Dealing with Difficult Relatives


Your friends, family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.
-Jim Rohn

Hello all and Happy Late Thanksgiving!  Or maybe it’s Early-Merry-Happy-Whatever-You-Celebrate-This-Time-of-Year, I’m not sure.  I do know I’m not wishing anyone a Happy Black Friday 🙂  Whatever this time of year means for you and your family, I do know that what most of us want is Happy-Merry and what a lot of us feel is pressure or disappointment.  Contrary to what the Hallmark store tells you and Black Friday retailers want you to believe, this can be a stressful and sad time for some people.  I actually think it could be a much happier time of year if we weren’t all so pressured to make it a happy time of year.

I mean…really.  If you don’t see your family on, say the 4th of July, do you feel like you’ve missed out on something?  I think there is so much pressure on this particular holiday season because paradoxically it reminds of us of what we are missing, rather than what we have. I don’t mean to sound like Eyeore, I actually had a lovely Thanksgiving, the first big family gathering since my mom died in September.  It was a bittersweet day but there was actually a lot of freedom that came with it, to be honest.  We really mixed up the old traditions and a good time was had by all.   The funny thing is that I think she would be happy we did that now that she’s gone, but I also think she probably would have not wanted to change the tradition while she was still here.  Funny how that seems to work out.  I actually enjoyed the way we did it this year a lot more than how we’ve done it in the past and it was considerably less pressured.

So I’ve been thinking about family and what we seem to want this time of year as opposed to what we might give or get around the holidays.  Which leads me to something I read quite some time ago that I want to share in case it might be helpful.

Having said that….OK, so I admit it.  I’m not normally a reader of Max Lucado’s work.  He and I disagree on many things theologically in terms of belief and approach.  But this is a great piece and I have had so many chats lately with a lot of people feeling pain about the “hellidays,” family time, obligations and expectations, stresses and so on that I feel compelled to address it.  So, I thought I’d pass along something someone sent me about how Jesus dealt with his own family. Nothing original here…not in terms of what I’m posting, but also not in terms of the challenges we all face with the folks we want to love, or wish would love us.

It can be so painful for a lot of people this time of year…it’s lonely for many and the truth is that I think most of us wish for some version of Norman Rockwell when in truth we have some version of the Manson family.  So, as we go into a time that is intended to celebrate the harvest and abundance of another year, I thought I’d post this as a reality check.  Because if the guy a lot of people believe is God in the flesh wasn’t understood or appreciated by his family, then maybe it’s a little easier for us to let go some too…

So, even though I didn’t get here before Thanksgiving,  here’s my wish for all of you anyway….May you feel the blessings and peace of a loving and abundant universe.  May you live in peace and dwell in gratitude.  May you feel the arms of a loving God in the hugs of friends and family.  May you celebrate another year of bountiful, joyful harvest in your life.  May you giggle and chuckle, rest and play, eat, drink and be merry.  May you be blessed with good friends and a spiritual family that is deep, rich and wide. May you feel compassion for and peace with difficult relatives.  May we all experience love and forgiveness in our families. And, if you are so inclined, May you remember all for whom this time of year is painful and send them a few prayers and some of your own joy as well.  Thanks.  Peace and blessings to all…

With that, I leave you with Max Lucado…

Dealing with Difficult Relatives

by Max Lucado

Does Jesus have anything to say about dealing with difficult relatives? Is there an example of Jesus bringing peace to a painful family? Yes, there is.

His own.

It may surprise you to know that Jesus had a difficult family. If your family doesn’t appreciate you, take heart, neither did Jesus’.

“His family … went to get him because they thought he was out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).

Jesus’ siblings thought their brother was a lunatic. They weren’t proud—they were embarrassed!

It’s worth noting that he didn’t try to control his family’s behavior, nor did he let their behavior control his. He didn’t demand that they agree with him. He didn’t sulk when they insulted him. He didn’t make it his mission to try to please them.

Each of us has a fantasy that our family will be like the Waltons, an expectation that our dearest friends will be our next of kin. Jesus didn’t have that expectation. Look how he defined his family: “My true brother and sister and mother are those who do what God wants” (Mark 3:35).

When Jesus’ brothers didn’t share his convictions, he didn’t try to force them. He recognized that his spiritual family could provide what his physical family didn’t. If Jesus himself couldn’t force his family to share his convictions, what makes you think you can force yours?

