The Irish speak of “the thin places”, locales and spaces where the veil between this world of appearances and that of truth can be parted. Buddhist teachers remind us that these worlds are not geographic places, but states of mind. The journey through parenthood offers us unique opportunities to approach and perhaps even part the veil, if we have the awareness and courage to do so.
So what is this veil? Of what is it made? You could say the veil is anything that separates – the known from the unknown, the profane from the sublime, the mundane from the divine, the apparent from the ultimate. A separation created through our own lack of awareness. Ignorance, if you will. But not the ignorance of not knowing – more in the sense of misknowing what lies before us. A reality of ultimate truth, beauty, grace is right here, right now – but the scales must fall from our eyes in order to perceive it. Because, as one of my teachers says, “Radiance is everywhere, even behind the refridgerator”.
Much as there are specific locations that the Irish consider portals into a different kind of reality, there are key life experiences that may provide these opportunities as well.
Birth. Death. Peak moments of joy or bliss. Sleeplessness, or physical exhaustion. Meditation.
In birth and parenting, the repetitive and ordinary lie cheek by jowl with the profound. Diaper changes, lost shoes, and mopping up wet cheerios are tangled up with ecstatic states of love and joy. Birth itself is both mundane and miraculous. It happens on average about 353,000 times a day, and we’ve all been through it, but at the same time it is awe-inspiring to contemplate how each birth is the start of a unique trajectory of a new human life. Mothers may find that the veil presents itself in these experiences.
American independent midwife Whapio Diane Barlett describes the birthing heroine’s journey towards and through the veil in The Holistic Stages of Birth. In it, she creates a map of the physiological, hormonal, emotional and spiritual steps on this path. She describes the approach to the veil that may occur as a mother engages in active labour. In physiological terms, she may have reached 4-5 centimeters of dilation, and be experiencing contractions roughly 5 minutes apart or less and lasting about 60 seconds.
“The Mother reaches a point in her traveling where it is time for her to go alone. The endorphins released by her body during her embarking have begun to change her consciousness and she enters, more deeply, the realm of the altered state. She travels to the edge of her normal reality, parts the Veil and goes beyond. The Veil is my nomenclature for the curtain that separates ordinary reality from the deep altered state.”
~ Whapio Diane Barlett, The Holistic Stages of Birth
It’s important to acknowledge that this is not every mother’s experience. Not everyone parts the veil. Some approach, but choose not to pass – the heroine’s “refusal of the call” in the parlance of Joseph Campbell. In Campbell’s map of the hero(ine)’s journey, there is the meeting of a mentor that is required before the protagonist can proceed – someone who’s already made the trip and can provide guidance and tools, perhaps in the form of an experienced and wise doula, midwife or birth companion. Some mothers may have no idea that the veil even exists, or don’t know how or where to look for the thin places, or how to recognize them when they’re there. Perhaps circumstances are just not conducive.
“Mothers may approach the Veil several times before deciding to move through. Circumstances may also prevent the mother from moving through. Constant questioning, especially about mundane affairs, and interruptions in mother’s rhythm serve to bring mother back to ordinary reality.”
~ Diane Whapio Barlett, The Holistic Stages of Birth
Being with a woman for whom the veil appears, who sees it before her and courageously moves through into the unknown is one of the most awe-inspiring parts of my work as a doula. I cannot pass through with her – no one can – but I can witness her journey and be there for her on the other side.
While labour and birth can be a powerful entry point into the hidden realms, some parents might find “the thin places” in the haze of caring for a newborn.
Someone once described for me the sort of reverse discipline of certain yogis who purposely led their daily life with absolutely no structured regularity or schedule. Their sadhana, or daily practice, was to never eat at the same time of day, to have no regular times for sleep, and to change their yoga and meditation every day, as a path to letting go of attachment to daily patterns. The routine of no routine, as it were. As this way of life was being described to me, my immediate response was, “wow! sounds like life with a newborn baby!”
Months and years of inadequate sleep can also take you to the veil. It’s not just the interrupted sleep that comes with nighttime parenting a small person who’s sleep cycles are a fraction of the length of yours that can take you to this thin place. It’s the lack of deep, restorative, REM-type sleep. Author Ariel Gore asked her readers how they experienced this loss of deep states of dream-filled sleep:
[from one of Gore’s respondents:] At first it was maddening. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t function. I struggled with it. I drank coffee. I wanted to be the same person I was before the babies. But without sleep? How? Then something started to shift. Between the tiredness and the dreamlessness, I started to lose my defenses. I became softer. I became more honest. Because you cannot lie when you are that tired. My unconscious became my conscious, if that is possible. Nothing was repressed. Everything was expressed. I look at my journals from those early days, and I think, Wow, I had revelations in those first ten months that might have taken ten years in therapy to uncover.
At the risk of romanticizing torture, these descriptions point to the reality that early motherhood can also be an incredible opportunity for psychic development. All this interrupted sleep results in some merging of consciousness and unconsciousness. Boundaries fall away. We open up, we lay down our armor whether we want to or not. Because when we are this tired, we just can’t bullshit ourselves or anyone else. For some of us, our dreams begin to follow us into waking life, filling it with surreal images. We become more open to our creative minds, and we learn, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “the dream is the truth”.
I recently worked an extended run of overnight postpartum doula shifts for a family who were in the midst of a cross-country move, providing care for their one-month old baby from 10:00pm to 7:00am each night. The mother woke once a night, instead of 3 or 4 times, to pump her milk, and in the morning felt ready to care for her baby and toddler and prepared for their move.
I, however, was back in that zone of sleeping with one eye open, while rising to follow through on all my usual daytime duties – teaching, responding to client inquiries, and caring for my own family. Pretty much the same as I was doing when I was working parent with a young baby, all those years ago.
But on one particular morning, rather than facing the new day with exhaustion, fatigue or fogginess, I was surprised to experience a heightened degree of clarity. Waves of gratitude came easily. Grace even. I didn’t feel spacey or flakey, but remarkably grounded in my body and stable in my mind. A state probably aided by the little teacher I had cradled for much of the night, keeping me present, aware and connected – to him, and to myself. I recognized that my lack of sleep had actually created an opportunity to part the veil, even if only by a hair’s breadth.
Spiritual texts are full of stories of saints and seekers who lift the veil at the edge of physical exhaustion. Think of the feelings of peace and spaciousness you may have had in svasana, or corpse pose, following a particularly vigorous yoga class. Others find it in old age, or when facing a terminal illness – when there is no more time to fuck around, and all the extraneous minutia of life falls away. Death itself, of course, is the final and ultimate opportunity to part and pass through the veil.
So why go to the veil? What is the opportunity that this border holds? What is it that we can access in these “thin places”?
With dissolution comes transformation.
An opportunity to let go – of everything. Of what we thought we knew, and anything we believed ourselves to be. A prospect at once both terrifying – and liberating. When everything falls away, what are you left with? What is the ground or field that your whole world and your every perception springs from? When you let it all drop, what will you pick up again as you move forward? Is it useful, does it burden or serve your journey?
This is a true rite of passage, which must by definition entail the active participant engaging in what she previously believed she was incapable of. She is transformed, having passed from one world of understanding to another, taking with her a deep-seated and unshakeable knowledge of her own inner power, resources and wisdom.