Why Do I Go to Church?

I go to church because I like holding hands while we walk forward. We’re all lost, but we’re all walking. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s a good quote, and it might be right. But we’ve forgotten where home is.

Where is the Divine? Is anything sacred? Where is hope?

Terrible signposts hang on the trees around us—Our climate is ruined, and whole species are dying out. Children practice hiding from gunmen at school. Cancer is everywhere, and most of us go bankrupt because we can’t even pay to get treated. Our democracy no longer works. Our country has put children in prisons. Addiction is everywhere, and more people die from opioids than from heart attacks. And on and on.

What I know for sure is that we can only find a path if we believe there might be a path. If we think despair is safer, if we think that no path is possible, we surely will never find one. And we won’t figure it out through logic and thought. I can’t do the calculations on paper; no one can figure it out in advance. No one can outthink despair. No one can use logic and analysis to prove hope.

I know there is a path because I’ve wandered onto it several times. Not on purpose, not with planning. In my life—and I’m an old woman now—I’ve usually been lost. Like everybody else, I never really knew where I was going.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, something would tell me that God is. Not “God is… fill-in-the-blank.” Not “God is real,” not “God is Love,” or anything that defines the Divine in complete sentences. Not “This prayer will always get what you want.” Not “Say these words and you’ll get saved.”

Think instead of the mist rising at dawn and the very first murmuring of a bird. Think of the smell of stew when you’ve worked all day. Think of the sweaty, sticky kiss of a toddler in summertime. Think of looking into my eyes. Think of a surprise gift, something you never expected. These are the proofs, and they are real. Think of the joy in my mom’s eyes a few days before she died. All are signposts hanging in the trees around us, and they are as real as the signposts about despair.

Joy is as real as despair, and we get to choose. Wayne Dyer said, “When you believe it, you will see it.” We have to choose. With all the world’s negativity, we have to consciously choose joy over despair. It takes practice. It’s not easy or automatic. When we catch sight of joy, we have to shout it out so others on the path can hear us.

I go to church because I like holding hands as we walk forward. For all the brutal mistakes—and there are thousands— that churches have made, when we sit in church, we’re choosing hope. Many of my church friends are different from me, from all sorts of families and beliefs. That’s okay. Our families didn’t protect us and neither did our beliefs. We’re all equally lost.

But if we hold hands, somehow things get better.

Maybe following a gentle teacher helps us all forgive. Maybe singing old songs reminds us of the joy of childhood. Maybe just not hating for an hour every week eases our tired hearts.

Life presses down on all of us. We try to pay our bills, raise our children, fight temptations and face illness and death. Holding hands really helps.

Holding hands is an act of hope, and that is why I go to church.  I like being able to sing “God is” as loudly as I can. Beauty is. Love is. Trust is. There is a path and we can choose to step onto it. Church certainly isn’t the only path, but I like the part where you and I hold hands.

I’m singing at dawn, just like the smallest bird. All of us are singing as we walk forward. It’s a simple song:  “There is a path. We are all right. We’re not alone, we’re never alone. Love matters. We’re almost home. Hold my hand, hold me close, and don’t be afraid.”

by Jean Gendreau

 

Walking the Plank

It’s never as fun as in Peter Pan. It’s murder—A public execution. Peter Pan flew, but I don’t know how. I’d drown.

Being forced to jump backwards into blackness, being pushed off the place where I’m barely balancing, falling into terror, into no control, into the death of all I know is what I dread more than the misery of staying where I am.

When I fall backwards, I let go. I’m forced into it. I would never choose this. The things that push me off the edge are so cruel—drugs, shame, addiction, humiliation. Pain. Illness. A broken heart. Despair.

I can’t plan this, and neither can you. It’s foolish to even think so. Who would choose such fear and pain?

Instead I have to fall backwards into space I can’t even imagine.  Something forces transformation over my head and holds it there. I can’t breathe. I have no idea what’s possible. All I can feel is the far edge of despair. I cannot comprehend the openness of surrender, of giving up.  

But for some, something good is possible— even though it makes no sense and seems impossible. Just thinking this offends me. How dare anyone suggest that there can be goodness in rape and torture? In despair and suicide? In the starvation of innocents? In horror?

The answer is I don’t know. I have no idea.  But on the other side of horror some people come to know a reality of love, courage, help and hope. No one can deny this.

