27 Jun

One foot, then the other. Take me to the source. First, a small foot trail from the edge of town into the low canopy. Then my feet take me farther up the canyon to the wellspring where earth’s power is stillness and gravity. The heat subsides and the birds call. Just sit and wait. Other animals call. Insects and mammals I do not know, and a dead fox off the trail where few have walked. The sounds are exquisite and then go silent, like the mystery the earth is. Alone in the canyon, I hear the wind shake the trees and the distant rumble of thunder. A drop of rain on my forehead, then more droplets on the leaves above. I tremble, I shudder, I shake. Earth has taken me into its refuge; the land held me in its womb. I am born again to this goddess; a man of earth and sky now, of the trees and the clouds, the dirt and the stars…until time and space abate to the wide and open light.

AZ Sunset

Love and the Storm

9 Jun

It was one of those stormy sunsets, the kind where a deep orange melts through a dark rain and alights the eastern mountains. I stood in absolute stillness, gazing softly across the plains from my chosen spot on a hillside of pinion and rocky outcroppings. The storm had been violent, with blazes of lightning across the northern sky leaving wildfires in its path. But its aftermath left this small part of the world with a peaceful and soft glow, a glow that would not have been possible without the darkness and chaos of the desert monsoon.

The chaotic rhythms of this sometimes obscene world give me much to ponder, least of which is why we spend so much of our time seeking pleasure, gratification, and, ultimately, spiritual ascension. I know these words may initially echo with cynicism and hopelessness, but I am going somewhere with this. As I stood with the sunset, I began to take in all that I have been through over the past few years: love and loss, love and loss, and then more feelings of loss. It has been excruciating and tormenting, to the point that my heart has felt like it will never recover. I am sure this sounds familiar to you. Despite all my attempts to escape the pain, I found myself back in it over and over again. I would seek liberation through contact with others, through nature, or by doing what I love. Nothing worked.

What I realized on my chosen spot overlooking the plains was that I have spent these last few years completely avoiding the actual pain, which has left me suffering even more. I had listened to the guidance of others who said, “Look for the light” or “Just have fun.” I had listened to my own flawed inner guidance, which said, “Get what is good.” All the while, I had been ignoring my body and the deeper heartache that was trying to speak.

Any time we focus solely on perfection, ascension, or sustained “happiness,” we will ultimately find ourselves worse off. It may not happen immediately, but what goes up must eventually come down. This is because we live in a realm of duality; paradox will find us at every corner. When we are celebrating our happiness and think we have secured it, something might just come along to cut us down.

On that note, when do we celebrate our pain and suffering? Answer: Rarely, if ever. And it is this very avoidance of our reality that causes the deeper anxiety and depression that blankets our view of the world and stifles our vitality.   The more time I spend among spiritual seekers, the more I see our natural tendency to promote ascension, “up-leveling,” recognition of our “greater self”, and so on. But what we miss in all this is that our current spiritual vessel is that of a human body and mind, rife with the mess of oft-violent imperfection and impurity. Instead of embracing it and finding compassion, I see so many trying to bypass it. We want out of our body, understandably.  Our bodies hurt. Our minds hurt even more.  But our attempts at escape leave us depraved, dissociated, and lacking empathy.

Instead, I compel us to both ascend and descend. Yes, turn to heaven, the greater dimensionality of our cosmos, but also to the deep spirit of earth and the lower realms. As we go up, we must balance it by going down.  When we look at our body, we have feet on the ground and our heads in the sky; our feet and heads are connected by everything in between. Should we choose to just fly in the sky, gravity will tug at us until our insatiability comes pouring down in a cacophony of pain and sorrow and suffering (dramatic, I know).  In order to know that we are flying, we must know the ground below. Likewise, should we choose to only descend and feel gravity, we become embedded in the dense earth, unable to move freely.

