"By remaining motionless for some time and keeping the mind still while you are fully conscious, you learn to relax. This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both body and mind. But it is much harder to keep the mind than the body still. Therefore, this apparently easy posture in one of the most difficult to master." B.K.S. Iyengar.
I started this post about savasana to be a short newsletter. Quickly, though, I realized that there is so much to this pose than it appears and my "short newsletter" has become multiple blog posts. How? You may ask. How can a pose that is 'just laying there' require so many words and explanations?
There are a few reasons for this:
I'll explore all of these reasons in this series, but I'll start with one of the primary misconceptions:
It's actually called Corpse Pose
This one may not be a misconception, but a misnomer. Calling savasana a relaxation pose is accurate, but 'relaxation' is not the direct translation of the word savasana and as such, it doesn’t really capture it’s entire meaning.
I am guilty of side-stepping this actual translation and purposefully calling it "Relaxation Pose." I do this because I am sensitive to the fact that it might be a trigger for some people in the grief support group, especially without more context about the deeper meaning of the name.
As with other aspects of grief and emotional awareness, authenticity and calling something what it actually is can be helpful. So I explored it, which is how this post came to be.
I found what B.K.S. Iyengar says about savasana in Light on Pranayama to be enlightening:
“Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.”
"Ending the heart-aches and shocks the the flesh is heir to."
I know that for myself, I was always oddly perplexed that I was doing 'corpse pose' when death was so front and centre in my life. The way I reconciled the name corpse pose with practicing it after a death, is that it was a practice of complete and total surrender (surrender: to cease resistant to).
I found it easy to cease resistance to the fatigue I felt in my body and to slip into the stillness and silence of savasana. Mentally surrendering to the reality that grief eradicated my life as I knew it felt congruent because so many parts of me died when Cam died. The hard part was the SURGE of emotion that would spontaneously arise, making the supposed-surrender all the more complex and at times seemingly impossible. It did not feel like 'relaxation' as suggested by the Iyengar in the quote above.
He says, "remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to." Before you can end the heart-aches and shocks (maybe 'live-well-with' is a better word than end?) you must experience them in a way that integrates the heart-ache and shock reality into our life. Feel it to heal it.
When Iyengar says "ending" the heart-aches and shocks" I don't think he means permanently ending. We are human after all, and of course, heart-aches and shocks will happen throughout life whether we want them to or not. I think he means that in between the surges of thought and emotions there are moments of complete and total stillness that are void of thought, emotion and suffering. It is in these moments that you can truly relax.
The practice of savasana is to cultivate the ability to stay conscious of everything that is going on within you so that you can learn how to extend those spaces of stillness a little longer each time. Becoming still in the body and witnessing the impermanence and flow of thoughts and emotions is the doorway to conscious relaxation. More broadly, savasana teaches you how to manage life's ups and downs with less reactivity and more equanimity.
Another way to look at corpse pose is seeing it as the conscious awareness of death, and how parts of you and your life "die" everyday, especially after a major loss. Savasana, as a daily (or often) practice is quite literally, the practice of dying everyday; letting go of what we can let go of (like the constant and sometimes unhelpful chatter of the mind, for example) and appreciating some of the deeper chords that link us to life (awareness of the preciousness and fragility of life and relationships).
At the end of savasana when you slowly begin to move your body and deepen your breath, you are symbolically "beginning again." This idea of continually re-opening or re-beginning is a major part of integrating your yoga practice into your life and feeling recuperated from it.
“We die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different men, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”
Regardless of what happens in savasana - you sleep, you cry, you think your head off - doing it with awareness and the intention to practice conscious relaxation is the most important part.
I hope you've enjoyed my take on corpse pose and I'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below.
Stay tuned for the next post where I will look more deeply at savasana as a practice.
Through out this post I've referenced Light on Pranyama by B.K.S Iyengar. There is a wonderful chapter in the book on savasana and I recommend it as a resource.
Another one of my favourite books which looks at relaxation in a broader, more practical "off the mat" sense is Sabbath by Wayne Muller.
We are always seeking contact with Heaven, but how many of us have made any reasonable contact with Mother Earth?” - BKS Iyengar
Today is April Fools day. It’s kind of a strange day, if you think about it. I love the family friendly shenanigans that some companies do. This morning, I got an email from Halfmoon Yoga Products, promoting a Mood Mat. This mat changes colour depending on your mood. Kind of like those hypercolor t-shirts everyone wore when I was in junior high school.