I can never understand this healing, this new life. It’s just not of this realm. It’s not sewn from my thoughts.

What I know for sure is this: There is a mystery, a power, a touch that is overwhelming. Goodness is possible after despair.

Life is possible after all hope dies. I am not talking about heaven and angels. Even when I fail utterly, even when there seems no hope at all, things happen beyond it.

Think of the Ravensbruck prayer. Ravensbruck was a Nazi concentration camp for women and children.  When the Allies finally freed the camp in the spring of 1945, the soldiers discovered a prayer written on a scrap of paper next to a body.  On that ugly little scrap, written in the horror that drove good people insane were words of courage. Words of God. Words of love.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

but also those of evil will.

But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;

remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—

our comradeship,

our loyalty,

our humility,

our courage,

our generosity,

the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to the judgement,

let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Amen.

How did this happen? I have no idea. But it did. Can we comprehend how this warmth was possible in a place of utter cruelty? No. And that is the point.

No one planned this.  And neither did some fantasy, omnipotent God, sitting on a throne, point a finger and say, “Now that woman can suffer so much that she writes a great prayer.”  This is too childish. It’s like a high school student trying to explain aging to a 90 year old.

I’m not saying we’re silly or small.  We are not. But there are enormous realities that lie beyond my ability to sense anything at all. Science isn’t enough, and neither is faith. We just do not know, and that’s okay.

The Divine Flow is much stronger, deeper and more loving than any facile explanation. Thinking it’s a person planning is like thinking that because I baked the cookies, I also made eggs and chickens. Butter and cows. Wheat plants in the sunshine.

Death often eases great pain. Often, as someone floats free in death, their spirit shines. Ask a hospice nurse. She has seen it many times, but she cannot explain it.

It has happened that people who have suffered unimagined torture and pain somehow claw a way to acceptance and joy.They may even become able to hold out a hand to the next person.

Should they have been forced to grow in this way? Of course not. There is no excuse or reason for the pain. And we should do everything we can to prevent any such injury.

But if we fail to prevent it, then afterwards, after the girl has been raped and tortured, after the child has been starved, after the man has put the gun into his mouth, that is the moment when we fall backwards into “I don’t know what is possible.”

In this place we discover miracles. Real ones, daily ones. Some people heal out of despair and then they help others. It is possible. We never intend it, and neither does God. It just happens, even though it seems impossible. I will never understand it, and neither will you.

That’s the point. That’s the touch of God. It’s real. It’s what we fall into when we fall off the end of the plank.

In the space beyond the end, in the opening of impossible possibility, I realize that I am safe, always. It’s the instant you look in my eyes. It’s the instant of caring, of love.

We are never alone—never. The Divine Awareness always holds us close. We may have grown hard and cold, we may have blocked out its touch, but God is always in us, with us, for us.

Death is not real. What we think is death is transformation of the shell. Our bodies give us pain and pleasure and the chance to love. But our essence, our “me-ness” is not the body. We’re spirits having a physical experience. We’re God-flakes that float into a physical experience of thoughts, confusion, pleasure and joy. And then we melt back into the Divine Flow.

Everything is known. Because we are all the One, the Divine Awareness links me and you and them and all existence. Usually though, we’re too armored to sense this. Yet even though it’s hard to sense, and much of it most people never sense, God knows every thought because God is every thought. Right here, right now, I am in God and God is in me and in you.

There is no judgment in the Oneness. There’s only unspeakable tenderness, gentler and sweeter than anything you or I have ever known. Even for the drunk who killed a whole family when he drove home last night.  Even for the man who rapes children. I don’t understand this in any way, and there’s no point in trying.

But what matters is that I must love myself because God is in me and God understands. The Awareness, the Christ Consciousness, the Universe knows and loves and keeps on loving without any hesitation at all, and so must I. Once I see it, I have no choice because this is the flow that feeds every part of existence, including me and you.

There is only one answer: Reach out.  Touch me. Kiss my cheek. Feed the ones you hate. Hold up the ones who smell of urine and feces. Touch someone. Listen. Honor not only the pain people go through but honor the unexpected, holy growth that might start in hell.  And believe in impossible healing.

I do not know, and neither do you. We don’t know what’s possible. We don’t know what is kindest.

That’s why, when something forces us backwards off the plank, we grab something bigger, something stronger than anything in our little stable of prayers.

