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


Poetry Post: On the Road to Dharmasala

This poem grew from a different kind of space… a space that opened up during an acupuncture treatment as I drifted off and had a brief lucid dream.  Many years later, I am now an acupuncturist myself.  We call these moments “Acu Naps” and they often provide moments of great insight, clarity, and peace.

On The Road to Dharmasala


At the open air market

in the small Indian village –

I was there but briefly –

I stopped to buy some incense.

I was only passing through,

but the hypnotic spiral

from the long stick burning

in the glass holder

made me linger.

I watched it dance, studied it,

and was certain it danced

in celebration

of my new life.

I had little time to waste

on the road to Dharmasala,

but the spiral drew me in.

I breathed in the heady perfumes

of wise men and kings

and recalled things that once captured me,

trappings so far from this simple place:

trinkets from Tiffany

Donna Karan suits,

acrylic nails,

and of course, you.

I chose three sticks to take on my journey

and handed my rupees to the man with the leathery skin

and the scattered smile.

I love you for what you taught me.

And I forgive you for what you could not be.

© M.G. Mandarino 2003

Blog Post: Holding The Sacred Space

The phrase “holding the space” has been gently following me for years now. And until very recently, I thought I had understood what it meant.

The first person to ever use the phrase “hold the space” with me was a friend and colleague with whom I taught in New York. He would talk about how the best massage therapists were the ones who could hold the space. Massage strokes, he said, were merely technique and could always be learned, but presence and connection were things that came from elsewhere.

Over time and somewhere between my journey from New York to Arizona, someone inserted the word “sacred” into this phrase and while I didn’t ponder it further, the phrase “Hold the Space as Sacred” just resonated for me. I liked it, and when I’ve taught massage therapy and Reiki classes, I’ve often used the phrase with my students. The space we create for others to heal is sacred.

But on December 28th, 2013, a few things changed to deepen my understanding. An old friend and former teacher was in town and we had the chance to visit.  We caught up on eight years and many miles and it was good to see him.  And while he seemed infinitely happy with life, something lingered — a hint of frustration and disappointment — and finally he asked if I had talked to his best friend recently. I said no. Not for any reason, but he had simply transformed into someone I didn’t quite recognize anymore. Life just does that sometimes. But I did believe the person I had once known was still in there.

Their friendship had been extraordinary. Tighter than some brothers are. They could bear witness to each other’s lives and support each other’s processes like no two men I knew.  These were good guys, both classroom teachers of mine, as well as soul teachers. The kind of guys who are not afraid to open a vein and share what they had learned about walking the Path. And the sincerity in their friendship inspired the heck out of me.

So when Brian had shared that it was some time since he had last heard from his friend, I was deeply saddened.  I had nothing to offer.  Except for that familiar phrase I had shared with a friend just days before. This woman also had been frustrated with a friend who had checked out emotionally. I had told her, “Just hold the space.”

And so I repeated this to Brian.  “Just hold the space, Brian.  He’s in there. And I believe in time he will come back.” He nodded and maybe even seemed a little bit brighter.

What Brian didn’t know though was that in that moment, I had made a silent decision to also hold the space for their friendship to heal. In fact, later that day, I wrote a poem entitled “Holding the Space,” a poem inspired by our conversation, which appears at the end of this blog post.

Curiously, on the evening of that same day, I had attended my first service at a new church. A beautiful, meaningful and symbolic service that moved me deeply. Particularly unique to this service are stations set up for individual worship. These stations are, quite curiously, called “Sacred Spaces.”  And don’t think that didn’t get my attention this night of all nights.

A few days ago, something prompted me to connect with Brian and ask him if he’s heard from his old friend. It turned out that the friend had reached out, quite unexpectedly and with no prompting. And their friendship is back on track, just as it used to be.

I was so joyful for both of them. And I couldn’t help but wonder about this idea of holding the space.  What IS it that we actually hold?  What IS the space?  It obviously is not something one can measure out in square footage. It is not a place where one can hang drapes and set furniture or have tea. This space, this sacred space, is an intangible thing, a thing we carry. I thought perhaps we carry it within our hearts.

