Thoughts On Faith
This week is the start of our journey together. I want you to know how much it means to me that you’re here. This program is the culmination of so much work—depending on how you look at it, it could be seen as a few years or a lifetime worth of lessons—and regardless of how much you take from it, your willingness to be here and invest in me and yourself is everything. I can’t wait to learn from you.
This week is about faith. In preparation, I’ve been ruminating about it a lot. I know for many, faith is a tricky, sticky word. I grew up going to Catholic church and I never felt much of anything sitting in the beautiful church in my little hometown in Colorado with the epic stained glass windows and dark chestnut wood pews. I was young and most often bored during mass, trying to find games to play with my brother to pass the time. The priest’s words didn’t make sense to me—he was really old and had a dry, monotone voice that seemed almost cartoonish. So, I wouldn't say that wasn’t my introduction to faith, but as I've thought back, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sense of connection to…something. Even in that church I felt it.
I can first trace it back to words. Books made me feel found. They were a private space I could retreat to that felt safe, but they also helped me understand the world. They provided a transmission line into a deeper wisdom that went beyond the stories I was reading. Do you know what I mean? I also feel it when I listen to certain music. Or when I look at the ocean. Or when I see my daughter’s freckles that are just like mine, only hers, on her much paler skin. Certain poems can do that, too. David Whyte says poetry is the language against which we have no defense, and I think that’s a perfect description of the grounds for faith. It is a space where I have no fight, nor the desire to fight. To me, it is not just a comfort (although comfort is nice, for sure) but a rearrangement of my perception—if only for a moment—that allows me to see clearly beyond myself, and wholly enough to go on.
Childlike faith gets worn by life and needs to form into a new, more mature thing that can support us. In my 20’s I thought I knew so much about life, about God, about the way the world works. I’d read so many books. I knew all the right teachers. I had a lot of knowledge.
And then, shit got real. Through marriage, becoming a mother, battling alcohol, and going through some incredibly deep losses, what I thought to be true was put to the fire. As Pema Chodron says, spirituality is kind of a game until the shit hits the fan. Well, my first real, adult shit-hitting-fan experience was my marriage. I loved him and yet, I had a deep, inexplicable urge to get the hell out of there. The pain of navigating that urge lasted years and years and in that time we had a baby girl, bought a house, built careers, had major losses and wins, and experienced a lot of life. Ultimately, we would separate and divorce and soon thereafter, I would hit the wall with drinking.
I’m speeding through a whole bunch of years here, but trying to provide enough context to give color to the moment I want to talk about, which is this:
On a frozen Saturday in January of 2015, I decided to go for a run. A big Nor’easter storm had just passed through New England, which meant the sky was a deep grey and the air had a wild, dangerous quality. The path I run on lines the coast and even under normal weather conditions, the waves crash over the seawall at high tide. But after a storm, they surge over suddenly and with much more force, so you really have to pay attention. This—the crashing of the waves—and the moisture of the air from the storm, made it feel as though I was running through a volatile spray of ice. At less than a mile out, icicles formed on my eyelashes. I had to continually wipe my face to see.
I had been trying to get sober for over a year and a half by then. My husband and I were not yet divorced, but we'd been separated for over two years and we lived apart. Alma, our daughter, was with him that weekend and I was feeling untethered and scared of myself and lonely—like the outstretch of time in front of me was a cruel, cruel thing, not a field of possibility. My grief was disorganized and splattered all over the place—from losing drinking, losing friendships, losing our marriage, losing who I thought I was—I didn’t know how to distinguish its parts, it just pushed on me constantly.
And, I felt surges of promise and hope of what could be if I stayed sober. I had dipped my toe in for periods of time and I felt the raw promise of a clear-headed, full-hearted me. It was a slippery slope, though, a thing that always seemed just barely out of grasp. Definitely a thing that seemed impossible and un-wantable long-term.
On that morning before the run, I was filled with big, volatile energy: fear, anxiety, rage, a madness. I had so many questions and no answers. How would I do this? Who would love me? What if I stay sober? What if I don’t? What do I do to fill up this day? How, how, how do I do it?
I laced up my running shoes and threw on as many layers as I could and ran out the door and to the ocean before I could talk myself out of it. It was a ridiculous day to run but I had always been able to push myself in this way. So I set out and the frigid air hitting my lungs and the sting of the spray from the water was awful and perfect.
About a mile out, the path makes a semicircle that juts out into the water. No one else was out and I couldn’t see but ten feet in front of me. My legs seemed to be carrying me forward, despite the forcible wind. At one point it seemed like I was running still and I shook my head to all of it. No. I can't stop.
I felt myself crying. I could feel the contrast of the cold air meeting my hot, sweaty skin, right at the point where the two elements collided and transformed each other. A thought arrived:
I don’t know how to do this, but something inside of me does.
I took a deep, guttural breath and bent over, setting my hands on my thighs, turning my face down and out of the wind.
I don’t know how to do this, but something inside of me does.
I stood back up and slung myself into motion again. I ran an impossible five miles that day. Later, at home, all the skin that was exposed swelled into tight red flesh and stung in the shower.
That experience is what I know of faith. It's the thought I go back to time and again when I can't figure out what's next, or how to move forward, or even how to think. It reminds me that this is a dance between me and God. The answers are in me, even when they're lost on me. I just have to be willing to keep asking the questions. I have to be willing to stay in the conversation.
In closing, I want to share my favorite poem about prayer from Mary Oliver. What's funny is I wrote this down on a piece of paper over a decade ago and only recently found it when it fell out of an old journal. We know things long before we understand them. :)
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Live Class Recording
Watch or listen to the lecture—do this first, as many aspects of the homework are explained in it.
Establish your morning prayer/mantra.
Morning Pages for 10 minutes each day.
Great Work of Your Life: Read Intro to Part 1 (pp. 3-6), The Four Pillars of Dharma (pp. 7-17) and Henry David Thoreau (pp. 39-51).
Share any part of your process with us on the forum.