In dream of the underworld, James Hillman says that “dimension sensed as loss is actually the presence of the void. . . . Here in depth there is space enough to take in the same physical world but in another way.” What kind of training or discipline would it take to linger for a few moments in that blank space, image-absent and unfilled?
A couple of years ago, I sat in a chair at the edge of the Thar Desert in India, not far from the Pakistani border. I’d been traveling with a lover who had just disclosed something that made me want to walk away, far away, out into the desert, to just keep walking across that flat, dry expanse. It was twilight. Someone brought us cups of chai, wanted to know if we wanted music. No, I said. I wanted nothing but the nothingness of the desert. I got up out of my chair, headed away from the small village, the dancers, the decorated camels, walked in the soft sand, the small grains working their way into my shoes. The desert drew me as surely as if it were a magnet and my body a collapsing stack of iron shavings. I kicked at anything, spat out a searing attack to the empty dunes. I wanted to pound something, his head, perhaps. The desert that evening stretched everywhere, its sands of gritty buff strangely lit beneath a high ceiling of lusterless dusk. I clomped one foot after another into the sand, which shifted just slightly. But nothing else happened. The wind didn’t gust, the Pakistanis didn’t come roaring over the border, I didn’t feel fortified by the satisfaction of being the one so clearly wronged. And no one from the village came to bring me back. Nothing happened. When I turned around, I couldn’t even see my tracks.
Everything seemed swallowed up in the vastness, the endlessness of sand, that ancient Indian sky. And finally the need to lash out in revenge lessened. I didn’t have to yell or sulk or grab the first flight home. It wasn’t that the hurt lifted but that there was, out there in the desert, more room for hurt, and so it didn’t press so hard. That familiar sense of needing to explode with emotion eased, and it had to do, I think now, with not feeling so confined, so squeezed by, so dense with hurt. Plenty of room in a desert to feel what you feel, and plenty of time to decide what to do.
Weeks later, Sunithi, the elderly Indian woman to whom I’d told the desert story, said to me, “The heart, you know, is the widest secret space. That’s where the spirit is free.” She wrote Guhaiya in my notebook, the Sanskrit word for secret space. Guhaiya, which sounds like Go here.
I don’t wish to imply that a fleeting and delicate awareness of spaciousness is a gift of the Indian deserts. We stumble into our own hollowed-out interiors just by getting up and going to work every day, just by trying to stay reasonably alive. There are plenty of caverns inside our psyches, places that have been emptied by grief and losses we’re not even aware of.
Not just in caves, temples, our own secret interiors, but all around us, too. It’s the place that Rilke describes so beautifully:
Whoever you are; some evening take a step
out of your house, which you know so well.
Enormous space is near.
In that enormous space, it’s possible, he says, with the eye of imagination, to lift one tree, to raise it, to hold it up against the backdrop of sky, and “With that you have made the world.”
First emptiness, then form. Probably emptiness again. It’s the sequence I want to keep in mind, the undulating wave of something rising out of nothing, dissolving again, the practice of paying attention to the lull. The viscera of absence call us to grope where we can’t see, where the normal constraints, the habits, identities, and the definitions by which we live might lift, disperse momentarily, leave us in enormous space. Here the imagination twists and searches, fumbles, gets ready to say what we can’t quite see. We stand in the absence, in the clearing, the hollowed-out place and discover not wisdom or enlightenment, but spaciousness. Room.
Loss is the first period of grief, and it’s visceral. It’s like being punched in the belly. It takes your breath away. Even when death is expected, our bodies and minds can’t seem to take it in right away. We don’t want to accept the reality of this loss; we don’t want to believe that the person we love has died. And at the same time, acceptance is the task in this period.
Shock and disbelief usually give way to guilt and regret. We judge ourselves mercilessly: “I should have taken her to the hospital sooner. We could have tried other treatments. I wish I’d spent more time with her. I wanted to be there at the moment she died.” Our capacity to be cruel to ourselves never ceases to amaze me. At our time of greatest vulnerability, when we most need our own kindness, we club ourselves with self-judgment. If we could only just stop for a moment and listen to the sound of our voice, surely our hearts would open to embrace this pain.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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