This is the darkest & coldest season of the year, and yet this is when we are supposed to be joyful and happy. We are often brought up to think about caring for others more at this time of year, but sometimes we don’t feel like it. We sometimes go through the motions of caring for others, hoping it will help us feel better. We have been programmed to deal with this darkness as if it has to be endured and that Christmas will bring brightness and family connections and happy times. We don’t have much training about how to be with the painful and complex feelings of grief towards those who have died at this time of year. We often just endure this heaviness without knowing how to lighten our loads so we can feel joy and peace too.
LESSONS ABOUT DARKNESS ABOUND
I just traveled to Spain this spring and hiked the Camino de Santiago, the spiritual pilgrimage route through the mountains of northern Spain where the earliest pilgrims walked to find the tomb of St. James in Santiago. I learned so much about being in the darkness from historical Catholicism on this walk. The message is that dying is as powerful as living because it shows you are embracing your faith, your values, and living a life of meaning. The disciples of Jesus followed him into martyrdom, being beheaded or crucified for their faith and work. But, through their deaths and their movements into parts of Europe, Egypt and beyond, they left the message of Christ and it grew bigger because of their suffering. My experience of witnessing this ancient pilgrimage today as so many experienced it through the centuries showed me how our country has lost much of any historical perspectives about creating spiritually meaningful lives. We need deep time perspectives to see the ebb and flow of life through darkness to light and over again. In Spain in 2023, I walked in this darker side where suffering is accentuated still today and I felt what it’s like to be in the darkness of life more fully. I saw how I wanted to push it away, and how when I stayed in the uncomfortable feelings, I felt freer, more open, more accepting of myself and others. I am curious how this exploration of our own darkness could help us in our world today.
We can learn equally powerful lessons by observing and witnessing our Indigenous peoples and their embrace of the natural world where we also see life as a continuous flow from birth to death and rebirth again. They live their lives with this deeper awareness of our humanness being connected to all living things. There is so much to learn from observing and investigating how other humans live on this Earth and how they make meaning of life by being with the darkness and death just as much as the birth and rebirth.
What if we learned to embrace this dark time of year to see what it can offer us, rather than push it away? How many of you have lost loved ones during these darker months? This is a time when the darkness beckons us to that human underworld where we feel our ancestors, and this is when our loved ones often die. That makes it a confusing season because our culture is about celebration of Jesus’ birth. This often prevents us from seeing the many traditions pagan and historical that focus on the darkness. Our feelings are often confusing, complex and filled with grief at this time of year. Because it’s counter to our culture to actually embrace the darkness or the pain we are carrying around, we usually just speed up and distract ourselves rather than slow down and feel what is here.
So I want to suggest some alternatives for embracing this Holiday season. If you have attended one of my recent fall retreats, you will have explored “Mindful Inquiry.” This is a process I learned through my work with Deborah Eden Tull, a powerful dharma teacher and writer, who teaches how to embrace this darkness in her book Luminous Darkness. “Mindful Inquiry is the practice of inquiring into our actual experience in the moment and holding our questions with openness and receptivity rather than trying to fix, solve, or change our experience. In this introspective process, ..no need to grasp for an answer. In Inquiry, we simply hold our question gently, sensing and feeling into it.” She calls this “leaning toward our experience” allowing for emergence or clarity to come. (p. 57-58) Use this process with difficult emotions that may be arising for you now. Remember that grief is a very complex emotional state and involves a wide range of different feelings that come and go unexpectedly. You may feel anger, sadness, rage, hurt, shame, guilt, despair, hope, excitement, love. However the feelings show up, allow yourself to explore them because they will change and morph into many different feelings that may help you make more sense of what is happening in your own grief journey.
HOW TO DO MINDFUL INQUIRY – TOOL #1
When a difficult emotion arises ask: What is arising in my mind?
What is the lens through which I am perceiving this emotion? (Is this a Part of you experiencing this?)
What is happening in your physical body?
Where do you feel this emotion in your physical body? What sensations are present?
What is happening in your emotional body? Can you welcome these feelings without pushing them away?
Sometimes, gently inquiring into our difficult emotions allows for a softening and a shift in how we perceive them.
We remember that we are not our emotions, but an awareness that holds them. Possibly going deeper you may ask,
This is this Part of me? Notice and identify this part if you can
You can also ask this Part… What is the need not being met for this Part of me?
Is there a reassurance or expression of genuine compassion that this suffering part of me needs right now?
Here’s where you would apply genuine compassion to this Part, not solving, fixing or changing it’s experience,
but simply offering care, just as you would for a friend or child we love who is suffering
Those of you who have done IFS can see that this is a very similar process. Try it and journal what you are noticing.
OTHER TOOLS TO TRY
2. Mindful Awareness — Noticing that you are feeling deeply and that your feelings may be positive, negative and neutral but that however you are feeling, it is okay and you are okay and this is part of the human experience to feel your feelings deeply and fully. Being in the darkness, or opening to the feelings there, is actually freeing when we allow ourselves to fully feel what is there. This is usually best done with a daily mindfulness practice where you can connect deeply with yourself and your feelings.
3. Personal Investigation— This means taking time out of your busy holiday schedule to pause and notice what is important to you about this time of year. What do you want to focus on versus what your culture, family, community is focusing on. This is a perfect time for personal introspection and looking at what gives your life meaning. It is a time to look more intentionally on what are your core values and what do you want to focus your life towards.
4. Intentional Acts of Kindness – This is an opportunity to see where you want to place your intentions in your life and how you can bring kindness to yourself and others. This is not about just doing good, or being a good samaritan — this is about moving out in the world based on your beliefs, core values, or what is key to making your life meaningful. When you come from this intentional place, you bypass what is swirling around you from others you may know; and instead, you hone in on what you personally find meaningful, helpful and altruistic. This should meet a deeper need in you.