Being Gentle With Myself

By Glenda | January 22, 2015

Have you noticed?  Often “Tis the season to be jolly” is followed by the season of wintry gloom and depression, the time of being downcast, of being revisited in the still of the night by the sorrows and sadness of our past or of the world?

I have.  Between that annual recurrence of melancholy and the flu, I have lately been laid low for long enough to reflect on this strange yearly regression I go through. I notice on social media and elsewhere that some others have the same issue right now.

What are we to do with sadness, powerlessness, grief?  What are we to do when we rediscover again and again, year after year, our failures, our weaknesses, our sense of alienation from ourselves and the rest of the world?

Well, I’ve come to think of this as a visitation by an old relative, one whose habits are familiar, predictable, and difficult.  But, after all, this is my relative, and I must bear with her until she leaves, and find some way to take care of myself in the meantime.

I know there are self-help books and seminars that would have us rally our energy and, once and for all, get over this self-indulgent self-pity, this wallowing in this “aint it awful” game.  We’ve been told to tell our inner brat to grow up, get up, get going, get over ourselves.  Lighten up, they say.

And that’s great, as long as we can do it.  For me, there often comes a time when I realize that I must, like it or not, endure and survive while somehow honoring this visiting relative of mine, this inner villager that brings the same bad news, disguised in current variations but basically the same message: “It sucks, it all sucks, you are no good, never were, never can be,” etc., etc.

Now, the thing is, this seems to be a “given” in human experience.  I actually do not believe it is something we can do away with, or even that we should.  We develop means to cope with it, a value structure that shapes it, practices that lift us up eventually out of it, as other “villagers,” other aspects of our human nature, come again to the fore.  But experience it, I believe, we must, at times, all of us.

It supports me to know that I am not alone in this experience.  I am comforted somehow by the following fellow sufferers who are, in my opinion, among the most highly advanced, wise, and spiritual people I know about, coming from all ages and places on earth, people who know and often also speak at times of great joy and love and enlightenment and ecstasy, but who also suffer greatly, routinely.  I submit the following examples.

The very first pages of the great Hindu masterpiece, the Bhagavad Gita, begins with the main character, Arjuna, saying that his soul is sunk in grief and despair.

The Sufi poet Kabir writes of his loss of center, of the absence of awareness of the Divine Friend:

“When my friend is away from me, I am depressed; nothing in the daylight delights me, sleep at night gives no rest, who can I tell about this? The night is dark and long…hours go by…because I am alone, I sit up suddenly, fear goes through me…”

The radically mystical Ramprasad Sen over and over presents a bill of complaints against the Great Mother he worships:

“What did I do wrong? Every day it gets harder. I sit here blubbering all the time, telling myself I’m going to get out Of this place, I’ve had it with this life…”  And again, “I’m not calling you Mother anymore.  All You give me is trouble…I keep wondering what worse You can do than make me live over and over this pain, life after life.”

Again and again the Hebrew Psalmist King David, cries out his grief and suffering:

“How Long?  O Lord, wilt thou forget me forever?  How Long wilt thou hide thy face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? …O Lord, give heed to my groaning…”

 The great poet Rilke:

“It feels as though I make my way Through massive rock Like a vein of ore Alone, encased. I am deep inside it. I can’t see the path or any distance: everything is close And everything closing in on me Has turned to stone…”

The woman mystic Mirabai:

“…How can I sleep…the seconds drag past like epochs, each moment a new torrent of pain…On my couch the embroidered flowers pierce me like thistles, I toss through the night…”

Jesus, in the Christian gospel, cries out:

“My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me.”

So, there, you see, are my fellow sufferers, them and many of you whom I love and care about who are even now sunk in what is often dismissed as “seasonal affect disorder.”  It is seasonal, but it doesn’t simply happen in winter.  It is an affect disorder, but it can’t be erased by tricks of lighting or lightening.

Sometimes it must also be borne with, sat with in stillness, sometimes.  Sometimes I just have to go to bed and lie there quietly, letting the poison drain out of me, letting my sense of grief and solidarity with the rest of suffering humanity have its time, until it releases me, which it eventually does, as other aspects of myself come back, bringing me back into balance.

I was once given a great gift by Joan Halifax, a chant her community had come up with.  We sat in the semi-darkness, at that time, in a teepee in California, long before she became a Buddhist who is now friends with the Dali Lama.  I am sure she still chants it to herself sometime.  It goes:

“I will be gentle with myself.  I will love myself.  I am a child of the Universe.  We are one together.”

Being gentle with myself.  That is the key for me.  Once, in another of my periods of great suffering, when I was deeply disturbed by behaviors of my own and of others close to me, I parked my truck on the side of the road in New Mexico, and these words came to me and sang through me:

“You don’t have to be afraid.  You don’t have to be afraid.  Nothing you can do will ever separate you from the Maker of your life.”

