Breaking, Burning and the Grand Canyon


I re-connected with an old friend the other day. He is in the throes of internal and external break-downs— a dissolution of life as he knew it, and of himself as he knew himself to be. I recognize this place as a tender place, a terribly painful place and a deeply sacred place. I was very impressed with my friend’s wisdom amidst his feeling of complete disorientation: he knew he had to find a spiritual connection. He is, as he said, a very pragmatic aetheist, though he wished with all his might that he COULD believe in God. I could relate. I too in my life have felt that sense of an impossibly huge and yawning gap between me and “God”, whatever the heck that is. Or more accurately, I’ve felt too small for anything like God to give a damn about.

I’ve been slow to waking up to the pain of the world. I have had a relatively easy life, a decent childhood and not much trauma, compared to what many people experience. In my 30’s I remember thinking, and even saying to people, “what’s all this Buddhist stuff about ‘life is suffering’?” It seemed to me that if you were suffering, you simply weren’t paying attention to all the beauty and goodness everywhere in the world. Which, as I see now, was both true . . . and not true.

Then the middle of my life rolled around and somehow, I was plunged into suffering—suffering from the inside out like I had never experienced.

As I did, my friend is doing psychotherapy, where he is learning to feel fully the grief and pain that he necessarily suppressed while growing up as a tender human in this often harsh world. His heart is breaking, as did mine, and he is shedding many tears, as did I.

In A Return to Love, Marrianne Williamson writes, “We need to be in touch with our negative feelings, but only in order to release them and feel the love which lies beneath them.”

Williamson goes on to say “ But we need support in feeling our positive feelings just as much as we need support in feeling our negative ones. It is the experience of genuine emotion of any kind that the ego resists. We need support and permission [my emphasis] to feel our love, to feel our satisfaction and to feel our happiness.

Permission to feel satisfaction and happiness — to feel joy. It’s OK to relax and profoundly FEEL JOY in the body. What a radical and liberating concept. I was inspired to speak to my friend about the burning in my heart — this very visceral experience of love that is kindled by opening myself fully to the pain and suffering of the world. The Buddhists have a name for this practice: Tonglen. It is a emotional/physical act that one feels in the body, a literal sensation of burning in the center of the chest. In can start as a small spark, a feeling of compassion for another as we recognize a shared identity of our human condition.

Here’s the catch: one’s heart must necessarily BREAK before one is able to feel the burn.

It is critical to have support in feeling, nurturing, fanning oh-so-gently the new little flame of this kind of a larger love. My wise friend sensed this, not knowing fully where he was going or what he is seeking. Together, in a shared space of communion, we focused our attention on a spark of love in our hearts — and I saw for a moment, fire kindling in his eyes.

To be CONNECTED. To Self, to God and to others. This is a life of Spirit, a fundamental part of being fully human that we are craving today—in a new way. To jump the yawning gap and re-connect takes tenacity, courage and a willingness to fully feel emotional pain. A willingness to break and to burn. I’ve heard it said that standing on the edge of the gap, it seems one is being asked to jump across the Grand Canyon. But after one has jumped, and can look back, one sees the gap was no more than a crack in the sidewalk