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:

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]:


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.

Friday, August 15, 2008

There's no time like the present

Within the first month or so of my late wife's death, I noticed that time seemed to have sped up. I remember describing my new concept of time to friends as being like a rushing river — I was being swept along in the middle of a wide watercourse, and all those many, many things I had yet to do before I died were hurtling past me on the distant banks, far out of reach. I was powerless to do much more than just hang on.

I've recently noticed that I no longer feel that way about time. Instead, I feel like I'm in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, all the time. Yes, I am getting older. Yes, there are still lots of things that I would like to do before I die. But I no longer feel like I must accomplish those things, nor do I feel like I am growing old too quickly.

I really enjoyed reading Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, so I decided to pick up his first book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Lo and behold, he explains exactly why my concept of time has changed, and I can trace it back to my free Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course I attended in January.

In a nutshell, Eckhart shows how learning to be present with the moment will free us from the limitations of time. And my experience has been that learning to be present is the key to grief recovery as well.

[from pages 48-49 of The Power of Now]:


It seems almost impossible to disidentify from the mind. We are all immersed in it. How do you teach a fish to fly?

Here is the key: End the delusion of time. Time and mind are inseparable. Remove time from the mind and it stops unless you choose to use it.

To be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. This creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be. The compulsion arises because the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.

But without a sense of time, how would we function in this world? There would be no goals to strive toward anymore. I wouldn't even know who I am, because my past makes me who I am today. I think time is something very precious, and we need to learn to use it wisely rather than waste it.

Time isn't precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time — past and future — the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.

Why is it the most precious thing? Firstly, because it is the only thing. It's all there is. The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be. Secondly, the Now is the only point that can take you beyond the limited confines of the mind. It is your only point of access into the timeless and formless realm of Being.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Story — Epilogue

As a conclusion to my story (read parts I, II, III, and IV if you missed them), I thought I would bring you up to date and give you some idea as to how I see life these days, now that I have a wedding band on my finger once again.

First off, I can't stress enough how much of a difference my free Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course has made in my life. No, I don't meditate on a daily basis, at least not in a formal way. It is more of a life perspective, a new, better way for me to look at the world. Had I not invested that kind of time and effort in fully healing from my grief, I highly doubt that I ever would have attracted my new wife.

I've been asked some interesting questions by a close widower friend of mine. Do I truly love my new wife? Yes. I didn't jump into a relationship because I was lonely and had a hole in my heart to fill. Do I love her the same way I loved my late wife? No. She and my late wife have little in common. And I am at a much different stage in my life than when I was first married at age 22. I believe we love people individually. I love my son much differently than I love my new wife, or than I love my sister, brother, father, or mother. And that's fine.

At the wedding, I was more emotional than I had anticipated during the vows. But I did not hold back any of that emotion. I have learned by now to let my emotions express themselves as they will. And besides, those vows were not empty words to me this time, or rather, concepts that I had not yet experienced. "In sickness and in health." Well, I have a much better appreciation as to what "sickness" can mean now. "For better or for worse." I have plumbed the depths of worse, survived, and am now thriving. Yet the mere act of uttering the words brought back memories to reflect that hard-earned experience, resulting in the flood of emotion. And I was reminded that all our problems in this life are a result of our memories. And that was OK. I was aware of this, and I went with the flow.

Am I happy now? Yes. But keep in mind, I was happy before I met my new wife. Or rather, I was at peace. And I am at peace still. Life is different now, sure, but life is always changing. I no longer cling to moments of pleasure and recoil from moments of discomfort. Well, not too much anyway ;-) I observe them and let them go. And yes, I fully participate in them! ;-) Vipassana hasn't made me a doormat. Oh no. It has allowed me to fully enjoy a precious moment and then let it go, thereby freeing me up to fully experience the next moment.

This is a big change from a few years ago. I am now acutely aware of just how much I was living in either the past or the future. Mostly the future. Things were going to be so much better in the future! Well, as Yogi Berra said, the future just ain't what it used to be ;-)

Over the last month or so, I've spent a good deal of time pondering just what grief and bereavement are. I think I've come to the conclusion that they are a devastation of our ego. It is our ego that is shattered. So much of who we thought we were was knit together with the life of our dead spouse. When our spouse died, our ego was undone — shattered. It reacted violently, causing a painful frenzy of thoughts about the past and a gut-wrenching deluge of anxieties about the future. It is almost like our ego is bent and determined to ensure we never spend a moment focused on the now, the present moment. Why? Because that is the beginning of the end of the ego.

Being present with right now, the present moment, is the key to fully healing from the pain of bereavement. If you examine the list I made at the beginning of June of ways to facilitate grieving, notice how each one of them is intended to focus your attention on the present moment. It is only in the present moment that we can be at peace. And really, it is only in the present moment that we can be at all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Story IV

This is the last part of a recent speech I gave about my grief journey. Read part I, part II,and part III if you missed them.

I've gathered many insights along the way, and I'd like to quickly share 8 of those insights with you now.

The first one is that humans are notoriously bad with causality. Why did Deb get cervical cancer? Who knows. Why did she die at age 32? Who knows. Spending hours and hours thinking about these types of "why" questions didn't really get me anywhere in my grieving. Eventually, I learned to make peace with ambiguity. I don't need to know why.