Being gentle with myself, in times of reduced life force, of soul-searing loneliness, of self-accusation, of immense spiritual emptiness.  Being gentle.  Gentle.  Sometimes speechlessly gentle, for days.  Sometimes moaning, even as I go about the necessary tasks of life.  Sometimes moving, as Rumi moved and moved, spinning and spinning in a dance we came to call the dervish dance, when his mentor and loved friend was killed; his gentleness with himself and life required movement.  For some of us it comes in music, in getting a hug, in whatever way gentleness says to us, “It’s alright.  You are alright.  Even as you are.  Even as things are.”

Each of the above writers I quoted went on to move into powerful times of praise and comfort and uplifting sentiments and personal power and achievement.  They found their ways out of the abyss.  So do I.  Again and again.

But I never deny the reality of the pain.  It is, as I said, an occasionally visiting relative that I honor and drink tea with.  I don’t try to throw her out into the wintry storm.  She is my relative, and she is real.  Just as spring is real and joy is real and love is real.  And perhaps her visitation, bringing with it almost a madness of despair, is essential.  Perhaps.

Thomas Merton said:

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” And again:  “Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy…It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”

Stephen A. Diamond, in reviewing The Red Book, Carl Jung’s amazing journaling, which Diamond describes as “a very personal record of Jung’s complicated, tortuous and lengthy quest to salvage his soul,”  remarks:

“…There is no doubt that during this devastating period in his life, Jung was deeply depressed, and inundated to the point of being overwhelmed at times by these powerfully intrusive images, thoughts and feelings, which, as he put it, ‘burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me.’ And there is also no doubt that this extremely introverted (a necessary compensation for his former excessive extraversion) treacherous state of mind…that took almost total hold of Jung, affected his reality testing, impaired his psychosocial functioning, caused him to consider suicide, and forced him to withdraw from most of his former worldly activities, with the exception of his family and, oddly enough, his private practice. Indeed, two of the things that likely kept Jung’s head above water and feet more or less on the ground during these difficult and disorienting years–other than writing regularly in the Red Book–were his wife and children and daily sessions with troubled patients seeking his psychiatric assistance….

“Indeed, to me, denying the depth of Jung’s despair and severe psychic disturbance tends to undercut the power and importance of his monumental achievement: Rather than being defeated by it as are most, Jung stared psychosis in the face, unflinchingly confronted and explored what he found there, and ultimately came out the other side stronger, wiser, and more whole…

“What he discovered were manifestations of both his personal and collective unconscious. In this sense, he demonstrated by personal example that the enigmatic phenomenon we call “psychosis” is often about being completely inundated or possessed by the personal and archetypal unconscious…

That’s Diamond’s take on Jung’s experience. To be sure, I feel the need to say, Jung was a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, with many tools, as most of us are not when we face this dark night of the soul.  All too many people do indeed have untreated brain chemistry disorders, many are destroyed by psychosis, tragically.  Suicide does happen. We all need help.  We need each other, as Jung needed his family and colleagues.  We need anchors to bring us back to the “real world.”  We need a recognized spiritual dimension, which is, in fact, what Jung was about realizing in this search.  We need love to get us through those darkest times, and, in fact, Jung also had all of that to get him through. But for us, as for Jung, this dark night of the soul has, as Diamond concludes, psychological and spiritual significance, meaning and purpose.  If we allow it.  If we bear with it as it moves us to new dimensions.   Diamond says:

“C.G. Jung’s  Red Book  begins as a detailed log of one man’s personal, lonely nekyia or night sea journey to the underworld and ends with his heroic return to the outer world renewed, much like a latter day Dante, Jonah or Ulysses…”

So to all of you who may be, now or at another time, in a mild season of discontent, or on a deeply serious night sea journey, I send you my love and my solidarity.  All is not lost.  Hope also is a reality, as is love, as is companionship on the journey, as is balance and renewed creativity.  (After all, today, I got up and wrote this post!)

And I quote, in closing, Maya Angelou, speaking at a conference on Evil:

“Each person in this room has gone to bed with fear or loss or pain or distress—grief—at some night or another.  And yet each of us has awakened, arisen, made whatever ablutions we chose to make or could make.  Then, seeing other human beings, we said, ‘Good morning, how are ya?’  ‘Fine, thanks, and you?’ Now wherever that lives in us—whether it’s in the bend of the elbow, behind the kneecap—wherever that lives, there dwells the nobleness in the human spirit.  Not nobility.  I don’t trust the word.  I think it’s pompous.  But the nobleness is in the human spirit.  It is seen in the fact that we rise to good, we do rise.”

