A week ago I sat at a Thanksgiving table decked out with wine glasses laced with gold bows, gold trimmed plates, an overspilling cornucopia centerpiece, and piles of excess food that wouldn’t be touched by our group of ten that evening. In the midst of the trappings of security, wealth and abundance, the general feeling of the people at that table was mired in sadness and instability. Although Root Chakra basic needs were taken care of on a physical level, some sort of internal security and belonging was missing for these kind folk.
The friend sitting to my right at this holiday table was visibly shaken since learning of her boyfriend’s infidelity. The friend on my left was grieving her mothers’ downward spiral into cancer. Across the table a mother/daughter pair were dancing the love/hate tango of their most primal relationship. The man near the door spoke of being estranged from his father for many years, while a lonely older gentleman watched the spritely younger men at the table with envy.
And myself? Where did I fit into this sticky amalgamation of human experience? I, too, could have examined my current life and seen the holes, felt the recent rejection from a love interest and the stress of my bleak financial situation. But instead all I could feel was gratitude. Gratitude for my own resiliency and tenacity, with a dose of chutzpah, that I’ve cultivated over the past year.
Holidays are such welcome markers of time, and this Thanksgiving marked a year since my life started shifting and crumbling. A year ago, driving up to the mountains for Thanksgiving with his family, my partner, J, and I sat in stony cold silence between bursts of yelling and crying. We were facing the inevitable end of our four-year relationship. The pain and confusion increased when I received the diagnosis of “infertility” a week later (exactly a year ago today). All that I thought I would be in my life – a wife to J and a mother to our children – fell apart. My identity, belonging and security centered in my Muladhara Chakra were threatened, abducted and abolished.
Looking back on this past year, I am reminded of the ancient Japanese haiku, “barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon” (Masahide 1657-1723). I can now see clearly the gifts that this fiery, tragic time have bestowed upon me. I am more free and inspired, calm and loving than I was a year ago. I don’t want to diminish the pain of that time, or the extensive healing process that has taken place since then. Rather, I am impressed by the strength I have had, and that we have as humans, to rise from the ashes, to “see the moon,” after times of tribulation and struggle.
My example is just a tiny one. People around the globe and throughout time have had all basic rights taken away, lost their entire families, been beaten and ridiculed and still overcome and risen. Through the pain and suffering they maintain a spark. There is a spark that ignites within the first chakra of basic needs, gains momentum in the second chakra of creation, churns and smolders in the third chakra of personal power, is nurtured in the fourth chakra of love, and exposes itself brightly in the fifth of chakra speech and expression. The life of Nelson Mandela, who passed away today, is an example of this fierce drive to face and overcome adversity. Even without the obvious external security, Mandela’s internal roots were planted firmly enough so that he could rise up after every painful fall.
Pain is our teacher, says yogi Mark Whitwell, again and again. Pain and adversity can be the guru, the teacher, and the path to healing.
“Pain is an intrinsic function of nature and not the enemy. It is healing, and it facilitates necessary change. Every kind of pain leads you through obstructions to freedom. Understand that pain is an aspect of nurturing force. Allow it to function and do its work. It naturally reduces itself as a quality of its function.”
Buddhist leader Pema Chodron encourages us to practice wholeheartedly with pain, difficulty and uncertainty. She names difficult emotions, such as irritation, jealousy and fear, “warning flags” which tell us to “perk up and lean into a situation when we’d rather cave in and back away.” Of course these difficult and uncertain situations arise naturally throughout our lives. We can also purposefully create challenges to test our resiliency and willpower. Verse 16 of Chapter One in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika offers instruction on austerities, methods to do away with habitual comforts in order to foster a spiritual state. Personally, I start my day with an ice cold shower to remind myself of my own strength and ability to endure and overcome. Likewise, we yogis challenge ourselves in our asana practice. We continue to push our physical abilities and concentration practices on the safe haven of the sticky mat in order to be more resilient and equanimous in the challenging situations of our day-to-day lives.
Tonight I sat with a client, I’ll call him Joe, whose mother and wife are both seriously ill. He was on the verge of tears when he told me that somedays he worries that the pain of loss will cause him to shut down his heart. But, he continued, most days he notices how the pain and loss are actually opening his heart and making him kinder and more compassionate to those around him. It is my hope that Joe can continue to open and grow in the midst of his pain. It is my dream that he will sit at a Thanksgiving table a year from now and feel gratitude for his own resiliency, tenacity and chutzpah.