The Practice of Return
The ocean is smart — the waves recede to gather energy for the next one.
— Carole Starkes
Despite all the blessings of an awakened life, and all the support we can give each other, we can stumble and lose ourselves in a second. I can leave home tomorrow and trip into an old insecurity and flounder for days. And you can become lost, no matter how many times you’ve found your way. Accepting how quickly our course can change opens each of us to the practice of return.
Being human is to always be in return: to sacredness, to wakefulness, to the fact that we’re on the same journey, alone and together. We’re safe, then afraid. We’re calm, then agitated. We’re clear, then confused. We’re enthusiastic, then numb. We long for the moments of lift, and run from the moments that weigh us down. But the inescapable rhythm of life lifts us and weighs us down by turns, just as the ocean swells and dips with each wave. When we lose our way, each of us is challenged to discern and embody a very personal practice of return — to what matters and to what has heart.
Sometimes, our return to what matters depends on how we break old patterns and loosen old habits. When I was a boy, my father took my brother and me sailing. Straightaway, he taught us how to coil a line so we wouldn’t trip on the excess rope or get tangled in it. He learned this in the navy. After a few years, the line in the bow that we’d use to dock would almost coil itself. Then, on a breezy day, my father said we needed to use that line for something else and taught us how to work it in our hands, a little each day, in order to break its habit of coil. It took over a month for the line in the bow to loosen and soften enough to be of use. All these years later, my father is gone, and I can see that the habit of coil applies to more than just rope. It takes time to soften the habits of our heart and mind and work them in our hands, a little each day, in order for the heart and mind to be of use somewhere else.
I’ve noticed that when coiled too tight, my fear makes me shrink till I feel like a little boy in a man’s body. When I’m able to soften my fear and quiet it, I return to full size. What’s more, when I can assume my full stature — not larger than I am or smaller than I am — I’m more alive. When I assume my full stature, I’m closer to life and can see more clearly. When I’m a little boy in a man’s body, it’s harder to see, for I’m nowhere near my eyes.
I’m trying to uncoil. I’m trying not to over-prepare for tense situations, encounters, or conflicts. When my fear occupies itself in the endless rehearsal of what to say or not, of how to respond or not, it prevents me from showing up with who I am. I’m learning to trust that I can meet these situations simply with my being, my self, my soul. I may not be articulate. It might be awkward. But I’m learning to trust that if I’m integral, the encounter will be authentic.
Recently, I had a chance to practice being real at the health club where I swim. Because of the chemo I had years ago, I get cold easily, a common condition for cancer survivors. So I wear a wet suit. This particular day, Tim, a lifeguard my age, began teasing me for using a wet suit in an indoor pool. At first, I ignored him. But when he persisted, I thought, I’ll take a risk and let him know a bit more about my journey and see what happens.
But after I shared that I’m often cold due to the chemo I had, he barked at me, “Keep telling yourself that!” I was stunned and hurt and retreated inwardly. He left and I swam for thirty minutes, furious. I left the pool, feeling certain I had to voice myself. I didn’t know his last name but got it and his phone number from another lifeguard. I was also certain that I wanted to speak my heart before I considered what to say and how to say it, before I talked myself out of it, before I diluted my truth.
I opened my locker, pulled out my cell phone, and, dripping wet, called Tim who was at home. I told him how rude I thought he was and he became belligerent. I began to yell at him. After a while, he hung up. Not used to being angry like that, I was shaking. I had no illusions of changing Tim’s behavior. But I felt it was imperative not to remain invisible or I would diminish myself.
Though I voiced myself awkwardly, loudly, and even inappropriately, I assumed my full stature and stood for the truth of my experience. I left trembling but in absolute integrity. From that day on, there’s less between me and the world, and I trust I will become more skillful at being authentic in the moment. This raw experience freed me from a great deal of rehearsing before meeting others.
Blessed now to have a sense of what it means to be authentic, I aim to return there when I stray. Often, the smallest moment will catch my heart and reawaken me, like a quiet angel calling with its beautiful whispers. By simply lingering with the whispers, I can rediscover what matters.
This excerpt is from my book, The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom that Waits in Your Heart (Atria 2016).
*photo credit: Pixabay