In The Arena

(This is an adaptation of a post that I wrote for a Big Homeopathy in April of 2020.)


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Once, I was on fire, and it didn’t end.

And everything corrupt that had hidden in the marrow of my bones boiled to the surface; burning sores that swelled and wept dancing flames that cauterized my nerves.

Into a nether of fear, pain, and morbid anxiety, I plummeted, and with that fall came a desire for death unlike anything I’d felt in my previous trials. There was no way to know how long it would last or how bad it would get.

Through the darkness, as the days became weeks became months, I wondered if I was cursed and beyond hope. Calling out in the night, abandoned, forsaken in my doubt, I writhed in torment.

Under house arrest in the prison of my own pain, I had no choice but to accept the purification and proceed.

And read a lot of mystery novels. The sun came up, and went down. The moon cycled through its phases.

The word “agony” comes from the Greek term for “a struggle for victory,” but also from the verb “to assemble.”[1] The reference in the latter case is to the spectators of the contest.

But who fashions the arena? Whence do the lions come?

I call them down myself.

To look for life

is to find death.

The thirteen organs of our living

are the thirteen organs of our dying.

Why are the organs of our life

where death enters us?

Because we hold too hard to living.

So I’ve heard

if you live in the right way,

when you cross country

you needn’t fear to meet a mad bull or a tiger;

when you’re in a battle

you needn’t fear the weapons.

The bull will find nowhere to jab its horns,

the tiger nowhere to stick its claws,

the sword nowhere for the point to go.

Why? Because there’s nowhere in you

for death to enter.[2]

The only contest in which I will sweat and twist is that in which the tiger can find a place to stick its claws.

There comes a point when you realize it’s always from yourself that you are trying to escape. If you’re lucky, it happens at a point where there is no escape. The only freedom is in facing the agony and surrendering to it.

When there is no one to blame, there is no distraction from the task of survival.

How, though, do I free myself from the places where death can enter? Living in this way is a practice; I will never be fully free of those places. My mortality is assured. But there is a path to travel towards freedom.

It is not the freedom of entitlement; not to be free from from pain, from fear, from anger, from grief.

Nor is it entitlement to information shared without an agenda, nor to inalienable rights, nor to sacred territory that is off-limits to groping hands.

Nor to be free from prison.

It is none of these things. It is the choice to surrender. That is where freedom lies. This moment, these lions, they are mine. They are formed of this material realm; my sojourn here constitutes an agreement that the tiger’s claws will find my flesh. When I acknowledge that I invited them, in order to learn what new depths of dark passages I must travel to find the healing that is wisdom, when I accept them as brutal masters of my choosing, then I cease to seek for exits without and begin to recognize them within.

And in this lies the paradox, for to embrace them is integrate the contours of these demons into the receptive shapes of the wounds, and to become more whole. In that way, there can be some small healing to the larger world.  

There is only one place where unassailable freedom resides. When you think, feel, speak and act from that place, you are free, regardless of your circumstances.

No one here gets out alive.

Eventually, it ended. The shingles subsided, the veil lifted, and what emerged on the other side was rich and unexpected.

When it is your moment to be tempered on the anvil, with heat and crushing blows, it really doesn’t matter who wields the hammer or pumps the bellows; your time has come to be transformed.  

Will you recognize it? Will you enter the furnace, will you lie down on that hard iron? There’s no utility in blame, and the keen edge awaits revelation.


[2] “Tao Te Ching,” Lao Tzu, translation by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1997.

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