I had an exceptionally emotional week last week for a number of reasons, and had an upsurging of raw grief by the end. I was done. Exhausted. Mentally, physicaly and emotionally. I was sleepy in the car and anxious to get home, have a hot shower and crawl into bed. Which I did. But once I was lying down, self talk that resisted rest started to bubble up.
While my legs felt like lead, and they literally sunk into the mattress, my mind started to come up with all-the-things I could be doing - stuff like: dishes, sweeping the floor, this blog post. When my legs didn't respond to that call to action, my mind started getting dramatic: "If you don't get up now, you may never get out of bed again." Has this happened to you?
"If I start crying now, I may never stop."
"If I rest now, I may never stop."
What is this?!
Dramatic Sandy was worried I'd lay there forever and never get up again. Wise Sandy piped up with a reality check: "You'll be out of bed in 20 minutes to pee." I had to giggle at this internal dialogue. Myself cutting myself some slack to both rest, and give myself the space to do so. Sure enough, I was out of bed later that night (a couple of times), and I did, in fact, get out of bed the next day.
Why do we do this? Why do we mentally resist rest when our bodies so deeply need it?
I have a few theories...
First, we live in a society that values efficiency and productivity. We hold an unusual status symbol: being busy. It's as though being busy equates with being needed...indespensable...valued...respected by the capitalist machine that makes the world go 'round.
We see this in our view of the body as well. The body as a machine. We become practiced at ignoring our instincts to stop - we work when we are sick, we take medicine to get rid of the sore throat and congestion so we can continue on as normal. We adhere to the only-a-few-days-off-after-a-death-rule, returning to work right after the funeral and before the reality of the death has even sunk in. We are always reachable by text, email, messenger or phone, and responses are expected quickly. We push ourselves, without taking care of ourselves. My car gets an oil change more frequently that I take time off work, for goodness sake.
Second, this addiction to busyness has become a coping mechanism. If I'm busy, I'm distracted. I don't have time or space to feel. Which, at some times, can be helpful. Other times, not so much.
Third, our own personal self-talk and beliefs around rest (which have perhaps been contaminated by points one and two above).
I noticed my self-talk/thought while I was lying in bed last week wondering if I'd ever get out. It went something like this: "If I succumb to my fatigue, I've given up." And "my need to rest is proof that things are as bad as they seem, and I can't handle it."
Look at the language I've used in the previous statements: succumb, given up, rest means things are bad, I can't handle it. The language I've chosen, highlights my beliefs about rest...interesting. And worrisome.
(Be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening).
I'm reminded of the yogic teachings around the constant churning and agitation of thoughts in the mind. The verse in the Yoga Sutras that reads, Yoga citta vritti nirodhah (Chapter 1, v. 2) and means "yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind." Judith Hanson Lasater recently described this on the Feathered Pipe Blog. She described the agitations of the mind as being continual and both conscious and unconscious. They are also the root of our lack of understanding about who we really are and what reality is.
Noticing my agitated thoughts around rest has got me wondering: How has my culture shaped my beliefs around rest? How do my beliefs about grief and suffering relate to my beliefs about rest? How is resisting rest working for me? How is my identity wrapped up in my ability/inability to rest? What is my reality?
(Yoga is the state in which the agitations of consciousness are resolved).
I've been following the Nap Ministry on Instagram for a while now. Contrary to the resistance to rest, their slogan is REST AS RESISTANCE. This is from their website:
"The Nap Ministry is a meditation on naps as resistance. It is an artistic, historical and spiritual examination on the liberating power of naps. It re imagines why rest is a form of resistance and shines a light on the issue of sleep deprivation as a justice issue. It is counter narrative to the belief that we all are not doing enough and should be doing more. We are community centered. We are focused on radical self-care."
These are some of the phrases from Nap Ministry Instagram page that have inspired me to reframe how I view rest:
I know that a very limiting factor with regards to rest and grief is being unable to sleep. Here again, we can broaden our narrow view of rest to include other things.
