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Broken Open

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

Some of my favourite excerpts…

The Persian poet Rumi says, The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.

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I’ve tried both ways: I have gone back to sleep in order to resist the forces of change. And I have stayed awake and been broken open. Both ways are difficult, but one way brings with it the gift of a lifetime.

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But perhaps the most profound of the tools we have at our disposal is the simple act of telling our stories to other human travelers—in a circle around the fire, at the back fence with a neighbor, or at a kitchen table with family and friends. Since the beginning of history we human beings have gathered together, talking and crying, laughing and praising, trying to make sense of the puzzling nature of our lives. By sharing our most human traits, we begin to feel less odd, less lonely, and less pessimistic. And to our surprise, at the core of each story—each personal myth—we uncover a splendid treasure, a source of unending power and sweetness: the shining soul of each wayfarer.

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Call the Poetry Bazaar. The exercise is a sort of spiritual parlor game; it’s a deep icebreaker. At the start of a workshop, I spread more than a hundred slips of paper on the floor of the classroom. On each is printed a short poem or quotation by a wise thinker—people as diverse as the poet Rumi and the American comedian George Carlin. I ask the participants in the workshop to wander around the room, shopping for a poem, looking for one that tells the secret story of their heart. I encourage them to do some comparison shopping, to pick up a couple of pieces of paper and try on different sayings and quotations for style and size. Then, when the choices have been made, we gather in a circle and each person reads his or her slip aloud. Some people talk to the group about what the saying means to them. They tell us a story and let us into their lives. Others let the poems speak for themselves, something that a good poem can do. I have come to trust the power of a few well-chosen words to reveal to the world something I cannot say, or don’t want to say, or didn’t even know I needed to say until I saw it spelled out in front of me in the prophetic hand of the poet.

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No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. —ALBERT EINSTEIN

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The soul comes to earth to learn lessons, not to get married, or stay married, or to take this job or that job. You have been asking the wrong question. It’s not whether or not to stay married. The question,” she said, leaning closer to me, “is what lesson does your soul want to learn? Do you know?”

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The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “If our senses were fine enough, we would perceive the slumbering cliff as a dancing chaos.” He meant that literally: A rocky cliff is indeed a mass of dancing atomic particles, spinning and vibrating at tremendous speeds. This book you are holding, the chair you are sitting on, your own body—none are what they seem to be. Book, chair, body—everything is circling in a cosmic dance, appearing to us as solid form, yet if our senses were fine enough, we would stand around with our mouths hanging open at the glory and grace of it all. We would sense the presence of mystery everywhere: the angels keeping us safe as we drive home from work; the spirits hovering around our children; the thin waft of light pointing us in the direction of The Road of Truth. All we can do is try to refine our senses. We can try to quiet the noise in our minds, listen for deeper instructions, and leap without fear beyond what we think is so.

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In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods Where the straight way was lost. —DANTE ALIGHIERI

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In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. —RAINER MARIA RILKE

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The poet Rilke writes, In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.

Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open. —RUMI

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We’re all bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. —WAVY GRAVY

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Every single person on this bus called Earth hurts; it’s when we have shame about our failings that hurt turns into suffering.

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But we are on the bus that says BOZO on the front, and we worry that we may be the only passenger onboard. This is the illusion that so many of us labor under—that we’re all alone in our weirdness and our uncertainty; that we may be the most lost person on the highway.

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We are built to make mistakes, coded for error. —LEWIS THOMAS

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“Now, turn back to your partner and answer this question: Why are you really here? This is a conference about spirituality. What really drew you here? What’s going on in your heart of hearts that caused you to take the time to join this group of people, in this room, on this day? Why are you really here?

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I gave them more time to travel a few layers beneath the surface, a few layers down into the soul realms.

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“The soul,” I said, “was the one who just answered the question ‘Why are you really here?’ It is the wise and whole and brave part of the self. The soul is the ageless longing for truth that sends scientists into the lab and seekers onto the spiritual path.”

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What is the knocking at the door in the night? It is somebody wants to do us harm. No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them. —D. H. LAWRENCE

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Angels trying to get our attention. An illness or loss or heartbreak is often a Hideous Damsel, or a Sleeping Giant, or a Strange Angel who wants to help us evolve. In times of upheaval, we have two choices: We can relate to our circumstances as messengers from the deep, or we can shut down, defend our position, and add another layer of protection to the castle wall.

