Being mindful of how the losses of life affect our hearts.
Life guarantees us two things: change and loss, together they make up the unpredictable rhythm of life. They also exert tremendous pressure on the soul. If we don’t stop long enough to notice, we’ll wake up one day and wonder why the light’s gone out of our eyes, and why passion is but a distant memory. As therapists, we need to help clients understand that all of the losses in their lives are significant, and that each one of them has shaped their beliefs about life, God and the world around them, that’s why it’s critical to recognize them, no matter how insignificant they may appear. Because most of us equate loss primarily with death, we’re unaware of how abstract losses like shattered dreams, unmet expectations, loss of trust, hope, even faith, can have serious long-range consequences on our hearts.
Hakuna Matata Don’t Matter
Hakuna Matata may have worked for Pumbaa and Timon in the Disney movie, Lion King, but the “don’t worry be happy” (bury your problems) mentality many of us have adopted to avoid pain doesn’t always work. In fact, it can shut down our hearts to real healing. Because we are created as three dimensional beings: body, soul and spirit, we need to teach our clients to take inventory of how the losses in their lives have impacted them at each of these levels. As a therapist, I teach people the “art of noticing” by asking them to pay attention to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that accompany their pain. Noticing helps us connect to that pain; a very important first step in this process.
How Loss Affects Us: Body, Soul and Spirit
Noticing how we experience grief will include teaching our clients how to develop an awareness of both the internal and external responses to their losses. Later, noticing will help them to gain perspective and hope for the future, and allow them to see the gains that have accompanied their losses. External noticing requires that we stop long enough to realize how what is going on in the outside world is impacting our mind, emotions and physical body. External cues impact what we tell ourselves about our life and our losses. Those messages spill over from our soul into our physical bodies, so that we may experience tense muscles, stomach pain, nausea, anxiety or depression. The internal expressions of grief require us to pay attention to the host of emotions that can accompany loss. At first, many of us feel only numbness. As the heart begins to thaw under the frozen layers of pain, we can slowly begin to identify a broad range of emotions, ranging from sadness to acute sorrow. The key here is that we notice what these feelings are trying to tell us about the condition of our heart.
Facing the Music
The journey through grief must begin here, cultivating these gifts of noticing and putting words to our pain. Grief is not our enemy. Restoration will come, but only as we find the courage to face and identify our losses. Pain, and suffering can profoundly change us, and not always for the good. That’s why the book of Proverbs warns us: “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). So how do we help clients to guard their hearts? By teaching them to pay close attention to what is happening to them as the issues of life unfold. The art of noticing allows us to recognize that we are in a battle for our very lives, and if we are going to survive the assault, we must make difficult choices and take deliberate and intentional action. In order to reclaim our hearts, we must be willing to enter the battleground and face the silent scream of our own souls.
What You Don’t Notice CAN Hurt You
Story is a powerful teaching tool, so I often use movie clips to generate discussion and help drive home a few salient points to my clients. For example, in the Disney movie, The Lion King, we follow the young lion cub Simba, son of King Mufasa and rightful heir to the throne in the Pride Lands through a story of epic adventure. The assault on Simba’s heart begins early, when he is a young cub. His uncle Scar kill Simba’s father King Mufasa, making it look like an accident that Simba is responsible for. The young cub is devastated by what he believes he did, and Scars seizes the opportunity to tell Simba to run away and never return. Then he is free to take the throne.
Simba’s heart is broken, and he lives for years carrying the guilt that he killed his own father even as he tries to live a carefree life with two new friends, Pumbaa and Timon.
Here’s what I ask my clients to notice from the story: Simba didn’t see what was happening. He didn’t realize he had an enemy, and that he was in a battle for his very life. His fear of facing what happened paralyzed his ability to choose wisely. When we are unwilling to see, we are then left to use whatever coping strategies we can to stay alive. The problem is that in so doing we wall off part of our hearts, just as Simba did, because the pain is too great to face. Then, we deaden the desire to hope again, settling instead for lives of mediocrity.
