5 Mindfulness Myths

mindfulness myths Dr. Arielle Schwartz Boulder, Co

Living the Mindful Life

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What is mindfulness really? In short, it is the practice of paying attention. But, we tend to “jump ship” from the present moment when we feel uncomfortable emotionally. We avoid feeling our discomfort by distracting ourselves or pushing people away. We all do it, it’s human. However, the world needs us to show up, now.

The world is calling for authentic presence and requires that we be with emotions in healthy ways. Unsupported grief can result in feeling isolated from our community. Ignored fear and rage can turn into violence that kills. Cultivating mindfulness is about broadening our capacity to be with ourselves and others even when we feel uncomfortable.

“There are common myths and misconceptions that mindfulness is a religion, or about fixing ourselves, or about seeking enlightenment. However, mindfulness is really about showing up in the world to be with life as it is. Anything in life can be used to separate us from the world or to bring us closer to each other. At any moment you have a choice about how you want to live your life.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

5 Mindfulness Myths

The first time I engaged in a day of mindfulness meditation I expected that I would feel great during and afterwards. I thought, what a great opportunity to relax. Was I wrong! The very opposite happened. I felt agitated; irritated by my never-ending mental gymnastics. My body was uncomfortable; I couldn’t sit still without fidgeting. By the end of the day I felt angry and was convinced I had failed.

Embarrassed, I initially kept my experience to myself. If only someone had told me that that these feelings are normal. Because little did I know back then but I was doing it right. All of that discomfort was actually a sign that I was on the right track.

It is easy to be misled by misconceptions about mindfulness practices. Let’s take closer look by deconstructing the common mindfulness myths:

  • Myth 1: Mindfulness is religion. No, you do not need to be a Buddhist to be mindful. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone.
  • Myth 2Mindfulness is meditation. Not necessarily. While meditation offers the opportunity to practice being mindful they are not synonymous. We practice meditation so that we may remain aware off the cushion.
  • Myth 3Mindfulness is about enlightenment. Being mindful is not about becoming smarter, better, or superhuman. Mindfulness is often deeply humbling as we develop our capacity to honestly reflect upon our own humanness.
  • Myth 4Mindfulness is relaxing. Sometimes but not always. Simply paying attention can increase our awareness of turbulent emotions or conflicts we were avoiding. However, mindfulness often gives us the tools to work more consciously with our experiences.
  • Myth 5: Mindfulness is about self-improvement. Watch out for this one. When we use mindfulness as a “fix it” tool we can become aggressive. Our capacity to pay attention needs to be tempered by the cultivation of compassion.

Living the Mindful Life

mindfulness myths Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Being mindful is not about fixing ourselves or becoming more enlightened. In contrast, the foundation of mindfulness is acceptance; a practice that asks us to reflect honestly on ourselves, our choices, and our interactions. With this in mind, here are some gentle ways to increase self-awareness into your daily life, on and off of your mat:

  • Slow Down: It is easy to get caught in the fast pace of life. Simply pausing for a moment can give you a chance to fully experience the moment.
  • Breathe Deeply: Conscious breathing is widely considered the fastest way to change our mental and emotional state. In our day to day living we tend to breathe more shallowly but as a result we dull our senses and we push our emotions away. We can cultivate deep belly breathing to support big emotional experiences.
  • Check in with your Body: Scan your body and notice your sensations. Notice the temperature of your body. Bring awareness to areas of tension and areas of comfort. Allow the sensations of your body become your guide. Listen to your aversions so that you can recognize your “No.” Pay attention to what brings you pleasure so that you can feel your “Yes!”
  • Observe your Mind: Mindfulness emphasizes moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts and emotions as they occur. Pay attention to your thoughts when you are alone so that you can be more conscious of your words when you are with others.
  • Attend to your Emotions: Cultivating mindfulness is extremely valuable when it comes to emotional intelligence. In today’s world we must broaden our capacity to attend to our emotions in healthy ways. Initially it is common to want to push strong feelings of grief or anger away. As we continue to practice we aim to increase our ability to tolerate the discomfort of difficult emotions. Over time, the ability to be compassionately present with our own feelings can translate into our capacity to be attentive and responsive to the feelings of others.

The world is calling for our authentic presence. Anything in life can be used to separate us from the world or to bring us closer to each other. At any moment you have a choice about how you want to live your life.

Facing Death with Comfort

Diane Israel is on the GSN Board of Directors, and here she writes to Ellen Goodman about the passing of her mother… This piece appeared first on her film’s website.

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I write you one month after the death of my mother. I want to tell you her story and my story involving mom. I hope it will speak to others!

15 years ago, on September 2nd at a healthy age of 67, my athletic, yogi, vibrant, in awesome health mom experienced a massive brain hemorrhage, a Stroke. Yes, a stroke, which until my healthy mom had one I thought were for unhealthy really old people. Wrong. It taught me a deep truth that it can happen to anyone at anytime. It shocked our family and our community in Scarsdale, NY. It changed us all forever.

For almost 15 years I had the privilege to help care for my mom, she needed 24 hour care. Mom never complained, never said, “Why me?” She embraced her “disability” the way she always lived with grace, elegance, and dignity, embodying a peace from within. Thankfully Mom did prepare a living will and a health proxy. She also wrote her autobiography and her eulogy. Despite all the “perfect” paperwork there were many moments of indecision with 4 kids each with their own agenda.

Ellen, what you are encouraging us all to do, us all to talk about, to face is imperative. I see it as life giving and truly fair for individuals and for their families. For my family, out of love and respect for mom, we could no longer speak about death as her speech became even more limited. We would speak regularly though in life giving ways, and if it was not life giving then not in front of her. We felt no matter what condition mom was in, coma, the dying process, etc, that she was present in her own way and we didn’t want to interfere with with her own unique journey. We did not want to make assumptions that she could not hear us, especially after coming out of a coma and saying she had heard us. We never spoke negatively by her bed or in her room; we spoke honestly with her not at her.

The last chapters of mom’s life were a heightened level of profound elegance, grace, and beauty. For four full days and nights she experienced another stroke, which would lead four days later to her death. Three out of her four children were there for this experience. During her passing we were there to honor, breath with, and write songs for her. Mom’s last words, which came from a very damaged tongue were, “I have everything I have always had it. I love you, you generate me I regenerate you, you and I generate good feelings.”

This was the last conversation, the last words, and then three and a half days of loving our mom as she passed. We used no medications, no hospice, and no funeral home. Because we had talked about her wishes I knew her so well and could make good decisions for her and her life which meant quite, peaceful, with out interventions. We watched her heartbeat and listened to her breath. As an athlete I heard her breath, the rattle breath that scared me turned into the breath of running the end of a marathon. I taped her beautiful labored breath and run to it now. She lives on in me, I have her life and breath in me.

