When I think of wellness, I can’t help but think of my great aunt Tilley who was trapped in an actual well for a good long while. This is not a play on words. We wish people well, but real wellness is deeply personal. It isn’t the same as health, although these states are often paired. Well-being requires a deep encounter with our experience, and Tilley undoubtedly had that.
Tilley lived with my great uncle Walter in a cabin in the Adirondacks Lake region. They lived a life of woodsy seclusion, simple and close to nature, although no one would have called Walter “contemplative.” I have one childhood memory of him leaping around our living room, acting out the drama of a bear getting up on the roof of his cabin. Walter scared off the bear (which he pronounced “bar”) by firing a shotgun into the air. Boom! No more bar!
“Quick, close the drapes,” my mother said to me. She was from a very different kind of family, prosperous but reticent Danish immigrants, and she literally cringed at the prospect of the neighbors seeing Walter filling up the picture window, lunging and roaring like a bear.
My father’s family were among the earliest European settlers in this country, and almost all of them ended up like Walter. They were farmers or sailing captains on the St. Lawrence River or skilled craftsmen, storybook kinds of callings, not modern professions. I asked my father why and he said they didn’t care for progress or commerce and, to their credit, they hated slavery, so they just kept living as their ancestors, moving farther north and up river and deeper into the woods.
“Let’s face it, it takes a special talent to land here that early and stay that poor,” said my father, roaring with laughter. I found the family strange and embarrassing until well into adulthood when I began to be intrigued by the way they flat-out resisted a culture that stressed achievement and success in material terms above all. The farmers among them didn’t even honor daylight savings time because “the cows didn’t bother with it.” They chose to live by the seasons and the river currents, finding stability and well-being in larger cycles.
I once read that the aborigines call modern Western people “line people” because we live our lives in a headlong forward march, as compared to their own sense of being part of a great circle of life. But Walter and his relatives were clearly not line people. And as commendable as this was in some ways, it had drawbacks. Like the day Walter lowered his wife Tilley into the well and went off to town, leaving her there.
“Why on earth would he do that?” I asked my father.
“Well, they were repairing it or checking it, what else?” said my father. “They didn’t live in a big city, did they?”
My father didn’t understand why I wanted to live in New York City, a place where people wouldn’t know how to maintain their own wells even if they had wells. He called New Yorkers, including me, “cliff dwellers.”
“But why did he go off and leave her?”
“He forgot she was down there, can you imagine?” My father laughed, seeing the humor in it, not the trauma, assuring me that Walter rushed right back once he remembered.
And that was the whole story my father told. Walter went off to do errands in the nearest town and forgot that he had lowered poor Tilley into the well. I pictured Walter entering the general store in an Adirondack village and being greeted by the proprietor. Perhaps he was asked how he and Tilley were and at the mention of her name, Walter suddenly realized that she wasn’t just fine, thank you, but stuck in a well. He hurried home and reeled her up and that was that.
Follow-up questions didn’t shed much light. I was assured that the pair stayed together, although they never had children, which my father allowed was probably a good thing. Tilley was a sensitive woman with some issues, the daughter of a brilliant physics professor. How on earth was that improbable match made? And how was she after the well?
“If Tilley had issues when she went in, she had more coming out,” a friend commented after I told this story to a small group. “Or else she was completely healed.”
I like thinking that Tilley found healing in the depths, but I have no way of knowing. I do know that she was literally suspended in darkness, looking towards a light that was out of reach, possibly calling out for help from above that didn’t come. At some point while she was dangling there it had to cross her mind that she had made a huge mistake agreeing to go down that well, and maybe marrying Walter as well. But over the years I have come to understand that being suspended between doubt and faith, being utterly alone with your own experience, bereft of all hope of rescue from outside, is the wellspring of wellness.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver. “It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Not many of us have volunteered to go down a dark well only to be abandoned there by an absent-minded partner. But most of us have received boxes of darkness. We do know how it feels to be vulnerable and all alone. We know how it feels to be left hanging in the darkness of the unknown. And we know that although we are literally wired to avoid such situations, to fight and flee and freeze them out, they really are gifts.