Having your family’s approval is desirable but not necessary for happiness and not always possible. Jesus did not let the difficult dynamic of his family overshadow his call from God. And because he didn’t, this chapter has a happy ending.

What happened to Jesus’ family?

Mine with me a golden nugget hidden in a vein of the Book of Acts. “Then [the disciples] went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.… They all continued praying together with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers” (Acts 1:12, 14, emphasis added).

What a change! The ones who mocked him now worship him. The ones who pitied him now pray for him. What if Jesus had disowned them? Or worse still, what if he’d suffocated his family with his demand for change?

He didn’t. He instead gave them space, time, and grace. And because he did, they changed. How much did they change? One brother became an apostle (Gal. 1:19) and others became missionaries (1 Cor. 9:5).

So don’t lose heart. God still changes families.

From He Still Moves Stones
Copyright (Thomas Nelson, 1999) Max Lucado

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Smile at Fear


Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future…

~~~Fulton Oursler

Because we are afraid, we develop all kinds of habits which over time lead to addictions.  Human beings are funny like that–We look for strength in the things that weaken us…

~~Pema Chodron,  Dharma Teacher

I took this picture over Labor Day weekend while hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in New Mexico.  For those of you with eyes over 40, that is a cow patty with flowers growing out of it. Lovely, isn’t it? 🙂

You have to understand the enormity of the canyon and the area in which we were hiking to fully appreciate this image–ginormous doesn’t begin to capture it.  The CDT runs from Mexico to Canada, it’s hundreds of miles long.  We were in the Rio Chamas Wilderness section, just a few miles from the CDT trail head in New Mexico.  There are countless acres and square miles in which this flower could have planted itself, but it chose to land in cow poo and stay there, to use the inherent qualities of the excrement for fertilizer and grow just a bit taller and stronger than the surrounding flowers.  Let us take some instruction from this brave little wildflower– it was not afraid to get down in the muck and take root in order to grow and thrive in an otherwise harsh desert environment.

This is the area in which we were hiking…gorgeous, yes.  But fully sunny, hot and dry during the day, chilly at night.  Deep in canyons surrounded by mountains in the Chamas River Wilderness Area, about an hour outside of Santa Fe, 13 miles back on a red dirt road then walking toward Ojitos Canyon on the CDT…Desolate but full of Life, a blank slate on which nature and Life can assert itself to grow and thrive.

So that little flower could have inserted herself anywhere.  But Life doesn’t necessarily choose what is easy, Life chooses what is Life-Giving.  And let’s face it: sometimes Life acknowledges that shit makes great fertilizer.  But the truth is that as humans, we fear the pain, the stink, the stickiness, appearances of “how this will look,”  so we go for what seems easy in the moment, rather than what might actually feed us and give us more life.  But choosing the easier, softer way may not always be life-affirming; if we are not discerning, it can also lead to addictions and much more pain.  Fear can make us choose things  which in the moment seem easier–it seems easier in the moment to avoid tears and pain.  But in doing so, we often strengthen habits which just lead to more pain and fear and so on and on the cycle goes.  The biggest obstacle to true healing is our fear, because what usually happens in the middle of big healing experiences is that our fear arises and we shut down or check out.  Yet we can also use that same fear to move us forward or feed us, to strengthen us and lead us to seeking out a new way of being.  Discernment is the key here.   (I  wrote a more in-depth post on this concept called Spiritual Fruits or Just Nuts? You can read that here if you are interested. )

There is something really powerful and encouraging about knowing that since the beginning of time, humans have felt fear and elation, grief and joy, happiness and sadness, compassion and rage, resentment and forgiveness, hope and despair.  The list of feelings and their opposites could go on and on, but the truth is we are not so different than our ancestors.  All of the Religions of the Book and all of the sacred scriptures of each religion address this…each time the Angel of God comes to a prophet or recipient of Divine Love or Intervention, the first thing the Angel says is, “Be not afraid.”  Not, “Hey Joe, it’s your lucky day!”  But, “Fear not!”  Fear is natural and human, but so is love.  So is compassion.  So is forgiveness and grace.  It’s all true at once, and so we have to choose.  We have to choose to heal.  We have to choose to love.  We have to choose to move forward in our fear, which of course  is the hardest time to choose something.  But it can be done and you don’t have to do it alone.

