Sunday, August 5, 2012

This is a great TED talk about post-traumatic growth and recovery. I think many of you will find it helpful:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When should someone be finished grieving?

I just read this on Quora and thought some of you might find it helpful: http://www.quora.com/Grief/When-should-someone-be-finished-grieving

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Presence

I recently received a wonderful question as a result of my last blog post:

Hi Vic,
Thanks for inspiring others and bringing your life back to track again. I lost my dear wife of 22 years on 2nd Feb 2010, and since then it has been a tough journey for me. The pangs come back occasionally, but I reassure myself not to give up.

I am practicing the 'staying in the present' principle that you've recommended, and it works. I have had a few good nights' sleep since using the technique.

But I have one doubt which I request you to clarify. Is staying in the here and now not akin to suppressing your memories of your loved ones or the incidents relating to death?

Is it again not in conflict with your advice to suffer the pain of the memory intensely by going to the core of the memories and pain?

Chinmay


I decided to post my full reply publicly because I believe that many other people have similar questions. It is my hope that I can shed a little more light on this important area.

I'll begin by stating that I, like many others before me, have found the metaphor of a journey to be suitable for wrapping my head around the grieving process:
  • A journey has a beginning and an end.

  • A journey implies a sense of adventure and a sense of the unknown.

  • When one undertakes a journey, one expects to be changed by the journey in some way.

  • One also expects to experience some degree of unpleasantness on the journey.

  • One does not always undertake a journey willingly.

  • A journey implies a long period of time.

  • A journey can be described as a passage.

It was never my intention to undergo the journey of grief. I always thought Deb would somehow get better. It was inconceivable to me that she would die. She was only 32. 32 year-old women don't die, right?

Luckily I had completed a number of physical journeys before Deb died, so I could use some of that knowledge and apply it to my journey through grief.

First, I knew right away that I needed a roadmap -- I needed to know where I would be going and where I would likely end up. So, I started reading the accounts of widows and widowers who had gone before me. I didn't like to read about the years they spent grieving (I didn't want to grieve for more than a couple of months). I didn't like to read about their pain, their anguish, their loneliness. But, in reading about what other people experienced, I could prepare myself. I wanted to make sure I had the proper tools with me when I encountered those obstacles myself.

Most of those tools I have documented in this blog. The Grief Recovery Handbook was very helpful to me. Frequent walks in nature helped. Essential oils helped. Getting out and doing things helped. Listening to classical music helped. Attending a monthly grief support group helped. Attending a closed grief support group for ten weeks helped. I was building up my toolbox.

One tool that I read about was going to the core of my grief. I guess I had a fear that my grief had a tremendous depth that, if I strayed too close to the edge, it would consume me or something. So one evening after my son went to bed, I sat on my couch and decided to simply feel my grief. When it started hurting me, I went deeper in, and then deeper still. Then I decided to find the deepest, most painful spot -- to find that supposed black hole which threatened to consume me. And to my great surprise, I found that grief was rather flat -- it wasn't deep after all, but more like a wading pool. Searching for that most hurtful place eluded me. If anything, the pain lessened instead of increased. You can read more in my post about Unsatisfying Grief.

So -- to get back to Chinmay's question ;-) Is staying in the here and now not akin to suppressing your memories of your loved ones or the incidents relating to death?

No.

When I look at the dictionary definitions for 'suppression', I get the sense of force and inhibition. I've seen many examples of widows/widowers who did attempt to suppress their grief, and it caught up to them, sometimes many years later.

And to be clear, unless I live as a monk, I won't have the opportunity to live in the here and now 24/7. In my work, for example, I have to be thinking about the future or dredging up facts from the past. I'm currently planning a few upcoming trips, one with my family in tow. So I am actively using my mind for many things, and I do follow where many of those thoughts lead.

The best way I can describe the process is as a matter of focus. When I am working, I am focused on work. When I am with my family, I focus on them. I don't think about my family while working, and I don't think about work while with my family. One of my most favourite sayings is:

Wherever you are, be there!