What happens when we allow ourselves to be as fully human as we were meant to be? What happens when we love the imperfect, messy, yearning, drooling body that leaves excrement behind. What happens when we simultaneously embrace the parts of us that are beautiful, dynamic, brave, and enriched by each other and the world that birthed us? I’ll tell you: when we allow this, we are alive. The energy that this radical acceptance produces can move us, shake us, rattle us out of our myopic world and into an expanded sense of self. Only then can we truly feel the eternal light of our soul’s deepest truth.

Why Fear Destroys Nations (and might destroy ours)

28 Jun

In November of 2011, I stood in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Five years later, the experience is still palpable. I recall the oppressive sun, the tattered rags of children’s clothing showing through the dirt, the sweat dripping down my back, masses of silent people walking on a land of death. I recall wondering what part of the human condition could lead to such brutality. In my wonder, I learned that enlisted soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were encouraged to get drunk before killing the accused, that they were trained to become callous – that many of the young men and women had no desire to kill, but that there was a greater pressure and a greater fear driving them. The fear was that they, too, would be cast as outsiders.

The psychology of current politics is frightening. We are nearing a decision-point in our mass consciousness – to embrace fear and hate, or to embrace a complex world with grace, patience, and rational thought. The outer political sphere is a direct reflection of our own inner ability to be (or not to be) patient, graceful, and empathetic. Unfortunately, our nervous systems are wired to respond to danger fast and efficiently. It is therefore much easier for an idiot to appeal to our fear than it is for a powerful and heartfelt leader to appeal to our grace, compassion, and rational mind. And this is what is happening: In the United States, the UK, and elsewhere, leaders are amassing power by appealing to our fear and hate. This reminds me of what I have seen while living in parts of the world that have recently endured the weapons of hatred: Burma, Cambodia, and China, among others. The regimes that perpetrated this hate may have been socialist or communist, but their motivations were the same as what is driving our current mass hysteria: FEAR.

The Khmer Rouge regime blamed “others” for the nation’s problems. Those in power created a movement against a scourge of so-called outsiders, whether they were Vietnamese, Chinese, native Cham Muslims, or American and French “capitalists”. The irony of this is that these populations had co-existed in Cambodia for decades before the Khmer Rouge took power.

Now, in the United States, we are seeing a resurgence of this kind of fear – the kind of fear that led Germany to bring Adolf Hitler to power. Any time a group of people begins to blame “others” for their problems, we see the potential for a Hitler, a Pol Pot, a Mao Zedong to rise to power. The “others” are rotating populations (Jews, Muslims, Communists, Capitalists, Christians – whoever is easiest to blame). And the problem is that it does not matter whether these leaders are intelligent or stupid. What matters is that they are appealing to our lowest selves: our fearful, shamed, worthless, abused, violated, victimized selves. And these selves are powerless. In the vacuum of power, someone inappropriate and dangerous arises – someone who will re-traumatize our world.

It begins small: ban a media outlet here or there; propose restrictions on a subset of our population; declare platitudes that fly in the face of our national values and principles (and still get cheers from the fearful populace); speak in a 5th grade dialect so that the younger and more fearful parts of ourselves will listen; and encourage small acts of violence against those who disagree under the guise of justice.

It comes down to our inner courage. I have recently experienced my own resurgence of relational fear, and I have responded to this fear by acting cowardly, by pushing others away in personal rallies against perceived injustice. These are my own inner politics – turbulent and unreliable. What is reliable is my courageous heart, the one that sees fear for what it is: a somatic, chemical response that begins with perception and demands actions. But the truth is that the perception is often wrong, and therefore the fear is unwarranted and, if enacted, dangerous.

Please, my country, let us search our soul and find our more essential selves, lest we bring to ourselves the same shame that Germany brought in the 1930s and 40s, that Cambodia brought in the 1980s. We are so much more than our fear.Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 1.39.04 PM

The Form and The Light

22 Apr
In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
O hapless, happy plight!
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be
     – Saint John of the Cross

Cold and wet, dark and stormy, solitary and anxious: I stood on the edge of a great chasm. All the layers of clothing could not protect me from the way Earth evoked the internal dialogue of my soul. Although I was above a great river on the Colorado Plateau, I could have been anywhere, in any time. To my soul, it was 10,000 years ago. To my mind, it was now. The bereavement of this lifetime was trying to catch up with me, but my anxiety was working hard to suppress it.  Once again, I had found myself in the transformative cycle of grief and love.

