Tag Archives: grief

Show up

I am not the first, nor will be the last, to write about the recent passing of Angeles Arrien. Angeles was an internationally renown and beloved teacher/ cultural anthropoAngeles Arrienlogist whose work has been a foundation of my own. She left us suddenly and unexpectedly on April 24th with her pearls of wisdom arising as answers as we each wrestle with her passing.

Angeles’ core philosophy included four life practices that are found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, called The Four Fold Way. They are: 1) Show up, choose to be present 2)Pay attention to what has heart and meaning, 3)Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome and 4)Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
When tough times come, it is all too easy to want to run away. Grief physically hurts. It pulls stomachs into knots and bends us to its will as we weep with happy memories appearing unbidden, torturing us with the knowledge that they will never be again.  You think you are safe and then turn a corner or wake up from a dream and Mr. Grief belts you again. A week after Angeles’ passing, our beloved dog Kiki also left us very suddenly, so we had some pretty visceral grief practice these past two weeks.

Where to begin to create greater ease? I keep hearing, “Show up, choose to be present.”  Show up for the loss, for the pain, for the tears and the disappointment. Pay attention to the intensity of the grief and feel the jagged edges within when it feels impossible.  When I was researching Worst Enemy, Best Teacher  I was struck by how the world’s warriors traditions all include practice in enduring pain. They counsel fasting, sparring, and endurance activities that push the initiate to find strength through intense discomfort. When you land on the battlefield of loss, it all makes sense. Showing up is the only way to get through. The 12th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi, once prescribed that the cure for the pain is in the pain. 

Arrien also connected showing up to the cross-cultural archetype of the warrior through her research.   Running away, although it is alluring for a moment, creates a dragon that chases until we are willing like a knight of the Round Table, to turn around and confront. Whenever we are in a leadership role, it demands that we show up for the tough times. When profits disappear, projects are cancelled, or key employees are lost, the warrior work begins.

Also, when there is ease and comfort, we need to show up and pay attention to the gifts and strengths of those around us.  Show up and recognize the impermanence of it all and give thanks. It will be no surprise that Angeles was an expert in the practice of gratitude and wrote her final book, Living in Gratitude on this subject.

Angeles mentored a huge gaggle of us, and from them, I am also gathering jewels.  Cheryl Esposito, Leading Conversations, brought back the memory that when Angeles would be driving home a critical teaching and we would find ourselves much too serious, she would begin to say, “Kisses, kisses” and blow them out to the audience. Today, we are all blowing kisses right back.  Thank you Angeles.

Say Yes

Life is movement. The more life there is, the more flexibility there is. The more fluid you are, the more you are alive. – Arnaud Desjardins

Ask a Buddhist what we can count on and he will probably explain that nothing is permanent or, as Desjardins says, “life is movement.”

Sometimes that precept is welcome news. It’s great to know that homesickness or a sore back will eventually end. That your toddler will someday not need diapers and will learn how to dress herself brings a smile to your lips. Yet, as you look across a table at a dear friend, at that beloved toddler or at an aging parent, you’d probably rather forget that everything changes including our favorite people.

So, how do we come to terms with the axiom of constant and sometimes heartbreaking change?

This question has been accompanying me closely as our cousin Charles Bach passed away from congestive heart failure last month. Six months my senior, Charlie assumed the role of elder brother by providing relentless teasing and instruction throughout my childhood, which I usually resisted. Our extended family’s favorite memories include Charlie and me arguing for hours rooted literally and metaphorically in the spot where we began.

Charlie

Charlie

So, fast-forward to today, I’m still balking at the presented topic — I’m not a big fan of impermanence right now, thank you very much. I would love the opportunity to battle with Charlie over introducing it. “Sometimes people need to leave,” I could hear him saying…

Some of Charlie’s last words were, “Yes, yes, yes!” and “It’s an amazing world of yes.” I am told that he died happy and very much at peace. As one of my lifelong teachers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he left behind answers on how one is supposed to cope.