Humans have always divided off into groups or tribes and have always liked to talk about how civilized we are and how that group over there is so wrong or bad…you can see it now between Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Republicans and Democrats and on and on.  But the real enemy, if there is an enemy at all, is our fear.  Our fear of change, our fear of loss, our fear of success, our fear of failure, our fear of abandonment, our fear of getting what we want or not getting what we want, fear of really living, fear of what “they” will think, fear of how it will look if we ask for help or tell the truth of our lives, and on and on it goes.  But if we get down to the basics of life, a Muslim parent in Afghanistan wants the same health and safety for his children that an American Baptist parent wants for his kids.  We all want to be loved, to be nourished and to have happiness and freedom from want or suffering.  We all want to be free of the things that bind us, we all want to feel safe and happy and know those whom we love are  safe and happy as well.

There is always something in the press about 9/11 and our fear based reactions to that date, to that event.  What people fail to remember is that Iran was the first country to send condolences to the United States after the Twin Towers fell.  Yes, Iran.  Not Great Britain or Israel, but Iran.  They were the first country to hold a prayer gathering and other Muslim countries quickly followed suit, because in that moment we were not enemies without official relations, we were all just human beings, all feeling the horror of the enormity of that loss.  Human compassion was able to override fear and mistrust and bring forth compassion and prayer.  Mistrust reigns again, but in the deepest moments of need, compassion can always take root.  Like that flower, Life can always find a way to grow through the pain, through the fear, through what looks like shit, and come out smelling like a rose on the other side.  Life just does that, because Life is rooted in Love, in our Oneness, in our connection.

The danger comes when we decide to root into our fears and just create more fertilizer in our life without ever really planting good seeds of compassion, growth, love or humility.  The seeds we plant will always grow–of this there is no doubt.  And poo makes great fertilizer regardless of the seeds, but as any gardener knows, too much fertilizer can also kill the plant.  So when in fear, I have some choices…Will I ask for help?  Will I be discerning about which seeds I am sowing?  Resentment seeds seem to germinate faster than seeds of compassion, but both need fertilizer to grow.  So which seeds am I planting today, which seeds am I feeding? What do I want this garden of my life to look like in a few months?  Because have no doubt–the seeds you plant today will be harvested tomorrow. You can call it karma or what comes around goes around, you can call it fair or unfair, you can call it what you want and what you call it won’t change what it is:  your responsibility.  It us up to each of us to choose which seeds we will nurture and feed, because we all carry the seeds of hate and love, fear and faith, hope and despair within us.  We can choose.  I can choose.  You can choose.  It is not always easy, but it is always possible.  This does not mean shutting off feelings, but really honoring them, inviting them in like a wise guest and accepting the gifts they offer us.  It means we can choose which seeds we will cultivate over time, what we will feed, what we will harvest in the future.  If you plant apple seeds you are not going to get pear trees, that’s just a fact.

The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron speaks of smiling at our fear and of embracing it, and speaks of the Buddhist saying,

Place your fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness…

It is a beautiful image of holding our own pain and fear with the same gentle loving-kindness we would extend to a beloved child.  Fear is not the enemy.  The “other” is not the enemy.  What we truly wrestle with is our own inner demons, our own fears, our own sense of inadequacy.  Our fear of not having enough makes us cheat or lie, steal or withhold, go too far or not far enough, hold back or shut down, hurt ourselves and others.  Interestingly, the definition of a fully enlightened being is one who is fearless because they are intimate with their fear.  Not that they don’t have fear, but that they have smiled at it, befriended it, invited it in like a wise teacher and discussed its gifts over a cup of tea.  The enlightened ones are fearless because they know the nature of fear and no longer fear their fear, not because they have managed to shut it down or off permanently.  This I like very much, this I find tremendously encouraging.

So today, like that little flower, we can choose to plant seeds of growth and abundance, of rooting down into the people, places and things which help us grow, regardless of how it might look from the outside.  Today we can choose to plant seeds of compassion and love, of forgiveness and loving-kindness and just stay with it, even if it feels or smells like shit in the moment.  Today we can smile at fear.

If you would like to watch Ani Pema Chodron talk about Smiling at Fear, you can see a snippet of that video below.

Wishing everyone peace and blessings and the peace and joy that comes from knowing we are all One, even in our fears.  Have a great day.

Showers of Mercy (rerun)


Surely Goodness and Mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of God forever…

~~Psalm 23

Hello all 🙂  I’m going to be off the grid the next several days, but I wanted to do another 2010 post before I leave.  It seems like a good time for a few “best of” posts, so here ya go…  It is interesting to me that I originally posted this one in July, but I won’t have to change a single word for it to be applicable again today.  A lot of folks are having a rough time right now, it’s been a deep year for a lot of people.  I think that given the year a lot of folks have had, being reminded of goodness and mercy might be good thing.

