What Is Grace and Why Does It Hurt so Much?

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“The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it.” — Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul

On the black sands of the Java Sea.

The waves crashed over my limbs as sobs heaved in and out of my chest. I had wandered down to the ocean’s edge after two weeks of intense cleansing at a raw detox retreat in Bali.

“Retreat” was possibly the wrong word.

Raw detox meant the absence of caffeine, sugar, or comfort foods like meat-n-potatoes. Silence. Meditation, every morning. Runs through the rice patties. Yoga inquiries and journaling.

The conditions led to a deep cleansing. Which felt like my body and mind were cracking and breaking, giant armies of light swarming into my darkest corners. Every itch, craving, and nagging disbelief were unfolded, on display, in public.

At the end of the two weeks, I took a three-day trip to the north shore of Bali, to a serene seashore villa. I nibbled on “bad” foods again. I walked down to the beach, lost in thought.

I was more tired than I was before. What was I doing?

Too much work, not enough rest.

Five years of nonstop work, and before that, three years of graduate school—where architects are encouraged through perverse social culture to pull all-nighter after all-nighter—and my body was burned. Exhausted. My kidneys ached, soreness emanating out from just beneath my ribs like little blinking warning lights on my backside. Coffee didn’t register in my body, and I could fall asleep on the bus, in the car, and whenever I put my head down on my desk. My lungs ached and I kept getting sick.

I knew I needed to take a vacation — I’d been trying to take a vacation for years — but each time, I had an excuse, a block. Instead, I went to conferences and events, running down my adrenals further. It took buying a plane ticket five months in advance and signing up for a raw food retreat around the world to commit to a decompression.

Luxuriating on white sand beaches, sipping martinis, escaping into the blissful happiness that lines the advertisements of all vacation destinations —

— that was the plan, at least.

Although “martini” probably wasn’t on the raw food menu.

After the ten-day retreat, I felt like I was breaking down even further.

I knelt into the black sand and touched the warm, frothy water with my fingertips. Despite being in my yoga clothes, I needed to get into the sea; I couldn’t be bothered by a swimsuit. I crawled down into the water until it hit me at waist-level, and leaned back. My head hit the rocky sand and my gaze drifted up, unfocused, at the cloudy blue sky.  Waves lapped up at my body, tickling my fingertips, washing across my belly. Tears ran down the sides of my cheeks and mingled with the salty water of the Java sea.

Why was I feeling this way? It was supposed to be a blissful vacation. I was supposed to be delighted. Filled with joy. Open. Letting go.

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I couldn’t shake this bittersweet fear that all of this life — the sand, the water brushing against my feet, the wind washing through my hair — would suddenly and eventually continue it’s relentless chase towards death, and that I would only be here for a brief, passing moment.

Within that thought, however, the same time, I felt this inexplicable joy. I was so happy. And yet I was so sad. The gratitude for being able to be here, for living, for being in my body, for the grace of each and every day—it was such a gift.

Why did I receive it? I was so thankful.

Why do any of us receive grace?

And I thought about this idea for a while, chewing on it, thinking through the word while in the black sand. Turning towards grace.

What, exactly, is grace?

Grace is not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable. Grace is not instantaneous, and it is not always straightforward—but if we’ll allow it, one piece and one day at a time, it begins to show up.

We use the word to describe the way that people move—“she moved fluidly across the stage, with grace,” – and to refer to people that have a quality of elegance or refinement. In the Christian and Abrahamic traditions, grace is a specific divine assistance given to humans; a godly virtue; a gift.

I like to thing of grace in a non-traditional way, and my definition looks like this:

“The softness to allow something good to happen to you, even in uncomfortable ways; the realization that the universe is far larger than we are and works in mysterious ways.”

In that sense, we are all given the grace of a new day, or the grace of slipping into slumber in the evenings (although for the insomniacs among us, we might wish fervently for that grace).

Sometimes I am given the grace of having a large freight train rumbling by at the exact moment when I say something out of turn, so that when my friend asks me to repeat what I had said, I have the chance to revise my grumpy snip into something softer.

Grace is what happens beyond our control. It’s letting go when we hold on so tight, and it’s allowing and receiving beauty in our lives.

For me, when everything goes right, it’s knowing that there are far more things happening in the world than I can possibly control. And when everything seems to be going wrong, it’s thanking the beautiful day for teaching me, even if it’s been frustrating.

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The caveat: opening to grace and opening your heart means opening to feelings.