We wish to be well, to overcome all obstacles and live with ease. But in the stillness of our hearts, we know that true wellness requires a deep dive into the well of our own experience. It requires that we be willing to be in the darkness and find the light that blooms in the midst of it. This light is not a metaphor or a distant possibility for a mystical few but an attention that is right here, right now, as close as the body, able to see us as we really are without judgment, present with our pain and our limitations as well as our unexpected capacity for acceptance and strength.
It is in the dark times, times of no escape, we discover that it is not doing but awareness, and not striving but accepting, that heals and liberates. In the moments of deepest solitude we discover that we aren’t alone but accompanied by this attention that watches without words, making more space around us.
There can be no doubt that Tilley felt that she made a terrible mistake going down that well. It’s easy to imagine her regret as she dangled there, calling out for Walter. She might well have reviewed quite a few mistakes and resolved to live very differently if she did survive. But seeing ourselves as we really are, the way that we see in times of no escape, brings the insight that much of what we do is mistaken. We react to life instead of consciously participating in it.
The great Japanese Zen sage Dogen taught that practice meant seeing ourselves making one mistake after another. Enlightenment expands awareness of this state of affairs. The life of a Zen master, according to Dogen, is “one continuous mistake.” This captures exactly how it feels to enter the present moment. We feel awkward and unbalanced and unprepared. Awareness exposes us, shining a light on our reactivity, our guardedness, our fears and desires and delusions.
When the chips are really down, as the expression goes, when all the exits are blocked and we are alone with ourselves, we feel how much of our energy is usually turned outwards. The great paradox is that when we allow ourselves to be alone with our experience, not talking about it with others out loud or in our heads, when we resolve to let go and sink into the feeling beneath the words, we discover that feelings and fates are not fixed but fluid. We are more than we think we are, even in the darkest times.
Under the mind that is thinking and spinning stories, there is a deeper mind, an awareness that sees with acceptance. Under the heart that is broken and yearning, there is a deeper heart, bright and compassionate. We discover that we are not alone but accompanied by awareness, surrounded by love, even as we wait for rescue.
How I came to know about Great Uncle Walter and Tilley is part of the lesson I learned about wellness. My father told me that near the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in the Adirondack Lakes Region of northern New York, he met an aspiring artist from New York City. This young man was travelling all around this remote region, exploring the life and people he encountered. My father was impressed by this young artist’s interest, so different from that of the hippies who ventured north to start communes. My father and I spoke to a group of them once who told us that living close to the land would be a piece of cake compared to the pressures of the big city.
“They won’t last long,” my father told me of the hippies. “The minute winter comes, they’ll be gone.”
Respect nature, this was part of the lesson. Learn about where you are. Winter is harsh in the North Country. And also respect the people who live in a place. Be curious, investigate, learn from them. Don’t assume you know more than they do or treat the world like it’s yours for the taking. The young artist showed my father his sketchbook, full of studies of nature and animals and people. My father flipped through it, admiring forest scenes, young and old faces, white and Mohawk, and then one image brought him to a full stop.
“What an amazing character he was,” said the New York artist. “That man lived in a log cabin deep in the woods. He wore a World War I helmet and carried a shotgun and didn’t tell stories so much as act them out.”
“By God, if it wasn’t my Uncle Walter,” said my father.
Learn about your relatives and your ancestors—this was the other part of the lesson. Don’t assume that you have grown beyond them. And also remember that the first and wisest people on this land regarded everything around them, not just humans related by blood but also plants and animals and the earth and stars, as relatives and ancestors. Wellness, they understood, depends on knowing our place in a greater cycle.
“Today we have gathered and see that the cycles of life continue.” The Mohawk people gave (and still give) thanks together often. They offer thanks to the People, to Mother Earth and all her plants and herbs and creatures, to the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Waters, the Four Winds, and the Teachers.
The word Mohawk was all around me growing up in northern New York: Mohawk River, Mohawk Valley, the Niagara Mohawk Power Company. I was surrounded by reminders of a nation vanquished by my European ancestors, the colonizing settlers who ultimately gave rise to Great Uncle Walter and me.
