When I was fourteen, my first love was killed, and I turned to God.
It was not some beneficent father figure I was looking for. I had a grandpa who smoked a pipe and taught me complex vocabulary words and another who sang me Irish ballads, replacing the name of the beautiful heroine with my own. But my parents were radical intellectuals who made fun of the divine. They ridiculed devotion. For them, religion was the opiate of the masses: Grandma’s empty ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles and murmuring in perfunctory Hebrew before settling down in front of the television with the National Enquirer and a glass of sherry; the silly, sad grasping of people too boring to stand up and change the world.
No, I wasn’t interested in guidance. Only passion. Maybe I should have become a nun; I should have found a mountaintop convent and sat on its doorstep with a note from my parents that read: Be kind to this one. She seems to be in love with God.
It didn’t matter to me if God wore the robes of Jesus or carried the Buddha’s begging bowl. All I wanted was an expanse of floor where I could prostrate my body in surrender, a room without windows and another where shafts of moonlight could fall on me, a courtyard for gazing at the constellations when I could not sleep, a trail leading up to the alpine line. Long hours of singing and prayer. Simple foods, like rice and carrots and milk. Scriptures written by lovers, like me.
I should have been sent off to an ashram. Taken vows of silence, except when I would chant to my Beloved in sad minor keys till all that was left of me was breath and the other devotees, kind as cows, would get up and, before going to bed, check first to see if I still had a pulse and if my prayer shawl was wrapped snugly enough to keep me from freezing to death during the night.
Instead, I ran away to an eclectic spiritual community in the mountains, where I became a promiscuous spiritual seeker, lying down with any god who would have me. My favorite was Krishna, the Dark One, alluring Hindu god of love, who called to the gopis on his bamboo flute and then disappeared, the ghost of his kiss lingering on their lips. He was forever lighting hearts on fire and then disappearing behind a tree in the deepening forest. I related best to a beautiful, perpetually disappearing God.
In the mountain community, I baked bread and gathered eggs for God. I swept snow off His roof and cleaned His kerosene globes with wads of toilet paper. In meditation before dawn, I caught glimpses of the Dark One as I followed the line of chakras upward. I wrote endless poems to Him and drew His picture everywhere. Lured by longing for a guru, however, I left the mountain community in search of anyone who might have a clue as to the whereabouts of the Disappearing God.
Within every spiritual tradition, I encountered something called “the crazy wisdom.” This was a notion I could work with. This was the tapping on God’s door that invited the soul in for a secret rendezvous. Orthodoxy made no more sense to me than devotion to Donald Duck, or memorizing the periodic table of the elements, but the crazy wisdom confirmed my suspicions that no one could draw the map that would take me home to my Beloved. That my only hope for union was through the wild and the unexpected.
But here’s the problem: cruelty can lurk beneath the guise of a visionary. Each teacher I found seemed to have fallen for the idea that if you beat up on your disciples, they will connect with true holiness. The more responsible ones modified this doctrine slightly; they taught us to beat up on ourselves. The spiritual life is no picnic, they said. The true path is not a path of convenience. Don’t get too comfortable; you might sink into forgetfulness.
But how could we forget the ache of the human condition that so darkens the heart it can’t even love God? Or the erroneous belief that we are unworthy of His exquisite embrace? Or that somewhere in this vale of tears we lost our way back home?
I never did believe in the forty days and forty nights of exile. I couldn’t grasp the archetype of the desert. What was the purpose of spiritually scorching by day and freezing by night in God’s Holy Name? How could it possibly connect me with the Beloved to be told when hunger comes to shut up and watch my breath; when thirst rises, to suck stones? All I wanted to do was thread flowers in His invisible hair. I needed to be well rested and well fed and well loved before I could climb the highest mountain and praise Him with my full voice. This is the crazy wisdom: to praise the Disappearing God in an environment that mistakes austerity for holiness, that confuses torment with insight, that has convinced itself that God is closest when we are most miserable.
I should have challenged this nasty method back then, but it fooled me. It resembled something just iconoclastic enough that it might break down God’s door and allow me in. So I followed a string of mean teachers around. Teachers who stalked the meditation hall with big sticks and whacked me on the shoulders when, after eleven hours of sitting zazen, I let my spinal column begin to curl. Teachers who, when I breathlessly shared how my heart had become so infused with love for Krishna that tears had poured from my eyes, scoffed and warned me about spiritual pride and sent me away with an elementary mantra to keep me humble. Teachers who humiliated me in front of a hundred devotees by interrogating me about my adolescent sexuality and praising my overly developed breasts. Teachers who insisted that, if I thought I was close to the sacred, I certainly wasn’t, and what I felt as spiritual longing was nothing but an out-of-control ego encrusted with the scum of karma, that the only way to wake up was to be exceedingly uncomfortable.