The context: I was guiding a river trip for a group of clinical psychology students on a stretch of river I know well – a stretch on which I have spent over 70 days of my life. The first time I ever saw Labyrinth Canyon, I was in the midst of heart-wrenching loss, and I was looking for the godhead in the Earth. My journey has led me back to the river over and over again. And now, I know the deep intricacies of those 60 miles of Labyrinth. I know the deepest recesses of Trin Alcove, the pour-overs and petrified forests of Keg Springs, the wastelands above Cowboy Steps, and if I were blindfolded and led into the canyon somewhere, I could take off the blindfold and tell you exactly where we were.

I wish to know my soul like I know the Earth. I have spent much of my life on the material plane, mastering its trade. I can walk the mountains and survive for months. I can build a business and thrive in it. I can teach others my trade and inspire them. I can design programs and package them into the world for the sake of humanity. But do I know my soul, my spirit? The place where my body and mind meet the utterly frightening light of the sacred?

When I wonder how to know my soul, I am reminded of what Rumi said: “You left and I cried tears of blood. My sorrow grows. It’s not just that You left. But when You left my eyes went with You. Now, how will I cry?” Our survival on the material plane is punctuated by glimpses of the shadow and light behind the veil, but it is so hard to see because we are entrained to see shapes and objects, feel emotions and think thoughts – all of which we name. And when we name things, when we use language, we activate the part of our mind that separates, compartmentalizes, and establishes a way for us to fathom the forms we experience. From Plato to Buddha to Postmodernism, we have established that this is what our individual and collective brains do. We attempt to organize, which works well for us in the flesh, but also determines our cyclical separation from the divine.

Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic known for his work, The Dark Night (others expanded this title to The Dark Night of the Soul), seemed to know the sensuality of the search for spirit, the way our raw experience of earth, wind, rain, and fire can bring us to our knees. The dark night of the soul is not theoretical to me; it is an experience that I have lived over and over throughout my life. And as painful as it has been – especially in the darkest of days when I lost my beloved father – I have found the greatest love through these cycles of darkness. My shadows are the gateway into the light of being, the light of the divine.

I will continue my pilgrimages through Earth – back to Labyrinth Canyon, back to Mount Kailash, across the vast, cold steppe and into the warmer forests. But these pilgrimages will all lead me back to the same experience – the cycle of grief and love. And each time I find love amid the shadows, it is more vast, more frightening, more powerful, and more like the home I somehow know.  I embrace it, and if it seems to leave me momentarily, I have committed to keeping my heart strong and open to its inevitable return.



6 Apr

There is a man in the corner dancing to jazz. He is unencumbered, steadfast in his execution. The boys on stage are wasting nothing. This is the be-all of performance, like making love in the summer moonlight when the world is ending. While the man in the corner is dancing, a couple in the shadows is kissing. Everywhere in this room, the divine is playing her fiddle. And I am with the ghost of the divine, trying my best to tell someone that they are worth every moment of pain they have experienced.

I spend my days with people who are struggling. They are struggling for their identity, or for some substance of life that seems to elude them. And I do my best to bring hope to the chasms of despair that lie along the well-worn trails of disillusion. Some, I have found, have walked these well-worn trails so often that there is no other choice. The chasms of despair are the only logical conclusion. And every once in a while, I fall hard with them. I “accidentally” take in their pain and let it sit in my body.

An old Chinese metaphor goes like this: You have a horse and a cart, and you take that cart to the same place every day. In fact, it turns out that everyone else is steering a cart down the same road. After a little while, the ruts are worn in the road, and it is difficult to steer the cart elsewhere. This is what we do with our brain and body. Rarely does someone say, “Hey, take that cart for a joy ride in the meadow.” Likewise, rarely does our family, our culture, or our tradition tell us to take our brain and heart in a different direction. When it does, it is within parameters, parameters set over centuries.