We left the room the night before mom died to honor her privacy, to see if she wanted to die alone, and she did not. On Sunday morning, June 23rd at 5:30am I came to say my goodbyes with the birds chirping and the sun rising, this was always my time with mom, and will be forever. Rob, my brother, also wrote a deeply moving song that he sang and played guitar to while crying. He also requested that we as a family talk in the present to mom and leave all medical or negative talk outside her room. Rob then read mom’s 30 page autobiography out loud.

At around 11am mom’s caregivers, who know death well and honored its arrival, shared that death was close. Mom’s breathing had slowed down and her extremities were turning more and more blue. Rob wiped mom’s mouth with a swab dipped in melted coffee ice cream and said to mom, “Nectar of the Gods.” All of us siblings hugging, kissing, thanking mom, crying, saying goodbye, and “love you’s.” We stacked our hands on mom’s heart, oldest sister Lynn, then me, then Rob and I said, “Mom, we are all together, we are all aligned, mom. I am free, mom you are free. I am free of caring for you mom. You are free mom!”

Then in the most beautiful, natural, and elegant way she took her last breaths, three more with long pauses. And then magically, mysteriously, and relaxed took a breath in sighed and that was it.

Until mom’s death I was afraid of death. I have mom’s life and breath in me. She is forever with me. She speaks to me all the time when I am in nature and I take the time to slow down and listen. Her wisdom continues to be my greatest teacher. I live for these conversations.

Will and Surrender

By Dr. Arielle Schwartz : licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also a GSN Provider and Board Member

Challenge and Ease

yoga for holiday stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was in a yoga practice earlier this week engaged in a relatively uncomfortable hold in a deep lunge. Had I been practicing at home I might have avoided this posture all together or only stayed in it for a few breaths. However, I went to a class that I knew would encourage me to go a little deeper. So, there I was, feeling the burn in my right thigh, listening to the voice in my head that said “out,” fighting the distracting urge to escape the moment. Suddenly, doing the dishes and folding the laundry seemed way more appealing.

As I continued to sustain my lunge another thought arose, “You chose this challenge.” My entire experience shifted. “Nobody is making me stay here. I can exit into child’s pose and that is a completely valid option. It’s up to me.” This time I chose to stay, directing my attention fully on the breath, the sensations in my right leg, and the feeling of my feet firmly grounded into my yoga mat. When we finally released out of the pose and came forward into Samasthiti (equal standing) pose I felt a deep satisfaction of a profoundly awake mind and body.

My Kripalu yoga teacher training emphasized that will and surrender are polarities that need to exist in balance; like two wings of a bird that need to function in tandem to create flight. Too much force and we risk becoming rigid and hard. Too much emphasis on surrender and we risk becoming stagnant or over-flexible. A beautiful metaphor for life.

“So how do we know when to challenge ourselves and when to emphasize ease? The truth is nobody gets to answer this question for you. There will be phases in all of our lives when we have the capacity to say “I want more; bring it on!” And there will be times when we are already weighed down by life’s challenges. Here we might say “I can barely get out of bed; life is hard enough, I cannot handle any more stress.” The balance of will and surrender is one that evolves to match the ever changing phases of our lives.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Choosing Challenge

will and surrender Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Think about your most significant memories of the last year what comes to your mind? Are they your days at the office? Are they the items you crossed off of your to-do lists? I’m guessing not. Likely what stand out are the moments that took your breath away. Or the times when you discovered new possibilities in yourself. Maybe you recall the times that you felt you made a difference in the life of another or deepened your intimate connections with loved ones. Or a time you had to fight for something or someone that you believe in.

Perhaps you have set forth into this New Year with resolutions. I’m guessing that your intentions for this year are more related to your larger life aspirations than your to-do lists. Maybe you have identified new health and wellness goals. Perhaps you have identified a need for greater introspection or self-care. However, whatever it is that you have chosen it is likely that achieving your goal will involve some challenge. This may be the challenge of “will” such as adding 10 more minutes to your morning run to prepare for a race or signing up for a meet-up group even though it scares you. Or your challenge may require “surrender” such as asking yourself to sit with uncomfortable feelings or adding in a mindfulness practice into your daily routine.

As you look at your intentions for the year ask yourself how much do you long for the life you envision. Reflect on the challenges that will likely accompany this goal. Is it worth it? Are you worth it?

Will and Surrender

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Ideally facing challenges involves a balance of willful engagement towards your identified goals and acceptance of what is. Dr. Marsha Linehan incorporates Zen Buddhism into Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) reminding us that radical acceptance of who we are is a necessary condition for change and growth. Likewise, Gestalt psychotherapy (Fritz Perls) works with the polarization between the parts of the self that are seeking growth and parts that are seeking safety. Resolution requires that we listen to the voice of both sides of the polarity. As a result we evolve without force or aggression but through the honoring of each part.

My Kripalu yoga teacher training emphasized that will and surrender are polarities that need to exist in balance; like two wings of a bird that need to function in tandem to create flight. Within this yoga practice you begin by actively engaging in physical postures, emphasizes alignment as a means to concentrate on the sensations in your body. Deepening into postures fear and pain can arise. You may want to run. You meet your experience, back away, and return again. You might feel irritable. You move from thinking to feeling. Something shifts inside and you feel the experience energetically. There is a surge of emotion, a shake in the body. No longer are you telling your body what shape to take, you are now guided by your sensations. You return to the familiarity of the postures you were taught and find another spontaneous impulse to move. You surrender to impulse and sensation. You continue to follow the urge to move eventually softening into stillness.

“Like a grain of salt dissolves in water, so the mind becomes one with the highest self.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika (4.5) Svami Svatmarama

The Tale of the Sands

Will and Surrender Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Tale of the Sands is a Sufi story written by Idries Shah which further explores the relationship between will and surrender as we proceed towards our goals. In this story a stream longs to reach the far away mountains. This stream has already travelled a long, long distance. It has carved its way through rocks leaving behind impressive canyons. This stream has changed landscapes and meandered across the vast countryside. The stream was confident that it could cross any barrier.

Soon the stream came to the edge of the desert and was convinced that its destiny was to cross over to the great mountains in the distance. However, no matter how hard it tried, the stream would disappear into the sand. The water tried to hurtle itself across the sand but could not find a way.

Then the stream heard the whispered voice of the desert saying, “if the wind crosses the desert so can the stream.” The stream was discouraged thinking “the wind can fly but I am not the wind.” The voice spoke again, “Your accustomed way of hurtling yourself into the sand will not let you cross. You must allow yourself to be absorbed into the wind.’

