Grief and an open heart

May 9, 2010

Some of us react to loss by “shutting down”. We don’t feel we can bear the pain of grief, or we don’t want to risk loving and losing someone again. Rachel, whose comment is quoted below, feels her heart has been “shut for business” since she broke up with her ex four years ago. When she experienced an emotional release in the Opening the Heart meditation, however, she felt hope that she’ll eventually be able to move on and find someone new.

“I felt a significant release with tears when trying this meditation. I split with an ex over four years ago… I haven’t been able to move on at all romantically as I haven’t been able to let go of this past relationship. My heart shut for business to anyone else. I’m really hoping this meditation will eventually help me move on and find love again.”

Rachel has every reason to be hopeful now that she’s been able to start grieving the loss of her ex. If we can grieve a loss fully, feeling the pain all the way through, it leaves us with an open heart that can make new connections. It’s said that the only way through grief is straight into the heart of it. You have to fall into it completely. An open heart is one that can grieve. We can’t really feel love and joy if our hearts are closed to feeling pain. Grief is a natural process that allows us to let go of one relationship and let in another.

Life is full of losses, large and small. Large losses, like losing a  loved one, a job, moving, or falling ill, cause us to grieve. But so do smaller losses, losses that we might not even recognize as something to grieve. This really struck me yesterday as I was inhaling the wonderful fragrance of the jasmine flowers gracing my patio. Spring is my favorite season, and the return of the jasmine nourishes my being and brings me joy. But yesterday I noticed that almost all of the buds had already bloomed, and most of the lovely little flowers were on the decline. Lots of spent blossoms were at my feet. I felt as if I wanted to hold on to the jasmine forever, to never let it go. At some point I noticed a tight feeling in my heart. I felt that holding on feeling so clearly and sensed it as a tightening up against life. I felt I needed to let go and when I did, I felt grief. It was a surrender to the inevitability of loss that is part of the fabric of life. In that surrender I felt my heart relax and open. Though I felt sad, in that moment I felt fully alive. I was open to whatever might come next.

My sense is that we can’t let go and be truly open without feeling the pain of loss. What has your experience with this been?

Winter blues? Some ideas for lifting your spirits!

January 28, 2010

Dan on Facebook asked for some thoughts on seasonal depression. A lover of the outdoors, he’s finding it challenging to spend so much time inside. Winter is a challenge for me too, even here in California where the winters are far milder and shorter than in my native New Jersey. Finding ways of getting through winter has been a big focus for me, and for the first time this year, winter’s not so hard. In fact, at times I’m even enjoying it!

Seasonal depression is quite common, and it can range from simple “winter blahs” to something much more intense. The darkness of winter, combined with the cold and the necessity to stay indoors, can all lead to feeling blue. But I think sometimes winter can also trigger a stronger depression that has to do with unresolved emotional issues that surface when winter forces us to be less active and we have less things to distract us from what lies within us. In that sense, winter can also be an opportunity to see what parts of yourself need healing and attention. For example, for most of us, there’s grief from a variety of losses in life that we’ve never fully processed. Our culture doesn’t do grief well. We get a “stay on the sunny side of the street” kind of message that causes us to avoid the painful feelings of grief. But avoiding, suppressing and distracting ourselves from feelings doesn’t make them go away. Given the more restful time of winter, these feelings can surface.

Although I’m going to share list of some things I’ve done to make winter easier, I have to start by saying that inner work I’ve done in the past has a lot to do with my good spirits this winter. Your everyday, garden-variety winter doldrums might be helped by some of the things I’ll share, but it may take more than that if the depression is more intense.  If you feel your depression is more than simple winter blahs, I’d encourage you to explore the possibility that there is more going on. You can find lots of reading online about depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder. It may be that winter is helping you to see that there’s some inner work to do. Attending to your depression can lead to a more fulfilling life later on. There are lots of good therapies for depression, so I hope you’ll get some help if needed.

