I have recently been thinking a lot about something called “fixed mindset.” In her audiobook, Walking the Walk, Pema Chodron discusses the attitude of this state of being, which is characterized by closed- or narrow-mindedness, absolute thinking, judgment, a sense of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and ultimately an inherent inability to be present in a meaningful way.
So what about the opposite, what she calls “freedom from fixed mind?” Well, this is an attitude of openness, open-heartedness, ease, curiosity, generosity, and kindness. Pema states that this freedom can emerge as much from quiet moments of experiencing beauty as it can from trauma–times when we’re suddenly caught off guard, scared, worried, or surprised by something troubling.
This is what I wanted to reflect on here. I can, for example, recall with great precision the moment Sean was diagnosed. I remember the events leading up to it, as well as the arrow to the heart, so to speak, when the ER doc told me from across Sean’s bed, rather matter-of-factly, that he had to be transferred immediately to another hospital. Of course, this was just the beginning of a long journey, comprised of many large and intricate parts. Many of these elements are still influencing our lives today.
What I came to understand and for which I now have specific language, is that it was in fact this trauma that invited me, launched me, into “freedom from fixed mind.” Just as encountering a beautiful butterfly on a walk (which just happened to me yesterday) can capture our attention for a few moments and focus us into presence of mind, so can suffering do the same. Of course, the thoughts are usually dissimilar, as are the initial emotions. At the moment of the onset of suffering, there is most likely acute pain. But as we become more practiced at consciously witnessing the ebbing and flowing of our feelings, we can actually experience and evening-out, an opening, of these emotions, which translates into freedom, loosening of constriction, and even curiosity and kindness.
It is in this space, as we’re sitting at the bedside of our child, waiting for a test result, or even driving to the hospital for treatment, that it is possible to detach from the clenching, choose to breathe into the “trenpa,” or presence of mind, and find the spaciousness within us, which quite literally allows us to connect to the love and goodness around us.
In other words, the energy of loving-kindness flows from us outwards, touching others, and inviting them to experience this freedom themselves. If we choose, we can become the initial drop in the still water that creates ripples of goodness and wonder and love. We, even in our pain, can become a conduit of wholeness and possibility.
Does any of this resonate with you? How do you feel about the idea of freedom from fixed mind?
I figure two of the greatest questions in life are, Why do we suffer? and Where is God? Even further, if there is a God, why do we suffer? And further still, in our suffering, can we even find God?
Certainly, wiser people than I have grappled with these question for millennia. I am not here to strike down a proverbial gavel of truth to tell you I have discovered the answers.
I am, however, writing to share some brief thoughts, born out of study and contemplation and experience, that might be useful.
Father Richard Rohr teaches that, according to the Franciscan worldview, several tenets are true. First, all matter is evidence of the Incarnation of Christ. The Universal Christ (distinct from Jesus, whose last name was not Christ, by the way) is everywhere and in all things. The Divine permeates all matter. Following the way of St. Francis, Rohr states, “Let what you see…talk back to you. There is the discovery of the mutuality, the univocity, of being.”
Second, the particular leads us to the universal. In other words, the more we pay attention to the details of our own journeys by asking questions, going deep, investigating the workings of our own souls, the more connected we become to the universal issues of the same themes. Our micro leads us to the macro and, again, to the interconnectedness of every living thing and every larger, more comprehensive system.
Third, the only way to see the evidence of the Divine in everything, the Incarnation of Christ, is through suffering. This is the way to “experiential salvation,” as James Finley describes it. Only through pain and sadness can we truly know we are actually connected to the Divine. Only when we experience disconnection can we, at the same time, understand that we are inherently aligned with God.
If the Christian perspective and tradition resonate with you, I imagine you will be comfortable with using “God” in these contexts. But in truth, the veracity of these teachings is independent from the name we give to this greater presence. If Source or Source Energy feels more comfortable, then use that. Or perhaps you prefer the Divine or Spirit or Oneness Consciousness. It doesn’t matter. The only important thing here is that we agree we are part of a greater whole. At the same time we exist in form, we are also infused with spirit–with the “energy that creates worlds” (Abraham). As Jung explains, “God named or not named still is.”