The enemy of his soul (Scar) brought epic disaster into Simba’s life because he knew that to morally wound the heart is to cut off the wellspring of life. When we stop paying attention to what’s happening to our hearts, we lose part of what makes us passionately alive and fully connected to God. As our story illustrates, the results can be disastrous.
Developing a New Attitude
Noticing is what effected change for Simba in The Lion King. The voice of his father echoing from the past at last reminded him of that which he had long forgotten to pay attention to—his heart, his purpose, and his true identity. As he chose to be responsive to the truth, he was able to face his fears and return to the Pride Lands with a new perspective. Desire, once again stirring in his heart, could move him forward to live the life he was created for.
By teaching our clients the art of noticing, we can also help them to cultivate a grateful heart for that which remains. By learning to heighten our awareness of the simple pleasures in life we most assuredly overlook in times of sorrow, we can encourage clients to move forward with greater resolve to accomplish that which is still left for them to do.
Beginning the Practice
So how do we help our clients practice this art of noticing? The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude provide a great place to start.
Clients should understand that the key to entering into silence and solitude begins with a willingness to abandon all distractions. Silence and solitude are an invitation to search and explore both the outward and inward dynamics of our hearts that we work so hard to ignore. Practicing silence and solitude is risky business because it pushes us beyond our comfort level, and it challenges us to find contentment in being alone. Clients should begin this practice slowly, starting with a few minutes each day.
Embarking on this journey requires quieting the mind and body, adopting an external awareness of what affects the five senses from our environment. Give clients some questions to consider as they sit quietly, such as: How does doing the difficult work of grief feel in your body? What is it you notice in the world around you that causes difficulty? How do you respond? Do you notice tension in your muscles, a tightening of your jaw, or a sense of generalized anxiety? Begin to notice your breathing. Is it shallow or rapid? Do you find yourself holding your breath when painful thoughts or feelings emerge? Practicing silence and solitude gives space for attention outwardly and inwardly to that which we usually ignore.
When grief is our companion, everything that’s going on inside our hearts, whether we’ve put words to it or not, will spill over into our physical bodies. Have clients scan their bodies for tension and stress. Have them close their eyes and ask themselves what they are noticing. What parts of their body come into their awareness? Silence and solitude provide a beautiful segue for listening and learning.
In the quest to make sense of loss, our minds are continually distracted from what’s really important. The clamor in our minds keeps us from settling into the presence of God. Being mindful requires that we slow down long enough to experience the internal and external cues in our lives. The internal awareness is the music of our hearts, and it is expressed through the outflow of our feelings and emotions.
Our minds struggle to keep a tight rein on our emotions, instructing us not to feel, not to cry. But our tears are the heart’s attempt at healing, watering the dry and arid places of our soul, bringing us back to life and feeling. Our feelings are trying to expose our pain; we must not do them the injustice of denial.
When we teach our clients to practice noticing, we help them learn to slow down the mind and give space for learning from their experiences, thoughts, emotions, and observations. We give them the opportunity to interact with their thoughts by simply accepting them and finding out what messages they may be trying to communicate about what lies deep within.
There is a knowing and a power that comes with stillness. The disciplines were given as gifts of refreshment meant to restore and nourish our souls. When we cease all our striving and calm our minds, we may notice we can actually listen and receive.
The most important part of the grief work we do takes place in these quiet moments of silence and solitude. It’s there that we can uncover our deepest fears, and begin to face them with courage. In those moments, the depth of our pain is revealed, but so is the resiliency of our hearts. Here, free from all constraints we find out who we are and what we’re made of.
Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in No. Virginia. She hosts a weekly podcast show called Heartline where she talks to leading counseling professionals about cutting edge topics affecting the lives of people today. Follow her at www.siftedaswheat.com.This article is taken from her book Sifted As Wheat: finding hope and healing through the losses of life.