Let Your Cell Teach You

Today I would like to share with you a guest post from Michael Petrow. Michael is a student of Origen, a spiritual director, and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

I keep telling myself “Don’t jump back into distraction, sit with it a little longer.”

I’ve always been fascinated with mystics, monks, and zen masters—especially the old Kung Fu master who lives in a cave, reflecting on the deep mysteries, like Obi Wan Kenobi living off in the desert.

But here in 2020, I find myself thinking about this a lot. This year has felt a bit like life in a cave, or life in the desert. But if this feels like I’m in a cave, then some days it feels like the walls are caving in. But maybe there is something there?

In fact, this season of life is reminding me of a long, slow, quiet 8 day Zen retreat I did last year. Turns out it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: No phone, no talking, no eye contact—not even with yourself, so no mirrors, no reading, no writing, no free time. It was very, very difficult, but also very profound. There was something like 11 hours a day of meditation—lots of sitting with yourself.

I kept cycling between feeling “Oh I got this no problem” to moments where I thought “I think I’m losing my mind a little bit.” The craziest things kept coming up in my mind. It reminded me of Yoda saying “Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future, the past. Old friends long gone.” Old baggage—things I thought I had sorted out years ago—would bubble up. But right when I thought I was really losing it, they would untangle a bit. I cried more than once, I laughed, I prayed, I rated my favorite movies in my mind; I was bored out of my skull.

Did I mention I felt like I was going crazy? And yet when it was all said and done, I felt like a massive part of my heart had untangled itself, or pieced itself back together.

So yes, the other day, I was reminded just how much the quarantine has actually felt like that retreat. The long, the lonely, the slow, the still, the quiet, the crazy, the deep, the dumb, the disturbing, … and just everything keeps coming up. Old wounds that suddenly feel brand new, profound insights, raw revelations, the question of whether I’m losing it. Things I have been fine with for years are suddenly driving me crazy again. I feel like I’m regressing. Or maybe its progress? I have a teacher who used to say “We go back to go forward.”

I have felt all of this the last few months, and I have heard all of it in friends, in the people I counsel, and in the folks I offer spiritual direction.

So thinking back on that retreat, I remember afterwards many people asked me what I learned or what my biggest takeaway was. I would always say: “It’s amazing to me how profoundly the soul is capable of healing itself. But for that we need to just get out of its way and give it the space to work, AND we need the courage to let unresolved issues come up again.” Because after that retreat, I KNEW that it had done its work on me and in me, and I had both grown and healed as a result. A mentor of mine told me she felt like I had experienced a year’s worth of concentrated psychotherapy in one week.

Which takes me back to the mystics sitting in the desert like Obi Wan Kenobi. Imagine my surprise when I learned his character was based on an anchorite, a type of monk from my own Christian tradition. For those of you who don’t know, these “Desert Fathers and mother” were early Christian Mystics who went into the Egyptian desert to find God and to find themselves—and they seemed to think that in finding yourself honestly, you found God. Their sayings are really rather profound.

I think maybe for the first time I am beginning to understand what they were getting at when they used to say: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” When they say “stay in your cell” they are of course referring to the little caves or hermitages or shelters they would make for themselves in the wilderness, to live and to meditate and to learn. And apparently it was an effort to just stay there.

This was not something you or I could easily relate to… until recently, if you were asked to STAY HOME. If so, did you start to feel the strain? Were we all suddenly here as a society? The long, the slow, the quiet, and now the crazy. Old wounds are coming up aren’t they? Your quarantine may be over, but chances are that you’ve been triggered or tripped up in some way and that is still ongoing. Some fault or frustration or wound or general wackiness came to the surface while you were in time out, and that still needs some attention.

You wanted to quit your job or your relationship or your city or your state or your family, and pop smoke and peace out.

Or maybe the thought of going back into quarantine is too much.

Or you have been riding an emotional roller coaster, and you want off.

If so, I would say: Take heart, have the courage to stay with it, sit in it, let it unwind itself and show you what it has for you.

Perhaps this was and is about all of us being put in the cell—in time out—for just a minute, so that it can teach us something. So there is space for unresolved wounds to come up. For the false veneer that “everything is fine” to stretch too thin and slide away and reveal the unhealed. And maybe even societally these BIG old wounds—systemic racism, inequality, injustice—are bubbling up so that we can have the courage to face them and heal.

And maybe all YOUR personal baggage that’s coming up… your tensions with friends and co workers and employers and family members, all the ways you are being triggered in ways that you haven’t been in years…perhaps that is happening for a reason too…. and maybe if we can stay with it, it will teach us something.

It’s amazing the capacity of the soul to heal itself, if we just give it the room to work, and if we are willing to trust the process, and if we are willing to stay with what it shows us.

It’s hard to just sit with things isn’t it? We want solutions or we want to move on. But this year is a master class sitting and simmering and even letting that spark up the fires of change.

I keep having to remind myself, “Don’t be too quick to jump back into distraction. And don’t be afraid to sit with the wisdom of discomfort.”

Your primary work in all of this just might be YOU. And if you are willing to look at yourself, and unpack your own stuff, this will guide you into what to do next.

By the way, I think this is also why so many of us are struggling with the conversations around racism right now. A lot of us don’t want to have to sit and look at our own discomfort. We either want to solve it, or we want to ignore it. But any lasting solution will take some slow, hard introspection.

YES we should go to protests, post helpful things online, stand up, speak up or act up for change. But that must also come from being willing to look within and see the potentially racist, or sexist, or just straight up harmful things we have done and said or even simply tolerated in our own lives…talking to myself here…. OR…if that makes you bristle, consider that for some of us the greatest work is just being willing to consider thinking about things differently—maybe even reading this paragraph and being willing to think about it even if you don’t quickly agree with it.

Some of the most important conversations taking place right now are among friends and family members TRYING to understand and hear each other even as they are triggered and angry. We all need the maturity to see this is not about GUILT but about GROWTH.

How are you sitting with all of this? With the ongoing pandemic that refuses to just be buttoned up? How are you sitting with the desire to ignore racism and injustice—or the weaknesses its shown in our institutions? How are you sitting with your own stuff, your baggage—your grief and your growing pains? How are you letting all of this inform your taking slow and steady action?

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