For the last couple of monthly meditations, we’ve met in a larger room downstairs in Mandana House, since more people have started to come again. But the room smells of mildew, and people passing on the walkway outside keep sticking their heads in curiously even after the lights are turned out. I feel grumpy about the whole thing and wish we could go back to the cozier room upstairs.
When I brought down a pillow for my head from the old room before the meditation tonight, Hamil was talking quietly to Ella, his back turned to me, so I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Suddenly I felt shut out, as though he were doing it on purpose, as though I were being rejected—an old state of mind I still sink into sometimes. And my next feeling was sadness that the one person to whom I was special—always on the top of his list—was gone forever.
When Sarah suggests, midway through the meditation, that we might have something we want to say to our Higher Power, I envision being with my grandmother in a garden, sitting back to back, talking. Then I think, “There aren’t any gardens in the afterlife—if there is an afterlife—gardens are material.” I feel foolish, all my imagery contrived and false. When I used to picture a healing light or my grandmother’s loving presence, tears would well in my eyes—I would feel deep grief, a softening, relief, release—and gratitude. But since Earl’s death I don’t experience these things. Instead, when I imagine Earl reassuring me that he’s still with me in spirit, I’m liable to retort angrily, “Yeah, and what good does that do me?”
“If you have a problem you’re tired of dealing with, ask your Higher Power to fix it—not necessarily to give you more wisdom or strength or courage but to take over and fix it. And if you feel you can’t trust your Higher Power to fix it, ask Him to fix that,” says Sarah.
“OK, Higher Power,” I think blackly, “fix my attitude—I’d like to see you try.”
“What is it your Higher Power most appreciates about you? If you don’t know, pretend you do,” she says.
I can’t think of a thing.
After the meditation, I just lie there on the shikibuton rather than sit up to look at the other people.
One of the newcomers comments that when she imagined herself in the presence of her Higher Power, she thought of Him behind her, kneeing her at the back of her legs playfully, reminding her to lighten up. “I liked the fact that after you invited us to feel whatever was weighing the heaviest on us, you suggested that we be gentle with ourselves. I’ve been delving into a lot of painful feelings lately, and my problem is I don’t know when to stay with them and when to give myself a break.”
During a pause, I consider whether there’s anything I want to say—and decide there isn’t. For the last two sessions I haven’t wanted to talk afterwards. The last thing I remember sharing is that a friend of mine had just died. During one of these meditations, I remember, I had to keep opening my eyes to remind myself I was surrounded by people, I felt so desperately alone when I had them closed.
The newcomer says she wonders how to “catharsize”—that’s a new one, I think—difficult feelings, like anger.
“Your Higher Power will let you know,” Sarah answers, then tells us how Elizabeth Kubler-Ross used to carry a length of rubber hose in her purse with which she beat pillows when she got furious or frustrated with hospital administrators or staff.
Later Sarah explains how she herself deals with painful feelings: “I try to hold the pain rather than push it away or act it out. Then I try to hold the experience of my Higher Power’s compassion and invite Him or Her to share my pain with me. I go back and forth between these two states of mind, trying to make the intervals smaller and smaller, until I can hold them both at the same time.”
“When I’m in a lot of pain,” another newcomer says, “it helps to remind myself that I’m bigger than even my worst feelings—that I contain them, they don’t contain me. If they were bigger than me, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“In the movie Sybil,” Jobie muses, “Sybil’s therapist leads her through a number of guided meditations to get to know her various selves. The self she keeps putting off meeting is the angry one, she’s so afraid to confront her. But when she finally does, all she sees is a hurt little girl standing behind a tree.” There’s a murmur of response throughout the room. “I just wanted to throw that out there.”
“Well, it’s a good toss,” says the latecomer.
“Yeah, sounds like you scored some points with that one,” Sarah chuckles.
At another point in the discussion, Sarah tells us she first started leading these meditations five or six years ago—though for the first year or two, she often had only one or two attendees. “But she didn’t give up,” I think, impressed.
“I don’t have a Higher Power,” says Hamil. “I guess the experiences I’ve had in life make it hard for me to believe in one. Maybe my Higher Power’s on strike—at least, there seems to be some kind of labor dispute going on.”
“I don’t experience a Higher Power who is critical or judgmental like you used to,” I tell Sarah, after most of the others have left. “I just experience an absence.” I’m aware of feeling frustrated, that I haven’t gotten whatever it is I need, and I keep wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to do to get it.
Sarah and Ella and I are standing in front of Mandana House a few minutes later; like Linus in “Peanuts,” I’m clutching the car blanket I always take to the meditation. It’s a crisp night with more than the usual smattering of stars.
“Have you always believed in a Higher Power?” I ask Sarah.
She tells us that she didn’t have any notion of God at all as a child—and how excited she was, at age twelve, when she finally got the concept. “All this—and God too!” she’d marveled. Years later, after a failed relationship with a man, she says, since she’d been raised on operas in which the heroines always retreated to convents after getting their hearts broken (her father was a conductor), that’s what she did for four months. If she’d been raised on country western music, she grinned, she would probably have spent her nights drinking in bars and picking up one-night stands.
At the convent, she found when she read scripture that she had a powerful emotional response to certain passages, like the one where God called Abraham his “friend.” “I want God to think of me as His friend,” she told one of the sisters. “Your longing is the voice of God talking to you,” the sister explained. “There is a place in everyone’s heart where they touch God, where they are one with Him—or Her—and God is talking to us all the time. Sometimes He speaks to us through people, animals, nature, even priests,” the sister had said wryly. “All you have to do is listen for His voice.” “For me,” says Sarah, “this was difficult. Of all the voices in my head, a lot of the time I couldn’t figure out which was God’s. ‘If it sounds like your father, it isn’t God,’ the sister told me.”
It took her longer to realize if it sounded like her mother, it wasn’t God either. Her mother used to tell her she was a good and kind person when she did exactly what she was told, then that she was cruel and selfish when she didn’t, so she didn’t know what to believe about herself. “It took me a long time to trust God,” she says. “I used to be afraid that He was going to pull the rug out from under me, just like my mother did.”
In a certain Christian group she once belonged to, the things she used to say infuriated the elders, she admits. At the time she was physically handicapped—homeless and in pain. “God was my only life-line back then,” she says. “I had to rely on Him because there wasn’t anybody else. He was my only means of survival. Today when the sisters tell me that I’m the servant of God, I insist He’s my servant—that God has made it possible in my life to do what I love—which is to be a spiritual advisor. I demand a lot of God,” she laughs. “For years I tried to be humble, but it just wasn’t me…so I finally gave up. You don’t have to be humble, anyway, I realized. God accepts us just the way we are. I like to think that the thing God most appreciates about me is my fearlessness in sharing all of who I am with Him.”
As Ella and I are driving home, I remember Sara saying once, “Keep asking till your heart feels satisfied.” And for the moment, at least, I realize that it does.