Monday, March 4, 2013

Activity as a mask for "soul work"

Much of the grief process involves what I call "soul work". Sure, there is a lot of stuff that happens around acceptance, profound sadness, regret, anger around changed circumstances and a different future, numbness and recovery from the fog, and building on the new identity. For me there was an overall awareness that I needed at some point to create a new life, once the comprehension that the old one was irrevocably changed, but there was a definite lack of will, motivation, fortitude, and impetus to actually do anything. So inside, my thinking self was saying, "hey, let's get going, it's time", but other parts of me were still wallowing.

Besides, sitting with those grief feelings is really hard! It's troubling, painful, lonely, and sad. It's a miserable existence.  Activity ends up giving you feedback, often positive. I felt more alive, more gratification, and able to say that I was reconstructing and rebuilding my life.

For someone like me, it's a easy trap to get hooked on activity as a substitute. Especially in our culture, where as a guy, you are what you do, not who you are. So after a while, my need to be active took over. I started scheduling things, getting back out there, and creating the illusion of progress. I felt pressure, even though none was imposed on me (I am fortunate not to have to work - although I want to do things that are meaningful).

But inside there was a hollowness. It seemed to be only alleviated when I had profound moments in relatively common situations. Being at church and listening to a lovely sermon and hearing incredible music. Being outside and feeling the enormity of the universe. The joy of playing with a dog. The pleasure at helping someone else. I started to realize that what really touched my heart and soul had little to do with activity I had formerly considered as being valuable, important, and meaningful.

Soul work is the process of tuning myself into the feelings and needs and sitting with them, exploring and testing them, seeing what is temporary and what is a paradigm shift, and understanding how life and purpose and approach to things resonate with those internal feelings. It's also about exploring my spirituality, and trying to make sense of the insensible. It's a tall order and feels pretty daunting.

Two intentional things in my soul work were to participate in grief support groups at The Healing Center, and attending services at the University Unitarian Church. While I was raised Catholic, I have not been a believer in organized religion or of a higher power for a long time. Yet I recognized that a place like a Unitarian Church was a wonderful place to be part of a community which supported personal spiritual growth and creating ways to live a good and meaningful life.

Part of soul work is letting go of the past, and whatever constructs I had working in my head about what fed me. Another part is really identifying those things that speak to me, and filling my day with those things. And then having formal, schedule things (such as church or support group) where I can get my fix.

Sooooo, "How is it going?" you might ask....

I'd say overall pretty well. I made a lot of mistakes - traveling down cul de sacs of activity, but fortunately figured out that was wrong and reversed course. I spend more time sniffing and testing an idea for activity to make sure it's going to resonate. I've discovered more about myself, and what speaks to me and gets me interested, motivated, and excited. I am learning not to pay attention to my internal voices about what I "should" do, and paying a lot more attention to my inner selves who care about my emotional and spiritual growth. I read more about soul work than business management.

I'm also extremely fortunate to have new friends who care about soul work, and keep me honest. That support is incredible.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Battle mode to cracked egg

One of the more interesting aspects of the grief "process" is learning about yourself. One of the realizations I have come to lately is the change in modes I've gone through.

From the time Meagan was diagnosed to several months after her death I was in full battle mode, with a coat of armor and a take charge (as much as I could) attitude. Inside I was petrified, but I wasn't able to show it. Meagan had very explicitly asked me to be positive and solution oriented and not talk of death. She simply would not have been able to cope and needed me to be a rock, so she could get by. Of course with the boys I had to be supportive for them as well, which is a whole 'nother saga. But sufficed to say, while I might have wanted to be vulnerable, and let people "in to me see" (also known as "intimacy") it really wasn't an option. My traits by nature are to be a problem solver, develop action plans, exude confidence, and focus on the mission. Given the import of this mission I was in prime form.

It's not to say I didn't buckle from time to time. Or that Meagan and I didn't have candid conversations about death, we did. But the general pattern was there. Once Meagan died and we got through the aftermath of the holidays (honestly pretty much a complete blur - I remember very little) I found I stayed in that same mode for quite some time. I fooled myself that I was doing good work on healing and grieving, and taking care of our boys.

Like many guys the way I went about it was through activity. Go to grief support. Get back on an exercise program. Look into classes and volunteering. Start playing tennis on a team. Read a lot about grief. THINK about it. Activity! It's doing something, proving I'm ok, capable, and living life.

And it went pretty well. On the surface. Fortunately my wiser inner self bubbled up and helped me listen when a loved one told me about an eight day retreat in Northern California. After researching it and others, I signed on, thinking it would be a good time (just before the one year anniversary of her death and what would have been our 25th wedding anniversary) and a way for me to process any remaining issues.

Oh boy.

I learned a lot about my patterns. Patterns that were preventing me from opening up and experiencing my feelings (let alone recognizing and naming them). I spent a lot of time writing. There were lots of group exercises and I have 37 new friends who have gone through a shared experience, while opening up new vistas into our individual inner lives. I was cracked open like an egg. I felt able to shed the hard exterior so necessary to get through the terrible experience, and try on a new mode - one that really is me, it had just been buried beneath years of patterning and programming. And reinforced by the need to be in full battle mode.

It is a huge relief and a source of joy and comfort to be in this new mode. I'm not perfect at it, and it's taking a lot of work to learn to relax and let go and let it flow. Vulnerability. My new friend....