“The winds of grace are always blowing but you have to raise the sail.” — Ramakrishna

The human paradox is deliciously complex — and when we invite joy and happiness and grace into our lives, there will be times of sorrow, pain, sadness and all the other spectrum of human emotions. When we block sadness and pain, we inevitably numb our ability to feel joy and happiness as well.

Opening your heart to grace means opening to feelings. We are not seeking to escape our feelings, but rather invite the entire experience in.

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer writes:

“Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.”

We can live with an open heart or a closed heart, he describes. There are many things in the world that will cause us to close our hearts—cruelty, embarrassment, bad experiences—but our job is to whittle away at this calcification of our souls, allowing ourselves to open. Opening does not mean being naïve or being without boundaries—but it does imply that we remain open to experience and possibility. Singer continues:

“The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it. It’s like sitting down at night and deciding whether you want the sun to come up in the morning. The bottom line is, the sun will come up and the sun will go down. Billions of things are going on in this world. You can think about it all you want, but life is still going to keep on happening.”

Love, affection, and joy are qualities of an open heart. So if we want to know what it’s like to be open, “pay attention to when you feel love and enthusiasm,” Singer writes.

When life isn’t going as planned, sometimes the universe brings us Fierce Grace.

The pain of experience and the (at times) harshness of consequences are a sharp and swift reminder that we aren’t behaving in ways that are in harmony with what we know to be true.

In The End of Your World, renowned spiritual leader Adyashanti describes this as a form of “fierce grace” — a painful reminder that what we’re doing isn’t working. Pain and heartache are reminders, at times, that life wants us to head in another direction.

“It is not a soft grace; it is not the kind of grace that is beautiful and uplifting,” he writes.

“But it is grace nonetheless.”

In my life, when I willingly slip into a habit or behavior that doesn’t serve me, the twinge of awareness and recognition is life’s reminder of fierce grace.

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Back on the rocky black sand, I sat alone in my yoga pants, my toes in the water. I leaned back towards the sky of the southern hemisphere and took a breath in.

I am drawn to the edges of the sea just as I’m drawn inwards to the edges of my mind, staring and exploring its peculiarities. To me, the water is analogous to the depths of my mind, an anchor that reminds me of my own consciousness. Each time I dive in to swim, I’m in awe of the depths and majesty of it all.

This living thing—this being here, right now.

This.

It’s such a fearsome joy and delight and such a treasure. The awe of living is so huge and tremendous that it can regularly bring me down to my knees. It hurt. And yet the feeling of it all — being able to feel, itself — was joyous. I sunk my arms into the sand. I had wandered down to the beach to say thanks, and to let go.

Inside of it all, we can control nothing. We can only bow in gratitude and grace, humble, and thank the gift of being here, whatever the circumstances may be.

“The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it.”— Michael Singer

Why do any of us receive grace? With gratitude practices, we can soften, we can realize the magic of being alive, and we can begin to see again. Practicing gratitude, in turn, erodes the calcified edges of our heart and our mind, making us a bit gentler—both with our selves and with each other. This, then, is the beginning of grace.

What does it mean to open to grace? What does it mean to act with grace? What visuals come to mind when you think about people who live gracefully? And in what ways are you already living in grace?

My body needed a period to restore and renew. To cleanse. Despite how painful the retreat was at the time, it was, in it’s own way, a divine moment of grace in my life. Learning how to let go of addictions — from sugar, caffeine, even dairy and meat and the comfort foods I’d loved — was a shock to my body, but a welcome interruption.

Grace isn’t always pretty or easy, despite the misconception. Grace is sometimes exactly what you need in your life, even if it looks a little messy.

What does grace mean to you? When do you experience grace, or when do you imagine grace to be working?

How do you open to grace?


This is an excerpt from my two-week digital class, Grace & Gratitude, a journey towards cultivating an open heart and developing a spirit of gratitude in your life through rituals, practices, and essays. The course will re-open for enrollment at the end of August as a self-guided journey. 

 

 


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6 Responses to What Is Grace and Why Does It Hurt so Much?

  1. Kathleen says:

    So thought-provoking, Sarah! “Grace” is an interesting word to muse on. Would you be willing to share the name of the retreat? I’m tempted by a little detox? Thanks!

  2. Rachel says:

    Beautiful words, spoke straight to my heart. Thankyou x

  3. Angelike says:

    I am days away from turning in my thesis and weeks from wanting to go back into the work force. I’m currently in the process of planning a similar trip and after reading, i can’t wait! What a beautiful articulation of emotions that are most certainly appreciated and understood. Thank you!

  4. […] “[Grace is] the softness to allow something good to happen to you, even in uncomfortable ways;… […]