Amazed, I clicked the link, and was re-directed to a page that said, "April Fools! Sadly Mood Sensing Mat Technology is not yet available. We'll keep you posted because we think it would be pretty neat!"
No harm, no foul. I can laugh and say, “Good one, guys,” and it even feels good to be released from the tomfoolery, back into reality.
Nevertheless, with intense grief, everything can be a trigger. April Fool's included. Even though Cam died in June, not April, I remember feeling like I was the biggest April Fool who ever lived.
For many many months after, I felt like it had all been a cruel prank. One big joke. It had to be, because it couldn’t possibly be my life. I was desperate to wake up and be released from my worst nightmare. Instead, I woke up, punched in the stomach by my reality. It was no prank. It was true. Cam died. Sometimes, after 12 years, I still can’t believe it.
Shock is weird. I remember some things so vividly from those early months, and in other ways I remember nothing. It was like I was living in a dream. Which, actually I preferred because my dreams were more believable than my real life.
I dreamt that I couldn’t find Cam. We were at a movie together, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. I couldn’t find a phone to call him.
Then my dreams shifted and I started dreaming he broke up with me. I didn’t know why and wanted to find him or call him to make things right. In one of those dreams, I actually found a phone and called him, only to wake up as soon as he answered.
My dreams, although distressing, were more rational, believable, and fixable than my waking reality. I wanted to live in dreamland. I'd have been happy if I didn't wake up. But, I did.
In my waking life, I did my best to live where Cam was - in the mystical and spiritual planes. I read books like, Talking to Heaven: A Mediums Message of Life After Death by James Van Praagh, and We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us by Allison DuBois. I found a medium in a nearby town and went to an appointment with her (which was amazing by the way, but maybe another post all together). Connecting with Cam in the realm of spirit even seemed more possible than believing he was dead. Being near him somehow was a balm to the thought of living without him in my personal earthy hell.
In these mediumship books they describe their process of connecting to the dead as one of quieting and opening the mind, while softening the senses and developing present moment focus. So, I signed up for a meditation class.
In our first class, as the instructor guided us to settle our minds, my emotions started to overflow. Desperately, my mind inserted mundane thoughts to keep the emotional release at bay: What color throw pillows should I buy? What color should I repaint the bathroom?
Those thoughts soon burnt themselves out and I was left with the gaping void of death and hating my life. I fought back tears the entire time, and then drove home hysterical. I thought going to meditation would make me feel better and it made me feel worse. I felt let down by something that I thought would be my saving grace.
That night, I emailed my cousin Richard and his girlfriend Tammy who had established meditation practices. This was part of their response:
When we sit in meditation, what is in our truest core self will start to arise. Allow your pain to come through as tears and you will be softened by it and transformed by it. Eventually the tears will run dry, and a deep inner silence will follow. Then you will be able to meditate without the intense emotion coming up, but until then allow this process. Be with yourself. Don’t be self conscious about your emotion. What you resist persists. You have to feel it to heal it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this laid the foundation of my future work using meditation and yoga to live with loss. Understanding how to deal with emotion while meditating was both the keystone in my process as well as a grand paradox: you have to move toward the pain to heal it.
It seems counter intuitive to knowingly move towards such intense pain (especially when the cultural norm is to move away from pain - to hurry it, get over it, find closure, not live in the past and get back to normal), but moving towards the pain is the practice. It’s not to escape, or disconnect, or distract, but to become embodied and connect more deeply. This is the gift and the challenge of meditation.
My inner landscape of grief wasn’t as treacherous, the more I navigated the terrain. Ironically, the more I connected with my feelings of the loss of Cam, the more present he was in my life - spiritually, emotionally and cognitively. I was developing my own beliefs around his death, and how to continue living well while missing him.
I never became able to connect with Cam’s spirit in the way a medium would/could, but was more comfortable and self-assured searching for, and coming to answers to my questions within myself…but maybe this is connection to spirit…my spirit.
EASTER MORNING IN WALES
It’s not just the tincture of time that heals grief, it’s the conscious opening to our pain, in safe and supportive environments that is healing.
This is a counter-culture way to approach grief in our mourning avoidant society.
What is needed for the bereaved is a container of education and support around the benefit of feeling emotion, while embarking on a meditation and yoga practice.
If you are looking for this support and sanctuary, please consider my 8 week online Yoga for Grief Support Program.
