The bus to work takes about 40 minutes—the perfect length of time to listen to a dharma talk on Dharmaseed. I’m happier with this pastime than I am browsing Facebook or Instagram. The dharma talks inspire me and make me feel better about being alive, while Facebook or IG can make me feel dispirited. Recently, I listened to a talk by a dharma teacher I enjoy—Shelley Graf. She read an excerpt from Sharon Salzberg’s 2002 book on faith. I liked the quotation, but even more, I was intrigued by Salzberg’s book title: Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.
Trusting your own deepest experience brought to mind a revelation I had when I started to see a therapist four years ago. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was profound for me: I am entitled to claim my own experience. During that therapy session, I had been dithering about whether I felt a certain way, circling around the ugliness of something, making excuses, minimizing my hurt, my terror, my sadness—in short, underplaying what I felt. “Oh, it wasn’t really so bad.” Nancy sat up straight in her chair, looked at me with intensity, and said, “Madeline, you are entitled to claim your own experience!” I laughed, “really?” I didn’t know that. To think I got to this stage in life feeling I couldn’t be honest about how it really was, how it really is, to be me. I came home that day and on the mirror in my sewing room, I wrote, “I am entitled to claim my experience.” I refresh it with a wine glass marker when it fades because it’s a crucial daily reminder.
Back to Salzberg’s book—well, I bought it and read it quickly, underlining the bits that made me cry or wake up or feel a swelling in my chest. There were many passages that made me feel good—made me feel connected to something bigger, something transcendent, which is what faith is, isn’t it? I love the sense that “no matter what happens, we can place our faith in the deepest part of ourselves, our buddha nature” (p. 170).
With those good feelings still germinating inside of me, I entered the course Michael and I are teaching on Zoom this weekend: Creating and Interpreting Personal Mandalas. This morning, we led our participants through stages one through three. In stage one we rest in the darkness, in the womb. Being, not doing. As I started my mandala, I lined the womb-circle with layers of brown watercolour. Soon, a purple hyacinth spear emerged from the lining of the womb.
As I painted, my mind travelled back, back, back. Thirty-five years ago, I had several weeks off work to heal from surgery. Waiting time, resting time, stage one time. Hours in bed spent daydreaming, not doing, just being. My first husband and I lived in Toronto in a rented house on Devonshire, and the spacious front bedroom had big bay windows with generous ledges. The laser surgery I’d undergone was supposed to give me a chance at having babies, something I hungered for. When my friend Hannah visited me, she brought a potted hyacinth, not yet blooming. I put the plant on the window ledge, and it was as if I could feel the ache of that blue-blushed spear yearning to open.
It was early spring in Toronto: cold days, deluges, and then suddenly, bright hot sun. One day the hyacinth burst forth in a matter of hours, spraying the room with sweetness. Whenever I smell hyacinths, I go back to that time of hunger and healing. My body craved to follow the flower in her blossoming. But I had to wait.
My grandmother Marguerite and I were writing to each other that year. She sent me copies of Unity Church’s magazine and told me that she and other members of her congregation in Los Gatos, California, were praying for me to heal and get pregnant. I thanked her and pretended to be onside with her faith. But in fact, I thought it was silly. How quaint, a circle of old ladies in a church basement, holding hands and thinking of me.
Months and months elapsed with no result. I thought the surgery hadn’t worked; after all, the doctor had told me I had only a 15% chance of having children. The odds weren’t great. Feeling like we needed a big change in our lives, my husband and I sold our stuff, quit our jobs, bought a Volkswagen van, and drove south. Almost a year after my surgery, we sat in a Planned Parenthood office in Green Bay, Wisconsin to learn the good news. I was pregnant.
The hyacinth I painted this morning seemed to have come from the deep well of memory— light-filled room, white sheets rumpled on the bed, the bluish spear opening as I kneeled nearby in my nightgown. Spring magic! And I thought of Sharon Salzberg writing about a research project undertaken in Korea: Women trying to conceive were prayed for at a distance, and these women became pregnant at twice the rate of those who received no prayers. I underlined that passage. Beautiful evidence of our “profound interconnectedness” (p. 147).
I think often of my grandmother’s faith, and how she and her Unity friends may have had some small part in my blossoming into a mother. And now, I blossom into belief in the interconnectedness of life, belief in the butterfly effect doing its work not only in the material world, but in the emotional realm too. The mistake we make, writes Salzberg, is to expect a certain outcome from our actions. We get attached to results, which leads to expectation. “When our intention is to do good for others, and we nurture that intention, we can have faith that in some way, often unknown to us, it ripples out” (p. 144). As we go deeper into spring and the hyacinths begin to open, let our loving intentions and kind actions ripple out in ways we will never know.
 Our course is based on Susanne Fincher and team’s program, creatingmandalas.com, and she has given us permission to use their content.
Dear Madeline, I missed your beautiful writing! I love your story and images. And a new lovely profile photo! Interconnected we live.
Thank you, Olga. I miss you! xoxo
Very moving. Such a candid expression your path to insight about yourself and the role of faith.
It’s always intrigued me the way so many women found comfort in my mother’s support. Especially ironic growing up in a household where feelings were suppressed. The emotional shock of the divorce took her years to overcome. Her initial outpourings of grief after the divorce must have frightened her. I never remember her crying after that. In fact, when the telegram arrived announcing our father’s loss, before she told me the news, she said something to the affect, “Now you won’t cry?” That and my father’s loss for which I was not permitted to grieve, induced a lifetime of PTS. I never held it against her.
Yet, she would come to be a source of support and solace for many women in her later years.
The iconic photo of her you included in your post is one I’ve misplaced. I.’d appreciate a copy.
Hope Alexandra and Aubrey are on your mailing list. I know they would find your blog of great interest.
Thank you, Doug, for your reflections on my piece. I will write to you about it xo
Thank you, Arnie!
What a beautiful piece. I want to give that quote some long thought! You have the right to claim your own experience. I love the idea of your grandmother and her friends praying for you. I pray everyday for 5 couples who are trying to conceive. For one couple in particular I pray fervently. I suppose that connects me to all the women who have prayed for each other and I do so much want my prayers to be heard. xoxo Thank you so much for sharing your writing.
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Thank you, Susan. And thank you for your own story of prayer and connection – so beautiful xo