Rest is a huge part of integrating loss and grief.
Grief and rest cannot be "managed" simply by an act of will. It takes surrender. Letting go of the conditions that create more suffering. Letting go of the conditions and agitations of the mind that create rules that simply don't benefit. Letting go of the to dos, and shoulds, simply surrendering to what is truly needed in the moment. So often it's rest.
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.
This past week, much of the southern part of our province was devastated by floods. Including the area and trail we were planning to go to hang our prayer flags. A disaster of this scale, epic porportions, made the decision unquestionable - we weren't going near it. Safety was our primary concern, as well as staying away for the emergency workers to do their jobs.
However, being the anniversary of Cam's death, it felt really important to do something. So we changed our plans and went north to Jasper National Park. Our trip turned into a spontaneous adventure - not quite sure what we would do, or where we would stay. In the end, our weekend turned out perfect. I would hazard a guess that it worked out better than the trip we had planned.
We hiked up the Bald Hills trail in Jasper, which has become my new favourite trail! We reached the top, had a picnic, and then rested in the meadow - taking a wee savasana. We honoured solstice and Aborigonal day with an Iroquois Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Earth while sitting on a mountain top overlooking Maligne Lake.
After dinner, we hiked up to Mount Edith Cavell and sat beneath Angel Glacier at sunset, surrounded and protected by massive, powerful guardians of rock and ice. We hung our prayer flags there to be infused with the energy and light of the "supermoon" over night - the closest and largest full moon of 2013.
That night, we stayed at the Edith Cavell Rustic Hostel, on bunk beds, with a wood burning fire glowing in the stove. The next day, we went back to Edith Cavell to get our prayer flags. We wanted to bring them home, hang them in the yard, and be close to them for a while.
And, as if that wasn't enough, we made one last pit stop at Athabasca Falls. There is something so powerful about being in places that render you speechless for their beauty and power.
Our weekend was so deep. So honouring. I felt I had nurtured my mind, body and spirit. It was my yoga.
In A Grief Observed by CS Lewis he writes, "There was no sudden, striking and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight, when you first notice them they have already been going on for some time."
And, when I look back on the past 7 years - the steps forwards and the steps backward - I see that there has been net gain towards integration and understanding how grief has forever changed me...and what my changed self needs to find ways to honour that which has changed me...
...like the way a glacier carves it's way through rock - changing the landscape forever...
...like the way a mountain meadow bursts with wildflowers, seemingly with no warning except warmer days...
...the rhythms and cycles of nature...seasons...full moons...dawn...dusk...
....cold rooms warmed by glowing fires...prayer flags...
The hardest part of making my prayer flag was deciding which prayer to use! I had a number in the running, and finally decided on one that I've used on a regular basis in my own life. It's the Zen Night Chant from the Upaya Zen Center:
"Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swifty and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken
Do not squander your life."
I relate to this prayer both in my own life, and as a wish for the people of the world. It speaks to what I have learned about how I want to live and love, understanding that life hangs on by a thread and things can change in an instant. It speaks to the power of grief to awaken the fires of truth and compassion within, recognizing that hearts break...break open...leaving an opportunity for growth and healing.
It just felt right to use this prayer - it felt easy to infuse the flag with all the depth and wisdom I read between the lines. And so the creating began....
First, I had to buy a vintage train case to hold all my supplies....Ok, maybe not an essential step, but a FUN step. I wanted something that I could hold everything in easily, and something that was easy to transport. Voila. It's perfect. And cute.
Next I chose the material. Traditionally prayer flags are bright, but I felt drawn to more earthy colors, so I chose a light beige as the base color, with brighter accents. I cut a piece of material 5" x 11" and then folded the top edge over 2" ish and pinned it. This will become the casing where the string will be threaded through to tie the flag to a tree. Then I used a simple running stitch to close the top casing. It doesn't look as professional as a if were sewn by a machine, but I kind of like the "homemade" feel to it. Considering this, I also did not hem the sides and bottom of the flag, but I suppose you could if you had a sewing machine. I left the bottom edge of my flag slightly frayed - it made it look a little more used or natural or...something....
