Having intimate involvement in the dying process is a straining experience. I can say that the last two years of the cancer have been the hardest of my life. But…and this is a very big but… (not mine, mine is of fairly reasonable proportion to the rest of my body I guess)…but I am also the most peaceful I have ever been. Probably not the happiest, because I believe happiness is as transient as the minutes and hours. Passing and coming, sometimes in equal measures as anger, frustration, sadness, embarrassment, fear and worry. But I also believe that I can be peaceful during all of these internal experiences. Peace is not a place you find but a state that you can achieve no matter what place you find yourself in. This is relieving because I’ve found myself in a pretty shitty place.
Anyone who says they are happy all the time is hiding a dark secret. The secret is they are a liar. As a psychologist, the first thing I teach kids is that emotions come and go, no emotion will hang around forever, and that goes for happiness as well. Unbelievably, you do have the right to be unhappy. This can be very liberating to know. It is an essential part of being a fully functioning human and yet we teach our children through role modelling and parenting clichés that emotions are not ok. Through our language and by modelling behaviours like grabbing a beer or a block of chocolate as you walk in the door saying “it’s been a tough day” or hiding our emotions from our children “I’m not crying, I have something in my eye”, we teach them to be uncomfortable and scared of their feelings. I think a better lesson is to teach them not to run away to find peace when emotions hit, but to practice peace during the experience of painful thoughts and feelings. Seeing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as a vital part of the human experience and not holding them tightly is essential for emotional growth.
“Be a brave boy and don’t be scared”
Instead of the more helpful statement…
“It’s ok to be scared, it will pass soon”
We reel off…
“Only babies cry”
… and …
“Never cry in public, don’t show people you are weak”
Instead of the nurturing statement…
“Crying means you care about something. I like that you care about (insert issue)”
And this old chestnut from our positive psychology friends…
“Just be happy please. If you think positively only positive things will happen”
Instead of the more real…
“You have the right to be unhappy. If there is anything I can do to help you let me know.”
I have come to this part of my life and thankfully been given the gift of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training for my work. I showed up to the workshops expecting to find ways to help my clients through difficult periods of their lives and was surprised to learn that these techniques (more of a way of life and an attitude really) would be the most helpful thing to get me through my worst period, allowing me to be peaceful and joyful throughout the experience of watching a loved one die. I want to give you an example and if you like the idea make sure you subscribe to the blog below or like my page on Facebook so you can read the next part of the Mindfulness Series My Mindful Day.
I got home from the hospital late Thursday night, still in my heels from a long day at work, my shoulders bent in on themselves after a really sad visit with him. I hate life at this moment. Life is unfair. “I hate you life,” I said as I walked into the house, peeling off my shoes while trying to avoid the hopeful gaze of my puppy. And even though I’d walked Max that morning, the guilt was huge. He’s a damn kelpie x bordercollie. Which seemed like a good idea when we got the gorgeous bundle of endless energy, until a week later when he went into hospital and my husband and I found ourselves in a home not our own, caring for three teenagers not our own. Well not really our own. Max, full of energy and need, lost the title of Only Child. Insanely, also at this very time hubby injured his knee and would be off work for six months, and our working dog suddenly had no work to go to.
So that night I took him for a wander up the block, six bare feet taking in the antioxidants from the earth and shedding pent-up energy back down into the ground. I felt bound by the responsibility to walk the damn dog. But as soon as my feet were on the road and we padded along in the blackness of the night, I couldn’t have felt freer. The cool air brushed my face while the remnant warmth from the sun on the road soaked through my soles. We walked to the end of the road where our four-legged neighbours live. Two majestic brown horses ran to the gate when we arrived, kissing Max’s snoz Eskimo-style and running their big lips across my outstretched hand in quivers, taking in my smell. I hadn’t wanted to go. Detested it. Protested it valiantly. It was my guilt that tipped me over the edge…or out the front door rather. Full of wretched guilt, annoyance, tired crankiness. Without mindfulness I would have trudged along that road, heavy-footed in a stinking mood…stayed with my annoyance and festering resentment towards responsibility, towards death, towards long workdays. Instead, I let all that float away and stayed in the moment, lightly bouncing down that road noticing the cool and warmth, noticing the breath from the horse’s snout brushing my skin, noticing the quiet, noticing the pure bliss in my puppy’s uninhibited movements, the happiness in his whole body. I surfed the urge, resisting the temptation to oscillate between the crappy past (thoughts of my night spent in the hospital) and the scary future (will this ever end? I feel like this will never end) and stayed fully present embracing the demons within, celebrating what is right in my world not what I wished to change.
You see mindfulness does not get rid of the normal thoughts and feelings that are part of everyday life “I hate this”… “Life is soooo unfair” … “What did I do to deserve this?” I still get these thoughts regularly. I still feel cranky and sad and downright peeved, mindfulness hasn’t transformed me into a Pollyanna personality. I am sceptical about all this New Age-y type stuff, the scientist sitting in the back of my brain at her desk writing her doctoral dissertation screams out “but what about the evidence dammit?!” and clucks her tongue in disapproval while she writes furiously. The research placates me and finally the little hippie deep inside me sighs in relief and stretches out luxuriously on her yoga mat with an approving smile. This stuff works. It’s simple as all hell. And it’s liberating. It doesn’t involve looking in the mirror and reciting positive affirmations that both the little hippie and the little professional in me scoff at, turning up their noses and spinning on their heels, vanishing as quick as you can say “you are wonderful, you are making a difference in the world, you are beautiful and you are also a genius”. They both know the mind is only prepared to accept the reality of your experience in that moment. It knows you sometimes mess up. It knows life is unfair. Only repeating positive statements in these moments is not being true to your experience. What mindfulness has done is given me the ability to let these feelings and thoughts pass like cars on the street outside, noticing them with amused curiosity sometimes… “You hate life? Ha! Good one mind, you’re on fire tonight!”
Stop looking for that oasis. When your situation is “perfect” and you find yourself in a “perfect” place, you may be disappointed because feelings like disappointment are as human as spoken language and wearing clothes. They will follow you wherever you go. Find your peace, no matter the situation.
Stop looking for eternal happiness, it is too elusive. Start your search for peace now.
Subscribe to the blog or like my page on Facebook to receive the link for the next piece in the Mindfulness Series. Take the time to follow some of the links throughout this piece; there is some inspirational stuff to be found…maybe your first step towards peaceful living.
The Right to Be Unhappy is a great parenting article for emotion literacy.
Celebrate What’s Right an inspiring documentary by Dewitt Jones.
Do yourself and everyone around you a favour and read The Happiness Trap.