Sangha Spotlight: Caroline Cavelti
AN INTERVIEW WITH CLEAR LIGHT SANGHA MEMBER CAROLINE CAVELTI OF TORONTO, CANADA
Clear Light Sangha: “Caroline, let’s start from the beginning… Would you tell me about your early life, the basic set-up please?”
Caroline Cavelti: “Ah, my life story, from the beginning. Looking back, it seems like another life. I was born in Toronto, to Ukrainian immigrant parents. They grew up very poor and they viewed Canada as a land of opportunity. It was very important to them that my younger brother and I succeed. The overt message was ‘you need to succeed, you need to get good grades, you have to do better than we did.’ The underlying message, which looking back probably stemmed from the culture and their families, was ‘the world is a dangerous place and you’ve got to look out for yourself and your family.’ I don’t think they voiced it much, but that was the message. Even though I was a happy child, my behavior and underlying view of myself and the world was colored by these beliefs.”
“I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in what seemed like much simpler times. When I was about nine, my parents bought our first television, a black and white one. I was overjoyed whenever I was allowed to see a show. Phones were rotary dial and only used for important things. If I had to get from one place to another, I walked or took the streetcar which stopped outside the door of where we lived. We had a dry-cleaning business and we lived upstairs. So, from the time I was eight or nine I was helping in the store. Saturdays were my work days. We all had to contribute. That was a really good thing.”
CLS: “Was there extended family involved in your life?”
CC: “Not really. My maternal grandparents lived in Toronto but I didn’t see them that frequently. Probably once a month. My father came from a farming family in Ukraine with 14 children. Four of them emigrated to Toronto. So, on weekends we visited with my cousins and aunts and uncles. But the closest relationship was with my parents and my kid brother.”
“Also, I just never questioned that life could be any different. We didn’t have any religious affiliation. We didn’t go to church. The first time I went to church, I’d say I was about 10. And that was because a good friend of mine went to Sunday School and she said that it was really a lot of fun and did I want to go with her? It was at the United Church and I thought this was the greatest thing. After a month or so, I convinced my parents to come to the church services. They enjoyed it and agreed it was good to get out and meet some people. So we started doing that as a family. Then I told them I really wanted to be christened because all my friends were christened. They said fine. And so, my brother and I got christened. I think I must’ve been 11 and he was six years younger than me.”
CLS: “It sounds like you were a really motivating or a moving force in your family!”
CC: “Yes, it sounds like that. I don’t think my parents had any plan on how to raise kids. They had no idea. I can’t remember having a bedtime or any kind of structure. Because of that, I became fairly independent. Since my parent’s English was not that good, they had me make appointments for them. I was like their little secretary. I guess I became pretty efficient at a very young age. My mother hated to cook so I helped with the cooking and often took over. I loved that and still do. I really enjoy creating beautiful meals for family and friends. That’s part of my giving.”
CLS: “It just sounds harmonious.”
CC: “You know, at the time it seemed harmonious. However, when you’re an adult and you look back you see that things were not as rosy as they seemed.”
CLS: “Did you feel safe?”
CC: “I felt very safe with my father. I adored him. My mother, was a different story. She suffered from depression. Low self esteem, unexpressed anger, passive aggressive behavior, that kind of thing. But none of that was talked about, you know. We only talked about ‘good things’ and we avoided anything that was unpleasant. You can guess where I’m going with this. Once my spiritual unfolding began, all that was suppressed came up and overwhelmed me at times.”
CLS: “It sounds like by virtue of them being immigrants, they had a huge trust in that; you work, you go to school and everything will work out.”
CC: ”Right. Exactly! All of it was Life setting me up for what was to unfold next.”
“At 17 I met a young man who was to become my husband. We got married at 21 which was really very young. To me, it was like a fairy tale ‘and now I would live happily ever after.’ My husband was accepted at the University of Detroit Dental School. So, we moved to Windsor. At that point I taught grade school to help put him through dental school. And at the same time, I was also completing my degree, part time at the University of Windsor. Within a few years I knew that the relationship was a disaster but by then, we had two daughters. So I was determined to make it work. But it was a really bad scene. There were regular periods of psychological abuse. Times I played the role of victim. I began to believe that I actually was the cause of his behavior. If only I could be a better wife, a better mother, a better everything…After fifteen years of this, I finally said ‘I can’t do his anymore. I will never be a victim again. And that’s it.’ I took my children and left.”