The stream did not like this idea and was frightened of losing its identity. Again, the desert spoke, “The wind will carry you over the desert to the mountains.” “How can I be sure of that?” wondered the stream. The desert responded once more, “In either case you cannot remain the same for if you continue in this way you will either disappear or end up as a marsh.” So with great courage the stream surrendered. Lifted as vapor, the stream was carried by the wind to the faraway mountains and as the rain fell it once again became a stream. Purified by letting go, what is essential remained.

The Invitation

Equanimity Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Were the stream to have no aspiration it would have disappeared into the sands. As you walk through this New Year I invite you to join me in choosing challenge, whatever that means to you. It takes great courage to want something so much that you are literally transformed in the process. Are you willing to let go of the self that you know and learn how to dance in the unknown?

Reflections on Working with Grief

by GSN Provider Shelly King, MA, LPCme-blue-296x300

While we all experience grief and loss in our own ways, there are common experiences many of us share. Here are some of things that I have found to be most important when working with grief and loss:

Tell Your Stories

It is so important to find your people to talk with. Humans have evolved with the ability to tell stories. It connects us through history and time. As humans, we are wired to connect. Yet with grief and loss, it can be so hard to tell our stories for so many reasons. Our culture generally doesn’t do grief well. There is the expectation to grieve privately and to “move on” quickly. And for any of us grieving, we know this just isn’t true, yet it’s easy to question our sanity when so many people implicitly and explicitly communicate to us that we’re doing it “wrong” or making them uncomfortable. Rather than questioning the insanity of these messages, we think we’re the ones losing it. Instead it is essential to find the person(s) that are best able to support you. This might be a family member, friend, on-line support, therapist, clergy, or Grief Support Network gathering (if you live in the area). You may have to search a bit to find your connection, but these connections are your life-lines.

Find Your Community

Life is totally rearranged by loss. You are not the same person as you were before your loss. There is life before loss, and life after. It can be a re-defining moment in one’s lifetime. But again, cultural expectations can be challenging as those around you want their “old” person back – their old spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, etc., and you may be wishing for this too. Instead of getting back to your old self, I view grief and loss as integration process. We are always growing and changing as human beings, and our losses are a part of that process. It is important that you find your community that can support you through this identity change and grief process. Many people express how they’ve lost friends through their grief, found new ones, and have been pleasantly surprised by the people that really show up.

Feel Your Feelings

As with telling your story, feeling your feelings can be challenging. Not only are most of us not getting enough support, we may be scared of our own feelings. Grief is intense. It’s messy. It’s difficult. It can feel crazy. Human nature is to avoid pain. Yet as you probably know or have heard, the only way to really work with grief is to experience it. You may be able to find ways to numb it or avoid it for the time being, but it’s still there. If we keep in mind that loss is an integration process, we can remember that bit by bit we’re able to let thoughts and feelings in, and let them pass through us. We don’t have to hold on to them. We can trust that they will come and go. There can be the fear that if you let yourself “go there” you might never come back. I know that feeling. I remember after the death of my daughter, I found myself lying on the bedroom floor of what was supposed to be her room. And she wasn’t there, never came home from the hospital and I wondered if any of this was really real. Did it happen? Was I crazy? I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. My body, heart and soul needed that. Grief can knock us down hard some days. If and when you’re able, trust that you will be okay. I know you will be okay. You will never be the “same” again, and you don’t need to be. You can do this; you are doing this.

Acceptance

Acceptance can be a big one! So many things in life don’t go our way, and the death of a dear one may be part of that. We all know life is not fair. But what I learned from the death of my first born daughter – life is not about being fair. It’s about accepting what is. From my own experience, I can tell you my first born daughter was not supposed to have a rare chromosomal abnormality and only live for a few days. That was not part of my plan, or something I even knew as a possibility until it happened to me. But when I could let go of my plan, my supposed-to’s or should-haves, when I could sit with what was and be in the moment, wow – I experienced the most amazing love with my daughter. It broke my heart wide open. In my moments of acceptance, everything was truly okay and well with the world. I’ll be honest, I did not and do not stay in these moments of acceptance. I have railed against my daughter’s death, and my life after loss, and yet, when I can come back to the now, to moments of trust and acceptance, I feel that peace and love again. I know it’s always there. So as you are able, I encourage you to step into acceptance, to sit there, and let things be.

Attachment and Legacy

To wrap things up, I have also found it important to acknowledge my attachment to my daughter in life and death. Of course I’m always her mom. And for you, for the person you are remembering, you are attached to them. You are always their friend, partner, family member. We get to nurture these connections in life and death. One way to work with this is to consciously decide how your loved one’s legacy will live on through you. This could mean ANYTHING – from lighting a candle, to donating money to their favorite organization, or singing, dancing or painting with your loved one in mind. The relationship is yours to nurture and treasure.

My thoughts are with us as we move forward into the holiday season. It can be a tough time for so many of us. I send you thoughts of light and love for the season ahead. And I welcome your darkness and fear.

Colorado Gives: Support the Grief Support Network

It Takes a Village…

“Communal grieving offers something that we cannot get when we grieve by ourselves. Through validation, acknowledgement and witnessing, communal grieving allows us to experience a level of healing that is deeply and profoundly freeing. Each of us has a basic human right to that genuine love, happiness and freedom.” – Sobonfu Some

Dear GSN Supporters and Friends:

Thank you for your support of Grief Support Network and for joining us in our mission to empower people to transform through the experience of loss and to break the stigma around grief in our culture. We would like to express our gratitude to each of you for playing an important role in building this community – it takes a village to move through grief, and we truly could not do what we do without you.

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GSN builds a vibrant community that offers programs, tools, resources and connectivity to support people after loss and helps them move forward in life. Since our inception, GSN has served over 1000 individuals by offering personalized support and connection to our wide range of holistic practitioners and body centered programs.

During the past year, GSN has provided members with best fit referrals to our provider network, monthly gatherings, therapeutic groups, grief rituals, retreats and the launch of our Awakening through Grief yoga program. We have grown from a volunteer based organization to a dedicated staff who is here to offer you support for any kind of loss and at any phase of the grief journey.

With your continued participation and financial support, GSN is positioned to expand our offerings and reach in 2016. Through compassionate and empowering programs and services, GSN is cultivating a community that will support you to live with greater authenticity, vulnerability and self awareness to grow through the brokenness of grief. Your generous gift will help ensure the growth of GSN’s programs that are so vital to help people in need of our support.  