These abuses did not bring me one centimeter closer to the Disappearing God I loved. In fact, they so distracted and discouraged me that I went off and married a man who pretended his wicked ways were crazy and wise, and that if I did exactly what he said, he himself would turn out to be God and would save me. This error in judgment nearly killed me.
I don’t mistake self-punishment for devotion anymore. I am a born-again believer in lovingkindness. I don’t waste my time with a God who leaves me. My God lies down with me and tells me I am beauty and grace incarnate. My God celebrates me as gloriously as I celebrate Him. I worship a God who believes in me.
I have cultivated a fundamental attitude of tenderness toward myself. When I notice that I have stumbled into heartbreak, for instance, with one of those tormented addicts who masquerade as creative geniuses, I no longer berate myself for being a fool. I take me by the hand and lead me to the altar and sit me down before a candle and that picture of Mother Mary with both hands crossed over her heart. Remember? I whisper. And I do.
This is not always easy. Sometimes the urge to blame myself is nearly overwhelming. The conditioning is thick. That we are imperfect beings in need of constant discipline to ward against the evils of spiritual complacency. That our steady stream of romantic disasters is evidence of our impurity. That we are under the scrutiny of a grouchy God convinced we can do nothing right. That it’s no wonder He’s always disappearing; we are a pain in the ass. That conditioning.
I try to extend this attitude of tenderness to everybody. This, too, can be challenging. A big, fat brute of a cop lurks on the corner of Placitas and Civic Plaza Drive, and when I roll through the stop sign, he pounces. My impulse is to conclude that he represents everything that is harsh and asleep in this world, and I want to throw him out the window of my heart, but instead I take a breath and let my heart soften enough to receive him. My grown daughter brings an impressive tide of crises to my door, requiring resources of time and attention that I cannot afford to give. She is falling apart. She walks in with yet another problem and I want to scream and banish her to Texas, but I look into her face and see the tears she doesn’t even know are there, just below the surface. I take her in my arms, offering to fix nothing, but just hold her, affirming how hard life can be. And she relaxes, and the invisible God shows up for a minute to remind her that all is well.
Lovingkindness is a difficult path to maintain. It can be confused with self-indulgence. I do not subscribe to it simply to justify messy emotional drama. This technique requires exquisite precision and the utmost attention, reverence, and wakefulness, so that there is no chance of missing God when He next sneaks into view. It requires loving yourself so perfectly that God cannot help but fall helplessly in love with you, too, and, thanks to your devotion, include all sentient beings in His Secret Heart.
Every time I pick up a so-called personal-growth text that subtly advocates self-condemnation, I want to tear out all the pages and make paper airplanes out of them. I want to track down everyone who may ever have beaten themselves up as a result of such nonsense and anoint their feet with sweet oils and celebrate the humblest, holiest thing about each of them. Because what may feel sick and scary and all fucked up inside of us is probably intimately entwined with what is most blessed and delicious. If I, for example, were to write myself off as hopelessly wounded because I am sensitive and wide open, I would be denying my deeply held belief that everything from a kiss to the flu is holy. What if, the next time I’m blown off by a man whose lips I have been longing to feel on my breasts, and I’m wandering around my darkened house in the middle of the night, pressing my fingertips against the windowpanes and watching clouds cover and uncover stars — what if I offered thanks to God for having given me such a huge heart? Wouldn’t I be that much closer to nirvana? And couldn’t I, through this commitment to feeling everything, evoke that closeness in anyone who came near me?
Last winter, on a remote ski slope in New Mexico, near the Colorado border, I severed the major ligaments of my knee in a skiing accident. My lower leg dangled uselessly. I was alone, and the sun was going down. After taking stock of my injuries, I began to call for help. No one answered. The sky began to darken and the temperature to drop. I remembered a lovingkindness practice my seventh-grade teacher had taught me: taking and sending. You do this practice in the presence of suffering, another’s or your own. On the in-breath, you gather into yourself the pain of all beings who have ever felt this suffering. On the out-breath, you replace that pain with all that is comforting and good. So I breathed in my own pain and fear and asked to take in the suffering of all others, and I breathed out sweet relief. With each emptying of my lungs, I soothed not only myself, but everyone else who was suffering, too. I was sure of it.
By the time I was rescued, I was so calm that at first the emergency medical workers didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. As they skied me down the slope on the first-aid toboggan, one of them glanced back at me periodically with a quizzical look on his face. I was smiling and watching how the setting sun streaked the ponderosas golden. It was not that my knee wasn’t hurting; it hurt so much I could have passed out. Sometimes I cried quietly, but not because I felt sorry for myself. I was smiling and weeping because people everywhere were losing limbs, and field mice were being snatched up in the talons of owls, and I was riding effortlessly down a mountain wrapped in a wool blanket with the sunset on my face. I was smiling and weeping because lovingkindness had connected me with myself, and with all sentient beings, and with the snow and the gathering darkness. I had never felt such tenderness in my life.