Helping Each Other Stay Awake

Helping Each Other Stay Awake February 17, 2020


As I travel to offer workshops and retreats, I enter a depth with willing others who’ve been opened and shaped by life. Through that depth, we create a path to what matters by which we enter the temple that is the world. I remain humbled and excited by the mystical fact that, try as we do, this depth can’t be opened alone. We need each other to do this, even though no one can experience life for you. And so we journey as pilgrims of the heart, alone and together, crossing this threshold of depth whenever we dare to tell the truth of our lives.

I open these gatherings by admitting that I have no answers and that we’re here to compare notes, because no one knows how to navigate the mystery of being alive. I then try to open a heart space through which we can enter the realm of all that matters, which is always waiting just below the interruptions of life which, if followed beyond our wants and fears, will lead us to the bareness of being that informs all life. I open this heart space by reading poems, telling stories, and sharing metaphors that reveal the unseeable architecture of existence.

I remind everyone that gathering like this is part of a lineage that goes back to the earliest of times. For when winded by fear or pain or stalled by clarity or inexplicable beauty, human beings have always stopped to gather, to try to make sense of things. I imagine in prehistoric times, after outrunning a mountain lion, after dragging the one member of the clan maimed by the lion back into their cave, they all assembled, out of breath, to ask each other, “What just happened? What are we doing here? Is there any meaning or sense to all this?”

And while we need to pause to look at life and what it does to us, while what we discover by looking into our experience together is helpful, we’re always thrown back into life, where everything is of a whole: beautifully tangled and enmeshed in a numinous aggregate of shimmering forces that lift us up and knock us down repeatedly.

So my job when entering these gatherings is to start more things than we can finish, so that the space of our gathering and the relentless stream of life happening outside of our time together are understood and accepted as one. Our job is to help each other remember that pausing to make sense of life—whether in a cave or workshop or sangha or temple or church or a university classroom or in the belly of the night with a dear, trusted friend—pausing to gather like this is a resource and not a refuge.

I’m heartened by the tradition of Native American elder councils, which always meet in circle. Not just for equity, as there is no head to a circle, but so that each person has a direct view of the Center. The sacred assumption is that we need everyone’s view of the Center to grasp it. We need everyone’s view of the Center to open it. We need to listen to everyone’s view and put our meanings together in order to enter the temple that is the world. And so the need to gather meaning, not choose it.

When we can come together like this—ensuring everyone has a direct view of the Center, honoring our deepest conversations as a resource and not a refuge, when we can open a heart space between us and enter the depth of life, all to share the truth of our lives—then the teacher moves around the room. Then the wisdom of an open heart appears here and there, revealing a deeper mosaic of truth that no one person can surface alone. In moments like this, our stories cure into a remedy that anyone can drink. As a teacher, my hope is to step aside so everyone can be their own teacher, so that everyone can be their own remedy.

Meeting like this is always an unexpected blessing. When we show up like this, we help each other stay awake. When we hold each other’s pain, we knit together into a net that catches truth. When we dare to let life move through us, though we don’t know what it means, we enter the temple that is the world. It doesn’t get any better than this.

A Question to Walk With: Describe an event that opened a depth between you and another that you wouldn’t have willingly opened. How did you enter this depth? What did this unexpected depth do to you and your relationship with this person?

This excerpt is from my forthcoming book, The Book of Soul (due out from St Martin’s Press, May

*Photo Credit: David Bartus

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