The second insight is that I needed to learn how to love myself first. I had spent so much of my time caring for Deb and my son that I hadn't taken any time for me. I had to learn how to treat myself well, and that meant doing things that made me feel good, not necessarily those around me. I also learned to say "no" to pressures from work and friends to do things that would take up my time. I needed all my spare time to grieve.

The third insight is that grief is largely a feeling process, not a thinking process. Intellectualizing my grief was not very helpful, but expressing my grief with my body was helpful. The techniques I learned from The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing were very helpful. I found I could help the process along by managing my sensory environment and making choices that relaxed my five senses. I put artwork on my walls; I listened to smooth jazz at home and classical music at work; I learned a bit about essential oils and made sure my house smelled nice; I ate good-tasting food, even if my senses were dulled for a while; and I wore clothes that made me feel good about myself. I smiled a lot, whether I felt like it or not. And I walked outside in nature as often as I could.

The fourth insight is that stress exists because we insist. You'll recall that when I was trying to sell my house to move to Central America, I experienced major bodily stress. As soon as I abandoned all those plans, and decided to go with the flow of grief, that bodily stress went away. It was an important lesson. Even today, whenever I feel stress, I stop and examine how I am trying to resist the flow of life. When I stop resisting, the stress evaporates. I learned how to go with the flow.

The fifth insight is that we are goal-seeking entities. We are designed to always have a goal out in front of us. Once I started diligently learning about grief, I realized that my new goal was to be at peace with Deb's death. The question I started asking myself all the time was, "how can I be at peace?" With this question as my goal, I started finding answers.

Sixth insight: I learned this concept from the Vipassana meditation course I attended in Quebec and subsequent studying on the subject afterwards. Our thoughts and feelings are impermanent. The whole purpose of our brain is to generate thoughts which lead to movement. The pattern is: a thought comes up, which leads to a feeling somewhere in the body, which leads to action of some kind. But because grief is primarily a feeling process, we don't need our brains to generate thoughts to have feelings – we already have way more feelings than we know what to do with! But how do we quiet the mind? What I learned by sitting in that gloomy hall for 10 hours a day for 10 days was how to allow a thought to come up and pass away without acting on it. I was fine to just be, I didn't have to do anything. To put it simply, we are human beings, not human doings.

Seventh insight: I learned this from a Hawaiian healing method called ho'oponopono. When I look back on my life, I see that every single one of my problems originated from my memory. Looking back on the past and comparing it to the present is a recipe for misery. So, I learned a technique for dealing with my memories and letting them go. I can make a choice: I can live in the past, from my memory, or I can live in the present, from my 5 senses. The healing technique is very simple. Whenever I find myself reliving a memory, I say 4 simple phrases: I love you, I'm sorry, please forgive me, thank you. This helps me let go of the memory and reminds me to live in the present. You can read more about this amazing technique on my blog.

And lastly, I've glommed onto a set of simple, yet profound, guidelines for running my life. When I go to do anything, I remind myself that I'm going to do it as follows: in an easy and relaxed manner, in a healthy and positive way, in its own perfect time, and for the good of all. The result of following these simple guidelines? A peaceful, stress-free life. I love the expression, "how you do anything is how you do everything."

I’ll leave you tonight with one more insight that I learned second-hand. This one comes from Ecuador. A shaman there was recently asked what he thought the biggest problem was with North Americans. He thought for a moment and said, "They don't respect endings." Why? Probably ignorance. Endings are really beginnings.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

My Story III

This is part III of a recent speech I gave about my grief journey. Read part I and part II if you missed them.

Ten months out. I am always on the verge of tears. I cry at my desk at work. I cry eating supper at home with my son. I cry reading grief books on the bus on the way to and from work. I'm now a regular here at BFO. I tell the group session, "I feel like I'm in a nightmare that's never going to end."

Thirteen months out. I begin a BFO closed group session, meeting with ten other widows and widowers every week for ten weeks. I find it very, very helpful. Not so much because of what is being said there, but because I am now focusing heavily on healing. And I begin looking every day for helpful insights that I can share with the group.

Fourteen months out. I can't sleep. My skin is crawling, and I want to tear it off. This feels horrible. But I know what this is. By now I have read about how the chemical addiction withdrawal symptoms of grief can be eerily similar to those that heroin addicts experience when they go cold turkey. But why am I feeling like this now, at 2 am? Oh yeah. It is now Mother's Day.

Seventeen months out. I am spending the weekend with the woman I had tried to have a relationship with the previous year. She is still a very nice woman. I am still not ready for a relationship. But now, I can see that while we have a great deal in common, there are some key areas in which we are not very compatible. I am not falling in love with her. We discuss it, and she agrees that we are good friends but that's it. We part amicably, no hard feelings. I am still alone, still a single dad. I am still in pain from time to time, but the pain is less.

Nineteen months out. After some encouragement from a friend here at BFO, I start a blog and begin writing about ways to recover and heal from grief. I do this for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I want to give back and help others. You can't forget the title: My Spouse Is Dead dot com.

Twenty-one months out. I attend a silent meditation course to learn a particular meditation technique called Vipassana. I have never done any kind of formal meditation before, ever. For 10 hours every day for 10 days, I sit in dim silence and practice. Going in, I had thought that being alone with myself for this long will be emotionally traumatic, but it is not. Instead, it is an amazing experience that proves to be a major key to my healing and recovery process. I never look at the world the same way ever again. I am now at peace. The pain is gone.

