Loss, Grief, and Transformation
Bringing a New Paradigm to life
the gate of tears: an interview with bestselling author jay michaelson
by jeff carreira
Mourning the apocalyspe, now: the felt sense of ecoanxiety and a path through grief bigger than we can hold
an article by robin beck
no palliatives, no promises: radical acceptance as one woman's path to living with grief
a book review by amy edelstein
A Look Inside
the Loss, Grief and Transformation Issue
no palliatives, no promises
''Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing upset you. Everything changes. God alone is unchanging. With patience all things are possible. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone is enough.''
– Teresa of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr
membership & calls
The gate of tears
An interview with Jay Michaelson by Jeff Carreira
mourning the apocalypse, now
Mourning the apocalypse, now: the felt sense of ecoanxiety and a path through grief bigger than we can hold
An article by Robin Beck
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The Long Goodbye, a book excerpt by Candida Maurer
An entry by Liesbeth de Jong
An entry by Homer Wong
A poem by Ross Kempner
An entry by Debe Arlook
Spontaneous Writing Circle Entries
by Deborah Kaplan, Judy Voruz, Lisa Shambro, and Justin Frank
the gate of tears
no palliatives, no promises: Radical acceptance as one woman'S path to living with grief
A book review by Amy Edelstein
Cover image by
Kilarov Zaneit, Unsplash.com
Emergence Education Press
Liesbeth de Jong
The editors can be reached by email at:
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A Note from the Editors
a note from the Editors
the artist of possibility
In this issue of The Artist of Possibility, we explore the theme of grief, loss, and transformation. Given these challenging times, we thought it relevant to introduce you to a few unique individuals who may help us shed some light on the experiences of loss and grief - namely, how to find the courage to be with the difficult emotions that these experiences give rise to, and how such experiences may ultimately lead to deep transformation.
In these pages, you will meet the bestselling author Jay Michaelson who will talk about his book, The Gate of Tears, in which he discusses the type of relationship we can develop with sadness, how it can lead to creative insight/expression, and can also be a catalyst for awakening, We will also address the topic of ecoanxiety and the complexities surrounding how to go about processing the continued and inevitable loss of our ecosystem as we know it.
And, once more, Amy Edelstein has contributed another inspiring entry in which she reviews Mirabai Starr's book, The Caravan of No Despair; the story of a woman's vulnerable and heartening journey through multipe experiences of loss and hardship.
Finally, we are privileged to have received many wonderful contributions from our members, and hope you enjoy the variety of entries that are included in this issue, including an excerpt from Candida Maurer's book, Enlightenment on the Path of Grief.
May this issue bring you some solace, and maybe even some inspiration during these difficult times.
You can contact the editors here.
People usually come to meditation because they are suffering, and they want to find relief. If they follow the path long enough, they will discover that there is a part of them that does not suffer. It is always free and peaceful. That part doesn’t need anything. It’s fine, but it does want something. It wants to be known by everyone. It wants everyone to live from that peaceful, easy inner core.
— jeff Carreira
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When I was researching for our Grief, Loss and Transformation theme, I came across the book The Gate of Tears by Jay Michaelson. Jay is a bestselling author working at the intersection of politics and spirituality, and I have known him for a few years to be a man of deep integrity and sensitivity. As I read his book, I resonated with almost every word, and I even wondered if he had written the book to inspire this issue in some retrocausal way. It is a pleasure to offer this interview to you and I am sure it will inspire many of you to read the entire book.
Jeff: First of all, Jay, thank you for this chance to speak with you about your book The Gate of Tears. When I read the book, I found it resonated very deeply with me and I am very excited to speak with you about it. To begin our conversation, I wonder if you would say a little bit about what the spiritual path has to offer to the spiritual aspirant, especially in these unusual times.
Jay: I actually started writing the book during some of my early meditation retreats where a lot of sadness and loneliness was coming up for me. That wasn't necessarily unusual, but what was new was the developing relationship I had with the sadness. It started with the kind of standard mindfulness realization that it's possible to just be with those feelings rather than be consumed by them. In mindfulness practice, you are aware of feeling emotions - positive, negative, whatever - and you learn from them by seeing how they arise, develop, and how they pass away. As I did that basic mindfulness practice, over and over again, on those feelings of sadness, loneliness, grief, and loss that were arising, I started to see my relationship to them transform. I began to see that there was something incredibly beautiful about these mind-states and there was a lot of presence in them. My resistance to the sadness and the negative emotion yielded to a sense of spaciousness around them. That recognition of spaciousness and openness around negative experiences was the genesis of the book. It felt like I'd stumbled onto something important that I hadn't read in other books. It was certainly a big turning point in my own life and in my relationship to sadness, loss, and grief.
I started the book about 15 years ago and I found it to be a confusing project because of my complex relationship to those emotions. Eventually, I put the book down; actually, I put it away for almost 10 years. And I then reopened the book when my mother was ill with cancer, and I started rereading the book as a reader rather than as the writer. I found that what was in there was still really powerful for me, and I could apply what I had written about ten years prior to what I was going through in the face of my mother’s illness, and that's when the book came together.
The last thing I will say is that there are three ways of relating to sadness explored in the book. First, is the discovery that it's possible to have a different relationship with loss, grief or sadness. Second, that these mind states can actually lead to all kinds of artistic insight and production. And third, there's a way in which the Gate of Tears can open into a profound alchemical transformation from negative emotions to a kind of nondual awakening.
Jeff: As I already said, when I read the book, I resonated deeply with what you were saying, even though I would say that sadness has not played such a big role in my journey. I would say fear and insecurity were a bigger part of my experience, but the insights you share seem to apply to any negative emotion that we are challenged with. And the realization that can result is a recognition that, underneath our unpleasant states, we can discover a spaciousness - which is not an ordinary sense of happiness - but a deep sense of contentment that is always present even in the midst of challenging emotions. My spiritual work was coming more out of the Hindu tradition than the Buddhist mindfulness practice, and in that tradition that sense of spaciousness is called satchitananda: It's the underlying blissfulness of being that is the ground of everything else that arises. One thing I'm personally curious to ask you about is the subtle distinction between the more conventional experience of happiness and this deep underlying contentment. Can you explain how you see this distinction?
