There is no doubt 2022 was an, ahem, challenging year worldwide. I felt it, and I suspect you did, too. As the saying by Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary figure associated with the beginning of alchemy, the birth of material and spiritual science goes: as above, so below. In other words, what goes on in the world is what goes on inside us. We are affected by world events; conversely, what happens inside us affects the world.
What does that mean for you, I wonder? How do the events in the world affect you? How does your interior life affect the world? What does the astounding connection of all things mean to you?
I imagine a giant web of strings, a cosmically-sized musical instrument. The vibrations from a string plucked in one place are felt in all places and alter the sound of the whole. Or, you know, that butterfly theory. I don’t pretend to be original, just fascinated.
The New Year is an interesting moment, spiritually speaking. It offers an opportunity to put what has happened in the previous turn of the seasons to rest and to choose to face the future with courage, dignity, gratitude, and perhaps an attitude of hopeful anticipation, a willingness to be astonished, regardless of circumstances.
2022 was a rough year for me, too. Apart from the horrific world events — climate catastrophe, Putin’s war, political insanity — I’ve been dealing with chronic pain, two surgeries (which may or may not have been helpful; only time will tell), and various existential crises. Not much different from what everyone’s been dealing with.
There have been lessons. At my age — sixty-seven — deaths are piling up. Friends, acquaintances, and relatives are leaving with more frequency. I discover I am no longer of interest to most people. I’m just an old woman hobbling about with a cane, easily pitied but rarely engaged. My death certainly feels closer than when I was younger. It’s normal. This is the season of life in which I feel nudged toward an apprenticeship with grief, as someone once called it. I want to begin to make peace with the fact that, sooner or later, I will lose everything I love. We all will.
Soon, as many of you know, I will lose my beloved dog, Bailey. I have lost my adopted mother and father, my birth mother, my father-in-law, and many friends (too long a list to add). I have lost my ability to do many of the physical things I used to do, like yoga, ballet, and hiking. I believe my publishing career is probably over, or soon will be. No publisher is hungry for another novel by an older, white, cis woman (but if you are a publisher interested in such work, let me know!). Several adored friends are experiencing probably-terminal illnesses while others are dealing with profound life changes including the death of partners and careers and so forth.
It’s not that I haven’t experienced loss and grief in my younger years, I have. However, as the end of my own life undeniably approaches, I find my vision is clarified, focused, and directed differently. When young, and if one is lucky enough to have had a healthy and robust youth, it’s pretty easy to ignore certain facts of life, especially in our death-adverse culture.
What does all this tell me? It tells me this experience is much like being pregnant and suddenly noticing pregnant women everywhere. As within, so without. It invites me to enter a deeper relationship with the suffering world. Grief and suffering are, after all, the one common experience of humankind. I feel the suffering of others, both human and animal, more sharply, and it is more pervasive. I’m not depressed, but I do feel fragile. Spun glass fragile.
I also find myself wondering how to make meaning of this experience.
One of the things that comfort me is observing others going through this same season. How do they handle it? What lessons do they learn? How do they keep from buckling under the weight of grief? How do they keep walking? I find inspiration everywhere, including in those who buckle under the anvil, who crumple and howl. After all, that’s often the appropriate response to enormous loss; to deny it isn’t healthy in any way. I am grateful for those who walk the path ahead of me, leaving breadcrumbs for me to follow. If I can do the same for someone else… well, there’s meaning in that.
Acknowledging this season, I’ve been thinking about what word I’d like to focus on this year. I choose one every year as a spiritual practice, something to focus on and through which to filter the coming year’s experience. Last year it was ‘mercy,’ a word that guided me well. This year, the word I choose — or that chooses me — is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist teacher who died this year: “Interbeing.”
Thich Nhat Hanh said this about Interbeing: “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.”
I get a wide-open, connected-to-everything feeling when I read this, free and serene. I believe that feeling, infinite and holding all while holding nothing, is what lies beyond grief, beyond loss, and even beyond death. So that’s my word.
Perhaps you’re choosing one as well. What is it?