Those are the highlights of my grief and healing journey. I’ll pass around a few of the books that have been helpful to me along the way. I have a complete list of all these books on my blog, along with summaries and excerpts. The The Grief Recovery Handbook; How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies; The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing; The Sedona Method.

Part IV is next...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

My Story II

This is part II of a speech about my story (read part I here) that I gave recently at Bereaved Families of Ontario:

One month out. I receive the first "AfterLoss" newsletter the funeral home signed me up for. I don't want to read about how people grieve. I just want to get on with my life. I sure don't want to read about pain and how it will go on for a long time, or how grief is forever. I don't really feel pain. Besides, I have been busy grieving ever since Deb said goodbye to me. I'm pretty much finished now. Or so I think.

Three months out. My very annoying alarm clock goes off at 8:00 am, signaling it is time to get up and go to work. Beep, beep, beep. I stare up at the ceiling and think, "Life is pointless." I do this for the next 3 and a half hours. At 11:30, I finally get up, turn off the alarm, get ready, and go to work.

Four months out. I've been noticing that my perception of time is off, like everything is delayed a half-second or so. Colours seem dim, no longer vivid. Food has little taste. I feel very strange. Later I will learn that I am still physically, emotionally, and chemically addicted to Deb, and that I am experiencing withdrawal symptoms. I am numb.

Five months out. I meet a very nice woman online, and I ask her out. Why am I dating at five months? Death did us part. As I said, my emotional connection to Deb was over 15 months before she died. And due to cervical cancer, any physical connection between us was impossible. And I want my young son to have a new mom. And besides, I know that I am happiest when I am loving someone else. But right now I am not experiencing happiness. Instead, it feels like someone is taking a big yellow marker and highlighting everything that I have lost.

Six months out. I'm starting to become unglued. I have been pushing forward with my plans to move to Central America, a huge dream of mine for many years. But as I get ready to sell my house, I begin having anxiety attacks. I can feel my blood pressure rising, and I suspect I might soon have a heart attack. Full stop. I listen to my body. I stop all plans for selling my house and moving. I break off my fledgling relationship. I shelve any plans I have for the rest of my life. I later learn that planning for the future is a major grief trigger. I stare grief in the face. Looks like I'm going to have to grieve after all. But what is grief, anyway?

Seven months out. I am in deep pain. It feels like someone ripped my chest open with a jagged sword. I walk down the stairs here for the first time. I don't want to be here. I am a little scared about what I will learn about myself here. I toy briefly with the idea of writing "Cornelius" on my nametag, like Tyler Durdon does in the movie Fight Club. In the group session, I hear stories of other widows and widowers who are experiencing similar things to me. And I hear a story from someone with circumstances worse than my own. This somehow makes me feel a little better. Maybe even a little smug.

Part III coming soon...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Story

In less than 48 hours, the title of this blog will no longer be appropriate for me ;-) That's right, I am getting married. I can remember sitting on my couch about two weeks after I attended my 10 day silent meditation course, thinking, "I have never been so at peace, being alone, in my entire life." And of course, I met my fiancé just a few days later :-)

A lot has come together for me since I learned how to meditate and quiet my mind. Not just meeting and falling in love with my soon-to-be-wife, but also being at total peace with Deb's death. I can listen to her voice or watch a video of her and feel nothing but peace. Such a far cry from two years ago!

Because I'll be busy (!) for the next few days, I thought I'd share a speech I gave in June to Bereaved Families of Ontario. I talk a bit about my journey and the many lessons that I have learned. I hope you will find it helpful.

Hi, my name is Vic. I'm a 36 year old widower. Tonight I'd like to tell you a little bit about my story, share some of my experiences, and reveal some of the valuable insights that I've gleaned from my grief journey. At the end, I'll be happy to take any questions you may have, but I'll tell you right up front, I am an expert on one person's grief, and one person's grief only: mine. Still, there are some common threads that bereaved people tend to share, so it is my hope that you are able to take even just one thing home with you tonight that would be both helpful and healing.

First, a bit of back-story. I was married to my wife Deb for 12 and a half years, and she died at age 32 of cervical cancer. We found out in childbirth. Or rather, I had my first inkling that something was wrong just a few hours before my son was born. We were working with a midwife at the hospital, and when she was checking for dilation, she noticed something. "Probably just a polyp," she said, smiling. But her eyes weren't smiling. This is my first clue.

September 2003. Two months after my son is born, Deb finally has her consultation with her gynecologist. She meets me after work with the stroller, in tears. Cervical cancer. At this point in time, we aren't thinking about death. It is caught in the very early stages, and besides, young people don't die of cancer. We are more upset about the upcoming hysterectomy and the resulting loss of fertility. No more kids.

Six months later. We get the results of a PET scan: no traces of cancer. The operation, chemo, and radiation are a success. But we do not celebrate. These tests aren't foolproof. Somehow I know that things are going to get worse. How much worse, I have no idea.

Christmas, 2004. The results of a test are in. Yes, all this recent pain is a result of the cancer that is back, hard. We are looking at major, major surgery and heavy chemo. The oncologist says, "There's more to tell, but that's enough for now." This is my second clue.

