Here’s the question I am holding in my life: How do we go through what feels like unbearable pain (loss, grief, sadness, fear, terror) without closing or disconnecting from our hearts? I wish I could say I was asking the question as a “spiritual teacher” exploring how to be helpful to others. But I’m not. I’m asking myself this question as one small human being who is in anguish, one woman who is facing the probable dissolution of her marriage, her shared home, her dream of being with a particular man for the rest of her life; as a person who, at moments, feels the unknown stretching out before her not (as has sometimes been the case) as an empty, fertile expanse of exciting possibilities, but as an abyss of pain and loneliness, as that which is terrifyingly unknowable.
I tried to write about something else today. I really did. But everything else came out as false. Because this is where I am: breathing through an ache in my chest that feels like it will split me open. The medical term “sucking wound” comes to mind as many breaths- conscious or not- are gasping, struggling, wet with tears. It feels like there is a gaping hole in my chest. Sometimes I’m numb with weariness and fear, sometimes frantic and driven by pain, and sometimes unable to reign in the mind that wants to move too quickly to definitive answers, possible explanations and concrete plans. But sometimes I am able to surround and hold the internal screaming with just one breath.
So, I’m paying attention to what makes it easier or harder to do that- to simply breathe without moving away from pain, without disconnecting from awareness of my own aching heart, stressed body and busy mind. Exercise helps, particularly rigorous exercise which grounds me, moves the pain out of my body and makes me pay attention to my breath. If you are someone who exercises regularly this is probably not news to you. But, for me (a woman who has only recently started to do a little exercise) how effective this can be is a bit of a surprise. Yoga, working out, or going for long walks seems to increase my capacity to at least slow down the mental hysteria. Similarly my usual daily creative and spiritual practices of writing, prayer and meditation help me stay connected to my heart without going into denial about what is happening and the anguish I am feeling. I am so grateful for the years of cultivating these practices. It would be difficult if not impossible to start a practice in the midst of this upheaval.
I’m not looking for advice,and I will not be sharing details of how Jeff and I got here. Both of us have skilled professional guides we see (and have been seeing for a long time) together and separately. But I am struck by how little the usual spiritual adages help. Like, “Be in the present moment.” The pain of the present is, at times, so overwhelming it makes it difficult to be anywhere else. It strikes me that the most helpful spiritual practices are the simplest. Like the prayer, “Help me,” or at most, “Help me, please.” Concepts like compassion and seeing the other as another myself while true, feel too lofty. More useful is the essence of all the spiritual ideas and practices I know to have some truth: kindness.
So, this is how I am going through my moments: I am paying attention to my breath, breathing into my heart, crying when I need to, talking to friends when I need to, exercising my body to stay here and reminding myself to be kind- to myself and to Jeff. Eating healthy food or going for a walk is being kind to me. Not dredging up the past and being careful about what gets discussed on the phone is being kind to both Jeff and me.
I do not know where what is happening will lead. From the perspective of this present moment, outcomes are unknowable. I suppose that is always true (although we often think we know where current decisions will lead.) It’s hard not to have clarity about what love is asking of me. But I am listening deeply when I can, and I have faith that there will be clarity, guidance, and a way to be true to the Sacred Presence that lives in each of us and holds us all.
This article first appeared in Oriah’s blog April 14, 2010
Oriah (c) 2010