These days I find myself teetering between heart-rending grief and heart-mending love, between gut-churning fury and tender compassion. There is so much loss to grieve in the current climate: the destruction of precious ecosystems and entire species, the injustice perpetrated on innocent people in service of greed and bigotry. Yet there is so much to love and celebrate in the exquisite beauty of the natural world and the abiding courage and ingenuity of the human spirit. In one moment I want to get out on the streets and march, in another I yearn to head to a deserted beach and be soothed by the music of waves. As I lean into these apparently contradictory experiences I discover that they are actually fundamentally related. We only grieve what we value and love and everything we love in life must naturally die to make way for something else. I discover too that my anger reminds me of my deeply cherished values and motivates me to stand up for what I hold as sacred.
Today I feel the grief, like a thick fog lying heavy within. My mind reaches for a reason why: the wreckage of the pandemic, the wild fires ravaging ecosystems, the devastating symptoms my friend is suffering. Thoughts swirling, sadness escalating, I flee to the woods and lean up against my friend, the grandmother oak. My back presses into the rough embrace of her bark cloak and I settle. Again and again I entice my mind back from last night’s news and this morning’s conversations, from its menu of miserable future outcomes. What does grief feel like in my body? A leaden, sinking sensation in my belly, a clenching ache in my chest, a prickling around my eyes. Can I be with it? Yes. Just sensations longing for acknowledgement; to be seen, to be felt, to be allowed to move in some form of expression. More than anything, this feeling wants me to be present with compassion and acceptance.
How? Grandmother oak models this abiding, dispassionate, compassionate acceptance. Gravity draws me to the nourishing presence of the Earth. Sunshine filters down between scudding cloud people, now brilliant loving light, now soothing shadow-cool. The breeze caresses, enticing me to stay; stay with what I am feeling, as energy moving through me, freed from the narratives and fantasies of my mind. And now grief, if this feeling can still be called that, opens to a deeper joy, an encompassing meta-sensation, exquisitely tender and enlivening. Then comes a simple knowing, the insight, sudden and complete, that this grief is bigger than me. Yes it speaks of my personal loss but also carries the grief of our culture.
Allowing spontaneous insight to replace “Figuring out Why”
Have you ever noticed that we tend to ask “why am I feeling this” rather than simply allowing ourselves to feel? Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring meaning and we humans are natural storytellers. But our culture has privileged cognitive intelligence and rationality while marginalizing the intuitive wisdom of body and emotion. We are trained from the time we learn to speak to seek meaning whenever we feel an emotion. We ask ‘why’ rather than allowing the feeling to provide movement and insight. In this way our emotional intelligence becomes ensnared by the beliefs perspectives, preconceptions and agendas of the cognitive mind. The resulting enmeshed tangle of belief and emotion produces the ‘negativity’ that we attribute to emotions such as fear, anger and sadness.
How then do we experience our feelings in a healthy and balanced way?
For that we come back to my experience with Grandmother Oak. We beseech, beguile, or beg our mind to return to the body in this moment with all its wisdom and aliveness. We lure our mind back from its insistence upon knowing why. We refuse to engage with all the past associations that tumble in upon whatever we are feeling. We whisper our mind home from its flight into frightful future fantasies. We gently and compassionately disentangle these narratives from what we are feeling right now. For our emotions to reveal their intelligence they need acknowledgement and acceptance rather than interpretation and deciphering.
In our willingness to simply feel, we create the space for insight to arise, not from chasing after meaning but from the instinctual knowing of our emotional body, connected to the body of the living world around us. Here we gain access to the sacred intelligence contained in this feeling rather than skipping over it by grasping for explanation. We allow that life-giving energy to provide spontaneous insight rather than striving to ‘work it out’.
But what of poisonous emotional expressions like rage, resentment, hopelessness or anxiety?
It is not the emotion itself that is the problem here. Experiences we generally label as “negative emotions” are actually a toxic tangle of emotion magnified or distorted by narratives of the mind. The remedy here involves teasing apart the destructive belief or story from the emotion. Past trauma can also manifest in these negative expressions. In either case, we bring our compassionate attention to the feeling as distinct from the story we are telling ourselves about it. In balanced expression grief, anger and fear all have a vital role to play in listening and responding to the environment we find ourselves in.
My own mind-generated suffering has taught me that when I am feeling sad or afraid I need to begin by suspending all desire to know why. If I simply focus on bringing kindness and tenderness to the experience itself, in my body in this moment, I interrupt the cycle of mind amplified anxiety or despondency. Sometimes insight about my situation arises spontaneously. Not always. Either way, the medicine lies in our willingness to acknowledge and feel before reaching for meaning. In this recognition and expression the feeling can then dissipate and make way for the next experience. And so, having descended to the depths of my grief this morning, I find myself writing this afternoon as I follow the thread of life affirming energy alive in my emotional experience.
This somatic wisdom offers access to a whole other realm of intelligence. It informs, enhances and collaborates with the intelligence of the mind. We need emotional fluidity to respond fully to life because we can only experience the depths of our joy and love to the extent that we are willing to allow the generative energies of our grief, anger, or fear. All the memorable experiences of our life involve deep feeling that brings us present and alive.
This is an ongoing and fascinating process of discovery. If you would like to join me in this exploration I am offering a 7 week online Emotional Wisdom course in which you will experience the resilience, fluidity and courage that come from feeling and expressing your balanced, responsive emotions. It begins October 7th and I’d be honored if you care to join me. Click here to find out more.