Bamboo Path at Osmosis. Photo by Jamie Walters.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Ernest Hemingway

(This is an update and re-feature of a post I wrote in 2008, in my previous Engaged Spirituality, Mystic Activism blog. It seemed ripe for re-featuring, given all that I’m hearing (and seeing) from people feeling distressed, confused, overwhelmed, apathetic, and unsure how they might meet the cocktail of challenges swirling.)

There are times when, due to some circumstance or series of events above and beyond the usual life-challenges — often involving some non-negotiable perfect storm, and a deep loss and/or grief of some kind — we get broken open.

Something within us, or something in our lives that we considered ‘unbreakable’ or ‘all-important’ comes crashing down or shatters apart, and we’re brought to our knees. We find ourselves living with the uncertainty of broken places. Or really, shattered places.

As Peter Kingsley wrote of these times,

“If you’re lucky you’ll come to a crossroads and see that the path to the left leads to hell, that the path to the right leads to hell, that the road straight ahead leads to hell and that if you try to turn around you’ll end up in complete and utter hell.”

(Find more from that post here: Sophia’s Children Deep Feminine Wisdom.)

The Light at the End of the Tunnel. CC image by Johan Larsson, Flickr.

I know, what’s lucky about that, exactly? A few thoughts on that in a minute. But first …

Just looking at the headlines — if we’re not already hearing the same thing from friends, family members, clients, readers, etc. or doing a mano-a-mano with it ourselves — we see that loss, confusion, and brokenness is a common theme these days.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t good, positive, wonderful and joyous experiences and efforts underway. It just means that there’s a lot of challenge, confusion, dismay, and — whether we know it or acknowledge it or not — grief, too.

I understand this deeply, having been through a cycle of years that featured perfect storms — wave after wave of losses which seemed, prior to this time (and even sometimes during and after it), unimaginable.

For example …

Over the seven years between 2000 and 2007 included the loss of several immediate family members, including my father and grandmother; the loss of several beloved felines who were dear family members and long-time companions;  the loss of a pregnancy mid-way through as a result of a flukey accident while traveling, a life-altering NDE that came along with that, and lingering health challenges as a result; business and financial losses related to outside economic forces and personal and family wellness crises; the end of a 22-year marriage; and the loss of my community and proximity to dear friends when I was called East from San Francisco to be present for and help with my father’s hospice care and then remain in closer proximity to family after his passing.

Whew! Yes, and those are just the headline events. While there was good, and reason to celebrate, the loss and Underworld current was stronger still.

I washed up on a very different shore than the one I’d been swept from, feeling more than a little bit disoriented. It took awhile, and no small bit of resilience, to orient again.

Expulsion – Moon and Firelight, 1828, by Thomas Cole.

In honesty, all of this unmade me — and not because my life had been free of hardship or challenge before that, or since. It wasn’t, by a long shot.

At the same time, though it often didn’t seem like it, I was gathering a lot through ‘sense-making’ of what I was experiencing, as well as working with teachers and mentors whose paths I crossed in perfect timing.

Unmaking and remaking.

Unmaking is a common idea in many spiritual or mythic traditions that include the Wisdom of navigating the Long Dark Night and the cycle of Death that is part of Life. Or the mythic Underworld Journeys of Persephone or Inanna.

Such serial losses and radical change breaks open the Mask and armor, and shatters the ‘false identity’, the ‘who you thought you were (supposed to be)’. It completely undoes your expectations and notions of how you thought things were supposed to be, and challenges you to your core to remember what’s real, and what’s truly valuable and worthwhile.

Like our kindred-humans in other places in the world, we in the Western, American culture, experience loss regularly, and our ancestors knew it well.

Yet, despite that experience and knowing, we may not have a refuge for deeply experiencing loss and grief in a culture that shuns and shies away from it, that treats it as a ‘failure’ because our collective awareness has traveled so far from the wisdom of Life-Death-and-Renewal that our ancestors knew so well.

Remember the outcry when the psychiatric industry was citing two weeks of grief symptoms as mental illness, suggesting that grieving loss was a disease? Seriously crazy culture.

A favorite image: Rafael Sergei Levitsky’s Bridge in the Woods. Public domain – {PD-US}.

As a result, many people wander the Dark Night or Underworld byways in isolation, exacerbated by stigma and shaming, and a culture of 24/7 insta-gratification and perpetual happy-glamour, which magnifies the grief because it’s a full-on experience of the loss of connection that resides beneath the losses that take place on the surface of our lives.

Now, with so much that seemed ‘sure’ threatened, along with the natural cycles of life and death of those among us, there is a call to remember the Wisdom that can help us navigate this ‘underworld’ more gracefully and with an awareness of connection and the ongoing Nature of Life.

This is how we might grow strong in our broken places, and how we come to see that which challenges our certainty, and that which undoes and unmakes what is familiar to us, is also the very thing that reveals the place where new life grows. We meet that which is truly ‘beyond death’, while honoring what is living and what has passed out of our familiar, day-to-day life.

And yes, we expect that that journey will be pretty messy. A lot messy.

The broken places can be rich and fertile, where our lives — inward or outward — may have become stale and lifeless in some way. We’re cracked open to allow for new, fresh life.

That’s not to say it’s easy, nor are there quick and easy, just-think-happy-thoughts answers.

Leonard Cohen, in his song “Anthem”, writes:

“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.”

Glitter Cloud. PD image courtesy of NASA.

If we allow the broken-open places, without scurrying to try to fill them in or hide them — a deep practice in itself — we not only allow ourselves to experience fully what has passed, what we’ve lost, but we also allow the Light to shine in and illuminate all that is there, Heaven around us, all of the time.

Often, at least for me, we muddle our way through as best we can, and pick up the Golden Threads and ‘pearls of Wisdom’ along the way, that are more easily recognized in hindsight.

The Holy Divine knows it’s not easy — there are rarely quick-and-easy, just-think-more-happy-thoughts answers; it’s a true Quest.

Yet in our deep-feeling and deep-experiencing of loss and that bone-deep challenge, the non-negotiable and life-altering transformation that comes from the deepest shatterings, and the full acknowledging and honoring of what’s passed, we open ourselves to deeper wisdom, resilience, joy, rootedness, and a deeper ability to connect, reach out, with compassion, kindness, and true intimacy — one of the ultimate purposes of any transformation.

If you missed it, check out these Sophia’s Children musings:

Kintsukuroi: The Broken Places are Golden

In the Dark Places of Wisdom

If it’s Difficult, Is it the Wrong Path?

On Restoring the World’s Lost Heart

If you’re traveling that Underworld, Hero’s Journey path now, know you’ve got it in you … you’ve got this! And as isolating as it feels, and can surely seem, you’re not alone.

Blessings on the Way,