Last summer, I spent three weeks on the island of Corfu in Greece, immersed in a spiritual retreat from the Awakening Women Institute with women from around the world. It was heaven on Earth.
By the end of it, I was glowing, overflowing with gratitude, on my knees with devotion—and an appreciation for the mystery that breathes me, for the magic of life. I was awakened to new insights and wisdom sourced within me.
Afterward, I packed my bags with a sense of excitement, ready to come home and integrate the abundant lessons of my journey. On my last morning, I jumped out of bed, did my yoga practice, and then checked my flight information—it was then that I realized my flight had been scheduled for the night before on Saturday, July 13th. It was Sunday the 14th. Oops.
A large knot lodged itself in my throat and stayed there as I faced an aspect of myself I didn’t like—naivety—and faced the consequences of this mistake: a good cry, $1,000 in ticket changing fees, and three hours on the phone listening to crackling elevator music while making friends with extreme discomfort and irritability.
I was amazed at how suddenly the ground beneath me shattered. One moment I was completely enlivened, effervescent, ecstatic. And then out of nowhere, I felt like a wrench had fallen from the sky and hit me on the head.
In that moment, I felt like a mother, angry, disappointed and ashamed of her child’s wrongdoing. Except I was also the child. I couldn’t send myself to my room without dinner or give myself a time out. Though I felt like hiding, I couldn’t leave and come back when everything was better. I couldn’t blame this mistake on anything or anyone other than myself. I had to clean up the mess I had made. I had to take responsibility for my irresponsibility. I had to stay.
Now from an eagle’s eye (or from your eyes), this mistake may not seem so bad. After all, who would protest against staying an few extra days on a Greek island? No, I had not harmed or killed anyone. I had not witnessed injustice and kept silent. I simply missed my flight.
But in that moment, I faced the raw vulnerability of my humanity. And as I turned towards it, I saw that it was universal.
It didn’t matter if I had committed a crime, judged someone, been a victim of abuse, mistreated a loved one, chosen to go down the familiar path of an old habit, believed I was separate and disconnected, or missed my flight. They all led to the same place inside myself—resistance.
Resistance to facing a part of myself that seemed less than holy, that seemed imperfect. Resistance to seeing my own faults and flaws. Resistance to meeting an aspect of myself that didn’t fit into the pretty box I like to call “me.” That added layer of self-loathing and self-judgment that masks over any mistake like frosting. A place I didn’t want to be. An aspect of myself I didn’t want to see.
I resisted this part of me that didn’t live up to my standards, that didn’t behave in a way I thought was spiritual or responsible.
And what happened next?
I stayed. I breathed. I felt the discomfort. I asked for support.
I took responsibility for my action and tried not to take my mistake so personally, tried not to sentence myself to a lifetime of “I am naive and irresponsible.” Instead, I viewed it as “I did something naive and irresponsible.” I chose not to follow the mental thread of “I’m so stupid” or “this always happens to me” or “I always do this” or “this is who I am.”
I chose not to make an identity out of my experience, but instead to meet the moment anew, innocently, vulnerably, trembling, raw.
I let the harsh-toned voices in my head run their script. Meanwhile, I reminded myself of my Self-Marriage—my commitment to love no matter what—and practiced receiving this uncomfortable flavor of life with the same willingness and openness that I had just received my past three weeks on retreat. I welcomed my experience as a lesson rather than a punishment or sign that I was on the wrong track. I humbled myself and brought compassion to right where it hurt.
I stayed. And, like everything else, it passed.
Pema Chödrön uses the term Unconditional Confidence to describe a way of being in the world with gentleness and unconditional friendliness towards oneself. The willingness to stay present and open to what arises in our personal experience, even when we don’t like what we see. To see clearly the extent of our critical mind, our flaws and imperfections, our poverty mentality, our skewed perception of reality, and to stay present—with gentleness and with compassion. Being brave and courageous enough to stick with ourselves through thick and thin. A confidence that is not dependent on whether we fit into our own man-made categories of good or bad, right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant, lovable or unlovable.
The fundamental willingness to stay present with life, as life.
Pema Chödrön calls this Unconditional Confidence—for me this is Self-Marriage.
The commitment to meet ourselves—and thus to meet all of life—with love and compassion. No matter what.
Again, I repeat: no matter what. Yes, even in this mess. Even in the mess inside us that is not “spiritual” or “good” or “pleasant.” Even in the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into as a whole humanity. Self-Marriage is this commitment to take responsibility, stay present with, and clean up these messes with integrity, love, compassion, and hard work–rather than dig ourselves deeper into them with criticism, arrogance, helplessness, and feigned separation.
Finally, after staying for so long, it was time for me to leave. Time to begin my long journey home.
I made it through the first three planes and twelve hours of travel with no surprises. Then, four hours into my layover at JFK airport, I heard my name announced on the speaker system.” Dominique Youkhehpaz, please report to the United front desk.” Uh oh.
A tall, strongly-built, stubbly man with a warm smile met me across the front desk.” I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but we upgraded your ticket to business class.” The man handed me my shiny new ticket and disposed of my old one. A miracle. Hallelujah!
Chogyam Trungpa called this miracle the balance of gloriousness and wretchedness—that on the spiritual journey, life will always give us the perfect balance of humbling us with failure and inspiring us with ease and success. If we were expansive and blissful all the time, we would be extremely arrogant and un-compassionate towards the human condition, towards those who are struggling, suffering, or having a difficult time. And if we never experienced insights, ease, or wisdom shining through us—if we just experienced tragedy after tragedy and failure after failure—we would get completely discouraged; we would collapse in hopelessness.
And so I flew home with two gifts in hand—it’s hard to tell which one was more valuable—the gift of staying with myself no matter what, and the gift of wine, shrimp cocktails, and a hyper-extending lounge chair for me to pass out on for my final six-hour flight home.
As we took off from JFK, I peered out the window into the sunset sky and caught a spectacular thunderstorm of hovering dark clouds flashing with electric light.
I thought to myself:
Sky on fire. Someone is listening…
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jessica Sandhu/Editor: Cat Beekmans
Photo: B Rosen/Flickr