The Agony of Nothing

This blog post is the last issue of The Healing Journey, the letter I send out to subscribers. You may subscribe here to receive the email.

This past August my parents and our family suffered the loss of Maggie, our beloved Great Dane, to bone cancer. A few weeks after Maggie died my mother announced that she was getting a new puppy. I was surprised. When Maggie was deteriorating my mum had stated very clearly that she would never get another dog.

“You said you weren’t going to get another dog,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she answered, “But I can’t bear the agony of nothing.”

“The agony of nothing,” I repeated, impressed by her ability to name so aptly our existential human emptiness, “That’s it. Right there. That is what it all comes down to. If we cannot learn to bear the agony of nothing–”

“We’re doomed!” she interjected.

That wasn’t exactly what I was going to say. I was going to say that if we cannot learn to bear the agony of nothing then we are destined to get a puppy to make the pain go away. But what happens when the puppy dies and we are once again left with that “deep-down, black, bottom-of-the-well, no-hope, end-of-the-world, what’s-the-use loneliness”? (Thank you, Charlie Brown.)

Well, we can always find something else to temporarily relieve the dread. There is no shortage in today’s world: shopping, sex, TV, booze, dope, chocolate cake. On and on it goes.

Eventually those things stop working, too, and the Black Hole returns. What then? How do we bear the Agony of Nothing?

By spending time with it.

Yup. When when we stop trying to a-void the Void, when we make friends with the thing we fear most, it becomes transformed. Solitude is no longer lonely and Silence is no longer empty.

It takes great courage to do this. Exploring the foreign territory of our inner lives can be terrifying. It is the Great Unknown, after all. I myself have uncovered a hundred forms of fear living inside of me. By getting to know these fears intimately and confronting my terror head-on, their power has been massively reduced. And I’m happy to report that I have been liberated by at least eighty-seven of them. Maybe eighty-eight.

This is how healing actually happens. Interior freedom occurs when we walk through the fear rather than run from it, work with the pain rather than alter it. Entering fully into the Agony of Nothing creates, miraculously, the Possibility of Something. That Something is better than a puppy. Because it is, in fact, Everything.

Thus begins the astonishing process of living from our Everythingness instead of from the agony of our nothingness. And it is a process. And puppies are most definitely allowed.

From the fires of love,


Pull the Trigger

Dearest Readers,

Yesterday I went out to visit a friend who lives about 45 minutes away to celebrate a milestone in her life. We went for a cross-country ski on the frozen lake that is her front yard while the bright sun hung in the sky behind us illuminating the mountains to an almost impossible white.

For the rest of the afternoon we lounged on her couches, talking and laughing and resting in the quiet peace of the country. We ate a magnificent meal cooked for us by her partner and we celebrated together in the evening with more friends, stories and gifts. I drove back to town in the dark singing out loud to Johnny Cash, Neko Case and Jakob Dylan.

When I got home I entered the bedroom and there on the beautiful, pure, white quilt that covers the bed were two piles of yellow barf. The cat had coughed up a couple of fur balls. I immediately went into despair.

Now because I am devoted to the kind of inner work that demands self-searching I had to ask myself, “What is this really about?” Can it be that a little thing like a stained quilt so easily throws me off kilter? Sends me from joy to hopelessness in the blink of an eye?

No, something else was afoot.

After scrubbing and soaking the quilt I went into the little room (more like a closet) I use to pray and meditate. This was not a sitting-cross-legged matter. I got down into balasana, the Child’s Pose, on my knees and folded to the floor. I began to pray, seeking answers, going deep, investigating my extreme reaction. What was going on with my emotions?

The answer came.

During the evening I had been sharing about something and one of the friends in our circle had laughed at me. I had continued to speak as if his laughter hadn’t affected me but the truth is, it had. And I hadn’t connected to it until this moment.

Why would someone laughing at me trigger such a reaction? Such despair and such complete and utter defeat? Searching back into the memories of my life I discovered the key.

