Three years ago, I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of grief and uncertainty, when my life took a sudden and traumatic turn.
My marriage of 27 years ended, and with it my vision of what my life was supposed to be and how it would unfold. The end of the marriage also took a toll on relationships with many people who had been part of my life up to then, as friends and family distanced themselves. Like the aftermath of an earthquake, the landscape of my social world went through a major upheaval, and much of it will never return to what it once was.
When a major life event like this happens, it is natural that we feel acute grief, pain, and loss. We go through predictable and understandable emotional waves – anger, fear, hopelessness, confusion, questioning. All of these are part of the healing process. It can be particularly hard when we don’t have clear answers or there is a sense that things are unfinished. Like a hangnail that keeps catching on our clothing, these pieces of our story have a way of catching us and holding us in our pain.
After three years I am grateful to say I am in a much healthier and happier place now, even though many aspects of my life remain unresolved. Along the way I learned something valuable about how to live with grief and uncertainty, and some valuable practices that helped me shift from being stuck in pain.
Looking for Hope in all the wrong places
There is an old story of a policeman who finds a man one night on his hands and knees beneath a streetlamp frantically looking on the ground. As the officer approaches it is clear that the man has had one too many of his favourite malt beverages. The officer asks what the man is doing. In a somewhat slurred voice, and with tears of fear and frustration in his eyes, the man replies that he lost his car keys and is trying to find them so he can go home. The officer, about to get down on his hands and knees to help the search, asks the man “is this where you dropped them?”. “Oh no”, replies the man. “I dropped them over there”, pointing to a dark field some 50 feet away, “But I can’t see anything over there and the light is much better here for looking”.
Where we look determines what we see
This story sheds some light (pun intended) on an aspect of the human mind, our attention. The ability to direct our attention is key (pun also intended, a reminder that humor helps us heal) to learning to live with grief and loss. Human attention, or concentration, is like a searchlight shining in the dark – whatever it lands on becomes our reality for the moment that we are focussed on it.
When the searchlight of our attention shifts, what we had been paying attention to goes back out of view and something new becomes our reality. Normally, our mind is shifting and jumping around at a frenetic pace, like a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. It can go back and forth so quickly, from one focus to another, that it can seem as if one thought or feeling is always there. Yet, if we can slow our mind down and look closely, we will see that no thought, feeling or sensation is always there – it is only present when our attention is on it.
Our reality is only what we are paying attention to in any given moment.
This is the key to relief from emotional pain like grief, loss, and uncertainty; that the degree to which we can control where we put our attention determines the degree to which we will not be subject to the suffering of our pain. When we give ourselves some space around our pain we can better see what it really is, and this helps the healing process along.
Lessons from childhood
Here’s another way to look at how this works. When a small child trips and falls, every parent knows that moment of silence between the surprised look on the child’s face and the eruption of tears. The wise parent comes and soothes the child, acknowledges the fall and the hurt, and then shifts the child’s attention to something else – the butterfly the child was chasing, or a puppy playing with a ball. In no time, the child is up and playing again and the hurt forgotten, as their attention is onto something new to explore.
When dealing with something intense, like the loss of a relationship, it can seem as if that feeling completely dominates our reality. To a degree this is true. Yet at the same time, the feelings of pain or hurt or confusion are really only present when we allow ourselves to focus on them.
I saw, for example, that they might arise when I was talking with a friend about what was happening, or when a scene from a movie triggered a memory of something that happened, or when I got an email from a family member. In those moments the emotions seemed very real and overwhelming. However, I recognized that it was not my reality all the time. When my concentration was on work, for instance, or on driving or some other activity, the pain was not front and center in my mind until I called it back.
After some time, I felt enough space around my situation to begin mindfully experimenting with these feelings. I would find myself in a good frame of mind – feeling happy and grounded – then I would deliberately bring to mind some aspect of the change and loss that I had gone through. Very quickly, the pain, confusion, and loss would surface, and my feelings of groundedness would disappear. Then I would shift back to something more positive, and the pain would disappear. This was very empowering. As much as part of me wanted to hang onto the pain as ‘real’ and ‘mine’, I had to admit that a large part of it was something that had become almost a habitual way of responding to certain triggers. If my searchlight focused on certain things, then I would see ‘pain’, and when focused elsewhere I would see something else.
Three things I learned about grief and uncertainty
1) Our pain is not our total reality
Surrounding the pain is a vast space of emptiness that we can choose to notice or not, like the vast field of darkness around the streetlamp. As I learned to be able to shift my narrow attention focused on the hurt, to a wider focus on my surroundings, there was more room to just be with what was going on. It didn’t mean that the emotional hurts disappeared, but without feeding them with my direct attention they didn’t take over, either.
2) We can learn to have more control over where we place our attention
Regular meditation practice has empowered me to have more control over where my attention goes. That monkey still wants to jump through the branches of my mind as it pleases, but I can catch that monkey quicker and keep it settled where I want for longer.
3) What we feed, grows
The things you give your time and energy to will grow and become more dominant in your life. At a certain point, I learned that my grief only grew if I spent time talking about and rehashing it. When I invested time and energy into other things – being of service, appreciating nature, having gratitude for what I had – these grew instead, and my pain became less significant.
I did not come to these understandings immediately. I had the support of wise teachers, Doug and Catherine, and a community of spiritual friends at Clear Sky Center. With compassionate teaching, support, and regular mindfulness practice, I have learned about the nature of my mind. With that, I have learned to have space and freedom, even in the midst of hurt, loss, and overwhelm. Unlike the poor man in the story above, I have learned to stop looking where my keys aren’t and to expand my awareness to the mystery all around.
Edited by Andrew Rogers