I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Tara Shepersky’s reflection “Anxiety & Radical Hospitality.”
I’m alone this weekend, on retreat above the Pacific. Sitting beneath a fuchsia hedge, the loudest sound is the vrzzzzz! of the bright-green hummingbirds, who’ve grown used to my presence. I heard something very faint half a minute ago, and it took me these thirty seconds to parse it as the musical approach of geese.
If you value silence, as I do – cultivating it within, and breathing relief at its outward manifestation – this probably sounds wonderful. I find it so – and also, it’s a frightening challenge. Silence is not easy. But something else tests me harder.
The sun this noon is warm, the slight breeze cool. There’s a bank of fog lolling about the headland. I am deeply content. And also, I’m afraid.
I struggle with aloneness. Although I enjoy being alone, I hate to live that way. Anxiety is my unshakeable companion. It wanders near or far, but when I am long alone, it sits close. It reminds me that my husband is on a plane to a far-off city. That airplanes fill me with terror. That I am, since first I fell in love, inhabited by waking dreams of my dear one’s death.
I’ve tried all my adult life not to dwell on these fears. Not to give them strength – or admit weakness. I’ve pursued distraction, barred the inner gate. Of course, that’s exhausting. And no, it hasn’t worked.
This weekend is only the fourth time in my 35 years I have not just traveled alone, but lodged and lived that way, to a purpose. What’s opened me to this new beginning is another: the disciplined study of writing. I realized I wanted to schedule blocks of time in which to think and write uninterrupted, to wander the natural tides of body and mind. To do this, I needed to remove from other voices. I needed to retreat – alone.
I’ve done this three times now, and guess what? My solitude is haunted. Once open to what is, in David Whyte’s beautiful phrase, “just beyond [my]self,” I am even more closely accompanied by unbanishable fear. It’s happened every time.
This weekend’s encounter is new, though, because I’ve started recently trying to welcome my difficult emotions as guests.
Celtic spirituality drew me strongly in my teens. I’ve heard its resonance echo in my adult life, but I haven’t sought it. I’ve paused to listen, as to a distant bell. Recently, something – my Lutheran upbringing suggests grace – has changed that occasional attendance to a passionate yes.
Choosing this path, I’ve known I would encounter a principle my privileged introvert self reels away from: hospitality to the stranger. I thought the hardest part would be people, though. In fact, what’s challenged me most is inner hospitality: the way hospitality entwines with silence, and opens it further.
The practice of Welcoming Prayer asks us: what if you took time to identify what you feel when fear strikes? What if you name it, know where it sits in your body? Then what if you welcome it – not because you’re happy it’s there, but because it is there? And sit with it, listening?
In my anxiety this solitary weekend, I have done this three times. I spoke aloud, envisioning my terrors as physical strangers, gesturing them closer, inviting them to draw up a chair and talk with me. As I listened, they didn’t leave. They did lean back in their chairs. Their postures eased.
Contemplative practices lead me toward graceful acceptance that sometimes being human is just hard. Acknowledgement has not empowered my anxiety. An open heart may not conquer fear, but it seems to offer a wide, forgiving context.
I can’t say if my embrace of inner hospitality is “working.” The word implies finality, solutions. And there is no “fix” for the beauty, difficulty, and uncertainty of life.
I’m a little easier, though, more of the time. This weekend I am still living with anxiety, but I notice that verb: living. Not existing, not denying, not hiding. I do not get over my fears, but I get used to them. Consistent welcome is a radical way to do that – but it’s either that, or they’ll pound on the door all night, so that none of us sleep.
Another Celtic practice I love is blessing. Calling down, is how I think of it: summoning the powers of all good things in life upon another.
I write blessings mostly as gifts. I wrote one recently for the birth of a niece I have yet to meet, but already treasure. Yesterday I composed one for myself, as I motored down the freeway, fizzing with anxiety. And I felt it settle.
Blessing for the Anxious Traveller
May your fears and your anxieties
walk easily beside you.
May they point out
what you need to know
when their wisdom is no longer required.
May you breathe freely,
and wander well in your travels.
Perhaps you know someone who needs a blessing? Maybe it’s you. It feels odd, formally addressing yourself or another. But it eases something. It opens some door of kindness or understanding or just witness. To bless is to be present in a way we so rarely embrace. It’s another act of radical hospitality.
May you be present. May you accept even anxieties with soul-deep compassion. May you receive with grace, bless with love, and live with radical welcome.
Tara K. Shepersky is an Oregon-based taxonomist, poet, walker, & essayist. Her work has appeared in Cascadia Rising Review, Empty Mirror, Mojave Heart Review, and Sky Island Journal, among others. Find her on the trail, or at pdxpersky.com, and on Twitter @pdxpersky.