My grandparents had a little farm about an hour outside of Toronto and after we left the Yukon we would often visit them on weekends. My grandfather grew vegetables and for some reason his zucchinis grew to outsize proportions. We all marveled at the size of these green beauties, which would expand to become as large as newborn babes.

As a little girl newly arrived in the big city of Toronto from Whitehorse I thought bringing one of these giant zucchinis to school for show-and-tell would be an excellent idea. Weren’t these anomalies of Nature worth sharing?

When I got up to the front of the classroom to share my excitement with the class, ready to thrill them with the wonder of this earthly gift I was greeted not by awe but by ridicule. They did not look at each other and say, “Wow, that is AMAZING.” They laughed at me. They laughed at me for bringing in such a ridiculous, embarrassing thing.

This was a inner-city school. And by that I do not mean “poor”. I mean downtown, urban, upscale Toronto. I was from somewhere else. I was different. I didn’t live in that neighbourhood. My sister and I walked 45 minutes to get there every morning.  I was weird and the zucchini was weird and the kids were uncomfortable and so they laughed.

I was shocked by their reaction. Stunned, actually. And I’ve shared that story a lot over the years. I’m still good friends with my best girlfriend from those early school days and even she brings up the story for a laugh. But I didn’t know how hurt I’d been and I certainly didn’t know I’d stuffed the hurt away, hidden it inside me in the darkest and most distant of places.

Once I connected to this memory, now an uncovered wound, I was able to connect to the grief and let it flow. This, in turn, helped me to release some deeper grief over the death of my grandmother, whose farm I had so loved as a child. She died last weekend. My grandfather died just 3 months earlier.  Their lives are over and I miss them.

And so today I feel fragile.  I shed a bunch more tears this morning. But I am feeling so thankful that I was able to discover the trigger and the hurt underneath it. This kind of work is not easy but it’s so much more productive than blaming a little cat for having a hairball in the wrong spot.

In my prayer last night I once again thanked the cat, who sometimes feels like an insatiably needy child, for giving me yet another opportunity to know myself a little better and to heal a little bit more of the turbulent past. And thanks to the God of Fur Balls, too.

Inspiring Message of the Day: When I am triggered by a seemingly mundane occurrence I will take the time to go within and discover the deeper Truth. I will trust that this kind of healing work will bring me the Peace I so desperately need to live well.

Speaking Words of Wisdom

Dearest Readers,

It’s been a while! Thank you to those of you who have told me how much you miss the blog. It is welcome praise. Knowing that the Inspiring Message of the Day has had an impact  really means more to me than I can say.

I’ve been working steadily on GITA and it’s been going well. Well, “well” might not be the best choice of words. It is not an easy play to write. I am exploring The Big Life Questions and it’s definitely affecting my psyche.

In the play, Corporal June Wright is suffering from PTSD after experiencing war trauma. She is being counseled by Padre Givin, a Canadian Forces Chaplain. June has lost all sense of meaning and the Padre is accompanying her on her journey back to hope. It’s a light comedy. I’m kidding.

June has lost all faith in humanity and God. She is torn between finishing her contract with the Forces and pursuing her art. She doesn’t see that there is any point to living when death is the inevitable end. She is desperately trying to understand why atrocities happen and how any kind of God could exist when such horror does, too. She is lost and faithless. Hopeless and despairing.

Naturally, this is wreaking some havoc on my own spiritual life. June is asking the questions I would like the answers to as well. I, too, have found myself losing faith and gaining anger. “Yeah! What’s up with all this sh!#?” This is nothing new. I’ve spent most of my life asking these questions. It has been a true journey of faith to learn how to trust in a Loving Power Back of All Things despite “the horror, the horror.”

The other day I was speaking with the woman who accompanies me on the Healing Path. She is a Spiritual Director and her love, insight and wisdom have helped me enormously. With her I move through difficult times, walk through fear, overcome shame, forgive myself and remember that ultimately I do believe God is Love.

