Pay Attention – Lessons Learned in Cochabamba

image Pay attention to where you’re going. It’s one of the lessons I learned in Cochabamba.

Daily I had to be aware of what was in front of me. Figuratively and literally.

Uneven sidewalks, crumbling concrete, hidden holes — all threatened to trip me up as I walked the streets of Cochabamba. Entire slabs of cement jut out like in the aftermath of an earthquake. No sidewalks are flat and even. If I wanted to stay vertical, I had to pay attention.

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Typical Cochabamba sidewalk

And if walking on the sidewalk wasn’t easy to maneuver and threatened my safety, crossing the street was worse.

Pedestrians never have the right-of-way in Cochabamba.  No matter if you’re in the crosswalk, the traffic light is in your favor, or you’re already half way across the street. Drivers will not stop or slow down.  They constantly beep their horn at you. Even if you’re only near the curb  or simply walking in that direction. Their message is clear: “Don’t even think about it.”

Other lessons I learned:

How to approach strangers and strike up a conversation, asking important questions like “Where can I buy  the best helado (ice cream)?”

How to meet desafíos (challenges) and speak up for what I needed in a language I was only beginning to learn, with people I was not entirely  comfortable with. Not easy for an introverted, introspective person like me. But I did it. Time and again. It gave me a taste — just a taste — of what it’s like for a migrant trying to survive in a foreign country.

How to look the other way when encountering a naked campesino —peasant farmers that have come to the city to work —squatting in the canal to relieve himself or to wash his body in the only water available.

How to hold and feed one baby in my arms while pushing another one in a Fisher Price swing, using my elbow or foot.

I miss holding those babies at the orphanage. When I imagine Teresa and Pablo, Adriana, Jhon, Nichol, and Breiseda, when I remember the tiny knots in their hair from lying in their cribs for so long, and I wonder if anyone is cradling them now, I cry.  Their situation seems hopeless. Yet I know it isn’t.

I also know I can’t go back to care for those orphans. Here’s why. As much as I loved the beauty and culture of the country, my teachers, and friends I made, something was missing. My heart was not in Cochabamba. It remains with the migrants and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. Still.

Did I need to go all the way to Bolivia to learn this? Apparently so.

Because besides learning Spanish and gaining clarity about where my heart lies, I received other necessary lessons. Lessons about courage to face the feelings arising in what I was experiencing. Lessons about finding true hope in the midst of feelings of hopelessness.

If all had gone according to my expectations, according to my well-laid plans, it would have been easy to have faith in my self-made God, to “hope” in my ego’s ideas of what the world “should” be. But God asks more of me than this. God asks me to trust even when I feel betrayed, angry, hopeless in this place of my own making. And then to be present to those feelings. Long enough to come out the other side.

As the Pathwork teaches, through the gateway of feeling  my hopelessness lies true and justified hope. That’s something I’ll need if I’m to serve those who would have little reason to hope.

Spiritual writer and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says in Mystical Hope:

“Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to.”Cynthia Bourgeault_MysticalHope_photo1

May I let go and surrender. To the presence that has always been right in front of me.

 

 

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The Gift of Solitude

Winter morning at GCPark
Winter morning at my home in Virginia

In less than one week I’ll be on a plane to Cochabamba. Off to immerse myself in language school and get better prepared for the next step on my journey. Whatever that may be.

It’s crazy that I’m sitting here writing in the midst of all that I have to do before leaving, but this post feels important. Important to the journey that I am on. Because it keeps me honest. And vulnerable. And humble. All qualities I need.

I’ve had a lot of alone time over these past several months since returning home from El Paso. Lots of quiet time for reflection. And, as a result, for some painful stuff to show up too. Recently even more so when we had a foot and a half of snow and I really felt isolated in my house in the woods.

One thing about living in the midst of all this quiet — my shadow’s bound to show up. All those painful voices of my lower self that try to keep me small, hidden, and defended. Voices that try to make me believe that what my mind is telling me is true. That this is who I really am. Then my pride chimes in and says, I can’t believe you’re still dealing with these issues. They should be gone by now. Over and done with, thank you very much.

But that’s not how it goes.

I know from my years of studying with the Pathwork Transformation Program and with spiritual teachers of the past and present, like Teresa of Avila (14th century Carmelite nun and mystic) and Pema Chodron (contemporary Buddhist nun), that the secret is not to reject these parts of myself, but to embrace them. Yes, embrace them. And in doing so, find the gift they offer.

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I’m still learning how to do this. That’s why I’m exactly where I’ve needed to be. In the silence and the solitude.

Joan Chittister says that “Silence is the gift that throws us back on ourselves. Which is exactly why there are so many who cannot bear the thought of it. Without external distractions, we are left vulnerable to the voices within that demand that we come to grips with all the pieces of the self we have so carefully concealed.” (Between the Dark and the Daylight)

That’s definitely been true for me. I’ve certainly been vulnerable to these voices, and some days it’s pretty challenging. But if I don’t jump up to turn on the TV, call someone, or dash out the door to go see a friend, if I can sit with the feelings and stay with the pain, I finally surrender. In this place of pain and helplessness, I surrender to my absolute need for God.

John Welwood writes in his book Journey of the Heart, which coincidentally is the same title as my blog:

“The profound question love poses is, ‘Can you face your life as it is; can you look at all the pain and darkness as well as the power and light in the human soul, and still say yes?’”

I know that if I am to promote love and compassion “out there,” I must first have them for myself. That means being able to say ‘yes’ to all the pain and darkness. Yes to embracing and loving all the parts of myself.

But in those tough moments, without an awareness of God’s loving Presence, I simply can’t do it. That’s when solitude is a gift.  Because in the absolute silence, Love makes me aware that there is nothing I need change or reject. I am the Beloved. I am already healed and whole. And everything is gift.