I am reading Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life for the umpteenth time, each time finding renewed guidance and comfort in her wisdom. Her emphasis on how the “deep chasm of discontinuity” leads us, especially if we are paying attention, to use our circumstances to creatively compose and recompose our life, resonates powerfully with me and also sends me back to Elizabeth Bishop’s line from “One Art” I use as title to affirm “loss is no disaster” but the beginning of something new.
The discontinuity Bateson refers to forces us to create a new way when the old one is about to cease as we know it. In other words, this process is like the phoenix archetype: instead of perishing in the ashes, the mythic bird rises in a new form. The times of uncertainty and flux are the base on which to build psychological flexibility, or the ability to adjust to change in a compassionate, non- judgmental way, which is the foundation for a healthy inner life. It may sound surprising, but instability most often is the base of stability. Rather than a hindrance, adapting on demand can indeed become a practice that leads to psychological flexibility.
For the last thirty years I have gone through radical dislocations, including migration, the end of relationships, death, and other losses. Zooming in to the last six years, I see the death of my young niece, a divorce, and a new marriage, perhaps one that happened way too soon, before the plates of my inner self readjusted themselves. I see the need for adjustment and attending to grief as the biggest challenge I have faced. The composition of this stage of my life has caused intense guilt, remorse, and serious regret. Yet as I write this from the comfort of a loving and supportive marriage, I have the space to mourn and to sort out my feelings without negating my past relationship or threatening the new one.
As I started writing this I spotted an owl perched in the crook of two branches on a tree to my left. A metaphor perhaps to illustrate what I was saying before. As I keep watching the majestic bird, it shifts position from time to time, rotating its head, at first seemingly a full turn but, in reality, not quite, then extending the wings as if to take flight before settling down to being perfectly still. I feel I am one with this uncanny presence. I recognize that whatever it may be, this bird perched at an intersection is here to instruct me on the need for the flexibility I must muster to continue traversing a great transition, which I hope is a passage from breakdown to breakthrough and into recomposing my life, with whatever pieces are left of the vestiges of the past. It is well known that owls have the best night vision in the animal kingdom with a capacity to navigate through darkness at ease. I think about my, at times, clumsy stumbling through a dark night of the spirit, hitting a wall here and there, and realize I must change my lenses if I want to meaningfully live this leg of the journey. The bird is here to lend me a new pair of goggles!
Watching the owl also brings me back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the wisdom of radical acceptance. This sage transcends time and sheds clarity into my process in ways I can hardly describe, especially his talk on precision and care about posture and the importance of sustaining it despite the discomfort it might entail. Physical discipline begins in the mind, not letting thoughts and other inner behavior lead the way for us, instead becoming an observing self that strives for awareness of what is happening in and out of us, moment by moment. An asana and awareness of the present moment are not easy to sustain for often it implies facing what we don’t want to see or feel.
Many times, I catch myself doing what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “vacating the house of the self” or avoiding private experience--to say it in the language of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT,--i.e. feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc. for fear of the discomfort emanating from them. Vacating the house of the self means that we get too busy, or even too sad to let ourselves or others get in and see the disarray of our interior. The practice of yoga brings us back home as we hold the asanas in complete awareness. A posture in yoga means that we come in touch with precision and self-awareness, we yoke the inner and the outer experiences of being who we are. To do that in the yoga studio is hard but with practice it becomes doable. In the same manner, after we stand the discomfort of emotions we get in touch with the true essence of what is happening. We can only know what is on the other side of things by going through them. Such grace is now being modeled by this owl’s steadfast vigil.
As a youngster I dreamed of being or becoming many things. The plates of my inner being were constantly shifting. First, I wanted to be a farmer, then a doctor, a singer, although my croaking voice soon discouraged that one. I settled on being a writer. Life’s circumstances forced me to shift once more and I went back to school to pursue a degree in psychology so I could ensure some form of financial stability and so I could dive into the matters that were most important to me, the connections between body, mind and spirit. Not surprisingly though, exploring new vistas by immersing myself deeply in the psychotherapy realm has, no doubt, been a perfect way to solidify the writer in me, resulting in a productive crosspollination.
The art of self-transformation and crosspollinating for me began earlier. The earliest most salient experience of this sort happened at age 15 when I joined the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic order in the Dominican Republic, where I applied to be an aspirant. I realize now that I was seeking to feed the spiritual hunger welling up in my soul then. My love affair with the convent life lasted about 3 months. The mother superior read me too well and encouraged me to go back home and live life before returning to profess my intention. I actually never returned, to the convent or to the Roman Catholic faith. Since then, the plates of my spiritual bearings keep shifting. I am more comfortable in spirituality than in embracing a particular religion. That search led me to Buddhism where I have prostrated myself for nearly twenty years. With equal devotion, I have bowed to and touched the Divine Feminine in her many manifestations whose compassion and love nurture and nourish my soul in ways no other practice has. Yoga has also deepened my commitment to care for body and soul with similar intensity. This foundation helps me gather my shattered pieces to assemble the next leg of my journey. I know now that in order to endure a dark night of the soul, one also needs, in addition to good vision, reliable physical and mental practices.
Mind, body and soul must be aligned to the same values if we want to get to the other side. I am going through difficult times, but I am not hopeless or lost, just aching and a bit disheveled, ashy like the phoenix but emerging. I have sufficient stamina to continue traveling the dark terrain of uncertainty, knowing that the reality that lies ahead is bigger than the self that suffers and fears now. I cannot agree more with Bateson’s idea of change having spirals that are inherent to the art of shaping and reshaping a life and that these spirals keep us agile and flexible. The ease with which we bend ourselves to accommodate the new shifts make us psychologically flexible. We turn this way, then the other, when a new discontinuity bridges its way into the next adjustment.
As I find my way through the uncharted territory of this grief, I am sent back to old losses that seem less threatening. Bateson helps me understand this phenomenon as she reminds us that grief and loss tend to pack layers upon layers and that, often, when a new loss or grief emerges we are impelled to examine older losses or griefs, perhaps because we are not ready to process the newly opened wound. Following the divorce came the loss of my father, then my youngest brother got into a nearly fatal accident that has left him severely incapacitated. No sooner than this disaster hit my family than my beautiful young niece was tragically taken away from us by breast cancer.
Along with all these losses was the recurrent sense of being uprooted I experienced each time I entered the house where I lived for the last nine years of my dissolved marriage. The house was on the market for nearly four years. Was it that a part of me, afraid of seeing it go, sending the wrong vibes to the buyers? Maybe I was fearing that with its sale I would also let go of the wonderful times spent there. I sold the house a few months after my niece died. On the closing day I entered the attorney’s office to sign a tangible break with the past. Then, it was right there when I split wide open. That day signaled the entrance into a mourning period that has, at times held me down, and at other times shone the most brilliant light into myself. I understand now the intelligence of the soul that knows how to separate griefs so we can process only what is processable. Nothing less, nothing more.
We don’t move through life in a linear, predictable way; the paths of modern life are often curvy, accidental and surprising as Bateson indicates. We must adjust the way we walk through life if we want to survive. The rapid movement in the plates of our inner and outer planes calls for constant readjustments, constant recomposing. For that I need the pair of googles the owl has lent me and the strength of equanimity, of acceptance and of willingness to keep plowing my way forward that Buddhism and yoga offer. I must remember that each layer of my life requires absolute creativity and wisdom to discern what to keep and what to let go.
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.