Late January, 2005. The doctor says, "You have a mean survival time of 3-6 months." When we get home from that terrible hospital meeting, Deb looks at me and says, "Well, I guess this is goodbye." And the emotional connection I share with my wife is over, just like that.

March 29, 2006. Fifteen months, countless chemo, radiation, and surgical procedures later. I'm leaning up against the back of my car in the parking lot of the hospital, eating a banana. I have been up for over 48 hours. I have just kissed the lifeless forehead of my now dead wife minutes before. Strangely, I feel nothing. My thoughts at this time are, "Well, that's over. Now I'm a widower. Now what?"

Part II tomorrow night...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Your Original Face

Thoughts become things... choose the good ones!®
-- Mike Dooley

Now that our spouse is dead, who are we? An easy answer is "a widow" or "a widower." But what does that word mean, really? How does that word map on to who we are? We used to define ourselves by words like "I'm a husband" or "wife" or "companion" or "mate" or any other number of descriptive words to indicate our relationship with our love.

But now, we have to start over again in so many ways. And our self-descriptive language changes as well, especially the language we use to talk to ourselves, that ongoing conversation in our head. Perhaps now the language changes to phrases like, "I'm scared," or "I'm angry," or "I'm frustrated," or any other number of ways to describe our new life of limitations.

The caveat here is that what we think about expands. If we think about ourselves as weak, hurting, lost, alone, or troubled, we will get more of the same in our life. It can be very difficult to break out of these thought patterns, especially when we are in the terrible pain of grief. Yet we must.

The following excerpt challenges us to examine our lives from an earlier time, a time before we found ourselves in our current predicament. No, not before our spouse died — before we were born:

Who Were You Before Your Identity?

A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes "show me your original face before you were born." Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was "that makes no sense — I didn't exist before I was born." But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like "before I was born," I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind. Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there. For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.

I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning. One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization. In the words "before you were born," "you" means your identity — the beliefs you've formed about yourself and who you are in the world. You "gave birth" to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were. The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed — we had an "original face" — before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves. We are not our beliefs, in other words — we are their creator and believer.

When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves. As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives. At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we're "drawing a blank," not coming up with anything. However, we only see it that way because we're so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don't arise. In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.

I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my "original face." Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs. This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia — it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.

In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality. Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away. Spiritual teacher Osho's description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well: "Just be what you are and don't care a bit about the world. Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart. This is what Zen people call your 'original face' — relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave."

As always, I'll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me. If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following. When some harmful idea about yourself arises — for instance, "I'm too scared to do this," "I'm not an interesting person," "people are going to mock me if I try this," and so on, pause what you're doing for a moment. Ask yourself when you decided that this was true. Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.

You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has "always been true" — that you've "always" been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else. If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or — if those two questions yield the same answer — before you existed. As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you'll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank — where you can't come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.

Don't give up here simply because you don't think you can remember anything — allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it. As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you. This is the experience of your "original face" — your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways. You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.

[This article is by Chris Edgar from Purpose Power Coaching (]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Outgoing and The Return II

In my last post, I imagine I irritated more than a few of you by suggesting that the death of our spouse is a gift. If you're within the first year or two, you probably use far different words, like tragedy, catastrophe, disaster, or robbery! Yet, I am in no way intending to cause indignation. Keep in mind that I too am a widower, and that I too have experienced the pain, anguish, anxiety, and suffering that goes with bereavement. But I have come through grief to the other side, and my days are now filled with peace and happiness. And excitement! ;-)

My last post gave Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose account of our life being one of expansion and contraction. It is within the contraction that we are given the gift, and personal loss and tragedy are often the catalyst:


The return movement in a person's life, the weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening — the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or to someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.

There is in our civilization a great deal of ignorance about the human condition, and the more spiritually ignorant you are, the more you suffer. For many people, particularly in the West, death is no more than an abstract concept, and so they have no idea what happens to the human form when it approaches dissolution. Most decrepit and old people are shut away in nursing homes. Dead bodies, which in some older cultures are on open display for all to see, are hidden away. Try to see a dead body, and you will find that it is virtually illegal, except if the deceased is a close family member. In funeral homes, they even apply makeup to the face. You are only allowed to see a sanitized version of death.

Since death is only an abstract concept to them, most people are totally unprepared for the dissolution of form that awaits them. When it approaches, there is shock, incomprehension, despair, and great fear. Nothing makes sense anymore, because all the meaning and purpose that life had for them was associated with accumulating, succeeding, building, protecting, and sense gratification. It was associated with the outward movement and identification with form, that is to say, ego. Most people cannot conceive of any meaning when their life, their world, is being demolished. And yet, potentially, there is even deeper meaning here than in the outward movement.

It is precisely through the onset of old age, through loss or personal tragedy, that the spiritual dimension would traditionally come into people's lives. This is to say, their inner purpose would emerge only as their outer purpose collapsed and the shell of the ego would begin to crack open...

The disruption of the outward movement at a time when it is "not meant to be happening" can also potentially bring forth an early spiritual awakening in a person. Ultimately, nothing happens that is not meant to happen, which is to say, nothing happens that is not part of the greater whole and its purpose. Thus, destruction or disruption of outer purpose can lead to finding your inner purpose and subsequently the arising of a deeper outer purpose that is aligned with the inner...