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People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive…so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. —JOSEPH CAMPBELL

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The most momentous situation—the loss of a child, a serious illness, a national tragedy—has the power to transform one’s life, but so do less traumatic events. It’s all in the way we approach the changing nature of life; it’s all in the courage to say yes to whatever comes our way; it’s in the way we listen for the messages in the flames and dig for the treasure in the ashes.

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The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. —VICTOR FRANKL

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Here is the Book of thy Descent, Here begins the Book of the Holy Grail, Here begin the terrors, Here begin the miracles. —THE GRAIL LEGEND

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I have learned how suffering only increases when I demand of life that “this should not be happening to me.”

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And in the ashes of what had been, I began to dig up my soul. I discovered that the soul requires a lot more interior time than we normally give it in our jam-packed schedules. Before MS I was always overriding a whispered invitation to just “be” with a whole lot of doing. I began to notice how so much of what we do each day is really a way of avoiding the deep and quiet voice of the soul.

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What ensued will go down in the record of my heart as one of those rare times in life when you finally rest—when you put down the burden of striving and a sense of well-being spreads like honey into every corner of your consciousness. There was nowhere else to go, nothing to do, no one to be—just now, just this precious day, these shared breaths with a friend.

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In our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. —AESCHYLUS

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We came to understand that, although we do not have control, we do have choice.

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There are three major hurdles to overcome in crisis: dealing with pain; working with your attitude; and using the crisis as a wake-up and a cleanup call.

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In the end, what will matter is how much we loved—our children, our mates, our families, our friends, everyone we knew, everyone who traveled with us during our brief visit to this unbearably lovely place. What will matter is the good we did, not the good we expected others to do.

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Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese wise man Lao Tzu counseled, In times of adversity, make energetic progress in the good. This is still the real work at hand: for each one of us to meet the bad in the world with the good in our own hearts. To energetically rouse ourselves out of tired habits and worn-out loyalties and replace them with bigger and broader circles of inclusion.

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If we do the hard work of a Phoenix Process, when we lose someone we love then we find ourselves blessed with more love than we ever knew existed. In a beautiful poem called “As I Walked Out One Evening,” W. H. Auden expresses in a few lines what to me is the essence of the Phoenix Process: O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.

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What burns and dies in a Phoenix Process is not necessarily the relationship itself but the untested ideals, the unexpressed truths, and the repressed energy of the lovers. What rises from the ashes are more vital and mature individuals who have learned how to give and receive the gift of love.

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There is some kiss we want with our whole lives. —RUMI

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What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate. —CARL JUNG

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But here’s the thing about marriages: Every one of them has a story that could end in divorce. That does not mean they all should. Nor does it mean that divorce will automatically raise the wreckage of the soul from the bottom of the sea. The rebirth of the soul is a much more arduous endeavor than merely getting a divorce, or changing jobs, or having a crisis crash over the flimsy structure of a life.

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What matters is that we take the deadness of the soul seriously; that we pay attention to the contents of the heart; that we ask the hard questions, and fearlessly face the hidden parts of the self. What matters, Jung says, is that we shine the light of consciousness in the dark corners of our life. What is not brought to consciousness, he says, comes to us as fate.

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The great epochs of life come when we gain the courage to re-christen our evil as what is best in us. —FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

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Now I know that when we show only our light side to the world, our shadow grows restless, sucking into itself much of our energy and passion.

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Wise people throughout the ages have talked about shadow energy, giving it the names and personalities of dark gods and goddesses, devils, and natural forces. From the Greek legends to the New Testament, we are told not to run from the evil forces that trouble our dreams or visit our lives. If we do, the exiled and dishonored shadow-self will triumph. Jung said that people tend to become what they ignore or oppose. He steered his patients away from resisting evil and toward transforming and redeeming it, or as he wrote, “putting the light of the superior functions at the service of the dark.”

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Persephone left the floral world of her mother (some say willingly, others say through abduction) to be with Hades, the king of the underworld. There, she found missing parts of herself and became a woman. It is said that Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, gained “Truth and the Art of Lovemaking” from her journey down below. Before she took the journey, many translations of the myth refer to Inanna as “the pure Inanna.” The pure Inanna descended into the shadows, lost her innocence, and emerged as the Goddess of Love. Dante’s pilgrim journeys through hell in search of his true love and his true life.