I developed this so people who cannot attend my in-person group can still benefit from the supportive benefits of yoga and meditation. Click below to find out more.
A new session of Yoga for Grief Support started this week, and at the first class, I always take the time to define some key words: Grief, Yoga and Mourning.
Yoga - A way to form connections with yourself in your mind, body and spirit. Another definition that I like is: "Yoga is the perfect opportunity to become curious about who you are." - Jason Crandell
Grief - Our internal, natural and organic response to loss. It encompasses everything we feel and think around the loss we have experienced - including our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms (changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, nausea, achiness in limbs, chest pain)
Mourning - The shared experience of grief. Grief gone public. Or, bringing grief outside yourself.
Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. Grief has energy - you can feel it build up inside yourself, and perhaps you can also feel the release through crying, talking, writing it out. Grief without mourning is like a pressure cooker - it builds and builds. Grief needs to move and be expressed outside yourself. This is mourning.
In order to heal grief you must mourn....finding safe places, people and way to express your grief outside yourself. "Time heals" is a myth - it's what you do with your time that heals - authentic mourning is how you begin to heal - in your own way and your own time. In this class, we will use yoga as a way to explore our grief and learn about it. The more we can learn about our inner experience of loss/grief, the more we can understand it. The more we understand it, the more compassion we have for it. The more compassion we have, the more space we have within to heal it.
What I love about yoga is that yoga,
1. Invites you inside your mind and body in the spirit of exploration and acceptance (letting things be just as they are)
2. Teaches you strategies to support yourself. This may be through poses that feel comforting in your body, or by developing skills around understanding the nature of thoughts and emotions which can build resilience.
There are many other avenues of mourning. Some people talk their grief out. Write. Dance. Sing. Pray. Create. The list goes on. How do you mourn?
I was listening to a podcast about Buddhism – which I have always found to be a complementary philosophy to yoga philosophy – especially around learning how to deal with suffering. There is something about these Eastern philosophies that I find peaceful – not because they have the answers, but because they confirm that life is made up of questions.
On this particular day I was listening to a podcast featuring Bernie Glassman. He was speaking about bearing witness and loving action.
The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation
What I love about Bernie Gassman’s talks, is that he goes in with no agenda – he speaks to whatever arises in the moment. He “bears witness” to the needs of the people he is speaking with…and goes from there. He started his talk by asking if anyone had any questions that had arisen from a talk he had given the previous day; encouraging the audience by relating the power of questions in the statement, “Questions have energy and answers do not.”
Oh, how I loved this statement. Questions have energy.
Answers stop the question. Complete it. Finish it. Answers are linear. Questions carry energy with them. Questions are circular and spiral, taking you deeper.
It made me think of living with grief, and all the questions that surround such a change in life. Especially because many of these questions have no answers: We may never know how or why our loved one died, we may never know what happens to the spirit after death (if anything), we don’t know moment to moment, day to day where our emotions will take us and how we will go one living with our loss.
So many questions…so few answers.
Hearing Bernie Glassman re-phrase these mysteries in such a way made me realize that maybe the answer is the question itself. There is power in not knowing and not having the answers. Perhaps this is what keeps us moving along.
As Wendell Barry says,
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
Part of journeying through grief is appreciating that this path you are on is one that has never been traveled before, by you or by anyone. The specifics of your grief are defined by innumerable personal variables: your personality traits, the traits and life of the person who died, the circumstances of their death, intricacies of your relationship to them, etcetera, etcetera. Considering all these factors, it is suffice to say that there is no one way to grieve. There is no definitive road map, no to-do list, no checklist to refer to.
Simply being on the path creates your path. It’s the questions that guide you on your way.
How do questions like these land within you:
“What happens when someone dies?”
"Why did this happen?"
“How am I going to bring myself comfort when I feel so torn up?”
“How am I going to choose to live my life in a way that feels meaningful and true based on my experiences?”
Can you ask these questions for the sake of the questions themselves? Can you bear witness to your questions, and be comfortable with not (yet or ever) knowing the answers?
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the fourth Niyama (ethical discipline, or rule-of-conduct) is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Ancient yogis looked inside themselves for the answers to cosmic questions, and in fact, the sutra says “Study thy self, discover the divine.”
Yoga, as a holistic system allows this self-study to take place by turning your attention inward, developing concentration and single pointed inner focus, and observing the true nature of the mind. The physical and spiritual practice of yoga cultivates discernment, awareness, self-regulation and eventually union with your big-S-Self (the true self, Atman (inner self or soul), immense Consciousness, or divine within you).
