I was flipping through albums at a family reunion recently, and I found a beautiful image of an old baptism. This was the way of my family for generations, and though the world has changed immensely, what I love about that blend of faith is that it is held close and personal.
Baptism in the water is meant to outwardly mark a change in who you are. You are emptied of the old and washed clean again by your relationship with the Divine, and now the Divine resides in you.
And sometimes those sacred waters of baptism aren't reflected as a literal pool of water but a threshold in your life and your own experiences. A crossroads when you are out with the old and in with the new.
I've had a spiritual awakening of my own in this past two years as I've submerged and then eventually risen again from under the weight of my divorce. My awakening didn't come in the shape one would expect or through the doors of a church. Instead, it has come to me through the immense power of my own humility as piece-by-piece my life was stripped away from its former state to emerge as something completely new. My own rebirth has come in the whispers of varied voices as I've read voraciously and clung to anything that stirred my soul.
We learn through each other, and I have no doubt that the Divine speaks to us through one another as well. In Christianity they call it The Holy Spirit. In other faiths, they call it by a different name, but it is the same idea. It's only through the heartbreak of the past few years of my life that seeing the Divine in all of us was made real and clear for me. Namaste in the truest sense.
When thinking about how I'm changing, who falls away from my life and who doesn't, who is bringing me alive and who isn't, I'm reminded of Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart. She has a chapter on the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta which is a Sanskrit word meaning a "noble or awakened heart" - or as she explains, "this kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to be able to observe it from afar" or "the discovery of our soft spot."
The world is full of people who cannot seem to find their soft spot. It's far easier to distance ourselves from pain, to make it shameful and tell someone to hide it or move on quickly than to hold bodhichitta for a moment and let that pain penetrate our own hearts. So many people want to be seen as perfect with the prosperity that they think defines them. To admit that you feel fear or hurt or embarrassment, to admit wrongdoing, and to feel in your core that there is suffering in the world and a battle within each of us - all of those things are uncomfortable. All of those things require accepting that you are not perfect and not always right. So few people are willing to step out of the skin they are wearing and own up to all of the ugly parts.
"Because bodhichitta awakens tenderness, we can't use it to distance ourselves ... Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. ... In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It's as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth, not the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt... We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away."
The challenge is avoiding pushing it away, refusing the urge to hold it distant from us because it makes us uncomfortable.
The reason real empathy brings discomfort is that it turns a lens on our own selves. It shows you where you are gripping too tightly, and it brings about the horrifying thought that the pain could be yours as well and that you are not safe from it. When you rationalize the million reasons something could never happen to you, it's a way of trying so hard to convince yourself of a concept that is simply not true.
Aging brings its own spiritual rebirth as you finally stop tolerating what insults your soul. I can keep people on the peripheral of my life when they see things through a lens of very little compassion, but I can't maintain close connections with them anymore. Amy Poehler's book, Yes Please, includes a chapter on friendship in your forties, and she explains this changing landscape that happens when you begin to be true to yourself and tolerate nothing less.
"I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I'm tired of talking about movies and gossiping about friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious."
Those who make my life crunchy and complicated and delicious are those who are awake to the concept of bodhichitta and can drop the ego for a moment and let some discomfort set in. Those who have encountered past pain or disappointment or mistakes and aren't afraid to talk about it. And as I form new friendships with people I am yet to meet and evaluate future romantic relationships, that is my biggest test: Are you awake to bodhichitta and all that entails?
Because here's what I'm finding. Bodhichitta does not mean that you are sad and full of sorrow all the time as you reflect on the miseries around you and feel empathy for others. In fact, it brings quite the opposite. It's only when you let in the sorrow of the world, when you sink into empathy, and when you embrace imperfection that you can find true joy. Happiness is something else entirely. And I'm growing tired of "happy" people who are not joyful. True joy cannot depend on outside circumstances at all, and that joy only comes when you let it all in.
A variation of this post was published on Katie's blog, Mama the Reader. You can follow along there or on Facebook as Katie explores life as a writer, a reader, and a single mother.