“ ... nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter...” Pema Chodron
This piece is something I've considered writing for the last few months, but was hesitant. Upon reflection on why, I realized that my hesitation to do so stemmed from my instinct to shy away from the dark, more difficult sides of life, and to focus on the positive. This is my mother’s delicate way of coping. I know from experience that my instinct to avoid pain and suffering only ultimately amplifies it and allows it to fester. This is my delicate dance: to hold space for grief and hope at the same time- something I work toward every day. My hope in sharing my whole story, the dark and painful alongside the hopeful is to inspire others to do the same.
In March I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop at Maha Rose in Brooklyn facilitated by Danielle Beinstein and Lacy Phillips. I had been a fan of Lacy’s exquisitely written and curated blog Free + Native for several years. Danielle’s work, I first discovered on Poppy + Seed last fall. I was getting ready to launch Pure + Wild and after reading a brave and articulate piece that Danielle wrote, I reached out and felt an immediate affinity. She had described growing up with a depressive mother and my father had suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression for as long as I could remember.
Watching my father suffer has been a constant in my life, so ingrained in my experience that it is hard for me to imagine life any other way. I haven’t shared this with many people, not even my closest friends until just recently. When I read Danielle’s piece tears ran down my face, it offered me so much comfort in recognition. I knew I had to share my story too. I knew that it was going to be a pivotal piece in my healing process and hoped it would inspire others to share and heal. When I attended the workshop Danielle read my chart. She told me that there was a shift going on and that the heaviness of my younger years was going to give way to more light and ease in my mid 30’s. I returned home with a great sense of hope.
Not quite two months later my father attempted suicide. By some miracle he was found and resuscitated. He was in intensive care for three days. The details of the situation are not what I want to focus on here, rather my experience and how I am attempting to transmute this sadness into grace. I want to examine how this pain is ultimately calling me to tap into an inner reservoir of self trust and hope, and find new ways to process my emotions and experiences.
I inherited many things from my dad: his curly black hair, his sense of humor, his creativity and his sadness. What has always set us apart is my propensity to dream, hope, even in the darkest of moments, heal and change.
For quite some time now I've been contemplating the notion of inherited emotions, specifically sadness. Through meditation, journaling and my work with an amazing therapist I have been observing and attempting to tease out the origins of my emotions, beliefs and behaviors. I have been considering the role of ancestry, the way our lineage shapes the people we become. The way in which some people are married to their suffering while others use it as a catalyst for transformation. I have been contemplating the question: what is it that makes some people able to overcome great adversity and thrive while others are crippled by it?
After my dad’s suicide attempt I found myself at an emotional cross-roads. I felt I knew only two ways of dealing with the sadness, those which I had learned from my parents. I could pull myself up and power forward. Or I could let the sadness in and possibly drown in it. But I asked myself, “ wasn't there another way ? A way of experiencing the full range of my emotions and not drowning in them ? ” What do you do when you haven't had this modeled for you ? How do you unlearn the programming and beliefs that you learned at a very young age? How do you discern which are your own emotions and beliefs and which are inherited ? Is it possible to have acceptance and change co-exist ?
As I've written about here, meditation is something that I had dabbled in over the years before truly surrendering myself to the practice a few years ago. In these past few months my practice has been one of the pillars in allowing me to face my pain without drowning in it. It has allowed me to create a container for my grief, rather than allowing it to encompass me entirely.
In my studies of various contemplative practices one of the concepts that is most helpful in facing my grief is the metaphor from Buddhist philosophy of the Buddha inviting Mara to tea. The night before his enlightenment the Buddha fought a battle with the Demon God Mara. Having failed, Mara left, however he continued to make unexpected appearances. Instead of ignoring Mara or attempting to drive him away the Buddha would acknowledge him, saying “ I see you Mara.” He would then invite him to tea and serve him as an honored guest. I love this metaphor of inviting your pain to tea. Doing so as part of my meditation practice is helping me to dissolve some of the fear I had carried of drowning in the sadness. The fear that at any moment I would be struck by the sadness that I had been trying for so long to avoid. One of the biggest shifts that I am experiencing from deepening my meditation practice is the way that I relate to my emotions, specifically the difficult and painful ones. For so long I had carried around this deep sadness, a unique and amorphous form of grief. The grief of a child watching helplessly as their parent suffers. The grief of a childhood overshadowed by seemingly infinite sadness and hopelessness. I had bottled it up, run a million miles an hour to avoid it. So much so that the fear of its appearance had become unbearable in and of itself.
My meditation practice is allowing me to begin to dismantle that fear, slowly, in a way that makes me feel brave enough to invite my pain into the light and face it. This is not to say that it is taking the pain and sadness away, rather it is taking away some of its power. It's softening it a bit. This in turn is strengthening my ability to sit with it, little by little. It is allowing me to acknowledge its presence. It is giving me the clarity to accept it and find the tools to transform it. It is helping me to open up to the full range of my emotions when what I want to do is shut down or numb out. Through this practice I have slowly started to untether myself from sadness am finding that in fact it is possible for acceptance and change to coexist.