When I was 15 years old, I had a weekend ritual. It began with a long walk through Central Park.
I’d enter the park at 84th Street and continue southward, a bit over two miles, until the park ended, spilling out onto 59th street.
Continuing down 5th Avenue for six blocks, I’d turn right onto 53rd street and step up to the site of my ritual: The Museum of Modern Art.
In those days, the MOMA offered “pay what you wish” entry.
So, after offering a minimal payment, I’d slide along the marbled floors and run upstairs.
I was there to see one painting.
The same one I’d seen the week before. The same one I’d stand in front of week after week for almost a year. A painting seething with violence, suffering and outrage: Picasso’s Guernica.
This painting was Picasso’s artistic response to the bombing of Guernica, a village in the Basque Region of Northern Spain in 1937. He painted this work in a fury of sorrow and anger.
And while I was familiar with the historical backstory, the painting, for me, was a sacred mirror.
What did it mirror?
It mirrored the war that was raging in my soul.
I was 14. The Vietnam war was in full swing. My parents marriage was a battleground of violence and silence. And then there were the hormones surging through my teenage body, amplifying the intensity of…um…everything.
War was raging within and without.
No wonder I felt at home in front of the violent imagery that screamed from the canvas.
Standing in front of Guernica, I felt known.
I felt revealed.
I’d never seen a painting that was so emotionally naked, raw. Standing before the painting stripped me of my defenses. Picasso’s anguished imagery seemed to pull the personal suffering and drama out of my body and hand them back to me saying, “Look. Look deeply and feel.”
I looked deeply and kept breathing.
Breathing in, I could feel the suffering that Picasso had encoded into the paint.
It included my suffering, my parents’ suffering, the suffering of those bombed villages in Spain and Vietnam. Breath‐by‐breath I found myself opening to an experience of suffering, struggle, violence and anguish at a more‐than‐personal level.
My suffering became a thread in the fabric of human suffering.
With each in‐breath, I felt my heart was being broken open, expanding to accept the anguish of the world and the unintegrated, warring, conditions of my life.
This was a lot to take in.
At first I noticed myself backing away from the painting. The mirroring power was so intense. But, for some reason, I didn’t turn away. I stood still and allowed the experience to unfold.
Over the weeks of returning to the painting, I learned to expect the intensity of emotions and sensations.
I discovered how to just feel the suffering; to keep my alienation on the sensations, without ruminating on my personal history or current events. I wasn’t pushing away my family situation. I wasn’t ignoring the tragedy of the war. I was just opening to the experience of my heart being broken open.
And as the heart broke open, the details of personal and cultural history evaporated in the fire of pure feeling. As the associations and amplifications of history evaporated, what remained?
A feeling, without history, that pierced my heart.
A pure, piercing sensation unencumbered by personal or cultural history that pierced my heart with a searing and simple intensity. When I was able to open and simply allow that feeling to move through me, something totally unanticipated happened.
A deep feeling of peace arose on its own.
I didn’t expect peace.
I didn’t know what to expect. If I thought about it at all, I imagined that life, and my life, was filled with endless angst and exhaustion; that my mind and heart—to say nothing of the world—would be caught in a perpetual drama of conflict and struggle.
But, my experience was suggesting something else.
The sacred mirror was revealing: there is a way to meet suffering without struggle. That there was a peace which—as the Bible suggests—is beyond understanding. A peace that is real, tangible, and beyond the mind’s capacity to predict, conceive and, thankfully, control.
The painting was teaching me that there was a way to be with the turmoil of life without adding additional drama or emotion.
I didn’t need to figure out how to fix my life or heal my family. (I couldn’t anyway!)
The more I fought the chaos or pitied myself against the turmoil of my life, the longer I would stay caught in the suffering.
Of course, at the time I didn’t know what I was learning.
I was just drawn to the painting week after week. I didn’t have words to describe the process. I just performed the ritual, breathing and burning. I made my weekly pilgrimage to stand, undefended, before the sacred mirror and open to the fire of purification. Which brings us to a question…
What’s your spiritual mirror?
Where do you go to look into spiritual mirror and allow your heart to be pierced all the way through to peace?
One thing’s for sure—you don’t have to go to the MOMA. The Guernica isn’t even there anymore. It’s in Spain.
No worries. You don’t have to go a museum. You don’t have to go anywhere in particular. All you have to do is be still and look at what’s right in front of you.
Wherever you look, there’s a sacred mirror.
When you look—really look—at your boss, child, lover, spouse, parents, your heart will be pierced. They’re mirrors one and all. Everyone is.
Money, work, health, the environment, the world—more mirrors!
The challenge isn’t finding a mirror. The challenge is developing your capacity to stop—really stop—and face fully that which is being revealed.
The mirror is revealing what needs to be seen.
Life will continue to reflect for you whatever needs attention and loving awareness. Whatever is unredeemed, unrecognized, unintegrated, will appear in the sacred mirror of your life.
The key is to stop, be still and look deeply.
The practice is simple and also searing. It will pierce your heart.
Breath by breath you will burn through your conditioning.
That’s why it’s a practice not an item on the to‐do list that you can check off.
It’s meditation practice.
The practice of simple, searing, sacred seeing is meditation.
Of course, when we start practicing meditation it’s usually anything but simple, searing or sacred. It’s more scattered and unsettling.
We take a breath—and then the mind jumps around, spinning into stories and associations without seeming to take a break.
But, as you return to the practice daily, you cultivate the capacity to look deeply and be still.
Meditation practice transforms the tendency to turn away.
Instead of turning away from the sacred mirrors of your life, you turn toward what’s calling for attention.
You face the sacred mirror without flinching, reacting, or turning away.
You breathe and open to the peace that is beckoning.
Through daily, gentle, wise, consistent practice, you cultivate the (neurological, psychological, emotional, attentional) capacity to open to whatever the mirror reveals. You can start right now. Right where you are.
Author: Eric Klein
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own
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