For the accents, I cut two smaller squares of a sheer aqua blue material, to be glued onto the flag as an inset; one to write my prayer on, and the other to draw* a tree.
* By "draw" I mean that I printed a drawing of a tree from the internet and used it as a template to trace onto the material. I may be creative, but I'm no artist.
The tree is symbolic of a verse from a poem that I love by E.E. Cummings called I Carry Your Heart:
"...here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart..."
And, finally I put it all together. I glued on my insets with the prayer and tree. To brighten it up, I decided to cut out a yellow flower, and to sew on a red button. Yellow because it is a color I find cheerful, and a red because it feels primal and instinctual.
Lastly, I threaded a piece of twine through the top casing and my flag is officially complete!
Next weekend is our trip to Vision Quest Ridge in Nordegg, Alberta. I'm packing this flag and will hike it up to an ancient vision quest site where I will tie it in a tree to spread my prayer with the wind. Next time you see it, it will be blowing in the wind.
This June will mark the 7th year since the death that changed the trajectory of my life. I struggle with what to "do" on the "anniversary." The date always seems to loom just around the corner marking time. Nonetheless, it is significant. It's the day I changed. It's the day I was uprooted, and eventually replanted with the wisdom in my bones that death brings. It's how I got here, teaching yoga for grief support and being drawn to walk alongside others who have experienced a loss.
I decided a few years back that I wanted to go to the mountains each June, to reflect on my own experience of loss and growth, in a place where I can immerse myself in the vastness and wonder of it all. This year, at summer solstice, I'm going to hike "Vision Quest Ridge" in Nordegg, Alberta. A short, steep hike to panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains and Abraham Lake. As per the name, this hike passes an old vision quest site, which drew me in. It seemed supportive and appropriate that we would be on ancient native land, where so many people before have been to seek spiritual guidance and purpose. You can see photos of it by clicking here.
I've heard from others who have done this hike that there are prayer flags tied in a tree to mark the site. That inspired me to take a prayer flag with me, to create ritual and ceremony around the intention of my hike. I've seen them for purchase at a variety of stores, but I hesitated to buy one for myself because I didn't understand the deeper meaning of the symbols and prayers inscribed upon them. Nevertheless, I love the image of prayer flags strung along high mountain ridges with the wind carrying the prayer across the land and to all beings. I knew that if I were to hang a prayer flag on this hike up Vision Quest Ridge, it would have to be a wish that arose from my heart about love and loss, life and death. So, I thought, "why not make my own?"
A quick google search revealed that, not only is it fairly easy, it's something (I think) I can do!
So I went to a fabric store and I bought small scraps of fabric - which is actually quite cheap. You can "fill a bag" with scrap material for $8.00. I chose any piece that "spoke" to me - both in colour and in texture. I also bought a small sewing kit, some fabric adhesive, and even some embellishments like patches, and buttons. The grand total for my prayer flag project kit = $25.00.
My next step is to be quiet and still and listen to what arises. What prayer do I want to share? What do I want to be carried to the top of a mountain by me, and then carried across the lands by the wind?
I'll update this blog on my progress and will also submit my final flag to The Prayer Flag Project; which is "a collective project spreading peace, goodwill and kindness, one flag at a time." This project was created in 2011 by Vivika Hansen DeNegre. She invites people from around the world to create their own flags and hang them outside, to have the sentiments carried by the wind to all the wind touches. She then posts photos of each flag on her blog. A virtual sharing of the prayer, I suppose. It's beautiful.
Stay tuned...I'll keep you posted on my progress.
Until next time....when the sewing begins...