A note from Erin:
Over the past several years, there’s a being I’ve met several times in dreams and visions.
Can I tell you about a recent visitation with him?
Here it is:
I begin walking in the beautiful Escalante River. I walk and walk in the ankle-deep flow where ancient redrock walls loom on either side and suddenly I trip and it’s as if I’m flowing down a drain or a waterslide, swirling around and down until I land in an underground landscape where there’s another river flowing between rock walls, but it’s dark and underground. Suddenly I see this familiar friend from my dreams. He is a Native American man, and he is tied up with his arms and legs spread, hanging on a large round object. I ask if I can untie him and he nods yes. I try to untie the ropes with my hands, but I can’t. I get a knife and cut the ropes at his wrists and ankles and he comes down. We are standing together in the shallow water together, which I begin to notice is tarry and black and oily and stinky – clearly polluted. I ask him, “What is this place?” He answers, “This is the River of Grief.”
I say “Is it always so disgusting and polluted like this?” And he says, “Only when human beings refuse to feel it.” I say, “What can we do?” And he says “Drum for me and I’ll show you.” I look up and the large round thing where he’d been tied is in fact a large drum, with different colors on each of its 4 quadrants; red, yellow, green, white. I find a mallet and begin to drum.
He sits by the riverside and begins to keen and wail, a ritual grief song. Then he stands and continues. Still it’s as if it’s not enough. He raises his arms in the air and continues wailing from the depths of himself. It’s a guttural grief song, and I feel goosebumps rise as he howls.
Suddenly, a snake slips out of his mouth, as if it’s riding the sound, and it slithers off. He continues to wail. Next a fox jumps out of his mouth and trots off, healthy and vibrant. Next, a dolphin rides the sound out of his grief wail and jumps into the river and swims away. The song then opens up, a howl of such haunting beauty, and such fully-felt agony and it’s as if an entire tapestry of life emerges out of him. Every species of flora and fauna, all that is lost or endangered, everything we could grieve for. Suddenly he pauses and makes a sound deep and loud enough to bring forth a blue whale. When he is complete, we are still underground at the river, but the water is no longer black and polluted. It’s beautifully vibrant. Restored.
We are clear after grieving. Whole. He showed me how.
I get on my knees and say, “The only thing I can offer you is my heart” and I hold my beating heart in my hands toward him as an offering. He says “Good. But we need that in there,” as he indicates I should put my heart back inside my chest. “And we need you to stand up.”
We have a closing gesture of clasping each other’s forearms and touching our foreheads together, breathing, connecting.
Sometimes life calls on us and we have no choice but to follow, even when we don’t know how to do it.
I am called to tend the River of Grief. In community. I am called to stand up with my heart in my chest and to create a sacred space for the necessary work of grief. It’s an important part of healing our world.
Who wants to talk about grief?
I certainly didn’t. I like to help people feel better. I like to inspire people. I like to support people in growing courageous compassion. In getting embodied. But the truth is that in order to be truly present in your body, you must be willing to feel what is there to be felt. And if you’re alive, there will be grief. There’s no way around it.
I think bravely and consciously making space for our grief will not only help us to ultimately feel better, it’s also an important part of saving our beautiful world. It’s one essential aspect of growing true compassion. As Joanna Macy so beautifully says, “When we deny or repress our pain for the world, or view it as a private pathology, our power to take part in the healing of our world is diminished.”
I feel we are being asked to step up to bravely take part in the healing of our world. That necessarily includes feeling the pain of it. Perhaps it’s helpful to note that it’s not made worse by acknowledging it – we are enduring it anyway. Acknowledging our pain, with compassion, can allow healing.
I believe that, as Martin Prechtel points out, grief and praise are two sides of the same coin. To grieve for something is also to celebrate it and praise it as we mourn its loss. To praise something or someone is to wholeheartedly express our love and the inevitability that they too will be gone someday. Avoiding grief is avoiding praise and ends up turning life beige.
I believe that we can undertake an apprenticeship with grief, our own grief and the grief of the world, and by bravely daring to feel it, we can help restore life. I believe we can help each other in this brave act by coming together as community and recognizing that grief is not “personal pathology.” That we don’t have to carry it alone. Nor is our only other option to pay a therapist so we can cry in private.
