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Vipassana and Mindfulness Blog

Mindfulness is simply practicing awareness with what's here. That's meditation, whether you're on a mountaintop, at work, or on a roller coaster.

Housebound Revisited, Part 2: Grief

Part 1 of this series looked at my first journal entry just after I hit bottom. As I was getting ready to publish this second installment, I came across “I’m Grieving During the Coronavirus Pandemic. You May Be, Too” in the New York Times and found that it aligned.

In the midst of sudden or unexpected change, our survival mechanisms take over. At some level, most of us are in a holding pattern of fight-or-flight right now … but that’s not meant to be a holding pattern. It’s designed to be a short-term reaction to keep us alive so we can then deal with any other non-mortal concerns (like grief) soon after.

In this situation, however, we have a prolonged threat accompanying (and causing) our loss of life as we know it. Even for those of us fortunate enough not to be directly affected (or have loved ones affected) by the virus, there may be grief waiting to be processed … and it might not be waiting quietly.

When I told my psychologist in 1998 how my life had changed so quickly, he mentioned something fairly obvious that I had completely missed. Through the relentless panic and suffocating depression, I couldn’t see that I was grieving the loss of stable, long-term anchors I had suddenly left behind forever. I wonder how many of us might be missing a similar nuance through the haze of louder emotions demanding our attention … and whether that might be by well-intentioned – but unsustainable – design.

 

April 26, 1998

He said I’ve never suffered a “loss” like this before. That struck me; I haven’t been able to get that phrase out of my mind. Am I not depressed so much as grieving? Am I exhibiting symptoms like someone dealing with the death of a loved one?

I’m having difficulty getting through Sundays. I have a long history of feeling (situational) depression on Sundays anyway.

The most depressing part right now is not being able to see the end of the tunnel. Am I making it worse by being concerned about that?

I used to have lots of success and positive feedback in school and I realize how much I miss that. Now I’m in an area where I enjoy the work, but feel less confident because I’m still new, and these things are harder for me to grasp than psychology was. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything and I get worried when I feel that way.

April 28, 1998

I’m not used to feeling depressed without anger. At least anger gave me energy (and focus).

 

Heh. Yeah. The first recognition of the symbiotic relationship between fear/depression/anxiety and anger. What did Obi-Wan say about taking a first step into a larger world?

 

Staying on Track When Under Attack

During a recent (non-political!) conversation with someone, I asked a seemingly benign question … and received what felt like an ambush of sarcasm ridiculing my query.

I know – stop the presses, right? But that’s not the interesting part.

What’s interesting is watching the train-wreck of thoughts that often unfold from that kind of experience.

First, the initial surprise registers. “Wait, what just happened?”

It seems like anger immediately follows, but anger is merely the hard shell that quickly surrounds fear. (With practice, our awareness becomes sharp enough to spot that soft chewy center of vulnerability BEFORE the protective outer layer forms.) “They said what? Danger! Threat! Fire in the hole!”

Finally, anger swoops in to “help” the fear, setting up a symbiotic dialogue that calcifies our sense of identity as the starring player in this deepening storyline:

Anger: “Did you say you’re under attack? Oh, trust me, I’ll finish what they dared to start.”

Fear: “But did you hear what they said to me? Can they do that?”

A: “Hell NO they can’t.”

F: “But what if … what if they’re right? Did I screw up?”

A: “They are NOT right. YOU are right. Here, I’ll replay the whole thing to you over and over, showing you each time exactly why you’re right.”

F: “But even if I’m right, I can’t be seen as someone that people can just talk to like that! How do I stop that?”

Of course, what we actually do next – based on anger’s next response – varies from person to person (and varies across time for any one person). Typically, we direct that roiling energy as an outward counter-strike or an inward simmering rage. In both cases, the well-intentioned but dysfunctional dialogue often continues for minutes, days, or even years. That’s a long-ass train wreck!

A key turning point in my practice was noticing the real question underlying this frantic inner conversation:

“What do I have to do to regain the comfortable sense of self I had before this perceived threat to it?” As soon as I saw that more clearly, a second question finally had a chance to arise in the resulting space: “if the roles had been reversed in this situation, what would I have said differently?”

That’s when things broke open.

I saw myself fielding the original conversational question in a congenial way, juxtaposed against the reaction that I felt I received. And I realized that the more general question I was asking myself was this: “would I have handled this question or situation in tune with my inner moral compass?” My answer was an immediate “yes.”

Suddenly things became super-clear, at a felt, experiential level. What else could I possibly want beyond knowing that I’d have acted skillfully? What WAS there to be done beyond that? Simply put: nothing. With a wry smile, I felt that comfortable sense of self return … only to notice that I no longer found it necessary.

Yet another freeing paradox of insight meditation: when I finally found a sense of self that couldn’t be threatened, I discovered that I didn’t need it anyway.

Ultimately, we’re each responsible only for ourselves. What “they” say to us doesn’t actually reflect on us; it reflects where they are on their path. We can wish them well or ill (and that DOES reflect on us), but that’s about as far as it goes. The only question that we really need to ask is “where am I on my path?” The answer we receive gives us something we can ACTUALLY work on … and then let go.

Now that’s keeping things on track.

 

Questions? Thoughts? Ready to explore? Drop me a line or set up a session.

 

Why We Dance With Anger

I had an experience one recent evening that gave rise to anger.

I noticed the following morning that the flammable energy had subsided, both physically and emotionally. For some reason, however, I kept coming back to it mentally. I felt a pull in my mind to keep replaying the event in spite of my sense of restored calm and peace.

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t prefer to be angry, yet still finds a perverse sort of pleasure in it. (The Buddha himself referred to anger as having a “poisoned root and sweet sting.”) Why?

I opened the door to see what anger was bringing with it that was so enticing, and found my answer pretty quickly.

May I have this dance?

Anger, in its purest form, is a natural and healthy function that gives us the energy to change situations where something is wrong. If we’re angry at something — or someONE — then that thing (or person) must be wrong. Which can only mean one thing.

We must be right.

 

Anger simply cannot appear without a degree of self-righteousness (justified or otherwise). Think of some of the things people have done to feel “right.” Suddenly it’s not surprising that we so easily trade our inner peace for a tango with that sweet sting.

Anger gets a bad rap (especially in spiritual circles), but it’s like anything else; it can be used skillfully or unskillfully. Through practice, we can develop our powers of observation to discern when our anger is serving its intended purpose and when we’re merely using it to feel (or NOT feel) something else.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think they’re playing my song.

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