The Apertures of Life

There are so many times throughout my life when I’ve felt that the walls of my life were closing in on me.

Intense feelings of groundlessness, disconnection, and loneliness were my daily reality and dreams of rootedness, community, and a sense of deep belonging were my daily prayer.

For a long time, I thought I was alone in these feelings. Isolated in my own mind with no perspective of the suffering of the world around me.

Although now that I think about it, I’m not sure that’s true. 

I saw the suffering of the world around me—

I saw the struggle at the retirement home, as my elderly grandfather tried to reach for a memory but couldn’t find it, while out of the corner of my eye I watched a hunched shadow of a figure picking at the thin blanket in her lap in a wheelchair in the hall.

I saw the rheumy, pleading eyes of the homeless man on the street, dressed in layers to combat the soul-deep cold, begging for the people walking by to see him as they were pretending not to—while it felt cruel and wrong for me to look away.

I saw the jaundiced waxy skin of my mother, high on morphine, as she lay dying in the hospital bed while I studied every inch of her face and hands so I would never forget them while her body began to forget how to live.

I saw that suffering and it burrowed its way so deep into my heart that who was I to ever think my suffering could compare to that?

And so I closed my suffering up in a box and buried it down down down into my soul, while I pasted on a smile and went through the motions so as to not ever give anyone the sense that I believed my suffering was more special or real than that of those who had far less than I did.

I realize now that I created a hierarchy of suffering in my life, with real suffering at the top and my suffering at the bottom and for me to spend any time on my suffering would somehow inadvertently take away from people with real problems in the world. And so I isolated myself within myself, carefully constructing an artifice of fine-ness for the world around me but as my friend Connie says “fine is a very thin word” and as a result my “fine” life left me thin and gaunt, starving for meaning. For rootedness. For community. For a sense of belonging somewhere to someone because I most certainly didn’t belong to myself.

I find now, all these years later, that even talking about this with you feels like a betrayal of some kind. A betrayal of my grandfather’s struggle and that lonely ghost woman in the hall. A betrayal of that homeless man’s struggle who is most likely dead now from the cold hardness of the streets. A betrayal of my mother’s struggle who I know is dead now and how hard it must have been for her to endure the pain of the end. But also I now feel a betrayal of that part of me that I locked away in the silence of her suffering deep within me.

It’s a funny thing to notice because I learned early on in my journey that pain is not comparable. That the worst thing that happened to me cannot possibly be compared to the worst thing that happened to someone else. And yet for all these years I’ve done just that: while I could not say with any kindness that my mother’s death was worse than, say, what my friend Emily was experiencing at the same time with her parents’ divorce, I could tell you under no uncertain terms that my suffering was not worthy of any extra attention or care because there was always someone out there that has it worse than I do and I never want to lose that perspective or take away from someone else’s pain.

Fascinating, isn’t it? But I see it all the time in my work.

Profuse apologies for giving way to urgent tears.

Tamping down of hot anger with a quick turn to gratitude.

Bypassing deep sadness and frustration in favor of an “it is what it is” or some other hollow affirmation.

We continually sidestep the reality and importance of our inner worlds due to a fear of being seen as ungrateful or unworthy.

Somehow in all our work towards finding freedom, we’ve created a hierarchical prison of pain so that whatever we’re experiencing right now? Surely someone has got it worse.

Somehow in all our work towards finding freedom, we have created a world of false dichotomies. Of either/or instead of both/and.

We have created a world of artificial power structures. With someone on top judging people down below, withholding the gates of Heaven for the sin of being born at the bottom.

We have created a world where we compare and compartmentalize our pain so we can quietly and unobtrusively continue on with the hard work of living for fear that our suffering “down here” will mean that we never make it to freedom “up there.”

These systems of “either/or” and “up here vs. down there” are so alive within me—within all of us—that we begin to believe there is no room for the subtleties of spirit—the necessary nuances of suffering and of joy and of anger and of fear. We put our feelings in boxes, and label them as “good ones” or “bad ones,” and if you want to fit in, you focus on the “good ones” and if you want to be lonely and cast out you allow the “bad ones.”

Our society has created a pyramid of power, where the Pinnacle limits and controls the abundance of all that life has to offer—keeping it as reward for their own privilege of position—all while the slavering masses below fight for their few remaining scraps.

We see this kind of limitation and gatekeeping everywhere, in all facets of our lives.

In our governments and our corporations and our churches.

We see it in our Western societies and in our Westernized families.

We experience it through the colonization of the world and within our colonizer’s mind.

We live it as workers and as women.

It poisons every facet of our psyche and our sense of self.

Even our suffering. And even our dreams.

The boxes we live in and drive in and work in and the pyramids that show us how we’re unworthy—but claim that with enough work we’ll someday find salvation—keep us and our dreams of freedom carefully contained and always reaching for the unreachable.

But the secret those that sit at the top don’t want us to discover is that true freedom and power can’t be found in their carefully constructed boxes or pyramids.

True freedom—and power—can be found in a circle.

Black Elk, the renowned turn-of-the-20th century medicine man and heyoka of the Oglala Sioux nation once said: “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, And always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where The Power moves.”

The way of the circle is the way of the Aboriginal and Indigenous people. It is the way of nature, the way of the sun, and the moon, and the earth, even the way that the trunk of the tree grows. The circle is a sacred symbol of the interdependence of all forms of life; it is a key symbol of not only Native spirituality, but of native family structures, the way their people gather, it is at the heart of their meetings, songs, and dances. They dance in circles, their Drums are round, the Sweat Lodge is round, the Tipi is round, and the sacred Medicine Wheel is round.