The last decade and a half has brought to our consciousness some profound, research-based knowledge of how we wire these paths of despair into profoundly stubborn neuropathways (refer to Daniel Goleman, Rick Hanson, Marsha Linehan, Jon Kabat-Zinn, or Daniel Siegel). But they also send a message of liberation. They point toward our mind’s vast creativity, our ability to witness the ruts and stuck places, and our ability to ultimately choose something different.

I look to the man in the corner, dancing maniacally without inhibition. I envy this man. I wish my brain could let go more often and dance in the meadow where no horse cart has ventured. I realize that we suffer when we cannot see the choices, the alternatives that are always present in our lives. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us of the alternatives – that something else is possible.

So here I am, surrounded by my community and hearing this brilliant cacophony of sound down in the big city. I am finding liberation through the brilliant minds that fill me in this room. I envy the man who dances in the corner, and I envy the musicians who stand up there and play their experience into sound. I envy the uninhibited kissing couple. And I finally envy myself, because I abandoned convention to write this amidst an evening of celebration. I did it because I felt the part of me who was unencumbered and had something to say. And because I made that choice, my suffering fell away and a subtle ecstasy filled my body.

These are choices, and you have them every day: To be encumbered or to surrender to your heart; to give up or to fight for what you want; to brawl in the shadows or to fight with grace and grit.  So go.  Dance to the music in your own corner, or take it into the meadow where no horse cart has ventured. The journey there may crack you open a bit – and it might hurt for a moment – but I can attest: something powerful will meet you there.


20 Mar

Berlin. 27 FEBRUARY 2016. 20:30.

The place I stood was unnamable, but it had a name.  We stood in the quiet and cold darkness behind the wall.  The dim glow of streetlights cast soft shadows onto the grass in front of us.  “This is where it was.”  Chills ran all the way down my body, spine to feet. No words.  The thoughts I thought were unthinkable, but they still thought themselves. And the feelings that felt themselves in my body were opaque, hardened.

So I stood still, took a moment to breathe, and let the feelings in.  After all, we had spent our days in work sessions that were all about letting sensation and feeling move through our body.  And our inside joke became the simple words, “Shut up.” As in, stop talking and stop thinking, and let the walls come crumbling down.

Across the way, a couple shadowy figures walked silently past at a safe distance.  “It’s so quiet.”  She led me around the wall.  “We are back in the West.” And then around the corner and into the deeper shadows.  “We are back in the East.”  Over the next couple of hours, we would walk from East to West and back to the East again, simply by stepping over the old boundary where the wall once was.  Finally, we arrived at a broad boulevard. “And Hitler liked to parade down this one.”

Walls and displays of force were the external themes of the evening, yet the internal themes were power through connection, connection through honesty, and honesty through vulnerability.  These are the real winners of the night, and yet the historical legacy we were witnessing was a legacy of fear and contraction.  The Third Reich was built on fear.  And just a few decades later, the Berlin wall was built as the ultimate expression of denial – denial that the eastern bloc political system was a complete failure.

When the people I work with are exposed to chronic neglect, abuse, or situations that invoke pain, they inevitably build walls.  In the privileged, cordoned-off world of psychology, we call them “defenses,” and this term is accurate to an extent.  These walls may serve to protect us from pain, but they also ultimately keep out joy, love, and delight. We cannot build an emotional wall that magically allows some things in while keeping out the bad.  Nor can we build a material wall and expect that the attractive, desirable, non-threatening elements will magically pass through it; or that they will want to walk through the extra-special, small door we open for them.  No matter what system we create, walls turn the “good ones” away and sometimes mistakenly let the “bad ones” come over the top.  I have seen it time and again, only for the wall-builders to later decide that they made a mistake by keeping the good ones at bay.

