Each winter morning, once the sun is high enough to shine through the trees, I go out to the yard of the little house we’re renting in Maine and begin a ritual that’s become an important part of my day. I tap my chest and my rib cage. I stretch my hands to the sky, welcoming the light and love I feel pouring down.
A dear friend on the Outer Banks showed me these energy medicine exercises nearly eight years ago. They’re meant to help me shed bitterness from my life and pull light back in. They’ve been amazingly successful—so much so that sometimes I forget they’re not enough.
Recently I visited another friend who’s a healer. As we talked about our lives, her face took on a puzzled expression. “Sit up straight and breath in, really deep,” she instructed. “In and out. Just keep going.”
“Feel that tightness in your rib cage? You’re holding in grief, right there.”
The stubborn part of me wanted to say that this was a bunch of hooey, that I was doing just fine. But I could feel in my body and my heart that she was right.
There’s been a lot going on in my life. A family member with whom we are no longer allowed to have contact is very ill. Our little apple orchard isn’t doing well. I’m upset about the stark political divisions in our country. I continue to grieve the death of my parents and son.
Each day I try to deal with all this by dwelling on the positive—a good strategy and, for me, usually effective. For months, though, it hadn’t been enough. As my friend could see, I’d begun trying to break through my sadness with sheer willpower. That’s always a mistake.
I like to tell myself that I’m stronger than sadness or pain of any kind. It’s what many of us do: shoulder our burdens and slog on, even when we’re hurting. We convince ourselves that we have no choice. But we do. And in recognizing that, in taking a few moments to acknowledge our pain, we honor the part of us that most strongly connects us to the rest of humanity.
This is critically important for how I want to live, and how I want to serve others.
Our capacity for compassion flourishes only when we are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes—not literally, but through the emotional experiences we share. I have never been homeless or physically broken. But I know pain. Only by remembering my own experience can I let my compassion fully bloom. I don’t need to wallow around it my sorrow as I try to help others. I just need to greet it as a part of me and let it open my heart.
I can’t do that when I tamp down the pain and try to shut it inside. Neither can I live as fully as I want.
My friend made me promise that I would take some time everyday to allow myself to feel sad. This did not sound like any fun at all. For several days I fought it. I’d peek into the well of grief that sat between my sternum and navel and think, nope, don’t want to dive into that.
But by denying the pain, I saw that I had filled my emotional depths with a murky sludge. It was quite heavy to haul around. Venturing in and stirring it up has been as difficult as exhausting physical exercise. Afterwards I feel a little sore, as if I’ve climbed a mountain carrying a load of rocks. It’s not a bad feeling. It reminds me I’m alive.
Bit by bit the tension around my rib cage has relaxed. I feel calmer and stand a little straighter. And I realize I’ve been gaining strength by allowing myself to be weak.
This work will continue the rest of my life. There’s no way around it. Pain is pain. Though it may grow more bearable, it will never dissipate.
My goal now is to envision myself as a vessel that can hold it—and then mix it with light and love. To use it to help bring comfort to others.
May I always remember its power for good.
Originally posted January 22, 2017