In a circle, all are equal. All are given a chance to speak. All are given an opportunity to share their prayers, needs, expectations, experiences, and views without interruption and without judgment because in a circle all are equal and all are given a chance to speak.

Of course, the power and freedom of the circle isn’t limited to indigenous and aboriginal cultures. It is a symbol, idea, and inspiration that crosses every wisdom tradition and ancient culture.

The famous Yin and Yang symbol that sits at the heart of the ancient Chinese Philosophy, Taoism, is a circle that is brimming with meaning. It represents the opposite but interconnectedness forces of the world, particularly of the natural world. Light and dark, male and female, the earth and the heavens. There cannot be one without the other. The outer circle represents the entirety of the Universe and the small circles contained within each half demonstrate that nothing is absolute. The S-curve shows that nothing is ever static in the flow between halves, the power balance always shifting between them.

In Zen Buddhism, there is the sacred circle symbol—the Ensō, sometimes called the Circle of Enlightenment or the Infinity Circle. Much can be said of the meaning of Ensō and has been. But to begin to understand its importance, we can consider a 6th century text that referred to Zen as a “circle of vast space, lacking nothing and holding nothing in excess.” And while one might look at the ancient ensō symbol as merely a misshapen circle, its meaning is deep and vast and wide for the practicing Zen Buddhist. It symbolizes the beginning and end of all things, the circle of life, the interconnectedness of all existence. It can be seen as being full or empty. It can demonstrate presence or absence. It can contain nothing and everything all at once.

In every ancient culture, in every religion around the world, the circle is a sacred symbol rich with meaning and metaphor. Without exception. From the meditative circle of the labyrinth, to the interconnected circle of leaves on the ancient Tree of Life, to the swirling circular energy centers of chakras, to the symbolic importance of the mandala and the Flower of Life, to the ancient Greek and Egyptian symbol of the Ouroboros, the circle has represented the cycle of life and death, demonstrated the importance and interconnectedness of all life, symbolizing the beginning and end of all things, and most importantly, the circle represents, the Spirit that infuses all of it and everything. As the ancient mythical mystical teacher, Hermes Trismegistus, is attributed as saying, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

So no. Those that sit at the top of their carefully constructed pyramids of power that infect every system and institution of our Western culture don’t want us to find out the truth. To learn that our freedom—and power—as a people can be found in a circle.

Or at least that’s where I found mine.

I first experienced the power of the circle during my first day of chaplaincy training. Like many of us, I had grown up in traditional educational, organizational, and religious institutions where I competed with my peers to prove I was the smartest, the most clever, and the most obedient. I clamored to be first. To prove my worth. To earn a gold star. At the top was the teacher or the principal, the CEO or the President, the Guru or the God. And at the bottom was me and everyone else like me. Between the bottom and the top was a ladder and rungs I could climb if I were worthy.

But not in my chaplaincy training.

Instead we sat in a circle, with a table that contained elements representing spirit at its center. People spoke for as long as they needed to without interruption. We always left space for spirit between each speaker instead of trampling on each other’s words. There was no advice-giving allowed. We were expected to listen deeply and with compassion and without agenda. No one was expected to have an answer unless they were so moved to share.

And it was weird.

I had never experienced anything like this before. I had never learned or even existed outside of a hierarchy before. I had never felt true safety and equality among both leaders and students alike before. In fact, it was so foreign and unfamiliar that I was worried I had joined a cult and told a second-year student, a former Catholic nun named Helen, as much.

She laughed and said she had felt that way during her first weekend as well, especially coming from the rigor and ritual of the Catholic Church. But it wasn’t a cult. In fact it was quite the opposite. It was freedom and it felt powerful. And over the next several years, I realized that this is what it looked like, what it felt like, to drop the hierarchical armor of not-enoughness and too-much-ness, to step away from the boxes of endless competition and posturing, and instead sink into the sanctuary of the circle and simply be. Not just mind and body, but emotion and soul too. All my parts. No longer having to open the aperture of my life from the shallows of “cocktail talk” and mindless banter but instead opening my life from the depths of my center of being where meaning, purpose, and love dwell. No longer burying my suffering—or my dreams—out of fear and self-recrimination but allowing myself to crack open and reveal the heartbreaking beauty of the contents of my whole self and trust that they will be received with honor, witnessed with love, and held with compassionate understanding.

And they were and continue to be.

All points in a circle are equidistant from the center. And in a circle like this one right here and right now, every point of our individual lights is equidistant from the center of our gathering, which is Spirit.

Every person, every soul, in this circle is witnessing each other through the apertures of our eyes—peering out at each other through the center of a circle that exists within a circle—straight into the aperture of each other’s lives, opening ourselves up to the gift of witnessing the sanctity and grace of each other’s heartbreaking beauty.

Every soul in this circle is equidistant from the center of our gathering, with Spirit at the center.

There is no hierarchy here.

No withholding of resources to encourage competition.

No either/or or up there vs. down here.

There is only the fullness of the round moon above us and the solidness of the round earth below, as we wing our way in an arcing circle around the perfect circumference of the sun.

We are all seekers in this circle—all dreamers gathered together here today.

Equally and eagerly searching each other’s eyes and hearts for a glimpse of the God that exists at the center each of us, hoping to have the reflection of love, and groundedness, and community, and belonging to be returned to us over and over again, with every blink of an eye, every turn of the season, with every completion of a year, as the aperture of our lives open and close and open to each other again and again and again.

We interconnected in love. From the beginning to the end and back to the beginning once more.

This reflection was delivered on February 12, 2023 by Rev. Jessica Steward during our regular “Sermon on the Couch” service in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging.