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The Dark Night of the Soul

I’ve heard the concept “the dark night of the soul” bandied about like a tennis ball. People talk about it in New Age circles as being the point where they hit bottom before things turned around and got better. However, I did some research and it’s far older and more mystical than I would have thought – it dates to the 16th century and is the title for a poem by poet and Roman Catholic Saint John of the Cross.

The original meaning of “the dark night of the soul” is the experience of a spiritual crisis in the journey toward union with the divine. I felt relief when I read that because my experience of the dark night of the soul hasn’t been literal. There hasn’t been one night of pain or darkness followed by things turning around, nor has there been one period of it. Reading about the origin, I’m reminded pain is not a one-time experience.

Sometimes we have to go into darkness to see the light.

Sometimes we have to go into darkness to see the light.

In our capitalistic culture, it seems to me there’s a notion happiness is a commodity. Not only can happiness be bought with nice vacations, a fancy car, or a great pair of shoes, but happiness can be achieved with a thin body, the right romantic partner, and a fulfilling career. And once those things come into our lives, we’re never supposed to feel pain again, or at least that’s been my interpretation of the message.

I call baloney. Life is a series of ups and downs, of pleasure and pain, and instead of working hard to avoid the pain, these days I’m sitting with it.

I’m reading Glennon Doyle Melton‘s Love Warrior, which is delightful. There is so much I could say about this memoir, but what’s relevant to this post is Glennon talks about crisis, how the root word of crisis is to sift, to separate. What happens in a crisis is everything else falls away in order for us to see what’s left, what cannot be taken away. That’s what the dark night of the soul is – a crisis, a sifting period to discover what is permanent. What’s permanent is me and God. It may take years, it may take several dark nights, but there is always something to be found in a crisis if we’re willing to dive into the pain.

What I’ve found going through my own crisis, primarily with my health, is me. I’ve lived most of my life operating under the assumption everyone else knows more than I do, that everyone else has the answers for my life. I’ve valued “other” more than me.

What’s interesting about this health journey I’ve been on is learning I already have the answers I seek, I already know what’s going on with my body. I see doctor after doctor, healer after healer, hoping they’ll tell me something I don’t know. They don’t. Not a single person has given me information that surprises me, which tells me I already know myself. I don’t have the solution yet, but I trust it will come when the timing is right, and I don’t need to frantically throw darts to see what sticks.

I am on a journey toward union with the divine, also called self-realization. By valuing others, I’m not honoring myself or my own wisdom. I’m not trusting myself, and trust is essential for union. I can’t trust in me if I constantly think inspiration lies outside me, that the solution is “out there.” It’s not. It never is. Higher power and I are walking this path together. Higher power communicates with me all the time and it’s my job to listen and to trust. The path is not supposed to be pain-free, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

I dream of a world where we recognize the gift in pain. A world where we recognize the dark night of the soul is a crucial part of the process toward union with something greater than ourselves. A world where we understand sometimes it’s important to undergo crisis in order to see what’s left.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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Inevitable Dreams

I have big dreams for myself and the world. I want social and economic justice for all. I want to live in a place where racism is eradicated, poverty is eliminated, and everyone has their basic needs met. Even typing that sentence I want to laugh because it seems ludicrous. I want to pat myself on the head condescendingly and say, “That’s great Rebekah. You keep having those dreams. I’ll be over here in the real world while you live in fantasy land.”

And it seems that way doesn’t it? Like an impossible dream? When I start to think this way, I fall into despair. However, the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner keep ringing in my ears. A few times during the recent Jewish High Holidays he said:

Our plans [for change] are “unrealistic” in exactly the same way that it was “unrealistic” for women in the 1960s to think that sexism and patriarchy could be challenged effectively; the way that challenging segregation in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa seemed “unrealistic” before they were overcome; and the way that gays and lesbians were being “unrealistic” to push for marriage equality. It’s always like this: The fundamental changes that are needed in our world are dismissed by the media, the politicians, and even by many people who want those changes as “unrealistic” before people engage in building movements to achieve them, and then described by the media pundits and sociologists as “inevitable” once they have been achieved.

