In this post, Prajna tells the story of how her first spiritual teacher guided her in bringing clarity and light to her past experiences to uncover gratitude and meet life with the inextinguishable fire of being.
When I met my first spiritual teacher and therapist Eunice forty-one years ago, I had my first lesson in the value of gratitude. The task she gave me was not an easy one. At age twenty-one, I was running furiously away from life, soldiering nasty wounds of conditioning with unbecoming behaviors. I showed up for our first meeting at her Manhattan doorstep massively hung over. My pockets were full of regret and exuded unsavory aromas. Surprisingly, she opened the door and led me to her indigo medicinal lounge and sat me in a comfortable chair across from her. She scanned me from head to toe, taking me in with soft blue eyes that shone like sapphire. She didn’t say much but when she spoke it was with unfettered clarity. At the end of the session she told me, “get a journal and write down something you are sincerely grateful for each year as far back as you can remember.” I began to pout and stammer at the thought of this daunting request. “For every year? I’m out of here.” Yet somehow her crisp no-resistance approach lifted my rant and melted me to a pause. Something intriguing began to open up inside of me.
Our time was up. She quietly showed me to the door. Before she ushered me out she said with certainty, “do not return until you’ve completed your assignment. Write something for every year.” I began to refer to her as the Zen Police woman.
I wanted her help. I wanted to stop hurting. I wanted to calm the voice in my head, the itch under my skin, the unrest in my soul. I traveled by bus back to the rolling hills of Cobleskill, New York to my College dorm room beside the creek. In the days that followed I sat with pen and journal in hand listening to the rushing waters. I eventually followed the instruction to cleanse my past, unaware of the initiation that I was undertaking. Once I began to write I thought I’d never stop. She told me, “it doesn’t have to be pretty, just give it a voice on paper.” I began in the present and worked my way back, purging stories that were muted yet alive in my cells, in my bones. I didn’t feel gratitude. I felt loss, deceit, sadness. I shook. I didn’t know what gratitude felt like. “Keep writing, it will come.”
After a week with my academic studies on pause, I began to bubble with a happiness I had not known since a time before my teens. Images of people and places flooded forward in my memory. My mother, my father, my grandmothers, a special Aunt, a school teacher, a nun, a priest, my siblings, had all left an indelible impression upon me in a variety of different ways. Not always pleasant, but an impression nevertheless. An impression that released my heart. I lingered here savoring this new terrain. It was like reaching the root of a weed and feeling space for something new to grow. The more I unraveled, regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant it was, the more gratitude I felt. My teacher offered me an opportunity to come out of hiding, to empty my pockets, and to discover myself free of the past.
In many ways, this is what happens on the silent shamanic healing retreats I offer. You are not given anything new. You are already here and not in need of repair or fixing. Old conditioning layers upon us and prevents the actualization of who we are within. When we openly look into and illuminate the places that hold us back (scare us, grieve us, pain us, anger us, keep us stuck in an old pattern of resistance), gratitude emerges.
My writings for Eunice went on for many years. I gave voice to what I previously was not able to express. Each writing seemed to culminate with a version of gratitude that said, “the experience brought me here to meet this, to grow into this, to learn this, to see this, to become the person that I am.” And for that there are absolutely no regrets.
Silent retreats open up a capacity of listening that naturally peels away layers of conditioning. Often unexpressed wounds or grief bring tears. As this onion-like peeling continues and the past is purged, the inextinguishable fire of being emerges. Life comes forth as it is and your capacity to meet it grows stronger and stronger. You meet life without a sense of separation and without layers of pretense or false conclusions. What remains? Gratitude. Gratitude begets gratitude.