We have to choose a much bigger, broader horse, one where we are not the master at all.  “May whatever happens next be for my higher good.” “May I grow in forgiveness and love, whatever that means.” “May I heal.” “May I open to God’s love in new ways.”   “May I accept transformation that I do not understand.”

We have to allow transformation. Think of the big horse we landed on. This is power that we never imagined. It canters to places that we never even knew existed. It carries us.

What guides the power, what’s holding the reins of transformation is possibility itself. Openness to change that we have dreaded or wished for or never even imagined.

We cannot take the reins, just as a high school student cannot teach how to be ancient. It simply is not possible. We are not that big, and that is okay.

And so instead, falling off the plank, we surrender. We trust. That does not mean giving in to a cruel God who is looking for a way to punish us.

It means allowing the possibility—just the “maybe,” just the “okay”—that we do not know, but that there are solutions, blessings, joy, hope, healing that none of us—none of us— can imagine.

That’s exactly God. We can surrender into Divine Love. We can rest in the Mystery itself. It’s too big to be named, too exquisite to paint, too powerful to rein in, too loving to deny. God is safe. God carries us home—but not by any road we know. There is no prayer, no technique that makes God obey our small wishes.

Instead, after a while, we discover that we can stand up. We squeezed our eyes shut but now maybe we are willing to open them just a little bit. From here we can lean further back, we can look eagerly into the openness, into forever.

Try this image:  Something forces us backwards, step by step. We feel anger and terror. Finally we fall backwards off the end. We fall and fall, falling, floating, floating…. This is what we cannot plan or imagine because it is not of this realm. It’s not my little plans or hopes. It seems that something is here. We can rest in it. We can breathe. It’s easy. We’re not alone. Around are others. I hear someone gasp in joy–—It’s me. This is easy. This is light.

For some it is time to join Love itself. It’s time to melt like an ice cube. How lovely to be the Love itself. I am the Ocean itself. I am the Oneness.

But if I am still in this body, I come back into a day that I don’t recognize. Maybe my arm moves and I think maybe I can move both arms. My foot moves. Maybe I can move my foot, my leg. I try some movement. I try changing because I must. We have to. We have fallen backwards into ourselves.  We have died to our old selves and now here we are, right here, right now, moving a finger. Moving a leg. Whatever we were doing before did not work. We cannot claw our way back up the plank.

From nowhere, from everywhere comes a tender touch. A wisp of a whisper. Right here, right now, in the openness, something, someone touches us. Goosebumps rise, we gasp as we realize that we are not alone at all.

There’s a nudge.  We try something. We wake up just a little bit.

One day, knowing what we know now, maybe we will call God by name. What we see now, as clear as a new mirror, is that I am the soft touch of God’s fingertip for you. You are the shining in God’s eye for me, for the world.

God is happening right here, right now. It’s me as I love you; it’s you as you love them; it’s them as they love that child; it’s that child as he loves the prisoner.

The plank was just a birth canal. The new air, the tiny body is me in God and you in God, which is all existence.

We are dancing, right here, right now, to a love song. The plank, the terror, the selfishness, the confusion are long past. I touch your finger. With one hand you caress my cheek, with another you reach for the one who is falling right now. My eyes are God’s eyes, your hand is God’s hand, their lips are God’s lips.

As you walk the plank, take a soft breath. We can step lightly. We have no idea what’s beyond, but we can dance right here, right now, holding hands. Hope itself is singing.

Let me pull you close. That’s right, gently. And now it’s your turn to reach out to me. Here is my heart, here is my hand.

by Jean Gendreau

The Christmas Seed

It is dark and getting darker. Under the snow is bitter ice, and under that, brown earth. I remember standing by a grave 45 years ago—my baby boy’s grave. I had been in the hospital about a week, too sick to be there when they buried him. It was February in Wisconsin.

What came to me as I stood in the cemetery was that brown earth does well against the ice. Years later I know without a doubt that it’s true.

Yes, things end. Relationships end, jobs end, lives end. What I thought would work failed, and my mistakes could fill a warehouse.

But mother earth holds her own against the ice. A fallow field can overwhelm every dream of disaster.

Tonight the woods are growing darker, and I rest in the utter silence. I surrender. I give up what I thought I knew. The silence grows.

There is a magic deeper than time, stronger than any word or thought. None of my thoughts work in this quiet—none of my regrets, none of my plans. All I can do is surrender.  The earth’s safety deep under the ice holds me.

