Crisis as initiation
"It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you."
~Ranier Maria Rilke
Dear Santa Barbara and Montecito community~
A native elder I know from the Aleutian islands, translates the traditional greeting of his people as, 'the morning tastes good!' It is good to be alive on this cool, bright morning. We have come through a most devastating time in our town and local area, first the fires and then the heartbreaking tragedies surrounding the mudslides. We have found ourselves at the mercy and power of the elements and forces of nature - fire and air, water and earth. Some people in our community have been brought to their knees with the magnitude of loss - the death of loved ones and children, physical injuries, home and belongings, jobs. Some are still living with uncertain and heartbreaking consequences every day. Most of us, even those not directly impacted, have experienced the loss of safety, predictability and certainty. It is not uncommon, in times of such pain, for other unrelated and untended griefs to come to the surface, from our personal and ancestral history as well as the sorrows of the world and our shared context for this tragedy - our relationship to the natural world. The last weeks have required many of us to stretch beyond our imagination and certainly beyond our capacity.
Amidst the grief and tragedy, and perhaps as a direct result, it has also been a time of community cohesion and kinship. There has been an incredible outpouring of communal response and support, services, funds, goods and opportunities to gather. Literally, folks coming together, rolling up our sleeves and digging each other out of the mud. We are witnessing great acts of courage, redemption, beauty and communion.
This strengthening of relationships with one another is a common outcome of disaster and one of the reasons traditional cultures have rituals - or choreographed disasters. They know the importance of coming together to remake the world; a world made so inherently fragile, that it eventually falls apart, and requires our participation in order to maintain it, in the deep recognition that we need each other and are indebted to all our relations for the gift of life. One of the most defining and debilitating features of contemporary society is the rampant loneliness, isolation, and disconnection - from ourselves and our bodies, each other, meaningful work, nature. We suffer from disconnection on every level. Although we would never wish it upon ourselves or each other, often crises are profound opportunities for connection, transformation and change.
Perhaps it can be useful to look at our recent experiences through the lens of Initiation. It is understood that there are three phases to an initiation. First, the call or severance, in which we leave behind the familiar life we have known and enter a period of unknown and exile; then, the ordeal or threshold, where we face great challenges and many obstacles, often with the uncertainty of making it through; finally, the return or incorporation, where we come home to our people and community, and integrate our experiences by living out in our daily lives what we have learned. Initiations call us into new ways of being and are the seeds of a new beginning. We can either enter into initiation willingly with intention, or we are taken there by life's circumstances. Most traditional cultures have means of honoring and marking the transition from one phase of life to another - birth, adulthood, marriage, death – through community rites and rituals. These practices have been mostly forgotten in modern culture, and thus many of our initiations happen against our will or outside of our consciousness.
Modern culture is in a state of upheaval, signs and symptoms of dis-ease and trouble are everywhere, the old systems are no longer working. Our culture itself may be considered to be in a time of initiation. Many of us know another way is possible and are a part of the emerging new culture, and yet we are still faced daily with the reality of the ordeal if we are paying attention.
In our local community the acuteness of the crisis and ordeal has subsided, and as our collective field stabilizes, our attention and energy are needed in different arenas. We are entering a time of incorporation - the slow and steady repair of infrastructure, homes, connections, and the soul - reweaving the fabric of community, knowing how deeply we belong to each other and this place.
At a gathering to honor our grief after the fire, a man spoke bravely about his fear that after all we had been through together, with the consequent shifting of priorities, we would simply return to ‘normal’, and forget what is truly important and the deep sense of communion that had been established in our community. Then came the floods, lest we forget. Not that it is the intention of these natural disasters to bring us together in shared purpose and mutuality of support, but it is often the result. If you have come through something so direct as losing loved ones and home, and feel the necessity of neighbors and friends to help dig you out of the mud, literally and figuratively, you know in your bones, what is truly of value. The needs of our communities and the times we are in call forth our purpose as well as our creativity and courage.
Montecito is one of the most expensive real estate areas in the world, a beautiful and much sought after place to live, drawing people with great means and resources. Although we know that everyone suffers and no one is exempt from loss and sorrow, and also that folks on the full spectrum of the socio-economic scale call Montecito home, most often tragedies connected to the global climate crisis have visited people in poor and marginalized communities. Knowing that even those of us who seem to have the privilege of wealth, which may afford the possibility of shielding and insulating against some of the rougher edges of the world, are not protected from the troubles of these times offers a poignant awakening. Grief and loss are great equalizers; no one is exempt.
Incorporation is not the same as recovery. Recovery carries a sense of returning to a previous state of being, which in any transformation, is not possible. If we have truly allowed ourselves to be undone by what has occurred, we cannot return to life as we have known it. What has come before is gone, who we were before the ordeal, is no more. This is the way of initiation. When we pass through the threshold to return, we have the opportunity to live into our new incarnation, moment by moment. We do not recover, so much as we are forever changed, and by the grace of god, and with help from each other and practices of remembering, find a way to bear the unbearable and live with things as they are as open – heartedly as possible. We open and uncover our hearts, and god-willing, cover them less each day, to live with grief, not as an emotional state to get over or through, but as a natural and essential part of this human experience. In the Tzutzil Mayan language, the same word is used for grief and gratitude, because we grieve what we love so much, and our love for everything in this world contains our inevitable loss.