Our focus in 2016, will be to:

•Offer monthly, donation based Moving Through Grief…Together gatherings to provide a safe space to be present with your grief, receive tools and inspiration and feel connected to others who are grieving.

•Implement a new therapeutic yoga program that will guide you to move through grief to a place of gratitude and transformation, while exploring the relationship between what you feel in your body and your thoughts and emotions. Through yoga and meditation, GSN brings us together to heal the body and spirit and develop a healing community.

•Host quarterly grief rituals that help you to release the burden of your grief by drawing on the support of the ancestors and unseen world and through connection with the community as we bare witness for each other.

•Bring experts in the field of grief and transformation to the community to offer educational workshops and inspirational talks that empower us to break the silence around loss and teach us how to share our feelings openly with each other.

•Offer healing retreats that provide respite and a loving, gentle space to care for yourself while you grieve. Through this experience, GSN offers a sanctuary for you be present with your grief while you are nurtured and supported in an intimate and beautiful environment.

•Create  therapeutic groups to facilitate and pair individuals with others who are experiencing a similar loss.
Please consider making a year end donation that will allow Grief Support Network to continue its mission to empower people to transform through the experience of grief within our local community and throughout the country.

~ Click HERE to Make a Donation ~

With your help, we can grow our community and journey together to discover the gift of grief

“Grief is unpredictable.  She will have her way with you, until she is done. She will move through you if you let her. 

She is your Teacher… 

Your Friend… 

Enemy… 

and the Executioner of Ignorance.

She is the Transformer of the Spirit and the Usher of Change.

There is no force in the universe like her… She demands complete Trust… Surrender … and if you let her, she will make you better than you ever thought you could be. 

Authentic – full of heart… you see yourself now…. Fully awake… life comes clearer into focus. Simple pleasures breathed in like the music of your daughter’s voice – something bubbles up from the shadows. Love takes over, everything expands … You are…

Resilient…

Connected…

Grateful…

Filled with love…

And happy to be Alive.”

To help us reach our goals in 2016, please click HERE to make a donation.

Warmest holiday wishes from our family to yours, 

Wendy Black-Stern

Grief Support Network Founder

I am mourning today.

Grieve for those the world lost in Paris .. just because we ride the waves of grief for them does not mean that evil has prevailed, it is merely a symbol that we are all connected as one through the human experience. The following piece by Leslie Woodward beautifully depicts a message of love amidst tragedy and sorrow. 
On Friday, my husband and I were on a plane when the attacks took place. We caught glimpses of the horrific news in between flights and again once we arrived at our destination. I was in shock, and had no time to process it all. It was a short trip packed tightly with events for the wedding we were attending and catching up with family. We headed to the airport Monday morning, bought a newspaper, and sat down to finally read and feel the terror of what took place on Friday evening in Paris.

And I finally wept. Am weeping, as I write this. Seeing pictures of the fear, desperation, agony… I am left with a deep pit in my stomach and an overwhelming sense of misunderstanding. How can human beings  do this? To not attack a government building or an iconic city structure (not that those are any less horrible), but to carefully select targets where innocent people are relaxing, enjoying time spent with those they care about. How? My mind is spinning. My heart is racing. I am shaking. I am at a loss.

And at the same time, I feel that we are being challenged, as a global community. How can we join together, despite our differences, to stand up to this hatred, to this delusion. How can we take the fear, devastation, loss, and turn it into love, togetherness, and mindful action.

In a world where such unspeakable tragedy happens every day, how can we remain informed, yet consistently come back to love, compassion, and hope. It is hard. Sometimes impossible. At times I have avoided the news entirely as I am a special breed of human that is deeply affected by it. When I see pain, I feel it in every ounce of my being. I take it on, and always have. My struggle has been to see it, and feel it, and then to return to love. If fear takes over, aren’t they winning?

In Buddhism, it is taught that we are all the same- we are all one. When I see strangers, sometimes I’ll pick one out and wonder about their life. Where is he going? I wonder what struggles she has in her life right now? Is he well-loved by his family? Is she happy? When we can exit the self-centered sphere we live in (myself included) and ask questions about others, we can cultivate understanding and compassion.

Who were those 7 men? What were they like? How were they loved? What were they afraid of? The Buddha said that if one is truly happy, they cannot harm another. How were those men hurting? Who taught them that hatred was the path to Heaven/Self-realization/Eternal love? I’m not claiming that generating compassion for a terrorist is an easy practice, but without attempting to understand, I don’t think we are doing our job to be mindful, informed, deeply loving beings. They caused irreparable pain, and we will mourn, but to turn that tragedy into something productive, I feel it is with the return to love. Always.

I am sending love and prayers your way, and to the people of France. May we see through the darkness and into light, joined together.

Love,
Leslie

Art and Soul

The Art of Grieving

By GSN Provider Dr. Arielle Schwartz

No one is immune to grief. Loss comes in many forms. We face personal losses in the endings of relationships, the deaths of loved ones, life changing illnesses or injuries. We face collective losses of war, terrorism, fires, and floods. Hardship can fundamentally change us. We can be changed for the better.

We have a collective cultural blind spot when it comes to death. Often, we are asked to minimArt and Soul Dr. Arielle Schwartzize our pain; to pretend we are fine when we aren’t. We have been taught how to gloss over terror, rage, and anguish becoming plastic versions of reality. In order to live fully we must be willing to release our conditioned hiding; to recognize our common longing for authentic presence.

While the human spirit is transformed by loss such change typically starts as unbearable, excruciating, pain. Pain that crumbles the world as you know it, brings you to your knees, and reduces your sense of self to disjointed fragments. In these moments we need containers for the unknown and portals to places beyond words or conceptual ideas. We need people who are unafraid of deep emotional process. We need art to heal the broken heart.

“A poem, a song, a painting, or a dance can awaken the tender places in the heart. The corners of the soul can become heavy with sadness or numbed by an unidentified depression. Art has a way of extracting the stuck and pulling us out of despair. This is why I am a musician, a dancer, a lover of the creative–so that I may walk and work in flow with life. So that I may live fully: art and soul.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

To Live Fully

Last night I was at an extraordinary community event. An evening of cabaret supporting the Grief Support Network; an organization started by Wendy Stern after the death of her son. Collectively the pain of many losses was honored in dance, poetry, and song. Heart wrenching and uplifting, we were reminded of the power of the human spirit to be transformed by adversity.

Consciously making space for loss is essential if we are to heal our collective wound of minimizing pain. Last night we gave grief a well deserved place of honor. We wept for ourselves and for each other. We hugged and held each other. But we did not stop there. We also danced! We danced our tearful, joyful, ecstatic celebration of life.