All of this brings me back to my musings on all of this and specifically to a short interaction I recently experienced with Sean and his sisters. He received his First Holy Communion two weeks ago, and on the way to the church I explained this to his sisters and him. I told them that, according to our faith, we receive the Body of Christ for the first time when we are around 7 or 8. That before that, we are not permitted to receive. This is why it is such a special occasion and an important Sacrament.
But then I added this. Even though this is what our faith teaches us, I want you to know, as I tell you all the time, that God resides in your heart always. You belonged to God, to Source Energy, before you were born, and you were, are, and always will be one with the Divine, because He lives in you. So let’s enjoy and celebrate your First Eucharist. And at the same time, I personally choose, in accordance with the desert fathers, contemplatives, and Catholic Mysticism, that it is a reminder, an affirmation, of what is already true. You are already the tabernacle; you are already the vessel for eternal “One-ing,” as many contemporary mystics call it.
For the past 18 months, Sean has been my greatest teacher. His sweetness and sensitivity and kindness have always affirmed for me that the Divine resides in all things. But it was his experience through cancer that clarified my worldview. Sean’s journey affirmed for me how the particular and the personal lead us to the universal–how the details of our own lives resonate with others and theirs with ours and that the result, if we walk wholehearted and open, is our enhanced capacity for compassion and understanding. These months with Sean also revealed to me how suffering, unexpected, unwanted, and often blindingly scary, in its ability to break us open and expose us to vulnerability, is the very seed of, indeed an invitation to, growth and evolution.
My contemplation upon the Franciscan worldview, particularly its tenet on suffering, recently led me to this explanation from James Finley, which resonates deeply with me:
These struggles….remind us of [our humanity]. We are not exempt from the human condition. There’s a kind of humility in the willingness to walk with our limitations….But if we let them, [these struggles], they become our teachers. They help us hand [them] over to God–accept ourselves as we are. [For] we learn to do for ourselves with God’s Grace. God [helps] us by transforming us with His love. There is a heightened capacity to be spaciously present. This love is qualitatively richer than what we were capable of [experiencing] before. We can see the changes happening. And we can be more that way, [loving and open], with others.
James Finley, Turning to the Mystics Podcast, St. Teresa of Avila, Fourth Mansion
We may often remark how growth or learning is the result of pain in life, but here James Finley goes further in his explanation of how and why this is. It is not just that we become stronger from adversity–a true but in truth tired and obtuse expression. The process is a true “leveling up,” as Martha Beck calls it. First we must be willing to be humble in the face of struggle. Next we accept the love of Source and allow it to permeate and fill the spaciousness within us that was born of the pain. Finally, we are prepared for, and open to, true transformation. It is here that we find ourselves “qualitatively richer” than we were before the struggle came upon us.
All of this to conclude that, although words are useful for helping us express and share these ideas, as Richard Rohr often says, “Words don’t teach.” It is only through experience that we can become intimate enough with these ideas that we might then be able to integrate them into our personal worldview.
Sean’s answer to my question, Where is God? for me epitomizes experiential knowing and salvation. Yet still a child, his understanding of inherent goodness and his own alignment with the Divine are real and profound. Should we be surprised that such truth emanates from children? From those who are so much closer to the mystical and spiritual than most of us so-called learned adults?
Yes, Sean. God resides in your heart. May we all take the time to be still, go within, and understand this eternal truth and mystery.
Today my heart is breaking open. Again. It’s Sean’s 8th birthday, and he is not with me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “breaking open” in recent years. What defined the wholeness before the break? Do we have to break? Do we remain “broken?” Can we actually heal and become whole again? And will we continue to break, or at the very least periodically crack, or can we find perpetual wholeness?
