Whose Life Is It Anyway? Ramblings on life, yoga, romance, money, sex, life, yoga, art, music, life and life.
Ultimate Beauty: The Alchemy of Pain
In the ebb and flow of life, have you ever experienced suffering? A dark night? A time when you questioned every thought in your head and word that left your mouth? A time when your core beliefs were all shaken and you wondered if you had any real idea who you were or why any of it mattered? Well, I have. The answer, for me, was to take a break and what I received was a lesson beyond my expectations.
When I sent out the email announcing my sabbatical, I had no idea it would get such a strong reaction. I also could never have imagined how my need to take care of myself might be a catalyst for change in so many. I fielded responses ranging from anger and disappointment, to outpourings of love, to fear for my career and those of others. Some offered thanks, for by my example they felt they were given permission to take a step they were too frightened to take on their own. As you might have already imagined it wasn't an easy decision for me. In fact, I’m not sure it was a decision at all. The reality is I hit a wall, or more in truth a wall had hit me, and I could do nothing else but let go.
Through the years, I have tried to be as honest as I could with my community and in my writing. I did so in the hope that those who cared to read or listen might find a common thread in my willingness to share my experiences — uncensored. I decided a long time ago there was nothing to hide in a life that was lived honestly. Having had the privilege of speaking with a good many people, during my spiritual counseling sessions and in life in general, I know that we all suffer the same pains, have the same fears and rest in the same joys. The problem is, we only talk about what is good and proper and so we can believe that the world is like a happy Facebook page, when in reality there are many dimensions to this experience. Many are confusing, scary and yet profoundly beautiful.
In the last few months it became unavoidably clear to me that I couldn’t teach the Monday night class that I have been teaching for about 25 years — give or take a few. Those of you who have been there know that we use the asanas as a masquerade for the mind. It was perhaps a way to trick ourselves into believing we were “exercising”, when in fact we were stridently looking at how our movements reflect our day, and our day reflects our month, and how it all reflects our choices in life. By doing this, deep parts of ourselves are revealed right there on the mat before us. Over the years, I let go of even pretending the alignment mattered and got clear that it was the transformation we each experienced within the class that was why people came. It’s not for everyone; those who came knew they needed to be there, and I knew I needed to be there too.
As I became less able to be to find clarity in my intention for myself and thus the direction of the class, I knew I had to let it go, but it wasn't until my world had been rocked and I had no idea what I thought, believed or even if this whole thing wasn’t just a bunch of bullsh@# that I took the steps to leave, even if it added to my disquiet.
Often people say to me: “Paula, you’re a “Guru”, do you really still struggle with this or that? I can’t believe it!”. The funny thing is, when you choose a life of looking inward — or when it chooses you — you actually might struggle more. The difference, if there is one, is that you are committed to the truth. So when you get hit with life (as we all do) you don’t run or maybe you don’t run as far. Instead you sit with it. You go through the pain as awake as you possibly can — you effort and suffer and when you are lucky you gain some small insight into how difficult it is to be human and the beauty, empathy and compassion of that insight is what you share with others.
A parallel I have been thinking about recently is that of one of my teachers, John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. I empathize with his recent difficulties; from where he stood, it was such a long way to fall. He had to rip down the facade of lies he told himself (that we all tell ourselves) and get real with being human, while still holding the seat of teacher. You see once you are bold enough to take this seat you can’t really give it back. What we all can forget is no matter who we are, we are always human first. Yet often, as teachers, we can get caught up in the projections of our students and believe we “know” something, or that we have safely come to some place above the struggles of life. I so often wished while reading John’s words that I would hear him say: "Dear ones, I am struggling with the desires of my ego. I am sitting in the soup of the lies I’ve told myself and I am suffering. Can you still love me? Can you still love me the way that I have loved you for all these years?". Whose to say, but perhaps if he had it might have given me permission to acknowledge the parts of me that I was unable to accept.
The best we can hope for is to take what we are offered with some grace and acceptance in knowing that the pain and difficulty is an opportunity for growth and understanding. Perhaps John, like me, resisted this opportunity — for my part, I just didn’t want to hear the truth. I could care less about growing! I wanted what I wanted and the more I resisted, the worse it got.
This was not my first tangle with darkness, but definitely my most painful and as a matter of course, it turned out to be my most beautiful. As I spiraled further away from who I believed I was, I questioned myself, my intentions, my work, this practice and, most painfully, my faith. I watched myself as if in a nightmarish movie. Yet there was always the smallest piece of me that believed there must be a reason for this and another part that would roar and say: “What could be the reason for any of this! Its all so cruel! I deserve better”. What I learned is that it’s not meant for us to see, instead we go through it blindly, fully, as that is the only way to learn the lesson that is before us. If we can we trust and stay as open as our hearts and fears will let us and let the beauty come in its own form, we are humbled.
During the scariest nights, I had nothing but my practice. After all these years, that was my only tool. I have no real addictions to lean on any longer and all I knew to do was sit in the pain of my mind, which created great pain in my body. I thought this must be either the "spiritual upgrade" we read about or a terrible joke.
On one of my mot difficult days I was seeing a client. One of the most profoundly feeling women I know, as well as one of the most guarded and fearful. We have been working together for a few years now. This day I was with her raw, tired and hopeless. We went into meditation together and she began to cry. If you knew her you would have an idea of how big a moment this was. We held each other – slowly she turned to me and said: "It’s all so hard Paula. There is so much pain here”. Almost immediately I felt my very bruised heart chakra begin to open — literally. Then she said: “And yet there is so much beauty”. Together we cried in reverence to it all.
Intimacy is rare but when it happens it's like a perfect diamond, its value cannot be measured. I left her home and had many awakenings that lead me to such genuine compassion for myself and then for everyone. I experienced in my body what all those annoying people have been saying for centuries: “You must forgive yourself first”. I would always hate when they said it. This time, however, it ceased to be one of the things I intellectually understood but didn’t "get". I felt it in my cells and it unfolded like a movie in front of me. Like I was living it in real time. I saw my life’s stories before me, I experienced the pain I felt from others and hated them for and then in the next instant I saw how I had inflicted that same pain on others, and on myself. I felt how genuinely afraid and fragile we all really are. In the cab from her home to my studio I did some of the most sincere spiritual work I had ever done in my life. I forgave them and myself and opened space for us all to be human.
Today I am sitting in my own soup with more acceptance and maybe a little more grace. I have let go of the story that I “know or need to know” anything and what I have picked up is love. I have believed from the start that this work is between people. There is no Knower and no Seeker. There is simply space and time that we hold for each other to grow. What is alive in that space are love and trust. If that is genuinely in your heart, then the work, the growth, the healing — it all just happens. If you can hold your beloved — whomever that might be — in your love and not your fear, then the unfolding happens. Together you can find the understanding that can heal the wounds of many lifetimes. Not one person knows while the other learns. You both get to learn and move forward to what ever awaits — together. Even this is not something I “know”, but what this dark night has helped me to feel — a gift beyond all others.
This world is organic. We can only be certain that it will change. Change exists so we can grow, but only if we are willing to look at those places in ourselves that scare us to death and that we are sure no one could ever love. If only we can be certain we know nothing – and yet sit confidently and humbly in our hearts. If we surround ourselves with people who will lovingly remind us when we have lost our way—because they know they have lost theirs from time to time — then we are enlightened and that light is no more than simple, honest love.