the silence of wisdom

When I was a younger woman, I thought of wisdom as something like ‘knowledge gained from experience’ and imagined the sage offering words of it, if not exactly from a cave then at least from a rocking chair. Now that the wheel of life is gradually turning me toward the stage of elderhood, I’m beginning to see how foolish that definition of wisdom was, at least as I see it today (and I am humble enough to realize that my understanding of wisdom will surely change over time, that some day I may look back upon this little treatise with loving amusement, as in some way it is hubris to even speak of it) However, today I recognize wisdom as something more silent than speech and deeper than words.

Wisdom as witness is perhaps a more fitting description of the way I understand it today. The wise woman (or man) is one who has indeed seen and gleaned much of life, but who needs not shout it from the stage or revel in others sitting at her feet. She is content now to bear witness to the unfolding of wisdom in the other, for she understands that it is the journey of life that imparts it, not words of advice or analysis from another.

I correlate this in some way with the great letting go that comes with this stage of life. There is a natural stripping that occurs for most of us around this time. I remember my own grandmother’s house being minimalistic, my mother’s move into a simpler home acheiving the same. We no longer need things to affirm our identity and our worth, to be mirrors of our value. This detachment seems to go along with a quieting and a deepening, a stripping of need for defense or definition. Personally, I experience it as a deepening sense of knowing oneself as made of Love, which requires nothing outside of oneself to fulfill or define it. Rather I am coming to simply experience Love as Who I am and to relaxedly let it flow from within outward.

That outward flow need not be in things, or words, or even deeds (as no doubt my ability to perform will naturally fade with time). What I am noticing now is that the flow of Love can be as simple as this simplicity to which i am drawn — a simple gaze of grace, a glance that embraces, a bearing witness to belovedness, an offering of gracious understanding, which allows the other to blossom under the warmth of that sun.

Another noticing that relates to this one, i think, is this aspect of seeing: I no longer need the other to see me. It is true that there is an invisibility of age, one which we often lament, in our culture. I feel it at times too, of course, the way that our culture reveres and uplifts the achievements and prowess of those ‘pinnacle’ years, and discounts the substantial gifts that other stages of life bring to this place. But from this seat, where i sit this evening, I need not have eyes or ears turned upon me in admiration or reverence to know that I am…offering Love and the Wisdom of Seeing with Grace to this world. I suspect this is the All-knowingness which is true Wisdom.

Nor do i need the affirmation or reception of another to prove (or to speak for me) my truth, to make me feel substantial or real (or right!). I can see how I tried to do that, even not so very long ago, if I am honest, from a feeling of voicelessness or lack of self-agency, when I dressed up my words as ‘wisdom’ and expected the other to don those fancy clothes I offered, believing it was the clothes that made the woman. (I also suspect those clothes were at times defense or deflection, not wanting to be projected wrongly upon…desiring to be understood and seen as good) Now I know it matters not what the other sees. Those foolish clothes have been packed up and sent to the thrift shop along with the other things that I am in the process of relinquishing.

This will make sense to you, or it won’t.

And so, I fall silent more often now. Let things be as they are, unfold as they will. To let go and let another grow under a gaze that honors the beauty and wisdom of humanity and of life itself, is the epitome of Love. Wisdom needs not either ‘do for’ or be seen, rather, as I am coming to understand, it Shines Upon, a witnessing presence that dwells in the ‘all is well’ so deeply that there is no fear of disappearing. An ‘all is well’ that emanates and assures and encourages and safeguards, a safe space in which all are welcome.

And that is all I can see…. or say.

on not poking the bear

Lately, I’ve been noticing bewildering waves of something within me. Perhaps wave is too strong a word, for it is really not much more than a stirring below the surface. Of course, I suppose such a stirring could cause a wave of sorts, subtle, like the ripple that spreads across the still surface of the lake in the evening, when a fish rises for a fly.

Is it hunger then?

The wave that washes like a momentary nausea and then subsides, as I turn my attention quickly and quietly away from the offensive scent, tells me something is a bit off, not as ‘all is well’ as I self-proclaim. I am human after all. Sorrows at times overwhelm my soul as much as they do yours, though those sorrows never obliterate the deeper awareness within me that life is beautiful, as it is.

I wonder at it when it rises, for I feel so utterly and deeply content that it feels out of place somehow. And that makes me wonder if my contentment is merely a ‘seeming’ one, a surface one, though I think not.

I suppose I might simply be invited to integrate sorrow more fully into my ‘all is well’, not keep it in some separate compartment within me, let it breathe — alongside joy and peace. Let it belong to my wholeness, not be a symptom of something broken.

I don’t know.

Sometimes, on days like today for instance, it is my empathy muscle that hurts and I can easily identify the source of my sorrow. My deep longing for one whom I love to find peace is often disturbed by this dear one’s despair and I need make space for that huge powerless longing for them in me, for I cannot take their pain away. Carrying this empathetic pain around for so very long makes me weary, and at times that weariness weighs heavy, a sorrow I cannot shed. I’d like to tuck it away, put it to bed, trust that all will be well—which my deeper self still holds on to, though if I am honest, at times that thread feels like it is thinning. And maybe it needs to break so that beloved one can walk their own path of becoming whole.

