Making Peace With Grief Fall 2017: Part 2

There are so many faces to grief.

“To love means to open ourselves to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and thus an intensity of consciousness that before we did not know was possible.” This quote from the American psychologist Rollo May spoke to many in this room.

Such is the nature of family relationships! We want our loved ones to always be well, happy and successful, have a pleasant home, a well-paying job, a supportive spouse, children. We do not want our parents to suffer as they age, or outlive their money. Yet, every one of us knows that some things we can anticipate and plan for, control, but there is much that we have no control over. This can cause grief and anxiety.

When we do not get what we want, and get what we do not want, there is grief and sorrow. “Grief thrusts us into an uncertain world where anxiety often reigns supreme”—quote from psychologist Claire Bidwell Smith in a Slate article. Chronic grief sometimes surges and then recedes into the background, a shadow that never leaves. And one person’s grief, or anxiety, or illness, or lack of job in the family, is not restricted to that person—it affects everyone. All these emotional umbilical cords are intertwined and tug and tear us.

Our natural instinct is the fight or flight reaction with these dreaded emotions. This emotional battle within ourselves manifests itself in the body. Hear the words we use—heart breaking, gut wrenching, back breaking. Sounds like carnage within the body! It feels unbearable and so we try to make it bearable by rejecting it.

When life is going well, there can be the fear that this will pass and then dreading the passing. If we understand that life comes with no guarantees, the dilemma is how to be secure with insecurity. Think of how we shape our lives, our relationships, around not feeling insecure. If we tighten muscles to brace against physical pain, the experience of pain is more acute. If we relax into it, accept it, it is more bearable.

Does the spouse, the car, the house, the college degree, the job, the kids, make us secure? People still feel an inner emptiness.

Rollo May writes, that the chief problem is emptiness: “People do not know what they want; they often do not have a clear idea of what they feel. When they talk about a lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions, it becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. Thus they feel this way or that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty. But they do not talk long before they make it clear that they expect the marriage partner, real or hoped for, to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves, and they are anxious and angry, and grieve because he or she does not.

This also happens with children—that somehow it is their responsibility to fulfill the parents’ hopes, dreams, aspirations, and it is their responsibility to give the parents joy and happiness. And there is grief when that does not happen. Adult children can inflict this same grievous injury on parents and siblings. This makes for narcissistic, transactional relationships that by their nature are not meaningful and result in grief for everyone.

Here we are not saying there should be no expectations—clearly some healthy expectations are essential for trust, acceptance of responsibility, accountability. We should expect civility and respect. This is about demanding the impossible or something so painful that it is destructive. Putting people into impossible situations of choosing between their own well-being or the family member’s. As one person puts it to Rollo May: I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone expects of me. This line resonated with so many of you.

Sometimes, we do not have the courage to walk away from a toxic relationship, becoming enablers. We can try for decades to change and help someone. Feel frustrated that nothing ever changes or just gets worse. Could be that a family member’s suffering is sometimes self-inflicted and unless that person wants to change, there is nothing we can do. And their suffering and demands are causing acute discomfort and grief to us—we are uncomfortable with their pain and the pain they cause us. It may even be toxic for us.

The truth, said an ancient Chinese master, is neither like this nor like that. It is like a dog yearning over a bowl of burning oil. He can’t leave it, because it is too desirable and he can’t lick it, because it is too hot.

There are families where the needs of a child, or a parent, are so great and no matter what is done, it just does not seem to get better. It is heart wrenchingly difficult. Could be a special needs child, someone with Alzheimer’s, and so on. A child or sibling who simply cannot get a footing and the grief of their disappointments as well as the dashing of hopes we have for them. How do we accept that, do the best we can and let it be without being consumed by that fire ourselves? It is really tough!

We have neurons that mimick and mirror the behaviors and emotions of people around us. This is useful for empathy and compassion. But these same neurons also make us vulnerable to someone else’s negativity and feel dragged down with their depression. So we respond to anger with anger. Our emotions feel hijacked. There is often hyper-reactivity. Meditation is very helpful and even one person meditating and being grounded in the family can change the family environment for the better.

So it is very important that we understand ourselves and how we relate to our self–me. And then how “me” relates to “you”. Yoga Nidra is an excellent way to help us with everything we have talked about. How colored is our view of others—false perceptions of ourselves and others? It leads to confusion. Are we impossibly expecting others to fulfill our hopes and dreams when we cannot? What is realistic and reality?  It can also help us see if we are neglecting ourselves in the compulsive need sometimes to take care of others, as if it is always in our power to fix everything. Then inflicting grief and self-blame when it does not work out.