Jay I'll meet your Hinduism and raise you some Buddhism. The Buddha said that nirvana was the happiness that does not depend on conditions. And that's been a phrase that helps me. When there's happiness that depends on some condition that is great, but that’s normal happiness, not the unconditional happiness of nirvana.
Theravada Buddhism, which is where mindfulness practice comes from, tends to be more neutral in flavor than the Hindu tradition which contains more ananda (joy). But in the end, I think the difference between conditioned happiness and unconditioned happiness is pretty clear. For instance, it feels obscene, maybe even disgusting, for me to think of being happy in a hospital, but the joy of satchitananda is there too. That unconditioned joy can be juicy and rich, but it can also be a very thin, almost transparent joy. That joy is there in a hospital room, on a battlefield, and in a prison. In comparison to the louder conditioned emotions of those places, the unconditioned joy is very subtle indeed, but it's still there.
Jeff: Sometimes I think about this distinction in terms of the joy of life; the fact that it’s a joy just to be alive, to have been born. And there is a gratitude we can feel just for being here in spite of all the negative things that occur.
Jay: Yeah, I like that. Ken Wilber has the phrase; the simple feeling of being. I often use the word “transparent,” meaning it's just a very subtle thin sense or perception. Certainly for me, at least over the last nine months, there's been a lot of unhappy times, and so just checking in over and over again with that sort of background awareness of contentment has been very helpful precisely because it doesn't depend on me feeling good.
You mentioned that fear and anxiety were a bigger part of your path and that was never true for me until this year. But in March and in April, I experienced periods of anxiety more intense than I ever have before. I found the fear and anxiety hard to work with because the energy was humming and buzzing and I couldn't get quiet, whereas with sadness I find I can always get very quiet. So, it was interesting to experience the difference.
Jeff: As the book progresses, you start with the discovery of the contentment that's independent of any circumstance. And then, in the second part, you speak about how these negative emotions can be rich with creative inspiration. Unpleasant experiences can be very fruitful in terms of the insight and the inspiration they offer. Can you say a little about your experience of this?
Jay: I'm very aware that there can be a spiritual move that rejects or denigrates the messiness of life. But I think you and I have this in common; we both love to be engaged with the world. We want spiritual freedom and active engagement. I think there’s something terrible about rejecting the world and that is where I feel the devotional practices of say Hinduism, or of the Jewish aspect of my practice, can help. The Jewish tradition has a strong preference for living in the world. And I definitely wanted that to be part of the book. I wanted to counteract any potential tendency to flatten out or disconnect from life, but instead, to embrace all of life. To feel those unpleasant feelings and see what they give birth to, because they give birth to so much creativity, human flourishing and compassion. Perhaps there would be more authentic justice in the world if we could all feel our pain more honestly. Imagine that in the context of America right now. There are tens of millions of people who have been in pain for the last 10 or 20 years, feeling that society has left them behind and there's no place for them. But instead of feeling that pain, they've just papered it over with anger and prejudices, and it's become more comfortable to sit with all that than to feel the pain beneath it. Imagine if it were possible to really be in the pain rather than try to paper it over.
I may be the only person to mention Taylor Swift in your magazine, but her two albums this year are born of the loneliness and isolation that many of us have experienced. She’s really done incredible work on these albums as a singer/songwriter. Her songs are born out of her own experience of pain and then shared to ease the pain of so many others. Millions and millions of people can have that shared communion and connection through her art. That's incredibly powerful. And that is what art born of pain can do.
Jeff: That’s beautiful. I am also very interested in the creativity that emerges out of our spiritual work because I believe that deep awakening can occur as a result of what we create from the depths of our being. Now, I want to turn to the last part of your book where you've described how the sadness of the Gate of Tears becomes a path to awakening. Can you speak with us about the Gate of Tears as a path to awakening?
Jay: I recently read something by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. He was saying that, as you get older and closer to death, you begin to care more about things that are wider than yourself because your life is coming to an end. He speculated that, when our lives do end, we will all see that the things we care about most then are things that will continue after we’re gone. I found that beautiful and it is similar to the awakening that can happen around our unpleasant feelings. We have all these difficult feelings, and so many challenging things are happening; people get sick, the rain is falling, the pumpkins are rotting, bad things keep happening. It can all get so loud and the only real relief we can find is in that place where the chattering inner voices just kind of quiet down a little. The key to finding that inner peace is to find a way to just allow the difficult experiences to be what they are. That’s the key. It doesn't really matter what the difficult experiences are. The key is always letting go into what is.
I waited until the third part of the book to talk about all the mystical stuff so people could stop reading if they just wanted the secular part. I use the word God in the third part and I knew that I would lose some people. But that's the entry point to satchitananda, nirvana or the is-ness that's pointed to by the Hebrew word for God. I don’t see God as the anthropomorphic deity of the Bible; I see God as the source of the remarkable joy that exists right with the sadness, at the same time as the sadness. It is such a surprise to discover that they can coexist like two notes of a chord played on a piano or a guitar. You can actually experience both at exactly the same time. That's not what I was taught growing up. I was taught to banish sadness and strive to be happy all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than that. The idea of being forced to be happy just makes me sad.
Right now, I am doing a lot of work around the idea of 10% happier from the book by Dan Harris. What I love about that work is that it is not an all-or-nothing approach. Being 10% happier sets the bar somewhere realistic. And what I see so liberating about this approach to practice is that it means that having some tough times doesn't put us back at zero again. It’s not all-or-nothing that way. And, for me, this is one of the nice features of the Jewish contemplative path being a non-renunciate path lived in the world; it deals with the reality that we all go up and down. In that tradition, there is a mystical experience where angels run back and forth over and over again and this becomes a metaphor for spiritual practice. The point is to be able to go back and forth more quickly, because we all fall back at times. And that is my experience and I suspect it is yours.
