A few months ago, while driving my car along Bayshore Boulevard, I spotted movement in Tampa Bay. I glanced over the concrete balustrade and soon recognized the undulating dorsal fin of the Bottle-nosed dolphin. Another dolphin emerged near the first. Then a third, and fourth. I lost count, whispering, “Wow…you’re beautiful…thank you.” As if responding to my appreciation, they kept pace with my car the entire drive along the boulevard until my travel route forced our separation.
Once at the office, I prepared the space for my clients who would arrive in another hour. As I swept the porch steps and front walk, I noticed that many branches had fallen from a powerful storm the night before. I put the broom down and began to pick up all the sticks when my eyes were drawn to an unusual sight. Countless flies swarmed around something on the ground. I examined the area and discovered the limp, bare carcass of a baby bird. My heart sank, saddened by the scene and mindful that young children would arrive soon. I had to take care of this.
I went into the office to get rubber gloves and anything I could find to carefully dispose of the unfortunate animal. But when I returned and gently picked up the tiny carcass, I saw another one. My eyes scanned the ground, and I was stunned by the realization that there was a third and a fourth dead hatchling; all naked of feathers, festering with flies, ripped from the safety of their nest by the wind. I froze in place, staring at the scene, inhaling the stench, gripped by nausea. Then I mustered the requisite backbone and got to work.
As I lifted each bird from the grass, the experience felt surreal. I had just been in a state of bliss with the Bottle-nosed dolphins. I relished that, yet recoiled from this. The paradox was unnerving. I pictured Mother Earth heaving a sigh, exhausted with her naïve inhabitants. In a flash, I saw it all—how much She carried—so much beauty and so much pain, while this finicky earth-dweller wanted to cut out the scenes that I found distasteful. We’ve all wished for control in the midst of difficulty, even when it seems we are powerless to change a thing. Although it may be impossible to alter our circumstances on the outside, most of us can change on the inside as we develop mastery of the mindset with which we greet life. It is this awareness that has kept me on a spiritual search. Recently, I found some guidance with this question from Franciscan theologian of mysticism, Richard Rohr. In his new book, The Divine Dance, he writes: “Spiritual Joy has nothing to do with anything ‘going right.’…It’s an inherent, inner aliveness… Joy is almost entirely an inside job.”
Knowing that all emotions are valid and hold spiritual energy, I was struck by this phrase, spiritual joy. Rohr is not referring to happiness in the usual sense of the word. Spiritual joy comes when we stay connected to the truth of the experience and still maintain the courage to have open borders around the heart chakra, not walling it off in fear. To cultivate spiritual joy is to remain open-hearted even in the midst of life’s suffering. Then I am able to embrace that encounter with the dolphins and the dead birds with curiosity at the mystery. When judgments quiet, there is space for wonder where I can deepen my connection with God, the cosmos, Mother Earth and all who share life with me on this planet. We think we’re alone in our suffering, but we’re all in this together. The work we do has a ripple effect on everyone. When we have inner vitality, it expands the heart and the mind, feeding all we touch and beyond.
Sustaining this positive mindset in the midst of adversity is easier to do in some cases than others, but no matter how difficult things get, always begin with honesty and self-compassion. What is the experience of your physical body, your emotions, and your sense of vulnerability? If we don’t take responsibility for our human experiences, both physically and emotionally, our grief never gets an opportunity to evolve. By owning our physical and emotional experiences and giving them a chance to process, we are transformed from the inside out. Even anger that may once have been used to attack could expand to ignite conscientious action. This inner work evolves and matures us, individually and as a society.
There are other questions to be addressed. How does one remain awake to adversity without being overwhelmed and walling off the heart? How do we balance self-care and care for the world, especially when we are frightened? What are the gifts of suffering? I plan to explore these in another post but let us begin simply:
Try to notice when you withdraw from life, wishing to shut it out—a cranky child, your disappointed boss, the weather, the wars…
Observe how your body is reacting—pain in the stomach, tightness in the chest, headache… Witness all of this without judgment. Hold compassion for yourself.
Breathe into the ache or the constriction and try to release it. Allow other areas of your body to relax around the tension.
Know that you are part of something much larger than yourself and greet your life with this prayer/mantra: “Welcome. I let go of preferences and accept this moment as it is. I’m not alone. I do this for myself and for all who suffer.”
Finding grace on the inside takes effort, but it’s worth it as we discover that we can keep our hearts open in the face of dolphin parades, dead birds, and all.