Entries in emptiness (1)

Thursday
May252017

Letting Go

You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you.
But suppose you were to hide the world in the world…

--Chuang Tzu

This trip began with a death and a theft.

The death was the death of my mother after a several-year decline. When she passed away, not only were my care-giving services no longer needed, but something I had taken for granted my whole life suddenly disappeared. The resulting emptiness was freeing and disorienting. I felt like a horse who had been hitched loosely to a post for a long time and now the post was gone, and there was no guidance about the many directions I could wander off in.

The theft came a few months after that, in late June of 2015, on a trip we took to the Oregon Coast. We had parked at a trailhead early in the morning to walk to the sand dunes, and when I got back to the car, someone had stolen my bags with all of my clothes in them out of the back seat. All that was left was what I was wearing and my pajamas back in the tent. Everything that was gone was either useful or sentimental—for example, the last crocheting project my mother was working on with me before she died. But though I felt angry and sad at first, I noticed that I felt a great lightness at not having bags to carry, or having to decide what to wear the next day, or having to protect things from getting stolen. The freedom I continued to feel from this simple loss made me start to wonder what the price was of owning things. How much did I want to own, and why?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that this trip is turning out to be about letting go. At first it was about letting go of physical things—cleaning out our house of 20 years and selling or giving away (or throwing out) most of our belongings. Leaving my office and our familiar surroundings in Seattle. Being separated for a time from friends and family. But I am finding that it is also about letting go of inner things. Letting go of my plans. Of strategies for getting along in the world, like being helpful, accumulating knowledge, or staying busy. Of old reactions and habitual responses.

What I feel drawn to over and over again as we travel is a kind of inner emptiness. The kind of emptiness that is not so much precursor to something else, (the space in the bell / allows it to ring) but a state of awareness in and of itself. A condition of Being that comes before my plans and projects.

And yet it feels scary to watch birds without making a list, or to not have a plan for how we will get back to Washington, or to not be creating something. At my most doubtful, I wonder what is legitimate emptiness and what is just aimlessness. After I graduated from my master's program in June of 2011, I took a couple months off to rest before deciding what to do next. In September I started building my private therapy practice. Looking back on it, I can't remember what I did during the summer at all, while the fall is bright and clear in my memory. When I go back to my journal I see that I had lots of ideas that summer—I painted, I planned interesting workshops with friends, I took some trips, I thought about the future—but somehow that time off was not nearly as memorable as actually starting to create something that I loved.

This emptiness I am sensing now seems different, though. It is not just a void, it is actually something alive. When I woke this morning I remembered the poem I wrote in 2015 about what my work is: to guard the silence / at your center. It takes an alert vigilance to guard, and I notice that most of the time, I am not tending that silence—especially when I am feeling irritated with something or caught in some kind of mood. As soon as I begin to believe these feelings and act on them, it gets very noisy inside. If I took that poem seriously, it could be a guide for this time:

So lay aside your lists,
your plans,

and your intentions.
The silence

of this space
contains everything.

Its words
are your words.

This morning (May 1st) we are leaving yet another place that we have fallen in love with—another kind of letting go. Saying goodbye to the calming presence of Mt. Wrightson, to the Mexican jays, to the alligator junipers with their distinctive checkerboarded bark, to the Rincon paintbrush and the sycamores. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I feel this in my gut as a kind of ache every time we leave somewhere.

But as I just feel this sadness (and let it go, too) there is an emptiness that replaces it that is expansive and full. After having over 50 different “homes” this year, I am getting used to endings. I am beginning to see that grasping onto things to try to keep them the same also creates an emptiness, but one that is fearful and lonely. This new emptiness is different. It resonates with energy. It is large enough to contain everything we have seen and done—and more. It is indefinable. And it requires trust, something that is easier said than done.

I can remember other times when I felt this kind of emptiness. When our cat Lionel died at home after a long decline, I sat with the body afterwards trying to feel what had just happened. As I sat there, I had the sense that what I considered Lionel was dispersing out into the universe. He wasn't there, and the emptiness of his passing was heart-wrenching. But now he was everywhere—in the trees and the grass and the air and the stars—and if I sat quietly, thinking of him, I could feel in that emptiness a connection to everything, if only for a moment.