Jeff: Absolutely. And I often say to people that how much time you spend in nirvana is not a good measure of your awakening, because that's probably largely circumstantial anyway. But how quickly you can return when you fall out of it is a much better measure of attainment.
Jay: The Tibetan model of small moments, many times, as opposed to going on a retreat and having a few great days of expanded mind. And look, those are great. And I’d give my eye teeth for a few days of expanded mind right now. That sounds really great, but, as a new father, that's not where my karma is leading me right now. The idea of having small moments, many times a day or many times an hour, without any expectation that it will necessarily last. The ability to kind of drop in over and over again into that kind of moment of open mind is almost always accessible. Steady-state enlightenment is for people who are living as monks or nuns, and marinating in those expanded states.
Jeff: I lived in a spiritual community for two decades and had opportunities to experience numerous sustained states of awakening. Then, after about 10 years of intensive practice, I hit yet another bad time and I realized that the bad state of mind hadn't changed at all. I was crushed because I really thought for years that, if I practiced hard enough, for enough hours a day, that it would change that, but it didn’t. The insecurity, the fear, the sense of unworthiness, it was all the same.
Sometime later, I had a realization that fundamentally changed things for me. I realized that it doesn't really matter if I'm in that higher state. What matters is knowing that it exists, that it is possible, and always remembering that - no matter how I happen to feel. I can equate that to more theological ideas about knowing that God exists. What hit me so hard was the recognition that that higher possibility doesn't just exist when I experience it. It’s like knowing that the sun still exists warming the planet even on the stormiest day.
When you see it that way, you realize that states of consciousness come and go. They always arise in tune with what is needed in the moment, and nondual satchitananda bliss is not the appropriate consciousness for every moment. The appropriate consciousness for the loss of a loved one is grief and some kind of superficial happiness is not appropriate to that moment so it doesn’t arise. If we had the chance to go on retreat, the spaciousness would occur because it would be appropriate to that circumstance. So, you start to realize that the fact that our experience fluctuates isn't a problem. It's just part of the natural way life works.
Jay: It's nice to think about that and it also gets us out of a certain narcissism. You can leave room so someone else can go have that experience. Otherwise, we only feel OK if we are having that experience. It becomes something for me to own. That’s spiritual materialism. Instead, I'm OK regardless of whether I can have that experience or someone else is having it right now. I always like to think about people on a retreat somewhere, and I find it comforting that some people are ardently practicing all their different traditions right now. That makes it less about me and remedying my psychological issues.
Jeff: Yes, and isn't there a Jewish idea about a smaller group of people that are holding something spiritually for everyone?
Jay: Yes, there's a legend that there are 36 righteous people hidden somewhere on the planet. They aren’t famous. They’re people you might meet every day on the street, but you wouldn't know that they're one of the 36. There's something lovely about that. It's very comforting. It's a positive conspiracy theory.
Jeff: Exactly. And I like to think that I may not be on retreat resting in eternal bliss every day, but somebody is somewhere and that's holding the gate open. So, when it's my turn to be on retreat, the door will be open because someone held it for me.
Now, I would like to ask one final question and give you a chance to talk to people in the context of this challenging year that we're coming to the end of. What kind of advice or words of wisdom would you offer people who are having a challenging time right now?
Jay: This year makes me grateful that I wrote a book called The Gate of Tears, because there is a lot of suffering right now and it's very real. And I'm glad the book has different avenues because there's different medicine for different people. For example, if someone has anxiety and they really just need a way to relax, there are ways to do that with regulated breathing and other techniques that help. You won't necessarily get wiser and it might not lead to lasting change, but right now, when pain is so acute, it might be exactly what people need. The main thing I want to share is wishing people good discernment among the different paths that are available. It might be possible to work with some of the fear and anxiety, or the grief and loss, in some of the ways that we have been discussing here, but sometimes it's just too much and it’s not possible to be with it right now.
When we talk about learning to let things be as they are, we also have to discern when that is appropriate and when we just need to reach for an antidote. And this is sometimes the right move even if we know it is not ultimately the way to liberation and awakening. Sometimes, we just need to get a little bit of peace. And then, hopefully, there will be some room for some of the more valuable work that really can lead to awakening. I almost feel that, between us speaking now in the middle of December, and whenever someone will read it in January or February, things may have gotten much worse before they get better in six months' time or so. But that's still a long time. I'd be full of it if I said I wasn't a bit fearful for what this winter might hold here in the northeastern part of the United States. But that fear is OK too, it's part of the divine and part of human nature. It's also possible to sit with that.
The Gate of Tears
An interview with jay michaelson
by Jeff Carreira
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Mourning the Apocalypse, Now
The felt sense of ecoanxiety,
and a path through grief bigger than we can hold
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Let's Start with a Poem...
This last year has taught me about individual and collective grief on a scale I had only been able to imagine in books and television. Our collective suffering has been realized through a calamity that doesn’t respect the self-imposed boundaries we’ve imagined into existence. This pandemic cares nothing for our differences, and knows us for what we share in common: our humanity.
It’s easy to miss the fundamental reasons for how this pandemic has arisen, and indeed you see many narratives too focused on short-term medical interventions that will allow us to return to a sense of normalcy, to make humanity “great” again.
Acknowledging this disease as a function of our relationship with the natural world is perhaps the most courageous action we could take. Understanding that the destruction of ecosystems that support species we coexist with creates disease, and kills us, because they are us. Learning to redraw the boundaries of self that separate me from everything else - that’s the challenge I feel we are being called to acknowledge. And my central question, the thing I want to know, is how to relate to this calling.