 

And lastly, Rilke again:

 

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear

without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,

but this is what I need to say.

May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,

these deepening tides moving out, returning,

I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels

into the open sea.

10 comments | Add One

  1. Glenda Walker - 01/22/2015 at 3:42 pm

    beautiful. Thank you.
    These words will bring comfort to many folks.
    You are a gift and a wonder.
    I love you

  2. Beverly - 01/22/2015 at 5:26 pm

    Thank you from my heart ,Glenda your writings spoke to me so much today . Thanks,with love,Beverly

  3. Randall King - 01/22/2015 at 5:42 pm

    Your question which brings light to another of those human quandaries reminds me of a trip to Biosphere 2 in Arizona some years ago. On that trip at a lecture on the project, one of the interesting findings had to do with drooping trees. Healthy in every way except that they would not stay upright. They drooped miserably until it was pointed out that they needed wind…..STRESS, to be strong enough to stand straight. If there is no darkness, how can there be light?

  4. Carol Henderson - 01/22/2015 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you, Glenda ..
    Wow .. Your insightful and thought provoking words ring so true. As one of those who ‘never do well in January’, I welcome your words. Some days it IS a damned struggle just to hang on to the fearsome emotional roller coaster of life. And there is comfort in knowing we are not alone. Thank you for getting up today and writing your wisdom. Huge love to you, Carol

  5. Jim landers - 01/22/2015 at 8:10 pm

    I really appreciate your deep reflections. Sometime I think pain and sorrow are the price I pay to know joy. I need to remember that my empathy and deeper connections could not be possible without both.
    I love the agony and ecstasy of your spirit

    Jim

  6. nancy - 01/22/2015 at 11:19 pm

    I love you and feel at one with you as always. Nancy

  7. Nancy Neptune - 01/23/2015 at 12:24 am

    As I read your post, I thought of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. I’m sure you know the story, but here a short version.

    Persephone, earth’s loveliest daughter, disappeared, abducted into the underworld by Hades. Demeter, her mother, was the goddess of the harvest and overseer of fertility. Demeter searched the earth, weeping and crying for her daughter. As she searched and mourned she withdrew her energy from the plant world, which began to whither and die.

    Zeus, who was complicit in Persephone’s abduction, became fearful of what would happen to the Gods if humanity died of starvation, so he agreed that Persephone could return to Demeter if she had not eaten any food while in the underworld. Hades, however, gave Persephone six pomegranate seeds just prior to her return. Persephone confessed that she had swallowed the tiny seeds, sealing her fate to live half time in the underworld during which time Demeter grieved and the plants and harvest suffered and half time with Demeter during which time the earth flourished. Thus the seasons were created – a time of dying and a time of rebirth.

    I think humans go though those season too. Maybe that is especially true for those who live close to the earth as you do. Perhaps you are embodying Demeter during the cycles you described.

    I don’t remember where I read this – it might have been myth, it might have been spiritual, it might have been fiction; I don’t remember. But the story was there were certain people who agreed to be the mourners for the earth and humanity. In their willingness to carry some of the sorrows and pain for the whole, things were kept in balance.

    Periodically, I’ll find myself sad but can’t identify anything in my own life that is the cause. And then I am touched by the memory of the pain of my clients or what I hear on the news. As healers, teacher, counselor, stewards, I think we need to be willing to grieve – not only for ourselves, but for those we encounter who can’t grieve for themselves, for the hungry, for the powerless, for the wounded, for human pain and fear and for the earth.

    Perhaps knowing that Persephone and spring always return, we can endure the other times more easily and make peace with the fact that they exist. Then again, maybe the bears have it right.

  8. Sheila K Collins - 01/23/2015 at 12:28 am

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom of many masters and adding your awareness we to theirs. I so enjoyed being with you this past weekend, though neither one of us were at our best. Continue being gentle with yourself. You are important to so many.
    Sheila

  9. Sheila K Collins - 01/23/2015 at 12:28 am

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom of many masters and adding your awareness we to theirs. I so enjoyed being with you this past weekend, though neither one of us were at our best. Continue being gentle with yourself. You are important to so many.
    Sheila

  10. Tom Schenck - 01/31/2015 at 7:56 pm

    My current e-mail address is the above (schenck44@mac.com). Please discontinue my Yahoo! e-mail address.

    In going through my old Yahoo! e-mails I ran across your one on suffering. It reminded me so much of “The Empty House” by Rumi.
    I will forward this to you from my mac.com address.

    And Buddha said something to the effect of:
    (Suffering is an immediate intament human experience. So let’s start here to relate to each other).

    I love you, dear Glenda. Thanks for relating to me so openly and displaying the human condition so beautifully. And all your suffering lead to this! Amazing!

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