I’ve been asking myself some important questions lately and wondering how others would answer them. For example:
What matters most to you?
And how do you connect with it?
What consistently matters most to me is: Presence, Connection, Compassion, and Gratitude.
I connect with these qualities on a daily basis by doing walking meditation in the labyrinth, which is my sanctuary. It’s the only reason why I leave the house and has become my favorite daily ritual. It’s a meditation practice from which insights arise, and it’s really supporting me during this time of staying home during the pandemic.
After more than a month of staying home, I’ve made a series of five “labyrinth time” videos, complete with lots of uplifting birdsong. Is it a meditation? Meditation instruction? A poem? All of the above? I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that it’s real and tender and honest. (So much so that sometimes I feel shy about sharing.) These are videos for quiet moments.
Here’s what’s going on: As I walk the labyrinth, I stop periodically to dictate insights into a Google doc on my phone. Then I put my phone back in my pocket, return to presence, and start walking again. At the end of my walking meditation, before leaving the labyrinth, I record myself reading the insights and reflections out loud, accompanied by all the natural sounds. I also take pictures either before or after walking the labyrinth. This video series is my own personal chronicle of where I draw strength from during this time of deep uncertainty.
What you’re hearing is an unfiltered narration of what arises in my mind when I’m immersed in moving meditation in nature and feeling present and connected. The themes center around being intimate with what is and shifting out of expectation, desire, and thought patterns and back into presence. Repeatedly. With compassion.
And you can see the changes the natural world goes through as the weeks pass. Even as our normal routines remain collectively altered, nature keeps doing what it always does at this time of year: renewing, growing, blooming. The natural world is a steadfast background and an anchor of presence we can return to again and again.
This morning, I intended to write about a completely different topic, but then this came. Perhaps because someone needs to read it.
Winter Solstice occurred late last night: the moment at which the sun was farthest from the Northern Hemisphere. This is the darkest time of year, and although it might not feel like it, the light has begun to increase, little by little, each day going forward.
It makes me reflect on the darkest days of my life, my own dark night of the soul following my mother’s death, when so much was changing.
I’ve grieved my share of deaths and losses, but the worst feeling of all was not following the call of my soul. That’s what made this dark chapter even harder: I allowed my light to dim.
On the surface, it might sound like avoidable suffering. (Why not just follow your soul?) But I understand now that there were some soul lessons I needed to learn before I was able to move forward, and life delivered the perfect circumstances and teachers. The perfect storm.
Sometimes my conditioning and desires were too strong, and other times I wasn’t able to access my power for whatever reason. There was a lot of fear and an underlying sense of unworthiness that kept me feeling and living small.
And so the journey became one of taking back my power, baby step by baby step, just like the light begins to return ever so gradually at this time of year. Sometimes it was two steps forward, one step back. But I learned not to beat myself up for the step back and focus more on the steps forward.
I began creating inspirational quote pictures that I’d put where I could see them every day. They were messages from my deeper self that I hoped and prayed would take root. The images were of places and moments when I experienced a sense of empowerment. I read and recited the affirmations every morning and kept them with me wherever I went.
Some of them stayed with me for a long, humbling time. But eventually all were replaced by new ones.
I prayed for help and guidance from my Higher Power, spirit guides, and angels. And I received it. Sometimes it was strength. Whispers of inspiration. Or the vision of a being of light standing at the edge of the Forest of Forbidden Thoughts and Fantasy when I began to think a thought that didn’t serve my soul and my healing. Other times it was physical injury: falling down the stairs, finding a tick on me, smacking my mouth on a space heater, health issues.
If I didn’t listen to the more subtle calls, I got smacked with unambiguous, physical wake-up calls. But I was grateful nonetheless because, after all, I’d requested help. My deepest yearning was to follow the call of my soul and undo a great deal of conditioning that didn’t serve me. And that’s the kind of help I got.
In the beginning, freedom seemed unattainable. My greatest hope and strength came from others who had found their way out of their own dark places. From their examples, I knew liberation was possible.
Some who were in similar or worse circumstances also were catalysts for healing. I empathized with their pain and wished they could be liberated from it. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t alone or unique in what I was experiencing and also was worthy of liberation from suffering.
