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The Veil is Always Thin: It’s We Who are Thick

My friend Terry died the day before Halloween. In April, on his seventy-first birthday, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. Exactly seven months later he took his last breath. Some would say that he crossed over when the veils were thin.

I wonder about the thickness of those veils

Terry Patten was a beloved teacher and guide in the Integral Community. He still is. He was also a climate activist and spoke boldly about the existential crises of our times. Written with a fevered urgency, his final book, A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries, was published in 2018. He told me that writing this book consumed him, as if he were tasked to give voice to the desperate pleas of the planet herself.

I suspect he was also channeling the existential angst of a man on the edge of his own impending death.

Terry and I meet …

I met Terry at an Integral Livingroom event in Boulder in the spring of 2014. By then I was familiar with the work of Ken Wilber and Integral Theory, having done three in-depth year-long trainings: The Embodied Practitioner Certification Program with Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, the Integral Facilitator Certification Program with Diane Musho Hamilton, and the Integral Psychotherapy Certification Program with Dr. Mark Forman. Terry’s work at that time revolved less around the climate crisis and more around how to live an integral life. His book Integral Life Practice, which he wrote with Ken Wilber, Adam Leonard, and Marco Morelli, served as an excellent guide.

Integral Theory has had a significant impact on me. Wilber’s perspective on what it means to be a human in these times combined with his breadth of knowledge across many disciplines resonated deeply with much of what I had learned through my own non-traditional education and the discoveries I made during my ten years in retreat. Wilber’s Integral Theory served to organize and orient my findings into a framework that helped me to see a way forward for my life. The web of integral thinkers and practitioners worldwide are an inspiring bunch, modeling how to be in the world in truly impactful and meaningful ways.

That weekend in Boulder was a perfect example.

On Sunday afternoon, Terry was leading a group experience inviting us to explore our relationship to the feminine from multiple perspectives. He guided us through the four quadrants model of Integral Theory, instructing us to hear, see, and feel the unseen yet ever present energetic presence of the feminine from the inside out … and the outside in. When our small group of five was asked to share with the larger group what we experienced, I was chosen as our spokesperson.

I stood up at the farthest end of the room and took a deep breath.

My heart was racing, my pores were moist, and my mind was buzzing. You could say I was nervous and that would not be incorrect. But it was a certain kind of nervousness I was experiencing. One I would become more familiar with over time.

It was the kind of nervousness where you know that what’s going to come out of your mouth is not something you came up with. It’s something that comes from somewhere so deep within you or so far outside of you that you simply cannot claim it as yours. 

I like to believe that what flowed through me actually was the voice of the feminine … of Gaia … the great mother … life itself.

This is what She said …

Observing the world from absolute emptiness, the vastness where all life dissolves into and emerges from — the abyss and the first womb — everything appears to be well on your planet. This place I speak from is where the divine feminine takes the shape of pure love. Rest assured, in this pure love there is no blame or shame. There is actually nothing you can do wrong. You are fully and unconditionally free to be just as you are. Fear not. You are not in trouble for the planet’s present crisis, nor all the questionable ways you treat one another and other living beings. You are loved no matter what.

As I spoke, I could feel my chest like a canyon oozing molten lava. I knew what was being spoken was true. We really haven’t done anything wrong. We’re not in trouble. We truly are unconditionally loved.

Yet …

I also knew that this meta-perspective was only part of the story.

When I was finished speaking, I could sense the room exhale along with me and my vibrating body. Even as I shook, I felt rooted to the floor.

The group thought I was finished speaking.

But I wasn’t.

Or, rather, She wasn’t.

I began to move. I walked slowly to the other side of the room. As I progressed, I raised my arms and held them at shoulder height, indicating that I was walking along an imaginary straight line, heading to the spot exactly opposite from the vast and encompassing emptiness where I had stood a moment ago.

There, at the other end of the large room, I landed in another realm … where I spoke from the body of the divine feminine. I spoke for Gaia herself.

Well, that’s all nice and good, what you just heard from over there. But from over here, you are totally fucking up. Big time. It is so not okay how you’re treating me, treating one another, and treating yourselves.

My voice got progressively louder and, though tears did not come, grief and rage were palpable in my tenor and tone. I made eye contact with people as my gaze moved through the crowd and I continued to speak.

Do you hear me? It is absolutely not okay what is happening. Not. Okay. And you can — and must — do something about it.

The energy in the room slowly morphed from passivity into a state of vibrant — if tentative — readiness.

We were being confronted with what we were all, to some degree, protecting ourselves from. As much as it was true that we were not in trouble and had done nothing wrong, we were also clearly — collectively and personally — responsible for what humans have done to dishonor and abuse ourselves, one another, and the planet we call home.

How could both be true — being in trouble and not in trouble?

Well … funny you should ask.

Embracing paradox is at the heart of Integral Theory and a core principle in Selfistry.

