The winter months of early 2007 were cold and snowy. I remember them well, as they were a particularly happy time for me. Newly pregnant with our second child, I was holding life with a kind of secret tenderness and wonder. I felt this with each of my children. I remember the day I discovered the existence of my first child: I walked away from an office in central London and journeyed home on the tube in a forever-altered state. A rubicon had been crossed, a gateway breached. There was before, and then there was after. And for those few hours it was a completely private experience; just me and my baby, and on both sides it was a wordless, deep knowing. A sensing of presence. There was a life within me, and no one else knew. Just us. I think of him now, 14 years old and somewhere in school as I write this. He is nearly a man. But his earliest moments of being were just mine and his to share, and I will always treasure the memory of them. I wonder somehow if that afternoon he sensed that moment of my knowledge of him, whether something travelled down the cord connecting us, some flash of recognition, some reaching out of my hand to his. I think it was so.
They were tender, fragile, and wondrous for me, those early days of pregnancy. And so in February 2007 I found myself expecting again. It was a deeply happy time. My husband was studying for exams every morning at home while I looked after our nearly two year-old. Then after lunch in the kitchen we would set off together on what became known as our daily ‘Magical Mystery Tour’: my husband would drive us all the short distance to Wanstead Park and we would come at this stark, snowy place from a different angle each time. Exploring it afresh, our boots crunching through the cold. Such joy, we had. It was as if the rest of east London had agreed that it should be ours alone. We walked, and ran, and sang and chatted. My eldest was known at the time as ‘Mr Chatters’: “I am a very talkable boy, Mummy”, he once said. And I watched him and my husband together, often slightly ahead of me, hand-in-hand, their beloved backs. Why is it that seeing the people we love from behind is so touching? Is it that they are moving away from us? Or just that we almost see them more completely somehow, their three-dimensionality, their otherness? It is as if they crystallise for that moment, as if they are focused into being. There they are.
Towards the end of our walk each afternoon we would stop to collect wood for the fire at home. Little boy with his arms full of wood, helping Daddy. Back at the house the two of them would cut the pieces up just like Wallace and Gromit building their rocket in ‘A Grand Day Out’. And then we would light the fire. Teatime.
I have paused here for a while writing this. There is a beauty in these memories that goes all the way down to my soul, and it feels like it needs a moment’s silence, a moment’s genuflection. This was so. It is mine and mine alone. And I will hold it forever somewhere very deep within me where all the most important moments still live and can be touched at any time.
Because a few weeks later, the baby within me died, and that happiness was over. I didn’t know then that I would be pregnant again within a short time, and that my second son was waiting in the wings. That what I would learn about loss and compassion would serve me (and, I hope, others) for the rest of my life. No, I had to go through one of the hardest experiences of my life, which sat in such contrast to the happiness before. C.S. Lewis says in ‘A Grief Observed’: “The pain now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.” I always thought this meant simply that we grieve to the extent that we have loved, but it is more than this.
At our Sophrology training weekend this month, we were looking again at the third level. This is based on Japanese Zen, where we take the work of the first two levels developing the ‘I’ as subject and then object in the world, and widen the horizon, deepen the perspective. ‘I’ becomes universal, and our focus is the past. As if the past is a country we all inhabit in the same way. We are invited by level three to retrieve positive memories from the past, but the exercise is profound, and the effects are emotional, because – as I have realised lately – even the positive memories are shot through with pain for me, like the seam within rock. And similarly, the painful memories contain within them the seeds of future joys. It's as if the past cannot be sorted, simply, into boxes of good and bad.
Zen is a wonderful holding-bowl for this. There is the story of the monk who, when he breaks his leg and ends up in hospital and neighbours come to commiserate, says ‘Maybe’. And then when his house burns down, but he has been saved by being in hospital, and they come to congratulate, he again says ‘Maybe’. And there the story ends. Meaning… well, you will have your own thoughts on that, and for you they will be true, of which more another time. But the quality Caycedo wanted to bring to bear on level three was non-judgement. Can we relax the muscles of the eyes so that they look at the past without judgement? And what is the effect of such a looking? When I did this exercise at the weekend, and was invited to let a positive memory come to mind, I suddenly found myself back in those days of the Magical Mystery Tour, and I could taste the happiness so strongly it made me cry. And I realised afterwards that I had to some extent pushed that time away because of the awful sorrow that came after it. And that even though the foreshadowing of that pain was contained within it – and that’s ‘the deal’ – the joy was no less joyful. Indeed, it was MORE SO. And then, without judgement and the labelling that comes with it of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what was any of it anyway but pure experience? It is what it is, and it was what it was, and this is a truism and a cliché that clangs at us like a bell until suddenly it illuminates everything. Maybe.
So parts of myself were knitted back together last weekend. Bits that I had disowned because they were too painful. Bits that I had disowned because they felt in retrospect like the forerunners of pain. I felt like not only could I bring back into love and awareness one of the most beautiful times of my life, but I had somehow pierced through a new veil of understanding. A shift that was at once deep and simple. I am both changed and not changed at all.
Which is one of the gifts of Zen, and its provocative earthiness. So you’re enlightened? It says. Great, now go pick up the kids from school. ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry’ as Jack Kornfield writes. And so I will pick up the kids from school.
And if all this is making Sophrology sound very philosophical and heady, I would just say that it both is and is not. It takes you there if it takes you there, and otherwise it helps you do the laundry.
Wishing you a sense of maybe.