CLS: “Can you say anything about what was happening in you that created you to do that… In that time, I guess you grew a lot?”
CC: “I grew a lot, yeah. it’s difficult to explain the ‘why’ of that phase of my life story.”
“Looking back, I see how this was so beautifully orchestrated. Growing up with these parents who created a belief in me that ‘You do this and this and this… and life will be perfect.’ But I learned the hard way that this wasn’t true. And now, I found myself alone, with two kids, no money and was terrified.”
CLS: “Where did you go?”
CC: “First we went to stay with my parents and then I went to a good lawyer. To make a long story short, because I had the children I eventually got to go back to the house and he was required to move out. As is the case with these things it gets very complicated. But, where I’m going with that - because this is very crucial to my unfolding - this was a real growing up thing. I knew what was happening, there was an awareness through that whole relationship about what was happening. But it was such a cycle that it was difficult to break out of. But when that whole play came to an end, and I said ‘I will never be a victim again!’ that was gone. It was completely gone.”
“There was no spiritual explanation around that. Because there was no spiritual language. I didn’t even feel like a spiritual being. I was just trying to survive and have a good life and look out for my children. I have to say that even though I was terrified to be on my own and my whole life as I had dreamed it had come to an end, I had never felt so free. This was a freedom I had never experienced. There was an expansiveness of the heart and a great gratitude. It’s amazing, even though it was really difficult for me - the whole divorce thing was really difficult, there were some nasty, nasty things going on – I believe that this was probably one of the biggest life lessons I’ve ever had. At that point, I vowed that I would never get married again (ha ha!)."
"And then a year later I met Peter. He had just left a trust company of which he was a partner. The company had been taken over by a large insurance company and he walked away with the money management division. With that, he started a small financial company with one employee - him. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come and work with me and help grow this company?’"
CLS: “About how old were you now?”
CC: “I was 36. After a couple of months, I told him after what I’d gone through, I was never getting married again and he said, ‘That’s fine.’ However, how often is the case, my view changed and we got married two years later. With Peter it was the kind of relationship I’d never known before. He accepted me for whoever I was, whatever I was, and loved me for that. And that was a real eye-opener. Knowing I was loved for my essence and not for what I could accomplish, allowed me freedom to explore who I really was. And like a caged bird who has been set free, I yearned for adventure, for experiences I’d only dreamed about. So here I was 36 years old, with two children and I want to experience everything. I wanted to explore remote places, be with the people who lived there, learn from them. Somehow, despite the job, kids, responsibilities, it all came to pass. For five weeks in the early 1990’s we trekked to the Himalayas, to the remote Kingdom of Mustang. I think we covered about 350 miles. It was quite an adventure! It was here that I experienced the early Bon tradition (a precursor to Buddhism) being lived in everyday life.”
“We explored beautiful Tibetan monasteries that were in disrepair. This was not a tourist place at all. In fact, we were the second group of about ten Westerners that were allowed to enter that kingdom since the early 1950’s. Walking day after day, mile after mile, in this vastness, this high-altitude desert where there was no white noise and all you could hear was the swoosh of eagle wings in the sky and your own steps, opened something in me that only years later came back to claim me.”
“That happened when both my daughters were in college and out of the blue, one day I was overcome with at deep, deep longing to be quiet. ‘To be quiet’ were the words I put to the feeling. It was overwhelming, this longing. At the time I thought, ‘Well, you know, this must be some sort of spiritual thing so I should probably learn how to meditate so I can be quiet.’ Because I’m a good student I wanted to learn how to meditate so I went and asked a friend who had studied Tibetan Buddhism, ‘How do you meditate?’ He gave me the Meditation 101 in a few short steps. Of course, as we all know, when you first start meditating the mind isn’t quiet. I was horrified at how noisy it was and it became even noisier. Ha ha! I was persistent, I kept doing it. And getting into that whole search rather than just being still and quiet which was the message that I kept getting. And it was a clear message. However, I wanted to know ‘How do I be still and quiet and what do I have to do?’ and so I started the doing thing. And the search started.”
CLS: “What did that look like, what were you doing? Did you go to retreats? Or...?”