So here's the key -- when my grief did surface, I stayed with my grief. I experienced it fully. I didn't try to supress it by thinking about work, or an upcoming trip, or anything else. I simply allowed it to be present. Here and now. If a thought did come up, like how much worse my life was at the time, I focused on the feelings associated with the thought. I did not follow the thought. The essence of Vipassana is to not react to thoughts. Allow thoughts to come up and pass away. Don't react to them. Respond to them.

Does that make sense?

I'll end with this: Vipassana is a tool, a very powerful tool. It is not the only tool. It is like a hammer. In rebuilding my life during grief, not every problem was a nail.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Passing The Two-Minute Test

I'll start off with a few words about my whereabouts since late August — I moved! My second move of the summer, actually, and then the dramas of moving into a new home (like no hot water, malfunctioning dishwasher, dozens of deficiencies, etc.). That, plus merging two households into one, plus starting a new school year for my son, and it all adds up to not having a ton of time for blog posting ;-)

It has given me a number of days in which to reflect, however. When I first started my blog, I was already well on my way to completing my bereavement. I did want to share a number of tips and techniques for coping, understanding, and finding the road to peace, and I believe I have done so. To that end, I will no longer be actively posting every other day or so. I have said what I have to say, and past postings are always available for those just setting out on this journey. Other projects now await my time.

I will, however, post periodically in response to specific reader questions or comments. And I'd like to thank Jenny for encouraging me to break my silence and post again :-)



On the 26th of September, Daria posted the following comment:

Vic,
You often talk about using the skills you've learned in Vipassana, and other methods of meditation, in your healing process. To successfully heal, do you feel that these methods must be used, or can we heal from our grief without in-depth knowledge of these methods?


Thanks, Daria, for the great question. I've been thinking about how to answer it for the last three weeks. First off, I'm not sure I would use the word "heal" anymore. What has changed is my perspective. But I know what you mean.

I really appreciate Eckhart Tolle's work for simplifying a host of psychological and spiritual concepts — cutting through the miasma of thousands of years of nebulous opinions and getting to the heart of things. I find it interesting that I am only discovering his books at the end of my grief journey. His two best-sellers encompass everything I think you need to know to come out of bereavement. Here's what I have learned:

To me, bereavement is a devastation of your mind, your ego. Your mind intensely dislikes the present moment, preferring instead to keep you caught up in thoughts about the past and anxieties about the future. Sound familiar?

In bereavement, your ego, your sense of self has been shattered. To compensate, your mind switches into high gear and roughly shoves you into alternating currents of your past married life and the dark, single, uncertain future. This is a very dangerous thing for the ego to do — most people don't appreciate being shoved around, and they are likely to do something about it. And they might start paying attention to the present moment. If they do this in the right way, they will come to a startling discovery — that the present moment is perfect just as it is, and that there is no need for the ego.

Meditation is simply the act of being focused on the present moment. Right this second. And this second. And this second. Not focused on the past. Not focused on the future. Right now. Only now. Sound simple? Try it. Try just being aware of the present moment for 2 minutes. No thoughts about the past, no thoughts about the future. Just the immediate feedback from your 5 senses. Close your eyes to make it easier ;-)

...

Well? Bet you couldn't go the full two minutes. Your mind sucked you in to the past, or tried getting you to focus on something you need to do in the future. This is the nature of the mind.

I wrote that near the end of my Vipassana course, I discovered the Vic that has no problems. Thanks to Eckhart Tolle, I now understand that that Vic was the one who was totally focused on the present moment. THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. Yes, I'm shouting ;-) Every moment spent in the present moment is a moment spent with no problems.