The question for me becomes: how? How do I engage with my personal and public dreams in such a way they become inevitable? First, I think it’s important to have patience. To understand I’ll fail many times before I succeed. That change will not happen overnight, as much as I would like it to. Second, I think about something my spiritual teacher has said. To paraphrase, our actions must be in alignment with a power greater than ourselves. He likens it to the numbers one and zero. A higher power is the number one and our actions are like zeros. If you take the one first and to that one perform your actions, it is like adding zeros to the one – it is like multiplying by 10 with each action.

Not sure why, but I love this picture.

Not sure why, but I love this picture.

What does that mean exactly? I think it means first and foremost remembering I’m an instrument, but I also think it means to do the things my heart urges me to do. I’m not talking about the passing whims, the, “Ooooh, let’s learn to play the trumpet!” or “Let’s quit our job and open a ski chalet in Switzerland even though we don’t know how to ski!” I mean the persistent, constant dreams that nag us like woodpeckers knocking against a tree. It’s those dreams that carry weight. It’s those dreams that leave a mark, and it’s those dreams I have to believe have a “one” in front of them, so to speak.

I dream of a world where we keep the faith that certain dreams will inevitably come to fruition. A world where even if it seems unrealistic, we keep plodding along because in our hearts we know we must. A world where we keep our eyes trained on our goals knowing we will reach them.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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The Future Unfolding

Lately I’ve been enthralled with the idea the small things we do today can have big consequences later. Sporadically I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons.” In one of the episodes, she speaks with a woman of Irish descent about the importance of stories and how they’re not frivolous at all. Liz mentions the book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, describing how during the 6th and 7th centuries Irish monks and scribes copied manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, when most people weren’t even reading yet. When the Roman Empire fell, all these works of literature would have been lost, except the Irish had copies and were able to reintroduce the manuscripts to the continent.

This story charmed me because here these monks and scribes were, engaging in the seemingly pointless task of copying manuscripts, and then years later, that task proved useful. I’d like to believe the same is true for all of us – the seemingly trivial things we engage in even though we’re not sure why, will some day become important. We may not all save civilization, but we all still matter. We’ve all seen television shows and movies where people go back in time and because one detail was altered, history changes. What I’m starting to contemplate is how the same is true for the future – that what I’m doing now affects things down the road. Not just my personal life, but for the lives of others.

What will unfold in the future?

What will unfold in the future?

I think I’ve used this quote before but it’s fitting in this context. My spiritual teacher says, “The Milky Way is vast from one end to the other; an ant is a very small creature, but the role of both of them in maintaining the balance of the universe is equal. If one ant meets a premature death, it will disturb the balance of the entire cosmos. Therefore, nothing here is unimportant, not even an ant. Suppose, an ant is sitting on the edge of a rock and it moves even one inch from east to west, and this disturbs the balance of the rock, it may cause a big earthquake – because after all, the ant is also God’s original creation.”

I’ve heard that quote a few times, but when I mull it over, it’s incredible. The premature death of an ant can disturb the balance of the entire cosmos! An ant! What does that mean for us and our lives? Particularly when we look beyond the scope of our death? Some of the reactions to our actions won’t come to fruition until we are long dead and that’s amazing to think about. How even from the grave our actions are rippling out, affecting humanity. It may not be as monumental as preserving classical literature, but then again it might.

I dream of a world where we realize no one is unimportant. A world where we realize our actions have ripple effects that we may never see. A world where we keep doing the things we are guided to do even when our brains ask, “What’s the point?”

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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Why Boundaries Make Us Vessels

On Thursday, I finally finished my Saturn return, meaning Saturn left the 20 degree orb from where it was when I was born. This led me to reflect on what the past four years have been like since I started this process, and what I’ve learned from this period. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is how to make and set healthy boundaries.

Boundaries do not come naturally to me. My natural predilection is for merger and oneness. I grew up in a yoga and meditation group that advocates dissolving the microcosmic self into the macrocosmic Self. My meditation practice focuses on feeling I am one with the loving, creative force that pervades the universe, and to see every expression as that loving, creative force as well. In my mind, boundaries keep me from that transcendent space. No one said that to me, by the way. That’s purely my interpretation.