But in realizing two people holding the space could cause a person to shift and return to their inner Light, well, I had to think space must be way more than a thing we carry in our hearts.

After hearing from Brian, I wondered if holding the space was actually a form of prayer. The past few months, I’ve been on a personal journey of sorts where I have come to understand that intention equals the frequency of prayer. Thus, it did not seem like a huge stretch to think that holding the space (a form of intention) was another way to pray and it was likely that this space was not just any space, but indeed a sacred space.

Just last week, I met with my pastor to discuss some concepts that were plaguing me.  And in that talk, I mentioned the notion of Holding the Space, how when I work with people, this is my approach to everything:  presence, connection, having clear intent, and extending compassion.

And, in a roundabout way, out of that discussion, came the second poem posted below, “Corridors.”

My first reaction in writing “Corridors” was that I was being redundant given the first poem. Often I write a poem, only to find in a few months I write another that is rather similar to the first, but the first was really just a test run for the real poem that was slowly gestating. This wasn’t like that though. Both poems, I felt, had merit on their own. One did not replace the other. But still, the former English teacher in me didn’t like that I had recycled a phrase. It almost seemed too easy. Yet, this phrase has been following me for so long, it has come up in so many conversations, in such different settings, that I kind of knew that wasn’t it at all. There was something more to be excavated here.  Spirit was knocking at the gate.

This morning, I sat meditation a little longer than usual. I have been needing to deepen my practice and I’ve been more than a little resistant about this, which is usually an indicator that I need to become more disciplined. And this morning, practice came particularly hard. A lot of monkey mind — things I needed to remember to do, things about which I was anxious and worried, people for whom I was concerned. Sitting this morning involved quite a bit of me needing to ask my thoughts to please step aside and wait (yes, I always say please). And finally, maybe in the last 15 minutes of sitting, the thoughts quieted and I entered the blissful stillness that is Zen.

And then,  just before the last chime rang on my Insight Timer app, I heard these words clearly:

You ARE the space.

I could feel my heart expand. I immediately wrote the words down. Because I knew more words would be coming.

A while later, I messaged a friend who just gets me, and who often holds the space for me. (Interestingly, she is a counselor who specializes in a form of creative therapy called sand tray therapy. And the basis for this therapy, as taught to her by Catholic nuns, is to “hold the space”).

I asked her, “If holding the space is actually a form of prayer, and we ARE the space, then does this mean we ARE the prayer?” She thought it might.

I went on, “So if we ARE the space, if we ARE the prayer and we are not merely saying a prayer, then we are also the living manifestation of Divine Love? Prayer in action? And that’s why holding the space can be so powerful?”

She thought I might be onto something.

My mind is still, quite frankly, a bit blown by this. And that’s not only fine. It’s perfect. It’s always best when my mind gets out of the way. My heart resonates with this. And that’s even more perfect.  That’s how I know we’re going somewhere really good.

And so , I leave this possibility with you.  Sit in stillness, breathe deeply, and hold these words in your heart:

We ARE the space.

We ARE the prayer.

We ARE the Manifestation of Divine Love.

Try them on.  See how they fit.  And if these words resonate with you too, see how you might offer something more to this world and those in it by not just holding the space, but by being the space.

Healing light,





© MG Mandarino 2013


Holding The Space

At the crossroads

of fear and desire

is great suffering.


Luminescence fades

as legions of angels

watch in silence

and are forced

to wait —


and hold the space

as sacred


until the light

of consciousness



Maria Grace Mandarino







©MG Mandarino 2014



In the dark and narrow hallway

of oblivion

we forget sometimes

there are rooms too,

with doors,

which, when opened,


tall windows

of great light.

And something ancient and knowing


that it’s safe

and okay to enter

this place, this still

and sacred space

where the soul can breathe

and heal.


Maria Grace Mandarino