To reiterate: What I know now that I didn’t know back then is that there would be assistance every step of the way. Assistance I never could’ve dreamed of: Feeling drawn to take Reiki training and to say yes to any number of new possibilities that showed up. Some of the possibilities had been in my orbit all along, but I hadn’t given them attention. Until I was ready. Really ready to transform my life into something greater.
I learned that when you feel really stuck, you might be on the brink of unprecedented growth.
Now I look back with so much gratitude for the journey because I’ve come so far from that dark night of the soul. It’s not the end of the road. You always can go further. But the journey from the darkest days to where I am now was the greatest leap in consciousness I’ve experienced my entire life. (And I’ve spent my life as a spiritual seeker working with a guide, so to say that is a really big deal.)
I learned the importance of self-love and burning in a fierce love (not blame, not hatred, not regret) everything that doesn’t serve me. I’ve learned there is a source of steadfast, unconditional love I can call upon when I need it, when I’m not feeling strong enough. I’ve learned that when I need it most, there is a circle of loved ones around me whose love still reaches me from beyond the grave. And behind them is even more love. Beings of love and light. I’ve learned to source my life from that great love and to see myself through the eyes of unconditional love.
I wish this for everyone who is suffering. Because it’s possible.
From the darkest days, I found the brightest light. The journey required lots of patience, forgiveness, and love. I became disciplined with regard to the thoughts I would and wouldn’t allow myself to think, and learned that mindfulness of thoughts paired with compassion forms a mighty superpower that can be used to benefit ourselves and others.
I’ve shifted from seeking validation from others to generating it within. Can you imagine how different our world would be if more people – including world leaders – made this shift and didn’t walk around needing others to fill their empty holes?
I offer the story of my journey to encourage anyone who is experiencing a dark night of the soul to keep going and have hope. And to encourage anyone who is supporting someone through dark times not to give up on them, no matter how many times they stumble and fall and could be left for dead. I’m not suggesting anyone should be a doormat and try to save others. (I learned that lesson the very hard way.) Healthy boundaries are essential. I’m just saying: Maintain an attitude of hope and unconditional love, and trust their soul’s path. If there’s nothing else you can do, send love and light.
And give it to yourself, as well. Let any self-judgment burn up in that fierce love. Allow yourself to receive the love and light that seeks you. Learn to receive it. You are worthy.
The only way out of the darkness is through love. As love grows in you, it pulls you along and gains momentum.
Do not fear the darkness. It’s where you will learn to shine your brightest light. Individually and collectively, that’s what the darkness calls forth from us.
I enjoy conversations with my granddaughter so much. During this week’s sleepover, while making star-shaped cookies on a stick that looked like magic wands, the topic of dragonflies came up. Over the summer, we noticed a dead dragonfly on the sidewalk at Congress Park. Remembering that dragonfly has become a predictable segue for talking about my parents, which is one of her favorite topics.
“The dragonfly’s body stopped working, just like your mommy and daddy’s. Your mommy and daddy died. But they’re not died…right?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “My mommy and daddy’s bodies stopped working, so they don’t have bodies anymore. But they are still able to love!”
I used to write a lot about grieving my parents’ deaths. Writing was how I made my way through the dark forest of grief. Eventually, I found myself on the other side of the forest. The darkness was behind me. Mercifully, life goes on, and a new chapter begins.
Beyond grief, there is another story waiting to blossom. A rather amazing one if we’re open to it.
Our dearly departed continue to connect with us after they’re gone. But they are so much more than the quirky personalities they had on earth. They offer pure, unconditional love. If you allow yourself to receive it, it can transform your life. Big-time. It can save you from yourself and turn you into your own best friend. I know because it happened to me.
It started as a little voice that countered the words of my Inner Critic. As I paid attention to it, the voice grew louder and more constant. And when I heard it, I felt my mom’s presence. It seemed like she was near and speaking to me through my own heart. But it wasn’t the voice of her personality. It was the voice of unconditional love. I felt my mother’s deep, abiding love for me, as if it were a seed planted in my heart. It was also like being on the receiving end of the steadfast love I’ve always had for my children. The kind of love that didn’t want them to suffer and learn things the hard way, and didn’t need to be right. No ego, just pure love.
It was like my mother’s love was beaming straight into my heart and watering that seed, and also holding a mirror that reflected my love and compassion for others right back to me. So I could love myself. Really love myself, probably for the first time ever.