But, before that happens, it is likely that your practice of inner yoga and self-study, will turn up even more questions…especially in the face of grief. The take home point is that your process of discovery must arise from within.
This philosophy of yoga can be applied each time you do a pose. Instead of becoming complacent with sequencing and the execution of certain poses, treat each pose as though it were the first time you were doing it. Practice becoming re-acquainted with your body and your mind in each moment - opening yourself up to the process and wisdom of studying and discovering yourself with non-judgemental and compassionate attention. If a question, query, or debate arises within you, practice breathing into it. Give the question a life of it’s own, by which the answer will eventually be lived.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says,
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
And so, as you journey to the heart of your Self and the heart of your grief, trust in the nature of your questions to carry you forward, and backward – both of which are required as you integrate loss. This is not a sudden process - it’s a gradual process. A gradual awakening and evolution of understanding your own specific beliefs around death, life and living.
If you're interested in reading more about the Yoga Sutra's of Patanjali or more by Rilke, check out these books below:
I am frequently asked about what yoga studios and classes are good. I find this a difficult question to answer because there are so many variables at play. Especially after the death of a loved one.
There are as many styles of yoga as there are teachers. Not only is each class a different intensity level, but also each teacher adds their own unique flare, communicating their own personal interpretation of how yoga has been felt or expressed their bodies, to the class.
I encourage students to find a teacher that they like. One that they “buy into.” Who’s teaching resonates. I believe there has to be a sliver of common ground, where the life experience, and the experience of yoga as the teacher has interpreted it, meets the student’s. This helps to make a yoga practice feel possible – this is something I can do - and fosters a sense of trust and safety. From this place, a teacher will challenge his/her students, but the pre-requisite for all good learning, and in this case, good mourning, is safety.
In my past life, I was a competitive mountain bike racer. Living in Edmonton, my off-season (winter) was months long. So, I took up yoga. I practiced physically challenging styles of yoga – Ashtanga and vinyasa – because I wanted to improve my physical conditioning by strengthening and stretching. These classes “met me where I was at.” They met my physical needs and my mental expectations about what I wanted my yoga to be.
After Cam died, I continued with this intense style of yoga. In the first few months it helped to balance me – I was anxious, restless and confused. It took the edge off. Still in shock, my old routine was comforting. It was something my body was good at and could do. It was something I had control of, as every other area of my life spun out of control.
As the shock wore off and I realized anew that Cam died, grief punched me in the stomach and left me on my knees. As the reality of my situation set in, I became increasingly fatigued. I didn’t have the physical energy to get out of bed, never mind a 90-minute power yoga class. I was emotional and labile. I’d burst into tears mid pose, and spend all of savasana fighting back sobs.
I wasn’t buying into, or comforted by the teachings the various teachers provided. They felt cliché: I wanted to scream, “Everything doesn’t happen for a reason,” and “Fuck positive affirmations!” None of it felt applicable to my life, and in fact, it made me feel shameful for not measuring up to par.
I felt out of place. I didn’t feel safe. Those classes were no longer a good fit for me.
I found an exceedingly gentle yoga class taught by a woman, Beth, the basement of her house. For two hours every Wednesday, we would gather. In those two hours, we would do three poses, using cushions, blocks and bolsters for support and comfort. We spent oodles of time breathing, and learning meditation.
These classes were challenging in a different way. They met me where I was at - terrified, confused and raw. The slow gentle postures allowed me to feel my body, and my emotions, which was possible because I felt safe there – as safe as I could feel with raw grief coursing through my veins. In any case, I wasn’t the only once crying in Beth’s class.
If you live in a major city, the breadth and choice of yoga classes can be over-whelming. If you’ve never done yoga before, I would suggest starting gentle, so you can learn the basics, and have an affirming experience. From there, find a teacher that you like. Try a few until you find a good fit.
Everyone’s grief experience is so individual, and everyone comes to yoga a various points in their life. If you remember to find a class to “meet you where you’re at,” you’ll find something that reflects your needs in the moment. Remember, it’s OK to experiment and change your mind…life isn’t constant: sometimes you’ll need the intensity; sometimes you’ll need the quiet. The choice is yours and the options are out there.
A good companion for grief is the book “Understanding Your Grief” by Alan Wolfelt. Although it's not a yoga book, much of Wolfelt's philosophy is very yogic, and I found it a helpful resource to blend what I was learning about grief in my life, into my yoga practice. For this book, and more recommendations, check out my bookstore.
