Peaceful Spaciousness

How do you describe emptiness? How do I wrap words around the peaceful space I have been opening to since being diagnosed with breast cancer last August? Language seems inadequate to translate something so vast and limitless. My experience has been one of emptying out, sometimes called “dying unto yourself” in spiritual traditions. The dissolving of past identities, opinions, questions, expectations, fears, hopes, disappointments. All the parts of our selves that we accumulate over a lifetime and don’t even realize we carry around with us. Gradually, day by day, week by week, pieces fell away. No grief was involved; it was a lifting off, a lightening. Space opened up within me. I felt increasingly empty, but with no sense of loss or regret. In many ways, it was like opening the door to my soul, which was a room without walls filled with nothing but light. I observed all this without any particular emotional response. It was just happening, peacefully.

And it continued to happen, weeks past the end of my treatments. The emptiness endures, neither greater nor smaller, just present. I find I have stepped away from busyness—doing, thinking, trying. Being is my home now. I remain quietly in Presence much of the time, often alone in Nature, which is the part of my life that is most essential to me, perhaps because that is where Presence is strongest. The silence in the natural world aligns perfectly with the silence within me, that vast empty spaciousness that human language names God, or Spirit. But emptiness has no words; it just is.

There is an invisibility to this experience. No one sees this empty space within me; no one knows I am there unless I tell them. And resting silently, invisibly, in emptiness is a spiritual practice that brings me home effortlessly to my soul. In my breath, in the wind in the trees, in the song of a sparrow, I connect to consciousness itself, which holds everything and nothing at the same time. My soul embodies that consciousness, and when I live my life aligned with it, I am one with peaceful spaciousness. I am in a form but also beyond it.

This has been our human destiny, throughout the ages. We are born to a physical form but eventually return to formless being as we journey through our lives. Infinite consciousness, Presence, is the seed of all life. It incarnates to have the experience of becoming aware within physical form—and then returns to formlessness. There is an expansion and evolution of Spirit within all of this. We can’t know the meaning or the depth of it because it is unknowable by the human mind. This is the Great Mystery, the soul’s journey through bodily form and its return to a Oneness that encompasses all. You may come to this “empty” awareness through cancer (as I did), or through any life crisis or challenge. Or it may come to you at the last split-second of your life (“life review”). However or whenever, it is meant to fill you and empty you at the same time. It is the essence of all life, death, and eternity.

Why do I write about this if it is indescribable, unknowable? I don’t know (of course). The words arise within my soul. It seems that part of my life’s journey is to share through language what I am experiencing, even when it can’t be completely expressed. Each of us is here to express our unique beingness in the world—through words, through silence, through art, through music, through connection with others or Nature. However we live our lives is exactly what we’re meant to bring to the experience of life on Earth. We came here to embody both humanity and divinity in a vast array of colors and light. Our differences are perfect; our lives are perfect. Within the peaceful spaciousness at the core of All That Is exists a love that we each express in our own way. As you come to awareness of this, you recognize that soulful space in others, in yourself, and in the world.

Hope, Love, and the Web of Life

“I don’t know about hope, but I know about love…. Our job is to learn to love.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer

In this time of heartbreaking political tumult and ecological grief, where do we turn for wisdom or comfort? For a reason to continue, in spite of how the world looks? This past weekend, I had the great honor and blessing of attending a program with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. She is a botanist, professor, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and beyond all else, a wise and caring soul. Repeatedly, during those three days, she asked the question: What does Mother Earth ask of us? Not what can we get, but what can we give? We are living in a time of shifting focus: from taking to giving, from self to community. Earth herself teaches reciprocity and connection. This is our heritage and our guidepost, if we pay attention, if we drop the cloak of self-centeredness and don the cloth of humility.

We are One, we Earth beings. All of us, plant, animal, human, bird, insect, stone, soil. Our lives and our destiny are interconnected. The web of life that holds us can be torn, but it can also be mended. Mother Earth is a gentle and forgiving presence in our lives; she is also a fierce protector of all of life. We cannot continue to destroy the environment and our living connections to one another. So many of our hearts are filled with grief now, for the visible and invisible ways the planet appears to be falling apart. “Grief is the measure of our love,” Robin said. “We can be the rain on one another’s grief and dryness.”

