The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
–Pat Schneider, from “Instructions for the Journey”
Some changes are volcanic explosions creating enormous, sudden upheaval. Other changes floods our lives, rising slowly, then carrying us away in a torrent of heavy water. Some changes, however, happen slowly–an erosion that alters through perseverance, grain by grain changing the fabric of what we are to reveal what lies beneath.
Taking a break from the task of deleting folders and papers to create more space, I took a short drive north to explore a new location north of Santa Cruz. Walking the path along the edge of the cliff overlooking the coast, I came upon an area water had eroded into honeycombed textures, lines and shapes creating a fabulous miniature landscape.
Every few steps revealed new perspectives as shadow and light played inside crevices and cracks. Rippling across the sandstone’s face, it was clear everything I stood on had participated in an enormous process of ongoing revision–a perpetual becoming. Through eons of time, water and wind had rushed and rubbed against the shore, slowly changing it, a reminder that though we may not be consciously aware of it, the world and universe Earth is a part of are also constantly changing, revising, wearing away and being made new.
“Come into being as you pass away,” states the Gospel of Thomas, saying 42, and this is the experience of life. Like the earth we stand on, our bodies and our minds are in constant change. Every single grain of days can seem so precious. As a result, it can be very difficult to let the rub and rush of time change and reshape what we once were–what felt so stable and sure–to let that life flow out into an ocean of experience and be carried away into the vastness of eternity.
Like Earth’s ongoing process of revision, we, too, never arrive. Michelangelo for all his stunning achievement and accomplishment, at age 88 speaking his last words as he transitioned into his death stated, “I’m still learning.” We’re never finished with the effort of our own life, the imagination and dreams that carry us to another plain or into a wider circle of being. As everything is in continuous movement, we can recognize we are part of a great cosmic dance the universe’s music is listening to.
Nature’s rhythms are immensely complex. Age and time working in accordance with their own internal rules, combined with the interactions of all that exists within and beyond our spheres, who can say exactly where life might take any of us? A practice of cultivating an attitude of letting go some of what once held us can be beneficial, allowing the possibility of creating something else in our lives equally as beautiful or meaningful.
The journey between birth and death is meant to expand us. If we don’t voluntarily revise our lives at certain points, time will eventually require us to do so. As we age, we accumulate losses, and loss can be deeply disheartening and painful. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in her poem, “I Celebrate My Body,” describes the difficulty of living with the body’s erosion time carries us into,
that body that suddenly couldn’t move,
the hand that couldn’t hold a pen or open a cap,
that body that couldn’t turn over in the bed.
Each new thing I can do—
close my hand around the pill bottle,
hold a book,
write my name—
I even celebrate my faltering step,
my one leg dragging.
These and other movements we take for granted
until we can no longer do them
and only then, do we learn gratitude
Loss, as Gillian wisely understands, can also deepen our awareness of life’s gifts. When it becomes nearly impossible for the body to do what you wish, as Gillan points out, each small gesture the body allows, can also increase awareness and gratitude for the body, in spite of its limitations. Though difficult and painful to live with, loss of the body’s previous abilities can also cultivate greater depth of spirit.
Life is a pilgrimage, a journey toward understanding and awareness, every day a kind of birth and a death, an ongoing transformation like grains of sand streaming their way through eternity’s great ocean. Pilgrims want to arrive at their destination, explains Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, in her piece titled “Arriving With Every Step” on Emergence Magazine, but the journey itself is what is of central importance. When setting out, “…allow point A and point B to give way to possibility, to mystery. You are meant to allow the journey to do its work on you,” she writes. When pilgrims begin a journey, they set out with an intention. Every moment is an arrival and a departure, and our intentions and observations during the journey help shape reality of the experience. Physicist and chaos theorist Robert Lanza in his article “How Do We Collectively Determine Reality and the Structure of Space Time Itself,” writes, “…a single conscious observer can completely define this structure, leading to a collapse of the waves of probability, largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in her mind throughout her lifespan.
All of this supports a profound shift in our everyday worldview―a change from the long-held belief that the physical world is a pre-formed entity that just exists “out there” to one in which it belongs to the observer. As we and other scientists continue to explore this new line of research, it is becoming increasingly clear how intimately we are connected with the structure of the universe on every level.”
We are connected to the physical world, are influenced and shaped by it and can learn by observing it. The world is full of wonder, but wonder is also made of more than light glistening off the ocean’s surface at sunset. Earth is wild. Falling rock, earthquakes and tsunamis are all an integral part of what forms the world and shapes its wonders. The slow wearing away of earth can be treacherous, leading to a calamitous fall.
Similarly, trauma humans suffer can affect one’s future. Andrew Curry reports in Science magazine, that a biologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Michael Skinner’s recent studies hypothesize that trauma people experience affects the behavior of our cells and can be passed on in ways that affect parents’ offspring.
Pain, sorrow and death are inevitable, yet it is our vulnerability with others that allows us to enter into deep relationship, and to nurture life that regenerates. What we think or observe and the trauma we experience affects not only our lives, but the generations coming after us as well. Enduring through unending erosion is not guaranteed to be pleasant. To prepare ourselves ahead of life’s erosion, we can gather resources: favorite films, poems, photos, art, pieces of literature, and nurture relationships that hold us up and give us hope. We can learn skills of gardening, drawing, dance, or music. We can create and practice rituals we use to sustain us and feed our spirits. Our daily walks can become pilgrimages we set out on with specific intentions, perhaps leaving behind a gift or token, or perhaps we will choose to participate in longer pilgrimages. Always, we can practice gratitude.
It’s easy to miss the instructions for how to carry on through life’s many changes, Schneider says later in her poem, “Instructions for the Journey.” We have to listen and look with careful intention in order to fully notice what’s happening and what it means for us. “And if all that fails,” she writes,
wash your own dishes.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.
In other words, carry on your daily work, be present to the physical experience of the world around you. Live each moment aware that you are living.
Each of us are eroding into something new. But we are also participants in creating our lives. What we observe and attend to gains solidity, and expands.