Last evening I received an email that broke my heart. It contained news that the son of friends had died in a car accident, and that the young man’s fiancée was also injured but recovering. I say it was news about friends, even though I have never met them in person. Pir Shabda Khan is the leader, or Pir, of a national community of Sufis known as the Ruhaniat, which makes he and his family friends at the very least, and more truly, beloveds. I know and have benefitted from his beautiful, heart-full work, most recently appreciating the book I began this blog with on January 1, Physicians of the Heart. But that’s not what came to me in the moments after I read the news. And it wasn’t what was still with me as I began this day.
What came was the remembrance of having received other emails from Pir Shabda, via the larger Sufi network. One shared the news that all of the monies that had been painstakingly raised and carefully stewarded over many years to support the Ruhaniat, as well as most of the couple’s personal savings, had been lost, courtesy of the Bernard Madoff fraud. I remember being so moved by that email that I kept it on my desk for quite a few weeks, just to be reminded of what the fruits of a lifetime of spiritual practice can look like when the rubber has met the road. The email wasn’t filled with anger, despair and fear, but with equanimity, not denying the initial shock and the subsequent grief, but allowing all of that to arise and move through, leaving Truth in its wake – true abundance remains, Shabda had said.
Then came another email, in January of 2011, reporting that Pir Shabda would be undergoing treatment for what appeared to be a well contained malignancy in his bowel. Again, it was the equanimity of the email that struck me, and the concern for those who would be concerned for him. He and Tamam kept everyone informed via a blog, and Shabda reported on the blog last June that treatment was complete, he was well, and gratitude and joy remain. He wrote “This completes dealing with what was and now I will live the rest of my life to the best of my ability!” And now this.
“If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them,” St. Theresa of Avila is reported to have said to God, having just been bucked off her horse into the cold, muddy river on her way to visit other sisters in her order. Exactly, I thought. The biblical Job next came to mind as I found myself asking how ones such as these, who have given their lives so completely over to Love, Harmony and Beauty, to God and to serving humanity, can be asked to endure still more; to endure the unthinkable, the unendurable. I cannot imagine their grief.
I sat with the heartache and the questions and my open journal this morning, hoping for a word, a thought, a prayer, maybe even, dare I hope, an answer. I began to write despite the absence of anything to say, as I do sometimes as a way in to guidance. I watched as the fountain pen moved across the page, some dimension of self scrawling the words: No one is “safe,” and the spiritual life does not protect you from the trials and the vicissitudes of life. Deep sigh. Of course, I know that. But the pen continued: it gives you an expanded context within which to live it. Huh? I stopped writing, and sat with just that. Maybe you will want to try that too, and see where it goes.
For me, where it went was to the remembrance that there is no escape from suffering in this life, the Buddha was right, life is suffering. To think that because one has said yes to God means that one is somehow spared suffering is not faith, but magical thinking, and it can actually be quite dangerous. Using that logic, if something “bad” does happen, it must be because the person to whom it is happening doesn’t have enough faith; isn’t good enough, holy enough, spiritual enough, loving enough. You can see, right, that this is not a particularly compassionate response to ourselves or others when we are suffering, not to mention just bad theology.
Everyone suffers; there is no get out of jail free card for the “spiritual” people, no magic cloak that makes the “holy” people invisible when trouble comes calling. As I sat with this, I picked up the pen again, and surprised myself: So LIVE! Live everything, live every day! It is all mystery unfolding, and we never know when or how or why it all suddenly changes. So, what to do but be happy, have fun, enjoy your life, now, this very life, just as it is, here, today. Be grateful for every moment, whatever it brings. And love.
Which brings me to the title of this post. When I finished journaling, I came to the computer and checked the email. In one of those wild and wonderful synchronicities, the first one was from Kathy, the widow of an amazing man, physician, husband, father and teacher named Lee Lipsenthal, who died last September from esophageal cancer (I know, more bad news, but hang in there). I knew Lee, not well in terms of amount of time spent with him, but we were heart friends. I just loved him. Kathy was writing to ask Lee’s friends to help get the word out about his book, published posthumously in November. Lee wrote it as his last offering to Life, sharing the journey he took in his last months, and most importantly the profound equanimity he had come to. It was truly inspiring to all who knew him (me included), and a deep comfort to the ones he loved. This is (finally, thanks for reading all of this), the point of this post. Equanimity. And Living Life.
Pir Shabda said, when he was talking about the events with Madoff: For the mystic: Passion for the goal, equanimity with what’s arising.”
I think this is what was meant, or at least part of it, in what emerged in my journaling: the spiritual life does not protect you from the trials and the vicissitudes of life; it gives you an expanded context within which to live it. Equanimity is one of the most important and precious fruits of the spiritual life, and it offers a profound container within which to hold and transform even our deepest sorrows.
The name of Lee’s book is Enjoy Every Sandwich – Living each day as if it were your last, and I just ordered it. I ordered it because I want to honor Lee, for sure. But more than that, the title, the book, Lee, all of it came today as guidance in answer to my earlier, broken-hearted questions. Or maybe it’s actually confirmation of the guidance I had already gotten, for “enjoy every sandwich” could easily have followed on my to do list above for Living Life – be grateful for every moment, whatever it brings, and love, and enjoy every sandwich! Here is a beautiful trailer for the book, starring Lee. You’ll see what I mean.
Thanks Lee and Kathy, and our heartfelt prayers of love for peace and equanimity during this time of great sorrowing to the Kahns.