“No man has seen the third hand
that stems from the center, near the heart… ”
(from the poem “Mystique” by David Ignatow)
While it’s not something I often write about explicitly, I had an experience several years ago that reshaped my life. When I was in law school I was severely depressed. I’ve since, gratefully, recovered but I haven’t left the gifts of that experience behind. In fact, they inform my life daily and are a constant source of inspiration, strength, and wisdom.
One of the greatest gifts of that experience was being forced into such a dark and helpless place that I could no longer rely on my usually pretty tremendous reserves of will-power and suck-it-up-ability to just soldier on through an experience and life that were very wrong for me.
One of the best ways I have of describing that experience, and one that still makes my throat tight and eyes well with tears today, as if I’m grieving myself from afar, was that there was a light inside of me, my light, that was slowly dimming, slowly being choked out. I hadn’t been letting my soul breathe and so the flame of it was slowly but surely dying.
I had the best intentions, or so I thought. I longed to paint and to write and yet because I didn’t have a background or education in the fine arts and really hadn’t painted or written much at all (because I was also scared and suffocating my soul with perfectionism), I thought the reasonable and responsible thing to do was to commit myself to something I was capable of and actually pretty good at – finance and law. I’d do that and get a job that would afford me the opportunity to indulge in my inner longings… on the weekends or after work.
The further I got into law school and found how all-consuming it was (as one wonderful mentor I once had often quoted, “The law is a jealous mistress.”), the more I realized that the real me, and a stronger me, would be taking a back seat for a very long time. I was a decent law student with some really bright spots, but not brilliant like some people, or passionate like others. I had to make up for brilliance and passion with a lot of extra work and extra long hours (and all law students know that the minimum requirement, at best, is already impossible amounts of work and ridiculously long hours). I was quickly becoming exhausted in mind, body, and spirit.
But I didn’t want to give up or give in. I didn’t want to be a quitter. My ego was so in the way that I didn’t realize that there was actually a choice being made here and I was quitting on something either way- quit on law or quit on myself. By thinking I’d be able to cram in what really was calling to me in life into the corners and weekends, at best, I was choosing quitting on myself. And I’ve since also come to believe that I was quitting on God because I didn’t trust that the God who made me the way that I am – artistic, a gifted communicator, intuitive, compassionate – would also provide me with a way to let those gifts of my soul support my physical life in this world.
Fortunately, at this point, my soul took matters into its own hands and sent me spiraling into a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual crisis from which I could not escape by just working or trying harder – which had always been my MO in the past and had worked well enough. Now any attempts at that just sent me backsliding into darker pits of despair and helplessness. Trust me, I did not want to be depressed. It was a miserable, terrible time. I tried my best not to be depressed and I bet I convinced most people who knew me solely from the outside back in those days. I tried to believe that it would get better if I could just make it through, graduate and get a job. But I was not convincing my soul and it got harder and harder to get out of bed, much less make it through an entire, grueling day. And so I had to try something else.
This is what I think the poet David Ignatow had in mind when he wrote about “the third hand” in his poem “Mystique.”
“… Let either
the right or the left prepare
a dish for the mouth,
or a thing to give,
and the third hand deftly
and unseen will change the object
of our hunger or of our giving.”
My right and left hands were doing reasonable work in the world. The world needs good lawyers. I know some and they do a great service to their clients. Lincoln was a lawyer. Gandhi was a lawyer, too. I also wanted to be able to function as a responsible adult and be able provide for myself and contribute to my family and my community.
But because I couldn’t see it could possibly work out for me to do that as an artist, a writer – or a life coach, which I secretly wanted to be ever since I read Martha Beck back when I was in one of my pits of despair – I thought I would take matters into my own hands. I didn’t trust my soul – or God – enough to take care of the worldly details like that and I didn’t want to be a starving bum. I also didn’t want to sacrifice the success I thought I’d enjoy as an attorney and I didn’t want to endure losing the respect and esteem of people who always thought I’d do big and great things with my life – like be an attorney, or even a senator or governor.
My soul could see that my right and left hands were really serving my ego and my fear and so it, deftly and unseen, plunged me into a place where the choices were to either continue a living a life that no longer seemed worth living or give into my true desires and deepest longings.
This practice of surrender – really trying to release my ideas and expectations and desire to control outcomes – and allow what wants to come through to come through, and then to listen to it and follow it, is still difficult for me. But very worthwhile. It is something I practice daily because I know it makes my life come alive, everything springs into technicolor, vibrant with richness and meaning. I know from this place I am able to give so much more to the world, and it is this very act of giving that also satisfies my deepest hunger.
There is also the fact that I know all too well that the third hand will resort to coming-in-through-the-backdoor-mystical-smackdowns to get my attention and put me back on track if I start to ignore it.
Painting, especially the way in which I have been painting in the last year, has been a tremendous catalyst for this practice of surrender and trusting – trusting my intuition, my soul, God, and whatever other good and invisible forces might be conspiring to help me, even when it seems they take a lot of difficult, confusing, and mysterious detours on their way there.
Take, for instance, a painting I did this past summer. I like to start painting the same way I begin teaching a yoga practice, coaching a client, or living my day – with a prayer and an intention. On the particular day that I undertook this particular painting, I was feeling very lost and lonely. Although I do believe we are truly never alone and that sometimes it’s just that our level of awareness of our connection fluctuates, it was hard for me at that time to move that belief from my head down into my heart.
I started that painting with prayer and intention to the effect that if it ended up being anything for anyone, that it wold give them the sense of surrounded by love and by people who cherished and adored them and “had their back.” If you’ve ever had a friend who you knew thought you hung the moon, would crawl across a burning desert for your awesome, badass-self, who really saw and got you, and still loved you with a fierceness you didn’t think you deserved but were sure glad to have… that’s the kind of presence I was longing for that day.
And since I also start every painting with the intention that I let go of how I think it should be and just allow what ever wants to happen, or needs to happen, to come through, I completed my prayer, turned on some music and let it go.
Now is when I will let all my woo-wooness be known, but here goes (Goodbye to my skeptical, conservative readers! Thanks for hanging around this long!)… I started painting, got into the flow, just began to make movements and marks, and didn’t really step back until a good hour had gone by. When I did take a break, I stepped back, got a good look at the painting and every hair on my body stood on end. I ran out of the room and upstairs to my bedroom. It was late, late in the night and my husband and sons were fast asleep, so I tiptoed into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
Not until there was daylight did I go back into the room and count the number of figures and heads that clearly emerged from the random painting I’d done but hadn’t seen until I stepped back (I think there were at least eight). While I admit that it still freaked me out a bit, I recalled that I had asked for a demonstration of loving presences. In the light, I could tell there was nothing menacing here, but there was something and it was that physical manifestation of the usually invisible that had made me so uncomfortable… even though it was the very thing I was longing for.
This is good for me to remember. Sometimes the thing I am truly longing for has the potential to make me very uncomfortable. I may want to follow my heart, or the whispers of my soul, or the will of God… but if I’m honest, sometimes doing that also terrifies me. I think the reasons for this are many-layered, but one I suspect is often at play is that we are just not used to that much profound power working in our lives. It makes us feel out of control, which is really to say that it threatens the illusions we have about security and control.
If you are like I was, though, and gripping a mask you’re holding up to hide your true face, hiding behind a mask of who you think you ought to be, who you think the world thinks you to be, rest assured that while you’re holding on for dear life, that third hand, the one that “stems from the center, near the heart, ” will work – on your behalf, I really believe – to set the real you free.
May you live your life from the center, near your heart…