Showing Up for What Is
The contemplative life of women mystics.
My Worlds of Secret by Wisdom Tracy Verdugo
For women mystics, contemplative life is not so much a matter of transcending the illusions of mundane existence or attaining states of perfect equanimity as it is about becoming as fully present as possible to the realities of the human experience. In showing up for what is, no matter how pedestrian or tedious, how aggravating or shameful, the what is begins to reveal itself as imbued with holiness. How do we make space in our lives for this kind of sacred seeing?
It doesn’t hurt to engage in some kind of disciplined practice, such as meditation or prayer. Silent sitting becomes a magic carpet that rescues us from identifying with every neurotic thought that pops into our minds and every emotional distraction that threatens to abduct us. When we purposely build periods of reverence or stillness into our days, we practice gazing through the eyes of love, and we get better and better at seeing love everywhere we look. Your practice may take the shape of 20 minutes a day on a cushion or aimless solitary walks on the beach. It can look like kneeling in a church or a mosque or simply like following the flow of one breath to the next with your full attention.
FROM ALTERED STATES TO DESERT MIND
It took me a couple of decades of meditation practice to make my way home to the feminine contemplative path. I began my quest at 14. My initial training was framed by a masculine approach: It was all about crushing the ego and distrusting the body. My goal was to detach from the material plane and travel in the astral realms, an approach that aligned with my adolescent craving for transcendent modes. I was a dramatic teenager. (You might have been, too.) By the time I began formally studying and practicing meditative methods, not only had my life already been marked by multiple significant deaths, including the passings of my older brother and my first boyfriend, but I was having spontaneous experiences of altered states of consciousness (most likely triggered by an accidental dose of LSD at a party when I was 13) that knocked me off my feet and left me breathless and terrified.
I dealt with the drama through poetry. I read it. I wrote it. I composed simple melodies in a minor key and sang my poems to myself beside the Hondo River, nestled among the red willows near my home in Taos, New Mexico, and made myself cry. I drew abstract self-portraits in profile in a blank artist’s book, depicting myself with enormous sad eyes, presumably evidence of deep wisdom. I was the perfect candidate for spiritual trickery.
Along came a charlatan master who convinced me that my terrifying dissociative states were evidence of my impending enlightenment and that all I needed was someone to cultivate my sainthood and that (surprise!) he was just the man for the job. He encouraged me to leave home and move to the commune in the mountains where he lived so that he could orchestrate my awakening. Although I was not yet 15, my parents agreed to this arrangement. It was the 1970s, the height of the counterculture movement, and conventional social structures like the nuclear family were being reevaluated. Besides, I was on fire with desire for God, and my parents (distracted by fires of their own) trusted me.
I was the perfect candidate for spiritual trickery.
I Believe in Magic byTracy Verdugo
My teacher would wake me in my freezing A-frame at 3 a.m. (“the hour of the saints and masters,” he explained) and escort me to a small adobe cell to engage in rigorous yogic breathing practices that temporarily paralyzed me, and then he would wrap me in a blanket and hold me while I returned to my body, trembling.
I meditated. I meditated in the mornings before school and in the evenings before dinner. I meditated when I lay down to sleep and when I woke in the night. I had visions. I saw colors and heard weird music and remembered past lives. I pierced the veil of maya, rendering everything I could experience through my senses as illusory. And then I let my teacher have sex with me, because, according to him, that was a crucial element of my liberation and therefore of the liberation of all sentient beings.
As you can see, there were a few things about all this that were very wrong. The most obvious one is the sexual abuse, and I have spent much of my adult life healing from this violation and trying to support women and girls in reclaiming the sovereignty of their own bodies. But what I really want to talk about here is that at the same time as I was brainwashed into giving my body away to a man who had no right to it, I was being conditioned to see the body as an illusion to be risen above. Meditation was the ticket to this blessed transcendence. By assuming a certain posture and closing my eyes, by employing mantras and visualizations, I set out on the open road of consciousness, stuck out my spiritual thumb, and hitched a ride to the edges of the cosmos. I broke through into planes of consciousness where I faced up to whatever supernatural shenanigans awaited me, leaving my pesky little body in the dust. This, I thought, was what it meant to be spiritual.