I know plenty of good-hearted people, myself included, who are afraid to admit how HUGE our grief is. The ocean of grief we feel for our own lives and for the world. For animals and plants and marginalized peoples and suffering and climate change and injustice. For our children. What kind of world will they inherit? For heartbreak and loss. It’s huge and scary. So we avoid talking about it.
I’m talking about it. Because I don’t want the River to be polluted if there’s something we can do about it.
Francis Weller names five gates of grief:
- Everything we love, we will lose.
- The places that have not known love. (And by this he’s referring to inner, marginalized places, like our deepest shames, the neglected and banished aspects of self.)
- The sorrows of the world. Yep. That. It’s not small.
- What we expected and did not receive. (Loving parents? Recognition of our brilliance? A community rooted in wisdom and compassion? Safety? That the grownups would be wise and know how to make a sustainable world?)
- Ancestral grief.
All of this grief can be welcomed. Our hearts are big enough to hold the whole world.
As Francis Weller says in my favorite quote of his, “The task of a mature human being is to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and allow yourself to be stretched large by them.” Grief and gratitude are so intimately linked.
I have had the honor to host beautiful and deeply restorative sacred grief rituals in the context of my Women Embodied groups. I have never hosted them for people outside the context of that work. Not yet. But it’s time.
Are you called to join me?
With the support of community and embodied presence, let’s tend the River of Grief together.
I believe we’re being called to refine these beautiful instruments of our hearts so we can be of most help to this world that so desperately needs sane people with clear hearts. We can’t refine the instrument without making space for the layers of grief that often block them.
Pema Chodron writes: “Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices, and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta. An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.”
For many years I’ve taken heart in this line from a Wendell Berry poem:
“Their eyes having grieved all grief were clear.”
I don’t believe we can ever grieve all grief, as long as we’re alive, but I do believe in the soft-hearted clarity good grieving gives rise to.
Just this week one dear client with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work over many years had powerful change with a long-term “physical” pain when we could get not just to the branches of it’s bodily manifestation, but the roots in grief in her inner life which gave rise to the body’s bracing pattern so very long ago. Making space for our tender, broken hearts takes radical gentleness and can yield profound shifts.
Over Labor Day weekend I will be hosting a circle for Tending the River of Grief. It will be held on the morning of Saturday, September 2nd. Location (in our local canyons, weather allowing, in my office in inclement weather) will be revealed when you register. Offered by donation. In turn, all proceeds will be donated to a local charity. If no one comes, I’ll happily do it alone. I have no agenda and no great hopes, but I’m willing to follow this soul-calling and see what happens. There’s a space for you if you’re called to join. Let me know if you intend to come.
Thank you for your willingness to be stretched and participate in the healing of our world.
(By the way, I highly recommend Francis Weller’s beautiful book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow if you’re interested in this topic.)
Let me close with this beautiful invitation from Martin Prechtel, which is worth reading in its entirety:
“Turn that worthless lawn into a beautiful garden of food whose seeds are stories sown, whose foods are living origins. Grow a garden on the flat roof of your apartment building, raise bees on the roof of your garage, grow onions in the iris bed, plant fruit and nut trees that bear, don’t plant ‘ornamentals’, and for God’s sake don’t complain about the ripe fruit staining your carpet and your driveway; rip out the carpet, trade food to someone who raises sheep for wool, learn to weave carpets that can be washed, tear out your driveway, plant the nine kinds of sacred berries of your ancestors, raise chickens and feed them from your garden, use your fruit in the grandest of ways, grow grapevines, make dolmas, wine, invite your fascist neighbors over to feast, get to know their ancestral grief that made them prefer a narrow mind, start gardening together, turn both your griefs into food; instead of converting them, convert their garage into a wine, root, honey, and cheese cellar–who knows, peace might break out, but if not you still have all that beautiful food to feed the rest and the sense of humor the Holy gave you to know you’re not worthless because you can feed both the people and the Holy with your two little able fists.”
from Brooke McNamara’s beautiful poetry book, Feed Your Vow
May we be the bride married to amazement.
May we be the bridegroom taking the world into our arms.
May we not end up simply having visited this world.