I am 5 years old. For a brief moment, I’m alone, on a break from my usual job of making sure everybody in my family of five is fine. Sitting under the locust tree on a hot summer afternoon, I look up at branches, then sky. And I suddenly know something I had long ago forgotten. A voice, in my bones;
You are not your name. You never were.
I repeat the syllables over and over: Sue Son Hi Sner (Susan Heisner). They fell like nonsense. And then there was Big Feeling, a very very big one, this world place beyond the name. Past this place they called the world. It seemed like I was there, too, with that voice that told me about names. I knew right away that this was the greatest and biggest feeling ever. I made a note in my little-girl self, “Remember. Think about this every night. Right after the prayer that says I might die.”
And then the words stopped. I had no idea how to even try to describe this to my ever-present mother, who knew everything about me. Even as a chatty and loquacious child I knew no words to describe how big this territory was. It became my secret, this deep sense of enormity and unity.
If not her, then who am I?
I would forget and remember and forget and remember this for the next sixty-plus years. And yet this one moment, one of my very few memories from childhood, would guide my curious and inquiring nature.
Each time I try to describe it, I’ve come to the edge of language and been forced to leap into metaphor. I’ve landed on a continent often lost, but one that I knew to have always existed inside, beyond, around, and below and above this name, this particular “me.”
It lives in the land of the Ineffable, The Home to Everything That Doesn’t Know or Need Language.
The land of mystics and poets and artists.
The land of forever. And yet also the land of now.
And yet…I keep trying to “eff” it. I’ve dedicated myself to finding the words, images, sensations, definitions, stories, reminders of what is truly true.
The light and indescribable and ineffable and nameless essence of me.
The landing in the subtle and wordless silence of all that is.
Which does (and doesn’t) have a name.
Because that is the mystic’s path, and, like it or not, that makes it mine.
Oreos may be my favorite cookie, and cookies are my biggest weakness. That’s why I’ve banned them from my life, my home, my conscious awareness for the last twenty years. But nowadays I’m figuring out how to live beyond harsh restrictions and trust my relationship with any food. And so I’ve become slightly more open to questioning my assumptions. Oreos pose a slippery slope of temptation that I haven’t honestly been able to trust myself to climb until now.
I was surprised the other night when a comedy spoof about Double-stuffed Oreos caught my attention. I was never the kind of kid who opened them up and slowly licked off the gooey white center. My strategy was to pop half of one in my mouth and chew them up quick while nobody was watching. So this new sticky, lard-like development in food technology called “double stuffing” was no big challenge of will power for me.
But the image of being double stuffed has caught my fancy. I see the evidence of overstuffed lives all around me. This is clearly a big deal in this hyper-stimulating world, and I’m hardly immune. Even though it’s been on ongoing practice for me to de-clutter possessions and clothing, I sometimes feel like I’m holding back an avalanche. And then there’s my schedule. It’s carefully curated and controlled so that I can keep all my commitments to everybody else and still include myself. My tendency when overwhelmed is to just try harder and do more, and I become the best CEO of my own life possible. All in an attempt to hold all the stuffing. After that, I revert back to my Type E woman self, a hangover from my thirties not completely resolved by a wonderful self-help book of that time. The subtitle is Everything to Everybody, and I don’t think I’m alone in this unconscious pattern.
My life becomes dedicated to a complex net of support and care-taking, community, relationship, family, spiritual practice, exercise. And then there are the “hobbies” like singing, reading, and writing. Not to mention the work that I love, supporting and challenging my clients as they grow and thrive. Sometimes this life feels triple-stuffed. And, it’s no coincidence that my body feels the same. Because when my life is too stuffed, I use my “got-to” of eating for comfort or to get some instant energy or to fog out the feelings of overwhelm.
All these warning signs tell me it’s time to unstuff my life ASAP. I’ve learned that the best course of action at this point is non-action. I double down on meditation, longing for a permanent retreat from it all. But by the time my stuffed life is at this stage of overflow, long silent retreats aren’t the immediate resolution I need. Short-term solutions are my best response as I move through this ordinary life. This might be as simple as locking the bathroom door and breathing deeply for a few minutes. Or sitting down each morning to meditate for ten minutes or to fumblingly write my way to the light of clarity, a practice which goes by the wayside when I’m so busy with Everything and Everybody Else.
Ironically I’m finding a Rescue Remedy in the very technology that creates the overstimulation. I’ve become a podcast junkie in the last few years, and I’ve had to learn to curate my list to avoid over-stuffed ears. A couple of these which have made the cut because they’ve been a balm to the nervous system are Nocturne and Nothing Much Happens Here. The last one is my newest love, offering Sleep Stories that are such a refuge and antidote for the too-muchness that is sometimes my life.
I’ve also been trying out a couple of apps to refine my meditation practice and to drop into sleep more easily: Calm and Waking Up. Both of these are beautifully designed and both involve a monthly subscription fee, so they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for everybody, including me. Starting today I’m participating in a two-month “online retreat” with Adyashanti, a teacher for whom I have great respect, to refine and reinforce my commitment to unstuffing my overfull brain. My clear declaration of intention, as God (and you) are my witnesses: To Unstuff my Overstuffed Life.