At this very time eight years ago, I was still “whole,” “intact.” I had just arrived at the hospital to birth someone new into the world. When I reflect on this now, the planned nature of the introduction strikes me as somewhat ironic. Just hours before I left for the hospital, I went for my morning run, and a neighbor boy, probably not more than 10 at the time, yelled out to me from his porch as I passed him, “Hey, Mrs. McGlinn! Aren’t you having a baby today?” I distinctly recall smiling back at him and answering, “Yes, yes I am.” I was to be induced, you see, due to my AMA–advanced maternal age. And so, in my routined and disciplined fashion, I decided to keep to my schedule and take my run. I had planned to then gather my packed bags and go have a baby.
And that’s what I did.
Only several hours later, Sean Albert Lindner McGlinn introduced himself properly. No longer was he an image on an ultrasound. He was, as Pinocchio claimed himself at the end of the story, “a real boy.” Although his birth was scheduled, this was the first unexpected revelation on my journey with this child. I admit, my deepest self knew he was going to be a boy, but apparently she didn’t share with the group. I had assumed Sean would be a girl, my third girl, and so I had absolutely nothing for him. No “boy” anything. I can still recall ordering clothes and decorations for his nursery from the hospital bed. There was a certain excitement about all this. Beneath it, however, I was asking myself, What am I going to do with a boy? I don’t know anything about boys.
The breaking open continued. My body had opened to realize new life, and when it did, a new energy had emerged in me as well. This brand new human had called forth a new spirit from inside me. I had been birthed again. I was being called to a renewal of myself–one that can only result from, yes, a breaking open, both physically and energetically.
For a long time now, I’ve asked myself, How do I manage the ever-changing conditions of a heart that is sometimes whole and full, and then responds to suffering and sadness by cracking and shrinking? The answer today is the same as ever. If the heart wants to, let it crack and shrink and ache. Let it do as it will. Accept the feeling. Sit with it. Allow it to be. Invite it to whisper it’s secrets or fears or worries. As the waves flow towards the shore, they also recede. This is the cyclic nature of energy, of the life cycle.
And so back to the present and how I’m feeling today on Sean’s birthday without him. These past eight years have been full of sufferings and joys, retreats and renewals. I have witnessed and experienced the dissolution of a marriage; single parenthood; Sean’s walk through cancer. As I have traveled these life paths, I have come to know this for sure. Life doesn’t call us to ease and success or even happiness. These are all wonderful when they occur, and they do. They will. But the purpose of life is to live. It is to break open, expand, flourish, get quiet, retreat, and begin again. Over and over and over. This is evolution. This is growth. Nature reveals it everyday, in every new branch, every new bud, every new baby bird that breaks free from its shell, gains strength, and flies away from its nest.
Today my heart hurts, and the cracks are palpable. I long to tangibly hold my little boy, look in his eyes and tell him how proud I am of him and how much I love him. But that is not to be today. It is, though, this very suffering that at the same time invites greater conscious, spiritual strength, and evolution. Like the actual birth process, it is through pain, the breaking open, that new life, ready to live and thrive, comes into the world.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of Kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. In this tradition, indeed an art form, rather than reassemble a broken vessel with an invisible adhesive, the pieces are joined with a gold-, silver-, or platinum-dusted lacquer. The result is a vessel, which, with its visible, organic, non-linear “flaws,” appears even more beautiful, valuable, and stronger than it was in its “whole” unblemished form.
As I sit with these feelings today, as I share them with you, I will continue to reflect on how my breaking open and healing assist my evolution. I will witness my own sadnesses and joys and choose contemplation and compassion over sustained depression and self-criticism. I will remain committed to living this life with all its whole-hearted happiness and cracks of disappointments. Because in the end, the point is not to live unscathed, but rather, to remain open to elevation and meaning.
Is it possible to live in a state of perpetual wholeness? No and yes. Broken hearts are inevitable, but even when we experience them, we can also choose to remain open to love and goodness and compassion. And as they flood into the broken places, like the glimmering elements of Kintsugi, they fill the cracks, soon to make us whole and vibrant and full of life once again.
You know, I’ve come to understand over the years that being able to observe correlations between macro and micro events in life is exceedingly useful and helpful.