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lines from the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika: From the beginning I knew meeting could only End in parting, yet I ignored the coming dawn And I gave myself to you.

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Robertson Davies says, “One always learns one’s mystery, at the price of one’s innocence.”

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And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth. —JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

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The Holy Longing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Tell a wise person, or else keep silent. Because the massman will mock it right away. I praise what is truly alive, what longs to be burned to death. In the calm water of the love-nights, where you were begotten, where you burning. Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness, and a desire for higher lovemaking sweeps you upward. Distance does not make you falter, now, arriving in magic, flying, and finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly and you are gone. And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.

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But I realized then that I would have to be careful; I could give Goethe’s poem only to those willing to die and so to grow.

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Tale as old as time, Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange, Finding you can change, Learning you were wrong. —HOWARD ASHMAN AND ALAN MENKEN FROM BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

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I do not pray that they turn away from a Phoenix Process. Although the fire burns hot, it seems more painful to me to remain frozen in an unexamined relationship (or a soul-killing job, or a difficult loss, or an impending change) than to go into the unknown, through the fire, into the ashes, and out again into new life.

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Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.” —MARGARET WISE BROWN

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Normal is someone you don’t know very well. —ANONYMOUS

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That was the push I needed into a new Phoenix Process. In the light of the flames I began to see how my need to control extended far beyond my relationship with Michael. I made a practice of stopping myself every time I made a subtle (or not so subtle) attempt to change Michael’s behavior. I’d ask

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myself a few things: Who made me the authority on what was acceptable behavior? How did I know what was best for Michael? And even if I did, would forcing change really work? Wouldn’t patience and support work better than pressure and intolerance? As I became more honestly self-aware, I began to see the impatient, intolerant side of myself reflected everywhere.

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Rumi says: Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

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“What’s wrong?” I asked my heart. Am I worried about work? No answer. That disagreement my husband and I had last night? Nothing. Unsettled by the lack of routine in these childless summer months? “I just hate not having a routine,” I heard myself say. “I hate not knowing what the next weeks will bring.” My heart stirred a little. Go this way, it suggested. Maybe if I sat with the calendar and got a firmer grasp of my summer plans, I’d feel better.

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Japanese Zen master Bunan: Die while you’re alive and be absolutely dead. Then do whatever you want: it’s all good.

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The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small. —MOTHER TERESA

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We need wider circles, and titles that relate us to each other, rather than those that divide us into smaller and smaller groups—family groups, political groups, religious groups, racial groups, tribal groups. I think this may be the only way to save the world from the meagerness of our own hearts.

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whom we have exiled to the outside of the circle. A good question to ask is, Do I really need to keep that person on the outskirts anymore? What would it take to give him or her a new title? Haven’t I stayed angry or shut down long enough? Vengeance or protection or coldheartedness may have served a purpose in the past, but could forgiveness be a better balm now? If so, take a few small steps toward expansion. Push gently on the edges of your circle, and see if there is room within it for the exiled ones. And like the proverbial pebble thrown in the pool, as your circle widens it will ripple out and set a widening pattern in motion for the world.

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Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kiss the ground. —RUMI

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But trailing clouds of glory, do we come From God, who is our home. —WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

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But a woman who has fallen in love with her uterus knows that a contraction is really the uterus’s brilliant way of stretching the birth canal and loosening the cervix so that the baby can move down and out. If she fights back as her uterus does its work, she will only slow the progress of labor. If she greets the pain with all the love and respect she can muster, her cervix will stretch, her heart will break open, and her baby will be delivered. Although I am no longer a practicing midwife, I use the metaphor of falling in love with my uterus all the time. If I can approach change with an understanding of the process and an openness to the pain, then my daily labors will be swift and fruitful. As the surgeon Bernie Siegel says, “Life is a labor pain; we are here to give birth to ourself.”

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Rien ne se crée, rien ne se perd. (Nothing is born, nothing can die.) —ANTOINE-LAURENT LAVOISIER

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Let the young rain of tears come, Let the calm hands of grief come. It’s not all as evil as you think. —ROLF JACOBSEN

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Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? —MARY OLIVER “THE SUMMER DAY”

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We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. —MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE

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Death heightens our appreciation of every moment we are alive and calls out to us: ‘Soon you will die; what will you do with your life? What have you not done yet that you want to do?’ Death is the best kick in the ass I know. It is profoundly confrontational and profitable for students to contemplate.”

