No Mud, No Lotus: The Surprising Gifts From Struggle
HOW WE MANIFEST BEAUTY AND DEEPER MEANING FROM TRYING TIMES
Before the COVID-19 quarantine overtook our daily lives, one of my favorite places to mill about has always been Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I particularly love the large lotus flowers, growing tall and sturdy seemingly out of nowhere, without solid ground to cleave to. Seeing them reminded me of something my mentor used to shout to us during the tougher days of yoga teacher training: “No mud, no lotus.”
Lotus flowers, as beautiful and ornamental as they are, start their lives at the bottom of muddy ponds—climbing through thick, slimy depths, gaining strength along the way—finally exploding into bloom once they pierce the water’s surface. The saying “no mud, no lotus,” is of course, a metaphor for the human experience. In order to grow strong, sturdy, and beautiful, we’ve got to go through some sh*t… or mud, as it were.
We are all, every last human being on the planet, deep in the mud right now. Life has changed in every way. We are forbidden from making human contact and in some places, from even leaving our homes. Millions of people are losing their livelihoods and thousands, their lives. None of us saw this pandemic coming, nor did we have time to prepare for the dark and confusing times that lie ahead. And yet here we are together, wading below the surface, without any specks of light yet peeking through to let us know we’re close to over this thing. And rather than getting over it, we will likely be learning how to live a “new normal,” which will, of course, feel anything but.
When I look back over the course of my life and chart my spiritual development, there are two noticeable spikes: The first, when I was diagnosed with a severe arrhythmia and had to get heart surgery at age 27, and the second, just last year when I suffered a miscarriage. As I sit with my emotions during this challenging time, I am reminded of these previous dark moments. Wondering how I’d ever crawl out of them. Anxious for them to be over. And then born again on the other side: full of new wisdom and unforeseen realizations.
I’ve been a pretty obsessively spiritual person for most of my life. In my early 20s, I became a committed yogi and trained as a yoga teacher. But before my heart diagnosis, you couldn’t convince me to actually meditate—or at least to keep at it for any prolonged period of time. I dabbled, got distracted, and gave up. I like to move! I like to be productive! Waking up early to sit up and “do nothing” seemed like a monumental waste of time and even though I’d read all about the benefits and idolized people like Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, it just wasn’t something I could get myself to commit to.
My cardiologists really didn’t mince words with me. My pulse was so erratic that I needed surgery, or I was at risk for heart failure and sudden death. I was also told I could no longer take the beloved Klonopin I had been prescribed for anxiety because it interfered with the heart’s rhythm but I also needed to keep my stress levels down because as everyone knows, stress and heart conditions don’t mix. Ah, the irony. So when faced with my own mortality—and forced to give up my pharmaceutical support system—suddenly, I became a meditator—and a devoted one at that. I studied various forms of meditation and committed for several years to the twice a day 20-minute style recommended by the Transcendental Meditation (™) School. Since becoming a mom, I’ve scaled back to one 20-minute a day session but I am proud to say that I’ve meditated daily—with a very few exceptions—every day since that very muddy time in 2013. No mud, no lotus.
2018 was a whirlwind year for me. I made a major career shift (identity stress) then experienced a massive flood in my apartment that required a gut renovation (money stress) and temporary homelessness (general stress) all in a three-week period. I felt fortunate that I had my meditation practice to support me through the eight months that my toddler, husband, and I spent in an Airbnb whilst our bank account got smaller and smaller as our apartment was rebuilt. Not long after moving back in, we decided to try for another baby and to my surprise and excitement, we got pregnant almost right away—before officially having to “try”.
But this pregnancy was not meant to be. Just before eight weeks gestation, I went to my doctor and was told that there was no heartbeat. I can’t think back to that moment without tears flooding my eyes, even now at a nice and round 32 weeks pregnant. Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming, soul-destroying sadness of losing a child, even that early on. I walked all the way home from that appointment, from Soho to Brooklyn, over an hour over the bridge in the dead of winter during rush hour. I was numb to the elements. I didn’t know what to say or do. I just knew that the subway or a car were not safe containers for the emotions I needed to release.
The next few days, prior to my D&C procedure that officially ended the pregnancy, were like nothing I had experienced before. I cried more tears than I knew existed. I took long, scalding hot baths and moaned…the emotional pain worse than the physical pain I experienced during unmedicated labor. But something else happened during those dark and desperate days: I suddenly had the urge to pray. And not just to casually ask, “why me, God? why me?” but the deep and powerful urge to formally and devoutly pray. I listened to sermons. I lit candles, I got down on my knees, and made the sign of the cross. I ordered prayer books and attended Catholic mass every single day, for the first time in over 15 years, outside of weddings and funerals.
I had always heard of the proverbial “Come to Jesus” moment, but didn’t realize how literal that term truly was. When I was in the deepest, thickest, darkest mud of my entire life my spirit didn’t seek more darkness; it sought the light. This initial commitment to formal prayer led to even deeper spiritual work including devouring an entire library of religious texts, formally joining a local Catholic church, and diving into various forms of healing and ancestor work/worship. I experienced transformation and healing at levels I didn’t know I needed, let alone possible. I now look back and see the miscarriage as a necessary step on my personal and spiritual journey. My heart needed to break to grow more tender. My soul needed to experience the most profound form of loss, so that I could truly appreciate all that I had, and would soon have. No mud, no lotus.
When I was in the deepest, thickest, darkest mud of my entire life my spirit didn’t seek more darkness; it sought the light.
Maybe you’re not ready for the “spiritual lesson” of COVID-19 and to be honest, I’m not either. I’m currently quarantined in my parent’s basement and planning to deliver my baby with a midwife I’ve never met, instead of my long-time and trusted OB back in New York. I’m doing my best to work, and meditate, and pray, and write while my four-year-old chases me around screaming and begging for snacks and it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I am praying for the safety of my husband, who runs an essential business and is back in NYC, and for the thousands around the world who are sick and dying. I’m nervous about what’s coming next and about how long this is going to last.
It’s not that I’m not suffering, I am. But I believe with every ounce of my being that the hard stuff—the really hard stuff that we would never choose in a million years—is the stuff that makes us strong. The experiences that bring us the most pain offer us the most profound opportunities to grow and evolve.
The experiences that bring us the most pain offer us the most profound opportunities to grow and evolve.
Renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass says that, “suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.” So maybe, as we all sit at home, figuring out how to deal with our anxiety, our isolation, and uncertainty we have all been given the opportunity to grow exponentially wiser and deeper with each passing day. There’s not just one way to make the most of this time. Maybe you’ll begin a meditation practice, or return to prayer, or commit to charitable giving, or simply offer solace to others. We don’t get to avoid suffering—suffering is a part of every life—but we do get to choose how we handle it. And I truly believe that what we do with this time matters: it matters for us as individuals and it matters for the collective.
We’ve got no choice but to go through this mud, but we can hold tight to the knowing that one day soon, we’ll be blossoming in the sun once again—stronger and more beautiful than we ever could have been before.
Sakara Suggested Reading
No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Naht Hahn
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
The Seeker’s Guide, Elizabeth Lesser
Walking Each Other Home, Ram Dass
Loving What Is, Byron Katie
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