I just learned about the Mosuo people of southwest China. They live close to the Tibetan border high up in the Himalayas and are considered to be a matrilineal society. While some accounts say that political power rests in the hands of men, women rule in all other areas—including the bedroom. It turns out that in Mosuo culture there are no “conventional” partnerships. Sexual relations are kept completely separate from family matters and only unfold in the secret silence of the night. If a woman wishes to be with a man, she invites him to her “flower room”. Depending on her desire, he either stays the night or sleeps nearby, but every rendezvous ends at sunrise. Even if couples reunite the very next evening, they part as if for good each morning. In this way, the relationships live and breathe in the present moment. Lovers never live together or share property, and the messy politics of a shared household, childrearing, work, and everything else stay out of the sacred sphere of their loving.
But that's not all: Mosuo women are permitted to have as many lovers as they like. Most of the time, though—from what my limited research has revealed—they tend to keep the same partner for many years, perhaps even for an entire lifetime. Although complete promiscuity is permitted, women often choose one man to go deep with in the moonlight hours. I find this beautiful.
Here in the West, many people have trouble relaxing into committed relationships. Affairs are increasingly common and some folks avoid commitment altogether, lured by the prospect of other fish in the sea. But perhaps that would change if more of us loved each other fiercely and fully in the moment, aware that our time together is truly precious. Perhaps we would love without limits—not just in our intimate relations, but in all our relations. After all, awareness of impermanence often brings a razor sharp poignancy to everything and makes it much harder to take each other for granted or love in a half-ass way. Personally, if I knew I only had one night to be with someone I loved... well, I wouldn’t mess around. I would open my heart as wide as possible and hold nothing back.
Unfortunately, sometimes I do hold back... not just in my relationships, but in life. Reflecting on the Mosuo has made me think a whole lot about this. I don’t ever want to take my life for granted; I really don’t. It’s so easy to get amnesia about this rare and blessed incarnation, which is why the Buddhist teachings speak so much about “precious human birth”. When we remember that our lives come with an unknown expiration date, we invite the beloved to our flower room right away!
Last November I was in Michigan on a three-day retreat with my teacher Amma. It was just after Thanksgiving and my album was due to arrive from the printer ten days later. To put it lightly, I was completely freaked out. I had never released something so personal into the world, and the thought of sharing my voice in such a vulnerable way made me want to hide under a banana leaf on a remote island or curl up in the fetal position for many hours.
While rationally I knew that there was absolutely nothing to fear, the idea of people seeing and hearing my raw heart made me tremble. For most of my life (well, teenage-hood on), I was absolutely terrified to reveal my authentic self. Actually, I had no clue who my authentic self was because I always tried to smother her with spiritual platitudes. As you might imagine, that approach didn’t work very well, though it was a great formula for a miserable existence.
Anyway, as soon as I arrived at the retreat, a tidal wave of worry swept over me. Every time I went for darshan (a blessing, which Amma gives in the form of a hug), tears soaked my face. I just wanted the fear to go away so I could move on with my life, but it felt like this insurmountable emotion that was very, very old.... like lifetimes old, if you believe in that sort of thing. Basically, for a woman who spent nearly two decades trying to hide, making an album was absurdly out of character. That’s what I loved about it, and that’s what made me cringe.
In my terror I started to concoct all sorts of horror stories about what might happen, like getting arrested by the rishi police for pronouncing Vedic chants incorrectly. Exasperated, I shared all of this with a friend. He touched my arm and said, “Carrie, have you thought about therapy?” Um, yes—I had thought about it, but I really wasn’t in the mood. After so many years of analyzing myself to shreds, I wanted to try a different approach: surrender. Without thinking, I began to repeat the same prayer over and over: “God, you crazy mystery, please take my fears away. Please, take them away!” Somehow I forgot that sincere prayers are often answered... just not always the way I expect.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the gynecologist said as she scribbled a prescription for a breast sonogram. It was three days after the retreat and I was at the doctor for my annual exam. “I’d rather you get things checked just to be sure, that’s all.”
Let me say, when the gynecologist feels a lump in your breast, it’s not a particularly happy occasion. I walked out of the office with my heart racing and ran to the Indian restaurant where my dear friend and I had planned to meet after my appointment. As things go in this strange universe, it happened to be the anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis, which she found out about three years before, at age 29. Obviously I wondered if that meant something, but tried my best not to indulge in nightmares. Instead, I mushed some saag paneer around with a fork and took two bites of rice. Then, I walked over to Chelsea Market in the freezing cold and called the radiology office while resting my elbows on a huge wheel of cheese. Miraculously, they agreed to squeeze me in the next day.
The sky was pewter when I got out of the subway and walked two blocks to the doctor’s office. Once there, I waited for an hour, then had an ultrasound. “Well,” the radiologist said, “I’m almost sure everything is fine, but I’d like to get a better look.” I suddenly felt ill. “I’d like you to have an MRI.”
That was it; every ounce of composure I ever had vanished. “An MRI?” I sobbed as she handed me a box of tissues. “I’m scared to go in that machine!” Yes, my three year-old was alive and well. For some unknown reason, I had always been petrified of MRIs; in fact, the thought of going into one of those high-tech contraptions scared me like nothing else. But what choice did I have?
For 45 minutes I tried to utilize every relaxation technique I knew, but that stressed me out more because I couldn’t decide which one to use. Finally I stopped trying so hard and started chanting a mantra with great intensity. At that point only one thing comforted me: After the magnetic resonance ride was over, I wouldn’t have to go on one again, at least not anytime soon.
Ah, life. Later that day I got the results. “Something actually showed up that we’d like to biopsy, so please schedule another MRI.”
Everything started to look fuzzy. I didn’t know what was happening, but the most intense, primal fear I had ever felt rose up from the depths of my unconscious and swallowed me in one gulp. This went on for four days, during which time I watched almost every satsang on YouTube and stared at the wall. No matter how hard I tried to rest in the present moment, I simply couldn’t do it for longer than five minutes. Honestly, I felt like such a failure—like all of my spiritual training had resulted in nothing. The darkest parts of my mind began to surface and grief choked my heart. I was scared about my health, yes, but even more than that, I was scared about my life.
There’s no question—brushing up against the reality of one’s own death tends to put things into perspective. Why was I so freaked out about releasing an album? So what if I never studied music, sang in front of people, learned how to write a chord chart, or set up a PA system? What did that have to do with anything? Suddenly all that mattered was the sad realization that I had spent years limiting my light in order to make other people comfortable. Why? Why did I settle for a small and suffocating life when I could fly? Why did I push love away? It made no sense.
When the call came, I was looking out the window at a bare tree branch. “You’re okay,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” My mother cried. I crouched down on the kitchen floor and breathed into my broken heart. Glancing around the room, everything looked different: the light, my hands, even the oven. At that moment I knew it was time to follow Rumi’s instruction and “sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
Two days later my CDs arrived—all 1000 of them. The spines were printed upside down, but it really didn’t matter. I spread a bunch of them out on the living room rug with some mailing labels and looked at the woman on the cover. She was a beautiful mystery, unknown even to herself. Like the light of the moon, her music did not belong to her; it reflected something beyond form that she could never name.
The late Indian master Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.” Does a truer, more beautiful sentence exist? Time and again, the mind gorges itself with fears and the heart responds, “It’s okay, darling. There’s another way.” That way, I’m learning, is love—the willingness to be fully myself and to hold nothing back while I’m here in this holy flower room.
Beloved blog reader, I ask you this: If life was your lover and you only had one night with him (or her), what would you do?
Let’s all contemplate that question and love this world awake.