Her words carried such poignancy and power because she has dedicated her life to Earth wisdom, and she is also a descendant of those who walked the Trail of Tears, which forced native nations to leave their homelands and walk endless miles to reservations (in her family’s case, from Wisconsin to Kansas to Oklahoma). All ties to their specific sacred place on Mother Earth were broken. The grief of that severance continues to this day as indigenous peoples work to regain their ancestral lands. Earth herself was violated by similar cruelty as colonists took what they wanted from the land. We inherit that terrible history and are living with the consequences, that lack of reciprocity between human and human, between humans and Earth.

Reciprocity arises from love, and in spite of the violence that has torn, and continues to tear, the world asunder, love persists. When all hope is lost, love persists. When grief breaks our hearts, love persists. Love and grief together can heal the brokenness. Whether or not we believe that healing is possible, our job is to love. We came here at this specific time, on this specific planet, to be the love that persists, in spite of everything. Injustice and inhumanity exist, but so do compassion and kindness.

We are at a choice point in our tattered past, unsettling present, and uncertain future. We can choose despair, or we can choose love. Ask yourself, “What does Mother Earth ask of me?” As I stood on a wooded hillside at dusk in Western Massachusetts this weekend, listening to the sweet song of the wood thrush, I heard the answer in my heart: Remember your place in the web of life; choose love.

Simplify

I grew up hearing my father repeatedly quoting Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” A life without possessions and attachments. Of course, he was counseling himself because he never threw anything away. Like many of his generation who lived through the Depression era, he acquired a lifelong habit of saving things because “they might come in handy someday.” A philosophy born out of necessity, yet hard to shake decades later when it wasn’t as necessary, and accumulation could become burdensome. Thus, periodically he would announce his intention of moving to a one-room cabin in the woods, as Thoreau had done at Walden Pond. Simplify…

My mother just smiled and continued living her own simplified life. Although also living through the Depression, she had acquired a “clear the clutter” approach to daily living. She threw things away, or donated them, if they were no longer needed. She would get rid of any old, damaged, or extraneous objects lying around the house. My dad would retrieve them from the trash. She had her secret ways of working around his saving reflex. My favorite story about their dynamic took place when she wanted to discard an old braided rug on the back porch which was showing signs of mildew. Every few weeks she removed a braided circle from the outside edge of the rug and surreptitiously threw it away. The rug grew gradually smaller and smaller until she was able to dispose of it completely. When my dad eventually noticed, it then became a family joke. Because even with their differences, they did appreciate and love each other. As did I.

I learned to love both Thoreau and “clearing the clutter” because of my father and mother. In essence, they did live a perfectly simple life together. Neither believed in consumerism or buying unnecessary things. We had all that was needed for a happy life: food, shelter, each other, and gratitude for the small wonders of life, like Nature right outside the door. I grew up in my own version of Walden: five acres in the Illinois countryside. Toys were never as important to me as the trees I climbed (and picked fruit from), the creek I waded in, and the fields I ran across with my dog. When I think of a “simple life,” this is what I see. And, even though I have resided in or near cities for most of my adult life, it is how I live: trees nearby, yards and parks, rivers or ocean.

The natural world, and the simple life, can be found in an urban environment as well as anywhere else. You just have to look for it, and then choose it, consistently. We don’t all have the opportunity to move to a cabin in the woods as Thoreau did, but we can always simplify. To me, that means focusing on Nature’s ever-present miracles and not the passing distractions of the overcomplicated material world. We can build a peaceful, inspirited life based in simplicity. The entire universe lives in those wondrously simple details. That is what Thoreau (and my parents) believed. And the more years I live, the more this essential wisdom guides my life. “Simplify” says it all.

Continuous Conscious Connection

You and I are always connected to the Source of all living energy in the universe. The thing is we forget that connection is always with us. Humans have given it many names to remind themselves throughout the course of their existence on Earth (God, Goddess, Divinity, etc.), but then they become distracted by the details of daily life, and conscious memory slips away. This amnesia makes everything more difficult because on some level we feel untethered and lost. We think we are alone in the cosmos, without purpose or support. This is not true, but how do we find our way back to the deep-seated knowing that lives within? How do we recognize divine Presence in every moment, in everything we experience?

Traditionally, religion played that role. People regularly attended temples or churches to pray and feel connected to something greater. Today, a more free-flowing, eclectic spirituality seems to be arising. People are seeking experiences beyond the parameters of what has defined human-divine connection in the past. Still, the essence of what is being sought is a profound ongoing awareness of something sacred in our lives. In our hearts, we know it exists; we are just trying to access that elusive memory.

