jersey Girl, like me, they take you home from metropolitan environs of New York to the rural, marshy farmlands of this small, coastal state. The terminus of the Garden State Parkway, Cape May, the southernmost tip of the state, is Exit 0.

I was thinking of this recently while pondering the frequent refrain of students of spirituality: I want an end of suffering. I was struck by the image, both a little trite and at the same time extremely accurate, of life–especially spiritual life–as a journey. We could say that life is a journey to liberation for, as all life ends in death, with its unknowable terrain, at death we are free from life and all it brings. The ancient Greeks believed, as spoken by Sophocles’ chorus at the end of Oedipus Rex ,”Count no man happy until he dies, free from pain at last.”

For most seekers, suffering is something to be avoided at all costs through a variety of bypassing behaviors. And yet, paradoxically, we cannot come to the end of suffering until and unless we have passed through it, not by it. To evoke my journey metaphor, if we go through life in the express lane, never taking the roads through the small towns of suffering, we have no experience, no understanding of it. We haven’t seen its byways, tasted its flavors, smelled its odors. It’s not possible to live without suffering, so to pretend to do so by avoiding or ignoring it, is to pass through life being only partly alive.

In the work of Trillium Awakening, we teach students how to live fully as themselves. Our tools of greenlighting, holding, and feeling deeply with and as the body, develop our capacity to live the paradox of our limited humanity and our boundless divine nature. Resting in this paradox brings about a Second Birth into a life of authentically being who and how we are. And as we arrive at this portal of embodied awakened life, we continue to integrate our experience of suffering, which has helped to shape us into the human beings we are. We arrive at our destination: a deepening ability to fully feel all that life holds. And yet the journey is not complete.

Second Life is a process, an unfolding, a continually expanding capacity to be with what is. Like Exit 0, which is both a beginning and an ending, Second Birth is a portal, a culmination of one process and the beginning of another. And suffering is part of the landscape we traverse along the way. It becomes a part of our lived experience, more familiar so that we can open our hearts to it with vulnerability, compassion, and trust in the nature of Being. We cannot live and be completely free from pain. To fully awaken as embodied consciousness does not give us a free pass from life’s often unfathomable and painful mysteries, but it does give us more heart, greater sensibility of the nature of our aliveness. It gives us a way to trust in Being.

The Unfathomable Mystery of Being

I would be a liar if I said my life were without layers. One moment seamless well-being and ease, and another moment deep discomfort and existential pain.

Today, at the school where I work, two girls, close friends for most of their short seven and eight year old lives, had an altercation. None of the adults witnessed it. Suddenly there were tears and recriminations. Neither girl denied her actions, the sharp elbows into another’s ribs and the subsequent slap in the face. One of the teachers, as is our way, took the girls away from the rest of the group and asked them to talk to each other about what happened. No one lectured them about the inappropriateness of aggressive physical contact. They know about that. They each spoke from the feeling of the moment. There was anger. There were hurt feelings. There was an apology and an opportunity to speak further about the issue. Then they went off together back to class.

In itself, this is a somewhat unique story. And I offer it as an example of how unfathomable we are to ourselves and to each other.

Life has layers. I’ve been in an ongoing conversation that I mentioned in an earlier post with an east coast friend about the nature of suffering. And in my experience, we all suffer in some way from time to time. Simply being incarnated, being in this physical realm, can be quite painful, and that pain can cause suffering, even for those of us who have realized the Self. What changes is our relationship to the suffering. It takes on a sort of simplicity, free from story and ideation. Often it comes up right alongside our realization of its source in the still undigested bits of our conditioned existence. To deny that we suffer in this way is to deny our humanity.

In my experience, as in the story I recounted above, all relationships open the door to the unfathomable mystery of the self and the other. Now some may say “there is no Other!” And there’s a way in which that is true. And at the same time, paradoxically, there are 7 billion incarnated beings on this Earth, and each one of them appears to the body mind on some level as “other.” When we encounter this other, it is an encounter with the Self. Whatever we experience with them is being experienced within the self. It’s a mirror showing us something about our own particular path in this life. In the account above, the girls experienced a paradox of relationship. In loving there is also irritation. There is shadow. In relationship, there is separation and merging, irritation and bliss. We can’t have one without the other.

One of the most beautiful things about the altercation between these two schoolgirls was the fierce anger of the one and the heartbreak of the other. Children are transparent. They have not learned how to dissemble, not completely. And what I loved in watching their exchange was that they were willing to be fully present with what arose. “You made me mad.” “You hurt my feelings.” It was clean and simple. No one pretended that they felt other than they did.

The further I go on this path of embodied awakening, the more I realize how little I know. Nothing is static. Everything is changing. I don’t know my Self, my partner, my family, my friends. I experience them. In the moment. Being is continually unfolding, painting itself, as my beloved teacher Allan Morelock has said, on us in each moment. We must awaken to this truth. We must awaken to its its iridescent beauty of emergence. Its unfathomable mystery.

“Feelings are Exhausting”: in Memoriam Eliot Bartlett

These words are from a poem by Eliot Bartlett. I’ve spent the last couple of hours reading the Twitter posts and Tumblr poems of this young man I barely knew off screen. He was the son of a friend from my spiritual community in Philadelphia. I met him when he first came from–I think it was–college in Ohio. He was grieving the suicide of a friend there. He was struggling with addiction, looking for some support, some meaning. It was a Jyotish Roundtable at Yoga on Main led by the late astrologer and teacher Betheyla. I was deeply moved by him, his raw sorrow, his exhaustion.