What is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence. In the traditional figure of the "blind seer" or the "wounded healer" of ancient cultures and legend, some great loss or disability on the level of form has become an opening into spirit. When you have had a direct experience of the unstable nature of all forms, you will likely never overvalue form again and thus lose yourself by blindly pursuing it or attaching yourself to it. [emphasis mine]

The opportunity that the dissolution of form, and in particular, old age, represents is only just beginning to be recognized in our contemporary culture. In the majority of people, that opportunity is still tragically missed, because the ego identifies with the return movement just as it identified with the outward movement. This results in a hardening of the egoic shell, a contraction rather than an opening. The diminished ego then spends the rest of its days whining or complaining, trapped in fear or anger, self pity, guilt, blame, or other negative mental-emotional states or avoidance strategies, such as attachment to memories and thinking and talking about the past.

If you read that last paragraph and thought, "Hey! I resemble that comment!" know that there is a way out. The vast majority of our suffering is caused by our cravings and clingings to the trappings of this world. Now that our spouse is dead, our memories of our past married life constitute a substantial part of those trappings. As we let go of those memories, we find that our suffering eases and we can find more contentment within the present moment. Being at peace is only possible in the present; we cannot be at peace when we hold fast to the shards of the past.

May you find peace.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Outgoing and The Return

In the last chapter of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, he explains several things that directly pertain to us as widow/ers. Within the first year or two after the death of our spouse, it can be very, very difficult to conceive of our mate's death as a great gift to us. But, as Eckhart illustrates, the gift is there nonetheless.

Our life consists of two main phases — the outgoing phase, where we are growing and expanding, and the return phase, where we are diminishing and shrinking [pages 282-283]:


Those two movements, the outgoing and the return, are also reflected in each person's life cycles. Out of nowhere, so to speak, "you" suddenly appear in this world. Birth is followed by expansion. There is not only physical growth, but also growth of knowledge, activities, possessions, experiences. Your sphere of influence expands and life becomes increasingly complex. This is a time when you are mainly concerned with finding or pursuing your outer purpose. Usually there is also a corresponding growth of the ego, which is identification with all the above things, and so your form identity becomes more and more defined. This is also the time when outer purpose — growth — tends to become usurped by the ego, which unlike nature does not know when to stop in its pursuit of expansion and has a voracious appetite for more.

And then, just when you thought you made it or that you belong here, the return movement begins. Perhaps people close to you begin to die, people who were a part of your world. Then your physical form weakens; your sphere of influence shrinks. Instead of becoming more, you now become less, and the ego reacts to this with increasing anxiety or depression. Your world is beginning to contract, and you may find you are not in control anymore. Instead of acting upon life, life now acts upon you by slowly reducing your world. The consciousness that identified with form is now experiencing the sunset, the dissolution of form. And then one day, you too disappear. Your armchair is still there. But instead of you sitting in it, there is just an empty space. You went back to where you came from just a few years ago.

The day we came home from the hospital knowing that Deb's cancer had returned and that this would be a fight to the death was the day I could feel our life contracting. I watched, helpless, as Deb became less and less. All this at a time when, as a new mom to our 1 and a half year old son, she should have been fulfilling her potential. She absolutely saw motherhood as her outward purpose. And I had thought my outward purpose was as a husband and a father. Instead, It turned out that my outward purpose was as a caregiver. Until one day the couch was still there, but instead of Deb sitting on it, there was just an empty space.

In my next post, I'll share Eckhart's wisdom of the gift that awaits us during The Return, if we will just be aware of it and seize the opportunity.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

See The Perfection

In my last post, I left you with the following quote:

See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be
-- Lester Levenson

It comes from a very special book called Happiness Is Free, and when I first read it about 3 weeks after Deb died, I wanted to reach through the book and choke Lester by the throat! I mean, come on! My wife is dead. And you're talking about "seeming imperfection?" I'll "seeming imperfection" you one! Too bad — I was too late. Lester died in 1994.

And no, I'm not still bitter about that quote. In fact, I now completely agree with him. After much hard grief work and a lot of personal growth, I have come to understand what he was talking about. I give a bit more context for the quote in one of my earlier posts entitled Perspectives. The quoted passage starts off with the following line: "Look within yourself and see if you are willing to live in a world without problems."

But when we become bereaved, our whole life is turned upside down. We don't feel the same, all our plans for the future are put in doubt and/or destroyed, and we often struggle to mentally survive moment to moment. That first year especially, it is a major accomplishment just to get out of bed and go to work and back! Everything is a struggle. Everything is a problem. And grief hurts like hell — another problem to overcome. And our best friend / lover / companion / fellow parent / confidant / supporter is dead and never coming back, and that's a problem with no solution! So what's this nonsense about looking within to see if I am willing to live in a world without problems? Where do these guys get off writing this junk?

I'm almost finished reading Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose. He explains that sometimes when people suffer a profound loss, they experience an emerging new dimension of consciousness. Whatever they had identified with has been taken away. Then, inexplicably, the initial anguish or intense fear gives way to a deep peace and serenity.