Photo by Flickr user “theimpulsivebuy,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, cropped
What is prayer? This is a question that has followed me for years. The answers have shifted with my relationship to the mystery of life. I’ve explored it in my personal journal, with my spiritual advisors, within my meditations. I’ve tried to summarize all of this in an essay and failed miserably. Which led to more questions, and a few heart-known answers. My mantra, my prayer nowadays? Show me what I’m missing.
I did my best to summarize the process in this poem, partially written last spring. I offer it to you on this cold January morning.
I no longer kneel because my newly minted knees don’t like it.
Not bowing, I forget humility sometimes.
Bedtime prayers so I can face another day
Breath and mantra to calm the lizard,
To welcome Hypnos, invite Orpheus
Any spell that would let me finally let go.
How good it once was to lay my burdens down.
To surrender to that mysterious Force.
There’s an urgency these days
A desperate need to not waste a precious prayer
When so much is at stake. I stop, frozen.
How to say something real and true?
Caught by a familiar undertow of confusion,
Help! Something inside cries out.
Then words arrive.
May I stay with in the Tempo of My Own Understanding
Yes. That’s it, I think. The Big Ask. A place where help is needed.
How very fragile the temple of my Understanding seems from day to day.
I listen again. More words:
Not temple. Tempo, you lame brain!
Don’t bore me with your philosophy.
Listen to me.
There are things that need solving.
With staccato solutions.
Do this. Do that. Be clear. Be here.
I think, lost in the list.
But then this morning arrived.
The sun woke the birds.
Slowly. The stream bubbled hello. Flowingly.
Then, caught in a faint rhythm from this solid turning earth,
For one second.
This is what I keep forgetting, I remember.
The world reveals her beauty despite its warts and blemishes.
And then a new prayer arrives:
May I see what I’m missing?
I listen again.
For any tempo, perhaps a quickening.
A tiny double beat here, a giddy possibility there.
Solid but with a trill.
Along with the constant constant constant beat
Of the pulse that holds it all.
Now. Now. Now. Now.
Not then. Or When.
Only now. Now. Now.
Many years ago, I sat down with my calendar almost a week after the new year. A cup of coffee in my hand and a pad of legal-sized paper by my side, I was all set to write down my New Year’s resolutions. Always determined to work on myself, it felt like my best shot for self-reflection in my hurried life to write that list. My kids were back in school and I had a whole two hours after my teaching job with an empty house before the school buses showed up. The cookies and party mix were out of the cupboards, and the Christmas tree was at the curb, so distractions were minimal. But instead of writing resolutions, I stared out the window at the dreary weather.
January had scared me for years, ever since I endured a serious depression right after the holidays, a heavy cloud that lasted an entire year. I gradually filled my life and my home with children and friends and good work. Not to mention discipline, which is why I was making these resolutions in the first place. Over time, when I had the time, I had done some journaling, but this was a List, not a daily diary entry. These were my important yearly goals, after all.
I sat looking back at the calendar. Next to the date, January 6, was one word: Epiphany. Something shifted. This was different. I LOVED epiphanies, just like any other good English major. So I picked up the pen, hoping to catch some and write them down. I immediately dropped into a sense I could only call “home.” I took the first full breath in a month. My whole body sighed in layers, like after a good cry, followed by an ineffable sense of peace. Glimpses of possibilities for the next year just sort of occurred to me, so I wrote them down. One after another, ideas popped. A subtle sense of illumination accompanied each pop .
Later I looked up the liturgical holiday. Epiphany. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist church, I had never even HEARD of such a calendar. This was Three Kings Day. The day the sages of the East arrived in the West, following a star. A day for celebration and giving to children in Latino cultures. Never having been a Latina or a Catholic, I immediately felt a kinship through the sheer beauty of this holiday. For me it felt like a coming home, this pause, this sideward step in time. I decided to make it my own little secret. And having decreed this then, it has been so, throughout the following decades, except for one thing. I kept telling my friends. Many of them adopted the holiday for themselves. One of them led a beautiful day-long workshop on the theme of epiphany. I kept writing about it on this blog. This year I received a text with a photo of a friend’s daughter with a big slice of “Three Kings Cake,” a celebration they shared on Twitter as well. In some ways it feels like a secret society. Just you and me and a few million others.
This year I decided Epiphany is too short, so I’ve decided to extend my personal holiday for a year. Because what it offers me is a Pause button. A Sideward Step into spaciousness, kindness, awareness. A short cut to the simplicity of being.
The Sideward Step
There’s a sideward step
in this decade,
this moment of life.
A letting go of the ways
I’ve learned to walk love
here on this planet.
There’s a choosing of something quieter
than the doings of fear
for future, for world.
Way calmer than this apparent chaos.
It’s a huge place just outside
the old magnetic pull of habit.
In the nanosecond inside a pause
When I remember
I take a micro step
to that parallel place
just on the other side of the dark carnival of
Politics, pop culture, personality.
Each day I celebrate
the epiphany of remembering
To take the slight leap
To land safely inside sanity
I come to the way of this knowing.
Always here. Always has been .