I recently started reading a book called Full Body Presence by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. The first chapter had me hooked.
In those first few pages she wrote of something that I have known on some level, but seeing it in print made it so much more tangible.
She describes many instances when we don't trust our internal awareness - for example, feeling intense grief over a dear friend moving away but being told by people around you that your grief was not important, and shameful..."Why are you worried about it? You have many other friends, right?" Or having a creepy reaction to someone in your life and being told to stop being so silly and jumping to conclusions.
"In all these examples, your body was telling you something important, but those around you tried to convince you that what you were sensing wasn't real or valid" (page 9).
It was this lack of trust of our inner and deepest self that struck a chord within me.
She further describes how a lack of trust of our inner worlds leads us to looking for external sources to shape, define, solve, remedy our lives.
Take grief for example.
Our grief slows us down physically and mentally. We feel tired, lethargic, numb, confused, disorientated, lost and sometimes even crazy. Our emotions are all over the map. We feel so different, our lives feel foreign. We wish we could go back in time and never let go of the past.
The worst part is this: In the throngs of grief you don't know what to do. You've never lived like this before. If you don't know, and don't trust what you feel inside, you look outside yourself for the answers.
You look to a society that pushes speed, rewards efficient solutions, reveres stoicism, and demands productivity. We, as a society, don't do well with stillness, solitude, loneliness, pain, and hurt.
So here we are.
"Keep really busy," they advise.
"Don't cry. She wouldn't want you to be sad," they scold.
"You need to get back to how you were before he died," they push.
"Don't live in the past," they warn.
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," they say.
"Quit playing the victim."
Need I go on?
We are taught to not trust our grief.
Intuiting the message, reading between the lines, understanding the subtext, we hear this:
"Whatever grief-striken energy you feel inside you is wrong. You feel the wrong things. You think the wrong things. You are doing it wrong."
What I teach in Yoga for Grief Support is this:
"Whatever grief-stricken energy you feel inside you is something to pay attention to. There is wisdom there. Let's learn, together, how to touch those wounds with compassion."
If you feel it, it's real.
If you feel it, it's important.
If you feel it, you can heal it.
Be curious about it. What is it saying? What is it's message? What is it's deepest need?
What if you believed that your internal world is telling you something very important about how you need to heal and nurture your broken heart?
Imagine, just for a second that the grief within you can be trusted - even in it's painful.
I mean, you are hurt, afterall. Let's spend some time there.
Say to it, "I will take care of you."
This is what moving towards your pain is. You must move (gently and with no rewards for speed) towards (and through) your pain to heal.
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana writes that our bodies are "incredible navigational systems that inform us constantly, from our gut instincts to our heart's deepest yearnings" (page 5).
Let's shift our relationship to our instincts and our senses from one of mistrust and doubt to reliance, and connection.
I'd love to hear your feedback on this book if/as you read it.
Please feel free to post comments under this blog.
'And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been' - Rainer Maria Rilke
Well, there goes 2013.
Another calendar page turned, another year is upon us.
The Rilke quote above is one of my favorite New Year's quotes. I love the truth and reminder that the coming year is "full of things that have never been."
This is one of the many harsh realities of grief - life has never been like it is now. Grief picks you up and plunks you down in a world that is changed, volatile, unfamiliar and painful; you have never lived your life without the person(s) that you have irrevocably lost. The grief you are experiencing now is a new and unknown experience for you.
And yet this, somehow, creates the space to heal grief. This mysterious unknown is the ground in which you can plant a healing intention.
The intention to heal grief is a positive commitment you make to yourself. A deliberate and personal responsibility to take action in your life that is self sustaining and supportive. A willingness to move gently towards your pain.
Perhaps this feels like an oxymoron - a positive intention that requires you to embrace pain? How can this be?
It is one of the many paradoxes of grief. Healing grief requires you to touch that which is painful. By moving towards your pain and your loss, you open yourself to how your loss has changed you. This changed, painful world is wildly unknown, and healing grief invites you to explore this mystery.
Grief invites you to live with questions that may not have answers, to experience emotions that seemingly arise out of nowhere, to live in a holding pattern - the life you knew before no longer exists, and the future has not yet come. This liminal space (this threshold, the betwixt and between), is fertile ground for healing. Setting a healing intention recognizes that there has to be a willingness to stay open to this state of not knowing. To embrace the darkness of grief and be touched by your loss and pain is how you begin to integrate you loss into your life. It is only by living the mystery that you will learn about the mystery.