Perhaps if we do not shut down when things are taken from us or when we are sad, there can be room for this. Perhaps this is one way of hiding the world in the world.

*****

This part of the trip is hard for me. We have done many of the things we set out to do. We don’t have a lot of plans between now and the end of August. In the absence of structure or purpose, I often find myself depressed. Or, to put it more exactly, I cycle between extremes: one day I feel a deep sense of awe or contentment. The next I find myself aimless and lost, unsure about myself or the point of anything.

Jim Corbett speaks to this difficulty in his book Goatwalking. He talks about these feelings as the natural result of the search for this emptiness, which he calls detachment or selflessness. Detachment requires an end to our addiction to social busyness, and in order to even see this addiction, we have to step outside of the usual social structures for awhile—which is not as easy as it might sound.

Wandering purposeless and without human companionship, one sometimes experiences emotional crises that are...similar to culture shock and cabin fever.... In the absence of socially supported identities we may discover ourselves possessed by naked demons who have the good manners to appear only in acceptable disguises when we are in polite society. During extended periods of isolation working as a sheepherder and cowboy, I discovered little of this kind of emotional conflict. After all, I was doing a job and earning a living. Each day had its work and objectives.... But in full solitude—free and easy wandering without purpose or schedule—the demons appear.

Society provides most of the make-believe that prevents one's hells from surfacing into full consciousness. But whoever leaves the world to wander alone...should be prepared to meet a devil or two, when busyness ceases to drown out the dream side.... Old wounds become fresh injuries. Unresolved terrors become immediate threats. I've come awake in the close darkness of a cloudy new-moon night, sobbing from an early-childhood rejection, so overcome with its lasting presence that I could only gradually remember my way back into middle age. I've come awake old and senile, awaiting death with dumb, motionless panic. (Corbett, p. 10-11)

Jim's descriptions of his experiences help me recognize the moods I feel for what they are and to understand how to continue to orient myself by naming them and re-focusing on the bigger picture. Without this perspective I would have headed back to something familiar long ago. But it is clear to me that this pain—though not the point—is necessary. That this breaking open is the first step in receiving the world.

*****

A few weeks ago I took a nap in the trailer in the heat of the day and woke up thinking that I was a child again on the farm and that my family was just in the other room. Then I started having sense memories of taking care of Mom at Manor Care—the smell of the building, the long faceless hall, all those blank hours in which she had to occupy herself. I felt groggy and disoriented from sleep and had a jolt of empathy for her confusion while she lived there—how difficult it would be to not be able to get up and walk, or to go outside to find your present self again. I was surprised at how fresh all of those memories still were for me, and how often these days I feel like I imagine Mom did during that time. Perhaps this is another kind of letting go—the need to let go of the past.

I think of all the letting go she had to do those last years. Letting go of her memory and her ability to make sense of the world; of her ability to walk or take care of herself; of her capacity to make her own decisions and of most of what was fun. Eventually letting go of her body and of her life itself.

When I think about this, I am pretty sure that I don’t fully understand the implications of letting go, or even what I am giving up. All I see at first are the positive aspects of living lighter along with a little collateral sadness, something along the lines of not having luggage to carry out of the car. But when I think about Mom, and I consider losing parts of myself that I consider central to who I am—memory, interests, skills, my home, my work—it is much more unsettling. I can feel the desire to clutch fiercely at these things, uncertain that what will take their place is worth it.

Then I feel the wind blow, I see the tips of all the trees move in concert like a green ocean, and I know that these trees are connected all the way back to the canyons of Utah, the sage brush of Nevada, the pines of the eastern Cascades, the great fir trees of the Olympic Mountains, and on and on. I feel the whole earth breath. I feel the pull to keep trying to understand what it means to hide the world in the world. I know there is no going back.

When you let go
you relax
open your hand—
everything falls to the ground.
You don't have to choose
any more.
This does not mean, though,
that you are bereft—
that things won't choose you.
That things with wings
won't land on your open palm,
or that little feet
won’t make the long journey
from the ground to your lap.
Just wait.
Open.
Everything
is a part of you.

------------------
Corbett, J. Goatwalking. (1991). New York: Viking.