I love that part of the 23rd Psalm, I love thinking that the deepest qualities of the Divine–Goodness, Love and Mercy–are always with me.  I love knowing Love is the House of God and I am always in that house.  I love knowing that even with all the pain and fear we all experience in a lifetime, there is also goodness and mercy.  There is something comforting to me about knowing these qualities have been around as long as humans have roamed this earth.  Even things that feel so personal are also so universal, and there is something deeply comforting to me in that.

I hope this finds all of you experiencing Showers of Mercy today….without further ado, here is your holiday double dip ;)…

I’ve gotten a few 911 calls this morning from people in crisis or pain. This is such a deep time for people, it seems like everyone I know and most of my clients are in some kind of relationship shift, some kind of transition or deep grief. Lots of people are sick, lots of things are in a big transition. I am acutely aware of the pains and joys of the people in my inner circle and beyond…aware that like the breath rising and falling, life ebbs and flows, ever moving into something new and different. But the memories linger, the hopes and dreams and hurts and forgiveness become part of the fabric that is the weave of our lives, and I am always amazed by the way the taste of those things remain, lightly sweet yet heavy on the tongue.

As I am witness to the journey of others today, I am also thinking a lot about my grandmother. She’s been gone 9 years, the anniversary of her death is this week. I have never known a woman with more ancient wisdom about people, lumber, the growing of crops, of plants and what to do with them. She was a sharecropper and a child in the Depression, and could make anything out of nothing. She chopped cotton for years, worked in a saw mill for much of her life and somehow raised 9 kids on, as the expression goes down South, “spit and baling wire.” Everything she cooked seemed to have gravy on it, everything just tasted better at her house. She could take a cut rose (usually from a funeral arrangement, no less) and 1/2 a potato and — I’m not making this up– dig a hole and put them in the earth together and end up with a rose bush. I have tried this at least a dozen times and I just end up with a dead rose and a stinky potato. I’ve asked other family members about this–they all remember that she could do it, but no one knows how she did it.

I think wisdom is like that…not just knowledge, although that’s part of it. But a true wisdom of the ages, an understanding of how to do things that is simply long gone. Yet just because something is ancient, it doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. I watch myself and many others of my generation relearn things about gardening and sustainability that she just lived because it was what they did then. She was from a time that has entered the larger flow of history and is a distant memory for those left from her generation. She lived through an abusive husband, through wars and the development of antibiotics, through the advent of television and ballpoint pens, through computers and space travel and life and death and things that would destroy most people.

So this morning, I’m thinking of her and all those who knew and loved her, and all of us who love and have lost someone we love. Certain people leave a lingering taste on the lives of others, a smell and a sound that is always present, ripples in the waters of our souls that just keep echoing out into all we become. If I believed in Heaven, I would believe it smelled like her house and tasted like her cooking. It would smell like beans and cornbread, biscuits and bacon, fresh air and cookies, it would smell like wood stoves and sweet tea and a scent that was hers alone. It would have that same quality of light, that ringing laughter that made anyone with her laugh even more, a full-on delightful laughter that made babies grin and giggle. Even at the end when she was in hospice, she had the same quality of light…that mystical quality twilight has about this time in the summer when the fireflies are dancing in the fields, bestowing upon us a shower of grace and wonder as time rolls by; the quality Light has as a life becomes a memory but the love remains, ever-present, ever accessible, ever with us.

As is the nature of my stream of consciousness, this led me to thinking about other things, which led me to thinking about George Washington Carver (I realize this is quite a leap, but just try to follow the bouncing ball). Someone once asked him how he figured out so many things about peanuts and what to do with them. His response, “Anything will share its secrets with you if you love it enough,” is so beautiful, so instructive. I think this is why my grandmother ended up with rose bushes and I ended up with a pile of compost. She lived with and in her life, not at it. She went through a lot in her life, saw a lot, learned a lot, finished her GED when one of her daughters graduated from high school, made do and thrived on it. She is remembered fondly by all, and we still laugh about her laugh and how much we miss it. Stories about people don’t get a great deal better than that.

So that led me to thinking about a quote by Rabindranath Tagore, “If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.” She saw the sun and stars in everything and I just love that about her.

So today, when so many are having such a hard time, and I remember one of the beloved people in my life with sweet sadness but a big smile, I think of another Tagore poem, a beautiful prayer…