So I was telling her about the anger that was coming up because of GITA. Does God make bad things happen? What the hell is it really all about? Why do those who rise up against injustice get crucified? Shot? Beaten to death? One of my greatest fears lies at the root of these questions: If we stand up for what is right we will be killed.

“There is no Life Insurance,” she said. “There is no Safe Passage.” None of us is guaranteed immunity from death. There is no reward for being a Good Girl. Indeed, she added, “Bad things happen to good people.” And then she suggested I read that book. (I did get it from the Library and have begun to read.)

Her point triggered another realization. I have an Old BS (belief system) that tells me that if I am very, very, good, which unfortunately translates into “perfect”, I will be safe. I will be rewarded. I will be protected from harm and even death, as ridiculous as that sounds.

Not so, Celia. Just. Not. So.

Alas, I am returned to the place where I have been before, many, many times: Embrace the Mystery.

You see, I want answers. I want a formula I can work out. I want to know that A+B=C. I want Life Insurance. I want Safe Passage. I want the Big Guarantee. And the more I want it the more I suffer. Because I’m not going to get it. No matter what I do or say or how I act or live, I will not make it out of here alive.

So when I find myself in times of trouble I remember that there will be an answer. I just don’t get to know what It is right now. So I have to do that thing, that difficult, painful, necessary, healing thing. I have to Let it Be.

Inspiring Message of the Day: There is nothing wrong with asking the Big Questions. This is Human Nature. But I must be satisfied with not knowing the answers. Today I will trust the Great Mystery and embrace the simple and humble experience of letting it Be.

Is This The Real Life

Dearest Readers,

If you have been reading this blog for a while you will remember my friend Leanne. She was killed by cancer just a few short months ago. I think of her often, acknowledge her in little ways, say prayers in her name and even speak directly to her. It all  helps.

Last  night she appeared in my dreams. Have you ever had a dream about someone who is dead? It takes a moment to register first that the person is alive before your very eyes and second that he/she really did die in waking life. The sensation is almost impossible to describe.

When Leanne and I met in the dream we were in a classroom surrounded by our high school chums. Not surprising. This is where she and I spent most of our time together. All of a sudden, there she was.

“You’re alive!” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “I know. It’s pretty amazing.”

She looked amazing. Like she did when we were teenagers: healthy, vibrant, glamorous. In fact, Leanne still had all of these qualities when she was living with cancer. She was as gorgeous as ever.

But in the dream there was something different about her. Despite her radiant beauty there was a stiffness and a puffiness in her face. I have seen bodies that have been embalmed. Her jaw looked somewhat like this.

I’m sorry if that’s morbid. But the unnaturalness in her face kept reminding my conscious self that I was dreaming. Something was not right.

And yet the reunion was celebratory. Leanne was alive! Alive. Incredible. And so real. When I awoke I couldn’t believe it. I got to see her, to speak with her, to be near her again.

Did it really happen? Did she visit me? Can the spirit of a person come to another person through a dream?

Once a friend of mine gave me a card that said, “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” The quote is by Chuang Tzu, an ancient Chinese Philosopher who may or may not have existed.

The quote, according to Burton Watson, an “accomplished translator of Chinese and Japanese literature and poetry”, references “the Transformation of Things.”

I found this quote when I Googled “the transformation of things”:

“[The butterfly dream] shows that, although in ordinary appearance there are differences between things, in delusions or in dreams one thing can also be another. The transformation of things proves that the differences among things are not absolute.”

In my dreams Leanne is alive. In waking life she is not. The difference between these two truths is not absolute. “Absolute” means “final”.

Leanne’s death was final. And yet not. Wait a minute, am I a butterfly?

Inspiring Message of the Day: Life has so many puzzles and riddles. I cannot solve them all. But I can embrace them. I can embrace the Mystery and be held by its Great Power.