Over coffee one afternoon, a friend asked if I’d read Mirabai Starr’s latest book Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. Starr’s first book, a new translation of Dark Night of the Soul, came out the day her fourteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Today, Starr speaks globally on contemplative practice and the transformational power of grief and loss. A certified bereavement counselor, she helps mourners harness the transformational power of loss. No, I had not read Wild Mercy, but the title immediately grabbed me. It seemed to me that with so many of us facing struggles in this era—loss of loved ones, betrayal, abandonment, family estrangement—we could all use some Wild Mercy and not a moment too soon. Myself included.
In the past five years, I have suffered all of the above, as well as the loss of a beloved uncle, named Jan. He had contacted me a year or two before his death and though we had little contact the decades prior, we found we were kindred, and not just by blood. He was a gifted poet and we shared a spiritual affinity. We were both misfits, misunderstood in our families. We were both recovering alcoholics, sobering up within a year of each other, our respective recoveries unknown to each other until the short time we were able to share before he died. Once reconnected, he called me every week. He listened to my poems, read my writings, talked spirit with me. My uncle’s death and multiple other recent losses had brought a lifetime of trauma and complicated grief to my door. I knew there was no easy fix.
The synchronicity in my life is often reflected in the magical relationship I have with Facebook. As I was reading Wild Mercy, I put the book down to check in on a Facebook group I’m part of. What I saw made my heart thrum. Mirabai Starr, a recent post read, had a last-minute opening in her annual Fall Equinox retreat: Deepening Your Story of Loss and Transformation. And it was at Ghost Ranch, a place in New Mexico I had been longing to spend time at.
I quickly shot off an email to see if the spot was still available. The answer came quickly: “Yes.”
I was going to answer the unmistakable call of the desert. Wild Mercy was an invitation. In the introduction, Starr writes, “We are making a flying carpet here to carry us through our lives as contemporary mystics masquerading as ordinary people—people who hear the call to turn inward and to step up, to cultivate a contemplative life, and to offer the fruits in service.”
The First Night of the Retreat
As we gathered that first night in the living room of our temporary new home, the beautiful Casa del Sol, Starr’s assistants held out a deck of Medicine cards for us to choose from. The Medicine cards, whose teachings vary from tribe to tribe, were developed by Jamie Sams, an artist and writer of Cherokee, Seneca, and French descent. The card I pulled was the turtle.
I’m a runner, a sprinter, a mover. Closer to a hare than a turtle, so I was perplexed. But then Starr suggested that the Medicine animal card we each had drawn might give us insight into our writing process, as well as offer other teachings. I had to laugh. When it comes to my writing process, I am definitely a turtle! Though I write a lot, it is agonizingly slow. As the beautiful New Mexico light faded, my arms prickled with intimations of what was to come.
3 Strategies for Transforming Grief
Here, three things I learned from Starr, and the turtle, during my five-night stay.
1. Rely on community and honor your own process.
Each morning we met and opened with a song and the reading of poetry followed by meditation. The music and poetry were carefully curated. I started to realize that these sessions were creating a bond or container among the retreat participants that was capable of holding the depth of grief our community carried.
Some of the participants had lost children to suicide, overdose, and sudden accidents. Some had lost spouses, brothers, sisters, parents. Some were estranged from family—four most agonizingly from their adult children (and beloved grandchildren) who had shut them out of their lives.
The medicine card I’d drawn became another thing, beyond community, that helped me feel supported, and would ultimately help me honor my own grieving process. In some Southwestern Native American tribes, the turtle is an ancient symbol for Mother Earth from which our lives, creativity, protection, and longevity evolve. To the Southwest Native American peoples (Navajo, Zuni, Hope, Santo Domingo, Pueblo and others), the turtle represents water. In addition to the turtle’s role in Native American traditions, the turtle also takes a seat at the door of most Hindu temples. In Hinduism, the turtle carries the world on her back and is one of 10 avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. The turtle represents the feminine and serves as a bridge between external and internal worlds, a reminder of how to withdraw from the senses and go within—a practice known as pratyahara.
As the retreat unfolded, turtle led me within, where real healing happens. And although I might have gone to the deepest and darkest places inside me, I did not go alone. I had the turtle’s medicine, a cadre of angels beside me (my fellow retreaters), and a wise woman who knew the way (Starr). I was able to drop my guard—along with the heavy burden of grief. I wasn’t escaping my loss, but truly honoring myself in the midst of it.
2. Write it out and acknowledge pain.
In Wild Mercy, Starr writes, “It is by showing up for the full encounter with reality that we discover our hidden wholeness, which was, of course, present all along.” This process starts with acknowledging pain.
It is in the ground of our pain and nowhere else, where we heal. But first, we line up our support system, we find community. And then we write. After daily morning meditation and readings, we were given a writing prompt and assigned to groups of four so we could share our writings. Then we read our writings in turn, listening carefully. We didn’t respond to one another with suggestions or praise, but rather, we sat in silence and let it sink in. “None of us is broken,” Starr said. Therefore, we weren’t to offer tissues (they stop the tears) or to try to fix or console each other. “We aren’t therapists.” Everyone was allowed to be exactly where they were; it was safe to touch the ground of our pain, to write about it, and to share. We were given an opportunity to engage in fierce and radical acts of truth-telling, to take the losses that had brought us there and offer them up for alchemical transformation. “In the pain that will arise with your writing,” Starr advised, “will come the gold.” By the end of the five days and after, I discovered I had softened around the pain. With allowance, rather than the usual contraction, not only did the pain have room to dissipate, but I now had a helpful process going forward.
3. Take your time.
Loss is a portal to spiritual transformation. In the mystery of grieving, lies the alchemy and space for healing and awakening. One day on the retreat, we were guided on a hike up to Chimney Rock and a spectacular view of the Piedra Lumbre basin. I found myself struggling to keep up and fell back. Several of the retreat participants hung back with me, though they easily could have sprinted ahead. Embarrassed, I urged them to go ahead and insisted that it was the heat that was bothering me. As I took a break inside the scant shade of a small bush, my companions encouraged me to slow down, saying “It’s not that hot. You’re just moving too fast.” But I couldn’t seem to process that and after each break, sprinted ahead again.
Finally, one of them said, “Kelly, wasn’t the medicine card you drew the turtle?” And it was then that it hit me. The turtle’s message was telling me it was okay to slow down, to take my time, and to allow community to hold me, like a turtle’s shell. This brought tears, because I am a survivor and the way I survived a lifetime of adversity was to power through, to push myself, to keep going no matter what.
Laying down the burden, breaking open, community and belonging, listening, and allowing uncertainty, had brought me to this lesson on the climb: No matter the depth of loss or adversity life brings, I am supported and held. I can rest on the turtle’s back at last and let go of struggle. I didn’t have to push through anymore. I could, like a turtle, stick my neck out, and still remain protected, safe within my shell.