By: Kyle Elden
Throughout our lives we ebb and flow through different experiences of joy and pain as extreme opposites. Naturally, we tend to want to grasp and cling to that which is joyous and avoid that which is painful. Khalil Gibran discusses this dance in “On Pain” from The Prophet. He wisely instructs us that “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” This prompts us to develop a different relationship with pain and sorrow. To see it not necessarily as something negative, scary, or bad but as a natural part of life that offers us an opportunity to understand and know ourselves more deeply. However, there is something about human nature that has us tremendously fearful of pain, sorrow, and grief. These experiences can be so difficult to bear and uncomfortable we try and avoid them at all costs.
Grief, pain, and sorrow ordinarily arise with changes in life small and large. From a friendship or a significant relationship ending against your desire, to needing to quit your job, to being disappointed, hurt, or betrayed by someone you love, to bearing the brunt of gossip or judgment from others, to suffering an injury, to recognizing that you are unhappy or in distress in a relationship, a job, or a place, to the death of a loved one ~ there is a grieving process that occurs and needs to be fully experienced in order to move on and be whole in your life just as it is. Gibran teaches us that if we truly understood the purpose of pain, “you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.” In other words, with a deep knowing and trust in the process of life we would allow ourselves to move through grief in its fullness and embrace our pain as something we need to more fully understand life and know ourselves deeply.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross developed the Grief Cycle model which outlines the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. These are stages we must go through in order to either accept our loss or embrace a needed transition and therefore, come to terms with our life exactly as it is. How often have we seen others or experienced ourselves being stuck in one of these stages of the grief process? I know I have been stuck in denial, anger, depression on many occasions, I’ve been in a place in a relationship for example, where I am in distress, not happy, and know it’s not working but I keep repressing what is true because I don’t want to face what I truly need to do. In fact, I’ve spent (or possibly wasted) years of my life depressed and stuck due to just this conundrum – being fearful of doing what it is I know I need to do and simply not wanting to go through with it – because it’s hard, because it’s painful. It is difficult to recognize this within ourselves and again Gibran astutely points out to us that “Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.” The remedy is the grief process; it is coming to a place of radical acceptance of what is true, grounded in compassion, love, and tranquility. Much of our suffering comes from our reactions to our experience and not to the actual experience itself. Much of our pain, especially prolonged pain or depression, comes from our own refusal to accept and come to terms with what is. We try to control, change, deny, grasp, and cling to what is not working, to what is no longer true. The yogis teach us that in every moment, every day, every circumstance, every experience we either have the choice to stay constricted and stuck in our circumstances, in our Self - or to respond in a way that offers expansion, growth, and fullness in our lives. Seneca echo’s this sentiment when she proclaims, “It isn’t that we do not dare because things are difficult, but that things are difficult because we do not dare.” We often find ourselves feeling like we can’t do things differently, can’t make that radical change in our lives that our heart calls us to, can’t follow the path we have a deep hunger and longing to follow because it would be too difficult, confusing, and painful whereas it is primarily our inaction, denial, and fear that is causing the difficulty and distress we are experiencing.
The fact of the matter is we all have an inner compass that guides us to right action, that helps us become fully actualized, that allows us to understand and know ourselves more deeply. However, learning how to be in tune with this inner compass, how to follow our hearts in spite of what our culture tells us we “should” do, or dogma teaches us may be the only “right” way, is a difficult quandary to face. I love one of the philosophical yogic adages “culture sucks, spirit pulls.” The truth, no matter how much you may try to deny or repress it, no matter how much you may try to exile that voice that calls to you from deep within, will keep surfacing. It may be a battle between what culture tells you you should do and your spirit pulling you in another direction. Truth sometimes arises as inspiration, a magnetic draw to something or someone, or a spontaneous joy, or it also presents as distress, discomfort, depression, or anxiety. Both sides of truth help us recognize that something needs to change or be followed in order to more fully become ourselves. It may be hard to decipher truth at times. To know truth it may be hard to sift through all the cultural messages, the well meaning advice, the expectations we have of ourselves or the expecations others have of us. Because we want so badly to be accepted and loved we often lie to ourselves and others so that the image we present of ourselves is socially acceptable. However, often the truth of our Self is being squandered and we might have this nagging sense that there is something more we could experience. Whether it be a career that allows us to use our talents and creativity more fully, or a partner that understands us, connects with us, and encourages more growth within us, or a educational or religious path that aligns more with our values, or a new state or country that simply suits us better – we often have a gut, intuitive knowledge about what it is we truly need, about what the truth really is for ourselves.
