Some say that the historical Jesus wasn't born in December. Some don't believe he was born at all. But regardless of your beliefs or spiritual tradition, you've got to admit, if you're open to it at all, that the symbolism is pretty brilliant.
There's something about the story of the stable and the star and the simple shepherds with their flocks of sheep, that wouldn't be the same if it happened at high noon or the long days of summer. Light born in darkness cuts through to the subconscious, offering hope, and reminding us that what we shed light on, transforms all that is not light.
Twenty years ago, I lost a friend, mentor, and role model to cancer. I haven't had many role models in my life, but Reverend Jack Crandall was one of a kind. Perhaps more than anyone I've known personally, Jack made the biggest contribution to my spiritual and professional development. While his sermons could leave you speechless and his counseling skills superb, it was who he was, his Jack-ness, which made the biggest impact on me and so many others.
He often preached in a tie-dye T-shirt and Tevas, long before it was cool. In the 80's and 90's he welcomed gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people into our church community - defending them, supporting them, and advocating for gay representation in the clergy. The Anderson Independent ran a story about our radical little church and he told me that one of the reporters asked him, "Jack, off the record, what do you think makes people gay?" And Jack replied lovingly, but without missing a beat, "God."
In the 60's he was an outspoken champion for civil rights. So much so that he once came home to a burning cross in his yard. It is said that in response he invited folks over for a weenie roast and s'mores.
Jack had an unapologetically devilish sense of humor. He once asked me, "Hey Shell, know what PMS stands for?" and before I could answer he said, "Puttin' up with men's shit." He thought it was hilarious.
Jack was completely at home with his shadow. He loved to act and was once appearing in a local theatre production of Old Man River. I asked him what part he was playing, to which he replied with a grin and his famous pipe sticking out the corner of his mouth, "A drunken lech," to which I quipped, "Ah, a real stretch for you I guess." And he just laughed.
He knew his shadow intimately and embraced it consciously. He wasn't afraid of it and therefore it wasn't running things behind the scenes. You never had to worry about it sneaking out in some perverted, sideways way, and this is why you always felt safe around him. Because he was so comfortable with his own humanness, he made you feel comfortable with yours.
Some of you have commented that my "authenticity and vulnerability" has inspired you. Well, my beloved friend Jack has alot to do with that. I was 27 years old when we met and for the next 10 years his realness freed me to be real myself.
Jack loved Christmas and could do a Christmas Eve service like nobody else. In memory of those Christmases and in the spirit of his wide-reaching love, I invite you, regardless of your spiritual beliefs or tradition, to join me, as Jack once did, for this little ritual.
This Christmas Eve, around midnight if you can, turn off the lights, go and stand at a window, preferably one from which you can see the stars, and light a candle.
No incantations are necessary. There's nothing you're supposed to do. Just stand and breathe and be present - you and your candle and the night.
Perhaps, like me, you'll think of loved ones who have passed, family relationships that are still broken or challenging, the scary state of the world and all of those who are suffering in it. Perhaps you will think of your own humanness - your failures and successes, quirks and hangups, dreams and frustrations. And perhaps you will let yourself feel whatever arises.
And if you do, when you do, just know that you're not alone. Whatever you're thinking or feeling, I'm probably feeling and thinking it too. And together we light up the darkness, our own darkness, and everyone's darkness, with our own little light of awareness. And in doing so, we are free.
This would have made Jack very happy.
Merry light-that-is-born-in-you Christmas!
Shelly (and Jack)
Recently I asked one of my clients, "To what degree would you say that are you able to just sit with your emotions?" He stared at me for a moment and then replied, "You mean without processing them, like without thinking them through, labeling them, trying to put words to them?" And I said, yes. "You mean without trying to understand them, where they're coming from?" Yes. "You mean without trying to understand what's causing them and then try to change the situation?" Yes. "You mean, just sit with them and feel them?" Yes. "Why would I want to do that!?" I burst out laughing because his response was so delightfully honest, so endearing, and such a clear example of where most of us humans are, particularly in this culture, with regards to our emotions.