Healing from my exploitation involved not only escaping the charlatan master but salvaging the sanctity of my body and inching my way toward a more female-positive approach to things. This reclamation project spilled into my spiritual life and permeated the interior landscape. I began to leave the altered states behind, trade the razzle-dazzle of paranormal phenomena for the blessing of the ordinary. I flirted with the possibility of fully inhabiting the present moment, willing to investigate things as they are and myself as I am. I started looking with curiosity and kindness. As I developed this method of mindfulness, the impulse to be present expanded beyond the cushion and into the open field of my life. I had moments of glimpsing all phenomena with a fearless and compassionate gaze: my very own dirty kitchen and the corruption in politics, changing a diaper and changing a tire, making love and making airline reservations. These moments have grown more consistent over decades of practice.
I don’t blame my adolescent girl self for falling for the illusion that the spiritual life is about transcending the body and thereby leaving my body vulnerable to exploitation. She was on the right track—hungry for truth, thirsty for the love that is as big as the universe, ready for anything. She was brave and she was wise. But she confused the fireworks for the sun.
Eventually, I needed to make my way to the desert and sit down there. Sit quietly all night and then sit still all day until the landscape revealed itself as not barren at all but rather teeming with life. (Don’t we all? Doesn’t everyone sometimes need to hang out in blessed unknowing?)
We do not need to be afraid of the emptiness. It is in boundlessness that we meet the Real and recognize it as the face of Love. It is in groundlessness that we find our way home. When religious ideologies and their associated spiritual practices begin to take us away from our lives instead of connecting us with the center of ourselves, we need to be willing to let them go. To not be in a hurry to replace them. Instead, we can shift our focus back to the ordinary and bless it with the gift of our full attention. Then watch in awe as it brims with holy light.
Be the Change You Wish to See by Tracy Verdugo
Perhaps you, like me, have associated spirituality with rising above the human condition, rather than with consciously embodying it. We’ve set mind against body, elevated abstraction over engagement. We buy into a belief system that bullies us into affirming our essential coidentity with the Divine, even when we do not subjectively experience it.
Isn’t it peculiar how many of us on a contemporary spiritual path have stumbled into the trap that sets up devotion and nondualism as mutually exclusive? Nondualists have grown rigidly dualistic in this regard! We deem the devotional impulse to be delusion and set up absolute consciousness as exclusively true.
If I’ve left you in the dust here, let me catch you up with some working definitions. Nondualism, also known as nonduality, is the belief (yes, belief, as opposed to fact) that Ultimate Reality is undivided, “not two.” Notice that it does not assert that all is one but simply acknowledges that in a state of awakened consciousness all subject/object distinctions do not exist. They are transcended. There is no “I” as opposed to “other.” Any concept of ourselves as separate from God dissolves in the open sky of pure awareness. This is very nice, but why do nondualists have to also dis the devoted?
The prejudice I keep encountering—especially among what I would characterize as the Neo–Advaita Vedanta crowd, and which I’m attempting to expose here—goes like this: Nondual consciousness is superior to the devotional experience because devotion implies a naïve belief in the separation from the object of our longing (God; Love). Nondualism gets the cosmic joke and knows that it’s impossible to be separate from the one we love because there is only one Ultimate Reality and we are part of it. Therefore, devotion is an immature inclination that is born of sublimated emotional impulses. But nondualism is a sign of spiritual maturity and should be the goal of all spiritual practice (without being goal oriented, of course, which would be dualistic).
This argument is not fair. And it is not feminine. By that I mean that if the feminine is all about incarnation and embodiment (which is what I am proclaiming in this book), then she rests squarely in the realm of form. And in form we have separation as well as unity. We have mountain ranges and blue spruces, inner cities and dive bars, old white dudes and radical black feminists. We have teenagers in prison and moms who pine for them, grieving widows and philandering husbands, people for whom meditation practice compels them to offer themselves in service to those on the margins and other people who don’t give a shit. This world is filled with glorious, untidy multiplicity. Sometimes God feels very far away, and so we long for God. Not because we believe that God and self are ultimately existentially separate, but because here in the midst of our relative reality our souls yearn to return to where we come from: Absolute Love.
We do not need to be afraid of the emptiness. It is in boundlessness that we meet the Real and recognize it as the face of Love.