Currently, we are living through a time of Remembering, of coming into continuous conscious awareness of the sacred within, which spiritual teachers throughout the ages have pointed to with such certainty and unwavering vision. It is humanity’s time to fully awaken to this inner/outer experience that will individually and collectively guide us through life. But how does this occur? How do we access connection intentionally?

Meditation, prayer, or immersion in ancient teachings can spark connection to God/dess, when this becomes an ongoing practice. Consistency is key; some call it devotion. There are many other conduits to that connection to universal consciousness. One of the most powerful and direct is Nature. Walking daily in natural surroundings, such as a local park or a nature sanctuary, can keep the door to the Divine wide open. Birdsong, flowers blooming, tree branches dancing in the wind, or the drama of the sky and clouds are Nature’s way of keeping us awake and connected to something beyond the daily distractions that occupy our minds. The natural world fills the heart and soul with joy, love, and Presence. Over time, this feeling becomes continuous, a conscious part of who you are.

Personally, I find that I rely on all of these reminders. It is so easy to forget in our busy world full of conflicting personal and global dramas. Eventually I make my way to the deeper truth that only love is real. It is the living thread beneath everything in the multiverse, and it holds humanity together with a powerful vibration living at the core of our being. You yourself hold the reminder within you. You can’t lose it because it is what gives you life. The light within you can become clouded over or temporarily forgotten through the years, but it is never lost.

At this moment in time, the cloudiness is clearing. Each of us is gradually awakening to ongoing awareness of the dynamic tapestry of connection that we are one with. Every time you look up at the blue sky or into the eyes of a loved one, you wake up more fully. With every conscious breath you take, connection is present. It is a process that can’t be stopped because it is our divine destiny as humans on this Earth. We came here to awaken and fully remember who we are and where we came from. Continuous awareness of connection is on the horizon. With each sunrise, we see more clearly and love more deeply. And we step more fully into consciously living as our souls.

I Am That

The Ham-sa (or So-ham) mantra has been used by yogis and meditators for centuries to align with the breath—inhalation and exhalation—and experience divine connection, or Presence. One translation of the Sanskrit syllables is “I Am That,” meaning: all that is, or the universe. The repetition of these sacred sounds centers meditators in the stillness within and connects them to universal consciousness. With consistent daily practice (sitting or walking), an individual can increase awareness of both inner and outer Presence, ultimately discovering that they are one and the same.

At least that has been my experience in recent years, particularly in the past few months. As I moved through treatment for breast cancer, my spiritual practice deepened, and I felt a dropping away of personal identity into expansive soul awareness beyond the physical form. “I Am That,” or just “I Am,” expresses this as closely as language can. Infinite spaciousness in which there is only being without boundaries of any kind. As the weeks of post-treatment passed, I felt even more space opening up, extending out beyond me and this planet to endless galaxies with no fixed point or place within time/space. I look at the sun and the sky that surrounds it and know that I am all that I see or perceive. And more. 

I believe this is the life journey for each of us. At birth, we individuate in human form on Earth and then over the course of a lifetime we move gradually to a less defined identity which then disappears entirely at death. We return to the formless universal consciousness from which we came. If we are fortunate, we may experience some of this vast awareness before we die—through spiritual exploration or unexpected life events. Whatever our individual life course, we eventually reunite in collective beingness as we transition from this world to the next. The sharp edges of fear about death can soften as the years pass and we are prepared for that transition, which is not an end but a doorway to expansion beyond the physical body.

“I Am That” awareness comes to me most vividly in Nature. When I gaze up into the branches of a giant oak tree stretching to the sky, I sense the living wisdom of an ancient being. When a great blue heron spreads its wings and takes flight, I feel awe, watching it seamlessly navigate both Heaven and Earth. When, on a cold March day, I hear a cardinal’s spring song, I experience the joyful vibration of new beginnings. With each breath, I inhale Source energy, and everywhere I look, I see a loving Intelligence reflected in the world. Some call it the Divine Mother’s love, taking physical form around and within us.

We all are part of that love. In fact, another way of saying “I Am That” is “I Am Love.” Everything in the universe embodies shining loving Presence, more and more visibly when we let go of our identities and rest in the peace and stillness of the natural world. However you come to discover the vastness of the cosmos and the spirit within you, your heart will open so fully that you will recognize Love in all you see. Truly, there is nothing but That.