My youth has been marked by a feeling that I’ve struggled to put into words that has unconsciously shaped my perception of humanity, truth, and goodness, subconsciously shaping foundational relationships with fellow humans, myself, and God. I know I’m not alone in this experience, and recently I discovered a word that begins to touch on that feeling, even if it falls short of capturing the uncanny, existential weirdness that arises alongside it.
Dictionary.com describes ecoanxiety as:
Anxiety caused by a dread of environmental perils, especially climate change, and a feeling of helplessness over the potential consequences for those living now and even more so for those of later generations.
The key word in that description is “dread”. But not the kind where you’re worried about that presentation you have to give for work in the morning, or the feeling in your stomach when you consider having to spend another holiday marinating in the perspectives of your less-evolved relatives. This kind of anxiety is so large and unapproachable that it cannot be held in understanding. It’s caused by the gap in the facts about what is happening (390 billion tons of ice and snow lost from glaciers per year, an 81% decrease in freshwater species populations in 2017) and my relationship to them. How am I supposed to feel when confronted with statistics that indicate catastrophic loss on a scale I can’t emotionally relate to?
Ecoanxiety is distinct from solastalgia in that my anxiety is purely existential. I worry on a deep, theoretical level where experience is mostly limited to a belief in the conclusions of the scientific process. I’ve done the math, and each picture of a bleached coral reef or story from a climate refugee adds emotional fuel to the logical models. I can’t help but worry about these things, or help but see the increase in intensity and frequency of wildfires close to my home as justification for my worry. But I’m fortunate that I myself haven’t been displaced due to climate-related disaster, or watched my livelihood wither away with drought. I’m not sure we have a word for that level of ecologically-induced despair just yet. But one day, I’ll feel a rush of joy and anguish as I look upon one of the last monarch butterflies, and wonder if I’ll ever see another. One day my ecoanxiety will transform into solastalgia.
The primary feeling that arises from this type of grief for me is a sense of loss that is difficult to put into words. I don’t know how to grieve on the scale that such destruction and disregard demands. Practically speaking, I’m not sure the human being is equipped to empathize with objects like the earth itself, or species too microscopic to see, or generations of old growth forest in a way that makes us capable of holding such emotion and processing it. For me, it’s like wave upon wave of sadness, despair, and anger that crash through me, toss me out to sea, and leave me struggling for air and the comfort of the soft sands of certainty beneath my feet. But when I find my way back to shore, the coastlines have eroded further, the rocks are slick with oil, and the cries of seabirds are strangely absent.
Words so often feel incapable of describing these kinds of feelings, because I don’t actually think we’ve successfully defined these emotions yet. While we all experience psychological affect, an emotion itself is culturally constructed. We can’t define or share an emotion until it’s commonly experienced across a group of people, and capable of being mutually inhabited. Maybe that’s why I feel stuck in a perpetual phase of grieving when it comes to global warming; the language needed to process such emotions doesn’t exist yet. Or perhaps it’s because the disaster itself hasn’t yet come to pass. It’s in motion, and I’m aboard The Titanic 2.0, waiting to impact sea ice that’s melted down below the surface, as the sonar sings a death dirge.
So how then can we process this slow-rolling, language-defying disaster we’re complicit with? There are noble, cathartic models of grieving that emulate our human traditions around the concept of death, like a funeral to mourn the loss of a glacier as if it were a friend or family. These kinds of displays help us learn to empathize with the ecology we are enmeshed with, and encourage us to find ways of coping using existing emotional structures and traditions.
I find this kind of release to be culturally useful, because it’s visible. It shows that we’re learning to care, that some of us are paying attention, that our values are capable of growing beyond profit and exploitation. But it could be argued that funerals only give solace to the living, not the dead. And what would the glacier make of our symbolic remembrance of her majesty? How, truly, to grieve a glacier?
More precise language helps in communicating the loss associated with global warming, but for me it’s often the subjective language of poetry that provides some measure of tangible relief. Marybeth Holleman captures the essence of the majestic dying of a glacier. Dying, because its disappearance is ongoing. As it leaves us, it does so with dignity and pride, “stalwart even as it thins, crumbles, pulls back into history and oblivion.”
Holleman captures what is often missed in our righteous assessments of the state of the natural world: the observation that, even in its dying, its recession, its leaving of our memory and our future, it is beautiful. “But I tell you I do love this blue-white giant, and grieve its leaving, even as I thrill to watch thunderbolts of ice crash into azure seas.”
When did I last take reprieve from my doomscrolling, to notice the majestic beauty all around me before it leaves us forever? Am I taking the time to be present, to be here in time to appreciate and honor my friends, the great northern diver and the wood thrush? My family, the boreal lynx and the arctic fox? My lovers, the staghorn coral and the ringed seal?
“So we sit, you and I, scanning the newly revealed and imagining what next will show itself, what balded rock and bared shoreline, as ice slips and pulls away in great chunks.”
I’m learning to look toward the tendency to feel sadness, despair, and anguish as an indicator that I’m out of alignment with the natural world, and objectifying it even further. Making it into a victim for whom humanity can be oppressor and savior alike. What brings me true respite from my grief is learning to sit in silence and awe of the glacier while we still can. To know that in the years to come I honored her while she was alive, and didn’t take her beauty and bounty for granted. To remember her voice and timbre as she sang out in words I could not parse. But to listen, nonetheless, to her dying words instead of trying and failing to give her mine.
If we must anthropomorphize the natural world in an attempt to come into relationship with it, then I want to learn the lesson of spending time with the glacier while she’s still living, and not regret the moments we didn’t have at her wake, after she’s gone. Our children won’t have the opportunity to know what has been lost. The gift I have now, the responsibility I can take on, is the chance to process the strangeness of this new grief pragmatically, without making my loss central to the story of the Anthropocene. I can learn to honor my living ancestors with the gift of time, before the cancer takes the best of them and leaves only memories behind.