An example of a healing intention may be:
"In this moment, I will stay open to my pain for it is both a testament to my love, and my teacher. I don't know what the next moment will bring, but I will embrace myself with compassion learn how to live with my new reality."
"I am willing to go into the unknown of my grief, I trust myself and my process."
To close, here is another quote by Rilke that speaks to the necessity to live through the mystery to find your way....
'Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.'
― Rainer Maria Rilke
Taking wisdom from the Cherokee culture today...this is a wonderful story about the importance of making space for ALL of your experiences; whether you perceive them as positive or negative. This rendition of the story I got from ServiceSpace's weekly email called InnerNet Weekly (February 5th 2013) and it's called "Beyond the Conflict of Inner Forces."
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.”It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
You might heard the story ends like this: The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In the Cherokee world, however, the story ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” and the story goes on:
“You see, if I only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the white wolf is happy and we all win. For the black wolf has many qualities – tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-willed and great strategic thinking – that I have need of at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.
"You see, son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will become uncontrollable. To feed and care for both means they will serve you well and do nothing that is not a part of something greater, something good, something of life. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention. And when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing that will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. Peace, my son, is the Cherokee mission in life. A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing.
"How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”
Here is a moving rendition of Amazing Grace. It's the Cherokee version, done by Walela. Best experienced with the volume turned up, and headphones on.
From my heart to yours,
I can’t be the only person on this planet who has struggled with holding the pain of grief and “thanks-giving” at the same time.
Just today, I heard an ad on the radio outlining the things we should be grateful for. That one word, “should,” got my back up. Gratitude has become a buzz word, and I’ve often wondered how many people (myself included) really understand what gratitude is? In our busy distracted world I wonder if people really do feel and experience a deep sense of thankfulness and appreciation instead of just saying they do? Especially in the face of loss and grief.
Back in October 2006, I attended our annual family thanksgiving dinner fill with dread. All 40 of us circle around the room and state what we are thankful for. That year, I had nothing. Cam died 4 months prior, I was overcome by the largeness of my loss. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, about his wife’s death, “her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
There was a lot I should have said, and even could have said, but I didn’t. I could have said, “I am grateful for my health,” but instead I agonized over, “Why wasn’t he healthy?” I could have said, “I’m thankful for having him in my life,” which simply reinforced how much I lost and how much I still wanted him in my life. I could have said, “I’m grateful for my family,” but the only person I was looking for in that crowded room was him.
Gratefulness felt trite. Empty. Impossible.
Earlier that October day I had been sitting outside in the fall sunshine. I closed my eyes and absorbed the warmth of the sun. I could smell the crispness of fall in the air. I heard the flap of a bird’s wings as it flew overhead and stared in awe at the mere fact I just heard a bird flying.
I felt something in those experiences. I absorbed, smelt, heard, and felt awe. But, I can’t say I took the time to appreciate them. And yet, looking back, these glimpses of experiences that were so small brought large amounts relief and reprieve.
Now I see that what I needed at the time was to not only understand the power of gratitude but to shift my expectations of it. To forget what the world thinks I SHOULD be grateful for and find things that move me to a natural state of deep appreciation and kindness…and beyond that, recognize that state as gratitude itself.
In wrestling with this over the years, I have learnt some valuable lessons about how to make gratitude a more accessible experience even in the face of grief.
1. Be flexible with your expectations around gratitude. Gratitude is malleable, and your perception of gratitude will change depending on life circumstances. There may be times in your life when your gratefulness spans life-times and relationships, and there may be other times when you are grateful to get through a moment. For example, when you are healthy, it’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for good health.” After a life threatening diagnosis, your expectation of gratitude may change to being grateful for good lab results, or a good report from a surgeon. Your benchmark of gratitude has shifted and this flexibility allows you to find gratitude despite challenging situations.
2. Slow down enough to notice the small things. Think of gratitude as a practice of mindfulness. On my daily dog walk I could go over projects, to do lists, mentally solve all my problems and do all my thinking, but instead of being “mind full” I try to be mindful. I try to get out of my head and into my body. I engage my senses and take the time to notice the beauty around me; to see the slanted light shining through a grove of trees or the red fall leaves against a bright blue sky, hear the crunch of snow under my boot on an otherwise silent morning, smell the pine tree as I walk under it, the relief and release I feel after in my chest and shoulders after a deep sigh. Instead of these small things going un-noticed, they become an intentional exercise in appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh says, "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes. All is a miracle."