It is no wonder that there is such a correlation. If everything is spiritual, if we are all vibrationally connected (as I believe we are), then it only makes perfect sense that the communities, country, and world we inhabit mirror our everyday, more personal and individual, lives.
To the extent that the world is on fire with fear and anxiety and blame and criticizing and victimization, is it any wonder so many of us are personally in crisis? Is it really at all surprising that we live in a society where the least among us are voiceless? And by this I am here writing specifically of children.
In this culture, like most, I would assume, children, while held up as precious and deserving of every protection, are often treated as little more than pawns and what happens to them is seen as collateral damage.
I am tired of hearing “in the best interest of the children.” Save it. Just stop it. Based on the decisions I’ve witnessed in the therapeutic, medical, and legal systems in my personal life and in the lives of those around me, the expressions of concern are almost always pure drivel. They are empty and specious.
Children of all ages are tossed around between households with NO SAY. They are forced to be in homes they hate and spend time with people who often don’t care what they want.
In an age of conscious and connected parenting, when some of us are using a great deal of mental, spiritual, and physical energy to listen to our kids, to respect their need to express themselves, and to offer them the freedom to be who they are, most adults are still committed to “do as I say, because I said so,” and “I don’t care what you think; you’re just a kid.”
I have said it for years and I still believe this: releasing children from abuse by allowing them to speak freely and live outside of fear and oppression is the next frontier in the realm of human rights.
Does it really still not occur to so many that the reason there are so many confused, angry, anxious adults is that so many of them suffered severely in childhood? The abusive parents themselves are testament to this.
My heart hurts for all these children. Like so many of you, I want more than anything to offer my children optimal opportunities for growth and evolution. My greatest value and my deepest desire for them is simply this: freedom.
When will we have the courage to truly protect and serve? Our children are waiting for adults to finally grow up and do the right thing.
How often do we refer to the parent-child relationship as a power struggle? Who has the power? The bigger, louder, sometimes out-of-control grown-up, or the smaller weaker, sometimes out-of-control kid? When a toddler throws a tantrum, who has the power? The screaming parent or the shrieking child who’s pulling the posters off his wall?
When a parent is angry and yelling, and the child is quiet and intimidated, who holds it then? There seems to be little doubt who holds more power. But is this so? Superficially, yes. But it is pretty evident that this is not only misused power, but it is also at the very least ineffective and at the worst destructive in the long term.
What about when a child is angry and screaming and the parent is evasive, unavailable, and non-responsive? Who holds the power then? Now the child is in charge, as it were. But this can be destructive too, can’t it? A cowering parent and an aggressive child is also a destructive dynamic in which neither party feels heard and seen and understood. This doesn’t lead to evolution either.
So what of these power struggles? Power itself is not inherently bad. It is how we interpret and use power that matter most. In other words, power over another always leads to the devaluing of the other, as well as the toxic inflation of the one in control.
Empowerment of self, however, well that’s another thing altogether. To be self-empowered, to be fully present to one’s own voice and truth, is to align with nothing less than one’s highest truth. And this truth, in its essence, is love. It is eternal. It is the continuous infilling and outpouring of itself.
In every relationship, then, even in the dance that is the parent-child dynamic, if one uses power to exert her will on another, this is not love. If one tries to control or manipulate the other, this power is not love. It is only through empowerment, indeed fulfillment, of self that we can be in the presence of our parent or child (the “other”) and find alignment, regardless of the conditions the other presents.
Love can only exist when the scorching destructive flames of power give way to the cooling life-giving waters of freedom and evolution.
I like to run in the mornings, before the sun gets too hot and the Mid-Atlantic humidity sets in.
My route stays pretty much the same. I meander through various neighborhoods, down quiet winding roads, past farms and ponds where geese and ducks waddle around and swim, where swans glide with seeming effortlessness across the water, and then in the park where I follow a paved path, passing people walking their dogs, kids riding bikes, and older couples holding hands.