The Grief Support Network draws upon the wisdom of other cultures in how grief is honored. For example, they will be bringing Sobonfu Somé from West Africa to Boulder next month to learn from her cultural traditions around loss. Sobonfu shares that her community does not rush grief away. Rather they ask questions that create space for pain such as “Do you remember that he died?” “Have you grieved enough?” “Have you cried enough?”

Music from the Heart

Art and Soul Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Earlier this week my choir began a new song, Gwyneth Walker’s The Tree of Peace. Initially learning a piece of music involves a patchwork of notes and words. We had not yet really listened to the essence of the piece.

Our conductor stopped us. She asked us to reflect for a moment upon the Syrian refugees and the photo of the young boy, dead, washed upon the shore that had circulated in the news throughout the week. We collectively tuned into the pain and the ravages of war. We reflected on those who help and work for peace. Now we returned our attention to the music:

“Oh my sister and my brother, all who walk upon this earth, fold to your hearts each other. Where mercy dwells, the peace of the lord is there. To live rightly is to love one another, each kindness a gift, each deed a prayer. Listen to one another. Walk with reverence in the steps of those who have gone before, where forgiveness and wisdom has stood. So shall the wide earth become a temple, each loving life a psalm of gratitude. Then shall all shackles fall. The violence of war over the earth shall cease. Love shall tread out the fire of anger, and in its ashes plant a tree of peace.”

Our voices opened our hearts, we listened with the ear of compassion, and we embodied this masterful work. This is the power of art in community. (You can read more here on the healing power of music).

Feeling without Flooding

Watching the news, listening to the radio, or scrolling through your Facebook feed and it is easy to become flooded or overwhelmed by the pain of the world. It is also easy to become desensitized as a means to shut off our empathic resonance with what we are seeing.

There needs to be a balance of staying aware and self care. I encourage you to pause and take a deep breath. Each time you see an image or story of terror, death, or pain take a moment to close your eyes, check in with your body, notice any tension or shock. Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? Stay sensitive, not desensitized or overloaded.

Make choices about when to look and when you have seen enough for today. Turn off the news at that point. Look at the blue sky, play music, paint, dance what inspires you.

Art and Soul

Art and Soul Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Poetry has the power to transport us into the realm of the soul. In the months after the September 11th attacks people connected to poetry as a means to cope with the tragedies that occurred. An interview between Alice Quinn, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, and poet, Deborah Garrison, looks at this connection. Garrison describes, “There was almost a poetic horror to that day, in that one moment you suddenly registered a before and after, and the poem seems to be a form that captures the largeness of one moment, and the largeness of one day.”

This poem by Adam Zagajewski was first published in the weeks after 9/11; re-appeared this week on my Facebook feed and feels as relevant today as it was 14 years ago.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? For, grief has a way of extracting the stuck, pulling us out of temporary shutdowns—so that we may walk and work in flow with life. So that we may live fully: art and soul.

Dining and Dying: Five Key Lessons on How to Do Both Better

By The Dinner Party 

..A community of those who have experienced significant loss. They get together over potluck dinners to talk about the the ways in which it continues to affect their lives and how to thrive in ‪#‎LIFEAFTERLOSS‬.

Last week, we invited a group of our favorite hearts and minds — people whose work and words had literally changed our lives — over for dinner. On the menu for the evening: beet and quinoa salad with pomegranates, persimmons, and a maple balsamic reduction, roasted delicata squash with a honey miso glaze, seared beef with porcini mushroo1*0IGi7gWDOuEY17wZVB9Y7gm dust, and death. (No, we don’t mean the Colonel Mustard with a candlestick variety.)

In some ways, this wasn’t so different from most of the dinners we do. The food was fancier, courtesy of our chef friend and Dinner Party host (we’ll get to that), Amanda — who’d just moved back to Southern CA after a stint at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. The plates matched — a Dinner Party first. But death and dinner no longer strike us odd bedfellows

Five years ago, we sat down for dinner on a back-deck in Los Angeles, with zero design in mind other than to talk openly about something we normally, and expertly, avoided. We were all in our early 20s, and each of us had lost a parent: For some, it had been years, for others, a few months. We talked about the ways in which the experience had left us changed, and the struggles to which our peers could not relate, and the people we’d lost and the families and fragments of families they’d left behind. We talked until the wee hours, and kept doing it.

Since December 2013, we’ve grown from a couple dozen friends to a community of more than 1,000 in 48 cities. Earlier this month, we onboarded our 142nd host, and kicked off our 100th table. For all that’s changed, a lot hasn’t: We’re still a community of mostly of 20- and 30-somethings who’ve lost parents, or siblings, or partners, or best friends, and get together over potlucks to reflect on where we are now.

Over time, something interesting started to happen. We began to hear from people with a wide array of experiences beyond death loss: Women who’d suffered miscarriages, and their partners, too; people who’d lost someone to mental or physical illness, in which the person was still there but the relationship was gone; survivors of childhood abuse, who’d cut off ties with their biological families, and, like so many of the people around our tables, were learning to navigate the world alone.

All of our stories are different. Yet we’ve found that most people arrive with two things in common: A hunger for community, and for people with whom they don’t have to hide a part of themselves and their stories, and a persistent belief that whatever it is that they’re doing, they’re doing it wrong.

We started thinking about why that was true, and why we suck at talking about this stuff, despite the fact that we’ll all live through it. We started thinking about the role of the table in turning our most isolating experiences into sources of connectivity, and the difference between moving forward versus moving on, and what it means to live well after loss. We wondered what it would take to reach 1,000 tables, and what needs to change at a cultural level, and what we could do to help change it.

So we teamed up with Motherless Daughters author Hope Edelman to help us figure out what’s next.

“Culture change” is a thing that can feel amorphous — the stuff of intellectual masturbation, not concrete strategy — until you meet people who’ve had a hand in achieving it.

Before Motherless Daughters, our understanding of grief was limited to the Five Stages: That women could still be affected decades later, let alone be bonded by the experience, was little understood. Hope interviewed hundreds of women of every age — women who’d lost their mothers as kids or teenagers, or never known their moms at all — and gave them a voice, naming the fact that loss isn’t something that you get over, but something that changes you, in ways both small and large.

The room included Karen Moyer, co-founder of The Moyer Foundation, whose signature program, Camp Erin, helped cement the idea that if you want to address child bereavement, you have to create spaces where kids can be kids. It included Jo-Ann Lautman, founder of Our House, LA’s largest grief support center, and Jamie Daves, co-founder of Current TV and Halio Health, whose resume highlights include having led the deployment of broadband to schools, libraries, and health centers at the Federal Communications Commission. Gathered around the table were expert storytellers and creative directors and technologists: People dedicated to spreading messages, inside and outside the healthcare system.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Stop innovating. What we need is a return. Ours is an age obsessed with innovation and all things new: pill regimens to help you live foreverand promises of digital immortality. Reality check: People have been dying for a very long time, and that’s not about to change. At risk of waxing nostalgic about an imaginary past, perhaps we did it better when our last breaths weren’t spent plugged into machines.