CC: “You know, I’ve been so blessed by grace. In difficult times, with hard grace. And in happy times and in between, grace has always been there. My source of teachers was this wonderful lady called Cheryl who lives in Aspen. Peter and I have been living there part-time for over twenty years. For several years she invited spiritual teachers to give Satsang at her home. The first teacher I sat with was Neelam; she had been asked to teach by Papaji. Then it was Pamela Wilson, who in my opinion, is the embodiment of love. I was with Pamela for about five years. At one point, Pamela suggested I might want to sit with Adyashanti. I had no idea who Adyashanti was, but nevertheless, went to his retreat at Asilomar. From the first moment with him I thought, ‘This is it! This is it!’ It was quite profound. It was a deep knowing that this was what it was all about. I was hooked.”
CLS: “How did you meet Sharon?”
CC: “Through grace again. It seemed like each time I went to an Adya retreat, wherever it was, I kept running into this lovely Japanese lady. Of course, we were in silence and through silence we made a connection. One year we ran into each other at the airport. I found out she lived in Boulder and she was sponsoring a teacher called Sharon Landrith who, the following month, would be giving a weekend intensive in Boulder.”
“I think that was about 10 years ago. Meeting Sharon was love at first sight; the resonance, the teaching and the timing was perfect because, as you know, Sharon’s very open, warm and approachable. That first meeting was about a year after the tragic death of my younger daughter. I was really struggling with faith, purpose, the whole existential enchilada. Sharon was instrumental in my healing process."
CLS: “Oh, my! How old was your daughter and what did she die of?”
CLS: “She was 32. She went to a clinic for a standard medical procedure. The doctors gave her general anaesthetic. When the operation was over, they left the room, didn’t monitor her vital signs and she went into shock and died. She was a single mom with a three-year-old boy. It was very tragic on many fronts. But that’s another story."
“That’s when everything blew open for me. All that was left was the primordial ground - a vastness, a love like no other. And in that, everything was experienced - the grief, the pain, the despair. Not only mine but that of all humanity. There was no Caroline character."
"Then, the Caroline character began to materialize. I just couldn’t accept that my daughter’s death brought about this Awakening that I had so longed for. That’s not how it should be! You know the stories you tell yourself.”
CLS: “Wow. And there was another huge grace for you. With the hard, very hard stuff. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my daughter.”
CC: “No one can imagine. It can only be felt.”
“After meeting Sharon, that’s when things started unfolding rapidly, integrating and stabilizing. You know, when you finally get it, it’s funny. You look back at the spiritual searching, reading books, absorbing spiritual jargon and how your mind gets caught. You hear words like ‘void’ and ‘emptiness’ and think, “Void! I’m terrified of the void, but to get to enlightenment, I have to throw myself into the void, whatever that means”. Sharon saw that I knew stillness, the ground of being. She wisely asked me, ‘What do you think the void is?’ And I said, ‘I imagine it’s like in the movie 2001, A Space Odessey; you’re thrown into space and you drift there for eternity.’ Imagine, I really said that! I remember the surprised look on her face as she said ‘Void is just a word used to describe what you are. That stillness that you are and that you, Caroline, know so well.' And I blurted out, ‘That’s it???’"
“You hear about experiences where people find themselves in the heavenly realms and blissed out. Then you think, ‘I want that’! And when you don’t have huge, blissed-out experiences, you believe nothing’s happening. Here, it’s been a slow, slow, unfolding… My daughter dies - everything is blown open - then the ego, the conditioning, the beliefs come back. I came to realize that bliss is just an experience. It’s not the real thing. What’s been with me all along is very still and quiet.”
CLS: “Now that you’re a teacher, how does Sharon function for you now?”
CC: “Teaching can be a challenge but what I find, and Sharon says this is what happened to her as well: when you step into the role of the teacher, you’re out there and you’re facing a lot of your own demons and other people’s demons as well. The unfolding seems to happen much more quickly. It’s amazing. It comes right back to you, you know. You’re giving, but it comes right back to you in a wonderful way.”
“Sharon and I have a really close friendship. So, I have a double grace, I have Sharon as my teacher and Sharon as one of my very best and dearest friends. She shares what’s going on with her and I share what’s going on with me. I feel blessed to be with her on this wondrous journey.”
CLS: “What can you say about Sharon to someone who’s new to her and her teaching?”
CC: “What Sharon offers is a personal aspect, an intimacy, an integrity. She’s totally dedicated to Truth. If someone is sincere and willing to look deeply, she will go all the way to support that. She’s totally dedicated to her own unfolding as well. Over the 10 years I’ve known Sharon, her teaching has become stronger and more powerful. When we as a Sangha, gather together in retreat, with that common intention, miracles can happen and have happened. What a precious offering.”
To learn more about Caroline and her offerings, please go to her website www.livingfromstillness.com