Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grief-Fest IV, The Final Frontier

Morning Prayers
Sunday morning I woke early, went to the Shrine Room, where indeed, some people had spent the night. Nobody was currently engaged in grieving, but clearly there were Followers present if they were needed.  The place was beautiful in the morning darkness.  I tip-toed over to a meditation cushion, nodded, Hello, I'm fine, thanks, to a sleeping volunteer who raised his head inquisitively, and sat down to meditate.  This chant filled my head and I sang it quietly under my breath:

Namah Shivaya Gurave
I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One,
Who is the True Teacher within and without,
Saccidananda Murtaye
Who assumes the forms of Reality, Consciousness and Bliss,
Nisprapancaya Shantaya
Who is never absent and is full of peace,
Niralambaya Tejase
Independent in existence, the vital essence of illumination.
Gradually the room started to stir to life around me.  Others came to pray or meditate.  I left the Shrine Room and found my way to the Spiral Baths.  Surprisingly-- and as was always the case while I was at Breitenbush-- even though there were maybe a hundred people on the property, there were only two to four other people at any hot spring site I visited.  The atmosphere of "sanctuary and respect" promised in the literature really does hold true.  
The song ringing in my head that morning was Leonard Cohen's:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in,
That's how the light gets in.
When The Student is Ready...
What is important to tell you about this last day?  About the gestalt of my time at Grief-Fest?  Maybe this:  I felt so oddly, unexpectedly but perfectly prepared for this event:
1)  I have a long history of theatre training, which leaves me unafraid of emotion-- my own and others'.  I understand that although we fear powerful waves of emotion will overtake us, will crush or destroy us, they will not.  Holding them back is exhausting and terrifying, but if we allow them to ride through us, they will shift and move on.  They will shake us, no doubt, but they will not kill us.  The only way to overcome that fear is to ride an emotion through and discover you are still alive when you come out the other end.  Fearlessness does not mean that you do not experience fear, but that you are willing to step into your fear. 
2)  I know an awful lot about grief and suffering.  Suffering is something I have studied for a very long time even before I found the profound guidance and more formal ways of contemplating it offered by Buddhism.  Grief and I became more intimately acquainted during this last bout with cancer when I truly came face-to-face with the absolute, doubtless, undeniable truth of my own mortality.  
3)  My own emotional squirm-fest-roller-coaster (anger-depression-despair-numbness-and-then-a-peep-at-equanimity-compassion-and-joy, rinse and repeat) has become so consciously familiar to me through developing the witness perspective in my yoga practice over the last FOUR YEARS(!!)--  I know this territory:  I am like a pig in shit, an otter in the water.  I don't get disoriented in this terrain.  I know exactly where I am.  I am in groundlessness.  I get it.  

What I Got
Here is my take away from Grief-Fest:  It was a force like a river, it moved everything in its path.  Depending on where you were and what you were made of, it moved you a lot or it moved you a little.  But everyone was moved forward.
I got a new understanding of my ancestors.  Frankly, I had always figured there were some of them sons-n-daughters-a-bitches that I wanted nowhere near anything I held sacred.  Sure, I am willing to call on Shakespeare to help me out, but my grandmother Mummu?  No, thank you.  
Sobonfu's take on this is that while in this "meat-suit" of human life our ancestors may have behaved blindly, but now that they are free to see beyond their small ego-bound human selfs, the dead are still responsible for their actions.  They can now see the error of their ways and it is their job to set things right-- but they must be asked, they must be held accountable by us, the living.  We call on them and hand back to them the responsibility for the grief they caused in their lives on earth.
I cannot tell you how freeing it was to call on Mummu to clean up the nasty-ass mess she left in her wake!  To say to my father, yeah, you climbed some mountains in your day, big boy, and that's a damn good thing 'cause you got some big ol' mountains ahead of you now! You better work! (I admit that part of the fun is just how satisfying it is to go all RuPaul on my Finnish progenitors, but where's the harm in that?)
Because you see these ancestors of ours are not just responsible for the individual scars they left on the lives of those around them, they are also part of the long line of Ancestors responsible collectively for the culture we inherited-- for the way the world is out of all the possible ways the world could be.  So when Sobonfu says we can grieve how our boss at work does not see our gifts, how the world does not make proper use of us, she is not suggesting we blame our boss or the world, but that we grieve our lack of being seen and used, and we hand that grief over -- we do not hold onto it as our own personal tragedy.  I think this is brilliant because it allows us to stay in intention and not jump to the outcome.  And as every actor/philosopher worth their training knows:  You cannot control the outcome, you can only control your intention.
So, when at the Grief Shrine I slipped into judging my neighbors for (in my mind) putting on a show about who grieves the loudest and mistaking volume for authenticity, I could immediately release that judgment and instead grieve myself for my culture that cannot make that distinction, that mistakes the show for the thing itself and thereby robs us all of authenticate experience.  I can grieve for the lack of wisdom in my culture, and for my own propensity to defend myself with judgment of others.  I grieve ignorance and my lack of tolerance for ignorance. And the best part is I can walk away with clean hands, without the burden of righting the wrongs the world resting solely on my shoulders.
This is not to say there is not work to do.  But part of that work is the work of grief, the work that allows us to stay responsive to our  world and not close down, despair or grow permanently numb.  I came away from the weekend feeling buoyant.  Feeling like maybe the skills I have can be of service to this world.  I do not know how yet, but I am trying to stay open to the possibilities that might arise.  

