Coming Back to Life By Amy L. Livingstone
“To act in the world as if it were a sanctuary is to make it reverential and sacred; and it is to make yourself elevated and meaningful.” Henryk Skolimowski
There was a brief period of time around the world, and especially in this country, when shock and the subsequent collective grief had the potential to create a shift in consciousness at the deepest level of our humanity. On September 11, 2001, and the days that followed, the world stopped. People stepped away from their busy lives and began to question the meaning of their existence and to look at what was important to them. It wasn’t how much they had financially or materially, it was about family, friends, and love. There seemed to be a new realization for the precariousness of our existence and a new reverence for life.
Unfortunately, almost immediately after 9/11, our political leaders encouraged us to get back to ‘normal’—to work, produce and consume. President Bush told us that it was our patriotic duty to shop.
The quick nullification of our national grief put everyone back to the work of supporting the ongoing cycle of denial and powerlessness.
The continual suppression of our collective and personal grief in this culture is designed to keep people numb to the realities of what is happening to our world. It allows those in power—politicians and transnational corporations—to manipulate the citizens of this country and abroad for economic and political power, whatever the cost to the emotional, physical, and spiritual health of its peoples, the environment, and all life on earth.
Despair & Empowerment One woman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of our world is Joanna Macy, deep ecologist, systems theorist, and Buddhist scholar. She has brought despair and empowerment work to thousands of people worldwide. She says of repression, “If we won’t feel pain, we won’t feel much else either—both loves and losses are less intense, the sky less vivid, pleasures muted.”
I had the privilege of participating in a 10-day intensive with Macy at Pema Osa Ling, a Buddhist retreat center located in the Santa Cruz Mountains in September of 2002. Thirty men and women of diverse backgrounds from around the world came together to go deep into our personal grief, our despair for the environmental and societal devastation that is affecting the planet, and to discover new ways to go forth in service to the healing of our world.
Grief is the hero’s journey home to ourselves and our world. I discovered this during my own journey through the loss of my only brother from AIDS on September 11, 1989 and the sudden death of my mother nine months later. Plunged into the darkness of grief without a compass, I was almost immediately told that ‘life goes on’ and that I must be strong. In trying to suppress my grief, so that others wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, I began a slow descent into numbness and isolation. In my despair, I was barely aware that the first Gulf War had begun or that the U.S. was heading into a recession. It was all I could do to get up every morning and go to work—waiting for the day I would wake up and not feel the ache in my heart.
How many people in this country wake up to this reality everyday and sleep walk through their days unaware of what is being done in our name around the world?
I began a quest in search of the meaning of life in a world I now found to be devoid of meaning. I was relatively young at the time (30) and my peers were more concerned with marriage and mortgages, and my questioning of life only exacerbated my sense of isolation. Adrift in my grief, I also began to sense strange feelings of reverie.
“I have found myself experiencing the world through different eyes, as if grief and mourning had changed the prescription of my vision.” (Romanyshyn, 1999)
My world had changed, but the world around me continued on the same.
My journey meandered through peaks and valleys over a 12-year period of time culminating in a rebirth at the Macy intensive. I emerged from the darkness of my personal grief to feel a profound interconnectedness with the rest of the world and all life on earth. I had come home to myself and the natural world. Among many lectures and experiential exercises, we explored gratitude, the sacred, living systems theory, and our despair for the world. One of the most profound and healing of these exercises was bearing witness and being witnessed by others in a ritual called the Truth Mandala.
The Truth Mandala emerged in 1992 during the reunification of East and West Germany. It is a powerful ritual for expressing fear, grief, hopelessness, and anger.
“Truth-telling is like oxygen: it enlivens us. Without it we grow confused and numb.” JoAnna Macy
Within the sacred temple at Pema Osa Ling, thirty of us sat in a very tight circle—knees touching to create a safe container for expressing our deepest feelings. The interior of the circle is divided into four quadrants. These are not delineated by any markers, only by the presence of objects that represent fear (rock), grief (dead leaves), helplessness (empty bowl), and anger (stick). In the center is a place designated by a scarf for feelings not represented by the four other quadrants.
One-by-one we each moved into the mandala. It’s September 11th, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks—the thirteenth anniversary of my brother’s death. Rage against the government’s rush to war with Iraq. Fear of nuclear and biological weapons. Grief and rage over the loss of clean water and air. Anger at sexual discrimination. Hopelessness over the inability to stop the destruction of the earth. Grief for the families mourning their loved ones. In the center, holding the love of our world and a desire to be the light in these dark times.
This was one of the most profound experiences I have ever witnessed. It was through the expression of our grief and despair, and breaking open our hearts, that we felt a greater sense of unity, compassion and interconnectedness with each other and the world. We are not alone. We are not powerless. Like my own personal journey through grief, the expression of our deepest emotions within the Truth Mandala created a shift in consciousness and because of that I came to see the world with new eyes.
We live in a culture that is afraid to acknowledge death, let alone grief and despair whether from a personal or planetary perspective—and this fear is encouraged by the collective. The myth is that once you experience that pain and suffering, you will be overcome by it and unable to bear it—or do anything to change the outcome. On the contrary, as I witnessed in the Truth Mandala, it is in the acknowledgment, not the denial, of the suffering that we can be liberated and move toward a place of empowerment. The first noble truth of the Buddhist tradition says it well, that suffering exists. It is part of being human.
By recognizing and expressing our grief and despair we open our hearts to love, compassion and our interconnectedness in the web of life; and therefore, act for the welfare of all.
I know from experience that the darkest moments of our lives are our greatest opportunities for personal and spiritual transformation. To honor the darkness, as well as the light, is a journey to wholeness.
We can wake up and come home to ourselves and our world. We can, as Skolimowski wrote “act in the world as if it were a sanctuary”, and by so doing, “make it reverential and sacred”. We have only to listen—to each other and the living body of earth.
Amy Livingstone is a painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and workshop facilitator in Portland, Oregon. She created Healing HeARTS for those grieving a death, using creativity and shared story to facilitate the healing process. She currently crafts workshops focusing on creativity and spirituality. For inquiries about her artwork, commissions and upcoming workshops, please call 503.239.9671 or email [email protected].