Stinging Nettles & Breathing Underwater

A note from Erin:

(Click here if you’d like to listen to me read this newsletter to you.)

 

Hello, friends!

Happy almost Fall, Northern folks, and almost Spring, friends down south, and Shana Tova to our Jewish friends and those honoring Yom Kippur. In so many ways, a chance to begin again.

Again.

This morning, before heading into the veggie gardens I was out back harvesting herbs: lemon balm and catmint and dandelion root and calendula flowers and plantain and blackberry leaf and near the chicken coop there sit the stinging nettles. I could only find one glove, so I used my gloved hand to hold these green beauties and used the other hand to snip with my little herb shears. Inevitably some of those stinging barbs brushed my ungloved hand and stung – that sting I’ve grown to love. It’s fiery and awakening – zing! – I’m alive! and it hurts – but is that the right word? It stings and zings and as I type now, an hour later, the joints in that hand feel clearer, decongested of a congestion I didn’t even know they were carrying.

Over the summer when Carl and I attended the Healer’s Intensive retreat with elder and mentor Deena Metzger, I told her that I find hanging out with her is like hanging out with stinging nettles. And I meant that as a great compliment. What a brilliant healer!

Nettle is powerfully nutritive and offers healing in so many ways, if you know how to dance with the sting. One thing I treasure about being with Deena is her healing sting. It’s not personal – she’s not out to hurt you – she’s just an almost-85-year-old wise woman who takes no shit and is completely unabashed about asking hard questions and asking you to join her in looking directly into the monstrous face of the Patriarchal Industrial Growth Culture and seeing it for what it is. Clearly looking at the violence and harm as well as the possibility of other ways. In the beginning, her questions sting. Who am I kidding, years later they still sting! It can be shocking to be asked to examine how we’re aiding and abetting this life-destroying system and to deeply consider how we might swim upstream to heal it.

And then after the sting comes that mysterious healing. So much more than what would happen if I simply did a healing meditation while ignoring these painful truths.

True healing, personally and culturally, isn’t, as it turns out, about feeling good all the time.

Me? I intend to grow more and more like Deena and like Stinging Nettles as I age. With great compassion and lovingkindness and respect, to trust and speak the stinging truths that need our attention, and to let that whole process work its healing and decongesting magic on us and our world.

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Last weekend I held one of my monthly Grief & Praise gatherings. This one was a community grief-tending ritual. Several days before the gathering, I met with another of my beloved mentors, Francis Weller. I was feeling so heavy and depleted by having breathed wildfire smoke for two months straight, barely able to take a walk outside without my lungs seriously suffering for it. Missing my wilderness strolls, missing fresh air, grieving the huge fires and all of it feeling like a constantly ringing alarm bell hovering right over my shoulder. I said, “I’d really like to be able to be of support to others, to buoy them up during these challenging times, but I am feeling so heavy with my own grief right now.”

“Let me pause you right there,” he said.

“Don’t buoy them up. Teach them to breathe underwater.”

“Outside it even looks like Mordor. We are so clearly in a mythic space. This is the beginning of the Long Dark. We need now to learn how to see in the dark – it’s a whole other set of skills. Resist the impulse to rise. Help people to move more skillfully in the depths. It’s so important that we work in the depths, especially in this culture of ascension. We need to turn to soul. Vulnerability, weakness, grief, loss, and breakdown are present. We are living in the Great Mystery and the Great Unknown. This is a time of descent.”

The truth of his words settled deep in my bones.

We had such a powerful conversation, and surprise surprise, just like happens in the somatic work I do with people, when I connected with what was right here with great intimacy, respect, compassion and awareness, it began to shift. I felt the tension of trying to buoy myself up melt away and I felt so grounded in the honest truth of my heaviness, able to touch it with an authentic compassionate welcome. Strangely, my heaviness felt lighter.

Breathing in the dark. Breathing underwater. 