In my case, this did not happen right away. In fact, I had a lot of grief work to do before, at month 21, I attended a free 10 day silent meditation course, and then I began to experience what Eckhart talks about. I realized my true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what my consciousness had identified with. And I had really identified myself with Deb, both before and after she died. But here I was on day 9 of my meditation course, realizing that there exists this guy named Vic who has no problems whatsoever. That guy is truly who I am! I am not my problems. I am not my story.

Of course, there's a strong possibility that you're reading this and thinking, "there's no way I'm going to meditate for 10 minutes, let alone 10 days!" Or maybe, "My story is very important to me. It is a big part of who I am, who I have become." Or even more likely, "I can never be truly happy ever again, now that my spouse is dead. If giving up my problems and my story is the price I have to pay for serenity, and I will also lose my identity in the process, then that is too great a price to pay. I will not diminish the memory of my dead spouse so that I can be happy."

Except that that is not what happens. Identifying with our pain, our story, our memories, and our problems sets us up for even deeper misery, as Eckhart explains [pages 57-58 of A New Earth]:

Not everybody who experiences great loss also experiences this awakening, this disidentification from form. Some immediately create a strong mental image or thought form in which they see themselves as a victim, whether it be of circumstances, other people, an unjust fate, or God. This thought form and the emotions it creates, such as anger, resentment, self-pity, and so on, they strongly identify with, and it immediately takes the place of all the other identifications that have collapsed through the loss. In other words, the ego quickly finds a new form. The fact that this new form is a deeply unhappy one doesn't concern the ego too much, as long as it has an identity, good or bad. In fact, this new ego will be more contracted, more rigid and impenetrable than the old one.

Whenever tragic loss occurs, you either resist or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise, and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. Resistance is an inner contraction, a hardening of the shell of the ego. You are closed. Whatever action you take in a state of inner resistance (which we could also call negativity) will create more outer resistance, and the universe will not be on your side; life will not be helpful. If the shutters are closed, the sunlight cannot come in. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. If action is possible or necessary, your action will be in alignment with the whole and supported by creative intelligence, the unconditioned consciousness which in a state of inner openness you become one with. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. If no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that come with surrender. You rest in God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Never Mind

I have a little index card (folded at the bottom so it stands up) on my office desk with the following written on it:

Everything Is In Flow
I am letting go of all resistance to life

It has sat there in my peripheral vision for over two years. I didn't realize what a profound effect it was having until one of my co-workers recently said to me, "man, you are so Zen." I just smiled, mostly because I don't know a thing about Zen ;-)

But I did understand what he meant. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers these days. Of course, now that my spouse is dead, my bar for life challenges has been raised substantially, so the little things (what we affectionately called chickenshit in the army ;-) don't really bother me anymore. But I'm finding more and more that the big things don't really bother me anymore either.

Perhaps you're familiar with the story of the farmer who experienced a variety of experiences that most of his neighbors were quick to label "good" or "bad:"

There is an ancient Chinese story of a farmer who owned an old horse that till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. Once again, the farmer's only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

There are no misfortunes in life. There are only missed fortunes… missed only because we fail to recognise and appreciate them as they truly are… fortunes, experiences, learning opportunities, seeds of wisdom…

From our limited vantage point, it is often fruitless to attempt to figure out why something happened and unhelpful to label it as good or bad. I often find myself saying, "it is what it is." In bereavement, of course, we need to confront this issue head-on. Almost anyone would say that having your spouse die is bad, terrible, a catastrophe. Is that so? Death is what it is. Nobody gets out of this life alive.

I'm not asking you to logically accept this, right now or ever. I am suggesting that you not think about it. If there are some things in life that we are not destined to understand, why waste time thinking about them?

Ah, you say, but what about the pain? The agony of grief hurts beyond imagination and lasts far longer that what we think we can tolerate. Surely that is bad?

Is that so?

The pain we experience in bereavement is what it is. And that is the key — we need to experience it, fully and completely. Not run away from it, avoid it, bargain with it, or anesthetize it. We need to feel it, experience it, welcome it. A great question we can ask ourselves which comes from The Sedona Method:

Can you just allow whatever you are experiencing right now to be here?

There's a scene near the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O'Toole lights a match and watches it burn down to his fingertips. When his co-worker tries it, he flings the match away and exclaims, "it bloody hurts!" To which the young Lawrence replies, "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." And despite having watched that film over ten times, I've never understood that quote until today ;-)

When we begin to accept that grief hurts, when we welcome the pain, we can fully experience bereavement, and we can begin to heal. And instead of asking ourselves why this terrible thing has happened to us, we can ponder this instead:

See the perfection where the seeming imperfection seems to be
-- Lester Levenson

And yes, that snapped me out the first time I read it too ;-)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Adapting To Being Alone

Soon after our spouse dies and the funeral is over and the family has gone back home, we find ourselves facing the awful reality of being alone. Awful not only because we don't want to be alone, but also because we aren't ready to be alone. We still think like we're married, and we have hundreds of habits that are appropriate to our past life as a husband or wife. Throughout those early days and for months after, reality is constantly scraping against these thoughts and habits, harshly reminding us that we are alone.

A good example: you get out of the house for the day and come home to a dark, empty house. As the silence envelops you, you think again that this is now how it is — you are alone. And that isn't going to be changing anytime soon.