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He means that we can practice death by becoming conscious of the ways in which we resist life; we can practice death by approaching endings and partings and changes with more ease and faith.

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Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come. —INSCRIPTION ON RUMI’S TOMBSTONE

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When we practice dying, we are learning to identify less with Ego and more with Soul. —RAM DASS

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Size up the whole story, and not just your small piece of it.

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The secret in life is enjoying the passage of time. —RICHIE HAVENS

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One woman had spoken often about the miseries in her life. She seemed caught in an endless cycle of anger and regret. Central casting had sent her to the workshop for her own healing, and to teach others compassion, and the ability to sit patiently with someone else’s pain without trying to fix it. “Do you know the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, dear? He wrote a poem that ends like this: ‘In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.’ Isn’t that wonderful? Our problems are friendly! They are like hands that want to work on us. They want to make us strong.

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When grapes turn to wine, they long for our ability to change.When stars wheel around the North Pole, they are longing for our growing consciousness. —RUMI

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Rumi says: When grapes turn to wine, they long for our ability to change. When stars wheel around the North Pole, they are longing for our growing consciousness. Wine got drunk with us, not the other way.

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Turn and face the strain Ch-ch-Changes Oh, look out you rock ’n rollers… Pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older. —DAVID BOWIE

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Dante’s lines landed on my tongue, and I recited them aloud: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark woods, where the straight way was lost.”

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grace—was extraordinary. Trungpa did not teach people to pray for life to turn out a certain way. Instead, he encouraged his students to learn from the way life already was.

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the God that the Sufi poet Hafiz writes about: Not the God of names, Nor the God of don’ts, Nor the God who ever does Anything weird, But the God who only knows four words And keeps repeating them, saying: “Come dance with Me.”

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There was no telling how long this bigger perspective would last, but for the moment they all seemed to know something that God knows: that we are sent here to love each other and to help each other—that our lives are about each other.

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So much of what we do each day is a diversion from what our lives are really about. A traumatic event is like a knife slicing through our diversionary tactics and exposing the vein of truth—the truth of what we really want, of how we really feel, of the wrongs we have visited upon each other, of the love we crave from each other.

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Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist, once said that as he grew older he came to understand that it was not ideas that change the world but simple gestures of love given to the people around you, and often to those you feel most at odds with. He said that in order to save the world you must serve the people in your life. “You gradually struggle less and less for an idea,” Merton wrote, “and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

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MAN: Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken. PSYCHIATRIST: Well, why don’t you turn him in? MAN: I would, but I need the eggs. —WOODY ALLEN

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Drum sounds rise on the air, and with them, my heart. A voice inside the beat says, I know you are tired, but come. This is the way. —RUMI

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Still, it would have been nice to have that spirit house. Instead, I have the shards. I keep them in a basket in my writing room. They give me wise council; they remind me that, while I am never safe from breaking, I am always protected by spirit.

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peace of being present to whatever is happening. “Don’t visualize yourself anywhere but where you are,” I told the woman. “Be exactly who you are, wherever you are. That is the practice of meditation.”

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Can meditation cure us? No, but it can give us a platform to climb up to whenever we want to survey the scene. From that perspective, we get to see how we are not our depression—or our fear or anger or sadness—but that these are merely states of mind, conditions of the heart. Meditation shows us that we are something much stronger and vaster than our passing thoughts and feelings.

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Chinese sage Seng Ts’an, creates a big stir: Don’t keep searching for the truth; Just let go of your opinions.

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Sister Wendy Beckett, a marvelous Roman Catholic nun best known to the world from her books and television shows on art criticism, says this about prayer: I don’t think being human has any place for guilt. Contrition, yes. Guilt, no. Contrition means you tell God you are sorry and you’re not going to do it again and you start off afresh. All the damage you’ve done to yourself, put right. Guilt means you go on and on belaboring and having emotions and beating your breast and being ego-fixated. Guilt is a trap. People love guilt because they feel if they suffer enough guilt, they’ll make up for what they’ve done. Whereas, in fact, they’re just sitting in a puddle and splashing. Contrition, you move forward. It’s over. You are willing to forgo the pleasures of guilt.

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I keep this prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh on my bed stand and sometimes say it aloud when I awaken in the morning: Waking up this morning, I smile, Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

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Julian of Norwich: All will be well, And all will be well, And all manner of things Will be well.

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