3. Let it sink in. Take the small things and the beautiful things, and make them big things. Be open to feeling the shift in perception when something sparks that fire of appreciation and relief within you. That spark is what we are grateful for – it’s a feeling, a visceral response that brings us much-needed reprieve…
4. Understand that gratefulness is not about denial of loss and grief. Alternatively, we become more aware of the fullness of life – the beauty and the pain. Holding both means full engagement of the heart, full compassion, full living. Zora Neale Hurston captured both profound life and profound gratitude when she said, “I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.”
This thanksgiving, take time to slow down, and notice the small things. Gratitude helps to build courage, resilience, feelings of connection and well-being and sometimes we have to be intentional about finding these moments and letting them grace us.
On the topic of Gratitude, I have found these sites invaluable:
Today, Sept 22 marks the Autumn Equinox. A time of year when the tilt of the earth is neither towards nor away from the sun. We experience this as having equal amounts of daylight hours, to nighttime hours. In fact, the name "equinox" is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).
Equinox is literally a time of balance - the earth is balanced on its axis, and light/dark is balanced. It can also be viewed as a time to reflect upon the metaphorical balance within our lives. The key word being balance – a state of equilibrium, steadiness, stability, and harmony.
Taking a moment to reflect on your life, in what areas do you feel balanced? Unbalanced? In the realms of grief and suffering, do you feel able to compassionately find balance between the darkness and lightness of your experience?
In reflecting on the possibility of balancing the darkness and light of your life, it’s important to humbly remember that you can’t have one without the other. The depth of your grief (darkness) reflects the depth of your love (light). You wouldn’t see the light of the moon if the sky weren’t dark. You would never experience the bright warmth of a spring thaw, if you didn’t endure a cold dark winter. When you think back to a joyful memory of a loved one, you may laugh and then cry because both the joy and the pain are equally valuable representations of the effect of that person’s life on your own.
I’ve come to know that darkness is the chair on which light sits.
I remember the first time I felt “light” after Cam died. It was during a meditation and yoga retreat. We were doing a walking meditation, and I noticed an overwhelming sense of lightness and openness in my hips. I felt like I was floating, but at the same time so deeply connected to my body. I was completely entranced by this feeling of lightness – it felt new, different, and wonderful compared to the darkness that had overtaken my life for the previous 6 months. In those moments, the feeling of lightness and openness in my hips, morphed into such gratitude and wonder at the miracle of my body, and the depth of sensation. It was such a striking contrast to the heaviness and disconnection I had been feeling. I remember feeling both surprised and hopeful that there was joy buried beneath the layers of grief.
Despite this good feeling/bad feeling perception, I have learnt that healing grief requires movement towards your pain and suffering…which means an intentional willingness to embrace your pain and sit in darkness. Dark Night of The Soul stuff. That, however, doesn’t eliminate the opportunity for finding some light. Even if it’s just noticing the warmth of the sun on your back, watching a bird float on the breeze, eating a tart juicy raspberry. In fact, it’s those moments of mindfulness and awareness that can bring much reprieve and calm in the middle of a storm.
It was a wonderful lesson, feeling light in my walking meditation. For me, it has been a practice in “intentional attention,” because, for some reason, it seems that pain is more noticeable, and more easily remembered than feelings of contentment or ease or happiness. Simply making that observation has been instrumental in giving experiences that are light more focused attention. I’m more open to noticing it, and intentional about really experiencing it.
I believe that yoga and meditation are doorways into experiencing balance. You develop physical, muscular and postural balance. You learn ways to bring lightness and openness to the body – through movement and breath. You develop equanimity towards your emotions and thoughts by experiencing their flow, and their impermance. Perhaps most importantly, you are invited to slow down enough to notice it all.
The equinox is the perfect time to reflect on balance in your life. In Autumn, it’s an opportunity to look backward to reflect on the fullness and abundance of your harvest; and look ahead into the next season of fading sunlight and increasing darkness and contemplating what that means in your life as well.
Why is this important? Because when we are in a state of balance we are stronger, steadier and more able to find resilience within ourselves. And I think everyone would agree, feeling good feels good. Part of loving yourself, is giving yourself permission to do just that!
Make space to hold both.
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