See, I went through some difficult years after my mom died. Grief made me vulnerable to losing myself in a way empaths are prone to. I’d given away my power, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t seem to take it back and set myself free. I was really stuck, and it was the worst feeling. I felt powerless and prayed often for help and guidance to rise above the illusions and habits that imprisoned me. And whenever I asked, it was given.
For a while, it was a being of light similar to Glinda, the Good Witch standing at the entrance to the forest of forbidden thoughts in my mind. She radiated love and light and assured me that there was nothing there for me. Her compassionate presence served as a shield that prevented me from stepping into the danger zone. She helped me to have healthier boundaries and to form new neural pathways by putting warning signs at the entrances to the old ones.
Then they arrived. All of them. Everyone who had truly loved me before they passed into non-physical. They formed a circle around me, and I felt their love coming through so strongly. They did not want me to bring suffering on myself but didn’t judge me for doing so. They couldn’t stop me, but they could be present and surround me with love and light.
Their light lit the lamp of my own self-love. It didn’t happen overnight, but in time it empowered me to stop searching outside of myself for love and self-worth and to kindle it from the true source within. And that allowed me to set down the backpack of illusions I had been carrying around. Finally, I didn’t need it anymore. The trance lifted, and I was free to be me and to shine my light brighter than ever.
It feels like I have bushwhacked back to my true Self, reclaimed it, and put it in charge of my life. And I honestly believe I couldn’t have done it without some help from the other side. There were also people in the physical world who helped me to get unstuck, and I’m so grateful for their love and patience. And other women experiencing similar things were some of my clearest mirrors. However, it really felt like a team of angels was assisting me, too. People-pleasing empath that I was, it wasn’t enough for me to want to stop suffering. Realizing that nobody who loved me would want me to suffer is what did the trick.
Love is strong medicine that can set us free. My parents’ love for me has continued after they passed on and was strong enough to help me to generate self-love, which empowered me to heal. I’ve learned to love and forgive myself, and everyone else, too. Now my self-talk is completely different than it used to be. I relate to myself with unconditional love: so nurturing and forgiving and loving. So powerful and transformative. I’ve never felt so alive, so fully myself.
It’s kind of weird timing because the world seems so out of sorts, and we already have snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens when it’s only mid-November. But maybe it’s perfect and exactly what is needed, and maybe it’s happening to many others as well. It’s okay, even if the world is going through tremendous growth pains and feels unseasonably and unreasonably cold. Maybe love blossoming within us, one heart at a time, is exactly what this world of ours needs most to evolve. We have each other, and the dearly departed, as well, loving us and rooting us on.
As for the cookie conversation, I assured my granddaughter that it’s okay that the dragonfly and my parents don’t have bodies anymore – because they don’t need them. The part of them that we can’t see keeps living and loving. I told her that even though my parents don’t have a body now, they send me so much love, and I will do the same for her when my body stops working someday.
Our conversations, and the love between us, never have to end. We just have to learn to recognize a different kind of voice, be receptive, and practice a different way of communicating. There is a bridge between physical and non-physical. We just need to find it.
Today I’m inspired to write about the most obvious thing going on in my little corner of the world: the falling leaves. We’re not often taught how to let go, though it’s such an important and unavoidable part of being human. Trees can be great teachers in this regard.
As my feet crunch along a leaf-covered trail, I find myself asking: What do I need to let go of to prepare for a new cycle of growth? What no longer brings light and nourishment into my life? These are questions worth contemplating every now and then.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my journey of letting go: First, you don’t have to settle on a new aspiration before releasing what already is. Just let go of what no longer serves you, to make room for new possibilities as they arise in their own rhythm. Trust the cycle of letting go, envisioning, planting new seeds, and tending them so they flower and bear fruit. Then letting go again…
I repeat: You don’t need to know what you desire to let go of what feels complete. If you put it down, you might catch inspiration about what’s next drifting through your less cluttered mind. You might integrate what you’ve already done into whatever you do next.
But whatever you focus on next will look different. It will be fresh, like a new generation of leaves emerging from a springtime tree. If you let go of clinging to something outworn, you can grow and experience and be even more. And if you’re not able to give it up yet, at least let go of the beliefs and attitudes that don’t serve you. That way, you can have a different, more spacious relationship with the situation. This alone might reveal new possibilities.