How to Grieve a Glacier
It’s not something you can hold in your arms.
You can’t rock with its image in a blanket
and keen away the nearing pain.
That white face is distant, and cold, unrelenting
in its forward grind to the sea,
stalwart even as it thins, crumbles, pulls back
into history and oblivion.
The sun itself finds nothing to love,
save soft rivulets of water its rays release
from eons of hard frozen luck.
But I tell you I do love this blue-white giant,
and grieve its leaving, even as I thrill to watch
thunderbolts of ice crash into azure seas.
So we sit, you and I, scanning the newly revealed
and imagining what next will show itself,
what balded rock and bared shoreline,
as ice slips and pulls away in great chunks.
We know it is leaving, abandoning us
to what our kind has created,
and we know its gift of rarified water
will only bring more sorrow.
Yet it is a gorgeous deterioration.
Glowing face of one turned toward
what the living cannot see.
by Marybeth Holleman
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I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief […] For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- Wendell Berry,The Peace of Wild Things
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A Book Review
no palliatives no promises
Raw. That is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Mirabai Starr’s memoir Caravan of No Despair. The second is brave. The third, well, there are many possibilities for the next word: compelling, authentic, optimistic, hurting, and loving. But to get to the other side, you have to go on a journey. It is a journey through a personal loss and also a journey through the inevitable suffering of life as it unfolds. Caravan is an impersonal turning of suffering on the wheel of cyclic existence recounted through the intimate and unique story of Mirabai’s unconventional life.
I don’t read many memoirs. And I don’t usually like reading about grief unless I have to, which is often, as I deepen my understanding of trauma and the neuroscience of racism for my programs in transformative secondary education. So reading this book out of the blue one sunny weekend was a little out of the ordinary for me. I had seen Mirabai speak about working on Caravan when I first met her at an interspiritual conference some years before. We were at a Franciscan retreat center in the beautiful Southwestern desert. She spoke about the loss of her teenage daughter and what that had done to her heart, and described her process of navigating that wide-open wound in her writing. She seemed so small when she spoke, so fragile and alone, and so solid and strong in that very vulnerability and aloneness. The way she held herself was both moving and confronting. She was so honest, so unapologetic, and so immediate. When I opened up her book some years later, I never expected I would read Caravan in virtually one sitting, driven to stay with her, as though I could not leave her side, bearing witness and holding her proverbial hand as I held her book, pausing only when I had to eat, sleep, and complete a few other necessary tasks and obligations.
Mirabai’s writing is deceptively smooth and easy. She’s a gifted storyteller, one who has read the greats and worked to master her craft. I appreciated the cadence and rhythm of the prose itself. What really drew me though was her courage as she recounted her life story; from the recent loss of her teenage daughter in a car accident that had quite a backstory, through the illness and death of her younger brother in her own childhood, to her painful coming of age under a not very awakened or scrupulous spiritual teacher. She laid her soul bare, without asking for a promise of relief or resolution, or even a gentle assurance of understanding. She dove right into the deep waters and stayed there, demonstrating that her way through is with.
In an unspoken way from start to finish, this book wrestles with the question: What does it means to love God and live with grief? How can we be broken in a world that was created out of perfection and that exists — all its imperfections notwithstanding — in perfection?
The groundwater of Starr’s book evokes the life and evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. In the dark evenings, as Teilhard lay in his stretcher-bearers’ medic tent with WWI carnage all around him, he felt into a grand unity of all things. Out of immense suffering, he intuited what he called the Omega Point: ever higher forms of Love and harmony, pulling us up and into a more perfect intimacy with God, even as this moment now is already completely perfect and full. Everything, wholeness and brokenness, exists equally and always within a divine milieu, within life’s sacred container. Teilhard articulated a paradox between the immediacy of an ever-present wholeness and one that is always in a process of becoming, always reaching towards higher forms of integration. This process exists as the process of life or the unfolding of Spirit, one inseparable from loss, tragedy, and despair. Teilhard found his way, inspired or repelled or both by the devastation of battle and the sensory reality of immeasurable suffering. Mirabai wrestles with questions as large.
But her story is not one of battlefields. It is the grief of a mother’s heart, a woman’s soul, and a girl’s body that is battered, even shattered, by life lived at the edges of social norms. It is a window into the hippie lifestyle of her non-conformist parents, the less than perfect social experiments of the Lama Foundation community, and the unseen scars and mental imbalance that shadowed her adopted daughter’s meteoric spirit, which lit the sky in its diamantine brilliance, and disappeared into the void all too soon. Mirabai, somewhat different than Teilhard, does not offer a grand synthesis where we can rest and find resolution. She does not leave the grief of her heart on one plane of existence, while dissolving into another. In her unmitigated confrontation with loss in its various forms and dimensions, she exists with grief. For Mirabai, that very surrender to the pain of life as it is, unmediated, is her path, her answer to a question we all must wrestle with as we endeavor to make our lives, in this sometimes unbearably painful world, meaningful, real, and true.
Caravan is not a “how to” book to help readers deal with their own grief. It does not describe a method or a practice that can be imitated or followed. It would never attempt to tell another soul how to navigate its own confrontations with inexplicable and seemingly unbearable pain and continue to love Spirit and live. And yet, in this one woman’s courageous truth-telling and witness-bearing to the wounds of her own life, Mirabai opens up many doors and possibilities for readers to come to terms with their own experiences of loss, directly, without artifice. Whether you feel your life has been shaped by great loss or not, Mirabai’s willingness to walk in the darkness of the unknown provides direction to depth. Hers is a wabi-sabi story, where the crack itself is what makes the art form all the more beautiful, where the frayed and torn strands of our hearts can knit in a new tapestry. Without a path or a promise, Caravan of No Despair lets us experience how, in radical acceptance of the many shapes of reality, we may find a very different way to live with grief. In that lack of resistance to what is may come our own wisdom and even our own rebirth.