Today’s empathetic response to that one’s pain truly comes from Love , and feels different altogether than an older, conditioned one, whose anxiety was centered more on Fear —fear of being abandoned, unwanted, rejected, seen as unworthy or unlovable. That particular form of empathy was often more about me than the other. Feeling their anger, their disappointment, their frustration, their negativity, their need even, led me to frantically seek ways to ease their pain in order to safeguard myself, in a way. Not a good recipe for a healthy relationship, I took on much more than was healthy for me or for them. But that wound honestly feels well-healed, though at times the scar still itches a bit.

I almost wrote that I have learned to tame that wild beast. However, as quickly as the words came out of my fingertips I realized my error, for that one was not wild at all, rather was a conditioned (habituated) part of me that learned to survive, and dare I say even feed, herself by living in close quarters with those who crossed the boundary of my self to feed me their leftovers. I didn’t learn that I could trust my own instincts, find nourishment that was healthy for me to partake, thrive on my own. So, I suppose, I have gradually freed that wild soul in me, taught her to stop hanging around camps where the banging of pots and shooting of bear spray created such an anxious animal.

Hopefully, this is the way we grow older, after all, with a deepening rootedness in love that sheds the need for external reassurances and can rest in the peace of that deeper love, rather like the hibernating bear, shedding the weight of all that excess baggage put on during the previous seasons of life, when fear of starvation was the driving force. A mature Love like that merely shines upon others, without that hungering need casting its shadow.

And so, I wonder, now. Is that particular unhealthy bear being poked awake? Is that the stirring in me these early winter mornings. I’m not at all sure it is. Sometimes, on days like today, for instance, these feelings of empathy are certainly related to that old mama bear in me. Perhaps an offspring of hers, but one who has learned to forage for food separate from the love that she once drew from others needing her.

But most days when this other bear stirs, nothing particular seems to have stirred her, she rises seemingly unprovoked,, unattached to that thread of empathy that awakened by my sorrow this morning. And She, this seemingly unprovoked one, is the one who makes me curious .

What is she hungry for? Does her hunger stem from something unfulfilled? Does she hunger for something innately hers, something wild?  Or has there been something birthed and nurtured in this dark hidden den within me, something surprising, impatient to come out into the light to play?

I don’t really want to poke that bear awake, if I am honest, but she seems to be poking at me despite my attempts to quiet her with my ‘all is well’. Is there something I’m missing that would bring even deeper satisfaction, growth, contentment, transformation, joy? Does the fact that I’m asking belie my seeming belief that “all is well’?

Or is it, as they say, best to let sleeping bears lie.

Of course, I know the answer. The bear will wake in its own time, after all, without my need to provoke her. Her hunger will wake her, else she would starve in her sleep, and that simply doesn’t happen to a wild creature. One way or the other, her hunger will be fed. I’d rather she not be ravenous and reckless when that happens, so I’ll listen.

Then, I’ll surrender, I suppose, to the inevitable growth in the coming season, in this unending human journey of being and becoming, of birthing and blossoming and dying. Let her rise.

2 haiku and a tanka

  1. Field of white belies
    fluid depths that lie beneath
    Slumber pocked by light
  2. Winter’s letting go
    invites an odd alliance
    Blue jays and red wings

And one more …trying my hand , loosely, at Tanka

Silent frozen depths,
do You long, as I, for me
to answer your call,
leave this post and slide into
your thaw’s impatient beckon

the blessing of emptiness

Sitting here quietly this early spring morn, I watch the snow fall. It covers over yesterday’s newly exposed earth, so raw and vulnerable to trampling as it thaws (at least it seems so to me), its seedlings and ephemerals not yet ready, the light not strong enough yet, and I ponder the way that I too cover over what is not yet ready to be exposed to the light. A feeling nudges, pushing up for a moment. I notice but don’t explore, not ready perhaps to expose it. Its season will come soon enough.

Yesterday began with a few inches of freezing rain coating every surface here, including the frozen lake. By afternoon, the weather was downright balmy, a tropical breeze virtually blowing the ice away, the lake covered with fresh puddles and pools that reflected the sky as if summer, the water’s edge flowing beneath a thin veil of ice. This morning it snows, the lake a vast white field, the ice hard, the far shore indiscernable. Human awakenings can feel like that too, I suppose. One never knows what the day, nay the hour, will bring— sometimes clarity breaks through, more often what is stirring feels indiscernable, then goes back to sleep, to rest beneath whatever it is that we cover it with in our day to day lives.

Even the birds are confused in this inbetween time of not yet. The winter jays intermixing with the spring arrivals–redwinged blackbirds– at the feeder, filling their bellies with what is offered by human hands in these lean days. One lone red squirrel taking his fill— are the stores in his winter pantry empty?

