There’s a huge difference between focusing on the good in your life, and ignoring or denying difficult or painful issues. There seems to be a manic need from the spiritual community at large to be positive and light in every moment, which is alienating to so many people, because the truth is, life is not “all good.” Part of being at peace has to do with our ability to integrate all parts of ourselves, and all chapters of our story. Part of loving other people has to do with our willingness to accept the whole person, the gorgeous parts, the quirky ones, and the stuff that’s raw and tender. Integrating the painful parts is different from dwelling upon them or magnifying them. We all have our struggles and our fears. We go through periods of confusion or despair, or we suffer because we’ve become attached to a picture in our heads of how things should be. Leaning into those uncomfortable feelings is an act of compassion, and it’s also the gateway to liberation. Pushing things down requires enormous energy, and when we repress feelings, we inadvertently give them power. They’re going to come out in other ways.
Clinging to happiness is no different than clinging to anything else—it’s going to cause you to suffer. The minute you feel anything other than positive, you’ve become a disappointment to yourself; a failure. If you reject any feeling that can’t go in the “gratitude column”, you’re going to be at war with yourself, judging yourself for those feelings and thoughts you deem to be negative or ungrateful or petty or unkind. You’ll just compound your pain with shame. We’re all human, and none of us operates from our highest self in every moment. When we sit to meditate, we don’t deny thoughts when they arise, we observe them. “Ah, I’m thinking, judging, clinging, obsessing, daydreaming…let me return to my breath.” Denying your experience is a sure way to create inner dissonance, when the whole point of a spiritual practice is to know yourself, to accept yourself, to find peace, and to feel the connection between yourself, and everyone and everything around you; to find union. Denial won’t get you there, and neither will rejection.
Imagine if you were getting to know someone, and they told you they only wanted to hear the good stuff about you. How close could you get? Yes, we always want to stay focused on all the things we do have—our good health if we’ve got it, the amazing people in our lives, the fact that we have a place to call home, and food to eat, the gifts we’ve been given, like time, our ability to feel the sun on our faces and the breeze on our skin, or that we can see the leaves blowing in the wind with their million shades of green. Laughter of the people closest to us, and also, laughter of total strangers. There’s so much to take in, and so many ways in which we’re gifted, just because we woke up today. Unless, of course, you’re going through knifing loss, and today is a day when it’s hard to breathe. We have to allow space for that possibility, too, because someone out there is dealing with that right now, this very minute, and they aren’t thinking about leaves, or their good health, or sunlight on their face, they’re trying to understand how the earth is still spinning, and people are doing things like putting gas in their cars as if everything has not changed.
A spiritual practice ought to be there for you when times are tough. It takes strength and bravery to face life head-on, and it also requires acknowledgement of our inherent vulnerability. If you want to do life well, if you want to do love well, you’re going to have to get acquainted with the underside of things. You’re going to have to be strong enough to face the dark, and also to embrace the light. If you try to pretend they don’t both exist, you’re not living in reality.
Joy and despair are flip sides of the same coin. I’m not telling you to be grateful for despair when it comes, I’m just saying we wouldn’t recognize joy the way that we do if we’d never felt bereft. If we’d never felt rejected, misunderstood, unseen or dismissed, we wouldn’t appreciate the feeling and relief of being totally accepted. I can look back on all the experiences in my life, particularly the devastating ones, and recognize how they opened me and taught me things about myself, other people, and the world at large. They were not always things I wanted to learn. There are a couple of lessons I would really, truly give back, but we don’t get to choose. Sometimes your heart breaks wide open and you think, “I won’t make it through this.” That’s when you have to hope the people in your life show up for you. Kindness matters. Caring matters. Being there matters, in fact, it matters a lot. The most insightful, kind, compassionate people I know, the most open and sensitive and trustworthy people, happen to be the same people who’ve suffered and grieved and found a way to let their experiences soften them instead of harden them.
Don’t ever let anyone shame you for your feelings. Feelings are not facts, and they aren’t forever. They arise, they peak and they subside. Some feelings take longer than others to cycle through, and if we’re going through something particularly brutal, like the loss of an entire person, we’re going to move through all kinds of feelings, many times. None of them are comfortable or positive. Shock, grief, confusion, rage, panic—those feelings are real and appropriate when we’re going through tragedy. These experiences and feelings do not have to go in a file marked, “thank you for this”; you don’t have to be grateful for everything. Just feel what you need to feel, and trust that over time you’ll be able to breathe without reminding yourself to do that. And let your suffering matter, eventually. Grow from it, and see if you can use it to be there for other people. At least, in that way, some beauty arises from the ashes.
Sending you love,