From when I was little up until my late teens, I knew the world was sacred. I think many of us do at that age. The power of youth lies in part in its intensity. It doesn't matter what your life circumstances are, everything is new, fresh and alive. Your mind and heart are awake and you are only tentatively conditioned by the society you live in. Later on you will armor your heart, thereby dulling your mind, and accept your place in society but without the intensity of the young, wise heart. As you grow into adulthood, you will take on more and more responsibilities. These widen your skills and allow you to live independently. They also numb your sensitivity to the fact that your present moment is sacred.
I grew up in New York City. During most of the year I lived in Brooklyn and went to school in Manhattan and during the summers I lived on Long Island on the beach. I got to experience city and country life, to taste the rhythms of both. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there were tree lined streets and a large park nearby. Nature seemed to survive fairly well in an environment of car exhaust, many houses, apartment buildings, stores, schools and a moderate number of people. I was lucky to have that park nearby. Any open spaces, including the sky and the sky line, in a city as large and complex as New York City, are truly valued and needed. It's a kind of balance to the stress of living amongst so many people. But that city environment and all its multi-cultural inhabitants are a large part of what makes city living as sacred as living close to nature.
It's not just that the environment we find ourselves in is sacred, but we ourselves are made up of subtle and obvious, intricate and plain sacred stuff. I got to experience people as sacred on New York City streets and subways. The obvious and plain sacredness of the people in this city is in their wonderful diversity. I realized later on that a lot of people just don't get to experience this and are possibly afraid of all the differences in humanity. But for me living in the city at the time it was the natural state of affairs. And amidst that throng of people, there were truly acts of random kindness that defied the stereotype of cities as large and hostile places. Yes the city was large and in certain places, at certain times hostile, but for the most part the life within the city kept moving. More people followed the rules of coexistence than didn't. Courtesy, tolerance, patience, generosity, humor and even joy circulated throughout city life.
The subtle and intricate side of the sacred in the city had to do with the darker side of it. The traffic, the car exhaust in the air, the dirt, the noise, the extreme poverty of homeless people, the threat of misunderstandings turning into altercations or even violence, the fast pace, all of this interwoven into the pulse of the city. How can dirt, noise, poverty, violence be sacred? Because it is part of the whole scene and it offsets the harmony and beauty which is also to be found there. This duality in us between the light and dark aspects of ourselves is the playing field for the sacred in our lives. Success and failure, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence, it's all very rich and messy stuff and it's all we have to work with as we each go through our particular journey.
I think more people associate the sacred with nature, rather than with city life, and I was privileged enough to experience that also in what started out as a very small beach house on Long Island during the summers. My upwardly mobile parents, who worked their way up from fairly poor beginnings, determined to get this house on the bay side of the beach for about $9,000 in 1958, the year my older brother was born. They never regretted it and my brother and I got to experience nature up close. Compared to the city, there wasn't the dirt, noise, poverty or potential violence at the beach. Instead there was the luxury of unpopulated open spaces where nature thrived. I remember the smell of the ocean, salty and mildly sulphuric, as my family got out of the car, and how quickly I took off my shoes and socks to feel the sand between my toes. Soon after that I would check on the bay behind our house and then walk across the road and up a dune to see the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It was like greeting a long, lost friend. My family also brought our six cats with us and set them free during the summers; they were beautiful to watch and so happy in their freedom.
I moved away from both the city and the beach when I was twenty seven, moving far into the country of Western New York, which is closer to rural Pennsylvania than to the metropolis that I grew up in. Predominantly white, Christian, Republican, often poor amidst the open beauty of the countryside, a very different setting for me. Ironically, I had to come deep into the country to encounter prejudice, violence, addiction and abuse that I somehow mostly avoided in the city. But I also found the solace of living in the country in relative privacy in my own home for the first time in my adult life. Everything was new, the countryside, the roads, the towns, the stores and the people. I still had some of the flush of youth in me then and I was curious. I was also sick and quickly committed myself to someone who was also sick, a victim of prejudice, abuse and addiction. He tried to pass on the cycle of abuse that he had endured and rebelled against to me.
The cycles of abuse in our culture are also a part of how we learn about what's sacred in our lives. One of the drawbacks of living in the country is the isolation because isolation can breed abuse. A sick, tyrannical, addicted boyfriend or husband living in an isolated house with his girlfriend or wife and possibly children as well, can reek havoc in that little home virtually unchecked. Worse, the suffering abuser will go on to teach how to perpetuate the cycle of abuse especially to the children. People who become the victims of abuse have two choices, either to continue the cycle or to end it. It sounds like an easy choice, but it is not. The pull to feed into resentment, whether it's an abusive person blaming those around him for his troubles or an abused person blaming his or her abuser, is what keeps this virus alive. I guess this is why I tend to stress the fact that abusers are not bad, evil people, they are incredibly sick people who most likely have been abused themselves at a young age. And the abused, after years of it, are mentally ill as well. This is what cements the cycle in place -- when the people in the relationship are both sick, how can they possibly get well?
Too often they don't get well and spiral downwards. It takes at least one person in a deeply sick relationship to reach outside of the confines of that strange partnership towards help. I tried to do that by going to support groups and counseling, by studying literature on addiction, codependency and domestic violence, by secretly writing in a journal. My attempts to continue with support groups and counseling were blocked by my sick, abusive partner. But at least I gave him the opportunity to stop the abuse by setting a good example. I knew that I was very ill, so instead of blaming him, I was trying to take care of myself. I invited him to do the same. In his attitudes and actions, he refused and I began praying for the courage to leave him for good. And I did. One of the reasons why I could was because I didn't have a child with him. There are countless women out there who cannot leave their abusive partner so easily because of the children involved.
So the darkness of the city is also the same darkness of the country, the setting is different but the substance is the same. I consider the years that I spent living with my lover/abuser as sacred years. I feel the same way about the years I spent in acute psychosis. Just because it is dark, dirty, smelly and painful, doesn't take away from the fact that there were profound lessons being taught. You can be very sick and yet very alive at the same time. Again, the sickness highlights the way back to health through negative example. If you can acknowledge your sickness and study your habitual triggers and reactions, thereby increasing your awareness level or your mindfulness, you can heal. But you have to take responsibility for yourself and put not harming yourself and others at the top of your list.
Regardless of whether you live in the city or country, whether you are young or old, you always have access to what's sacred. It's in every moment; you carry it around with you and you move through its space. It's there every time you meet another human being and it's there when you are alone. It's particularly evident when you cultivate awareness of the moment you are in through self-reflection. Self-reflection is at the heart of the sacred. It is honest mindfulness of the heart, mind and spirit; you are the witness to your own life. This is why it is important to stop what you are doing each day and sit, either in formal meditation or in informal meditation. This stopping is just as important, probably more important, than somewhat blindly doing all the time. If you have a lot of responsibilities and are active most of the time, it is essential that you take time for yourself to value just being. Turn off the computer, your phone, the TV, the radio and go sit quietly for at least 20 minutes. Do it now.