It turns out that I am a seed. I never knew it. The woods around me knew, but I didn’t. The leaves fell, the lakes froze. All the flower stalks bent and dropped their seed pods. The bears went to sleep.

I thought I was separate, but I was wrong again. I thought I knew what was happening, but I did not.

The Mystery that sings the darkness is a holy thing. I cannot understand, but I can trust it. There’s no point in planning or analyzing. If I try to grab it, it melts.

My shell softens as I wait. In the darkness, there’s a sense of Advent—not bright lights or trumpets, but the possibility of hope. There’s nothing to be seen yet. This is the longest night, after all.

Just as bulbs lie in the brown earth, I rest. There’s a sigh. Conception. Maybe. It comes out of nowhere, just a tickling touch. Grace. Just a breath.

A leaf falls from a tree into Oneness. A flower drops its seeds, trusting the brown earth.

Water turns to ice, proving Oneness. It knows that even as ice, it is water. It is always part of the whole. The only thing needed is a bit of warm light.

Years ago, as I looked at the grave’s fresh brown dirt, I was still whole—but my brain didn’t know it. I thought I was broken.

Even though the ice covers everything, the seed knows. Conception needs darkness and secrecy. Later there will be a stirring on the surface, but for now, the deep magic requires mystery. Oneness—love—holds me and you and my baby boy forever.

Tonight’s snow falls gently. I light my candle and wait. It’s just a few days now until the longest night. The seed knows that the light will come again.

—by Jean Gendreau


We will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be in Ely, Minnesota, on December 21st, at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.
Starting on January 2nd at 5:30 pm, there will also be a free meditation class,  “Meditation: A Six-Week Journey” offered in Ely MN. All are welcome. To sign up click here.

 

When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.

 

4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.

 

Walk With Me

Three turning points on the path to inner peace

Am I the prisoner or the jailer? Or am I both? I gaze out of my prison. It’s dark, and I’m desperate and afraid. I don’t know who I am.

Come with me to a new place. If you want, we can sing as we walk. There’s a long road ahead still, but I know this path is mine, and it is right for me.

There is a place of great safety, where “Today I might die” doesn’t matter. In that place, the executioner is loved as much as the hanged man. Tumors that break bones don’t matter and neither do needle tracks, promiscuity, despair, regret or betrayal.

A Christian hymn says, “We are pilgrims on a journey.”

The Sufi poet Rumi says, “O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage—where are you, where, oh where?”

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, “I’m a traveler, a pilgrim. No one can hold or stop me, not the bonds of joys and sorrows, not the room I live in.”

Maybe you don’t believe in God. That’s all right. Maybe religion leaves you empty. That’s fine too.

Our destination is kindness and caring for all beings. We’re going to walk beyond pain and shame and hatred. The word that you attach to the destination, how you name it, doesn’t matter.

I have wandered a lot. What I know is that there are three major turning points, three forks on this road. All of them help answer the question “Who am I?”

1. I am not my body.

This body is a wonderful temporary organism. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it wants food or sex and sometimes it laughs out loud at smelling and feeling and sensing life.

When infection touches it, the body gets sick but it can fight almost any germ. After all, it’s been practicing staying healthy since cavemen fought saber-toothed tigers. The body knows how to grow, how to heal and how to stop when it’s time.

Who am I? Am I the joy and health of my body? What if living in the body is torture?

If I have AIDs or cancer, is that who I am? Am I my tumors? No, absolutely not. If I am 95 and slowly fading, is that who I am? Christopher Reeves was more than his body when he looked like superman, and he also was more than his body when he lay paralyzed.

We are part of the whole. Divine intelligence dwells in our bodies, making them sacred tools. We hate to admit it, but our bodies really are temples of holiness. We heal from sickness because our bodies are more brilliant that we can imagine. And yet a body is temporary.

On our pilgrimage, it doesn’t matter if this body gets broken today. When we are quiet enough, when we meditate or pray, eventually we discover silence. The silence is the truth beyond our bodies, the wholeness that needs no body.

Even with cancer, even on a ventilator, even in addiction, even in death, our perfect essence belongs to the wholeness that is eternal.

Imagine your body as an ice cube floating in a sea of all that is, floating on the living water of kindness—and then melt. We are the water, not the ice cube. We are the ocean, not the wave.