It got me to thinking about our species and how, over time, our relationship with our emotions has evolved. And it seems to me that the way we relate to our emotions as individuals runs parallel to our evolution with them as a species. At one time, we must have simply acted on our emotions. If we were really angry at someone, we killed them. Then Descartes came along with, "I think therefore I am," suggesting that our rational minds were in charge and we could override our primitive emotions with mental willpower. It was a step in the right direction. Collectively, and as individuals, we need self-control. We cannot simply act on our feelings without negative consequences.
But here's where we, to some degree, got stuck. In trying to control and manage our animal-like, out-of-control feelings, we learned to suppress them. We now know that this takes a toll on our bodies and creates what we call stress.
At some point, the past thirty years maybe, we realized that we might be healthier if we learned how to express our feelings so that we could get them out of our bodies. This often means talking about our feelings, which is sometimes helpful, and certainly healthier than stuffing them. At one point in my own development, I needed a way to physically express my anger. With the help of specialists in this area, I learned that I could scream in a pillow and hit the bed with a plastic baseball bat, without scaring myself or somebody else, and feel much better. And most importantly, I learned that I could observe and simultaneously feel energy flowing through my body, without it (the energy) having to mean anything. And while I seldom need to now, I still have a plastic baseball bat under my bed in the spare bedroom, just in case.
Once we make friends with our primal emotions, we can start relating to them differently. Beyond suppressing them with our intellects, or whatever other way we tend to do that, and beyond expressing them, is a little known third way. When you can quiet the thinking part of your brain that wants to judge and interfere, when you can allow yourself to palpably feel whatever you're feeling, you can then, with the alchemical power of your awareness, learn how to release, transform, and convert any negative emotion into peace. But you can't skip your way to the peace without feeling the scary, unevolved feelings first. When we try to skip to the peace, because we believe our feelings are unevolved or unspiritual, we call this spiritual bypassing.
In my line of work, I have the opportunity to meet many kinds of healers and spiritual seekers. I am often surprised at how many have not (and are perhaps not ready to), acknowledged the darker, less evolved aspects of their humanness. Debbie Ford's book, The Dark Side Of the Light Chasers, does a great job of describing this. When our identity is tied up in being spiritual people, we tend to unconsciously judge, block, or resist those feelings or impulses that don't match our ideas of who we think we are and who we should be. But this darker energy festers in us, making us less effective, sometimes ill, and in extreme cases leads to the kind of thing we've seen with clergy addicted to porn and sexually deviant behavior.
Any primal emotion, brought to the light of your awareness, will convert, if you can sit with it long enough to feel it and let it be - without judgement, without analysis, without resistance. But you are the only one who can know where you are in your relationship with your emotions and if you're ready for this process. If you tend to act on your feelings, hurting others or yourself, you might want to take time to understand and think about what's going on and where your feelings are coming from. If you tend to intellectualize your feelings, if you understand them, but find that understanding them hasn't really changed anything, or sense that despite your understanding, it's taking a toll on your body, you might want to explore healthy ways to express them. If you're expressing them and find that the same feelings keep cycling through over and over, if you continue to get triggered by the same things, you might be ready to learn how to release them at the source.
I'm describing this in a very linear fashion, but most of us probably do some combination of the above, depending on the topic, the situation, the feeling, and our personal tendencies.
Wherever you are in the process, I want to suggest that learning to work with your negative emotions has the potential to be a spiritual practice. Ironic isn't it? We tend to collectively think that our emotions make us look unevolved or unspiritual, but in my experience acknowledging, allowing, accepting, and even embracing my emotions, as innate to my humanness, is one of the most spiritual things I can do. When I can learn to simply be present with myself and what I'm feeling, without judging and without indulging, I am strengthening my spiritual muscle. I am strengthening who I really am.
And who am I? You can take a hint from your early grammar lessons. I am is the first-person singular of the verb to be - not the verb to think, or to feel, but to be. My emotions aren't who I am. My intellect isn't who I am. I am that on which all of my thinking and feeling appears. I am the one who watches, who makes a space for, who allows - the one who is simply present. So the more you practice be-ing, especially in the presence of challenging emotions, the more you are be-ing yourself. And the more you practice being yourself, the easier it becomes.
Much love to you and yours this holiday season. It has been, and continues to be, my honor and privilege to have you as friends, colleagues, clients, and readers.