I think about my 99 year old grandmother who passed away a year and a half ago. She and I had a deep love for each other and would always joke that we were kindred spirits. I could see the spirit that was beyond her eyes- ageless and genderless. (If anything, inside she was an 11 boy considering the practical jokes she played!) I imagined the grief would overcome me and be endless and that was not the case. When she passed away, I kept reading Rumi’s poem The Guesthouse visualizing grief as a visitor knocking at the door. This guest would knock randomly and unexpectedly too, as grief often comes in waves. I could choose to avoid my guest but he would just knock louder until I would let him in. So I welcomed him and surrendered fully to the experience of grief. Through that experience, I awakened to the truth that pure love exists beyond time and space and that my grandmother now actually lived within me. Little things that I noticed that she would do, I caught myself doing, like making up songs to sing and bringing humor more fully into life…the best parts of her were within me. When I really grasped that not only in my head but in my heart, the grief disappeared. She’s as close to me as my own beating heart. So if this is a time of grief for you on any level, how can you allow yourself to let go into the grief and trust the process of healing? Perhaps its giving yourself 30 minutes or an hour per day to really be present to the grief. What qualities of your loved one can you now see in yourself? How can you channel that grief energy into a way to honor their life?
I pose that radical question to you. Meditators often see the spiritual awakening that is, in essence, the inevitable outcome of a long-term practice of meditation as the “death of the self” or the “death of the ego.” Like a caterpillar that must die before becoming a butterfly, the “ego self” of human beings must die in order to become “awakened” or “enlightened.” This process is often experienced as an unraveling of the self or a total surrender into the vast unknown.
I worked with a client deep in the throws of grief weeks after the death of her spouse; she had two small children and was working full-time to put food on the table. She wanted to learn how to meditate in the midst of her crisis. I introduced her to an exercise entailing observing her thoughts. She stated that her perpetual thought at the time was, “I want to kill myself.” For purposes of the exercise in observing her mind, I enabled her to see that the thought “I want to kill myself” (although capable of triggering the emotions of despair) was a thought just as much as “what will I have for dinner.” (It is important to note that every therapist must always take appropriate measures to keep clients safe in situations where there is a threat of harm to one’s physical self or others and to take necessary actions to ensure safety, as I did with this client).
Yet, “I want to kill myself,” is felt and often said by individuals who feel at the end of their rope, desperate, alone, cannot go a step further on this path or in this life or with the experience of certain emotions. Further, there is an experience of being “done” with the self or this life following a willingness to surrender to the vast unknown. Looking still deeper, we remember the words of various meditation gurus/teachers who have embarked on the journey of regular meditation as a result of feeling that they could not continue on the path they were on and were willing to seek an answer to the age old question, “Is there more to life than just this?” Many of the well-known enlightened gurus/teachers we read about share a similar story of hitting a wall of despair — becoming so disenchanted with their shallow existence, not knowing which door to open or knock on (or even knowing that there was a door on which to knock). Then, on the other side of that despair, a rebirth or spiritual awakening arises.
So, as it is in nature, death gives birth to something new. Perhaps it’s awakening to — or awareness of — the preciousness or true value of life in the midst of a loved one’s death. Maybe it’s the desire to kill off old patterns or ways of one’s self that are no longer working to then provide for the awakening to our most authentic selves. Perhaps it’s the shedding of relationships or friendships that no longer serve us in order to make way for new, vibrant and healthier connections with others. So, is there a part of yourself or your life that you want or need to “kill off” in order to reach your full potential as a human being? Perhaps we can invite this concept of “death of ego self” (as opposed to physical death) into our lives as a pathway to creating new beginnings in our life and doorways to a richer and more fulfilling life.
(Disclosure: The information and thoughts provided in the above article are not, in any way, to be construed as either encouragement or permission to do bodily harm of any kind to one’s self or to others. If anyone reading this article has such an urge or intent, it is imperative that he or she call 911 Emergency or 211 Mobile Crisis Hotline without delay. Short or long term psychotherapy sessions can also be a resource for individuals experiencing disturbing thought or emotions).