It is in groundlessness that we find our way home.
So, when we engage in devotional practices like chanting the names of the Divine in any of the world’s great sacred languages or making offerings to Christ or Krishna or Quan Yin, we are opening our hearts, and our hearts are boundless. That’s where we awaken to the essential truth of not twoness. This is not an -ism; it’s a lived reality, germinated in the rich, dark soil of our devotional, form-filled experience. Rather than serve as an obstacle to undifferentiated consciousness, devotion becomes the path to what the great feminine mystic Julian of Norwich called “oneing.” A position of twoness (our little selves pining for the Divine) becomes the springboard into the infinite landscape of not twoness. And this experience of unity with the All (which is, by its nature, usually fleeting) fills our hearts and compels us to devote ourselves all over again.
I have never experienced the sublime quiet of formlessness as being at odds with my longing for and praise of God. To my mind, we are vast enough beings to synthesize these seemingly opposite attributes into a robust and animated third truth. We do not require adherence to any particular dogma—even those that seem especially enlightened—to guide our way home to the Divine. Most of the mystics I adore have had a similar hybrid of devotional and nondual experiences and outlooks. Maybe you are this breed of seeker. Let us engage, and even invent, practices that feel aligned with our own spiritual sensibilities. Trusting our soul’s innate knowingness, flinging ourselves into the mystery. Practice in multiple spaces, with diverse communities and alone, allowing your edges to melt into the One. Then let your heart break open all over again when you remember the unbearable beauty of the Beloved’s invisible face.
Finding Rest in the Arms of the Formless
Contemplative life flows in a circular pattern: awe provokes introspection, which invokes awe. Maybe you’re making dinner and you step outside to snip chives from the kitchen garden just as the harvest moon is rising over the eastern slopes. She is full and golden, like one of those pregnant women who radiate from within. Suddenly you cannot bear the beauty. Scissors suspended in your hand, tears pooling at the corners of your eyes, you nearly quit breathing. Your gaze softens, and the edges of your individual identity fade. You are absorbed into the heart of the moon. It feels natural, and there is no other place you’d rather be. But the onions are burning, and so you turn away and cut your herbs and go back inside. You resume stirring the sauce and setting the table.
This is not the first time you have disappeared into something beautiful. You have experienced the unfettering of the subject/object distinction while holding your daughter’s hand as she labored to give birth to your grandson; when you curled up in bed with your dying friend and sang her Haskiveinu, the Hebrew prayer for a peaceful sleep; while yielding to your lover’s lips. You have lost yourself in heartbreak, then lost the desire to ever regain yourself, then lost your fear of death. You long ago relinquished your need for cosmic order and personal control. You welcome unknowingness.
Which is why seemingly ordinary moments like moonrises and lovemaking undo you. The veil has been pulled back. Everything feels inexhaustibly holy. This is not what they taught you in the church of your childhood. Your soul has been formed in the forge of life’s losses, galvanized in the crucible of community, fertilized by the rain of relationship, blessed by your intimacy with Mother Earth. You have glimpsed the face of the Divine where you least expected it.
And this is why you cultivate contemplative practice. The more you intentionally turn inward, the more available the sacred becomes. When you sit in silence and turn your gaze toward the Holy Mystery you once called God, the Mystery follows you back out into the world. When you walk with a purposeful focus on breath and birdsong, your breathing and the twitter of the chickadee reveal themselves as a miracle. When you eat your burrito mindfully, gratitude for every step that led to the perfect combination of beans and cheese and tortilla—from grain and sunlight to rain and migrant labor—fills your heart and renders you even more inclined to be grateful.
So, you sit down to meditate not only because it helps you to find rest in the arms of the formless Beloved but also because it increases your chances of being stunned by beauty when you get back up. Encounters with the sacred that radiate from the core of the ordinary embolden you to cultivate stillness and simple awareness. Meditation helps. In the midst of a world that is begging you to distract yourself, this is no easy practice. Yet you keep showing up. You are indomitable. You are thirsty for wonder.
Excerpted from Wild Mercy: Living the Fire and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, by Mirabai Starr. Copyright 2019 by Mirabai Starr. To be published by Sounds True in April 2019.