The Middle Distance 10.15.10: “All Things Must Pass”

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photo by Sean Cayton

Last weekend I spent two days in a hotel ballroom learning to transcend my story and access the infinite energy field surrounding me. With some 150 others — mostly women of all ages, shapes, and sizes — I sat in a straight-backed chair in a charmless ballroom for 14 hours, thoroughly entranced by a lovely, petite Chinese man in a mandarin jacket and gold silk pants. Master Mingtong Gu, humble and accessible, was slow and deliberate in his instruction, promising no “washy wishy talky” to those assembled to learn his healing technique. Every now and then we stood up and moved our arms and hands, slowly and with great concentration, learning how to move the energy in and out, feeling ourselves surrounded by an ocean of light, imagining ourselves as fountains of light.

We were learning the ancient Chinese healing art of qigong.

I hadn’t been in a hotel ballroom among strangers, seeking enlightenment, since 1981 in Honolulu when my then-husband and I did the est training over two weekends in Waikiki. I was a Tennessee girl, 27 years old with a 5-year old daughter, and hadn’t thought much about such things. I sat in puzzlement as the est trainer swooped across the front of the room hurling philosophical one-liners at us, daring us to “get it.” We moved painfully through our stories, stood and shared, cried, grew bored, and developed sore knees and aching butts as we approached the finish line. Finally, near midnight on the second Saturday, we got it: “This is it!” the trainer exulted, dancing across the stage. “Don’t you get it? This is it!” “It” was the training itself, the moment, the present, our stripped-down selves in this hideous orange-and-gold room.

There were a few similarities between the gentle, soothing experience of learning qigong healing technique and the shock tactics of the est training. There was the ballroom, sterile and wide with oppressive low ceilings and gaudy carpet, an environment that provided no available distractions. There were the chairs carefully lined in rows, a little too high to allow the feet to rest comfortably on the floor. There were the occasional breaks from the program to promote expensive retreats and intensive seminars beyond the initial training. There were tables of DVDs and CDs to promote home practice (back in the ‘80s, they were cassette tapes).

Both trainings touched me deeply and in different ways. Both emphasized the need to get beyond our stories, to set aside our dramatic narratives to fully access what it feels like to be present in our bodies, stripped and bare, open to experience and healing.

The story that kept creeping in for me, all weekend at the qigong training, was the one my family is currently living out — bereavement and the inevitable complications of life following the sudden death of a loved one. My ex-husband, who died eight weeks ago, would have loved this qigong, I kept thinking as I tried to push his memory aside and be present in my uncomfortable seat in this hotel ballroom.

A friend of mine, who was there, experienced a similar thing. Widowed after a long and thriving marriage, she imagined her husband, Jack, there with her in the energy field. When she went home after the first night, she said, she was exhausted, and kept hearing from Jack in the form of things going crash in the night. He was there with her.

I told her the story of my family’s gathering two weekends ago, when we decided to bless my ex-husband’s house with a smudging ceremony. His children, his fiancée, his sister, some friends and I gathered in his living room. All was quiet. We were each to light a candle and say what we wanted to say about this man we loved and his presence in this house. He had been an avid toy collector, and just as one of us was relating a tender story about him, from the cabinet where his toy collection was assembled, a plastic remote controlled voice box let out a big wet fart. His favorite toy, the fart machine, had gone off spontaneously. For a blessed few minutes, we laughed and roared, letting go of our sad story. He was there with us. No washy wishy talky for him. We got the message.

You can read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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7 Responses to The Middle Distance, 10/15/10: "All Things Must Pass"

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Lovely. Bill’s middle name was Jack. Loved your story. Loved the description of the weekend. Loved the weekend!

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    raised my spirits too!

  3. Deb says:

    This story reminds me why we shouldn’t fear death. It is just another passage of our souls. Our loved ones who passed do show up occasionally to remind us not to be afraid because the soul is eternal! Would that we listened for them more often!

    Thanks again for another great article, Kathryn!

  4. Ellen Troyer says:

    Your gigong description brought back really fun EST and Big Sur (Esalon) memories from the early 70s. Loved, loved, loved the fart machine story.

  5. Paige says:

    “Both emphasized the need to get beyond our stories, to set aside our dramatic narratives to fully access what it feels like to be present in our bodies, stripped and bare, open to experience and healing.”

    This sentence is a gift. Thanks for the reminder, Kathryn. Glad I stumbled upon you today.

  6. Libby says:

    To those who bring us smiles, with us now and with us always. Thank you again, Kathryn.

  7. nancy wilsted says:

    Not all that remotely controlled, I’d say!


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