I shared this story with the beautiful folks at the grief tending ritual. We shared grief poems. We shared words and tears about the many kinds of grief we are carrying. We listened. We paused many times to feel the ground supporting us. We laughed. We cried. We hummed. We breathed in and welcomed all of this into our tenderized hearts. We breathed out lovingkindness. At one point I said, “I think we’re doing it. We’re breathing underwater.” And can I tell you? It felt so good.

For the rest of the day, I was so very alive, colors seemed brighter and my heart was so permeable, I cried those good tears of being deeply touched by the beauty of life many times.

I was reminded of a story Francis tells in The Wild Edge of Sorrow. When a radiantly happy woman was asked why she was so happy she answered, “Because I cry so much!”

(And since I mentioned that it has looked like Mordor outside all summer, can I share this quote from Peter Jackson who directed the Lord of the Rings movies?

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

 I feel the same. Bilbo Baggins and ordinary people like you and your everyday deeds of love give me courage. Thank you.)

 

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An image has been having its with me, haunting me in a good way for months.

Like so many beautiful images, it comes from Rilke.

 

“Take your well-disciplined strengths, 

stretch them between the two great opposing poles, 

because inside human beings is where God learns.”

 

The great poles. 

Gratitude and grief. 

Stinging and healing. 

Gravity and levity. 

That queer space of the stretch in the middle of a binary – not only is that where God learns but where I want to live and learn. 

When we’re with paradox, we can be sure we’re on the shoreline of something important.

I’ve found that in recent years, when I find a book, a website, a person who asks to be interviewed on our podcast, really anyone at all who is holding only one pole – whether it’s the pole of “Life is awesome! You too can be awesome! Yay!” while ignoring the other end of the spectrum, or whether it’s the pole of “We’re screwed. Life sucks. Why bother?” I can’t stomach it.

I crave the honest ground of the stretch.

That’s where I live and how I teach. It stings and it heals. It can feel confusing and clarifying. We cry and so we’re authentically joyful. Ah, life.

 

This weekend I’m driving to a quiet Airbnb in my beloved New Mexico where I’ll be in deep quiet and visioning mode, listening for what wants to come next. I’ll be writing into my book and planning some new offerings and ways to share our work in the world. I’ll also be hosting the first gatherings of Embodying the Great Turning, my newest live online course, where we’ll practice leaning into the stretch. Looking at the climate crisis and the systems of oppression that give rise to it while simultaneously deepening our own capacity for presence, compassion, generosity, beauty and joy. I couldn’t be more excited about it!

 

I have 3 spots left on Monday evenings and 5 left on Tuesday mornings. If you’d like to join in an intimate group of wonderful humans to experience how these practices come to life in community, and how beautifully they can help us learn to breathe underwater, alchemizing our grief into wisdom and courage, check out this link. I’d love to have your company on the journey. If a live course isn’t possible for you right now, I also have a free, self-paced course on my website that gives you an intro to the foundations of the work as I share it. (It’s called Root & Rise.) Thanks to a generous past participant, I also have one ½ price scholarship spot available. Let me know if you think it might be for you.

 

Friends, however you find it, please do find ways and beings to help you lean into your love for the world, into trusting your heartbreak as a source of wisdom, and into the profound resources available to support you in playing your part in the Great Turning toward a life-sustaining way of being human on Earth.

 

Never letting go of the thread of lovingkindness, and leaning into the vast immensity of our hearts, we will find our way together through this great unknown, even if we’re crawling on our knees in the dark and learning to breathe underwater. We can do it.

 

With so much love from my underwater heart to yours,

Erin

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Erin

By training and profession, I am a somatic educator. Over the past 25+ years I have trained in and taught modern dance, tai chi, Indian and Tibetan yoga, yoga therapy (specializing in back pain). I completed a 4-year professional Feldenkrais training in 2007 and a 3-year Embodied Life training in 2014. I also study and work with somatic meditation and the profound practice of embodied inner listening known as Focusing.