Too often, we end up suffering in silence, subject to a healthcare system that doesn’t advocate for people, says technologist Sarah Sims, a software developer working to change the way we approach mental healthcare. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Dr. Matthew Gonzales is a palliative care doctor and the Associate Medical Director at the Institute of Human Caring at Providence Hospitals. In caring for patients at the end of their lives, the most important thing he does has nothing to do with prescribing medication, he says. “People want to be witnessed.” That’s a role each of us can play, and it doesn’t require a degree to do it.

2. Looking for a generation bridge? Try loss. “Generational segregation is one of the only sources of segregation we still tolerate,” says Jamie Daves. At the table sat men and women whose ages spanned six decades: A rarity, if not an outright first, for all of us. Death and dying is not the purview of the elderly, and grief and loss are not unique to one age group or another. Two million people under the age of 30 lost a parent or sibling in the last two years. Fifty percent of inner-city kids will experience the sudden loss of a family member before they’re 21. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and 10–25% of recognized pregnancies result in miscarriage.

Because loss is universal, it can serve as a unique bridge-builder across lines of difference: A way to peer beneath the stereotypes and to combat our tendencies to “other” one another, and to invite open and honest conversation about the things that matter most. Let’s talk.

3. It’s time we out ourselves. Darryle Pollack was 18 when she lost her mom to breast cancer. Her mom had been sick for six years, and no one ever told her the reason. For decades, cancer was mentioned only in hushed tones, if at all: It was a thing you hid. Compare that to today’s warrior culture, when cancer patients document the experience in real-time and share it with legions of followers, and cancer patients and survivors join celebrities and companies to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in research funds.

Too often, grief produces those same hushed tones. Members of the club stay hidden from one another, locked in a mutual conspiracy of silence. We need a pink ribbon: A means of acknowledging each other and sharing our stories, in a way that’s empowering, not pity-inducing.

But it doesn’t end there: It’s time to bring back villages, says enso co-founder Sebastian Buck. That we are both more connected than ever and more isolated is one of the great paradoxes of the modern age. Sebastian grew up in a tiny village in Southern England, but the kind he’s talking about isn’t physical. The question, he says, is how to help people find each other online, so that they connect over meaningful experiences offline.

4. Our relationship to death changes how we choose to live. “For awhile, I had a really good relationship with death,” says Ben Goldhirsh, co-founder of GOOD and Chairman of The Goldhirsh Foundation. Ben was 18 when his mom died, and 21 when his dad died of brain cancer. The experience, he says, was not just a sad one, though it was that too, of course. It was also opening, filled with intensely beautiful moments: An experience that changed his priorities, and forced him to get comfortable with his own limited time on earth. The challenge, he says, is how to hold on to that, without getting swallowed up by all the logistics that come with death, and how to stay connected outside of occasional returns to the cemetery.

“Everything we love, we’ll eventually lose,” says Julia Barry. Julia is the daughter of the late Laura Ziskin, a renowned film producer and one of the co-founders of Stand Up to Cancer. She is now pursuing her Marriage and Family Therapy license. The truth, of course, is that loss is every moment: That we can recognize that, and choose to go all in in spite of it, may seem like a contradiction. After all, the decision to live and to love fully is to knowingly put our finger in the socket. The key, says Julia, is not to “get over” grief, but to integrate it.

“Loss is a soul-making experience,” adds Kelly Carlin, author of A Carlin Home Companion. “It helped me figure out what the fuck I’m doing here.”

5. Start with dinner. Tembi Locke was a kitchen widow before she became The Kitchen Widow. Used to describe the wives of chefs, the term took on a whole new meaning when her husband and partner of 20 years, a Sicilian chef, died of cancer. “When he died,” she says, “I did what I’d always done: I went back to the table.” She launched a web series. In each episode, she cooks up her husband’s recipes, and invites friends over to talk openly about caregiving and grief.

Our most important conversations happen around dinner tables. It’s a fact so basic as to seem not worth mentioning, until you realize it’s one we often forget, or fail to capitalize on. We separate work from the table, conversing with our colleagues over meetings, rather than meals. We bury our heads in our phones, replacing conversation with the clicks of a keypad. We deem our most vulnerable thoughts and experiences “not appropriate dinner table conversation.” Bullshit. Got something important to say? Grab a fork.

 

Thanks to our host, Ben Goldhirsh, and our attendees for the evening:

Ben Goldhirsh, GOOD + Goldhirsh Foundation

Hope Edelman, Author, Motherless Daughters

Ashley Areyan, Institute for Human Caring

Julia Barry, MFT Intern

Sebastian Buck, enso

Kelly Carlin, Author, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George

Jamie Daves, Halio Health

Matthew Gonzales, MD, Institute for Human Caring

Jo-Ann Lautman, Our House Grief Support Center

Tembi Locke, The Kitchen Widow

Karen Moyer, The Moyer Foundation

Darryle Pollack, Blogger + WHOA Network

Sarah Sims, Halio Health

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthcare Innovation

Carla Fernandez, The Dinner Party

Lennon Flowers, The Dinner Party

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind and Body in Psychotherapy

*Diane is not an actual person, but a composite of several clients Dr. Schwartz has seen over the past several years. Identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy. The treatments and outcomes are real.

Mind-Body Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz

By the time Diane came into my office her suffering had become unbearable. Migraines, chronic pain, and insomnia were interfering with her ability to simply live her life. Knowing that psychotherapy can improve health outcomes, her doctor referred her for treatment. Together we began to discuss her symptoms and unpack her history. Diane revealed her ongoing struggles with depression, fatigue, weight gain, and risk for diabetes. I learned of her frightening childhood exposure to domestic violence. She spoke of her father’s alcoholism and that her mother was never involved in her life. With tears streaming down her cheeks she said, “They never should have had children; I should have never been born.”

Unresolved trauma takes a significant toll on the mind and body. Unresolved childhood trauma is particularly insidious and is now considered to be a leading cause of heart disease, lung disease, and a contributor to the development of auto-immune illnesses. If you see yourself in Diane’s story there is good news…

Mind-body medicine reminds us that health promoting behaviors such as exercise, healthy diet, and positive social connections strengthen your resilience mentally, emotionally, and physically. New research reveals that psychotherapy has the potential to heal the body and the mind; reversing the physiological impact of trauma and improving your mental outlook on life.

