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.

Is Your Mind on Overdrive?

The mind can be a useful assistant, helping you to organize your life and complete tasks. It can also be a nag, constantly bothering you with worries and reminders. If not balanced with the calming energy of the heart or the breath, the mind can run amuck, always on high alert, looking for lists to make and problems to solve. Caffeine, in the form of coffee or tea, can exacerbate this. Meditation and deep slow breathing are helpful for slowing the mind down. This takes consistent practice, however. Meditators sometimes struggle to control their thinking instead of allowing thoughts to just pass through and disappear into emptiness. The mind can rebel by frantically running a commentary something like this: “What are you doing?! Stand up! Close the window. Take your vitamins. Make a grocery list. Do the laundry. Don’t just sit there!” Often lists will start forming in your head, and the mind will urge you to write them down immediately lest you forget. It requires an ongoing commitment to peace in order to relax your mind into accepting slow, quiet breathing and empty mental space. Being instead of doing.

Then there is the mind’s forte: problem-solving. Perhaps this skill is left over from our collective past when survival from dangers in the external world was of primary concern. Today, centuries later, the mental search for problematic issues to resolve is almost constant if not held in check. And if the resolution doesn’t come quickly enough, worry and agitation set in: “Why did I receive this incorrect billing? What does it mean? I have to call the billing office…but it’s closed now. What else can I do about it? What if the electricity is shut off?” The mental movement from concern to anxiety to outright distress can be rapid. The red warning lights go off, and the emotions and body are alerted. If this happens after dark, rest is impossible. You can be up worrying all night—because of one particular aspect of the mental process: night mind.

Night mind exaggerates every problem to the point of imminent danger and eventual disaster. It thrives on “what ifs.” Those inner questions can lead you down a path of increasing disquiet and finally alarm. Such questions also arise in the daytime, but at night they take on an amplified power. High drama prevails to the point that your body and emotions may feel like they are in a life-and-death situation. How to respond to this scenario? I’ve found that recognizing and naming it helps: “Oh, that’s night mind again.” If you can laugh about it, it breaks the spell. Remind yourself that everything will work out eventually; you just have to be patient. You can make your phone call (or other action) in the morning. Take deep breaths and envision a relaxing scene in Nature. Let go of trying to control your mind, and it eventually calms down enough for you to sleep.

In the daytime, recognizing the mind’s tendencies and determined work ethic helps. Thank it for its contribution. Reassure it that all will be resolved peacefully. Introducing peace into your life through meditation or quiet walks in Nature can be a tremendously effective way to calm the mind and allow it to function at a slower pace, with rest spots along the way. Thinking is an essential human attribute, but at times it can be a hindrance to your overall well-being. With each breath or each step on a quiet natural path, slow down and allow everything to be just as it is in that moment. Resting in the heart’s energy of loving-kindness is helpful too. Whatever solutions and actions that need to be implemented will come to be in their own time.

The key is to trust your life, to trust the unfolding of each moment, each day. In fact, time is irrelevant when you step into the spaciousness of a quiet mind. The heart and soul move to the forefront of your consciousness and reassure you that nothing is really a problem, that everything is part of the flow of life, perfectly orchestrated beyond your ability to understand or control it. If we each can surrender to this ancient truth, our minds begin to work harmoniously with us to bring balance and peace to our lives. So let go of trying so hard; remind your mind that something greater is in play and it can relax and be a quiet observer. All is well. Really.

Without a Label

A good friend of mine recently told me that she loves my writing but doesn’t necessarily relate to the God references. She said she believes in something but doesn’t really have a label for it. She’s not alone. So many of us (myself included) have felt exactly the same at one time or another in our lives. And truthfully we don’t need a label–often language misses the point entirely. Some people and traditions prefer to leave the idea of a creator-being unnamed. Many Native Americans use the words “the Great Mystery.” Makes complete sense to me. I wasn’t raised in a religion, and I used to be put off by the groups who would go around house to house proselytizing about God. That word remained a negative trigger for me right up into adulthood, when I began my own spiritual exploration.

My first attempt at explaining how I thought of spirit at the time was the word “meaning.” I believed there was meaning in the universe because I could feel it in my heart. That’s as far as it went for a while. Eventually, I came to see that the word or description didn’t matter as much as the experience itself. I lost most of my objections to words and labels like God or Divinity. Still, I try to be low key about using them when I write because I know many people are uncomfortable about naming something that is in essence nameless. And it’s unnecessary. The deeper I dive into my soul, the more words fall away entirely. I experience a beingness or oneness that defies description.

So how do you write about that? How do you talk about it? Perhaps the best response to the mysteries of the universe is silence. Within that, everything arises. Immersion in something greater than language fills you. Nature shows me this more than anything else. Every time I am outdoors by myself I am deeply connected to the entire cosmos without a single word being spoken. This is why I prefer to be alone with Nature. Silence prevails. In the stillness, language is irrelevant. And mental naming is only a distraction. If you can walk slowly and quietly, or stand motionless, the natural world continues as if you weren’t there. You hear the birds singing, the wind in the trees, chipmunks and squirrels calling. You smell the earth and the foliage, and you can feel the living energy vibrating all around you.

This is Presence: being, without a name or label. Humans invented a language to describe what they were experiencing. Such descriptions can often be poetic and magical, but wordiness can diminish the essence of what is essentially a silent soul exchange. I am a writer so I know the power of expressing what is pouring through me to be shared, a divine connection to something wondrous. This is why I write. Yet, I also know that what ultimately allows that connection is an empty space of stillness, an openness to what some have called universal consciousness. Another name for God. We try, we humans, to express the inexpressible, to name what has no name. Within that trying is a sweet vulnerability that holds hope and loving awareness in it.