“My God, when the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy. When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides shutting me out from beyond, come to me, sweet God of silence, with your peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O holy one, ever wakeful, come with your light and your thunder…”

To those experiencing grief today, we hold you in the tenderness of hope and joy, of compassion and sweet silence, of peace and rest. May you experience ever present showers of mercy and find the comfort of the ages in it. Above all, may you love something enough for it to tell you all its secrets, and bloom in that love. Years from now, may you remember those you loved, and they remember you, and may enduring loving relationships brighten your life. Showers of Mercy, indeed. Stories just don’t get a great deal better than that.

Happy New Year–May it be full of peace, blessings and Showers of Mercy

🙂 T

Dealing with Difficult Relatives


Your friends, family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.
-Jim Rohn

 

OK, so I admit it.  I’m not normally a reader of Max Lucado’s work.  But I have had many chats lately with a lot of people feeling pain about the “hellidays,” family time, obligations and expectations, stresses and so on.  Not a lot of excitement about connecting with the famdamly in these conversations.  So, I thought I’d pass along something someone sent me about how Jesus dealt with his own family. Nothing original here…not in terms of what I’m posting, but also not in terms of the challenges we all face with the folks we want to love, or wish would love us.

It’s painful for a lot of people this time of year…it’s lonely for many and the truth is that I think most of us wish for some version of Norman Rockwell when in truth we have some version of the Manson family.  So, as we go into a time that is intended to celebrate the harvest and abundance of another year, I thought I’d post this as a reality check.  Because if the guy a lot of people believe is God in the flesh wasn’t understood or appreciated by his family, then maybe it’s a little easier for us to let go some too…

Also, if I don’t make it back here before Thanksgiving~~  May you feel the blessings and peace of a loving and abundant universe.  May you live in peace and dwell in gratitude.  May you feel the arms of a loving God in the hugs of friends and family.  May you celebrate another year of bountiful, joyful harvest in your life.  May you giggle and chuckle, rest and play, eat, drink and be merry.  May you be blessed with good friends and a spiritual family that is deep, rich and wide.  And, if you are so inclined, May you remember all for whom this time of year is painful and send them a few prayers and some of your own joy as well.  Thanks.  Peace and blessings to all…

With that, I leave you with Max Lucado…

Dealing with Difficult Relatives

by Max Lucado

Does Jesus have anything to say about dealing with difficult relatives? Is there an example of Jesus bringing peace to a painful family? Yes, there is.

His own.

It may surprise you to know that Jesus had a difficult family. If your family doesn’t appreciate you, take heart, neither did Jesus’.

“His family … went to get him because they thought he was out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).

Jesus’ siblings thought their brother was a lunatic. They weren’t proud—they were embarrassed!

It’s worth noting that he didn’t try to control his family’s behavior, nor did he let their behavior control his. He didn’t demand that they agree with him. He didn’t sulk when they insulted him. He didn’t make it his mission to try to please them.

Each of us has a fantasy that our family will be like the Waltons, an expectation that our dearest friends will be our next of kin. Jesus didn’t have that expectation. Look how he defined his family: “My true brother and sister and mother are those who do what God wants” (Mark 3:35).

When Jesus’ brothers didn’t share his convictions, he didn’t try to force them. He recognized that his spiritual family could provide what his physical family didn’t. If Jesus himself couldn’t force his family to share his convictions, what makes you think you can force yours?

Having your family’s approval is desirable but not necessary for happiness and not always possible. Jesus did not let the difficult dynamic of his family overshadow his call from God. And because he didn’t, this chapter has a happy ending.

What happened to Jesus’ family?

Mine with me a golden nugget hidden in a vein of the Book of Acts. “Then [the disciples] went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.… They all continued praying together with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers” (Acts 1:12, 14, emphasis added).

What a change! The ones who mocked him now worship him. The ones who pitied him now pray for him. What if Jesus had disowned them? Or worse still, what if he’d suffocated his family with his demand for change?

He didn’t. He instead gave them space, time, and grace. And because he did, they changed. How much did they change? One brother became an apostle (Gal. 1:19) and others became missionaries (1 Cor. 9:5).

So don’t lose heart. God still changes families.

From He Still Moves Stones
Copyright (Thomas Nelson, 1999) Max Lucado

Deserts, Loneliness and the Happy Night


The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.

~~Norma Cousins

Happy Saturday! 🙂

