Chances are, you will never heal all your wounds, nor are you meant to. Perhaps they are to be faithful companions on your journey, worthy friends guiding you, reminding you of compassion and humility, and acting as an acutely sensitive barometer shooting aches and pains through you when you are not aligned in truth, or pushing too hard. Indeed, a certain amount of pain and heartbreak may just be necessary for all of us if we are to stay grounded in our humanity and open to the rawness of living and loving in the unfathomable paradox of light and dark we endlessly wander through together.
I was walking along the beach the other day when I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. The kindest, warm-hearted man, he asked how I was. I told him the truth — that I’ve been going through a lot this last while, a big transition and transformation, and have been swept by immense grief a great deal of the time. Without hesitation or concern, and with the utmost of sincerity, he said, “Oh, I’m so happy for you! What a gift! What a beautiful experience to feel that much!”
A rare response, indeed, wouldn’t you say?! And it could not have been a better one. Not necessarily for everyone, in every situation, but for me in that moment, it was. No fixing, no changing, no making better. Just allowing, seeing, and even celebrating! Which allowed me to relax into my authenticity and body.
This man understands grief. He has experienced his fair share; but also his work in supporting others to heal through laughter, and its flip side, grief, has built a muscle in him to hold space for big emotions. He’s thus not afraid of small and large tears, and his response to the grief he saw in my eyes and felt in my heart was indicative of that.
The three hearts
There are three hearts I’d like to propose to you.
We know about the physical heart, the one that miraculously beats away every second of every day for decades. An extraordinary feat, one worth giving thanks to. There is also the spiritual or etheric heart. Also known as the heart chakra or heart temple, this is the gateway to our higher self through which we intuitively feel and know ourselves beyond this limited human form.
What isn’t talked about as much is the emotional heart.
It’s my opinion and personal experience that the deepest wound is to the heart. It’s where we hurt most, emotionally. We have the saying that we “take things to heart”, and we do, often more than we realize. Children, as a result of adverse experiences such as neglect and abuse, carry so much pain in their vulnerable hearts. In one of my Ayahuasca (shamanic healing) ceremonies, I was shown an image of my heart protected by layers and layers of barbed wire. The pain in my innocent heart from all sorts of complex traumatic childhood experiences was that profound. There could be no other choice but to protect that pain and my heart, and to conceal the big emotions I had no capacity to process at that young tender age.
Experiences in adulthood can also create tremendous heart pain. The death of a loved one or ending of a relationship can bring up forces of grief so strong they can render someone barely hanging on. I remember after a relationship ended I was hit with so much grief that I thought I was going to explode. I clung to the couch feeling like I was being swept away by a raging river, a wild force of nature that was stronger than simply an emotion.
After that encounter I had a whole new level of respect for the emotional heart, how much pain it can carry and how powerful grief is. And a clearer appreciation for why in many tribal societies grieving, through ceremony and ritual, has been a communal event. When grief is that strong, it needs to be held in numbers. Given the amount of suffering we, our ancestors and Mother Earth have endured, given how much unprocessed pain is carried down the ancestral line, and given how much we unconsciously suppress, there is no doubt in my mind that grief can be too big for one to hold on their own. With many skillfully caring for it with you, especially through some form of ceremony or ritual that calls in the powers and presence of Spirit, it can pass through with greater ease. To use a metaphor, one can confidently go further down into the well of the emotional heart if there is at least one other at the top holding the rope. If grieving becomes too much, there is someone there to pull that person out.
For these reasons and more, and I’m sure you know this from personal experience, the emotional heart is very real. The tightness, the aches and pain you feel in your chest, that is often your emotional heart speaking. It is the dam holding fort, keeping told and untold grief at bay for a time when you are ready.
Grieving as a skill
Sometimes my clients tell me they want to heal their grief. This is usually related to the loss of a loved one or the disappointment of things having not gone their way. My response is generally the same: What if it’s not about healing your grief, but learning to feel it? What if grief is not the problem, but an invitation to learn the lost art and skill of grieving and thus embodiment?
I then propose that a place to look is healing the pain that gave rise to the grief. Not the grief itself. That underneath grief is unprocessed pain, usually held in the heart, the place we hold the deepest wounds.
One might suggest that grief is the pain. I humbly believe otherwise. That it starts with some painful experience, such as the loss of our beloved grandmother or our son’s decision to move far away, that we take to heart, that can hit us like a ton of bricks, and that grief is the expression of. Pain is the blow to the heart that can get lodged and exacerbated if we refuse our grief, deny its natural and desired outflow, and the blessings that follow — if we keep the dam sealed shut.
