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Finding In the Darkness Glimmering
On the ennobling task of feeling and being felt.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve often noticed the part of me that longs for silence, for inner coherence in a fractured world. The part that doesn’t want to say a word that could disturb the air, nor add an ounce of the weight in my heart (the inverse of hope, which Emily Dickinson described as “the thing with feathers”) to the too-delicate balance of so many others’ hearts.
It takes time, integrity, and inner resource to orient toward the din of humanity’s anguish and rage. Our prefrontal empathic sensors weren’t built for this scale. In some moments, usually toward evening, I’ve found myself in an inarticulate withdrawal, like a simple sea-thing. I’ve watched the trees bare themselves to the elements as they curl warmly inward and noticed within myself a seasonal instinct toward self-preservation. “We have seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones,” writes Katherine May.
Mary Oliver once wrote, “I hardly move, though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.” At surface, I may appear as though distracted (in fact, I’m accustomed to being interpreted as aloof and have worked with the resulting relational nuances throughout my life). My people, the ones who know me well, have learned over the years to soften toward my tendency to slip into the primordial. They understand the moments when I’m at once far away and too near.
These moments might sound unproductive, even myopic — like pressing an ear into the oceanic drone of a shell. But they are really seasons of integration and calibration.
Joy Harjo’s poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” begins with the indelible imperative “put down that bag of potato chips,” and counsels:
“Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor. Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse. You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return. Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.”
Stop anesthetizing, the poet says. Call upon the help of those who love you. Call to your spirit as you would to a beloved child.
The first of the Four Noble Truths (which meditation teacher Henry Shukman re-phrases as “ennobling tasks”) is the truth of suffering. The truth of suffering is the host who meets us at the door of spiritual practice. To step in, we must allow ourselves to feel — or, in David Whyte’s words, to “[turn] down through…black waters to the place we cannot breathe.”**
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
-David Whyte, “The Well of Grief”
As shunya is to purna, emptiness to wholeness, depths of quiet can open us, ultimately, to the great hum of our common wellbeing. In this native place, with its “secret water, cold and clear,” we can offer our broken bits to the healing source. We can learn to drink, to receive.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery. If a bowl is broken, rather than discarding the pieces, urushi sap is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum and applied to the faults. The wound is tended with lacquer, skill, and utmost care. And thus, wholeness and transformation — a seasoned beauty — is reclaimed.
The art of mending pottery symbolizes what David Whyte describes as “find[ing] in the darkness glimmering, the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else.” It’s what Joy Harjo refers to as the practice of “calling the spirit back.” Our task is to listen deeply in order to remember — to piece back together — our willingness to feel and to be felt. The beauty is in finding and being re-found.
It’s a grace in my life that my people know when to take my hands and call me back. Friends: we must do this, at times, for each other. We must love each other well enough to know, when necessary, how to call each other back. Courage is our sap.
**[A disclaimer from your therapist friend here: skillful means are necessary to come into relationship with any “unbreathable” place. Titration helps. For example, we can find internal presence, touch into a feeling briefly, and then guide our attention back outward, noticing light, objects, colors, sensory input, etc. If there’s the potential for trauma triggering, practice this with professional support.]