The theory — and practice — claim that seemingly opposing perspectives can co-exist in a generative way. In fact, learning how to inhabit the polarities that we grapple with in every aspect of our lives, some would argue, just might be the key to ensuring our species survival.

In the room that day, by pure grace, I embodied this supposition. I no longer solely understood polarity mapping as a logical and beautiful theory. I knew it as a landscape in my bones.

Terry, wanting to anchor the transmission, asked me to repeat what I had said. The second time around did not bring the same energy as the initial outpouring. At that point, She was no longer speaking through me. Rather, I was recapitulating what She said. Nonetheless, the replay seemed to bring an added layer of sobriety and groundedness to the message.

One month later, Terry reached out, inviting me to teach with him at Esalen that summer. The woman he had been teaching with was needing to bow out, and Terry felt her obvious replacement was me. I was honored and touched.

Terry and I went on to teach a number of retreats at Esalen over the years and, in the course of our working together, became good friends. We were a dynamic and heartful teaching duo. Terry brought his piercing intellect and hearty sense of humor, and I brought an embodied somatic exploration of the profound teachings he was sharing.

All along, we were both advocating for the integration of personal spiritual development with practical action in the world.

In between our Esalen gigs, Terry and I would meet up for dinners or hikes, sharing our love of good food and wine and the natural beauty in the Bay Area. We’d talk about our relationships, our health, our families, and our work. Ours was truly a soulful — and integral — friendship.

At some point along the way, Esalen went through changes, Terry went on to write his final book, and I went on to birth Selfistry.

I often thanked Terry for seeing me that day in Boulder, and for calling me forth in a bigger way through his invitation to teach together. It was incredibly generous of him and I knew that. But he just shrugged it off. He claimed that he was equally enriched by the opportunity.

This attitude sums up Terry. He naturally did things for people. He called them forth in bigger ways and delighted in their blossoming.

He did this up until the day he died.

Terry’s dying …

During the seven months of living with a cancer diagnosis and prognosis, Terry decided to invite his students, community, colleagues, peers, friends, and family to join him in his dying process.

At first blush this might seem macabre. But this would be true only to a death-averse culture or a culture sorely out of touch with how to be with endings — a culture such as ours.

Terry capitalized on the virtual pathways of connection that the pandemic opened for us all and invited his peeps to a series of Zoom meetings. Hundreds of people from all over the world gathered to sit with him, a man whom they admired squarely facing his mortality.

Though initially he was hoping to live a few more years, treatments were not yielding promising results. By mid-September, Terry was slowly coming to terms with the likely outcome, even as he held out for a miracle.

When my husband and I visited him at his home in August, he was getting his affairs in order. He was his usual jovial and intelligent self,  but there was a fatigue in his manners that relayed an underlying struggle to remain comfortably embodied. He said that, though he was sad to leave this world, he was genuinely open to and curious about the next adventure.

Terry was so acutely in tune with the global existential crisis — always leaning into facing the possible end of our species — that his own crisis felt poignantly parallel. He spoke eloquently about how the starkness of this parallel did not escape him and accepted his final assignment to be underscoring this realization.

Life is love, he would say. And so is death. The real self never dies. What dies is impermanent. What dies is meant to die. It is the natural order of things. When we accept this — nay, celebrate, honor, ritualize this — then we can truly live. Terry implored us to apply this approach to all of humanity and all life forms on the planet. Let us accept the inevitability of endings and meet them graciously.

The endings he referred to were not solely about dying people, but also things like our dependence on fossil fuels, our sick drive for wealth and fame and power, our habitual and systemic racism.

If we cannot manage to end our blind drive for these things and save our planet, he would say, then let us at least face squarely the dying of the plane. After all, if truly all things die, then the earth must one day die, too. Maybe it is her time.

Either we fight like hell to prevent this from happening or we lean into the inevitable and meet the dying process with a full gusto — just as Terry was living his personal death.

From Terry’s view, it was in facing squarely the dying process of our planet that we might find our way to living up to our human potential.  In those seven months, he was embodying this supposition. By facing squarely his own dying process, he really did come alive in exquisite ways.

Terry’s death …

Before Terry became a well known teacher in the Integral Community, he was a long time devotee of Adi Da Samraj. Adi Da, born Franklin Albert Jones, was an American spiritual teacher, writer, and artist. His philosophy was essentially similar to many eastern religions that see spiritual enlightenment as the ultimate priority of a human life.

Like me, Terry devoted much of his early life to seeking enlightenment through radical spiritual practice, honing his instrument to tap into the vast emptiness I spoke from that day in the living room where we first met. Terry and I both knew that place well. Not just as a concept, but  in our human cells and the bones of our souls. Adi Da often spoke from that place as he guided his devotees to surrender to That. He admonished them to not get overwhelmed by the human experience, as it was That which was absolutely true, eternal, and free. The world of forms, on the other hand, was impermanent and laden with suffering.

