Twenty twenty-three

By: Jack Sellwood
Posted: January 10, 2024

The new year opened with the passing of grandpa tom. The week of the funeral my mom left Minnesota for Colorado on a grand new adventure middle life crisis of self discovery. She left behind the place where her parents grew up, where they raised her, and where she raised me. My sister followed her to Colorado a few months later, and my brother preempted both of them moving to Fort Collins several months earlier. I blinked and half my family lived in a different, brand new state—faraway from home.

I didn’t know at the start of the year that my house in Omaha would become a transit stop hosting each traveler as they embarked on their journey. Omaha is situated almost exactly in the middle between Minnesota and Colorado—perfect for a midway overnight. These overnights sparkled throughout the year and broke up the monotony of each season. I’ve lived in Omaha almost five years but family hasn’t visited very much or met my new friends. Getting to show them my little world in Omaha made me feel seen. Making a new place feel like home, both literally where you’re living and out there in the world, is an achievement. And often the way we do it is modeled after how our parents did it for us. We want them to know we did a good job like they taught us to.

I’ve always dreamt of consistent, intimate, giggling friendships that endure. Watching my new chosen family here in Omaha flourish into community is a childhood dream, insecurity fulfilled. The group I’ve joined created been apart of contributed to in Omaha is like that. It’s Theseus’ ship—slowly replaced over time but never fully losing its identity. This churn is a balanced mix of tried and true longterm love mixed with new and exciting people. Omaha is a weird place because young people, peers, don’t often linger. And even amongst the ones who do, we all still dream of moving east, moving west, or packing up and starting a commune in rural Scandinavia. But for now, we’re here. Omaha’s a wayward sort of place. When you’re here life slows and you can stretch out and touch the fucking goddamn grass. Maybe talk to another human for a while.

In this way, Omaha is a liminal space. Liminal spaces are impromptu waiting rooms, lobbies, free space that can be coaxed into most gracious hosts. The accessibility and appearance of indifference, ease, lack of formality invites people to open up. You get stuck talking, repositioning, and talking more in an almost trance. The space has nothing else to do and ambivalently agrees to host your popup conviviality.

Being here is a startling respite to the black and white polarizing world of today. It feels like a utopia where “let’s do lunch” really means it and yet you’re never quite lulled into a desperate sense of complacency. Nebraska’s population passed one million in 1890 and has never made it past two million. Always growing but never changing.

When I moved to Omaha, my yoga and meditation practice suffered. I missed my home studio, One Yoga in Minneapolis. Shortly after arriving in Omaha (and before moving to LA), Covid upended most yoga studio schedules. I more or less maintained a jimmy rigged ashtanga yoga practice at home, but my heart yearned for a regular practice. Last summer, I finally gingerly stepped out to begin practicing at a studio once again. I’ve made my home at Pranam and found a lovely little community.

My practice started in 2016 and over the years I’ve gotten pretty close with myself and healed, grieved a lot of my shameful ugly parts. But I could sense I was approaching something new, something untouched that sat way at the back and enjoyed not being noticed—benefited from my awareness always being pulled to other more distracting things. I began to call this barely formed sense “my most core injury”. This, I believed, was the foundation on top of which many of my emotions, opinions, beliefs were constructed. As I addressed more and more of these, I approached the black hole of the galaxy that is my soul. Or as I learned during meditation, my null.

For me, the null is a cosmic exchanger of suffering, joy, creation, destruction from which change and energy flow from and return to. This year was largely a personal journey of discovering, getting to know, and integrating the null. When you invent concepts like this, it makes it easier to explain what you’re going through—both to ourselves and the world. In fact, what we’re really doing is creating a personal system of metaphysics to explain the world. If we let this process unfold eventually these form a sort of starnav helping us navigate ourselves and the world.

When Tom died, the null reached up and out all the way from the depths and touched me in a way that sent me out on a quest to understand it. I had met the null throughout life but never got to know it. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a friend worth getting to know.

Grief was my first hint the null was even there. I recall feeling grief when pets died or friends moved on, but I didn’t have framing for the resultant pain, space that’s created from loss. Throughout the year, grief became my most poignant teacher. It showed me beauty. This burgeoning perspective and softening was completely novel. For the first time in my life, a version of myself not driven by my analytical mind flourished. Even better, my practice had deepened enough to minimize my analytical mind from getting in the way.

After discovering the taxing ambiguous nature of grief, I began to decode beauty. I began to notice that as soon as I felt beauty I was also simultaneously experiencing grief. Beauty arises out of specific, almost unexpected conditions that compose into a scene that moves us. It’s the experience of “moves us” that we feel beauty. I began to learn these scenes could be as simple as the sun hitting a tree just right, a favorite house down the block, or a gathering space that feels special. We develop a love for things. The conditions of these scenes are fragile though. The sun moves, we keep driving, and relationships change. Beauty is temporary, fleeting, impermanent. And this fact was so sobering. All the beauty that has come into my perception has already begun to decay.