“Trauma leaves wounds on the body, imprints in the psyche, and markers on our DNA. You feel broken. You can heal. You believe you are damaged. Believe you can be repaired. Relationships hurt you. Healthy relationships help you heal. Attending to the wounds of trauma is not easy. It is worthwhile.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Childhood Trauma and Your Health

Mind-Body Medicine Dr. Arielle SchwartzDiane began to process her history of exposure to domestic violence and alcoholism and as she did so she had an A-Ha moment “My parents neglected me, and now I neglect myself by not taking care of my body as an adult. They were not loving parents but I can become good at loving myself.” Realizing she had no models for healthy diet and exercise as a child she developed greater self-compassion regarding her struggles with diet and exercise.

The psychological and medical fields are now recognizing that children exposed to trauma are significantly more likely to have physical health risk factors later in life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted through Kaiser Permanente, assessed 17,000 patients experiences of 7 domains of childhood trauma: physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, or living with household with addictions, mental illness or imprisonment.

The study revealed that ACE factors were greater predictors of poor health than diet, smoking, and exercise factors combined. There were significantly increased mental health risks for depression and suicide and significantly increased physical health risks for cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, liver disease.

Healing from Adverse Childhood Experiences involves recognizing that while the past leaves a mark on us we cannot allow our past to define us. Once you can feel your pain you can free yourself from pain. When you recognize limiting beliefs that are running your life you can take charge of your mind and reclaim a positive outlook on life.

Trauma and Telomere

Step by step, Diane took her body and mind back from the costs of trauma. She comMind-Body Medicine Dr. Arielle Schwartzmitted herself to therapy. With her commitment to loving herself she gave herself permission to rest and slowly her sleep improved. When her fatigue improved she developed an exercise routine; initially walking around the block but as she felt stronger her walks grew longer. She became inspired to focus on a healthier diet of protein, fiber, fruits, and vegetables.

What is the physiological bridge between trauma and your health? To answer this question researchers have turned their attention to tiny structures within your DNA called telomeres. Telomeres act as caps on the end of our chromosomes that act as protectors. You can think of these like the plastic tips on shoelaces that keep them from fraying. Telomeres naturally shorten with age leaving chromosomes exposed and more likely to get damaged. Without telomeres cells cannot replicate themselves and die off as a result.

Shortened telomeres are associated with increased risks for physical health and mental health problems. Importantly, stress and trauma prematurely shorten telomeres. Research by Shaley et al. (2012)1 looked at the impact on telomere erosion in children exposed to violence. Children exposed to multiple forms of violence (domestic violence, frequent bullying, or physical abuse by an adult) had significantly shorter telomeres than children who had not been abused. These results suggest that shortened telomeres may be one link between early-life stress and later life disease. You can read more in my blog about the connection between chronic trauma and health.

The body also has the capacity to produce telomerase, a protective substance that lengthens telomeres. Health promoting behaviors have been shown to reverse DNA breakage. The science of telomeres is still young and holds some unresolved contradictions. Too much telomerase interferes with necessary, healthy levels of cell death and has been associated with the development of cancer. As with many things in the body, there seems to be a delicate balance of telomere activity that facilitates health.

The Good News

You can take back your mind and body from the costs of trauma. Mind-body medicine reminds us that health promoting behaviors strengthen your resilience mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. Recent research takes a look at the role of psychotherapy in reversing trauma’s impact on the body. Results reveal that therapy for PTSD in war trauma and torture survivors returned telomeres to normal levels. Morath et al. (2014)2write, “The reversibility of DNA breakage in individuals with PTSD via psychotherapy described here clearly indicates that there is indeed a possibility not only to reduce the psychological burden of PTSD but also the long-term, and potentially lethal, somatic effects of this mental disorder.”

5 Keys to Mind-Body Health:

  • Exercise: Mental health professionals have long known that exercise is of upmost importance in the treatment of depression and anxiety. However, recent research has focused on changes in telomere length associated with how much you exercise. Again, moderation is the key. A sedentary lifestyle and engaging excessive exercise are both associated with shorter telomeres. Perhaps this involves training for a 10K, developing a yoga practice, or walking over your lunch hour; however the goal is to sit less and discover a “sweet spot” that you are motivated to continue.
  • Rest and Relaxation: We all know what it feels like when we are sleep deprived. Our thinking deteriorates, our body feels heavy, our energy reserves deplete. Chronic poor sleep is associated with shortened telomeres. Learning to rest and relax is an important practice for mind-body health and longevity. Cultivate experiences that allow you to feel peaceful and uplifted such as time in nature, meditating, or listening to music. You can find more ideas in my Top 40 resilience practices blog post.
  • Healthy Nutrition and Lifestyle: A diet high in processed meats, polyunsaturated fats, and refined sugar is linked to shortened telomeres. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are no good either. According to Shaley et al. (2013)1 eating a balanced, nutritious diet is associated with greater health; however, it is important to note that women preoccupied with restraining their food intake showed both higher cortisol and shorter telomeres. Again, moderation appears to be the key. When both physical and mental health is compromised developing collaborative relationships between psychotherapists, medical providers, and nutritionists can often facilitate optimal health outcomes.
  • Learned Optimism: When there is no way to stop the abuse, end the domestic violence, or convince a parent to stop drinking a child feels powerless. Persistent childhood trauma is characterized by a state of learned helplessness. Martin Seligman describes the 3 P’s of pessimism or helplessness as: personalizing, pervasiveness, and permanence. In other words, “It’s my fault, I mess everything up, and it will always be this way. When healing from chronic we must recognize that we are safe now and are no longer stuck or powerless in the past. Seligman calls this “learned optimism,” a process of cultivating positivity by consciously challenging negative self-talk.
  • Insight and Understanding: We develop insight when we have the opportunity to process the events of our lives. You might find this journaling, during an intimate conversation with a friend, or in the more structured environment of psychotherapy. When sharing your experience with another it is important to feel heard and validated in your story. Psychotherapy takes this process further by helping to identify ways of thinking and behaving that may perpetuate difficult feelings or painful patterns of relating with others. Psychotherapy for PTSD, such as Somatic and EMDR Therapies, work with the cognitive and body-centered impact of traumatic events. Most importantly when working with a therapist is that you feel a sense of trust and hope.

Trauma leaves wounds on the body, imprints in the psyche, and markers on our DNA. You feel broken. You can heal. You believe you are damaged. Believe you can be repaired. Relationships can hurt. Healthy relationships help you heal. Attending to the wounds of trauma is not easy. It is worthwhile.