2. I am not my story.

The cruelest thing our family and friends tell us is, “I know who you are. I remember everything you have done.” They say, “I love you, but let’s admit it. You’ve never been able to do math.” “You’ve made mistakes.” “No man will ever want you.” “You’re not really star quality.”

It’s so common that we don’t even notice it. People pretend they are being honest. But those pronouncements lock us into prison because we accept the lies as truth.

Kindness could be just as honest. “Wow. That was such a great thing to do.” “Why don’t you try again? I bet you’ll get the hang of it.” “I know you’ve got it in you to succeed.” “Forget the past. It’s over. Look to the future.”

Much worse than the judgments of others is how brutally we judge ourselves. We savage ourselves again and again, and we think it’s good.

After all, we think the story of our life is who we are. We think our past is our identity. If we “succeed,” then we have permission to be proud. If we “fail,” then we must be ashamed.

Think instead of the story of your life as instants of perception that have passed. They were lessons that you have finished.

You can let them go. Your story is like heavy chains that drag you down. Your story keeps your hands busy so you never reach for joy.

Here’s the trick—You’re clutching those chains. Nobody wrapped them around you. If they are there, it’s because you agreed to accept them. You said, “Yes, it’s too bad, but that is who I am.” Your own hands are pulling them tight.

You can let go. You can open your fingers and let it all slip away.

You are not your past. You are not your story. And the ones who really love you will help you let go.

But if I am not my story, then who am I? Sometimes people think their story was ugly, their pain was bad, but at least it gave them a special identity.

You can find a better identity.

You are more than just your body and more than just your story.

3. I am not my thoughts.

Ever since I was a baby, my mind has been creating thoughts. For many years, I assumed that my thoughts were my truest identity.

Some were good, and some were nasty. I could tell close friends my deepest thoughts, and I thought that was telling them who I really was.

Many of us use thoughts to whip ourselves. If I feel guilt or shame, I can punish myself again and again. “I shouldn’t have done that.” “He did that to me! How terrible!”

If we have an obsessive edge, we replay the bad scenes thousands of times. We would not do that to someone else, but we do it to ourselves.

Even our good thoughts are tricky because we are such brutal judges. We think, “I forgive her, so now I am good.” But that gives immense power to a flimsy thought.

Unconditional love means not judging—and that includes not judging ourselves.

One of the first things meditation teaches is that thoughts are neither good nor bad. They just are. I can let them go.

When I think, “I am good,” I can let that float away as a wisp. When I think, “He’s a bad person,” that can also just float away as a wisp.

When I think, “My body is ugly,” it’s just a wisp, neither good nor bad. When I think, “I should never have taken that last drink,” it can melt away. When I think, “There is no hope,” it’s just another strand of nothing.

Practicing meditation gives me the skill to let my thoughts float away without identifying with them. Without meditation, I don’t know how I would accomplish this.

That’s why meditation is one of the ways we heal into wholeness. That’s how meditation brings us closer to God—It helps us love ourselves in a completely new way.

Even after 30 years, practicing meditation is still hard for me sometimes. And it’s hard for everyone—even for the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Our thoughts are so intrusive and so compelling that we think they define us.

But we are much more than our thoughts.

We are pilgrims on our way to a new place.

Even if our bodies are failing, we are whole. Like ice cubes, we are melting into the whole.

We are both temporary and eternal.

Just as an ice cube freezes and melts, we take shape and then melt. Are we just the temporary shape? No, we are the essence out of which the ice cube forms. We are the living water.

So even when we are dying, we are whole. The ice cube melts to water as a form of release.

Even if we have failed terribly in the past, we are whole. Nobody dodges life’s lessons, but once the learning is done, we can open our hands and let the chains go. We are not our story.

Who we are today is the only thing that matters.

Even if our thoughts are clever, brilliant, terrible or sacred, they do not define who we are. They are like smoke on the wind. They melt away because they are nothing.

We are holy pilgrims, even when we cannot define God. We arrive at the sacred place beyond words, beyond time and beyond individuality. We rest in the immensity of all that is. “I will die” and “I was born” don’t matter.

In this place, it’s easy to touch one another. Our edges have melted. Who are we?

We are the connection itself. We are pilgrims on a journey to the truth of utter kindness.

Here, take my hand. Look into my eyes. We melt into each other and become one. We are whole.

 

[An earlier version was originally published on http://www.elephantjournal.com]