Like breathtaking autumn landscapes, letting go can be accomplished with gratitude and celebration of how something or someone has enriched your life. Perhaps a soul contract has been fulfilled with another person or you’ve learned the lesson you needed from a situation. You don’t need to make anything or anyone bad to release what has served its purpose in your life.
In her popular Ted Talk, multipotentialite coach Emilie Wapnick said, “It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to even if you end up quitting. You might apply that knowledge in a different field entirely in a way you couldn’t have anticipated.”
And yet, endings can be challenging. We might get in our own way. After receiving a master’s degree in education, I only taught full-time for seven years before leaving that career a few years ago. When I resigned, I didn’t know what was next. All I knew was that my soul had moved on from classroom teaching and was being called elsewhere. Despite all the hoops I jumped through to prepare myself for that career in the first place.
It had taken me a few years to muster up the courage to leave that career because of all the time and money I invested in a master’s degree, my student loan balance, employer-provider health insurance and benefits, and my vision of it being THE career for me, for the long haul. I had such passion for early childhood education in the beginning and wondered if I could get it back if only I held it the right way again. So I examined it from every angle and even requested a sabbatical year (request denied) before I finally acknowledged beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was time to let go.
By that time, it was long overdue. After spending so much time wondering what was wrong with me because I couldn’t make it work, I was burned out to the point of no return. Putting energy into work that was so hard to show up for took up a lot of space in my mind that could have focused on new possibilities. It was like a huge boulder sitting in the middle of my mind that obstructed my view of the path ahead.
Letting go doesn’t have to take so long. We don’t have to suffer in something that feels like clothes that have become too small or outdated because how we felt about it in the past is so different from how we feel now. Because the season has changed, as seasons do.
Relationships can take new forms. Talents, experience, skills, and knowledge you’ve developed can be integrated into something new. This is something that tends to be undervalued in our society. As a result, deciding to end a pursuit often feels like a failure when it’s not.
Would you discourage a flower from blooming if it’s bound to wither?
How do you know when it’s time to let go, or what to let go of? If you tune in to yourself, you will know. Sometimes it’s hard to separate your deeper wisdom from other people’s fears and desires and your own conditioned patterns. I’ve found that a meditation practice and going on a spiritual retreat can be really helpful. Taking walks in nature.
Do you feel drawn to the leaves falling from the trees? If so, go outside and ask the trees for a message. Then keep your senses open, and listen deeply. Anytime you find yourself drawn to something in nature, you can ask what message it has for you.
It’s not a failure to acknowledge that something is no longer a fit for you. That’s an old, conditioned belief that keeps you living small and static when you were made to be so much more than who you used to be. Letting go is part of a tree’s growth cycle. The tree doesn’t stop growing because it lets go of its leaves that for a season or two gathered light to be photosynthesized into food. Like deciduous trees, letting go helps us to expand further. And like deciduous trees that look barren in the winter, we might need to be patient.
All you have loved remains part of you and helps to synthesize new possibilities into fuel and nourishment. It’s like the discarded seeds we toss into the compost bin that surprise us the following summer when they sprout and grow without any effort on our part.
Letting go isn’t something we’ve been taught to do – let alone letting go with grace and elegance. It doesn’t have to be something big like a job or marriage. It can be regrets, perfectionism, certain thoughts and beliefs, situations around which you’ve not had healthy boundaries, trying to do too much, resisting what is, physical or mental clutter, and so much more.
When a new generation of leaves comes out in the spring, it’s vibrant and exciting. Nonetheless, the trees will let go of them in autumn. Not because they didn’t love or need them. Not because they’re bad now. Simply because they’ve outlived their purpose, and in order to grow more, the tree needs to release them.
What leaves are autumn winds calling you to release? Can you let go of what no longer serves you and make room for something new even if you don’t yet know what it is?
Yesterday, one of my daughter’s dearest friends died suddenly and tragically. She was 25. My heart goes out to my daughter, who feels devastated, and to the young woman’s family and especially her young daughter, for their profound loss.
This is someone who was my daughter’s best friend during the most anguishing chapter of our relationship. As soon as this person came into my daughter’s life, my relationship with my daughter declined to the point that she ended up moving out of my house and living with her dad when she was in ninth grade. I didn’t have much contact with my daughter for a few years, and it hurt so much. There’s no pain like the pain of feeling disconnected from your own child and not being able to actively parent them when you know they are having trouble. To make matters worse, the adults closest to my daughter encouraged her to believe that I abandoned her.