Understandably, this can often cause a great deal of anxiety and fear. As I've posted about previously, we can respond to anxiety actively by facing our fears, or we can respond passively by avoiding them. It is quite common for widow/ers to avoid fears early on by plunging into work, physical activities and exercise, or projects. Anything to avoid confronting this reality of being alone. But if you're still avoiding being alone as you approach the one year mark, it's maybe time to ask yourself why.

Chandra Alexander has posted a great article about this avoidance of being alone, and I think it speaks directly to those of us who have lost our mates:

Avoiding Being Alone

Are you afraid to spend time alone and will you do anything to avoid it? If you are constantly avoiding alone time, here are some things to think about that just might help in setting you free.

1. Is doing “anything” better than being alone?

  • If doing anything feels better than being alone, you need to deal with this issue, because doing “anything” is not better than being alone.

  • When we run from something (being alone), the focus remains on the running and not what we are doing.

2. Do you feel anxious when faced with the prospect of being alone?

  • The feeling of anxiety lets us know that the feelings we are running from are beginning to rise to the surface; that’s what happens when we spend time alone.

  • You will always feel anxious when you enter unknown territory. You are used to being distracted. When you are alone, many of those familiar distractions are removed; as a result, you will initially feel anxious.

3. You must face your fears or you will always be running.

  • Running becomes very tedious, very tiring. The only way you will ever be able to stop running, is to turn around and invite the demons in.

  • When you face your fears and refuse to run, the chase stops!

4. Spending time alone is the ONLY way to really know your SELF.

  • It is only in the quiet moments that we are able to KNOW the depths of who we really are.

  • Can you not answer your cell, turn the TV off, and sit quietly?

  • Can you bear the anxiety that comes from not being distracted? If you can, you will be rewarded with an expanded sense of Self.

5. Enjoying your own company is the reward.

  • To be able to have a solid sense of Self - whether you are with people or alone - is what you want to happen.

  • There is NOTHING better than enjoying your own company!!!

In my case, after working hard on getting used to being alone, at 20 months I decided to be really alone. I felt I was mostly ready to confront myself fully and completely, so with much trepidation I attended a free 10 day silent meditation course. It turned out to be the major key to my healing. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Body’s Power to Heal Itself

I read an interesting article a month or so ago called The Key to Natural Healing. One thing jumped out at me:

The Body’s Power to Heal Itself

Q: I find it hard to understand how pain points to the ultimate?

A: […] Another way to express this is to let the body be body. The body has an organic memory of health. You have the proof of this in the fact that when you cut your finger, it heals within a week. The body evidently knows precisely how to heal itself...

Understanding that the body has a built in blue print of perfect health and it will do all it can to heal itself, I feel, is a very reassuring fact. The human body has enormous intelligence which it has accumulated over centuries, it know exactly what to do and how to do it. Your job is mostly to listen to it, and assist it with it’s inbuilt healing capabilities.

When I read that, I was reminded that when our body heals a cut finger, it heals it just to the right amount and no more. There's an amazing process at work there, one that's not under our control. Yes, there are things we can do to help it along, like swab it with rubbing alcohol to kill the germs, but the healing is done for us. And when our finger is healed, we don't have to mentally address the body and tell it,"OK, good job, you can stop now." The body knows how to heal itself.

A similar process is at work when our spouse dies. The body knows how to grieve. And it will heal our grief to just the right amount and no more. This should offer us a great deal of hope. Pretty much every one of us has suffered a small cut somewhere on our bodies. And our body healed itself. You probably don't even remember the particulars about some of those cuts anymore, especially if they happened some years ago. Isn't it comforting to know that your body is busily at work healing itself from this grief wound as well? You know that your body can heal cuts, and you have the proof that the healing process works. This insight should help to alleviate some of our fears. Grief doesn't last forever.

Isn't it interesting that we feel pain when we are bereaved? We have no cut on our body, but it hurts like we've been attacked by a meat cleaver. I remember feeling like someone had buried a big hatchet in the middle of my chest and was busy wiggling it around. It hurt like hell.

Grief was devastating to me. Was it devastating to my body? No. Grief was devastating to my mind, and my mind caused the pain in my body. I needed to learn how to heal my mind. And when I learned how to heal my mind, the physical pain went away.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Being Human

Do not search for the truth;
only cease to cherish opinions.

— Chien-chih Seng-ts'an, Third Zen Patriarch [606AD]

I'm half-way through Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, and I've been mulling over the above quote since I read it late this afternoon. For many years, the pursuit of truth has long been a passion of mine, but since I attended a free 10-day silent meditation course this past January, I have not been so interested in "the truth." I have, however, been interested in noticing my opinions and being aware of my limited perception of the world, so I smiled when I read the zen proverb today.

Ekhart has a number of interesting things to say in his book, several of which I think directly apply to widow/ers. I'll touch on one of them briefly tonight, and it will help to clarify my position on a philosophical point.

I like the way Ekhart explains that our task is to find the balance between human and being. Humans have form while beings are formless. So many people get caught up in the world of forms that they miss the spiritual side, the formless side. Yet forms are important: we need to eat, sleep, stay warm, and participate in various other activities in the material world. The world of forms cannot be ignored or marginalized. But it is not the only world.

