|New York City, 10.29.12|
I was one of the lucky ones who never even lost power, much less my home. Even so, I've been feeling a deep sense of vulnerability -- sadness for the suffering of my neighbors, and a deep anxiety about the hard truth: We work so hard to create homes for ourselves; we do all the right things. And in a moment – be it a historic storm, a diagnosis, or a betrayal revealed -- Home is stripped away. We are face to face with the raw truth of life that everything we hold onto for dear life is impermanent and will leave us. There’s no going back to Monday afternoon before the storm.
Whatever form it takes, the aftermath of disaster can be for many people a kind of falling out of the flow of human life. After the immediate shock, we can be paralyzed by feelings of helplessness, loss of meaningful language, the ability to connect with other people, and hope in the future. It can feel like this terrible experience is the whole story – or worse, the end of the story. And it is, in a way, the end of the life we have been living. In some ways, the aftermath of disaster can be a spiritual death.
But what have I learned in all these years of living? That beneath the fear and grief is the ground of something new. If we can sit with fear, breathe through it, allow it to dissolve like the frail walls we build to protect and separate ourselves from one another and from the unknown, we can find safety in the awareness that we are still here. We are alive. Amazingly, a deep, quiet, inward joy emerges. Life flows again. Ultimately we learn that the only safety is to live in the question, What wants to emerge now?
Misfortune -- where story begins
In my own life and in all my years of helping others, I always go back to story. Why? Because it is in fact a scaffold for transforming disaster into a field of growth. In story, misfortune -- the inciting event -- propels a character out of their ordinary world into a quest for healing, greater well-being, understanding, whatever it is they need. Along the way, they change, becoming wiser, better, or more courageous; they find dimensions in themselves they never knew they had. In a really good story, they become a hero to themselves and to others. They change the story.
Human beings used to live with and respect nature. They learned from the patterns of dying and rebirth inherent in seasons how to let go and die and how to resurrect life. They listened to birds and learned to sing a new world into being. This truth is the foundation for every ancient people’s creation stories. And it can be our truth in these times of change.
There’s a native American tale called “Incanchu’s Drum,” about a great volcanic eruption that destroys the whole world. The only survivors are two birds flying over the land that is covered in ash, unable to find their home. Circling and circling, they become exhausted and are on the verge of giving up… until Creator appears and says, “Fly until your middle feathers point down, and follow them. There is your home.”
Landing in a field of ash, the birds are in despair; there is no water, no food, no trees. The only thing left is a big block of charred ruin. One of the birds, called Ichanchu, leans against it and falls asleep. When he awakens, not knowing what else to do, he begins to beat it like a drum.
Eventually a song emerges from the primal rhythm, and after a time of singing, a small sapling begins to appear from the ashes. This is the tree of healing and life. From this tree arise other trees, and soon a forest. The animals come back, followed by the people. Life is reborn. The only sign of the world’s destruction is a thin layer of ash on everything.
This is why I keep going back to the old stories. They give us images of rebirth to hold on to in times of death, and they provide roadmaps for creating something meaningful from disaster.
Finding the real certainties when the false ones are ripped away
- The First Certainty: Your breath. Become aware of your breathing – in and out. The breath, the beating heart, is the Beginning.
- The Second Certainty: Your body. Become aware of your body. Are you in pain? Where? Are you afraid or sad? Where do you feel it – in your stomach, shoulders, back, neck, or head? Breathe through these sensations.
- The Third Certainty: External crisis may trigger an internal one. Become aware of the inner stories that are triggered by the outer circumstances. Usually they are stories of fear or despair. “This is the end,” The Doors sang in the '60s, when everything familiar was falling apart. Compassionately allow these dark stories to exist. In fact, give them expression: draw them, write, drum, or dance them.
- The Fourth Certainty: Self-expression is the channel that allows life to flow again. Follow the words and shapes that appear on the page or in your imagination, the rhythms and movements as they change. They will. It never fails.
- The Fifth Certainty: Joining with others is the beginning of community, and community is the grid for a new world. Share your story and listen to theirs.
- The Sixth Certainty: Forming a vision gives power. Find a pole star, a dream, a beacon, something to aim for, both individually and collectively. Give whatever you can to help each other realize this vision.