This morning I’m thinking of deserts, demons and coming home to the self, about all of the folks out there plagued or harassed by some sort of sickness or inner demon….  These things are on my mind for lots of reasons, but primarily because  I just spent the last week literally sicker than I have ever been.  Because my core spiritual training is native with some Buddhist and Christian thrown in for seasoning, my assumption is that I just had the  equivalent of a flu shot; that my immunity and understanding of what to do with this bug will be useful in the coming fall and winter as I work with clients who will come in with a similar illness.   I think of it as on the job training… I know what worked and what didn’t,  what to give clients who come seeking healing with that particular funk.

I used the week as a time of rest, prayer and for sitting with some of  the feelings that came up as I was so sick, unable to do much but lay around and sweat out a high fever.  Even though friends came and fed me and brought essentials like panang curry and chocolate ice cream (strictly for medicinal purposes of course),  a time still came when the stir crazy loneliness hit, when I had to sit and look at some of the demons that come up in times of physical exhaustion or weakness.  It was a good week for that, for sitting with what can come in a time like this if I let it.  It was a week of meditation, contemplation, acupuncture and herbs, homeopathics and people coming and going to love me up.  For this I am extremely grateful–I am a blessed, abundant woman indeed.

I am a big believer that if we allow ourselves balance, rest and a gentle lifestyle, we will be healthier in general, in every sense of what health can mean.   I also know  matter has limitation,  so sometimes bodies get sick or tired.  The kindest thing we can do for ourselves in those times is to be tender with that direct experience as well, touching it lightly and finding the gifts in it, inviting it in like a wise teacher.  No need for judgment or harshness, just gently being with it as I would a sick child.  Such was this week for me. The few times this week I was able to string a few thoughts together, I thought about deserts, demons and how many people out there face sickness and a soul-sucking loneliness every single day.  All we can do in those times is touch that knowing lightly as well, perhaps engage in a metta practice and offer loving-kindness to all the others having such a personal yet universal experience.

The word “lonely” traces back its original meaning to the word “desolate,” which traces back to the 14th century word meaning “the desert.”  The word “desert” literally means “to abandon,” and is also the root of the word “hermit.”  In ancient times the desert was seen as the place demons inhabited, the place where one would face uncertainty, a place we would certainly face life and death.  All of the religions of the book show prophets, teachers, healers and later seekers of every tradition entering the desert to seek God.  In ancient times it was understood that demons were not evil spirits existing outside of us, but rather our inner demons, our inner struggles, our attachments, addictions and fears.  A true seeker entered the desert to face his own demons and in doing so would find God there, dwelling within and among him.

There are currently about seven billion people on the planet. We are wired 24/7 and would be hard pressed to find many places on earth that are totally inaccessible or uninhabited.  Backpacker magazine recently reported that even in what is now generously termed  “the back country,” one can still hear the drone of a plane or the hum of a car, can use a cell phone or GPS and can generally reach some form of civilization within about 20 miles.  There is a certain paradox in knowing we are around more people than ever, are wired and talking to someone nearly constantly,  yet are seemingly less connected in our hearts and souls.   Many people describe feeling a sense of isolation, speak of the dryness of a desert within and ache with a deep sense of separation.  If we can feel lonely in a crowd—in fact feel more lonely in a crowd, there must be more to this sense of inner desolation than just the presence or absence of other humans.

We are born into families, into communities, into social groups and as adults still crave this connection.   While I believe it is meaningful connection we seek, even in the most dysfunctional of families it is painful to force a separation from them.  Being somehow bonded to a group is programmed into us as part of an enduring survival instinct and we yearn for it from cradle to grave.  We are communal creatures and for centuries we lived as members of tribes, as beings in cultures and in clusters that provided identity, protection and provision.  The Industrial Revolution changed all of that and we are no longer an agriculturally based society  which requires us to stay in one place with the same group of people to survive.  Some suggest this has created a sense of ecological grief, a sense of separateness from the earth, from our community and from ourselves.  Families are scattered and most of us now belong to a tribe we create, rather than the one into which we are born.  There is a certain starkness in acknowledging it might be somehow easier to talk to someone in Australia via email or chat than to walk across the street to speak to a neighbor. It seems the more connected we are electronically the less connected we feel personally.

Babies who are not touched or held, nurtured or cared for emotionally will shrivel up and die.  Adults who experience this sense of loneliness or desolation often label it “depression” and seek out better living through chemistry.  According to a recent government study, which can be found on the CDC website,