I spend my days teaching people how to tear down their emotional walls safely, and replace them with more sensible and comprehensive alternatives: observation, vetting, and discernment.  I teach my clients what I have to practice with myself everyday: how to let sensations back into their bodies, little by little.  After enough practice, we learn that the sensations themselves are different from the stimuli, and they can protect themselves from real threats through discernment.  Cutting off the pain does not truly protect us.  Nor do walls. People who build walls still experience abuse and neglect; the pain is just duller at times.  As important as this is for personal healing and consciousness, there is a bigger story here.

For those who know me well, personal evolution is political evolution; without applying social change, personal evolution carries a narcissistic quality.  As a world of nations, we need to act smarter, not bigger and more afraid.  Walls are just weakness and fear hiding inside the schoolyard bully.  But a sophisticated intelligence infrastructure that abides by our foundational values of human rights and individual freedoms shows discernment and prowess. Just as the wounded human must let down his emotional wall and develop a more sane and functional security apparatus, so must we as a nation.  Again, with openness and love, the individual and the nation can develop a system of observation, vetting, and discernment.  The wall simply will not do.

On that cold evening in Berlin I let my wall come down.  I let the pain of history move deeply through my body until I was satisfied that my intuition was back online.  As I let this process unfold, I felt a deep power reawakening inside, the power I have been slowly cultivating after several years of cutting it off and fortifying my positions.  And when my friend and I finally came in from the cold for food, I could sit across the table from her and look into her eyes without the fear that had ruled my house for so long.  As our conversation unfolded, bridging cultures and experiences, I thought, “This is what I want for my nation.”L1017941

Nighttime Revery

20 Jan

It is the dead of winter and the moon is waxing gibbous. Not a cloud that I can see. On nights such as this, it is good to walk, so I set out onto the trails to the west in search of nothing. I needed the emptiness, and my dog needed her dose of the primordial. I began cautiously, allowing my eyes to adjust to the nighttime until the moon’s reflection on the snow appeared bright, like part of some ancient dawn. A bit of timeless chill worked into me for a moment. And like the beginning of any walk, my mind was focused on the wonder of what was to come. After several dozen steps through the snow, I stopped to collect the intelligence of the night. And my dog, like her owner, paused for reconnaissance – hers of the olfactory variety. To our flanks were sparse trees and deeper forest beyond. Ahead, open meadows of luminous snowdrift interspersed with fallen trees lit our path forward.

Where will this take me? Why walk in the night in the heart of winter? Because, my heart says, it is where you need to be. The days are full of chatter and quickness, and your mind is tired. The falling snow is softer and slower, and the warmth you find will come in due time as you walk your way into emptiness.

There is no one here. I look up to the sky and a single bright cloud is drifting its way east. I stop and listen. There is nothing more silent, more settled than the insulated night of snow and woods. Even the sounds we do hear, though clear and real, are somehow dampened, like in a small, padded room. Somewhere below these mountains is a city; I can see the glow on the lone cloud that found the eastern horizon. I feel safe here because even death out here would be more secure than the heightened state of the world below. And…there is no one here. So we continue up an open hill toward the woods.

Several minutes later I am breathing deeply.  And I am warm. We come to an overlook where the river valley below yields to forested slopes and then a winter tundra above. One last look, and then down the other side of the hill.  We find ourselves in a broad, wooded basin. I sense something different in these lowlands, and I stop again to listen. My dog is a good scout; she stops with me and puts her nose in the air. Her ears perk, and she freezes, pinning her eyes on something through the woods. All my senses are engaged, and I am ready to protect her from whatever is out there.

But I couldn’t see it. At least not for a few seconds. I worked hard with my eyes, squeezing them shut and then opening them again – a trick I learned to pass military vision tests. Finally, movement. My mind then worked to finish the puzzle, and an image of an enormous moose came into focus. There, in the snowy woods, she looked toward us, her head turning as slowly as my vision became clear. What she was thinking, I can’t know. What I was thinking, I can know. “I am the only human experiencing this moment, this particular moment.” And I am no one, just a figure in the emptiness looking at some other being.

