The rains have returned to my home on the Big Island of Hawaii, and with them, a memory. About a year ago, I had an experience that exposed my darker self. Granted, I was still coming out of a very dark period of grief. But I gained so much from this dramatic moment that I wanted to share it with you, and to remind you of how challenging experiences can make us stronger.
During the ordeal, I stayed true to my yogic values of simply being an observer of what was happening through me and around me, what I now jokingly refer to as the “incident.” I’ve found that a sense of humor is vital in life. During this experience, my “observer mind” watched as my reactionary mind went a bit crazy for a few moments. Then, this neutral “observer mind” watched as I healed from the experience.
As a yoga teacher, I’ve often read a clip from an article written by Ezra Bayda (author of At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace Within Everyday Chaos). In it he reminds us that yoga takes us to our “edge”, that place where we are shut down in fear. When we allow ourselves to experience this edge, we become stronger. Our courage grows. From this place, he says, we are able to develop compassion for ourselves and for “the whole human drama” so we can “keep moving toward a more open and genuine life”.
Over time, I realized how important this “incident” was for me, and how the inevitability of “falling down,” either physically or metaphorically, can be a powerful teacher. It helped expose my “wounded” self, so I could then heal it.
Here’s my story:
About a year ago I fell down, and it was no small thing. At first, I thought I had survived with only a bruised ego and some dirty clothes. As time passed, however, I realized I had gained so much more than I might have imagined from the experience, as disturbing as it was for me.
I live and work at Kalani, a non-profit retreat center that is largely run by volunteer staff. The night before the incident, I had gathered with fellow volunteers in our lounge. It had been raining for weeks, and we were all just trying our best to stay dry. November rains can be incessant in our rainforest. For weeks, towels won’t dry and everything we have gets damp and moldy. Yuck.
A fellow volunteer walked into the lounge to join us, and he was wearing brilliant white pants. We all said he must be crazy, as keeping the mud off his clothes would be impossible. Plus, it’s after Memorial Day, right? He just laughed it off with a shrug.
Later we all headed out into the rain to make our way back to our individual homes. We hadn’t walked 100 yards when I turned to my friend to say, “Be careful, it’s slippery,” when BAM! He fell right on his behind in a river of mud and lava rock. Physically, he was just fine. But his perfectly pressed, brilliantly white pants were covered in thick black muck.
After the initial shock, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. This was not cool—to laugh out loud when someone falls. But I just started giggling, and I could not stop. Then I buckled over in laughter. The absurdity of it all—my friend’s seemingly flagrant disregard of the obvious (wearing white pants in the middle of rainy season) and a slippery path that knows no kindness—it just had me in stitches. It was slapstick hilarious. He laughed too, with a bit of whimper rolled in.
Fast-forward 24 hours. It had rained all day. I decided to do my laundry later that night to get everything really dry. Towels, clothes, bed sheets, everything I had. Just before I left the housekeeping shed with my laundry basket full of clean items, a fellow volunteer turned to me and said: “Isn’t it absolutely marvelous to have clean, warm, dry clothes? They smell so good!” We both literally hugged our laundry baskets in gratitude, and they warmed us and gave us comfort. “Yes, indeed,” I smiled.
I listened for a break in the rain, then made my way across the street and took the trail past the volunteer lounge that would take me home. Just as I arrived at the spot where my friend had fallen the night before, I said to myself, “Just be careful, walk slowly, and you’ll be fine…” WHOOSH! BAM! At that very second, I slipped and fell.
But I didn’t just fall on my behind and ruin my pants. With exquisite form that only the Universe could have provided, I quickly bounced onto my side and landed directly on top of my clean basket of laundry. A river of mud flooded through it.
Well, well, well.
Within seconds, as I realized my laundry was now filthy and the clothes I was wearing were also covered in thick mud, I experienced something I only rarely feel as an adult: internal rage. Physically, I was fine, but the slip triggered something in me: all the loss that I had been experiencing for the past three years, and then my childhood mindset of feeling like a victim, powerless. “Why me?” I thought. “Why did this have to happen? I don’t deserve this!”
I tried to breathe and calm myself, and I set out to simply handle the situation. Adrenaline shot through my veins from the jolt of falling down. I surveyed the damage: All the clothes I was wearing and all the clothes in my laundry basket would need to be rinsed off and then rewashed. My heart started to pound. I was filthy: hands covered in mud and slightly bleeding with small cuts from the sharp lava; my laundry basket now even heavier with the added weight of the mud.
I was incredibly upset. Indeed, every unhealed issue seemed to boil to the top. Anger and frustration and rage flooded my mind. I was not only at my edge, but probably over it. I did everything I could to just breathe, but a surge of energy from the adrenaline continued to flood through my body and mind. I wanted to throw my laundry in the river of mud and just… give… up.
As I walked back to the laundry shed, I became preoccupied with the pain from a small blister on my foot from the new shoes I was wearing. In my outrage, I began to wonder if I might get an infection—staph is common in the jungle, but gangue green wasn’t far off from my imagination. I had dark fantasies about losing a toe or something even more silly, like my entire foot.
Just then, it occurred to me: I was being ridiculous. I was going to be alright. I had a warm place to sleep, a Kindle to read while doing the next loads of laundry, and a soda and some chips to drown my sorrows.
Suddenly, I saw the absurdity of it all. My response to the fall had been chemical: fueled by adrenaline and some unhealed experiences from my past. Once the adrenaline finally subsided, I began to laugh. I felt foolish and a bit ashamed at my intense reaction. I hadn’t felt these emotions in quite some time. It was like I had just watched a movie, but it was my life playing out before me.
I realized I had just been through a spectacular moment. In this moment, so much of who I am—the darker stuff, the frustration and rage and fear stuff—had just been revealed to me. I could see it, feel it, and understand it a bit more. Now, I would be able to work on it, too.
Importantly, the lighter stuff was also revealed to me as well. Though my initial reaction was heavy, my observer mind helped me find my way back home—that place where I am open and free and unattached to the drama of it all. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and I started all over again. Bravo!
As I have had time to reflect on this intense moment from last year, I am left with nothing but gratitude (and some giggles). I am grateful for everything that is in my life, the intense pain and suffering as well as the joy and ecstasy. It all makes me who I am.
Like the butterfly that must squeeze itself out of its tight cocoon in order to force fluid into its wings to prepare it for flight, our challenges indeed squeeze us but give us the ability to soar, if we let them.