And now, as someone who has always dreaded the coming of winter, here are the things I’ve found that are making a big difference for me:

  • I bring more light into my home – light candles, have some pretty lamps lit. If I had a fireplace, I’d make lots of fires. It’s amazing though, how much even one lit candle can mean in winter. Whenever possible, I spend a least a few minutes in the sun, really soaking it in. Full spectrum lighting can help as well.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps with depression, and part of the blahs may come from being more sedentary in winter. I used to rely a lot on walking and when it was too cold to go out in winter, I was at a loss. A few things have made all the difference — an elliptical machine, a bodybar and the hula.
  • I do whatever it takes to stay warm. Lots of layers of clothes, especially yummy wool sweaters with beautiful colors that lift my spirits. I use an electric mattress pad to warm my bed before I get in. If I feel chilled, I’ll even warm my clothes in a dryer and put them on. I can’t tell you how good the heat feels. I have no shame when it comes to keeping warm. People joke about it when I wear two wool hats, one on top of the other, but my comfort comes first!
  • Find enjoyable indoor activities. For me, lately, it’s been the hula. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. Find something that really lifts your spirits and do it!
  • Bring nature indoors. If you, like me, are a lover of nature, having plants indoors can really help. Taking care of them, seeing them grow brings a bit of spring and summer into your home. Forcing bulbs in winter is also wonderful. How about some lovely, fragrant narcissus or hyacinth? The Nature Attunement Meditation is perfect for this as well!
  • Attitude. Oh yes, lest I forget, that all important ingredient. Cognitive therapy is effective in depression, and I think of an attitude adjustment as being just that. If I focus on how long and dreary winter is and how much I want it over with, it does seem incredibly long and dreary. Instead I’m learning to focus on the positive side of winter — the opportunity to be more restful and go within. It’s a time to hibernate and meditate. It’s a time to contemplate.
  • Surrender. Finally, perhaps the most important ingredient is surrendering to the melancholy when it’s present. We’re conditioned to fight it and resist it, to feel it’s bad or wrong. It’s a natural part of life. So often our suffering comes from feeling we should be different than we are (as in always happy and upbeat). Life as we know it couldn’t exist without the poles of opposites – joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Let it be OK to feel blue.

Perhaps some of these things will be useful for you. Or you may have some other strategies to share. I’d love to know what works for you!

Grief Guided Meditation Podcast

December 18, 2008

We’ve had more requests for a guided meditation for grief than anything else. It’s taken me some time to come up with something, even though I’ve been a grief counselor and experienced a lot of grief in my life. This latest podcast episode, Guided Meditation for Grief, is what came up as I reflected on my own experiences with loss.

Often the people asking for a grief meditation have lost a loved one through death, but grief is a reaction to many types of losses, large and small. Moving, losing a job or home, divorce, a change in roles — all sorts of changes can cause us to feel grief. Sometimes we even grieve lost opportunities or what “might have been”.

Losing a loved one is one of the most painful things we can ever experience. Not only is it painful, it can shake our whole world. The lyrics to Paul Simon’s Graceland say it so well:

“losing love is like a window into my heart; Everybody sees you’re blow apart…”

It can feel like your life is blown apart and your heart is going to break. Grief can bring up all sorts of emotions, not just profound sadness but anger, guilt and more. Depending on how the loss happened, it can make you question all sorts of things. You can feel confused. It can be hard to concentrate. As much as we would rather not have to experience all these things, however, the only way through grief is to experience these things all the way.

Sometimes people feel alone in their grief making it even more difficult. Some cultures and traditions support the process of mourning better than others. Often here in the US, people are expected to “move on” way before they’re ready. People are unsure of what to do and say around a grieving person and may even withdraw. And yet although no one can grieve for us, it can really help to feel others supporting us as we grieve. When my mother died, I went to a hospice support group and it made a world of difference for me.

This podcast episode is designed to help you feel supported in your loss. We hope it helps!

(You can read about grief on our companion website, Heart of Healing.)

