Blog Post: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Six months ago, I had promised I’d write more about the unfolding of my journey into the healing arts. When I began on this road seventeen years ago as a student in the massage therapy program at the New York College of Health Professions, I was quite linear. I was learning. And I was a damned good learner. Muscle origins and insertions, innervations. Kinesiology. Neurology. There was plenty to keep my linear mind busy. Not to mention sitting for one of the most grueling massage boards in the country.

When things started to open up on that journey, I really didn’t quite understand what was happening and my linear mind wasn’t keen on making space for the non-linear stuff it didn’t understand. When I started to grasp it through T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, I couldn’t quite accept that it was happening to me and that it was happening so fast. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen over time with dedicated cultivation and the guidance of a wise mentor?

Over the years though, I came to realize this cultivation of energy had started long before I got to the massage program. This did not happen in a two year massage therapy program.

In Spring of 1996, I was a pretty intense Type A sort, working in medical editorial, driven by the almighty deadline. My boss, a physician from India, didn’t play into such physical world dramas, and one day when I had probably had one cup of coffee too many, and was chomping at the bit to select manuscripts for the next issue, he suggested that I learn to meditate. As only a dedicated Type A New Yorker could respond, I said, “I don’t have time for that stuff.” He nodded, smiled graciously, and said, “Precisely when you need to do it most.”

Some weeks later, I found myself in an independent bookstore on Long Island that was closing its doors. Everything was marked down. “Misplaced” in the literary fiction section was this book, facing outward so the title boldly stared me in the eye. It read, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

I was fond of the Clint Black song by the same name that was popular at the time. So I took the book off the shelf.

It turned out to be about Zen Meditation. I recalled my boss’s recommendation. The book was half price. What did I have to lose? I bought it. I opened it when I got home and devoured it. It was the first thing that made sense to me in a long, long while.

That book altered the course of everything that followed.

Three months later, I received a phone call at work — a defining moment for which nothing could have ever prepared me. I learned of the death of a childhood friend who was only 30 years old. It was impossible to breathe. Sound distorted. Vision blurred. My mental focus was lost and stayed that way for months. I plunged into despair. And there was no consoling me. I wanted one last time with my friend. One last conversation. One last song sung together. One last moment of raucous laughter. One last hug.

There would be none.

It was my first adult journey into grief. And I had no resources to guide me, except for the daily Zen practice I had begun three months before. Practice grounded me. It calmed me. It slowed down my racing heart. The very thing I had told my boss “I didn’t have time for” was the very thing I made time for — now twice a day. And eventually practice acquainted me with the peace of letting go. That process took nearly a full year.

But my opportunity to cultivate my energy wouldn’t end there.

But for a half hour, it would have been the first anniversary of my friend’s death. I was driving home from my grandmother’s house after her funeral, a funeral which came after an arduous two weeks of her failing health. During those weeks, I watched my grandmother decline in a hospital bed and stood by my mother and helped her make the decision to remove her mother from life support. I was present when she died. I saw her spirit leave her body. Although I told myself I had imagined that. The thing was back then, if you had asked me the point from which the spirit left the body, I would have said the crown. Because back then, even though I was meditating, I still lived wholeheartedly in my mind. The problem was, the gold spiral of energy I saw leave my grandmother’s body just before she flat-lined? It rose above her heart.

I was beyond thinking about it. I was emotionally drained. And I was making the journey into another layer of grief.

That night after the funeral, I was only about 15 minutes from home when traffic came to a stop at a construction site on the northbound Sagtikos Parkway.  I saw the cars in my rear view mirror cascading off the road as they were struck one by one, a ballet of headlights as cars were pushed onto the shoulder in a surreal blur. I remember bracing against the steering wheel and the brake pedal. And then the unforgiving sound and feel of metal hitting metal as my car was struck hard by the drunk driver, propelling my car into the car ahead of me, which my then husband was driving. I remember the sensation of my body moving upward against the strain of my seat belt. Then a violent slam back down into my seat. And then nothing.

I don’t know how long “nothing” lasted but it couldn’t have been long.

I remember being suspended in blackness. A peaceful silence. And these tiny beautiful sparkling lights permeating the blackness. I felt like I was floating. The stillness was welcomed and I was held in it for what seemed a long time. Then I heard a man’s voice. It was not a voice I recognized. But it was clear and firm in its directive: “You need to go back. Your mother cannot handle losing you and her mother.”

And then the next thing I remembered was sound. Loud and intrusive sounds. My husband was banging against the driver’s side window, screaming my name, pounding his fists against the glass. I wanted to tell him to shut up. A distant car horn was piercing the night. And then I saw my husband’s face as he continued to pound on the window. I recognized a frantic look I’d never seen before. I had been married to Joe Cool. An attorney. Nothing flustered him. Nothing. But this had him unearthed.

I got out of the car. I could walk, even though people told me I shouldn’t. I remember pacing like a wild animal on the shoulder, wrapped in a blanket until help arrived. We went to the ER. No bones were broken. Nothing required stitches. But soft tissue injuries and chronic pain plagued me, which provided me with more opportunity for Zen practice over the months that followed. I was also left with a heightened emotional sensitivity and spiritual awareness I didn’t understand and often scared me. And I was hesitant to breathe a word about those things to anyone for quite some time.

It wasn’t until years later, while in my first Myofascial Release class, that I had recall of a similar experience, when I was 17 years old. I grew up on Long Island and any Long Islander knows you never turn your back on the ocean. I had been taken under by a silent wave that rose up behind me. I remembered losing my footing and spiraling in the water, not sure what direction I was moving in. I pushed down on the ocean floor in panic and could feel my hands and legs being scraped by sand and rocks. I struggled. I fought. And then I had no fight left. I let go.

I experienced that same blackness with the sparkling lights. The same restful silence. The same feeling of suspension. Time ceased.  And then the harsh intrusion of sunlight as I found myself on the shore.

I told no one about this, not for years anyway. My linear assessment of the event went like this: 1) I was infinitely stupid for turning my back on the ocean, and 2) I was damned lucky to not be carried out to sea. And that was all I was capable of understanding at the time — luck had beat out stupidity. No need to celebrate it.

While I had forgotten about that day at the beach, when I experienced the blackness with the sparkling lights after my car accident, I knew I would never be the person I was before that night. I knew I was here to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. It would be a long time before I could give any of this a voice and put language on it. But the one thing I knew without a doubt was that after that night, there was positively no going back to life as I had known it.sedona-cairn

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Poetry: Untitled

This poem was written in 2003, when I was an adjunct instructor and clinic supervisor in the Massage Therapy program at the New York College of Health Professions on Long Island. The program was heavily based on Taoist principles and students were strongly encouraged to work on their personal development in order to be present and centered in every treatment they delivered. But these ideas sometimes met resistance. This poem speaks to such a moment.  

 

© MG Mandarino 2003

 

Untitled

(for Neva)

How many stars can you count?

How many lives can you touch –

not with your hands, eagerly circling and diving

into points –

but with the stillness of your heart?

And how many lives might those lives touch?

 

Close your eyes.  Know who you are.

Sink deep into the earth.

Become the void, clear as pipe.

Be the vessel between heaven and earth.

“But I am not spiritual,” you lament.

My friend, leave such worries to bishops and popes.

Stop.

Breathe.

Be present.

Let your hands melt

as you offer the fullness

of who you are,

of who you have become,

of who you are still becoming.

 

It is in the deepest moments

of stillness,

without even knowing,

that we touch

the face of God.

 

-Maria Grace Mandarino

10/13/03