My husband had a business trip in Florida this past week and I decided to pack up my 18 month old son and myself and tag along for some sun and warm weather. I am so glad I did as it was just what we all needed as we eagerly await the real arrival of spring. Traveling back home is never as much fun as traveling to wherever you are going. We got up at 4:30am to pack up and head to the airport for our 7am flight. While my husband and I could rationalize and understand and drink coffee to cope with the feeling of being ripped from our beds and our vacation at an ungodly hour, our 18 month old couldn’t do any of those things. For the most part he was a dream and the whole travel experience seemed to be more exciting than anything else for him. But there were moments when I could see in his eyes and hear in his consistent repetition of saying “mama” over and over that he was cooked and needed to be back home surrounded by familiarity and structure.
Our flight was full of families as Florida is such a wonderful and convenient trip from the northeast. The flight was rather turbulent and I think we were all relieved to touch down at JFK and have our feet on the ground again. In making our way through the airport out to our car with all of our bags, tired, hungry, and missing the sun and palm trees, I noticed another family that had been on our flight with two kids a bit older than mine. The little girl who was probably around 5 was crying loudly, hysterically, dramatically, and without ceasing. I saw the look on her parents’ faces, they had another little boy in tow younger than she was, bags hanging from each shoulder, a look of sheer exhaustion on their faces that I am sure mirrored ours. And then the father stopped them, looked his daughter in the face, and screamed loudly “stop crying, stop crying, STOP CRYING!” Which in turn, and without surprise, made her cry even harder, to which he rolled his eyes and they continued making their way through the airport. For a moment I could relate to every single member of that family. I could relate to the little girl that was crying, tired from traveling, probably hungry, sick of walking and carrying her small backpack full of treasures. I could relate to the mother carrying the little boy, her arms aching from the weight of everything she had been lugging around since before dawn that morning. And I could relate to the father screaming at his daughter, desperate for some quiet, to be done traveling, and to have the crying JUST STOP.
Being a parent takes more self restraint than any job I have ever had. It pushes me through a maze of emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. In the midst of the most ethereal joy I have ever known there are also moments of complete frustration where I question myself and life and everything in between. As a therapist and a person who has overcome my own personal battles throughout life I am keenly aware of the toll that emotional neglect has on a person’s life and psyche. I am more aware of this in the moments where my son is literally hanging from my leg as I try to make dinner, go to the bathroom, or fold laundry, than I am of my frustration. There are far too many people in this world who were told at a small and most impressionable age to “stop crying”, sending the message that feelings are not ok unless they are acceptable and comfortable. So they learn to stuff their sadness, their disappointment, their hurt, their anger, and their fear. They stuff it and it festers and grows and becomes a lump that never goes away. It manifests as headaches, stomachaches, dry skin, insomnia, depression, anxiety, insecurity. How is one supposed to shut off the negative feelings that are a part of being human? The only way to do it is to also shut off the positive ones. So people numb. They numb instead of communicating, instead of feeling, instead of embracing the dark along with the light. They end up living half a life.
But there is another option, especially as parents. We can teach our children it is ok to have all of their feelings. That doesn’t mean giving them exactly what they want when they cry, it doesn’t mean catering to their every disappointment and whimper to ease their discomfort. It means sitting with them in their discomfort and allowing them to feel their feelings. It means normalizing their experience and teaching them that it is ok to cry. This is true and equally as important in adulthood as it is in childhood. We must give one another permission and space to feel, even when it is uncomfortable.
My toddler has temper tantrums, just like any other, and what I always choose to do is to sit with him in it, wait it out, and make sure he hears me calmly say I am here and ready to comfort him when he wants it. Eventually he stops crying and crawls into my lap, exhausted from the surge of feelings he has just experienced and knowing he is not alone. It’s what we all need sometimes. In the darkness when the world feels cold and lonely, we need to know we aren’t alone and our feelings are our road back to the light.