Welcoming the Unravelling of Old Self

March 11, 2018

I offer this blog for all who have experienced unexpected loss, adversity, or spiritual growing pains this winter.

There is an ancient shamanic practice shared by many world traditions called Dismemberment. In Tibetan Buddhism the practice of chod or “feeding the demons” is an example of dismemberment, but similar practices can be found in European and South American shamanic traditions.

Traditionally, a shaman travels to the upper world, the gathering place of healing spirits, and requests to meet with a healing spirit to be dismembered. The spirit then proceeds to kill the shaman, dismembering their living form in whatever colorful, gruesome, brutal way the spirit chooses. The spirit literally takes apart the human body, piece by piece. The shaman simply surrenders.

Once dismembered, the soul is free and unencumbered by physical form, available to explore the cosmos. The soul is free of the limitations of physical form and free from the habits and patterning the physical form carries. During this period of “just being” the soul enjoys the luminosity of all possibility. 

After a period of time that feels like timelessness, the healing spirit invokes one part of the practitioners body back into form, often a part of the body that most needed healing. And slowly the physical body comes back together, renewed and re-birthed.  Being put together in this way is an expression of remembering truth. 

Sometimes life itself dismembers us in this same way. We may not be consciously aware of asking for dismemberment, but our hearts know well that renewal often begins with a great unravelling. 

In November 2017, my beloved Mark and I packed up our belongings and drove across country. After 8 days traversing new landscapes and soaking in hot springs, we arrived at our new home on the East Coast. While intuition and vision had inspired our move, we felt like we were stepping into a complete mystery, never before having lived in this part of the world. We craved a land of deep green, cheaper prices, and water in the form of rain, streams, lakes and waterfalls. We were seeking a clearer pathway to our shared dreams and less obstacles than California had offered. Something quietly beckoned to us from the northeast.

After a few weeks of pleasantly settling into our new place, I woke up one night dramatically gasping for breath. As we headed to the emergency hospital, our dismemberment began. A seemingly innocent allergy to something in our new home triggered a health crisis that took over our lives for the next 3 months. During this time, the Ojai fires hit, impacting the lives of our friends and neighbors in our previous home, igniting profound grief and shock within our hearts. Simultaneously a family member went through a heart-breaking struggle that shook me to the bones. Our visions of a new life were replaced overnight by everything seemingly completely falling apart.  

When life unravels, small mind tends to first go to reactivity, which is familiar ground for the ego. Why is this happening? How can I fix this quickly and get to my back to my normal self? What does this mean? And am I going to die?

I let go of long-planned teaching trips and holiday plans, creative projects and physical well-being. Amidst an unfamiliar landscape and struggling body, I made the only sane choice I know. I affirmed my commitment to stay as fiercely present as I could and to relinquish fear. For the next 2 months, I let go of plans and expectations and surrendered to the dismemberment. I asked the only useful question there is in times like these:

What teaching is life offering me at this time? What is the hidden gem in this unexpected chaos?

I listened. And multiple gems began to be revealed, from the loving support of the people in my life and the invitation to no longer be the one people lean on but the one who leans, to a reminder of how much of what can seem important in a work day is NOT, to a reminder of impermanence, to the invitation to receive REST in a way I had not done so in a long time. The gems began to emerge. A space slowly began to open up in my own foundation, allowing for new insights and subtle changes to my being. Lessons I thought I knew about love but had not yet embodied began to permeate me more deeply. 

While on the surface, being dismembered unexpectedly seems to completely disrupt life (work, finances, well-being, expectations), its greatest disruption is to EGO. Our habits, long-held patterns, and stubborn sense of “I” sometimes need to be given up completely in order to see more clearly. Sometimes we simply need to unravel and shed our skin in order to see with eyes anew. Practice invites us to continually let our old “self” dissolve… and yet sometimes life gives us more dramatic invitations to “step it up” and we have to be willing. Only as we harvest the gems of life unravelling, can there be a great unveiling, a glimpse of the freedom beyond old self. 

For me, the greatest gem from a dismemberment is not any particular insight that arises, but the opportunity to meet “this too” with love, and to extend our compassion to a life experience we think is “too much.” Dismemberment is an opportunity to remember who we really are. For myself and for so many I know whose lives have been disrupted this winter, as well as all of us who are experiencing collectively The Great Unravelling in our world, may we benefit from mindful inquiry:

How can I stay fiercely present through this unravelling and trust the process?

What am I being asked to truly let go of right now what is no longer serving me? 

What does releasing the old self actually make more room for? What is my resistance to releasing the old self?

When there is less energy/resources, how does this remind me that there is only time for true self? And only space for love and presence?  

What essential truth is this dismemberment helping me to remember?

Traditionally, dismemberment is actually considered a gratitude practice. It is only in the spirit of gratitude that we learn to trust life to guide us, sometimes in ways we could not preconceive. By feeling both our gratitude and our grief for the world’s suffering, practice teaches us to give ourselves fully to whatever lesson life is asking us to learn on behalf of the whole. 

I offer this blog post in the spirit of loving-kindness.

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