Over the next couple of years, Eliot was a part of us. He lived with his mom in a beautiful tranquil duplex two doors down from my partner. He worked for a time at the coffee shop on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr that shares a lobby with the Film Institute. I used to see him outside in the alley smoking. He came to kirtans to chant, to Amma Satsang. He was young and seeking in so many ways. He was using and abstaining. Cutting himself. Dating a girl who also cut herself. He was in Bryn Mawr and then someplace else. He was on the move. He worked for Apple, and he was brilliantly alive online on Twitter and Instagram. This morning, I followed his journey from east to west and saw a bit into his world and world view.

Last Thursday that world view came to an end. I don’t know how it happened. I only saw the picture of Eliot and his mom on a boat and the consoling posts below it that touched my knowing that he was gone. The picture is a beautiful one. A young man and his mother, a wind whipped and gray sky. The life transmission that comes from Eliot’s body in that photo is powerful. I can feel its warm contours, its aliveness.

On learning of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, on February 2 he tweeted “Philip Seymour Hoffman, I never knew you were one of us, and your loss is a painful reminder of the fatal nature of addiction.” On June 23 “18 months sober.” On July 12 he turned 27. Two and a half months later, he was dead.

Recently, someone from the Philly sangha posted on Facebook a long quote from Adyashanti about suffering being optional, “an addiction to the self.” I always feel a bit of a wet blanket when I respond to this sort of “teaching.” That it just simply is not the truth of human life. Suffering is human. You can hair split as far as you want into the Vedas and Buddhism and the neo-Advaita about the difference between pain and suffering, but the bottom line for me is that it’s semantics. We all suffer. I know people who have been awake as consciousness for many years who find living this contemporary human life so painful that they can only take it in very small doses. There’s a reason that sages from the past lived in cells and caves.

My point is that it’s hard enough to be incarnated into this human life with its super-sensitive organism and navigate the self-other field without telling people that their suffering is an addiction and an option. For pity’s sake! What good does that do them? Where’s the compassion in that?

Anyway. Eliot, I’m sorry it was so hard for you. You were beautiful, and I loved you from a distance, in the few small times we met, and hugged and talked. I felt you. I will miss you. May all beings be free from suffering.

Leaning into Impalement, or Emotional Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection

We are entering the time of the astrological Grand Cross and at the same time the Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion.  These events are shadowing each other, shadowing us, as we each experience our own human suffering.  It’s been said that there is no hierarchy of suffering.  It’s also been said that suffering is unnecessary pain.   When does pain become unnecessary?  The thinking goes that it’s when we add to it by prolonging it.  And yet, there’s a fine line between prolonging pain by choice and prolonging pain by necessity.

There’s a powerful urge in us to get away from pain.  It’s a natural part of the body’s program to save itself.  If your shoe rubs, you take it off.  And yet when life rubs, it’s not so easy to take it off.  An article in the New York Times from 2008 called “The Urge to End It,” says about people who took their own lives, “They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.” 

A young friend of mine who took his life earlier this month is said to have told his therapist that the way he dealt with his suicidal ideation was to walk right up to it as close as he could get until the urge dissipated.  The last time this happened, he kept walking.

Spiritual agony.  Inner pain.  Some measure of relief. This is the cycle of emotional crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I don’t mean to justify my young friend’s death.  I can’t.  It is something that happened and not just to him.  It happened to a hundred of us who were his family, friends and acquaintances.  But it also represents a way of leaning in to what is profoundly difficult.  For him, the leaning in ended his physical life; we can’t know if it ended his spiritual pain.  Inasmuch as the body is the highly sensitive organ of perception, it’s arguable that destroying it destroys the stimulus and feeling of agony.  Sadly, it also ends the opportunity to come through the other side of the particular difficulty that took him off the side of a bridge.

Since then, an image of a painting by Frida Kahlo has been with me, of her being impaled by the beam of a street car she was riding in her teens, an injury that plagued her throughout her life and also gave rise to her particular “poetics” of imagery.  As I watch the show of human horrors that unfolds daily in the newspapers, I am aware of the way each story is a kind of goad, and how much easier it must feel to turn the page, read the ads, follow the Yanks.

But if we lean into difficulty, lean into the impalement of our difficult experiences and feelings, there’s a way in which they open up a spaciousness in us at the deepest level of Being.  It’s as if the leaning in, the piercing of the heart, also inoculates us, leaves a trace of its DNA, a sort of psychic homeopathy that I’ve been thinking of as “informed spaciousness.”  Once we let it in, no matter how painful it is, we also let it out.  If we lean with all our weight on the goads of our suffering, then they will come through the other side.

Twice recently, I came across the term “organic Shrapnel,” a term from war that refers to pieces of other bodies that pierce a living person’s flesh.  It’s gruesome and it happens.  It feels to me like an apt metaphor for the way we experience our own individual pain and suffering in this life.  A parent’s or sibling’s or mate’s “explosion” sends up parts of themselves that puncture us.  Like their counterparts in the material realm, they sink deep, fester and begin a journey through the underground of our psyches toward expulsion and the light.

This is the season of rebirth.  The mystery religions, of which Christianity is surely one, are based on this cycle of suffering, death and resurrection.  Can we embrace the mystery?  Can we lean into our suffering, not to prolong it but to allow it to puncture the protective shell we’ve built up around our hearts?  Can we embrace the Shrapnel, trust that as we lean, we will learn, and our compassion will deepen?

Cynthia Bourgeault in her powerful book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, writes about the act of “substituted love,” in which those who have emptied themselves of personal will and opened to the Divine are able to fully take on the emotional burdens of others.  To kneel at the cross, to wait at the tomb is to receive the vision of the resurrection.  I invite you, at this time of deep transformation, to be both the Christ and the Magdalene.  To lean into the pain and await the release that will carry you to rebirth.