Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
(Tao Te Ching, 2)
Natural events are cyclical, always changing from one extreme toward an opposite. . .That is the way of nature: to relax what is tense, to fill what is empty, to reduce what is overflowing. . . The wise person follows this natural order of events (and) by remaining disinterested (in outcome) becomes potent and successful.
(Tao of Leadership, 77)
One year ago this week, I attended a memorial service in Lawrence, Kansas for my friend and principal mentor, John Heider, the author of the second of these two quotes – and it put me in mind of endings and how we deal with them, what they represent to us. For the past two decades, I had, more or less annually, joined at least one of John’s trainings as he taught group process, body work, gestalt technique, and meditation. Our final group was held in October 2008, (barely a year and a half before John’s death in May, 2010), prompting me, at the time, to reflect on this bittersweet event:
Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group. This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced.
We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group.
As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in this community – however, briefly.
I believe my personal ‘work’ has ever orbited around endings – as it may for many of us – or perhaps more properly transitions, even evolutions. In this regard, I had occasion to look back at some writing I’d done in the mid-1990’s, at that time centering on frustrations associated with our local bicycle club. A few of us had invested heavily in interest, energy, and time to consolidate and promote the growth of a group of ‘hobbyists’ (hardly!) in a sport paradoxically populated by individualists – despite the superficial identification of a team structure. Adding members, structuring regular group rides that would conform to (supportive) ‘guidelines’ that wouldn’t see loose cannons charging off the front or lame ducks falling off the back, ride schedules, club jerseys, sponsorship – you name it – all became central focuses; and in turn, confirmations of ‘success’. The awareness finding its way into print fifteen years ago was much less about the effort imbued to make something work; and much more about the, at first subtle disappointments forming around something when it starts to stop working. At the time, coming to recognize – and accept – the natural course of things, in John’s language.
Were I a student being graded in a more conventional context, I would likely be scored an ‘NI’ (needs improvement) or, at best, perhaps an ‘S’ (satisfactory). I’m still evidently a work in progress. As if to highlight my forward movement (or lack thereof), this week too saw an email arrive in the in-box from a colleague in our group practice announcing that, after ten-years of affiliation with our collective, it was time for her to establish an independent, unique, and separate identity. The (at least for me) instinctive response to yet another ending was immediate: disappointment, anxiety (over filling the void), a dab of doubt (something I/we did?) – and even a little anger, sense of betrayal (where’s all that loyalty and gratitude when you need it?). Out of sight, but hopefully around the corner, were the celebration of the new venture and the capacity to actually read the words that thanked us for a great decade and a positive association. Still a little stuck in the ending, the ‘what was’; and a little hesitant to embrace what will be – the new beginnings.
Mindfulness practice, with its emphasis on balance, equanimity, acceptance of ‘the full catastrophe’ (the ‘natural course’ of change and impermanence), letting go, and developing an awareness around the paired distractions of avoidance (in this case, of change) and attachment (in this instance, to what was) seems the ideal tonic with which to deal with endings. Quoting John once again, the point of any practice is to ‘shed the light of consciousness on an issue, a concern, a decision’; not to solve the problem or provide an answer in a conventional sense, but to sit in the presence of the question. Evidently, some of our ‘aging’ group from Lawrence still has this work to do. The consensus was to carry on meeting, ‘leaderless’. Perhaps it’s time to embrace a new beginning, letting John go. And 'trust the process' that each ending (as Lau-tzu suggests in the opening quote, 2500 years ago) holds within it a beginning.