I was feeling hopeful in December; reflecting back on 2020 all I could see were blessings. It was a sharp turn-around from earlier in the year in March when I felt a wave of depression, not sure how I was to manage without my regular medical treatment in Turkey to help my M.E. and fibromyalgia symptoms. The UK lockdown had kicked in two days before our flight, and Turkey had closed its airspace. The year ahead looked bleak. It took some time for me to open up to the opportunities that came out of the pandemic, and I wrote about them previously: the desire for folks to connect online, whether for spiritual purposes or otherwise.
During the first lockdown, my brothers joked with me: “This won’t make any difference to you; you’ve been preparing for this for years!” And they were right: nearly ten years of dealing with bed-rest, limited mobility, and long periods of staying at home, meant that the lockdown rules weren’t so different to my day-to-day life.
Except there was one big change — now it felt like everyone else had joined me online. Events that I normally wouldn’t be able to access or travel to were being held virtually. (I regret not buying shares in Zoom.) Friend groups started meeting online for a catch-up, laughingly wondering why it took a pandemic to make this happen. While this access was wonderful at first, like many others I very quickly realised that online interactions can be more intense, and I started moderating the number of meetings I joined. Which was difficult — there was so much available! The world had opened up, with scholars and activists from different countries joining events or offering private sessions, reading clubs getting an influx of new members, and creativity flourishing everywhere. On the plus-side, I spent less time on Netflix.
I can list many blessings that came out of 2020, but some key ones stand out:
Only having one family member contract COVID and recover, thanks be to God.
Spending virtual time in Medina, through a friend who was caught in the lockdown while travelling there. It made me reflect that if I never get to go in person, I have still had the opportunity to pray in the Prophet’s mosque alongside other friends of the heart.
Being with a global community through the Threshold Society’s online meditations and experiencing the incredible power of connecting virtually in the heart space. The joy of regularly being with so many souls nourishes me deeply, and strengthens the bonds of spiritual family.
Setting up RAY, a non-profit organisation with the aim of sharing feminine spiritual wisdom, and holding our first online festival celebrating women of spirit. With 20 contributors from around the world, the festival was full of beauty, inspiration, and energy.
Feeling a sense of community from the local Quaker and Unitarian groups that we have become part of, knowing that I am held in circles of prayer. The giddy joy of seeing each other occasionally when we have been out getting some fresh air!
Living in a beautiful part of the world, with views of nature surrounding us. The joy of the river running outside my window, never the same from day to day, with occasional visits from the local heron — a study in patience and trust.
And from those initial troubling thoughts in March of “how will I get through the year?”, December arrived so quickly that I was slightly shocked. And joyful I had made it. And it hadn’t been so very terrible (though the mind does forget the more difficult times, which is a blessing in itself).
So I was not prepared for January and how quickly I lost that sense of hopefulness and achievement — all I saw was the long, long year ahead. The third lockdown is taking its toll on the nation; everything feels heavy. Perhaps this is just a normal January. Perhaps all Januarys of years gone by have always felt dark, long, and interminable. But this is the first January with COVID, so I think there is some extra darkness to deal with.
I reflect on how swiftly my state has changed, and how the psychological effect of reflecting on the year gone by can be so different to looking ahead to a year unknown. Is it a lack of trust on my part as to what is to come? Or realising that I continue to fight against a sense of acceptance and surrender concerning my physical condition?
There is a much-quoted verse from Mevlana that I always see used online:
Darling, the body is a guest house;
every morning someone new arrives.
Don’t say, “O, another weight around my neck!”
or your guest will fly back to nothingness.
Whatever enters your heart is a guest
from the invisible world: entertain it well.
[Mathnawi V:3644–46, The Pocket Rumi, tr. by Helminski]
The full selection that holds these lines has been with me for many years now and my relationship with it varies. Initially I used to find much comfort in seeing my trials a little removed from the impact, detached and therefore able to witness what was happening and wonder what the ‘gift’ might be. Sometimes it took years to see what the benefit was, but it was always there, and that brought understanding and, sometimes, acceptance. Other times, I would get frustrated and angry, wishing I could have a break from all the visiting guests, wanting to close my door and hide away from it all.
A deeper understanding has come over time that this is not an either/or state of being; one is not ‘better’ than the other, and that I should not be beating myself up when I just feel like I want a break. When I have the ability to detach and witness the gifts, that is a blessing. And when I feel like I need to shut down and just hibernate with the feelings, that is also a blessing.
The lines from Surah Ash-Sharh have also been constant companions this year:
In the name of God, the Infinitely Compassionate, and Most Merciful.
Have We not expanded your chest,
and removed from you the burden
which weighed down your back
and increased your remembrance?
Truly, with every difficulty comes ease:
truly, with every difficulty comes ease!
So, when you have been emptied strive onward,
and to your Sustainer turn with longing.
[Surah Ash-Sharh, “The Opening-Up of the Heart”, 94: 1–8, tr. by Camille Helminski]
Too many translations state that ease comes after difficulty, but Camille’s rendering gives not only a more faithful translation but an acceptance in the heart: that yes, of course, it is in the mix of the two that ease will come. Again, there is no denial of both states but an acceptance of what can come to us even in the midst of difficulty. And only when we ‘have been emptied’ can we move forward. Therefore, in order to empty we must first see, fully face what is challenging us. And that can take time. For me, this is the state Mevlana is speaking about with the “guests”; not a form of spiritual bypass but a real understanding of all the difficulties that life brings, and how we can deal with them — after we have accepted them.
God is always asking us to look within, and if we cannot overcome our limits, that’s okay too. She will not ask us to do what we are not ready for; She will hold us in our limitations and let us cry and grieve that which we cannot, or are not ready, to let go of… yet. And She gently unveils new pathways when we are able to be with the difficulty instead of avoiding or bypassing.
I do not think it coincidence that Camille ends most Threshold meditations with this verse. These have been much needed sacred words this last year… and no doubt will be for this new year also. And so I feel comforted in my despondency, knowing I need to feel this, that there is ease beneath, and knowing that this too will pass. This new year will bring more challenges and blessings, and before I know it, it may be December again. I hope I can appreciate the time in-between.
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