A beautiful, passionate, soulful artist and mother reached out to me to coach her recently. She was eagerly wanting something and sensed that it might be found in the connection her intuition told her to follow.
But by the time was approaching for her scheduled session, she was in an entirely different place than she had expected to be.
A beloved person in her life unexpectedly and tragically died.
She cancelled her session, wanting to howl and grieve and be alone instead.
I could relate.
Boy could I relate.
This week, in fact, is the one year anniversary since my own mother passed away.
There have been so many hours of howling and grieving. Even some, yes, this very morning.
Like animals who run off to the cave to lick their wounds, we humans, too, have a wisdom and knowing that draws us inward in times of deep pain and sadness.It is part of the human experience: the allegorical archetype of diving into pain and loss and tragedy like Persephone and then, by some miraculous resiliency that’s part of the human spirit, coming back to life.
But this depth of common experience can only be revealed when we are willing to go down deep into our own psyches. And for many, the conflict between wanting to look good and put together on the surface can raise a deep conflict with the inner yearning and desire to howl like an animal at times.
Isn’t that what wild animals do, after all?
Howl and hide in caves and then, eventually, come back to circle into the pack of other animals?
What I wanted so much was to deeply honor my artist friend who wanted to take the time to howl and grieve and experience the deep loss. To know that that depth of being is what makes us most deeply human.
Week after week, I see clients who want richer, fuller, more meaningful lives. They - we - want more joy, more peace, more fulfillment in our lives.
And the ones who get those lives I have seen again and again, are the ones with the courage to both wail like a wild wounded animal or a puppy that’s been taken from it’s momma … and show up to the pack of animals again.
There is a paradox that, while there is a time to be alone in the cave to lick one’s wounds, in our culture especially, that is where the story ends.
We lose a child, a friend, a partner or a beloved pet.
A relationship fails.
Our political leadership goes mad, making choices that look insane.
We face the reality of our childish and inauthentic relationship with money.
In all these instances, our habitual tendency is to hide out alone, and then start to cope alone.
We turn to compulsive busyness, to keep the pain of loneliness from seeping in.
We turn to fixing ourselves to hopefully avoid the pain of ever feeling vulnerable to loss again.
We numb out on empty carbs, one too many glasses of wine after the kids are in bed, or sexual misadventures.
All these things we try to cope with alone.
Death. Money. Sex.
Rather than pretending they don’t cause us all pain, we can try something different.
We can try to accept what the poet Rumi referred to as the Open Secret, that I first heard about from one of my mentors at the Omega Institute for Holistic Learning, author Elizabeth Lesser.
You know that thing when your friends ask how it’s going and you say, “Great!” with a big smile on your face while you are secretly freaking out about the fact that your new husband won’t have sex with you?
Or when your boss asks if you need some time off to deal with health issues and you say, “No, no, I’m FINE!” because you're secretly terrified of losing your health insurance, job and financial security if you tell the truth?
Or when your friend who is a little more outwardly successful, more organized and well-spoken asks you to support a cause she’s involved in and you say yes but secretly think, “Shit, she has it all together and I am going to look so stupid next to her. What’s the hell is wrong with me?”
What Rumi invites us to do, way back from the 13th century, is to stop pretending it’s all fine and cop to the open secret. Because we are all pretending and that's partially what causes the suffering and isolation.
To reveal your hurt and your truth to another, safely and appropriately, is where authentic connection is made.
And this is where mindfulness comes in.
By developing a practice of “paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment” (in the words of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn) you begin to watch your thoughts, feelings and beliefs and not take them so seriously.
You can watch them rise and fall in your mind and body, and let them go without telling such a long involved story about what a loser you are, how everybody else is better at life than you, and how lonely you are.
Or how it is always going to hurt like it does now.
With a regular mindfulness practice of even a few minutes a day, you learn to rest in compassionate presence with yourself. And when you can cultivate self-compassion towards the parts of yourself you judge the most, you can begin to open up to the compassion in others.
Let me be honest here: I have in no way mastered this.
But I am nowhere near where I once was in terms of vicious self-judgment.
The open secret is that we all have pain.
Death, money and sex cause every human alive to have challenges at some point or another in life. It’s the human condition, not a personal failure.
And when we can accept it, and accept the loving kindness available to us, both within our skin and in others, we come back to life and light.