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No Palliatives, No Promises:
Radical acceptance as one woman's path to living with grief
A book review of caravan of no despair by mirabai starr
by Amy Edelstein
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A book Excerpt
Today is the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I awakened earlier than I wanted, but I’ve become used to this in the past three years of his dying and death. I find a dense fog outside my window in this near dawn light and I wonder if it will rain, for I intend to do a ritual outside in his honor.
It was Michael’s birthday five days ago, and now it is his death day. I guess that it’s good that these events come so close together. I’ve taken most of the week off so that I can move into the deeper spiritual work of this time.
On his birthday, I got a small pastry, put a candle in it, picked some daffodils, pulled a tarot card, and sang Happy Birthday. I started crying in the middle of the song because it felt so empty to be singing to the remnants of what remains of his earthly life, to be singing into the hollowness of life without him.
As I was shuffling the deck of 78 tarot cards, I kept asking for one card, just one, that would tell me what I need to know about Michael. I was thinking that maybe The Star card would show up, for he has communicated with me and others through the stars. But the card that came was Death. I almost laughed when it turned over, and I almost cried. Of course! He is dead and my task is to accept it.
This made me realize that there’s a new level of acceptance that is attempting to come in, that needs to come in. And it’s all about letting go of the various ways in which I’ve tried to keep Michael alive. I need to finally accept that no amount of crying, or praying, or wishing, or remembering, or meditating, or writing, in short — nothing – will bring Michael back to me. I need to understand this fully and unequivocally. For I believe that this is the level of acceptance that will begin to bring relief to this endless grief.
I have to confess that I’ve been playing Ghost with Michael for this past year. He would be smiling about my “playing ghost” with him for we had joked about it as he was dying, and he vowed he would play it with me.
I’ve been doing my own version of the Ghost movie that was so famous in the 90’s. I’ve been feeling Michael holding my hand. I ask for him, and I feel a very subtle sense of his hand on mine – warm and comforting. I feel him in my office too, the office I shared with him. And I often feel him when I meditate. I don’t know if it’s really him, but it doesn’t matter.
At this one-year anniversary of his death, I’m realizing that at least for now, I need to stop playing ghost. It keeps him too alive in my mind, and it keeps me from moving forward. And the point, the very necessary and painful point, is that he is dead and gone.
But it’s hard to let go of our loved ones, and the efforts toward communication with our dead feel important. It seems natural that we strive to continue our connection to them. The bonds of love are so potent and profound, and they weave themselves into our very Being in unknowable and inextricable ways.
So, there is something about fully accepting that Michael is gone and at the same time finding myself at a vibrational level that can occasionally and consciously commune with whatever remains of his spirit in this realm. But this communion needs to change in some indefinable way. I need to accept that no matter how potent the connection may be, I must move on with my life. It is too lonely and too empty to continue to reach back into our life together in this way. It is too sad to sing Happy Birthday to an empty chair. He is gone. And I remain.
And yet, I don’t know how to accept this. Not really. I’ve got the words, the concept, and even the feeling sometimes. But the level of true and complete acceptance of his loss continues to elude me.
Then I realize that I don’t have to know how to accept this, that in fact, I may not be able to know. Like so many things, I can’t figure this out. No amount of time in my head is going to make this clearer or easier. In fact, just the opposite. Once again, it comes down to trusting the very nature of life. To trusting that life will show me exactly what I need to learn. It comes down to being on my knees again, to asking for help and guidance, and to being humble enough to receive it. I have been on my knees so often in these past several years, and yet, here I am again. It seems to be the only place from which I can begin to know the deeper wisdom.
I go out to the garden where Michael’s ashes are buried, and I clear the space around them. The marker stones from last year have been moved by the harsh winter and I am on my knees as I place them in their circle. Among the stones are citrine, and hematite, and quartz, and tiger’s eye. There is aventurine and several pieces of lapis, for that is the stone of Medicine Buddha, and Michael had many of them. And there is his pocket Buddha. I know I will take these with me wherever I go for the rest of my life. And I will take the small urn of his remaining ashes.
It is so peaceful here today and I’m surprised to find that I am not crying. Instead I am washed in gratitude and love and the fullness of life.
Now I prepare a ritual by creating a sacred circle with the directions and the archangels and the powers they represent. I light a candle that will burn for 24 hours. It is a Yahrzeit candle from the Jewish tradition for remembering those who are gone, and it is lit on the one year anniversary of their passing. My intention is for the deepest honoring possible. And then, finally, it is about letting Michael go, or at least letting him go a little bit more.
For this is the long goodbye. This year of mourning is ending, and though I know my grief doesn’t end now, this is a signpost of some kind. I’ve made it through this terrible ordeal of Michael’s dying and death, and now it’s time to re-enter the flow of life, it’s time to begin to heal.
I say these words out loud to Michael and to the Universe as I kneel in the garden. “I fully accept that you are dead and gone. I let go of our life together with immense love and gratitude. I ask for help in letting go and moving forward into life’s flow. Please help me to let go of you, as I ask you to let go of me. I will miss you forever in this life.” Now I cry wholeheartedly, every bit of me is committed to this moment, and once again, I water his resting place with my tears. I close the circle in reverence and silence.
Today, it feels like something is shifting. I am trusting the process, the larger Source. It feels a bit like falling, but I’m falling softly, falling gently into the great mystery. And really, it is so soft that it feels like being held. My heart is being held.
The Long Goodbye
a book excerpt from ENlightenment on the path of grief: A spiritual journey through dying and death
by Candida Maurer
the long goodbye
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“It’s the viewer that makes the work.” Marcel Duchamp
An invitation to experience: In the following three steps, I invite you to dive into the drawing. During this process, let go of your need to know something about this drawing and what you think it represents. And let go of any judgment or need to change your experience.
Connect: Close your eyes for a moment. When you reopen your eyes, let them trace the lines of the drawing and absorb the colors. Allow yourself to follow the impulse to shift between seeing the whole drawing or focus on a part of it.