Grief-Fest let me experience first-hand that all grief is the same grief.  It is funny how we have a tendency to measure out our compassion as if there is a limited supply.  We pick and choose who and what we find worthy.  Some people or situations just don't meet our standards.  Grief-Fest blew this idea out of the water.  I held space for Grievers I knew well, and for those I did not know at all, for those whom I would have liked to get to know and for those in whom I was totally uninterested.  I held and rocked and listened to total strangers wail and sob and sniffle and moan.  And I let them do the same for me.  

All grief is the same grief.  The stories differ, the grief is the same.  At one point I looked up from the Griever I was attending and tuned into the grief all around me in that room.  How much grief there is in the world!  Just think:  How much grief there is in this room, and we are only 66 people-- you'd have to multiply that by how many billions to account for all the people on earth?  That is a lot of grief, my friend.  And that is only the grief of human beings.

So, What Happened?
Maybe you want to know how the ritual ends.  There is drumming and chanting.  The shrine room,  particularly the exits and three volunteers are smudged with smoke.  The volunteers pick up the black cloth which was  under the Grief Shrine-- it is attached to two long sturdy sticks and it is now made into one large bundle and carried by out of the room.  The volunteers will bury it.  Once they are gone, the shrines must be disassembled and the room returned to a neutral state before the Buriers return.  

The Grief Shrine is taken apart, the branches and boughs brought to a truck that will recycle them.  Every one reclaims their objects from the shrines.  We are told that we need to soak any candles used at the Grief Shrine for 72 hours in salt water before we use them again.  Our clothes, our hair, our bodies, any cloth used in any shrine, should be washed with salt water.  Before the Buriers return, they must wash in salt water and change into fresh clothing, and when they return it is important that we welcome them back into our village, and thank them for the burden they bore for us all.  The Buriers enter one by one and each home-coming is sweet and heart-felt.

Sobonfu wishes us a safe journey.  She reminds us that our bodies, minds, and spirits will be processing this event for some time to come: Drink plenty of water, get lots of rest, be gentle with yourself.  She encourages us to make space for an altar in our homes.  (No Grief Shrines in the bedroom or the kitchen!)  She thanks us for showing up to do this work, which she assures us is of great benefit every living thing including the planet itself.  When we get home, she tells us, we should ask that who-ever it is that comprises our village, welcome us.  We are back from a great journey and we have been changed in ways we may not even recognize yet.  We deserve to be welcomed back into the village we call home.

A side note of possible interest to those who know my smart-ass nature:  From the time we arrive at Breitenbush, I am immediately of two minds:  Half of me feels completely at home with this kind of hippie-rustic, spiritually-inclined, communal living;  the other half can barely keep from spouting off an endless supply of smarty-pants remarks.  This internal struggle does not quiet down until the real meat, as it were, of the Grief Ritual is underway, when- poof!-- it is gone, leaving nothing but wide openness in its place.  Huh.  Imagine that.

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