When we stop trying, however, when we stand in silent reverence without language or labels, the grace of something beyond expression pours over and through us. That is what we came here to Earth to experience and know deeply. And there are no words that can describe that miracle. Only profound gratitude comes close to touching the core of this meeting of Heaven and Earth in the human dimension.

Open Hearts and Open Arms

There is a lot of discussion these days about the rights of individuals within a society. So many people are upset about one thing or another—masks, vaccines, voting rights, human rights, economic inequality. Beliefs can divide as well as unite. At times it becomes “self” vs. “others,” “me” vs. “them”; some people start to believe in conspiracies. There is often fear in these conflicts—fear of difference, fear of the world beyond the self. When people are frightened, they close doors and claim their “sovereignty.” Or they fall into the trap of hating others, and this is how wars begin. If people opened their hearts and arms, we could live in a world where everyone has both freedom and rights (without infringing on others’ rights).

Is this possible? How do we respond to the anger and fear arising now? Perhaps we could begin by focusing on empathy and kindness. These basic human values are sometimes forgotten along the way. What do we want, as a people, as a planet? Peace on Earth? As long as we are trying to convince someone else that our way is “right,” we will never live in a peaceful world. Nothing is just one thing. And no one person can stand alone and survive without the support of a caring community. You and I may not agree on anything, but can we accept that and expand into something greater, like the willingness to allow difference? Universal peace begins in each of our lives, in each of our hearts.

What is needed is a shift in consciousness, based on inclusion instead of exclusion.  Open arms, not closed doors. Open hearts in place of fear. How can we achieve that in the midst of so much conflict and unrest? Well, maybe the turmoil and polarities we see now are the birthing pains of a global awakening. Extremes of separation and self-interest are being lived out so that eventually they will dissolve as people become more aware. Self-centered power will be transformed to the power of sister/brotherhood and equality. In spite of current evidence to the contrary, I believe in this possibility, and there are many who are living their lives aligned with that transformation.

We have to stop allowing opinions to divide us, though, and instead just look in each other’s eyes and see commonality. We are all born, and we all die. We are here for a short time on Earth—why not treat those moments as precious and our neighbors as kindred spirits? It may seem like we are all on separate journeys, competing within belief systems for survival. The truth is that all beings on this planet are linked at the soul level. We are one in ways that defy the mind and can only be understood when we each let go of the struggles of self and instead rest in the peace of community. “We” is always stronger and more resilient than “I.” Amongst all the beliefs claiming our attention now, the one that may most effectively cut through the illusion of difference is loving-kindness and compassion. May we learn to live that together.

“Compassion lets us wash into each other like watercolors.”—Mark Nepo

Survival and Beyond

We are all survivors of one kind or another. Whether encountering a diagnosis, a deep loss, or daily challenges, each of us passes through various life experiences that can serve as gateways to more expansive awareness. Surviving doesn’t have to mean perpetual struggle. Among breast cancer survivors (of which I am now one), survival has become a badge of honor combined with a positive outlook. Having just completed treatment, I feel both relief and a bit of uncertainty at being on the other side of all that I have experienced since my initial diagnosis last summer. Because I have friends who are long-time breast cancer survivors and because I trust my doctors, I have felt optimistic throughout. Yet the kernel of “what next?” inevitably arises at some point.

To me, “next” is now—the eternal moment which holds all of life. I stepped onto this cancer path with years of spiritual practice buoying me up. It has sustained me, and that continues. I’ve never viewed this as a fight or battle, but as part of my soul’s journey. The further I went, the more it felt like a door opening and a profound deepening into greater wisdom about life, death, and eternity. In truth, it has been a powerful initiation, one my soul and God designed for me at this particular time in my life. Facing one’s inevitable death (whenever it occurs) is the ultimate human dilemma. Do we view it with trepidation and terror or with peace and acceptance? Will we allow it to infringe on the joy of being alive, or can we see it as part of something so great that its vastness and mystery inspires us? It all depends on whether we look at our lives from the viewpoint of the identity/ego or the soul. The identity gets caught in fear; the soul trusts in the flow of Spirit.

You can’t go through cancer without having parts of your identity fall away. Which in truth is the best thing that could happen because it allows the soul to emerge more fully. And the soul’s wisdom (direct channel to God) can guide you in the most compelling and enlightened way for the rest of your life, beyond fear to pure surrender and trust. Your soul has always been with you, but sometimes it takes many years to realize that. Actually, that’s why everything happens in your life—to bring you to the point of aligning completely with your soul and living as that in the world.

Your identity serves you well, but it is just a vehicle to eventually bring you to soul connection through your life experiences. At least that is what has happened to me. And breast cancer has given me the gift of facing/fading the fear of death and infinity I’ve had all my life. From my soul’s view, without the identity’s interference, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of because I am always immersed in a loving presence that encompasses all that is. Everywhere is peace and limitless awareness, within which I am held.

When those with cancer tell you that it’s a gift, they are not putting a good face on it; they are tapping into a deeper truth, not only about cancer but about life. Cancer shakes everything up and shows you what’s important; it gives you the cosmic highlights of the human/divine experience on planet Earth. And it’s not about overcoming pain and suffering or controlling your fate. It’s about opening to, and flowing with, universal consciousness, of which we are all part. Your soul embodies this consciousness. When your heart aligns with your soul, you feel a oneness of being beyond the very idea of survival. Then every single thing you experience is a gift.