But the mind / ego hates this — it is a problem-solver. If you spend time in the present where there is no problems, then you have no need for the mind / ego. In The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart sums this up nicely [pp 87-8]:

But the more you practice monitoring your internal mental-emotional state, the easier it will be to know when you have been trapped in past or future, which is to say unconscious, and to awaken out of the dream of time into the present. But beware: The false, unhappy self, based on mind identification, lives on time. It knows that the present moment is its own death and so feels very threatened by it. It will do all it can to take you out of it. It will try to keep you trapped in time.


Knowing this, try the 2-minute test again. With your eyes closed, focus only on the sensory data you receive from your remaining four senses. No thoughts about the past, no thoughts about the future. Try it again.

...

Still couldn't do it, could you? Now you can see how meditation training can be beneficial.

So, to answer your question, Daria: Peace exists only in the present moment. Nowhere else. But your mind will do everything it can to keep you focused on anything but the present moment. You couldn't even keep your mind focused on the present moment for two minutes, and this even after I warned you that your mind would prevent you. So who's running the show? You, or your mind? They are not the same thing. You are not your mind. Meditation helps you to dis-identify from your mind.

If by healing you mean to live at peace, you will need to find some way to live in the present moment, the only place where you will find peace. Meditation provides many methods for focusing on the present. There are other ways. In my next post, I'll outline several of them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Flap Your Wings

How much of your time during the day is taken up re-hashing the events of your past married life? The good, the bad, and the ugly?

A lot?

Around the time that Deb died, I was listening to an audio lecture called the Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas, and they stressed the following point:

Understand simple things deeply. We can never understand unknown situations without an intense focus on those aspects of the unknown that are familiar. The familiar, in other words, serves as the best guide to the unfamiliar.


So, to become more familiar with what it means to be bereaved, you may find it helpful to actually count the minutes you spend reminiscing about the past. "A lot" means different things if it translates into "165 minutes a day" (2 and 3/4 hours) or "480 minutes a day" (8 hours). Being specific about numbers can help us get real clear about our present circumstances.

In my case, about 9-10 months after Deb had died, I was still re-living the past about 5-6 hours a day, and I was still spending enormous emotional energy going over my past relationship with her. This occurred during the depression part of my grief, and while I knew I wasn't yet healed, I wasn't too sure about how to go about healing. I hadn't yet learned to let go of my story.

Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose talks about this aspect of letting go, and he gives a natural example of two ducks [pages 137-139]:

THE DUCK WITH A HUMAN MIND

In The Power of Now, I mentioned my observation that after two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float on peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened.

If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making. This would probably be the duck's story: "I don't believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I'll never trust him again. Next time he'll try something else just to annoy me. I'm sure he's plotting something already. But I'm not going to stand for this. I'll teach him a lesson he won't forget." And on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about it days, months, or years later. As far as the body is concerned, the fight is still continuing, and the energy it generates in response to all those thoughts is emotion, which in turn generates more thinking. This becomes the emotional thinking of the ego. You can see how problematic the duck's life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time. No situation or event is ever really finished. The mind and the mind-made "me and my story" keep it going.

We are a species that has lost its way. Everything natural, every flower or tree, and every animal have important lessons to teach us if we would only stop, look, and listen. Our duck's lesson is this: Flap your wings — which translates as "let go of the story" — and return to the only place of power: the present moment.


Find a way to let go of your story, and enjoy the deep peace that comes with being who you are right now.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Honoring Your Wedding Vows


Being married again has given me lots to ponder these last two weeks. I am truly thrilled with my bride and the life we are building together. And I am reminded often that this never would have been possible if I had not fully let go of Deb. And that's what has me pondering recently.

Tonight's post is likely to be the strongest thing I have ever written, so I'll preface it by a word or two of warning. First off, if you are newly bereaved or within the first year, this post is not really meant for you, so you may want to give it a pass.

In fact, even if you're in year two or three, you may want to give it a pass. It really is that strong. I'm writing it specifically for that one person out there who truly wants to let go of their dead spouse, but something is holding them back.