The world was quiet, but in some subconscious nostalgia for survival, I was ready to defend my dog with my life.  The moment, lucid and serene despite my heartbeat, turned into minutes.  In those silent minutes, where all tension of primal minds and bodies stood ready, something gave way. As in, I got out of the way of these matters. And then, like Rumi’s love with God, my body and mind were clear and bright and part of the crisp emptiness. After letting the expansion move through me, we continued on stealthily through the night, my senses more open than before. I had a settled and restful feeling – the kind of feeling that comes after making long and beautiful love. Only, if that is the case, I had just made love with the divine.
some death

Finding Love In Solitude

12 Jan

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”  – bell hooks

This evening I built another fire. A fire with wood that I split alone, stacked alone, and carried inside alone. I found childlike delight in the process, choosing each log individually, brushing off the snow, and positioning it for ideal splitting. Every movement, every motion, was different from the last. No swing of the mull was like another, and yet there was a beautiful repetition and form that I repeated over and over again. The process, which began months ago with a dead tree in the woods, ended in this fire that warms my house and my heart.

My heart, like all hearts, needs warming. And the heart of this winter has brought many challenges: the anniversary of my father’s departure from this world, the end of a long relationship, and my sister’s close call with death just days ago. Behind the simple joy of cutting wood and building fires looms a shadow that I cannot shake. From all outward appearances, the shadow is an utterly frightening place, an abode of deep loss, desolation, loneliness, and immense vulnerability.

When I encounter this place, I want to run. The primitives in my mind – the lone animal in me that sees a predator or stumbles to the edge of a chasm – tell me to move as far away from this place as possible. “Find people, find love, find companionship,” it shouts. “If you stay alone, you will be eaten.” And while this is true in the natural world of packs, clans, herds, and flocks, the spiritual world may demand something else.  So I think about how “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”

When a friend shared the above quote by bell hooks, she had no idea just how pertinent it would be for me in the weeks to come. I had been struggling for months with a decision to end my relationship. It was a decision that I knew would send me into a familiar place of existential fear and grief. And when I finally made that decision, the initial relief and newfound hope gave way to intense memories of companionship and love, which left me feeling deeply empty.

But as another comrade reminded me quite recently, a current loss opens the door to all the losses of our lifetime. As I was working the wood tonight, there was an anomaly. Just as I landed the mull perfectly on the round, some fibrous shrapnel slammed into my forehead, just above my right eye. I involuntarily fell to my knees, and after taking a moment to regain my composure, a flood of sadness followed. The sadness was about my father, whom I lost five years ago. It was about the days that we spent cutting wood together and stoking our wood stove. And it was about my sister, who just a few days ago was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening emergency. It was about the time she and I spent playing outside, riding horses, and fortifying our beaches on the little creek below the house. When I lean into these memories and the grief surrounding them, I find abundance, warmth, and love.

Without having moments of solitude, I could not know this experience. I would have someone to distract me, to talk away the pain before I find the gold. While friends and companions are important for the soul, I know that I must be aware of when I am using them to escape the grief that is, in fact, my friend. Grief is like the sickly puppy I rescued years ago. She is now a beautiful dog who gives back every ounce of love I gave her. Grief appears empty – feels empty – on the outset. But when you are able to discover its tender underbelly, it transforms into love and light.

My plea to you, the reader: Spend time with friends and loved ones, but also take that long pause. Build a fire, all by yourself.  In lieu of a fire, light a candle and sit with yourself.  To be alone for long periods of time can give you the chance to be comfortable in your own skin, tend to the grief of a lifetime, and emerge with immense love and courage.


