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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vic: Wow! I don't know what else to say, that you haven't said already!
Lost my best-friend/spouse 15 mos ago.
I've been sharing my story for about 4 mos, didn't intend to do it at all, but was led to try & help others.
You already know, there's nothing I can do or say, but if you'd like to read my story, it's 3 pages, but let me know, & I'll send to you.
Sheila Joyce Gibbs

A Journey Well Taken: Life After Loss said...

I wrote my story for myself, my children, and others suffering the loss of a loved one. It'll end up in the hands of those who need to see it. May you be well. elaine