Since he was a gifted musician and actor, Charlie’s statement reminds me an improvisation rule — “say yes to whatever appears.” For example, what if on stage your partner suggests making spaghetti on Mars? Go along with the program. And if the clarinetist wants to riff in a new direction? Follow her lead. The scene calls for you to now to be ninety-year-old hip-hop star? Fantastic – start dancing.

Patricia Madson, author of Improv Wisdom expands, “The world of yes may be the single most powerful secret of improvising. It allows players who have no history with one another to create a scene effortlessly, telepathically. Safety lies in knowing your partner will go along with whatever idea you present…Seize the first idea and go with it. Don’t confuse this with being a “yes-man,” implying mindless pandering. Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world.”

A deliciously talented improv actress, friend and teacher Katie Goodman reframes this concept in her book Improvisation for the Spirit as “don’t negate.” She writes, “If someone offers a tidbit of information to move the scene forward (such as “Oh man, I left the money we stole from the bank, um, at the bank,”) and I negate the offering (“No! It’s right here!”) it would do several things: First of all, it would be a power-play over the other actor, which is really not fun for the others and over time makes people not want to work or hang out with you…Secondly, the energy of the scene would have fallen flat – if you outright negate and say no to an idea the scene comes to a screeching halt. And most importantly, I would have just blown an opportunity for a creative challenge, which brings energy and enthusiasm to our lives.”

Not only opening us to exciting new opportunities, saying yes is an act of recognizing reality. We accept even that to which we want to say no. On stage it might be easy to say, “yes, we eat spaghetti on Mars” and yet in real life we are called to say, “Yes, atrocities are being committed against innocent people in the Congo,” “Yes, you think I’m a jerk,” or “Yes, there is racism and misery in the world.”  We see what is, we center into the facts, and then can decide what must be done.

A fighter by nature, I was never happy when it looked like Charlie won an argument. But here, yes, he gets the last word (Charlie would have teased me for choosing that figure of speech so I’ll leave it.).  Yes, I stand silently vanquished not only because I admit that he made another excellent point, but also because as Seneca once said, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Emotions are Contagious

As I read about the world’s mourning rituals I notice that you can catch a cold, you can contract the flu, but you can also get a case of sadness or joy from another. Emotions are contagious, which is not such a bad thing.

Burkina Faso traditional home

Burkina Faso traditional home

When I was pregnant, I didn’t think that the viral nature of emotions was good. I couldn’t watch intense dramas; “Shindler’s List,” “The Joy Luck Club” or “Life is Beautiful,” were far from my viewing list. I could bearly watch a happy sitcom on TV since there might be one of those “times of your life” commercials that could set me into tears. In that state, my emotional radar was so strong that I could sympathetically cry about just about any moment. It was embarrassing.

Now far away from the prenatal stage, I recognize that there are still times where being exposed to another’s grief or hardship can get me weeping. For example, when I’m struggling, I’m leery of situations or films that will bring up sadness. I want to hide out and be entertained with fluff. Yet, I am hiding, not truly coping, and in that lies the core reason for communal grieving.

Around the world, we can find long lasting rituals that push us to face and move through the sadness of loss. In Ireland and Scotland for example, the practice of keening or a vocal lament over a corpse was popular from the sixteenth century on. Women, often paid for their services, would recite list the lineage of the deceased, poetically describe those left behind and literally sing his praises. This practice continues in parts of rural Greece where elder women of the community sing laments at funerals, memorial services and during exhumation.

These songs appear to have the same effect as watching “P.S. I Love You.” Those grieving are moved to tears. Yet, they are expected to stay relatively under control so they can follow the singing. In Greece, if a widow were to lose control and begin shouting for example, the rest of the mourners would move her back to her seat so that she can listen to the laments and quietly weep.

In tribal culture of western Africa, communal grief rituals are created when a major loss occurs. Meanwhile during the ritual, others in the community are expected to describe their own tragedies and sadness so together the tribe can move to the other side of mourning. You might begin by recounting how you miss your deceased aunt, yet I would be expected to add how I am suffering with the loss of my grandfather and the sadness I feel that life is so short. Here too people lament until they are moved to face the source of suffering and allow it to be seen and processed.