Tibet, 2005: Max sending wind horses into the sky. Photo: Kristin Brudevold

Fear and The Great Mystery

9 Dec

By Max Woodfin

In my last public writing, I mentioned books that corresponded with my thoughts. I will continue to do this occasionally, including here and now: Last night I fell asleep just as I finished the final chapter of Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World. When I awoke, this happened:

This morning, in attempt to create warmth while the outside air dropped to a daunting -10, I brazenly stepped outside with less clothing on than would sustain a typical human for ten minutes. My hands, unarmed, quickly drew in the cold, and my body responded to the signal with a slight sensation of panic. I gathered an armful of wood and made my way back to the door. Despite the knowledge that the warmth of my home was only thirty feet away, something in my body’s core of wisdom told me to be at least mildly afraid of impending death. This experience is very familiar to me because, as I now realize it, I have spent much of my life playing the game of encountering death. And somehow I suspect that I am not the only one.

I have endured many adventures of remote solitude in my short lifetime. When I think back on the first thirty years of my life, I see that I spent almost half of those years journeying into lands that many would consider formidable. I sought solitude in Southeast Asia’s remote forest monasteries; I pursued meaning in the conflict-ridden borderlands of Burma, Kashmir, and Laos; I walked off of roads in eastern Tibet and into mountainscapes that lie between the lands mapped to the outside world.  I have endeavored through numerous retreats, vision quests, and rites of passage in my life; and since my youth I have planned and executed many a solo journey into deserts, mountains, and forests.

But despite everywhere I have been and all the experience of survival I have endured, I am still utterly frightened of silence and space.  The more I lean into my fear, the more I understand what it is about. Death. And the more I understand that it is about death, the less I understand what it is really about. I am holding two seemingly irreconcilable motives. I seem to be cradling the child who seeks the comfort of the womb, and I am encouraging the child who first stood in the woods behind his home and uttered the words, “I am me.”

You might say that my experience of silence, space, and solitude is dualistic.  On one hand, my natural tendency toward introversion guides me away from what I perceive as superficial chatter and into the quiet and pure lands of solo being. I wander through silent forests, relish in boating on North America’s western rivers, and find the divine in waking up alone to the morning sun. It has only been 16 hours since I last looked upon another human, but these 16 hours have been a gift. In this very moment my world feels wide open, and I know it is because I have finally stepped away from society’s frenetic chatter.

On the other hand, my tendency as a social creature is to feel some discomfort and loneliness when I encounter silence, space, and solitude.  When I walked outside on this cold morning, my sense of panic was not just simply that I could die out there while gathering wood; it was actually a deep sense of loneliness – that my journey toward the great divine might ultimately entail a severance from what I perceive as connection. That I could die alone.

I have no hard beliefs, but rather have amassed some clues that death itself, or experience with death, is a doorway to some manifestation of ultimate reality. But the initial experience of death is harsh to our habituated comforts. When we lose someone we love, it is a drastic, traumatizing severance. The trauma lives on in the body long after we have found some sort of intellectual reconciliation. Every ensuing encounter with death provokes this trauma. My encounter with the cold; any time I climb mountains and feel the fear of impending, spacious falling; swimming in cold water; the moment a car skids out in front of me on an icy patch: These are the moments that kick in those feelings of severance and remind me that I have a bigger journey in front of me. Bigger than my career, bigger than building my social network, bigger than raising a family, and bigger than recounting my past successes. Yet all of these “accomplishments” are important worldly attempts to begin this passage into the unknown.

As I see it, we fill up our lives with events, materials, and other indications of outward importance as a way of avoiding our impending encounters with death. Death is with us always, and most of my heroes – perhaps most of your heroes – are those who have learned ways to accept our impending passage fully. As we remember those who fought to make our lives fuller, we might remember that they accepted death. Consider the contemporary likes of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. And then consider their historical predecessors: Christ, Buddha, Mohammed. Death was on their tongue, and so was life. The most dead I feel is when I indulge in the mundane material. The most alive I feel is when I walk in from the fearsome cold with an armful of wood and begin to build a fire. Life slowly warms back into my body, and I once again feel myself perched on the edge of some sort of deeper knowing.