The formless world of our being is the world beyond our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is in that world that we are. We are not our thoughts, we are not our feelings, we are not our emotions. There is a part of us beyond these three things, the part that observes the thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Cultivating awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions will help us get in touch with who we are. Why would we want to do this? In my case, on day nine of my Vipassana meditation course, I discovered the Vic who has no problems. Problems are limited to the world of forms. Wouldn't you like to be free of your problems?

Because our spouse is dead, it is easy to get caught up in our story. "My life is ruined" is a story. "My spouse is dead" is a fact. But how can we state the fact without getting caught up in the story? The story is a collection of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But we are not our stories. And our stories do not serve us well. They hold us back, keeping us caught up in the human part of our being. We need to let our stories go.

But don't get me wrong here — a major part of our grief work is expressing our story, getting it out there. We need to get the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of our bereavement out. That's why I am a big advocate of grief support groups, especially those run by people who have already suffered a loss themselves. Attending these meetings and sharing your story is a safe and appropriate way to grieve, one that won't alienate you from your friends and family.

But expressing our story is different from identifying with it. If you are still saying your life is ruined after a couple of years, you probably want to start examining why you have taken on this persona. What does it do for you? Does it replace a previous persona, the one you had when you were married, the story of the loving wife or husband, caregiver, lover, friend, companion? Has that story been replaced by this new story? Are you willing to entertain the idea that there is a you who has no story? Needs no story?

It would be easy for me to get caught up in my story. My wife died so young. We had so much left to do. Her slow death by cancer was agonizing to witness, and there was so little I could do to alleviate her pain or comfort her spirit. I was left alone to raise our 2 year old son. His life will never be the same, growing up in the world with no mommy. You get the idea.

But what would this story get me? What would it accomplish? Maybe I could get some sympathy, the first time it is told to someone new. Probably not the second time, and good luck finding that new person to tell them a third time ;-) Or, I could use it as an excuse for not accomplishing more in my life. He loved her so much, and now he is struggling to simply survive. Look how devastated he is. How brave he is, facing life alone as a single dad. Or some other such claptrap.

Do I still tell my story? Yes, at the grief support group, as a way to show newly bereaved widow/ers that life does go on. Here's how I tell my story now:

Hi, my name is Vic, and my wife Deb died of cervical cancer two years ago at age 32. We were married for 12 and a half years, and I have a five year old son.

That story is not who I am. Those are some facts that are associated with me, with my past. Part of my healing from grief was telling a much more elaborate, personal version of that story, and then letting that story go.

Why am I sharing this with you now? Well, after my last post about biochemical processes, I didn't want to leave you with the impression that I am a behaviorist. I do not believe that we are simply a walking bucket of sloshing chemicals, bumbling about and reacting to our environment, and that bereavement is simply a matter of a scarcity of endorphins and dopamine. No, no, no ;-) But neither is bereavement a purely spiritual matter of losing one's soulmate, the loss of that spiritual being that understood us like no one else. Both aspects are important, both have their place. Finding the balance between the two is key to grief recovery.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chemical Dependencies

I'm always fascinated to learn about the powerful chemicals sloshing around our cranium. One neurotransmitter in particular, dopamine, plays several critical roles in grief and grief recovery.

The inspiration for this post came from reading The Science of Setting Goals by Dustin Wax. It reminded me of another article I read a few years ago about how America is High on Dopamine.

I've written before about ways to release endorphins, that natural form of opiate produced by our bodies. But it is important to understand the role dopamine plays in grief, in contrast to endorphins. I'll quote some pertinent info from the second article first:

Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, a neurotransmitter that controls action. Dopamine is associated with addiction of all types. Recent studies have indicated that dopamine responds more to unpredictable rewards than to predictable ones. A part of the brain called the striatum where dopamine exists seems to care more about what it cannot predict. In a sense, dopamine produces a need for novelty.

Dopamine has been associated with the novelty of drinking, gambling and other addictions, but it is also connected with curiosity, adventure, entrepreneurship and accomplishments.

How does this relate to bereaved widow/ers? When our spouse was alive, we became addicted to them chemically. Just being around them released endorphins, which contributed greatly to our sense of well-being. Now that our spouse is dead, we no longer get the endorphin hit and suffer withdrawal.

Dopamine played a role in our wanting to be around our spouse. When we love someone, we do things for them. Think back to a time when you did something for your late spouse. Maybe it was something simple like picking up some flowers they liked on the way home from work. That act of love involved dopamine. Here's some info from the first article:

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

This explains a great deal of how our body responds when we lose our mate:

One of the greatest of desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

For me, anyway, it was helpful to know that those horrible feelings I experienced during my acute grieving were partially chemically-induced. What I wished I had learned earlier was why I found planning for the future to be so traumatic. As I came to learn, future planning is a major grief trigger. Here's one reason why:

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

So now I understand why I felt so terrible when I was still recently bereaved and trying to plan my life without Deb. I was already suffering the loss of dopamine-induced pleasure I used to receive from 14 years of being around her. And then, when I set a goal for my future as a single father, my mind further starved me of dopamine because I hadn't yet attained it! A double-whammy.

All this to say, take it easy on yourself when you are grieving. And when you feel like crap because you can't get up the gumption to do something simple like get some groceries, now you can blame it on the drugs ;-)