I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we all do in times of transition—how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow. Since my first major broken-open experience—my divorce—I have been an observer and a confidante of others as they engage with the forces of their own suffering. I have made note of how fiasco and failure visit each one of us, as if they were written into the job description of being human. I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit, and never fully recover. I have seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they are living a half life, safe yet stunted.
But I have also seen another way to deal with a fearful change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process—named for the mythical phoenix bird who remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self. I describe the Phoenix Process in Part Two of the book. For now, we need only understand it as an alternative to going back to sleep.
I’ve tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one way brings with it the gift of a lifetime. If we can stay awake when our lives are changing, secrets will be revealed to us—secrets about ourselves, about the nature of life, and about the eternal source of happiness and peace that is always available, always renewable, already within us.
For years I have sat in workshop rooms with people who do not want to go back to sleep. They are curious about those breezes at dawn. They hope the wind will fill their sails with courage, and with inner peace and outer purpose. Serious things, and not so serious things, are happening to these people. Some are sick and even dying; others are merely dealing with the terminal condition we call life. Some sense that an inner change is brewing, and they have been afraid to heed the storm clouds gathering in their hearts. Some have recently lost a job, or a loved one, or a fortune. Others are aware that whatever they have at this moment could be lost in the next, and they want to live as if they really know this.
In the spacious and safe atmosphere of a workshop, I have helped people grapple with questions like these: How can I stay awake even when it hurts? What might those secrets at dawn be? Why am I so afraid to slow down and listen? What will it take for my longing for wakefulness to become stronger than my fear of change? Together, we unravel ourselves, using some time honored tools that I share in this book’s Appendix: meditation for development of a quiet mind; psychological inquiry for the unveiling of a fearless heart; and prayer for the cultivation of faith. These tools are like shovels we can use to dig for the gifts buried in the jumble of our lives. All of them have made a big difference in my life. But perhaps the most profound of the tools we have at our disposal is the simple act of telling our stories to other human travelers—in a circle around the fire, at the back fence with a neighbor, or at a kitchen table with family and friends. Since the beginning of history we human beings have gathered together, talking and crying, laughing and praising, trying to make sense of the puzzling nature of our lives. By sharing our most human traits, we begin to feel less odd, less lonely, and less pessimistic. And to our surprise, at the core of each story—each personal myth—we uncover a splendid treasure, a source of unending power and sweetness: the shining soul of each wayfarer.
Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
NEXT WEEK: A final section from BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser