‘In the broken places, the light shines through’ Leonard Cohen
When I was a little girl I used to run away a lot. Growing up in a very beautiful but remote part of this Island, I would run undisturbed for miles until out of breath, I would stop, take off my shoes and socks and feel the cool grass underneath my feet. Then lying on this long soft grass, I would look up into the sky making shapes and telling stories with the clouds. I don’t run anymore…except for a bus, but I still tell stories with the clouds! During that time, I could feel this bond to something beyond what my tender mind could comprehend; a connection to the vastness of the world around me and under my breath I would sing quietly a song I didn’t know and to this day cannot remember. I was always comforted by this ritual, soothed by a presence I could not really understand, and didn’t have a language for. Other times I would dig my hands into the soil, press it between my fingers and remember what my local clergy man said about Adam coming from the dust. In my innocence I would sit for hours making mounds out of the dirt hoping to make my own Adam…if that actually worked, there would be a lot more people into ‘gardening’! As I approached my teens and propagating into my twenties, that relationship with the physical earth dissipated as more time was spent away from the natural world and my affiliation with that Divine energy was replaced by a very intellectual relationship, manifesting in my desire to study theology in my undergraduate degree.
In my late twenties and during the first year of that third level degree, I suffered a devastating loss. It was very sudden, very cruel and very traumatising. The weight and depth of my grief for this man was crushing. His sudden absence reverberated through aspects of my life in ways I could never have anticipated. Prior to his death I had no real understanding of the complexity of grief, no comprehension of the brevity of life; the fragility of it nor its beauty. Thus, this thrust into the reality of my impending mortality was a pivotal moment in my life and it would change the course of it exponentially.
Having been closely indoctrinated into a very parochial way of relating to Divinity; primary school adjacent to the local church, religiously affiliated secondary school. My personal beliefs were closely aligned with those of my existing peers. A very ‘God is up there and I am down here’ mode of thinking. When this beautiful man died, everything that I held to be a truth folded down around me. Owed in large part to the fact that he died by suicide, a form of death the Tradition to which I was allied did not look to favourably upon. This religion, that for decades had been my source of Divine sustenance could offer me no succour in the desperation of my grief. None of the books or articles linked to this Faith could identify or even graze the anguish and utter hopelessness that I was feeling. I felt despondent and desperately alone in my angst.
Two months before he died we planned a trip to Canada. So, four months later, although, physically and emotionally depleted, I decided to make the trip alone. Looking back now, it’s easy to see that I was running away from the heartache that was all around me but that I was not ready to touch. One evening while camping by a lake side in the breathtakingly beautiful Rocky Mountains, I stopped to look round, to draw a breath and try to connect to the earth around me, as I used to do as a little girl. Taking off my sandals and burying my toes in the sand I tried to feel that bond that had sustained me as child, but my heart was so heavy that this time I felt absolutely no connection – nothing. It was at this moment that a fear I didn’t recognise spread across my heart; untethered to any visceral connection to the universe, a deep loneliness was settling in my spirit and crushing my soul.
When the new college year commenced, I was sceptical of everything I had previously held to be a truth and edging further and further from the ontological arguments of the theologians whose work I had previously admired, I moved closer to philosophy which allowed me more scope to work out my own reasonings in light of my own experiences. During this time of profound confusion, I ached for something to anchor me, so I went to many different places of worship to try and find some avenue to reconnect with that Divine Energy. I chanted with the Hare Krishna’s, I prayed with the Christians, I went to a gathering in a Mosque, I listened intently at Buddhist seminars, I visited a synagogue (I even went to more ‘adult places’ which I think scarred me for life, but you know…whatever works for you!). My brain constantly felt fuzzy and full. I was now versed in more facts, full of more knowledge, but further from that connection I so yearned for and even less at peace with my anguish. My grief being compounded with even more questions.
An awareness that every time I said goodbye to a friend after a dinner or coffee, could be my last always clawed at my skin. Growing increasingly conscious of the existential crisis I was now stuck in, I began to slowly accept that no theologian or philosopher could offer me the nourishment needed to sate my hunger for a connection, I would have to blaze my own trail to the Divine. And, slowly I woke up to reality that the longer I spent searching for a source of religious reasoning to comfort me, the harder it would be to feel the weight of the void his death left in my life.