Emotional pain in chakra meditation

June 16, 2008

I am responding to a question from a listener who experienced emotional pain while using the Chakra Meditation.  Here is his email:

I was today listening to the Chakra meditation podcast, but felt it was necesarry to turn it off at the Heart Chakra. I found that I became overwhelmed by a feeling of great emotional pain in my heart… I thought I would e-mail you to see if you knew what might be causing this, and how to find the solution.

It’s not unusual to become more aware of our emotions during meditation, and even to have strong emotions or emotional pain come up.  I will write about that in general in another post (or talk about it in another podcast), but for now I’ll talk specifically about having this happen during the Chakra Meditation.

During the chakra meditation, we put our attention on the various chakras.  The chakras, or energy centers of the body, are like doorways to different aspects of ourselves.  They process the energy for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual functioning.  When we put our attention on a chakra, we become more aware of what is going on in the part of our life that the chakra represents.  Not only do we become more aware, but the energy in the chakra is enlivened by our attention.  

Our attention is a beam of energy and intelligence and, like a laser beam, it affects whatever it is directed toward.  With your awareness on your heart chakra, you may get in touch with something going on in your heart area.  It’s like shining a light into a dark room — what has been hidden becomes revealed.

In this case, you felt great emotional pain.  This could be pain associated with something going on in your life now that you’ve been ignoring, or it could be some pain “releasing” from the past.  The heart chakra has to do with our relationships and connections with others.  If there has been some loss or hurt in relationships, it is felt in the heart area.  The loss or hurt could even be associated with things and events, such as moving or losing a job.  If the feeling of hurt (or perhaps grief) isn’t fully “processed”, the energy of the feeling gets “stuck” in the heart chakra.  When we put our attention on the heart chakra, we may feel what is waiting there to be processed.  It’s the job of the heart chakra to process certain emotions, and when we relax in meditation and allow our attention to go there, the heart chakra gains the energy to do its job.  While no one likes to experience emotional pain, it is a part of healing and recovering from an emotional trauma. 

Very often we have grief that hasn’t been fully resolved in our lives.  Some cultures are better than others in supporting people through grief.  In many of our Western cultures, we’ve learned to suppress grief.  But our mind and body will always move toward greater balance and emotional well-being given the opportunity.  While meditating, things that have been under the surface can come up to be felt.

When something comes up that makes you feel too uncomfortable, you can always do what you did and stop the meditation.  It would be good if that happens to lie down and rest a bit to let things settle down. There are some other ways of dealing with strong emotions as well, and for something like this an experienced meditation guide could help.  The advice the guide would give would depend on some one-on-one exchange with you.  

After responding to the person who asked this question, he emailed back that indeed he had recently experienced a sort of emotional trauma and had been feeling quite numb until listening to the meditation. Based on that, I also want to add that it is quite normal to feel numb after a traumatic event like the death of a loved one, breakup of a relationship and any other intense loss or change.  It’s a healthy response of the body and psyche to protect itself from overload and allow us to continue functioning.  Usually that phase passes and we begin to feel our emotional reactions.  Sometimes, however, those reactions are buried and may surface again after a long period of time.  It’s not always possible to know where a strong emotion in meditation is coming from — it could be an emotion from a recent event or left over from something long ago.  In any case, part of healing is experiencing that emotion and meditation can sometimes facilitate that.  

Usually an emotional release will in meditation will not take too long to resolve and won’t cause undue discomfort.  Occasionally, however, meditation can open us up to some feelings that are so difficult for us that we would benefit from help from a trained counselor or therapist.  Be kind to yourself and get support if needed.

Breath in the Heart Guided Meditation

June 13, 2007

We’ve just added the Breath in the Heart meditation to our podcast. It’s a variation on meditations in which you follow your breath. In this case, you maintain awareness of the breath and the heart area at the same time. This helps open and enliven the heart chakra. The heart is the seat of love and connection. Attention on the heart helps to awaken the energy of love. This meditation can be especially soothing as you connect into the energy of the heart. At the same time, it can bring our awareness to any emotional pain which is present in the heart chakra. The pain may be from past hurts or from our current situation. If we are grieving, bringing attention to the heart will help facilitate the feelings of grief. By allowing these feelings to be present, they can move through and resolve.

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