References:

1Shaley et al. (2013) Stress and telomere biology: A lifespan perspective, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(9), 1835-1842

2Morath et al. (2014) Effects of Psychotherapy on DNA Strand Break Accumulation Originating from Traumatic Stress. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 89, 289-197.

Embracing Grief

By Sobonfu Somé
A version of this article was originally published in  Alternatives Winter ’06 Issue 40 .

Surrendering to your sorrow has the power to heal the deepest of wounds

For many people grief is an option. Looking at my own life, I realized it is a matter of life and death. In fact, throughout my life, grief has been an important theme from crying for food as a child to dealing with deep pain of losses as I grow older. My earliest memory of deep grieving was when I was a little girl, about 5 or 6-years old. One of my playmates died. I was so shocked and confused by the whole business especially when I am told I would never see him in a physical form again. I grieved for a long time and it just wouldn’t stick in my head that my friend had died. Every day I would try to go with the hope to play with him, but he wasn’t there. My community would gently say to me “do you remember that he died?,” and they supported me and grieved with me. Although I grieved for a long time, over a year, it was accepted as a normal part of life. I was never asked, “Aren’t you finished grieving yet?” Rather, they would say – “have you grieved enough? Have you cried enough?”

For my people, the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa, we see that in life it is necessary to grieve those things that no longer serve us and let them go. When I grieve Is never manifest, illnesses occur, relationships break up, and there are unexpected natural disasters. It is so important to have ways to release those pains to keep clearing ourselves. Hanging on to old pain just makes it grow until it smothers our creativity, our joy, and our ability to connect with others. It may even kill us. Often my community uses grief rituals to heal wounds and open us to spirit’s call.

I thought this perspective on grief was natural for everyone until I came to the U. am surrousobonfunded by family reassuring me that the grieving is worthwhile and I can grieve as much as I want. We experience conflicts, loved ones die or suffer, dreaS. I was with a friend who was having a conflict with her family and I knew the situation was not easy for her. But one day I heard her alone in the bathroom crying! I said, through the door, “Are you OK?” She said, “Yes, I’m fine!” I said to myself, “Oh my god, something is not right here.” The people who were supposed to support her were not there. I felt conflicted and wondered what would my grandmother do in this situation?

I was in my late teens when my grandmother died. I was overcome with so much devastating grief I was unable to release it. I was stuck in feeling of anger, betrayal and even rage. I wondered, how could my grandmother do this to me? Everyone was grieving around me. Though I could not join them they made a space for me. Everyone took turns caring for each other as they broke down. Luckily, the seventy-two hours of usual grieving time were stretched beyond five days. When everyone was finished, I still had much to grieve, and people were still there for me. Though I began my grieving late I never felt dissatisfaction from those around me. It is natural that people around you start to grieve when you do. We know that when you have pain it’s not a personal pain, it is a pain of the whole group. We experience a collective sharing, so that an individual doesn’t need to bear all the weight of the suffering.

Many years later, while in the U.S., I had a relationship crisis. I felt like I was dying. I realized that I was feeling lonely in my grief as my soul, heart and mind continuously collided. I was not used to giving an intellectual explanation to my grief. I found much relief in various communities here and when I got home and everyone joined me in the grieving all of a sudden, I felt lighter.

There is a price in not expressing one’s grief. Imagine if you never washed your clothes or showered. The toxins that your body produces just from everyday living would build up and get really stinky. That is how it is with emotional and spiritual toxins too. What we must remember is that, the more these toxins rise the more we have a tendency to blame or hurt others around us. People never harm others out of joy, they give pain to others because they too are hurt or in pain.

There can be so much grief that we grow numb from the unfelt and unexpressed emotions that we carry in our bodies. Unexpressed hurt and pain injures our souls, and can be linked directly to our general sense of spiritual drought and emotional confusion, not to mention the many illnesses we experience in our lives. Many of us suffer from medical conditions that are grief-related. Grieving, whether in private or in community, has many scientifically proven health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and risks of heart attacks to simply having a better quality of life.

We need to begin to see grief not as foreign entity and not as an alien to be held down or caged up, but as a natural process. As the recipient of someone’s grief we also must understand that it is OK for someone to express pain.

In today’s world, most of us carry grief and do not even know it. We have been trained at a very young age how not to feel. In the West we are often taught that to be good girls and boys we have to “suck it up.” The consequences are that even with your most intimate and trustworthy friends you might feel like, “I am burdening them.” Crying in front of others is too often a forbidden fruit. We learn to compartmentalize our grief because expressing it in an unwelcoming place will only lead to more grief. We are taught that the people who are closest to us have no way of holding us when we fall apart.

Yet we are born fully knowing how to grieve. We cry naturally to feel better, to unburden ourselves and take a few pounds off our shoulders and souls.

If there is a way for everyone to grieve openly, I believe it will also diminish the blaming and shaming that goes on between the races. When you are in the presence of someone grieving you don’t see color anymore, it is a universal language. We are all in pain. There is no need to blame others. Blame, shame, and guilt come from being unable to express our grief properly. How can we pretend to be happy, peaceful and loving when we have so much pain and grief?

I believe the future of our world depends greatly on the manner in which we handle our grief. Positive expressions of our grief are healing. However, the lack of expression of our grief or its improper release is what is at the root of the general unhappiness and depression that people feel, all of which lead to war and crimes.

There are things we can do in society to help heal. We can begin by accepting our own and each other’s grief. We can have grief rooms and shrines in public spaces where people can go to grieve. I have seen this happen in different communities in the United States and it worked for them. Churches can have rooms for people to grieve. One of my dreams is to turn places where there have been great and repetitious crimes into grief shrines where people can go to mourn. I imagine Memorial Day not as a day of barbecue, but a day to allow us to deal with our daily frictions, losses and grief as a community.

Communal grieving offers something that we cannot get when we grieve by ourselves. Through validation, acknowledgement and witnessing, communal grieving allows us to experience a level of healing that is deeply and profoundly freeing. Each of us has a basic human right to that genuine love, happiness and freedom.

Sobonfu Somé is one of the foremost voices in African spirituality. She travels the world on a healing mission, sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, West Africa. Author of The Spirit of Intimacy, Women’s Wisdom from the Heart of Africa, and Falling Out of Grace, Sobonfu’s message about the importance of spirit, community, and ritual in our lives rings with an intuitive power and truth that author Alice Walker has said “can help us put together so many things that our modern Western world has broken.” She is the founder of Wisdom Spring, Inc. an organization dedicated to the preservation, the sharing of indigenous wisdom as well as holding fundraisers for wells, schools and health projects in Africa. Sobonfu tours the United States and Europe teaching workshops.