Boundaries are a good thing.

Boundaries are a good thing. There’s even a heart in this photo.

I’ve been blogging for more than eight years so I have a digital record of my life and the issues I’ve faced. In November 2011, I wrote a post about boundaries as well. In it, I talked about the necessity of boundaries to keep myself safe. I displaced the notion safety meant avoidance and understood assertiveness is required for safety. The past several years has been learning that lesson over and over again until it stuck, but also I’m seeing the benefit of boundaries, not just because that’s how I keep myself safe, but also that’s how I become a vessel for cosmic consciousness.

In addition to emphasizing merger and oneness, my spiritual practices stress surrendering the mind, the self, letting it all go. I’ve wanted to surrender my mind and my self before understanding what they are, but that doesn’t work. How can you give something away if you don’t take ownership of it first? That’s like presenting a person with a prewrapped gift – how do you know what’s inside if you never took off the wrapping?

I feel so uncomfortable writing this post because again, it flies in the face of my natural inclinations, but what I’m coming to see is boundaries make me a container for the divine and creative force permeating all existence. Boundaries make me a vessel and an instrument that allows me to co-create with a power greater than myself. I liken it to a pen and ink. Cosmic consciousness is the ink and I am the pen. You can write with ink and no pen, using your finger perhaps, but it’s blotchy and messy and not very clear. Writing with a pen though is sharper, more distinct, easier to read.

Boundaries make me better able to show up in the world and do the work I am meant to do. Declaring this is me and that is you keeps me from codependence, which is a kind of subservience where I make someone else more important than me. Where I make someone else’s needs more important than mine.

We are each divine children of the universe, no better and no worse than anyone else. Taking care of myself by acting assertively, by understanding where I begin and where I end allows me to act accordingly, to treat myself with love, and to become a vessel for something greater than me.

I dream of a world where we understand boundaries are a necessary part of life. A world where we understand boundaries make us better able to do the work we are meant to do. A world where we realize boundaries make us vessels for love.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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Grounded Hope

I feel a little strange writing this post on Rosh Hashanah eve, the Jewish New Year, for those of you who don’t know. The New Year is a time of hope and celebration, optimism for what’s ahead, but this post is about temperance.

For the past month, I’ve been getting in touch with my propensity to hope without any evidence. To hope things will change based on nothing more than a whim. September painfully brought me back down to earth, not because anything happened, but rather because I realized how damaging it is to have unbridled optimism.

For many years, I hoped people in my life would be different, that they would change their behavior, not based on any indication they had a desire to change, but rather because I wanted them to change. Last month in addition to accepting my health is what it is, I also started accepting people as they are. There’s a version of the serenity prayer applicable in this instance: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me.”

Hope can still be magnificent if it's grounded.

Hope can still be magnificent if it’s grounded.

As an optimistic, idealistic person, learning to temper my hope has been painful. Learning to live in reality and accept that this is the way things are, has been a tough pill to swallow. But on the other hand, I’m not so disappointed anymore. When someone responds the way they normally do, instead of feeling crushed, I feel neutral.

This post focuses on other people, but the case is also true for me. There are some things about myself that are not going to change, no matter how much I pray, say affirmations, or wish they were otherwise. And instead of feeling upset, I feel at peace.

I’m not saying hope is a bad thing because it’s not. Hope is a powerful virtue when it’s applied properly. There are many people doing great things in the world, and they give me hope for the future. That sort of hope is grounded, right-sized.

My spiritual teacher talks about harmony and equilibrium as most spiritual teachers do. It wasn’t until this last month that I realized virtues also apply. I must strike a balance between hope and resignation, optimism and pessimism, faith and doubt. I used to think resignation, pessimism, and doubt should be avoided at all costs, but now I’m realizing they have their place, they serve a purpose. They help me live in reality and that’s not such a bad thing.

I dream of a world where we temper our virtues. A world where we base our hope on evidence. A world where we strive for harmony and equilibrium, understanding that’s how we know true peace.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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