Antidepressants have become the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. They’re prescribed more than drugs to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, or headaches. Adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2000. Between 1995 and 2002 the use of these drugs rose 48 percent.

This staggering stat makes me curious about a few things.  First, is some of what we now label “depression” actually a deeper spiritual or existential pain?  Is it the ache of loneliness that comes from lack of meaningful relationships and understanding?  I also wonder, of those who truly are clinical depressed, if this sense of loneliness or lack of meaningful connection leads to depression, which leads to more loneliness and so on.  It also appears as though there is more to depression and loneliness than just being “alone.”  Tillich said that we use the world “solitude” to express the joy of being alone, and “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone.  Yet there is something underneath all of this, a fundamental need for connection to others, but to ourselves as well.

I believe the sense of desolation most people describe as loneliness is deeply primal and spiritual in nature.  If the mere presence of other human beings was enough to cure loneliness and depression we would all be happy, joyous and skipping through the day, eternally fulfilled and content.  Yet there is something more, a deeper need we have for connection, an existential pain that cannot be cured solely through interaction with others.  In fact, feeling a lack of understanding from others and a sense of separation from God can be one of the most painful forms of loneliness.  Even Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” when he experienced feeling abandoned by God. The deep experience of loneliness that comes from a feeling of spiritual separation is what John of the Cross termed the Dark Night of the Soul.

John describes the spiritual quest and a constant unfolding and surrendering to a radical leap of faith, totally abandoning oneself to the process. I have found this same template in every tradition and religion, almost like an initiation into deeper spiritual realms.  John says the first stages of the spiritual journey are often marked by a sense of excitement, enjoyment and childlike contentment, an inner realization of our built in connection to God.  The path appears to be straight and clear and allows one’s faith practice to deepen.   Over time the sense of connection and joy that come from spiritual practice begins to dry up and we enter a spiritual desert.  As the soul begins to feel the dryness, the previous experiences of God seem as intangible as vapor evaporating and the soul begins to doubt.  John says this is when God begins the purification process for even greater love and Union, in which the deepest longings of the soul are fulfilled.  This time is what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes as “a crisis moment in the life of prayer,” and says that if we give into the doubt or stop our spiritual practice (whatever it may be), the desolation will seem permanent.  We are encouraged to keep going, even in the dryness.  The way out is through.  Keep showing up at the well of the Spirit, even if it seems as though rain will never come again.

The deepest and most profound loneliness I have ever experienced is in this sense of separation from the God.  Sometimes I think the Dark Night of the Soul sounds a bit melodramatic, but at the very least it feels like a Cloudy Morning of the Soul.  It is a God-shaped hole, a feeling of desolation and loneliness so deep, so acute and so raw it takes my breath away.  John also helpfully points out that there is no earthly pleasure to take its place, only a restless, consuming, longing ache for the Divine.   The things in which one used to find pleasure just seem empty, tasteless and arid.  The heart and soul ache for God again, long for the Beloved,  miss the sense of Oneness like the desert misses rain.  Everything within the soul is in agony,  the created longing for the Creator.   It feels like going from nights of ecstasy and ardor to being frozen by the winter of the soul, like being burned alive and frozen to death at the same time.  There is no language to explain the experience, no words to describe the indescribable  loneliness that is simply excruciating.  This experience is not clinical depression, but a purification of the soul.  God is still there, coaxing, loving, drawing the soul out the way a loving adult coaxes a trusting toddler to take first steps.

All of the spiritual traditions and religions of the book describe these experiences.   They describe a deep understanding that the Divine wishes a relationship and communion with us, as much as our souls long for communion with God.  The Koran, the Torah, the Psalms and parables of Jesus describe many of these experiences of coming and going, of longing and pain, of union and separation, of things being lost and found.  These were desert people and understood the life and death nature of the dryness of the desert,  so God is often described as a form of “water,” as a lover wanting to seek relationship, of enduring friendship and provision.  And while the desert may be the image of separation from God, it is also where one goes to seek God.  If  you trace the words Heaven or Paradise back to their original meaning, they  literally translate as “a garden.”