This doesn’t mean it can’t hurt to grieve. Grieving connects us to and helps us move through the pain in our hearts. Tears unlock it so that pain, and we, can be free; so pain does not get stuck in our system and we don’t get stuck in our life. On the way out, through grieving, we naturally feel the pain.
Grieving helps us transition from loss and transform through it, to move on from that heartbreaking experience and grow into a wiser person with greater depth. Without grieving, we cling unhealthily to that person or experience because we cling to the pain. And we limit our capacity to evolve.
Grieving is thus a skill, one we in the busy West have not cultivated for a good number of reasons. I’ve written extensively about this, but, in a nutshell, for many children, in order to survive adversity, to survive a home environment where it’s not safe to feel, they tuck away their feelings. It’s not safe to be afraid or sad, let alone express these feelings openly. Suppression is a survival strategy that carries forward into our adult years, and that ubiquitously defines our culture, everything from religion to education, the workplace and entertainment industry.
In many ways, partly due to the media, grief is a saccharine sentiment, at best. At worst, it’s a sign of weakness that should be punished and overcome. We as a collective haven’t matured much beyond this range, which further represses our emotional body. Our culture wants strength, but not the strength found in vulnerability. It wants the heroic, tough it out, rise above strength celebrated in our many famed stories and machismo arenas. It’s averse to the slow it down, take a moment, touch into, I’m with you, allow through, it’s okay, no fixing, no making better kind of feeling. This is one reason there is so much physical and emotional disease in our culture.
Grieving is therefore not a skill we are versed at. Simply put, we are quite poor at it. An indicator is our proclivity for fixing people and making them “better”, versus having empathy for them. Empathy is the rare art of allowing someone to have their experience in full, without changing, fixing, solving, judging or turning away. It’s our way of saying to someone, without words, I’m with you. You are not alone in your experience. In that relational, connected field, the grieving other can feel us feeling them. I feel felt, senses the one who is in grief. What a beautiful gift to give — not taking away their experience, not steering them from it, but supporting its expression by allowing its sweet unfoldment, moment-to-moment.
If you want evidence of how bereft we are of grieving and empathy in our society, ask yourself this: How often have you received this kind of no-agenda empathy from another? How often have you given it? In my years of teaching empathy, the answer is usually very minimal — rarely, if ever, is the common answer.
And we wonder why we struggle to grieve…
In my years of client work, I’ve witnessed the power of empathy to heal. One technique I’ve applied numerous times when seeing my client struggle to connect to their grief is to first place my hand somewhere on their back, in a spot and with a pressure that feels most comforting. I encourage them to be picky, to make sure that it is the exact spot and pressure they desire; which is its own healing process — asking for what they need. Once my hand has settled and they are in a receptive state, I invite them to take a deep breath. I then ask, in the softest and kindest tone, “What does my hand seem to be saying to you?” Having done this countless times, I can tell you that about 80% of the answers have been the same two magical words: It’s okay. Which says something, doesn’t it? How simple and powerful empathy is. When my client expresses those words as the answer to my question, I then whisper the client’s name and their chosen words: “Janice, it’s okay.” Grief then pours out. The permission to be with what is there, under the surface. Permission they, and others, historically have not granted. After decades of suppression, someone is finally there who can hold this big emotion with them so they are not alone in their experience.
“It’s okay”, as I’ve written about in this article, does not mean I need for it to be better, more okay. Rather, what these two powerful little words invite is that your experience is welcome as is, that it’s perfectly okay. Which makes you okay. For, you are sad or angry or confused at this moment. If it’s okay to feel sad, and you are sad, then it’s okay to be you!
Imagine the implications of that, alone, from childhood onwards.
When that permission is given, when we are met right where we are, it’s much easier to be with the emotion than if someone is trying to move us past it. As I often say, the way out is the way through. But without having a safe holding container when young or older, and without the self-awareness, emotional intelligence and skill needed to be with, then going through is not an option. We cope by pushing down and rising above.
The West makes little space for going through for reasons already stated; but also because we struggle making time. We just don’t make space to connect with ourselves, our truth, our feelings, our body. And, for many parents, when they do feel grief, they conceal it because they can’t escape their kids long enough to comfortably let go. Once again, there is a lack of support, in this case from an extended family or network of caregivers to allow one to have the privacy to deeply release. Having said that, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to cry in front of our children, to introduce them to our emotional body, to demonstrate that, like them, we, too, are okay with crying. It’s a matter of degrees, because sometimes we just need to wail, and in that case, we need a space to ourselves, or with supporting adults.
