I sit down to write and immediately the fear pours over me. This won’t be relevant. This won’t be good. Who will even read this? Who will it actually help? Such a visceral fear paired with an act as simple as writing a blog post.
I have noticed in myself, in my friends and my family members who have experienced loss, that there is an increased sense of fear and despair. Since our identity is created in large part through our attachments, losing an attachment shatters our identity in a visceral way. Since fear is linked closely with insecurity, a part of me becomes very insecure when edging towards anything that could make me vulnerable. The act of writing, performing music, or another kind of expression makes me vulnerable to criticism. The act of opening to love and intimacy makes me vulnerable to rejection, or worse, another loss through death or disease.
There’s a study which observes young mice playing with abandon. Then, a single cat hair is introduced to their cage. Instinctively they experience fear for the first time, and cease playing from that moment forward.
It’s easy and obvious to observe the impact of fear on young mice, but I noticed in myself that creating new habits which prevent me from being vulnerable to perceived danger is far more subtle. After losing my father in my teens, my fear manifested in dropping the arts and studying economics to create perceived security. It also manifested as an eating disorder which helped me avoid the intense emotions of grief. It manifested as training in long distance running from age 18 to 28, which of course does have positive aspect, but also served to help me run away from understanding the implications and process of grief for myself and my family.
What I finally learned in the last few years, was that a consistent practice of feeling the emotions associated with grief (anger, sadness, guilt and anxiety mostly) is necessary in order to move on with the following two tasks of grief as described by William Worden: adapting to an environment without the loss and honouring the loss while embarking on a new life.
I have observed in myself and in my clients that rather than feel, we develop many mechanisms which create the illusion of comforting our fear and discomfort but actually drive us away from feeling, which delays our healing.
The irony is that allowing myself to feel is like playing. When I sit and meditate feel fear and insecurity dance around inside of me, I open to something wild and alive and visceral. Deepening my breathing is like engaging as fear’s dance partner and letting it guide me around my body discovering insights amidst the insecurities.
As a yoga therapist focusing on disordered eating and grief, my perspective on eating disorders so far is that they are an extreme false refuge from the intense emotions of grief. I often remind myself that grief doesn’t only relate to losing someone or something. One of my clients is in his 30s and grew up with a mother who was unable to meet his needs as well as with cultural pressure put on him to live in a certain way, rather than be celebrated for the unique person he is. As a adult, a habit of binge eating, and explosive anger buffer him from needing to feel the grief of not having the family, nor the care or acceptance he longed for. He manages the binge eating with extreme working out, and manages the anger by shutting down his emotions so it’s difficult for him to have close relationships.
Our work together is to create an environment and practice where he can open to feeling the grief of a lost youth. Letting the difficult emotions be felt and released, helps him create a new identity, one in which he practices opening to his feelings, and developing relationships with people who accept and celebrate his depth.
In myself, I have noticed that my sense of playfulness returns when I can breathe into the fear vibrating through my body, rather than constricting around it. I practise gently saying “yes” to each sensation that arises.
This tolerance of my own experience – from the most uncomfortable moments to the most pleasurable moments – makes me more compassionate to the behaviours of my loved ones, and even strangers. And thank god, because living with judgment, no matter how subtle, hardens and constricts the heart. It keeps our worldview and our world constricted.
Compassionate doesn’t mean passive or numb. It still breaks my heart when I read the news about Syria, or about Mylan hiking the prices of Epi-pens. However, rather than reacting with more rage, I allow the sensations move me to take small steady action in the form of continuing to make meaningful things, be stubbornly glad for the life I live, or come back to the value of service and creativity which are at my core.
This way, fear, discomfort, and sadness, all can become fuel for living with more playfulness and compassion.