My hours in nature have always been a refuge for me. I have discovered that time alone in the open air amidst the vistas of farmland, crossing tree-covered bridges, and running through the sun-dappled patches of grass and pebbles allow my soul to breathe. I have always needed solitude and space. I had a therapist ages ago who said to me on my first visit, “You may be small, but you need wide pastures.” He hit that existential nail on the head. Rainy days in the park are the best. It is often expectedly empty. All the smart runners stay home and dry. Every so often, though, I will see another dedicated runner across the field, and I am (ridiculously) disappointed. Rats, I say to myself. I thought I was alone.
Every time I venture outside for my walks and runs, I learn something new or see something new or think about life in a new way. This is the gift of nature, as many teachers before me have witnessed. Franciscan priest, teacher, and modern-day mystic, Richard Rohr, teaches that (as St. Francis himself believed) nature is the first true scripture. This resonates with me deeply. All of life, its challenges and sufferings and pain and beauty and wonder and joy, is reflected in every element of nature. Every budding wildflower. Every nascent pine cone. Every intricate gossamer-like spider web. They all reflect the spirit of the cosmos.
And so it was again for me today. As I ran down one of the quiet roads past a pond, I could hear the geese in the distance. As I approached the pond, there they were, visiting and swimming and seemingly enjoying the morning. Soon afterwards, I heard mourning doves, cooing and chatting as they do. And then I saw them, sitting happily on a wooden fence, and as I approached, they flew away to perch on a tree branch.
Then quite suddenly, I ran through a veritable valley of perfume. The air was saturated with the scent of honeysuckle and roses. It nearly took my breath away with its beauty and perfection. The fragrance of flowers hovered around me like a morning mist, but invisible to the eye. And it was this inability to see the source of such sweetness that actually heightened my awareness and appreciation of the moment.
I searched around me, but I saw no honeysuckle bushes, no blossoming roses. Unlike the geese and mourning doves that had made their presence known to me, the flowers remained allusive and intangible.
And yet, their perfume affirmed their presence. The joy I felt in being cloaked with their scent was palpable and real and true. Because I felt this deeply, I also trusted they were there around me, somewhere. This knowing was enough. This satisfaction and engagement with ethereal and unseen beauty was enough.
Almost immediately, I realized that this seemingly mundane experience was no less than an affirmation of, and invitation into, deeper faith. Faith in what? In knowing that the “energy that creates worlds” (Abraham) is around and in us at every moment. That God, Source, unitive consciousness, are present in the eternal now, which is the continual outpouring of “beingness” itself. “Faith,” as Abraham tells us, “is believing in something before we see it in its manifested state.” In other words, it is the knowing that the thing, the event, the person, the opportunity are here for us, available to us, even if and when we can’t see them—yet.
I heard the geese and doves and then I saw them playing before me. As we learn to trust and as our faith grows, it is important to have these experiences where the invisible is easily manifested. These experiences teach us to trust our faith—trust our knowing. We learn that we need not second-guess ourselves, fear that what we envision or feel or desire won’t come. These easy, quotidian experiences smooth the resistance along our spiritual paths. We can meditate on a blue bird or on our dream job. We can contemplate a happy interaction at the market or the resolution of illness. They are the same things where energy is concerned. The only question is, am I resisting the manifestation because I don’t believe it will come? Because I don’t have faith?
So when I experienced the honeysuckle and roses and didn’t literally see them, I smiled. I was satisfied, because I knew they were there. Their perfume was a gift—a glorious reminder that I can feel deeply, have a high vibrational emotional response without needing to see the flowers themselves.
These are the everyday moments we are invited to experience and contemplate and in which we can find meaning. “Everything is spiritual,” as Rob Bell writes. “Experiential salvation,” as James Finley when discussing mysticism explains it, is all around us in the world if we choose it. “The fiery power [of Divine love] is hidden in everything that has being,” as Hildegard writes.
I will continue to take my walks and run outside. I hope you find ways to move meaningfully through nature, too, wherever it takes you. The mysteries are always calling us. Spirit, faith, love are always beckoning. Can we try and consistently experience the perfect perfume of a flower and be satisfied, even if we can’t see it? When we can, and the more we can, we will understand that we are truly powerful co-creators in this interconnected universe that is ever unfolding within and around us.