The heart is designed to grieve
I invite you to consider that the heart is designed to grieve. It is one of its main functions and purposes. Just that consideration, alone, can be quite liberating. That your heart wants to grieve!
As sensitive, feeling beings who care, we cannot help but take things to heart. We watch the news, we see people, animals and Mother Nature in pain, we suffer ourselves in loss, and we cannot help but be struck emotionally by the immensity of it all in this grand theatre of extraordinary strife. Given the magnitude of personal and global suffering, I propose grieving as a necessary ongoing practice to help us live and adapt in such a turbulent world; to be with our heartbreak, the feelings that want and need to be felt given our own pain and that which we witness outside ourselves.
What a gift to our heart, and to our body and soul, to allow it to fulfil this most beautiful and noble purpose. To help us process the difficulties and tragedies of the human experience. What a gift to not deny our emotionality, and thus not deny our feeling hearts that cannot help but be affected by life.
Grief, when tended to well, tends to our hearts well, which allows us to care for the hearts of others. Grief softens the heart from its hard, protective shell, and humbles us in the process. It makes us much more compassionately available to the pains of those around us, and to speak from a depth that could not be possible without our fully felt heartbreak. Allowing grief to run its full course through our hearts and bodies builds the skill in us to create that same space for others; to not deny their experience, but to honour it as a gift to themselves, and all of life.
Grieving is indeed a gift the heart is designed to bestow upon us that can then extend itself to others — if only we accept it. For, hidden in the gift is love. That’s what our emotional, grieving heart is ultimately designed to open us to — love of self, others and life.
Grieving is love, and love is grieving. Grief and love are two sides of the same heart. You grieve because you love. Without love, there is no grief. Why else would you feel for the struggles of others, even people you don’t know? You grieve because you care, perchance even love. More intimately, why would you grieve the loss of a close family member or friend, a piece of land, your beloved dog, or home? Your tears flow because of your love for them. This goes back to what I share with my clients — that it’s not about healing the grief, but expressing it and thus feeling/expressing love.
Imagine if, as a soul, having left your body, you witness your family and friends grieving from your departure. Unbridled, wildly unconsolable tears pouring down, soaking shirts and blouses, ruining make-up. A complete mess of heartfelt grief! Would that not convey to you that they love you, much more than if they were simply talking about you?
During one of my healing ceremonies, my beloved mother, who is still alive, came to mind. And then to heart. I felt, more than I ever had, how much she suffered, how much she sacrificed, how much she gave, how hard she worked when I was a young child growing up, cleaning, cooking, taking me to soccer practice, all the little and big things she did, the blood, sweat and tears. I wept and wept and wept. It’s the longest and heaviest I’ve ever cried. I remember reaching for tissues and being astounded at how tear-soaked they were, how much was coming out of me — how much love. That ceremony took place 16 months ago, and I still have those tissues on my alter (nestled against a picture of her when she is about 3 years old) as a reminder of my love for her. Those tissues mean the world to me, as does my beautiful mother.
I call this grieving. Many would not because they associate grief only with death. That perspective is, in my opinion, highly limiting, not only in our understanding of grief, but in our ability to truly feel and celebrate love and life. Grief is deeply, beautifully, forever entwined with love, a love for humans and non-human forms alike, here on Earth and departed or left behind, in each and every moment. It is entwined with living as a fragile human, day-to-day, vulnerable to the unpredictable cycles of comings and goings. Understanding grief in this way invites us to more fully recognize that our loved ones won’t be around forever, we won’t be around forever; that we are all dying, this fragile existence on Mother Earth is dying, now, now, and now.
Invoking the power of our heart to grieve, as its designed blessing to us, acknowledges the impermeability of life, which most are afraid to acknowledge because they are afraid of their grief. Grieving, as I define it, opens us to this not-forever, heartbreaking truth and to a love that need not wait for finality — a love of others, and love for the pure privilege of living in this body at this time with more blessings than we consider. And it opens us to compassion for our suffering family of sentient beings, far and wide, which only builds kinship in a world steadfast on creating division.
Indeed, in surrendering to our grief, to what our heart is designed for, we may one day realize that your and my tears aren’t that different, nor our hearts as far apart.
Living with a broken heart
The heart is our powerful, mysterious, mystical sacred centre that can bear much more than we realize, and through which all adversity can be transmuted. If we turn to it as a faithful ally we’ll be amazed at its capacity and willingness to work with us, and for us — to turn tragedy into tears, tears into new capacities for love, and love into new possibilities for living and loving.
