Six weeks ago, my home burned down. In ten minutes. While I was out of town.
Complicatedly, the building that burned wasn’t my private residence, though it was the heart of the place where I was living and have frequently visited and lived over the past 17 years. Since August, I’d been living at Wilbur Hot Springs—an off-the-grid historic lodge, hot springs, and nature preserve. Wilbur is where I go for creative renewal and deep contemplation. There is nowhere I feel more deeply nourished, more heart-flung-open to the world, more at home. So when the beloved Victorian-era lodge was largely destroyed in a ten-minute blaze on March 29, I experienced one of my life’s greatest shocks and loses.
Up until the fire, I’d been teaching a weekly self-empathy workshop for Wilbur guests. In that offering, I always shared my favorite Buddhist principle: that every life has 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. I take this to mean that pushing through sorrows and striving toward joys won’t leave us with any more joys, but it will deprive us of the growth, depth of experience, and meaning we gain from offering presence to each joy and sorrow as they inevitably arise.
In my self-empathy workshops, we practiced consciously mourning sorrows and celebrating joys as one of many ways to cultivate authentic presence. Repeatedly, I heard from participants how this practice helped their bodies relax and come into pleasure. Someone almost always said, “It seems counterintuitive that feeling pain would make me feel better, but I do.”
Like most people, I wasn’t raised to bring warm presence to my sorrows; it has taken lots of guidance, intention, and practice to noticeably shift my lifelong tendency to abandon my pain. So I’m deeply celebrating that in the days and weeks after the fire—instead of evading my sorrow with distraction, or numbing my uncomfortable feelings with substances, technologies, nonstop busyness, or “shoulds” around my emotional state—I managed to repeatedly stretch out in the sunshine, feel into my uncomfortable physical sensations, and offer my grief-stricken body empathy. I encouraged myself to soak in the mineral waters and attune to my ever-changing flow of feelings without judgment or pressure to arrive at a positive or comfortable emotional state.
This mourning process wasn’t necessarily faster—but if we’re truly embracing our sorrows as equally precious and meaningful as our joys, and we can bring caring presence to our discomfort, what’s the rush? And what information do we receive from inside ourselves that we miss when we do rush? As my empathic presence to this huge sorrow released the shock from my cells, my need for undivided focus on my own life’s purpose surfaced, where before that need had been buried below my love of this wounded place. With that clarity, I was able to make the aligned decision to leave Wilbur’s restoration in the loving, capable hands of others and move back to the city. And that decision continues to nourish me every day.
Empathy is fuel for presence (with ourselves and with others), just like food is fuel for survival. We need daily self-empathy and empathic support from others to sustain authentic presence through our 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows (being fully with 20,000 experiences is easier said than done, which is why it’s called spiritual practice).
When we let our empathy tanks run dry, we don’t have fuel to bring presence to our experiences, and our precious life just passes us by. Together, let’s commit to living empathyful, meaningful, presenceful lives—with all the joys and sorrows that entails. Reach out if you’d like support in this beautiful process.
With love and empathy,