So, if you continue to read this post despite my warnings and are appalled, hurt, or angered, then I'm sorry, this message wasn't meant for you. Please spare me the hate mail ;-) The one person out there for whom this is intended will recognize that it is for them. I don't mean to be so blunt, but it needs to be said, and I have yet to read this anywhere else. And please keep in mind that I'm not some shrink in an ivory tower — I have been where you are, and I can appreciate the kind of pain you are experiencing. I would relieve you of that pain. That is my motivation, nothing more.

Last chance to turn back!




Marriage is a curious thing. As I was mentioning in the epilogue to my story, I was more emotional while reciting my wedding vows than I had anticipated. The following simple words of traditional wedding vows have been dancing around in my head:

'to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part'


It is that last line that has me pondering.

Marriage is a contract. In that contract, we state what we will do, and the conditions under which we will perform.

I've been a contractor for well over 10 years now, so I'm quite familiar with the language used in contracts. Every time I sign a new one, I always pay close attention to the "exit clause." I want to know how much notice I have to give them, and how much notice they have to give me, and when I'll receive what is owed to me, and what restrictions are placed upon me at the end of the contract, like not working for a competitor for 12 months.

Most of the IT contracts I sign run into dozens of pages and use reams of legal jargon. So it must be the simple, compact, and concise nature of the vows above that has struck me. Such a contrast from most modern contracts!

You have probably already figured out where I'm going with this. At death, we are parted, and all our contractual obligations are dissolved. There are no restrictions placed upon us at the end of the contract. We no longer have our mate, we no longer hold them, and we are no longer obligated to love and cherish them.

Yes, I know that last line is anathema for just about everyone reading it. Relax — I'm not writing it for you.

I'm writing it for that one person (you know who you are) who wants to let go of your dead spouse and go on living, but you feel a deep sense of guilt about doing so. You feel that you will be going against your word, that you will be out of your integrity, and that you will be dishonoring your late mate.

You will not be doing any of these things.

What you essentially said in your marriage vows was, "I will do all these things while you are alive, but when you are no longer alive, I will no longer do these things."

You probably never thought about it like that before, did you?

Does that mean that the moment your spouse dies, you no longer love or cherish them? No! What it does mean is that you are no longer obligated to do so. You are now free to do so, but you don't have to do so anymore. You are now free from that bond, that responsibility.

In other words, any lingering guilt you feel about letting go and living your own life is without foundation. Think back to your vows, and ask yourself if you have fulfilled them.

Now that your spouse is dead, you have completed your marriage contract. You have fulfilled your obligations. You are now free to direct your attentions elsewhere.

You are free to live as you please.

Please do so.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Conscious Suffering

I've been watching TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks since they started posting them online. Tonight I stumbled upon a remarkable talk that both summarizes and confirms most of what I've been posting about these last few months — that peace springs from being fully present in the moment, and that our troubles stem from identifying with our past and future. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor explains in her TED talk that when she had a stroke, she consciously observed the total shutdown of the left hemisphere of her brain, and with it all her cares, fears, anxieties, and troubles evaporated. It is an amazing 18 minutes, well worth your time to watch:


I think it is really neat that I watched that video the same night as I read a fascinating article on conscious suffering. As I've written about many times on this blog, we need to allow our emotions to be, and we need to also allow those emotions to fully manifest themselves. Fully experiencing our emotions is a major component of our grief recovery.

Yes, I understand that this is a scary prospect. It requires a leap of faith. Faith that we will survive the experience, faith that we will not be overwhelmed, faith that we will not be destroyed. I took that risk, and I can attest to the healing power of the experience.

Assuming that you're willing to take the risk, it helps a great deal to have a good guide through the process. The process of conscious suffering is simple, but it is not easy. I'll quote a few excerpts from Chris' article entitled Thoughts On Conscious Suffering, and I highly encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here are the four key points:

I want to share the peace this approach has brought me with others. Thus, in this article, I'm going to describe the process of conscious suffering as I understand it. I hope it's as helpful and transformative for you as it's been for me.

