Soft, by Tracy Cochran

Odilon Redon, "Flower Clouds," 1903
Odilon Redon, Flower Clouds, 1903

The root meaning of heal is whole. Illness and mishap and even great tragedy can lead us eventually from the pain of isolation to a greater wholeness. There is such a powerful tendency in our spiritual aspiration to climb up out of the mess of our lives. But what if awakening involved sinking down instead of climbing up, softening and surrendering instead of striving to get somewhere better than we are right now?

In Newtown, Connecticut, a new school is about to open to replace the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where on December 14, 2012, twenty children and six adults were senselessly shot and killed. How can a building help heal such an unspeakable tragedy? In the upcoming issue of Parabola, “Ways of Healing,” architect Barry Svigals, whose firm designed the new school, speaks of beginning the design process by inviting the community in to share memories and pictures of what they loved about the town and school. “There is a kind of remembering that is about the past and there’s a kind of remembering that is about the present,” says Svigals. When people speak of what they love, others feel it. This kind of remembering brings people back together individually and collectively after fracturing, as does remembering nature. “It’s so elemental, to be fully human.”

Sati, the ancient Pali word for mindfulness means to remember the present moment. Also in the up coming issue (it’s on my mind), beloved author and poet Mark Nepo describes the journey a successful trial attorney to this elemental place. As this ambitious and well-equipped man climbed a legendary peak in Mongolia, he was stripped of all he thought he was. “All that was left was the bare fact of his own existence, the fact of his breath connecting him to the fact of all existence.” This stripping brought the wisdom that Whitman conveys in Song of Myself: I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood./ I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

The path of awakening is not easy. But it may be comprised of moments of softening, moments of remembering that we are alive in the most elemental sense, breathing, a part of life living, a creature in a greater creation. In the midst of great turbulence and uncertainty, we may step outside on a summer morning and feel the warmth of the sun. We may suddenly remember, really literally re-member or feel in the whole of ourselves, the fact that the sun is the source of our life and all life on this planet.

Or the moment can be lighter. The other day, I taught mindfulness meditation at the Rubin Museum in front of the image a beautiful cloud goddess or apsara. Do you remember what it is like to lay on your back and watch clouds as a child? Remember how fluid and marvelous and soft they were? Remember that as children we could feel a kinship with them and will all of life. And we still can, literally in moments of stillness, in moments of what Wordsworth called “the bliss of solitude.” At such moments we remember that under all our endless striving and worry and these big, sometimes tricky personalities we carry around, there is an essence that simply wishes to be part of life, that is open to receive. ♦

By Tracy Cochran

Tracy Cochran is editorial director of Parabola. For more information, please visit