“Death is a Force that Gives us Meaning”

21 Aug

Deep in the high desert of southwestern Tibet sits the lone peak of Mount Kailash. Along the footpath that pilgrims walk around the base of Kailash lies the ritual death ground of Siwastal. Pilgrims come to Siwastal to contemplate and enact death before completing their journey around the mountain. On my first walk around Kailash in 2004, I was mildly intrigued by the piles of clothing left behind by pilgrims who had slept on the rocks and shed their worldly possessions. On my second walk in 2006, I was a bit more intrigued by the fact that this 17,000 foot high, living graveyard was still being used. I noticed other things like bones and shoes and the stark gray of rock and ice that seemed to say, “You too will pass.”

Little did I know then. It was five years later that I would encounter death in a way that would rip me open to fears and terrors that were previously tucked away. And how little do I know now, which is why exploring death is so important to me.

In his book, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes that “Even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” When I saw him speak back in 2002, this former war journalist had a cold, almost resigned air to him. And although I had difficulty connecting with him because of this, I understood his message to us – it was a message cloaked in shadow and obscured by the icy entrails of the more destructive side of our nature. Death lurks around every corner of our conscious and unconscious minds, and our encounters with it have the power to help us fulfill our human potential. But our society does little to support us in our encounters with death. In fact, our tendency to suppress death, nominate it to distant war zones, or otherwise box it into funerals and graveyards forces us to live with the low hum of impending nonexistence.

North American society appears to lack a conscious confrontation of death. And it is no secret that we avoid speaking about death, let alone confronting it in ourselves. Often, when we speak of or witness death, we do so in the sensation of news reports and courtroom drama, or in war. The sub-populations that come closest to confronting death ritualistically – the men and women who serve in the armed forces – confront death in an absurdity of modern warfare, often returning home not with palpable wisdom and a message about death, but with an internal chaos and non-integrated knowledge of ultimate demise.

Mary Pipher, a renowned clinical psychologist who has recently written about our conscious evasion of environmental disaster in The Green Boat, speaks to people about humanity’s grief over loss; in this case, she is speaking about loss of a healthy world ecology. I look deeply into this grief. Like Chris Hedges, she is speaking to something deeper in our society, the tendency to avoid not just negative feelings, but the ultimate fear of collective and individual death. Through the voice of our media and political infrastructure, we have developed an unrivaled institutional avoidance of death. And as our avoidance of death and all the fears surrounding death may lead us to experience it through unhealthy rituals of war and evening news violence, so does our institutional avoidance of death promote the clamoring fervor of material wealth to the detriment of our world’s ecological equilibrium.

When we avoid death, our flailing and costly attempts to live grow out of control. And we suffer. I know this personally. Since the death of my father, I have flailed and spurted, searching externally for the feeling of walking on solid ground. I have crashed and burned and taken people with me. And every once in a while, I have faced his death head on. And in his death I see my own. In those moments of clarity, of tears and honesty, I have felt more alive, more centered, more real. In those moments, I have seen the suffering of others, especially those close to me, and I have loved them even more and hurt them less.

Death needs a reinvigoration movement. There is nothing more life-giving than an honest, face-to-face conversation with death – a conversation in which we listen carefully to the silence and stillness that death gives us. In this conversation we will meet with terror and demons, mostly our own. But the outcome of this conversation is our ultimate triumph, our evolution as a species. Just think of what might happen if the fathers of war all meditated on their own demise, or if investors in natural resource extraction had a conversation with their own death and the collective death of us all. Perhaps there would be peace in the knowledge that we will ultimately die, but also an invigorated effort to live a balanced life. Life and death are impossible without each other; one reminds us that the other is sacred.

This all starts with you and me. I encourage you to meditate upon death – yours and others’.  This is a necessary part of our effort to confront all the material and nonmaterial problems of our world – environmental, political, and spiritual. It is an ancient covenant shared across traditions by pilgrims to Kailash, Mecca, and Jerusalem. It is a covenant that we should take comfort in.  Our conversation with death releases us into life, allowing that we may all say we are fully living.  In the next few days, I encourage you to watch the way death manifests in your environment. Notice what stirs inside you, and move toward that stirring. I assure you that I will be doing the same, and am perennially curious to know what your conversations with death may bring.

-Max Woodfin

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