As I said earlier, when you start experiencing an intense, uncomfortable emotion, if you have the time and space, find a place to sit alone and undistracted. Begin to breathe rhythmically and deeply as the sensation moves through you. If this process is frightening and painful, as it may be if you haven't been through it before, keep your mind focused on the four guideposts I discuss below. These are intended to give you comfort and perspective as you immerse yourself fully in your experience.

1. Your suffering is finite. One of the reasons we'll usually do anything to avoid intense feeling is the worry that, if we fully allow it to be, the feeling will never end. We may be entirely consumed by our rage or fear, and lose control of our actions or permanently curl up into a whimpering fetal position. Thus, when strong sensations arise in our bodies, we tend to numb ourselves with distracting activities like watching TV or diving headlong into our work.

The process of conscious suffering requires a leap of faith. It requires the belief that there is a finite amount of pain, or difficult emotion, trapped in your body, and that you can draw nearer to the end of suffering by letting yourself fully experience your pain. There’s no way, in all honesty, to know in advance that your anguish won't last forever. All you can do is look to the experience of others who have transcended their pain through conscious suffering, and trust that you can bring yourself closer to the same peace.

2. Remove your labels. Much of the suffering we experience around "difficult emotions" occurs because we label those emotions as negative or unwanted. We learn early in life that the tension and heat in our bodies we call "anger," "anxiety" and so on are bad things we should avoid if possible. Thus, when those sensations come up, we tend to fight them, whether by tightening parts of our bodies to choke off the feelings, shaming ourselves for "getting too emotional," or distracting ourselves from our experience. This resistance can be physically painful and add to our discomfort.

To release our resistance and let our sensations be, it's helpful to peel off the labels we put on our emotions and simply view them as forms of energy arising in our bodies. There’s nothing good or bad about this energy — it's just a substance that moves through us and passes away. When we let go of our judgments about the way we feel, it’s easier to allow our emotions to arise and subside.

3. Let go of the need to explain. When we experience intense sensation, often our first impulse is to look for a reason — whether in ourselves or the world — for the feeling's existence. From a young age, we're conditioned to believe we must be able to justify or explain our feelings. Otherwise, we must repress our emotions. For example, some of us learn early on that, if we can't convincingly explain why we're angry, we have "no right to be angry," or that we aren't allowed to "bother" our parents by crying unless there's a real emergency.

Our search for an explanation for our feelings usually takes the form of looking for someone to blame. If we're "feeling bad," our instincts tell us, someone or something must be responsible. Some of us blame ourselves — perhaps calling ourselves weak if we feel afraid, or overly irritable if we're angry. Others blame the outside world — for instance, perhaps they blame their parents for doing an inadequate job of raising them and saddling them with rage and guilt; or maybe they blame their spouses or children for being too demanding.

Ultimately, the only thing blame accomplishes, other than creating more conflict in the world, is to divert your attention from what you're experiencing. When you become lost in thought about who is responsible for your suffering, your attention drifts into the past — to what others may have done to "make" you feel this way — and you lose consciousness of your experience in the present...

4. Your sensations can't kill you. Particularly in our early journeys into conscious suffering, we tend to worry that fully experiencing what's going on in our bodies may harm or even destroy us. This is one reason many of us rush to the doctor or psychiatrist to medicate our strong emotions away — we worry that our bodies can't survive that sort of intensity and will fall apart under the strain.

However, on an unconscious level, we're already experiencing the sensations we're afraid of. Conscious suffering, as its name suggests, only brings those unpleasant sensations into your conscious awareness. We're only unaware of what we're feeling most of the time because we spend much of our lives looking for ways to divert our attention from our experience. If the energy flowing through our bodies could kill us, it would have done so long ago.

In reality, focusing our attention on the uncomfortable sensations in our bodies, and allowing them to pass away, doesn't hurt us — in fact, it leads to a richer experience of life. As we release our pain through conscious suffering, we become more open to and able to appreciate the rich and varied sensations life offers us.