In order to handle this, we develop egos. They’re our abstraction layer on top of the raw world. They help us make sense of relationships, systems, norms, needs, and develop a sense of identity. This identity helps us separate me from the world and accordingly prioritize our own needs. This seems important during childhood development but usually is a runaway snowball that gets in the way from appreciating love and beauty. You can though, by choice, begin to explore subverting the ego and try reaching into the rawness of the world around you. You can see how difficult life is, how much we’re avoiding, how weird and unexplainable the world is.

I began to do this in earnest midway thru the year and my newly reignited practice supported me. I began to write more, soften more, walk more, and then suddenly one day I began to cry. I’ve cried a lot in life going all the way back to 2016 when my practice began, but this felt different. I didn’t need to seek the rawness of the world but I was. Put another way, I was choosing these tears. Crying particularly came to me on walks and on some of these walks I’d talk to myself as if I was writing poems to my subconscious. This practice came to me as a form of walking meditation mixed with stream of consciousness journaling.

On one walk in particular, I was investigating the feeling of coziness and why it was so paramount for me. Why I loved home cooked meals, long conversations with friends on the couch, and the soft mingle of jazz music in the background. This morphed into an internal dialog on the times I felt love, true comfort. This was after much thinking about grief, loss, and the null. And these two ideas merged, and in a flash I saw all the people, places, and memories I have ever and will ever love realizing I’ve already felt the grief of their loss. I’ve already observed losing them.

My ego held me back from realizing these facts. But in this moment I circumnavigated it to see the reality of this emptiness, and so, I wailed. While walking, I extended my arms around my torso, embraced myself in a hug and cried the hardest I’ve cried in my entire life. We go through so much of life seeking comfort from the craziness of the world. We develop patterns, routines, and relationships to suspend ourselves in comfort. But in this moment I saw the fragility and fleeting nature of all these systems. And I felt so alone and so temporary. I felt the future pain, grief of losing all these things all at once in the present moment. The fact that nothing is ever unchanging feels annihilating.

It was after this that I began to regularly experience beauty. I learned to notice the pang of grief. And if I felt this pang, I knew I was experiencing beauty. This helped me be present. It helped me switch off my ego and just be here now.

As I uncovered more and more about this, I began integrating an updated world view at a faster and faster pace. And eventually a little over midway through the year, I broke. Not rock bottom, not depression, not mania or malaise. Life was actually pretty agreeable. But an unshakeable bewilderment suddenly lived inside me. Cleansed of a lot of my conditioning, seeing the world was awestrucking and harrowing.

An image from Notion

This began what I now understand to be my first, of probably many, dark nights of the soul. This phrase has became watered down over the years to generically mean a difficult time in life. I think this dismisses the acute feeling, alienation on the path of the mystic. After touching, feeling, approximating god, we must live and reconcile ourselves with the cosmos. With the duality of the self and god laid bare, we must reconstruct comfort, meaning, and faith all over again.

This experience taught me the true test and purpose of faith. It has nothing to do with canon or dogma. Faith is personal perseverance when hope seems lost and despair dominant. I agonized over who I am, why I am, and how to be.

I had many sleepless nights, yearned for the primordial comfort of being held by a mother, countless cries, tears, and wails. Yoga which I had been practicing for years suddenly became a practice in finding all the ways moving my body would immediately move me to sobs. One class in particular, I cried so hard I had to admit to the teacher my snot had soaked into the yoga blanket I was using.

This period began very difficult. I hadn’t understood or seen people in my life go thru this—I had no framing for what was wrong with me. When a friend suggested a “dark night of the soul” I felt seen and this camaraderie brought me brief solace.

There’s no easy way out of a dark night. You just have to wait for morning—for the sun to rise. Developing an ecology of practices to sustain your inner quest is your only lifeline. Once you take the mask off, reconciling what you can now see is incredibly daunting. Having the world as you knew it flame out is a queer feeling. It’s hard to describe. The world becomes surrealist. Where do I end? Where does the world begin? Why any of this?

As a wayward portal, Omaha supported me through my dark night. There’s something about the malleability of life here, the ease, that isn’t too deafening nor isolating. Just right to lull you into a state of peaceful investigation. While in my dark night, I shared what I was experiencing with a few friends, and they were so supportive and lended a generous ear to my grief. Without them, without here this liminal space, I don’t think I would have encountered a dark night let alone navigated it.

I’ve resolved my dark night now, and life is remarkably very similar to the way it was before. I expected the world to transform with all this spiritual, metaphysical work. And it certainly has, but not in the cosmically mind blowing euphoric way that pop culture depicts it. As you start to see the world more clearly, less interrupted by your conditioning, it becomes less interesting to escape into vaulted states. The here and now is remarkable. The way the sun hits the tree, the way the birds chirping add a soundscape to life, the way laughter swaddles your ears, it’s all the bliss you need.