That is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
During those years, I lived behind a wall of shame. Being a mother was my identity, and I just couldn’t face anyone. I didn’t know how to answer any well-intended questions about my daughter that inevitably came up in casual conversation. How could anyone understand everything that happened that resulted in her not living with me or having much to do with me? It was so complicated – too complicated to explain to anyone. Every step of the way, I did what I felt was best. I never stopped loving her. But she left anyway and was out of my reach for a few very painful years, which is something I believed no one would understand.
Afraid of what others would think of me, I kept to myself. I continued to raise my son, went to work but didn’t disclose much to my colleagues, and talked mostly with my husband, my mother, my spiritual director, and my therapist. At the time, I was a kindergarten teacher and always had about twenty children in my care every day to whom I gave my heart even though I had virtually no contact with my own daughter who was living in the neighboring school district.
But that’s not where the story ends. After my daughter graduated from high school, things shifted. Eventually, we became (and still are) best friends. A couple mothers of older daughters who had experienced similar situations assured me it would get better. They gave me hope. And now I do the same for others. Sometimes we just have to be patient and give loved ones time.
When my children were little, every night at bedtime we did a white light visualization so they could fall asleep surrounded by a bubble of protective energy. When my daughter was estranged from me, I continued to surround her in white light, which was about all I could do.
I see in hindsight that the wall of shame didn’t serve me. It cut me off from so much friendship and connection that could have raised my spirits and self-worth during that time. I didn’t need to suffer as much as I did behind that wall. But I didn’t want to burden anyone with my drama. And I didn’t want to be judged and possibly rejected. I felt so vulnerable and deficient.
And I didn’t like my daughter’s best friend during those years. I felt she was a destructive force in my daughter’s life. She was one of the people I blamed for the estrangement. Eventually, they drifted apart and would come and go into and out of each others’ lives. This person was like a bad penny that kept turning up, and I wished she’d go away. It seemed like every time she showed up, there was some kind of drama.
So now this young woman is dead, and in my heart I’m holding both relief that she will not be in my daughter’s life anymore and compassion for how hard this life was for her and for the loss everyone who loved her is experiencing. The loss is profound for my daughter who, after not speaking with her for quite some time, was on the phone with her only a few hours before she died. Their last words to each other were: I love you. Regardless of all the negative feelings associated with my memories of her, my daughter’s loss is real, and that’s what’s most important now.
It’s so hard to witness loved ones in relationship with people we see as toxic to them. I know there was so much more to this woman than what I saw in her. My daughter could see her finer attributes, and so could her dad (my ex-husband), who sounded like he was crying when he called me to break the news. She showed up at the hospital within hours after my granddaughter was born and was the first person outside of the family to hold her. She was a mother, and clearly motherhood was important to her.
Sometimes motherhood or fatherhood isn’t enough to keep someone healthy. It’s not because they don’t love their children (partners, etc.) enough but because they are struggling with issues we couldn’t possibly understand unless we walked in their shoes. If only we could understand their hidden pain, our hearts would be full of compassion for their suffering and how awful it must feel to fall short again and again despite the best of intentions. Sometimes even when we can see someone’s finer attributes (that may be invisible to others) and find them lovable, we need to maintain healthy, self-protective boundaries. Because some people are destructive forces for us, even though they are so much more than that, as well. Even though they are beings worthy of love and compassion.
Have you ever witnessed a loved one in relationship with someone you felt wasn’t good for them? My spiritual director expressed recently how hard it was for her to see me suffer that kind of disharmony. She wished she could pull me out, just like I wanted to pull my daughter out of certain relationships. But we can’t do that. We don’t have a magic wand that powerful. And even if we did, perhaps we all have soul agreements with others who are predestined to come into our lives to help us learn certain lessons, even difficult ones. It can be so hard to love the ones your loved ones love, especially if they seem blind to or spellbound by their harmful qualities. Sometimes all you can do is to be there for someone even when they aren’t showing up for themselves, and send them love and light.
I’ve learned it’s usually in our best interest to defer to those who love us, especially when they all concur that a certain person is a destructive influence in our life. But we might choose instead to take the wild ride. We’ll learn our soul lessons one way or another. It can be so challenging to stand back and watch someone choose the wild ride and to have compassion for those who probably need it most.
Perhaps that is something we are here to learn, even especially when we believe we know what’s best for someone else.