I think of the way we fill our days in order to stave off some nagging emptiness of our own, and how often, perhaps, we mistake emptiness for pain? Can emptiness itself be a blessing, a space in which something might take root and grow.. Or is even the end of that sentence itself making of emptiness merely a vessel for something better, as if the emptiness itself is not good enough.

My friend runs from emptiness, perhaps, in her days of profound loss, busying herself. Not wanting to feel it, she fills it instead. A loss like that leaves one feeling lost, cut loose from one’s mooring, directionless, untethered, adrift. Who am I now? Where does my life go from here? Which way is north? And so instead of re-rooting right in the midst of that emptiness, we run, running on empty, both from it and towards it, circling the void like a vulture, both longing and unwilling to land in order to draw nurture from death. The seemingly cavernous pain, like the empty house, for now too hard to face.

I turn that mirror upon myself and I wonder, for I feel something akin to that in myself these days, recognizing that some part of me also resisted being here alone. How strange a feeling from one such as me who has craved and relished in solitude? What was I afraid of?

A feeling arises and i push it aside just as quickly as it seemingly rose. What is it that I both avoid and evade when that opening nudges me to enter. The quiet invitation to move fully into an emptiness that knocks, saying, “Come, sit awhile here with me.” I cover over that feeling of vulnerability with fresh snow. As if to open that door even a crack is to set loose a deluge of floodwaters. Even if they might be the lifegiving floodwaters of spring’s thaw, rather than a crack in the dam of some overwhelming grief scarcely held at bay, I still choose to respond ‘ Not today’.

I wonder, what if I stop pathologizing, or analyzing, emptiness as ‘something wrong’, falsely believing it to represent some elusive ‘not enoughness’ in me. What if emptiness and spaciousness are simply sisters, two sides of the proverbial coin. Why do we insist upon labeling the one sister as holy, the other as an evil twin?

The image of a womb is potent here for me, as the womb of mother earth now nurtures, hidden within her vast spacious container, all that the coming season of life will bring— flowers and fruit, shelter and beauty. What would it be like to simply crawl inside that spacious emptiness, not to fill it but to let myself be filled by it. To let myself receive Love there. To let the fruits of lovemaking be nurtured there, take root and begin to unfold there, before even exposing them to the light.

I am beloved. This I know more deeply than words can express. My roots are so widely and deeply enfolded by and enmeshed with that sense of belovedness that at their furthest capillary tendrils I cannot discern where Love ends and I begin. We are made of the same stuff.

I draw Love deeply into the very substance of my existence here in this place, even when it is hidden from me, even when I am in a dry, dormant season, a seemingly empty season, a terribly pruned back season, an impalpably embryonic season.

It is hard to not speak in dichotomies here. Each time I move to recognize emptiness as good, my thoughts rush in to fill it …with potential, as if potential is truly the good thing. Perhaps in a human life of seasons, of beginnings and endings, this is the way that a human ‘being’ is most naturally aware, after all. Yet, the emptiness we rush to fill rather than feel patiently awaits…. our embrace… or our entrance… its invitation always there to enter, with tenderness and compassion, to ask what it needs, or conversely what is trying to offer to us. Perhaps it longs to feed us…. even as we busy ourselves trying in vain to feed it, or more so keep it at bay, just beyond our full attention, feeding it with substitutes that never are enough.

Does emptiness have to be synonymous with pain? I once had a friend tell me she liked the feeling of hunger. I was leading a canoe trip at the time and was concerned that persons had enough to eat to fuel the journey. That premise was a revelation to me! Of course, I have always interpreted hunger/emptiness as something to attend to, but only insomuch as to feed it, not simply to notice it, or honor it, or revel in it, or even to ask it what it is offering. I have mistook the feeling of emptiness for pain. Clearly I have never experienced true physical hunger, the type of hunger of one who is truly starving, so my physical hungers have not been truly painful, and yet, the need to eliminate that feeling instantly, as if it is signaling something wrong, is well conditioned in me.

What if we receive emptiness, just as it is, without qualifiers, or quantifiers, not as precursor or result of, but as invitation, gift, blessing. Enter into it fully as if it is worthy of our complete and loving attention. Perhaps we will discover the fullness is already there. We need only walk through that dark door, in trust that we will be held within that vast container of Love, for even that seeming emptiness is made up of light.

And yet, there is no forcing spring to come before its time, and in this, as in all things, there is mercy and grace. It will come to us and awaken within us as it will, in its own time and space, sure as this blessed Mother turns over and over in her spacious bed, revolving around the light as she does and will do, taking light into her body as she does and will do, as will we, her creatures, made of her light infused substance. Perhaps our only work is to turn toward that light when it cracks open that door, and say ‘yes, please’, and ‘thank you’.

*in searching an image to go with this post, the image of a deep well came to me. and while this poem was not on my heart when i journaled this morning, i realize it is a part of its content…so here you are.

The Well of Grief
David Whyte

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

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