Ritual seems to be created to keep the grief on track. We are required to stay with our sadness instead of being distracted by the injustice of the loss and running down the path of rage or blame. What is gone, is gone and we are to simply face it.

So how might I translate this knowledge to my drama vs. romantic comedy dilemma?

Lately, I have been watching what type of emotion I am trying to avoid. Is it I don’t want to witness sadness? Do I want to run from others who are afraid or anxious? Struggling with facing the reality of injustice in the world? Starting there, I try to identify which emotion has me on the run.

Then I attempt to just allow that feeling to be within me. For example, I was avoiding the natural sadness that comes with sending another son off on an exchange program on Friday. It didn’t seem right, since it is mixed with huge joy for his next adventure; I didn’t want to be sad and happy at the same time. However, I noticed that I instead had been wanting to hide from anything emotional…generally, not a good practice.

I realized I had some internal clean up to do. To push myself along, I looked at pictures of when he was a toddler and thought of our dear boy as a baby…a bit masochistic I know, but it really helped. Essentially created my own little lament. After allowing happy/sad/nervous to be fully present, I now find I can better participate in his last week home.

What is equally important for me is to be comfortable enough with my own grief, so I can show up for another in a similar circumstance. We really need community when we are struggling. As in my last post on Job, it is when we can stick with someone as they experience scary emotions that we shine as friends…and as parents.

Dinner with Job

Last week I had dinner with Job.

Book of Job by William Blake

Book of Job by William Blake

Thousands of years after the legend was born, the biblical character Job continues to incarnate in my pedestrian life. On Friday, he visited in the form of a father whose twenty-year-old daughter recently died of a brain tumor. I also met him last month as a young woman about to lose her home. He shows up from time to time as a friend who after being fired cannot find a new job.

To recognize him, let me pass along Job’s story:

Once upon a time, there was a successful father who was a respected member of his community. He had land, possessions, a big family and a wife who loved him.

Then things began to fall apart. In his times, it would have been the gods, or God depending one’s religious background, who ordained the mess. Regardless, Job loses members of his family, his business bankrupts and the good stuff he owned is taken away.

At first, he is tough and takes the setbacks gracefully. “It is the will of God,” he proclaims. But then things go from really bad to worse. He becomes ill and is covered with oozing sores. Then, he’s had enough.

Depending when you meet Job, you migth find him yelling at God or not believing that there is anything remotely divine in the universe. At this point in the story, he hates life and wishes he could die. If we harken back to my post on the four seasons of tough times, Job experiences one of the coldest and cruelest winters of his life.

As I sat at dinner with the deeply suffering parent last weekend it was to Job’s story I went for guidance on what to do. Three friends visit Job at his lowest point. They model both how to support another well and how to really screw it up!

First, the three friends sit in silence with Job for a week. This has been carried forward in the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva where a grieving family stays at home for 7 days and friends come to support them. During these times, we are to witness the other’s suffering and not try to fix it. The three friends shine here as they love Job enough to allow his pain to pierce their hearts and feel compassion.

But, next the friends fail. I try to remember them as a cautionary tale. It appears they couldn’t take the depth of Job hating God and turning away from life. It was just too scary for the three. So, they try to figure out why all this bad stuff had happened to Job. One friend tells Job he must have sinned and God was punishing him. Another adds that he must be a bad person. As you can imagine, this does not make Job feel better. Trying to figure out why a friend is suffering is generally a bad idea. For example, if I had followed these misguided souls, I might have mistakenly stammered, “Perhaps your daughter was only supposed to be here for twenty years,” or “Now she is in a better place.”

The story of Job reminds me that we don’t get to understand the full “why” of a situation and, as Buddha agreed, that life contains suffering. It is very uncomfortable to sit with someone who is miserable. I always wish I could help. I would love to relieve the pain not only in the one suffering but also my own sympathetic sadness. Yet it doesn’t work like that.

I can remind another that I care about him and I would miss him if he wasn’t around. I can say I’m sorry that he is going through terrible times. In the depths of another’s misery, that’s all I know to be absolutely true.