I have heard people speak of finding the new normal now. On the surface, this implies an understanding that nothing will be as it was. However, the word normal, even though describing a norm or tendency, also confines us to a narrow range of acceptability, which might be part of our trouble. There are many who are holding the prayer, 'please do not let me/us return to normal and business as usual'. With the deep knowing in our bones, 'it is not working'. In the old ways, community members understand that an initiate has come through a great feat wrought with suffering. The initiate is thus seen respectfully, in a new light, having shed an old skin. Although we would never wish suffering on anyone, it is a fact of life, and often serves as a gateway to our growth and evolution, personally and collectively. And though this is for each person to understand for themselves as they wrestle with the the journey of coming home, crises are poignant opportunities for awakening and change, if we allow ourselves to be transformed, in all our vulnerability and resiliency, and allow ourselves to see each other with fresh eyes. Let us honor diversity in all of its forms, including those on the margins and edges, outliers on the bell curve of normalcy. Healers, dreamworkers, cultural change agents, misfits and mystics, poets and artists, all - come with your gifts of sensitivity and vision as we remember ourselves back into a holy belonging with all life.
Practices of Remembering
These practices are particularly helpful in times of chaos, though also as daily practices. Of course there are the basics of getting plenty of rest, eating good food, staying hydrated, sharing loving company, being of service to others and exercising the body. Here are additional reminders:
Honor yourself - There is no prescription or right way to grieve or heal, or live for that matter. It is different for each person. Honor yourself and your way, as well as honoring others. Allow yourself to feel what you feel and how you feel it. It is natural to experience a mix of emotions: grief, shock, anger, gratitude, hopelessness, fear, despair, rage. As long as you do not cause harm to yourself or another by acting on your feelings, let yourself feel what you feel. In this culture of heroism, we are conditioned to stay strong and carry on, pushing down feelings associated with weakness, vulnerability or being too much. There is also a tendency to focus exclusively on the light, without acknowledging what might live in the dark. Welcome all the feelings.
Compassion – We are all doing our best. Have mercy on yourselves and each other. Know that during times of stress often our less than positive coping strategies emerge. Give yourself a break. Give the same break to others.
Connect with others – We are social animals. Do not try to do this alone. Grief is communal. Most of us are conditioned to isolate under times of stress and may even pride ourselves on not needing anyone. We need each other. Grief requires containment and release, and by ourselves we cannot simultaneously do both sufficiently. Reach out. Sharing about a traumatic experience with someone who is present and loving, helps reduce the amount of trauma that remains in our systems. There are many opportunities to come together. Be brave.
Be in nature – Spend time outside in the company of non-human beings. I know it is more difficult right now as many trails are closed, yet it is always possible to find a tree, a rock, park, or place near your home. Focus your attention outward. Allow yourself to feel held by the larger web of the universe; take in the natural rhythms of the day, the wind, sky, sun, plants, critters. Acknowledge the elements. Thank the water before a drink, fire when lighting a candle, wind when breathing, the earth before a meal.
Gratitude – Grief and gratitude are two sides of the same coin, two wings of a bird. They are related and one does not exist without the other. Both are practices and skills we can cultivate over time. There is always something for which to be grateful. Give thanks for your blessings and what you have. If this feels like too much of a stretch right now, return to self-compassion and honoring where you are.
Kindness – Extend it everywhere. People are suffering. We don’t know the extent of it. Some have loss upon loss, trauma upon trauma. Kindness is medicine for the giver and receiver. This is our natural state as humans. We are wired for empathy. Be kind to yourself and each other, as a practice, always. This does not mean condoning or sitting back while unjust things are being done, but leading with kindness and the benefit of the doubt with everyone we meet.
Mutuality/Service - Do something for others, for someone who needs it, for anyone. Provide nurture and care. There will continue to be much to do on the road of healing and repair, find ways that work for you. Service is about being connected in our humanity. We all rotate between being the givers and the receivers. Remember to receive. It makes the giving possible.
Art/Creativity – Make art. Write. Find creative ways to give expression to what is inside you. Anything counts. We are born from creativity, into creativity. Share it.
Beauty – The soul loves beauty. Find it, celebrate it, create it, honor it. The world is made of beauty. Beauty making is the medicine the world needs, from your unique perspective. It does not have to be pretty, but real.
Music - What a blessing that we humans have the capacity to create music. Make music. Listen to music that feeds your soul.
Slow down/take a pause – Even if you are busy tending the tasks at hand, remember to slow down and pause. Take a breath, feel your feet on the earth. We are a culture of action, and that is necessary, however, a sense of urgency is part of our disease and both a cause and a symptom of our troubles. It is a radical act to slow down; even for just a moment, register present moment awareness.
Remember the mundane – Tend to those tasks. Feels good to get stuff done. Be careful not to over do it.
Contact with mystery – Whatever you call it – god, spirit, love, force, energy, consciousness - it doesn't matter, but call it.
Check out – Give yourself permission to check out in a way that is not self-destructive - watch a movie, play a game, read a book. It can feel good to get your mind off reality for a moment. It is our cultural inheritance to numb ourselves against uncomfortable feelings; we do this with any number of things - drugs, sex, shopping, eating, etc. In this time, I am sure many of us have found ourselves tempted by, if not at the mercy of, our numbing strategies of choice. If this is so for you, forgive yourself and have compassion.
Professional support – There are many healing practitioners in our community as well as resources for working with trauma and loss. Seek them out.
My heart goes out to those still in the midst of unbearable suffering. May we find the courage to bear the unbearable, together. It is heartening to experience the many ways people have come together thus far to serve a common purpose and take care of each other. Let us continue to create opportunities to be with each other and not skip over the necessary bearing witness, listening, sharing stories, grieving, gratitude.