Be moved: Shift your attention and feel the way the drawing moves you. Maybe you sense body parts that are contracting or relaxing. And feel the emotions that arise. Then shift your focus to the images the drawing evokes.
Create: Now take a piece of paper and a pen. And start to write. If this drawing had a voice, what would it say? Start your story with Once upon a time. Then let the story unfold by itself, inspired by your sensations, feelings, and imagination.
I invite you to share your story with me. liesbethdejong.weebly.com/shareyourstory.html
by Ross Kempner
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An Entry by Liesbeth de Jong
I invite you to share your story with me. liesbethdejong.weebly.com/shareyourstory.html
“Hurry!” That was the first thing I heard on February 1, 2005 near 7:30 am. I was sleeping next to my wife, Kim. She had surgery in August of 2004 and it was found that the stomach cancer had metastases and had become inoperable.
“Hurry!” She said again.
“What’s happening?” I responded.
“I don’t know what to do.” I said imploringly. “Are you in pain?” No response. I decided to give her some of the liquid morphine next to the bed. I then turned her on her side (I have no idea why) and sat down on the floor with my back against the wall.
I was looking at her and it just hit me, “Kim, it’s ok if you need to go. I’ll be alright.” I had the thought to hold her hand, but something told me not to, it would be a distraction. So I just sat, staring at her face.
It wasn’t too long when Kim’s eyes suddenly got big. She let out her last breath and closed her eyes.
I got up and called my friend, Eugene. He called some members of our spiritual community, unbeknownst to me. People started showing up around 9 am and we had this spontaneous wake, I suppose you would call it. Susan asked if she could help dress Kim, so I picked out one of my favorite dresses. At one point we had maybe 20 people surrounding Kim as she lay on the bed.
I called the mortician around 3 pm and the last of the people left maybe around 7 pm.
So it’s been nearly 16 years and I still cry at times. I was crying while writing this. I am eternally grateful that Kim woke me up so that I could be present for her transition. Yet what I have learned, if you can call it that, is that maybe there was no Kim, there is no Homer. There is just all of this happening. This memory now, this story now. There are thoughts of “Maybe I should have held her hand.” And “I could have taken better care of her.” Feelings of sadness and guilt are present. Aren’t these just things that have come and will go? Isn’t it all just God/Life flowing? I don’t know, yet there is this intuition, that through the practices that Jeff has so magnificently given us, there is the greatest opportunity here and now to remember and recognize who we really are, no matter what is happening or happened.
God/I pray that I will express the awareness that is aware when this body mind is on its death bed. I have a great example of this possibility, Kim. She was and still is this awareness, this Goddess. Forever and forever. Still here, for Kim has never nor could she ever, leave.
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by Homer Wong
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“The only constant in life is change.”
Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, late 6th century BCE
After driving 15 hours, since before the sun rose, we finally arrived at our country home for a one-week holiday this past March. Just days before a world-wide pandemic would alter everything as we knew it. I was concerned, like so many others, but thought it would pass in a month, tops. We were grateful to be in a remote mountain setting far from the center of town and even further away from our home in the congested City of Angels. I felt safe. Even with all the scary news reports, it started out as a peaceful time with family. Games, puzzles, baking, long walks and making snowmen filled our days. Only five days in, I became symptomatic. I took it in stride knowing I’d be fine soon enough. Relegated to bed, my window view of nature entertained me: white rabbits hopping about, snow storms blowing this way and that, sun-melted clumps of snow falling from the trees like bushels of cotton. There were thousands of stars to gaze upon at night. While I was quarantined, my partner had lots of one-on-one time with his children. I was happy for them and at peace with my situation. I mostly kept away from foreboding news choosing rest and reading to pass my time. I even took on Tolstoy’s War & Peace. A challenge that had eluded me until then. At one point I heard a report of the Earth’s atmosphere getting cleaner due to less auto usage and many factories at a halt. I wondered if this would be a reset for planet Earth and maybe us too. Even though we were in unprecedented times, I saw many positives which kept me neutral to the mayhem.
It made me think of the Buddhist Fable, The Horse that Ran Away. An old farmer and his son meet circumstances deemed as hardship or great luck by impatient neighbors. Hearing their prize horse has disappeared, the farmer responds, “We shall see if this is good or if this is bad… lucky or unlucky.” The farmer does not engage in loss or grief. He is calm, centered, curious, non-judgmental and patient to witness the outcome of each event. The horse returns a week later with a magnificent mare but, is it good or is it bad? The old farmer does not use believe these words have any real meaning… it just is.
Weeks passed as the virus lingered and worsened. My positive outlook waned with no end to the pandemic in sight. The experience messed with my head. Time and time again I thought I had recovered only to relapse again. I became fearful and judgmental of what the experts said were “unsafe behaviors” going on in our home. I forgot what I knew and felt unsupported and lost. I had lost my compass.
Seven weeks later I recovered from the illness and so much had changed. I was experiencing loss and uncertainty. I questioned myself and the people around me. Like millions of people, I wasn’t able to see my children and my infant grandchild (my first) for months. My heart ached. I felt robbed of important family events that could not be When I realized I was experiencing grief, I understood and it calmed me. We returned to Los Angeles and grand scale demonstrations of civil unrest. The city with its heightened lockdown seemed like an alternate reality, another planet. Established government, political, social and business systems were collapsing in order to transform. Minorities and underrepresented people were being heard and seen in healthier capacities. New paradigms emerging everywhere I turned. This was positive.
Months later, the new norm of uncertainty and unrest drained me. I fell in and out of a hollow funk. The presidential debates and election sparked ire and extreme polarity between people. It wasn’t “good” or “bad,” it just was what it was and it was uncomfortable. Transition often is. The past 8 months of continual change has challenged me to be okay with things not being okay. I am able to access reset by connecting with my higher self and meditation. I believe the benefits of meditation can help humankind and has the potential to transform civilization into a compassionate and inclusive world. During these globally unprecedented times, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our new paradigm included this energy?