If anyone has ever broken a bone or had a serious fracture, or even tore a muscle, you know that learning to use that part of your body again is a slow painful process. It requires time, patience, courage and a vast amount of inescapable tears. There will be occasions in which the very idea of using that part of your body again will paralyse you for fear the injury will happen again. Or worse, you start to believe that you will never be able to use it as you once did. It is the same for the heart, at least this is true for me and my heart. Once I finally allowed myself to admit that my heart was indeed broken, that it would take time to recover, that I would need space to allow it to take its new form, I started the necessary journey towards understanding that no religion, tradition, or spiritual path would eliminate the agony of this loss.
It was in this undefended condition that a friend suggested I attend a yoga class, proposing that learning to connect with the physical world around my body would help me connect with the sadness trapped in my body. I scoffed. A natural born chatterbox, a fact, anyone who has ever met me can testify to. Understandable then was my anxiety around how I would manage to be still in the quietness for a full hour, or worse, longer! I love people, I love listening to their stories. They are the greatest source of joy in my life and I am blessed to be surrounded by some of the most amazing, inspiring and passionate people. So, a space where I must remain silent, where I can’t chat to all these new and interesting people…yikes! Consequently, with a deep sense of cynicism and trepidation I went to my first yoga class.
It was everything I feared it would be; lithe people stretched out like cats, while I could barely reach the top of my mat. But I tried to do everything the instructor intimated, even the poses which my body couldn’t easily do, I mean I almost snapped in half. At the end the instructor asked us to meditate for ten minutes, and this for me, was the hardest part of the whole class. All I could feel was this tightness in my chest and a heaviness across my heart, I was enveloped by a sadness I couldn’t escape from and I found it really difficult to breathe.
When I told my friend this, she smiled and said, ‘it’s working.’ I smiled and secretly had images of high fiving her smug face with a chair…! She insisted I go back for another class, just to make sure, so I did – just to prove her wrong. The same thing happened again so I informed her that yoga really wasn’t for me. She pleaded with me to go one final time, this time she requested that I dedicate the practice to my own broken heart. So out of love for my friend I went for what I believed would be my last yoga class, doing what she said, offering the intention for my own broken heart.
This time as I sat waiting impatiently and uncomfortably for the meditation to end, a whisper echoed through my body. I then simply thought of that connection I used to feel when I was a little girl. As I did a soft vibration pulsed through my body and a beautiful feeling washed over me. I felt a peace I had not felt for a long time and It was then that I started to weep for this beautiful man. I cried from the core of my being. I cried for my broken heart. I cried for the life adventures we would never have because he was gone, I cried for the fresh memories we never make and the old ones I would forget in time. I cried for him, for his pain, the suffering he endured because he didn’t have a language to tell me his pain. I cried for his mother, his father, his siblings, his friends; their grief, our grief. The grief we and the rest of the world would all have to learn to live with because he was no longer here. I sat crying for a long time in that yoga class, long after everyone had left. The instructor, now one of my best friends, just held me tight and let me cry it all out. I loved her then, as I still do now!
Over time it became obvious that I would have to learn to be quiet in the stillness of my body and my heart to develop that deep connection again and to repair my fractured heart. All that I had learned from each great Tradition would be useless knowledge on pages if I was afraid to feel that connection wrap itself into every cell of my body. So, I started a regular yoga and meditation practice. I wish I could say my life became stress-free after that- it hasn’t. I had many more tears to shed in many more classes and I had to allow myself to feel huge amounts of pain and heartache to reconcile my grief. But I was anchored again to the Divine source of love and energy that I had so longed for. Finding that security did not take the sting out of his absence, but it gave me a space to accept the inevitability of my own mortality and make peace with it. It also allowed me to worry less about what other people think of me and care more about how they feel when they’re around me. Do I listen with my whole heart to the truth of their human stories? Do I make them feel valid and heard? These are the things that people remember, these are the things that make them feel precious, valued and loved, these are the things that are important.
It would be a lie to claim that I feel this Divine connection every moment of every day. I still struggle with being still in my body, in my mind and in my heart, but as I grow deeper in my yoga and meditation practice it gets easier. That existential crisis which at one time had me in a vice grip has lessened and I am more at peace with the unfolding of my life. I still have days where I wish I was thinner, smarter, more attractive, I still have days where I wish I didn’t know the pain of losing a loved one to suicide. But when I have those days now, I go for a walk along the beach by my house, or into the woods, place my bare feet on the earth, sit in the silence and the stillness and wait for that Divine connection to find me again. When it eventually does, I relax, take a deep breath, look up at the beautiful world around me and make new stories with the clouds.
Rachel is an award winning writer, poet, yogi and lover of all things inspiring. She recently graduated from her Mphil in Trinity College Dublin. Rachel is passionate about working on social issues, social justice and spirituality.