I have come to understand that most of our suffering arises from looking to others for their approval, affirmation, and proof that we matter.
This is learned, socially and culturally sanctioned. This is not in any way true. Not at all.
When we learn to go within, to understand that we are worthy because the very core of us is aligned at all times with “the energy that creates worlds” (Abraham), we will no longer search outside ourselves for meaning.
True belonging is our birthright; it was ours before we came here and it is ours for all eternity.
I first published this piece in February of 2019, a little over one month before our lives forever changed in the face of Sean’s diagnosis. I wanted to present it again now, in May of 2020,as we both celebrate Sean’s wellness, and also discern how to manage macro and micro fear and anxiety in the face of global pandemics.
As I write this introduction, I experience a kind of almost inexpressible strangeness. It’s somehow ominous, reading the words I wrote a year ago about worry and adversity, literally on the brink of being hurled into suffering I had never even imagined would touch my experience, let alone shape it. It’s the kind of feeling we have when we’ve been in a car accident and recall what we were doing or saying or what music we were listening to on the radio just moments before everything changed. This is an eery, strange sensation. Maybe we look there to try and make sense of the trauma. Maybe we are trying to control our reaction. Maybe we are even trying to change the outcome–as if that were possible.
What I am able to understand now, though, as I revisit what I was pondering on the eve of Sean’s diagnosis, is that the movement towards greater clarity and discernment is the very essence of life. We break open, fill the emptiness or the wound with salve, heal, and then break open again. And we do this, not at the same place, not at the place of the most recent wound, but at a different one. It might feel like the same one, but it’s not, for we have grown since the last breaking open.
When I wrote these words, searching for clarity and understanding in 2019, I of course, had no idea of what was to come. But what I am able to see now is that I was, even then, undergoing this continual reaching and leveling up, breaking open and healing. When Sean was diagnosed, I wasn’t prepared for adversity, but I was ready for it. In a strange, beautiful, mystical way, I was indeed ready. And as Abraham says, living an awakened, conscious life is the willingness to “be ready to be ready to be ready….”
That’s all we can really do, isn’t it? And so this is what I commit to everyday: staying open, living open- and whole-hearted. I’m not always successful and don’t actually want to be. The contrast is the seed of evolution. So we continue to face forward and choose alignment whenever possible. Who knows what will come of that?
I have been thinking a lot lately about how to manage my desire, and feeling like I need, to act in the face of adversity versus just being. Sometimes I call this surrendering. Sometimes I call it just accepting the “as is.” Regardless, though, of what I name it, the ability to be still in the midst of chaos comes from embodying the essence of the “I am.”
To be able to rest in the “I am” is to identify with Divine oneness, God, Source, light that lives in all of us. From here, we can choose to take action, which is sometimes warranted, or we can remain still and silent.
The latter choice is the one I’m pondering now. The desire to react and even respond in the face of an attack or criticism or unkind deed by another is so strong. We want to retaliate, to speak up, to be right. But here’s the thing; just because we’re right, or feel we are, doesn’t necessarily mean we should take any action at all. And this is the tough part, because we live in a world in which we are defined by our doing, not by are being.
In light of this desire to further understand stillness in the presence of chaos, this passage shown here from the Tao resonates deeply with me.
“Because [the Master] doesn’t display himself, people can see his light.” The one who remains still is enlightened. Even in the midst of others’ loud or aggressive egos, the Master rises above the din, not because he is louder, but because he is quiet.
“Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words.” Again, when he acts or speaks out of his essence rather than ego, he is trustworthy, because he accepts the “as is;” others’ approval of is inconsequential.
“Because he doesn’t know who he is, people recognize themselves in him.” In other words, because he is not fixed to any dogma, belief, or institution, others can easily identify with him and thus feel an intimate connection, a oneness with him.
These passages are elegant and deeply inspiring. As I continue to evolve into my own wholeness, as my triggers lessen, as my desire to be right and to react diminishes, the Tao comforts and inspires me. This is the way.