As Terry came closer to death, he stepped back from Zoom gatherings and turned towards his beloved guru to anchor himself in heading towards That. As his body was coming to the end of its journey here on earth, he was determined to not let his ethereal body linger. He wanted to make a clean passage to the other side.

Just as Terry saw me that day in Boulder standing in an embodied knowing of spacious emptiness, I witnessed Terry holding fast to this place of formlessness and the absolute beauty, perfection, and safety of going there … while also grieving the end of his very personal and beautiful life.

To witness Terry’s dénouement was heartbreaking in the best of ways.

I loved that Terry was showing up for death with the same wonder and fierceness with which he showed up for life. But more, I loved that he did not do so in the privacy of his home. He let us all bear witness, and thus gifted us with the opportunity to deepen our own connection to That. To remember that we will all take the journey he was taking, and that how we make the crossing matters.

Terry’s crossing …

On Halloween, my husband and I drove to Terry’s home … this time to sit vigil with him. This time, as a corpse. He was wrapped in a prayer shawl, adorned with flowers, lying before a magnificently large photo of Adi Da. The room was silent and the energy clear. The whole scene felt spacious. Settled. Embracing.

Eight wooden chairs circled Terry, and there were two people sitting in meditation when we entered.

Everyone who chose to sit vigil with Terry was given clear instructions about protocol and what he wanted prior to arrival. Our job was to be in the vastness with him, so that he could let go into That and find his way out of this world and into the next.

To grieve was discouraged because, in Adi Da’s teaching, it was believed that this would tug at Terry’s etheric body and prevent him from finding his way. Thus, now that he was no longer alive, our job was to help him cross over, not to pull him back.

I sat for a while immersed in the vastness. Content. At ease. Joyful.

Then, for no particular reason, I opened my eyes and turned to look at Terry’s face.

Suddenly I felt the urge to get up and dance. 

I restrained myself from breaking protocol and instead stared at Terry’s profile, struck by the prominent nose on his beatific face. That nose is a marker of our people, I thought to myself. Forget the Hindu guru shtick, I whispered silently to his dead body, you have the soul of a Rabbi.

I couldn’t stifle a chuckle, but turned it quickly into a cough to cover my offence of protocol.

Terry and I had a number of conversations about our Jewishness. He acknowledged feeling a strong connection to his Jewish lineage but, like me, he went East for salvation. We agreed that the vastness our Eastern forays took us to was likely available within Judaism, but was buried too deep by the time we went there looking.

Yet …

Now sitting with him dead, I felt a sense of loss. For both of us.

I felt Terry smiling at me, some part of him tickling my urge to get up and dance. I felt he could sense that I longed not only to dance but to weep, to follow every urge to celebrate him … to allow myself to feel the deep sense of loss that was ignited through his dying.

I felt as if our Jewish grandmothers were whispering to one another — and shouting to us — “Oy! This is a shanda! What’s with this guru business? You need to sit shiva. You need to eat and cry, to share stories. And then eat some more. This is the way to shepherd him into the next world. Not this quiet and empty house.”

I turned towards our imaginal grandmothers and said to them …

Actually, with all due respect, I believe that both are wanted. The opening to the infinite — and the grieving of the finite.

This realization broke my heart open … and brought us full circle to where we met in the living room. I felt in the depth of my bones how these are more of those holy polarities:  the emptiness and the form, the silent vigil and the cathartic release.

Possibly even the most holy.

After all …

Are we not divine and mortal? Transcendent and immanent? Holy and profane?

What would happen if, instead of polarizing these apparent opposites, we chose to integrate them, embody them, inhabit them, include them in all the ways we are human?

If we were to do so, we just might …

Hold the space of emptiness as important to Terry’s crossing … worthy of our attention and enactment of ritual and ceremony as a deep cultivation of that mysterious doorway. But not at the exclusion of sitting Shiva, or some form of it, also enacting ritual and ceremony for the living to boldly and boisterously honor death — to eat and laugh and cry together in a way that does not seek to erase or bypass the fact that endings happen.

Regarding those veils, which supposedly thin around Samhein, Halloween, The Day of the Dead …

I suggest …

It’s when we turn away from death that we experience a distance from the realms beyond death. It’s not the veils between our living and dying that are thin. It’s we who are thick — thick with fear, avoidance, and denial of our mortality.

Some would say that this resistance is built into our physiology — we focus on life because we are bred to survive.

This is partially true.

However, we’re also born with the inevitably of our ending. Death feeds life just as much as life feeds death. There is no veil that separates them or stands between them. They are the warp and weave of one single tapestry.

We have holidays like Dia de los Muertos and Samhain (and their distorted offspring, Halloween) as times to commemorate and remember that there is actually no separation. It’s not that the veils are thinner at those times, it’s that we are being called to remember the connection, to pause … and to not turn away from the living or the dying.

Death is right here.


The more we turn towards it, the more we live.

Thank you, Terry, for reminding us of this. I love you.

I will always remember you.

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