Every tradition tries to convey an understanding of the reciprocal need and nature of this connection to the Divine, of this deeper understanding that we are not isolated and forgotten.  Genesis says we “should not be alone.”   Jesus wanted his friends with him and was forever going off in boats to fish and hang out with them.  The Torah and Old Testament are full of stories of God continually reaching out to the chosen people.   The Hindus speak of the Atman, the “Eternal Self,” and of ashrams, teachers and methods for spiritual union.   The Buddhists speak of your Buddha Nature and of opening one’s heart to hold all sentient beings, being as gentle and consistent in your kindness as a loving mother is to her only child.  Kabir described it as “the breath inside the breath.”  One of my favorites, from the sayings of Mohammed, says

The One to whom you pray is closer to you than the neck of your camel…

For centuries we have needed, craved and sought these connections.  If we seek to fill the God-shaped hole with just anything or anyone we will still feel lonely because it is not a hole that can be filled with a substance or even a human lover.  Much of our economy runs on and is based on the belief that something outside of us will make us happy.  The ads tell us that if we have the right car, the right mate, drink the right beer, are the right size/shape/color, have more/less hair, the right phone, have the right clothes, work harder/smarter/faster, then you can rest, then you can be happy.  Yet we are a nation of people longing for more connection, aching inside with a cavernous emptiness, eating antidepressants and antacids, stuffing our grief and loneliness with work, retail therapy or countless other addictions, smiling through the pain and existing or surviving instead of really living.

I am not suggesting that if you just do more therapy, pray harder, go to more yoga classes, eat raw or think happy thoughts all of these things will resolve overnight.  In fact, just the opposite. It is important to discern if the sense of loneliness, isolation and lack of pleasure is truly depression,  or if it is a deeper existential pain no pill can cure.  A true Dark Night will leave you functioning fully and will at some point resolve as mysteriously as it appeared.  You will find that you suddenly feel God again and the sense of peace, joy and connection to the Divine is even stronger than it was before.

It does appear as though there is an ancient, universal need for connection and the path is similar in each tradition and culture.  While in the moment it can feel exceedingly uncomfortable or even grievous, the path appears to open only as much as we can or will give ourselves to it.  This path inevitably involves forgiveness, seeing things in a new way, letting go of resentments and finding a loving face of the Divine.  For those who do not feel comfortable with a concept of a deity, there is still a need for gentleness and compassion toward self and others, what the Buddhists might call metta.  All of these things lead to a deeper sense of connection to the Self, to God, to community, and the loneliness becomes less and less, while the peace and joy become more and more.  I can personally  attest that the experience of the pain and loneliness does in fact hollow out a space for better things to come and has the potential to be filled with bliss and equanimity.

The key to cracking the lock that houses loneliness is taking the time to get to know yourself,  to really prioritize what is most important to you. Meaningful connection with others is important and encouraged, as is living congruently with your values, hopes and dreams.  But until you make the time and commit to sitting with yourself, to entering into the desert to face your demons, they will always plague you.  Carl Jung said  if you don’t do this deeper work these things in your unconscious will “rise up to you as your life and you will call it your fate.”   Even though I have found it painful at times, I have truly come to believe that healing comes most easily through the door of an open heart, especially in these times when we are so tired and weakened by pain or sickness.

There is a piece of Buddhist wisdom which says,

Death is certain.  The time of death is uncertain.  Knowing this, what is the most important thing?

For many of us, finding a sense of peace and joy again is the most important thing; truly living life to the fullest and being connected to family and friends is the most important thing.  The key  is to do less and be more.  The key is to slow down enough to hear the inner Voice of Love, to get in touch with the places inside of  you that already hold all you need.  The key is to be indiscriminately loving and gentle with yourself;  to explore what the still, small voice may be saying to you.  The key is to allow yourself to be plunged into the darkness to find the Light, to know on the other side you once again melt into God, or the Atman, or your Buddha Nature…whatever you call it, you can again return to your true home.

John of the Cross ends his explanation this way,

Although as it journeys it is supported by no particular interior light of understanding, nor by any exterior guide, that it may receive satisfaction there from on this lofty road—it is completely deprived of all this by this thick darkness—yet its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner.

There follows this line:

In the happy night.

Wishing everyone happy days and nights, a great weekend and the wisdom of a few dark times as well…

Peace and blessings,

T 🙂

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