The photo-based images in Foreseeable Cache are my way of sending this message. Each image represents what meditation feels like to me. They are a glimpse into moments of peace and mindful awareness. With steady practice, meditation invites an inner sense of calm that hopefully filters outwardly toward others. It creates a shift from being reactive to compassionate and inclusive. These interior landscapes are made in the vast and sublime beauty of the American West, where land is sacred and body, mind and spirit connect. The bands in each image are meant to portray portals and the transition from waking to meditative state, depicting a busy mind or external noise.
A Revealing Key
As I sip the sweet air with my lungs,
the roots of the earth fill me up,
the symbolic lover my key opens me up.
As I realize that that key is not with me,
I close up.
But as I realize that the symbol stands for something that is already unlocked,
the sweet smell of the object which brought out contact, is just a gateway into the contact of the all
by Ross Kempner
aN ENTRY BY DEBE ARLOOK
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The Spontaneous Writing Circle
Words without thought
The Spontaneous Writing Circle is a peer-led group of 14 Mystery Circle members that meet as two groups on Zoom, weekly or bi-weekly, for 90 minutes.
In 3 timed sessions, a member will read a poem or excerpt of prose after which we write what’s present to us, unedited and uncensored. The intention is to have the words appear while any effort to create them is surrendered. We then read our writings to each other and thank the reader, yet no critique is offered. This absence of distinctions and value judgments has created an open and lively space of ease, appreciation and creativity and a constant experience of wonder.
Here is a selection of writings from the circle and each member’s description of their experience.
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I am so grateful to have found the Spontaneous Writing Circle. I am privileged to be here for both the writing and the listening. Sharing our inner musings as once strangers, we have become intimate friends. We hold space and nurture the vulnerability of expressing our in the moment creations. It is exhilarating.
Now, just now I am being called by the rich fabric of my sorrow and pain. Before, there was a refusal in me. It wasn’t necessarily willful. I just wasn’t convinced. My mind or maybe more accurate to say, my intellect took its superior stand to my emotions. I didn’t want to stop all the doing. There was a shield of fear that kept me from opening the door of grief. If, I’m honest, the inner landscape hadn’t dried out enough to receive my tears.
I feel no self-condemnation for my tardiness. Life lived me as it did. Now, just now I can feel the pull, the desire to know the deeper well of feeling within. My heart wants to gush with love again, the wild unbounded love of Spirit. It was there as a child, a pure, unselfconscious love flowing inside and out to everyone. The flames begin to ignite again bringing a remembrance of my essential essence.
The vulnerability I feel in writing these words wants to caution me. It’s too dangerous to open to the tender insides of this love. I realize in this moment I don’t have to follow the fear nor do I have to make anything happen. All I need do is write these words as they flow out of me. Then, open my mouth and let them tumble out.
by JUDY VORUZ
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I COULD NOT BE LORI
This poem speaks of courage as I have come to know it.
I have come to know courage by not being afraid to seeing it in others.
So, Courage is now a collection of ways to see it.
I’ve been a brave girl… from the beginning…
in a particular way.
Brave to stand in what I couldn’t look away from.
And speak to it
as if nothing else existed.
But Brave …
could have been another
who suffered in patience
with a different insight
Into standing in the moment.
We must all carry Bravery from where we are - at some point.
But it doesn’t envelop all that we need to be brave for.
I could imagine
like every other distinction
is a characteristic of being human…
And to assume that, it opens our awareness to acts of Bravery
that are not our own.
I could not be Lori.
So, I am not.
As much as jumping from a plane
As well as facing death in pain .
But, I am a certain kind of warrior.
by DEBORAH KAPLAN
Deborah has created a wonderful space for us to explore writing in a safe environment. We can proceed as we wish, via more of a creative flow, or via exploration of automatic writing, dependent on each of our needs and desires. The group is small enough to be intimate, large enough to provide provocative stimulation. And, it took us virtually no time to adjust and settle in thanks to Deborah's leadership. I don't fancy myself a good writer, though I have enjoyed the opportunity Deborah has provided to explore this medium more fully.
Nature provides a reflection of who we are
If we are looking
It is the pure essence, pure consciousness
The trees, rocks, earth, water
Eons of wisdom are held within
If we listen, we can hear, we can feel
No matter of sadness as that is only for the past
It is the vision of the future
The purity of being-ness
Allow nature to take our hands
Let go of the boundaries, beliefs
It isn’t an accident
It is destiny
by LISA SHAMBRO
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In one moment of time, an expression arose from this fluid form of attention while in the presence of a few other lovely souls, who evoked it. I don’t recall what poem was read that prompted it, doesn’t really matter.
What is wisdom? What is love? Love seems to come in many forms. Is not delight a form of love, its radiant form? Is not joy the same? We delight IN, we are joyful FOR. How about gratitude? Does it not arise from experiences like joy and delight? Do we not appreciate those we love, what we delight in, what we are joyful for and what we are grateful for?
Perhaps one form of wisdom is to see the manifestation of love in the myriad forms it takes. To enjoy each form for what it brings us. To share the delight and love for every form with others, in the way that most suits their ears, their hearts so that WE may be joy’d in unison.
Shared delight is magnified love. As we share the forms of love it radiates out of us calling forth that resonance in others. Love invites, love beckons. Its presence melts the concerns of others and they are opened to share into that radiant space. They are welcomed home into the collective heart, where they can rest and play in the loving arms from which they once wandered out to discover the delights of every form of love that graces the world.
The wise ones know. They allow each to find their own path, taste their own delights and gently nudge each soul when it fails to see love and joy in the many forms in which it manifests.
Go out and play, find love, taste delight, share what you find with others and then come home and tell us of your joy.
by JUSTIN FRANK
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