Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.
When I was a kid, I heard these words pronounced once a year on Ash Wednesday as the pastor smeared ashes in the sign of a cross on my forehead. Memento mori: remember you must die. I thought that’s what Ash Wednesday was about. Death. Sin. Repentance.
A few days ago, I was struck with this statement, digesting and contemplating it for the first time in years; perhaps for the first time ever. Death as a cycle, but a much shorter one than we generally think. We are always dying, or at least some part of us is. We are always broken; so much so that we are never not broken. We like to think that our natural state is wholeness, completeness, and that brokenness, injury, and pain are the aberrations that need to be fixed, healed, avoided. I’m fairly certain the opposite is true.
We’re not supposed to admit that we’re broken, hurting, tired, sore.
Tough it out. Walk it off. Pain is just a figment of your imagination.
We dissociate from it because it gets in the way. It makes us weak. And sometimes because it fucking hurts.
Hold it all together, don’t let them see you cry.
And we’re always striving to be whole, thinking, hoping, praying that the next relationship, friendship, job, workshop, retreat, car, house, paycheck will be it. Always looking forward to the whatever it is that will complete us, and feeling utter devastation when it doesn’t work, yet again. “Once I have _________, then I’ll be happy/whole/satisfied/you-fill-in-the-blank.”
But when we’re always looking forward to what we think will make it all better, and backwards to what didn’t work, to what got us in this mess, to what caused this pain, we’re missing what’s here. Right now.
This brokenness is a gift. It’s full of possibility, wide-fucking-open. When you’re holding it all together, acting as if you are whole, complete, sufficient unto yourself, you limit yourself to one direction, one possibility. At least, I do.
Maybe for the first time in my life, I’m sitting in brokenness. I’m not looking forward to what will fix it, what will glue me back together, make me feel whole, complete. Instead, I’m inhabiting my brokenness. With it comes pain, yes. Sensitivity, rawness, and other uncomfortable feelings I would just as soon avoid. And also, with brokenness comes unsurpassable opportunity. In it I am unlimited; broken open; softened, tenderized, ready to make contact. Each crack and fault on my heart becomes a possible path to walk down. In the brokenness lies the pleasure of alchemy. These broken parts and pieces can come together and meet, perhaps for the first time, creating new unimagined facets. Forming a whole that is willing to be broken apart knowing that it will get to experience the reorganization and transformation into something new once again.
Akhilandesvari, a form of the Hindu goddess, Parvati, is the embodiment of this brokenness. Her name translated means, “never not broken.” She embraces her brokenness, climbs inside of it, leans into it.
Lean into it. That’s a common directive given to me in meditation, yoga, intimacy work. Whatever is there, lean into it. Rather than trying to change it, distract yourself from it, or move away from it, lean in. Explore what’s there. Taste all of the flavors, see all of the colors, feel all of the textures. When I lean in, I often experience a softening.
Pigeon pose in yoga, that delicious hip opener usually gives me a perfect opportunity to practice leaning in. When I first get into the asana, every part of my body tenses up, fighting the intensity that it offers. I clench my jaw, hold my breath, doing whatever I can to move away. Then I usually try to ignore the discomfort, push against it, ignore it, distract myself from it, make small adjustments to relieve some of it. And finally, I take a deep breath, and relax into it, lean into it, surrender. Once I do that, it takes but a moment and the tight muscles of my hip relax and soften, until they tense up again as the intensity breaks through another layer of resistance, and I have to make the choice to lean in again, and again, and again. In every moment.
I’m making the choice to lean into my brokenness, again and again, in every moment, with every breath, and every cell of my body, I get to make the choice to lean in, to commit to the brokenness with all that I am.
What’s the point? Why surrender to something so painful? It’s so counterintuitive. The only answer that I have is that it doesn’t feel like I have a choice.
Brokenness is all there is.
It’s not a sad, depressing, or limiting thing. I’m not saying, “I’m broken” with a pitiful fragility and hopelessness, or with the expectation that someone will glue me back together. I say it knowing that my willingness to be broken, cracked open, ripped apart, and to acknowledge that, lean into it and even welcome it is a strength, not a weakness. I can stop trying to hold myself together, to act like I’m complete and whole, to harden my shell, and instead pay attention to what’s actually here.