The People of the Flint, the Keepers of the Eastern Door, the most easterly of six nations of the Haudenosaunee, the great Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawk, along with all the other indigenous people, practiced and still practice gratitude as a way of life. They understood (and still understand) that we belong to creation, and to each other. No matter what happened to them at the hands of the European settlers, my ancestors, and what happened was unspeakable, they understood that gratitude and that knowing and naming their relatives and their place in great nature was the way to wellness, to a greater wholeness.
“We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living beings. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.”
The millions of indigenous people who inhabited this land lived in a state of such harmony and balance that the European colonists who first landed here thought very few people lived here. It was like walking into a pristine home and concluding that it had to be empty because otherwise it would be a mess.
The Mohawk Thanksgiving Greeting ends with giving thanks for the Creator, or Great Spirit, the animating force in everything, the source of “all the love that is still around us.” Even when everything was lost to them they gave thanks for a love that can never be taken.
These were the people the European settlers called “savages.” It would not be wrong to read our entire colonial history as one continuous mistake, ranging from crimes against humanity and the earth to our smaller daily mistakes of distraction and omission, on the scale of Great Uncle Walter leaving Tilley in the well. How can we even begin to atone? By remembering that the root meaning of atone is at one. By remembering that we are not independent but interdependent, and that our wellness inside and out depends upon realizing that we are part of a greater whole.
Awakening means opening our hearts to the whole of our experience, including our own darkness and pain. It is a relief to know that we can start small, sitting quietly at a quiet time of day or in a quiet place. We can practice saying “forgiven” like a mantra or prayer when difficult feelings or memories arise. This might feel presumptuous. Who am I to forgive myself? But it is really a practice of coming out of hiding, of seeing ourselves in a new light. We can practice this way when any kind of difficult feeling comes up: a memory, a rush of anxiety, that uneasy sense that we are puppets dancing on the strings of our conditioning. For a moment or two we can allow all that to emerge into the light of a more spacious presence.
Throughout the ages, people have called this greater presence God. But we don’t need to worry about whether or not there is a God, and if God forgives us. We just need to practice accepting our own humanity. One moment at a time, we can practice opening to our life, just that. This act of opening does not depend on belief or views of any kind. It depends on being still, as Dogen taught. It depends on sinking into the well of our experience, opening to what arises, excluding nothing.
As we learn to open to accept our own rage and grasping and pain, we also discover that we are opening to a greater presence. Moment by moment, we realize that this isn’t something far away but as close as knowing that you are reading these words.
One of the passengers on the Mayflower was my tenth great-grandfather, a young man notable mainly for the good fortune of surviving. He made the spectacular mistake of coming up on deck for fresh air during a brutal storm and washed overboard. He grabbed a rope and hung on, living to have ten children and eighty grandchildren and ultimately two million descendents. What if all of them, or even one in two million, sat down and opened to the true scale of the gift of being alive, realizing that every other living being is a relative?
The root of the word forgive means to give or grant or allow. Forgiveness begins with a willingness to be seen, not by your thinking mind but by an awareness that represents a greater wholeness.
What can we learn from the Mohawk and all the first people who lived on this continent? Even in the face of even the greatest darkness, we can drop into the sensation and feeling of being alive, noticing and giving thanks for this and for an attention that embraces what it finds, everything, no matter how dark, with acceptance and love.
We awaken to the whole of our lives, past, present, and future. The root of “heal” is “to make whole.” During the long dark night that preceded his awakening, the Buddha reached down and touched the earth. Like the Mohawk, like Dogen, and even possibly like poor Tilley, the Buddha understood that we don’t dwell in separation. Our whole being seeks to wake up, not our thinking minds alone. The plants and animals and other people in the world are not just obstacles or decorations. They meant to touch our hearts and our senses and deepest feelings, nurturing and guiding us towards what is truly valuable and real.
Here is a last line from the Mohawk thanks to the Creator: “Everything we need to live a good life is here on Mother Earth.” This does not mean there is no trouble or suffering, no injustice, no despair. It does not mean that we don’t have a great deal of work to do. It means that no matter how dark our lives are, we are not alone. Life is with us. Presence is with us. We have what we need to be well. ◆