I hear people feeling burnt out, sick because they neglected their health, self-loathing toward their bodies, feeling used and chewed up. There will be some for whom feeling the victim, holding on dearly to grief, becomes a part of the identity.

So it is important to know ourselves and become our own friend.  We are also just as worthy of care and attention that we give to others. We need to give ourselves love, compassion, forgiveness. If we cannot accept and befriend ourselves with all our obvious and not-so-obvious faults, it is hard to relate positively with others. We need to comfort the pain and grief within us and participate in our own healing. Neglecting ourselves can also be seen as self-abuse or violence inflicted on our own being. We are taught to serve others before ourselves. Self-centeredness is not being advocated here but nor is self-neglect. It may come as a shock to your family to know that you even have these needs because they have never seen you display the need.

The thing about traumatic grief, and sometimes chronic grief, is that there is so little energy, patience, and tolerance for other people’s chronic needs that we permit ourselves to say no to others—something we may not have been able to do before. We don’t have to listen to every relative’s needs and complaints, we don’t have to be there for everyone, respond to every email and phone call. There is no need to give in to every demand. We draw a line between what nurtures us and what destroys us. And this often requires courage—saying no to people who are not used to hearing that word from us. Being able to walk away from recriminations, scapegoating, tirades. But you have to be clear in your mind, have no doubt that what you are doing is right so you don’t end being riddled with guilt and more grief.

We have these programs in our minds based on our culture, religion, families, communities about the role of mother, father, parenting, child, spouse, sibling. Think for yourself. What is your role? How much is influenced by other people’s expectations? What are your needs and expectations? So much is changing in our society and our ideas of the different roles. Who gets to define these roles which have been well-defined before but are not so now?

Many of us know what we don’t want. But do we know what we want? And life often has its own will—it often demands that we change. And there is chronic grief when we refuse to.  We do everything we can to change or address a tough situation, but when we cannot, we have to let it be and make peace with our grief and the grief others feel. Our attitude and perception change.

Here is what we can do: Be able to say no, take care of ourselves. Forgiving ourselves as well as others can bring resolution, a lasting peace. The dark spaces within us are scary but if we look into them, we find that it was our reaction to them that scared us—not the space itself. This is the classic rope and snake analogy.

Grief is one face of fear just as it is one face of love. The ultimate fear is that of death. Compassion can include putting arms around insecurity—fear is also insecurity. Be secure with insecurity. I am grateful to my mentor Swami Buddhananda Saraswati for this very important teaching that keeps unfolding and revealing its depths decade after decade. 

The Yoga Nidras can be enormously helpful with everything we have touched upon. Yoga Nidra is especially good at improving emotional intelligence for people who are not used to meditating. Just being able to identify and label what we feel in the body and mind helps change the brain chemistry. Yoga Nidra helps us be at peace in tough situations and it can bring clarity. If we come to meditation expecting all our problems to be solved than meditation will never work. What meditation can do is change our relationship with the world and people.

Let us talk about what happens to the brain that is under stress and what Yoga Nidra and some other types of meditations do to heal.

During grief and anxiety, there is an increase in cortisol–a stress hormone–and norepinephrine, which functions as both a hormone and neurotransmitter. When these are higher, they excite the sympathetic nervous system which is associated with physical activity. Yoga Nidra lowers both and increases the activity of the calmer parasympathetic nervous system.

Various forms of meditation, including Yoga Nidra, increase levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter. Higher levels of serotonin are calming and it makes people less reactive. And grief with the anxiety that goes with it can make us hyper-reactive perpetuating a negative loop.

Dopamine levels also increase which is good for reducing anxiety and depression, so does melatonin which is associated with sleep. Alpha waves increase and this is a more relaxed and alert mind. Theta waves also increase improving alertness and ability to process information. Higher theta activity is correlated with lower anxiety and lowest scores on the neurotic scale.

People who meditate over a long period of time have well-developed prefrontal lobes in the brain. This is the control panel of the brain responsible for decision making. There is higher flow of blood in the parts of the brain in people who meditate. They also have more flexible, active, better developed frontal lobes that control emotional expression, problem solving, language and memory. They can experience emotion without being easily hijacked by their emotions. This is our training of watching the emotion without being caught and trapped by it—just sit with it and let it pass through.

So I hope this gives you a sense of how we can help ourselves lead calmer, less anxious and grief laden lives and find our way to sense of freedom. This is why Yoga Nidra and other meditations are helpful.

I do not have the audio track of our class practice but the following are suggested:

Being a Witness   Who Am I?  Up to the Summit

May the blessings of these practices bring you peace.

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