What stands in the way becomes the way.
~ Marcus Aurelius
I grew up on an east coast island. In the summers my family and friends pretty much lived at the beach. As a child in the 70’s, I was free to roam the shores without much adult supervision — the perfect setup for all kinds of hairy situations. My best friend brought a couple of real shovels to the shore one day, and we dug a hole in the sand so deep and wide that we got stuck in the squelchy muck at the bottom and couldn’t climb out. It was really cold down there.
But the only real danger at the beach was the ocean itself. Sometimes the waves swelled over heads and the greedy undertow sucked everything into its churning belly, including little young ones. Like most of us back then, I was a lot more afraid of the bite-y little red tide bugs we called “tweasels” than of drowning in the current. But every now and again I’d get caught up in the excitement of a “big surf” day and get truly tumbled.
Body surfing was serious business. You had to feel the swells, move quickly and jump at the perfect moment to catch a wave. When you got it just right, the flow of the water towed you effortlessly all the way into the warm shallows. There were a lot of misses.
I remember one particular fail with crystal clarity. I’d tried and missed the break two or three times in a row and kept pulling out gasping. I was desperate to catch my friend, who’d gone shooting by me with annoying ease on the first try. The waves were coming fast on top of each other, and I was out way past the precautionary “belly button line” of heavy chop days. In the end I tried to jump before I’d caught my breath and promptly got clobbered.
The wave caught me full in the back of the head and flipped me upside down, where the undertow sucked me straight into darkness. Already winded, I completely lost my bearings. The water down there was gritty with churning sand, and I couldn’t find up.
When I revisit that memory of the salty, roiling darkness, I can feel it in my body — jarring disorientation, desperation, straining lungs and, above all else, paralyzing fear. I thrashed around and even yelled underwater, I think, until my foot finally broke the surface. I somersaulted, got my head above the waterline and was able to grab a quick breath before the next wave hit. I don’t remember how I made it back to shore, but by the time I finally flopped onto the warm dry sand, I was sobbing and spent.
45 years later I got a breast cancer diagnosis, and it felt just like that.
The shock of those first moments was the same — like getting bitch-slapped upside down into the undertow. Those early days and weeks were mostly about trying to reorient myself again and again underwater.
Eventually I found the surface, learned to float and made my way back to shore. But the “beach” I landed on was not the place I’d left. My world had changed.
In just a few moments, the shock of an ugly diagnosis or the sudden loss of someone dear or even disastrous news can alter our familiar landscape forever.
After a hit like this, most of us go immediately into the animal fight, flee or freeze reaction. This is perfectly natural and even protective in the beginning. But if you, like me, carry trauma in your body, that can hyper your evolutionary defenses into overdrive.
To navigate this built-in survival response and find our way in the new territory, we have to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from light to dark, from seen to unseen.
We need a completely different approach. Trying to “manage” our situation, our feelings, our lives doesn’t work here. There is no fix.
This is the aftershock — the dawning awareness that you can’t contain a tsunami. If you want to avoid getting swept away, you have to learn how to ride that monster wave.
This is so counterintuitive when you’re frantic for breath, for release. But if you suspend your struggling in the dark place, even for a moment, it will be easier to see where the light’s still shining.
One trick is to stop fighting and allow yourself to be carried to the surface while things are churning all around you. In pausing your thrashing, even briefly, you can rise above the turbulence.
This takes a special kind of trust, a faith in the dark.
Many believe that if we’re good people, if we work hard and do well, life will unfold in some kind of predictable way. This might be comforting, but it’s just an illusion.
Reality tells a different story. Reality shows us that radical change can happen at any moment to any of us, regardless of what we believe to be true. While we have a say in our personal actions and behaviors, we can’t control the future.
Fortunately, there are ways beyond control, better ways, to live into an unknown future. There are countless examples all around us. We see them every day in nature — in the way a river carves out its banks over the years, in the way fire scours a landscape, in the way every seed takes root deep within the earth.
The wisdom of these natural elements isn’t just all around us — it lives within us.
While “small me” (who I think I am) might get swept away by a cancer diagnosis, the earth energy in me can safely ground my fears. When small me feels battered by punishing treatments, the fire in me can cleanse and purify my surroundings. When I can’t take another piece of bad news, the water in me can teach me to flow with anything life brings. And when I’m at my lowest, feeling truly beaten, the air in me helps me rise up one more time.
This terrible situation — this exact problem we may dread — is actually an opportunity to drop down deep into the belly of life itself, into the true nature of what we really are. If we’re open to it, we can find the part of ourselves that isn’t changed by our situation, our state of mind or even the condition of our body.
This unchanging part of us is connected to the life that runs like a river through all living things on the planet. Finding that essential, elemental connection can bring a deep and profound healing — regardless of what happens to our homes, our hearts or even our health.
If we allow it to, that terrible , unwelcome thing can show us a new way to live, a way to flow with the tide of life, even when the waves are way over our heads.
Excerpted from Jeannette’s upcoming book on Sacred Care