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.

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Freeing Space for Fear

I’ve had a deeply tenderizing experience recently all about respect and responsibility. The details are unimportant. I acted out of irritation and unawareness, venting frustration in a universal way when a particular response was warranted. I was called on my action. The action in itself was fairly minor and common, but the fallout was great, and it was one of those events that seems designed by Being to break down and tear away another layer of self-protection to reveal a new skin of tenderness and authenticity.

Processing this event took me down to a deep place in my shadow zone, a young and innocent place that is easily confused by unclear expectations and easily wounded by disappointing those expectations. As I leaned into these edges with my circle of support, I was gifted a revelation about my absolute resistance to realizing my fear.

What powerful defenses I have constructed against it! Elaborate and familiar rationales and patterned responses rise up whenever fear comes calling. I created a whole lexicon of code words to keep it locked away.

Once I recognized fear beneath the discomfort of my experience, once I spoke it out loud, I dropped into a greater existential pain. It laid me low. Today I woke into a deeper resting in my body, a more accessible vulnerability and tender heartedness.

What I want to say is that fear is a condition of our human experience. It is responsible to a high degree for our collective and individual survival at a very basic level. But more than that, it is an opportunity to relieve ourselves of a super-human expectation, a dehumanizing limitation. There is a strong impulse to cast it as a lesser emotion, something to be resisted, avoided or overcome. Much of our culture is dedicated to its denial or transcendence.

To flip a great American axiom: there is nothing to fear in fear itself. Like all taboos, its repression fuels its desire for expression. It wants some space. Once you let up on the pressure to contain it, it transmutes like fog and dissipates leaving something freshly revealed in its place.