When we commit to something it helps us be intentional about reaching a goal, allows us to create boundaries which assists us in experiencing something at a deeper level than otherwise possible. For example a commitment to another in relationship or marriage, through this type of agreement between two people, ideally we are able to share a level of intimacy and trust, steadfast love and dependability not possible without such boundaries. When we commit to a job we set boundaries on our time so that we are able to dedicate ourselves to successfully completing the tasks necessary to do well in our work. Commitment is a powerful and necessary process that bonds us to someone or something in order to grow and flourish within that context. But what if you are no longer able to grow or flourish within that commitment? What we commit to at one point in our life, however meaningful, relevant, and true, may not continue to be what we need to be committed to at another point in time. We are not static; we are fluid, ever changing, ever growing beings. It may be that our commitment to a certain job at one point helps us build a knowledge base and experience, helps us become talented in a way that opens a door to another career or educational opportunity that is more true for us at a later point in life. It may be that a long-term relationship with a specific person helped us learn about commitment, communication, and love – that, that particular relationship with that person helped you grow as a partner and know what it is you need and can be in a committed relationship, but realize that this individual is not who you should be with indefinitely as a life partner. Is this a terrible thing? No, it’s a natural part of life. Carl Jung identifies this exact human experience when he asserts “What served us in the morning, no longer serves us in the afternoon, and in the evening is a lie.” This is difficult to come to terms with but poignant. What is true and right for us at one point in life may be wrong for us, may a lie for us if we continue to try and live it out regardless, try to honor a commitment even if it doesn’t serve us any longer. Think about the job where you feel stuck, uninspired, and bored. You most likely aren’t the best employee because you are not engaged and alive in your work, even if you are committed to the job. Think about the relationship wherein you don’t really enjoy being around one another that much, you don’t communicate well or connect, you feel distant and bored. You most likely aren’t the best partner because you aren’t engaged and alive in the relationship, even if you are committed to it. Not honoring a commitment is probably one of the worst things one can be exposed for and it kind of makes one want to crawl under a rock, right back into a place of denial and repression of the truth because, you are definitely judged and looked down upon when you don’t honor a commitment. However, honoring a commitment to something or someone when it’s not working, doesn’t make sense any longer, and isn’t the truth is much like committing yourself to running a marathon and then tearing your ACL but continuing to train and complete the marathon because you committed to it even though it would be foolish to do so. This just leads to further injury, preventing yourself from possibly being able to run a marathon or complete another active endeavor at another point in your life, and more pain and distress.
We will commit ourselves to many things and people in our lives and this is a good and necessary part of living a full and vibrant life. However, sometimes it is our commitments to things, people, jobs, habits, expectations, and priorities that are no longer working for us, are no longer true for us, and no longer serve us that keep us stuck in our lives. Therefore, learning how to tune in to our inner compass, know our truth, and follow our heart, learning how to embrace pain and recognize the need to allow ourselves to move through the grief process in order to make necessary changes in our lives, accept the hand that we have been given, and understand and know ourselves more deeply is paramount. This is the great wedding; it is a commitment to Truth – to giving ourselves permission to be fluid, to be honest, and to be authentic in a culture which works to shove us into a box, to live in accordance with dogma, and to hide from ourselves for fear of being judged, ridiculed, and not accepted. We are unique individuals; there is no one way to live life, no particular formula that every one of us should follow. We need to allow ourselves the space and freedom to be who we truly are. Being married to the truth is the most important of all commitments; it is again the great wedding and the one fight that is actually worth it in the end. I love how e.e. cummings perfectly describes this life-long battle to know yourself and be committed to the truth when he urges us “to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”