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Posted By Opening the Heart

From the first time I heard the phrase “making the descent” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women Who Run With The Wolves), I loved it and knew what it meant. It’s not easy to keep your heart open when facing our own wound, our own imperfections, our own humanity. I realized when I heard those words, that “making the descent” is what many people have been doing for over 30 years when they come to the Opening the Heart workshop. Making the descent is not something that we do in our ordinary lives. It takes an extraordinary act of faith and courage to go down into something or, as Clarissa says, to begin to understand something and to “untangle the knot”. But I do know something: when we do this extraordinary thing of making the descent, of facing our own shadows or demons, we become a knowing soul, and, as Clarissa explains, a knowing soul is someone who has the patience to learn deep love over time.

There’s an Innuit story that I tell at the beginning of the workshop. It’s from Clarissa’s book and I tell it because it’s about making the descent: One morning a lone fisherman goes into uncharted waters and casts his line, hoping that maybe this time he will catch “the big one”, the one that will change his life. Instead, he snags Skeleton Woman, an ugly tangle of bones, and he pulls her up from the depths where she has been waiting for him. When he sees what he has caught, he’s horrified and repulsed. He tries to throw her back but she’s gotten tangled in his line, so he panics and tries to paddle back to his hut, but Skeleton Woman seems to chase him as she dangles from his line. When he reaches home, he carries Skeleton Woman and his tangled gear inside and places her by the fire while he sits, trembling and shaken.  But he does not run. And as he sits staring at this unbeautiful pile of bones, something begins to happen. There is a shift inside him - a stirring, a kind of longing. And his heart begins to break. It doesn’t break down- it breaks open- and he cries one tear. Clarissa explains that to anyone of heart, a tear is a cry to come closer. So he cries the tear and closer she comes. Without the tear, she would have remained a pile of bones and, without the tear, he never would have wakened to love.
He decides to untangle the knot, to make the descent. When he decides to see the ugliness, not as something to run from, but as hidden treasure, he starts to become the knowing soul, the “quintessential lover”. And as he begins to untangle and to face his own wound, he chants these beautiful words: “What must I give more death to today, in order to generate more life? What do I know should die in me in order for me to love? Of what use is the power of the not beautiful to me today? What life am I afraid to give birth to? And if not now- when?”
Clarissa tells us that in love everything becomes picked apart. But to love means to stay with, even when every cell says “run”. Even though he was expecting the “big one”, the fisherman does not run when faced with his own gruesome tangle of ugly bones. He stays, makes the descent, faces his own fear and comes to see hidden treasure, and in doing that he awakens to love.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem “Kindness” tells us that before we can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, “we must know sorrow as the other deepest thing”. For over 30 years, I have watched in awe as courageous men and women came to Opening the Heart to make an extraordinary descent. They do the deep soul work of clearing the vessel, of letting die what needs to die so that they can awaken to a new kind of compassion for self and others. To be a witness to this transformation is why I will continue to come back.


With Love and Respect, Jon