This is the wisdom of adversity and heartbreak. If tended to in our body consciously through enough grief work and healing, pain is alchemized into the gold of a more open heart, which expands our ability to feel, give and receive love, to let life in. Indeed the hardship of heartbreak invokes depth and wisdom not found when habitually skimming the distracting superficial surface of cerebral candy, disconnected from our higher self, from the truth we are that our heart bridges us to. It’s often a necessary gift if we are to wake from the spell of consensus, status quo living and gather the gold of what we really long for, only found in the heart.
The world will never give you what you want. Only an open heart can.
The skill then becomes: How well do we live with a broken heart? Not, how well do we fix it, bypass it, move beyond it? Do we have the willingness and courage to live with our grief as an ongoing way of being in the world? As a means of honouring and staying deeply attuned to our hearts, to Spirit, and paying homage to that which we love?
This idea, to most, would seem utterly absurd! How would I get anything done!? What I’m proposing is that, with enough healing and awakening to your sacred centre, living with heartbreak becomes quite natural, and very normal. From my personal and professional experience, I can tell you that as one embarks on the healing journey, they start crying a whole lot more. Not just to clear pain, but for the simplest of everyday reasons, and out of nowhere — seeing a beautiful bird, watching children play, reading a good book, hearing kind words from a clerk. Tears become much more available to the one who learns to inhabit the emotional body and heartbreak that comes from healing and awakening. It becomes normal to cry, sometimes every day. Tears finally have their say, and for any good reason, for it’s been a very long time.
For the last five months I’ve cried almost every day. Sometimes, the amount of tears that have come through is beyond my comprehension, and would make many believe, especially doctors, that I should be on some sort of medication. It’s not like I’m new on the trail of healing and awakening. I’ve committed fully to this journey for over 20 years. I’ve cried and cried and cried. I’ve released immense of amounts of trauma. But, once again, as I’ve done many times before, I’m going through a big initiation into Spirit, climbing yet another rung on the Spiral of Life and Love, an uncomfortably rich transformation in consciousness that has required life-altering inner and outer sacrifices, and steps into the heartbreaking unknown.
How do I move through this transition and transformation? By grieving. By allowing the reality of what’s coming to me, and through me, to hit home, in my heart. By leaning over my alter or the river or the soil by the tree I sit against and letting it all come out. Again and again, without reservation. Emptying and opening. I love and am grateful for each and every tear. Such blessings gracing me. There is no way I could make it through this time without this skill I’ve cultivated over the last few decades, without trusting my heart is designed to grieve, wants to grieve — has to grieve!
Through the gateway of grieving, my heart breaks open to new levels of living from my heart, to love. I open to new thresholds of spiritual awareness, my eternal, impersonal nature, while releasing who I thought I was. All this, from Africa to Australia to the Americas, is the traditional purpose of initiation.
This is the price one pays to live from their sacred centre, to live as a vessel for Spirit, to let the River of Love and Life pour through their opening heart, and to dissolve into Mystery. The emotional heart is the gateway to the spiritual heart, and the spiritual heart to the River, with grieving being the essential right of passage. Holy baptism by heartbreak and grieving!
For you, and most others, the journey of healing and grieving doesn’t need to be as intense, and likely won’t be. The practice is to explore where grief wants to be felt, now; not just in the context of death, which is where grief is usually relegated to, but to feel grief in a wider array of areas and with greater regularity. Loss of a job, of your home, of your child who moved away, of your harvest, of direction, of certainty, and of self. Loss of the life you thought you had, once knew, held so dear. Loss of a dream you believed was true. But your practice is to also find and feel grief in opening! Opening your heart, opening to love untold, to your higher self and angels above, to new possibilities and your purpose, to a dear beloved, to wonder and beauty, to longing for something you feel, know, is just around the corner. Opening to You!
Isn’t that what life is about? Endings and beginnings, closings and openings? The heart was designed to navigate you through this not-forever, forever winding adventure, to boldly direct you to greater thresholds of becoming you could never foresee, but that only it sees. But you must be willing to feel, my friends, to live with a broken heart.
My wish for you is just this: that you befriend your heart by befriending your grief, and, in that, discover the spirited love our great mystics, poets and artists have spoken of and portrayed for millennia, one you long for in all you seek and all you say, one you deeply deserve, a spirited love that you can then, in the crucible of heartbreak, more freely share with others, and our struggling world.
Indeed, grieving and heartbreak are blessings. May you have the courage to allow their full expression, and may they bring you home into the River of Love and Life you are.
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Healing & Activation: My invitation to you is to participate in my online healing and activation ceremonies. Drawing upon the power and mystery of Starlight and its many emanations, transformation takes place at the quantum or cellular level, creating radical changes in health and empowerment.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart