This past year has held some life-changing moments for me. It feels as though a major chapter in my soul’s journey has now ended, and I am ready for the next. And this readiness has come from letting go of a significant teacher of mine.
I realized that in my loyalty to this great teacher, I was overlooking the signs that it was time to let this teacher go. Just like two best friends who eventually start walking different paths, I have needed to let go of this relationship for some time. I had been holding on, allowing myself to continue to revel in the nurturing that was once there, but is no longer.
This teacher was my pain. Pain left over from tumultuous times in my past – like any of us have experienced – with events that have shaped me, disappointed me, hurt me and surprised me. Pain yearning for love. Pain that brought incredible grief. And, pain that also brought deep gratitude.
I have been loyal to this pain for years. She has been a familiar companion, and a comforting presence in a such a beautiful and sorrowful way.
My pain motivated me to become something meaningful when she kept hidden, and broke me open to know surrender when she decided to surface. She taught me how to be okay with hurt, how to feel deep empathy, for others, and later myself.
She gifted me with wisdom; with an understanding of human suffering. She gifted me insight into the yearnings that burrow deep into the hearts of all my fellow spirits traveling this earth in human form. She gave me courage to feel the sorrows of the world, surrendering in tears to both grief and joy at our oneness.
It was in her presence that I felt connected with my larger global community. This was my familiar playground. It was a terrain that I knew, and know, so intimately. I am thankful for her.
It has been a long process of letting go. I was loyal because of all the magnificent lessons that she showed me. And in my loyalty I became temporarily short-sighted. I was accustomed to opening up to her presence. Being with my grief. Allowing her to wash over me and bring new insights, old patterns to reflect on, and even a sense of comfort.
Yet, in the solace of my pain I wasn’t leaving room for transformation – for the grief to shift and take a different shape – a shape that wanted wings and to fly from the cage of my ribs it had for so long felt at home in.
Instead I had started holding on - holding on to a story that no longer defined me; that was no longer beneficial to my growth.
But, eventually I realized that in letting my teacher go, I wouldn’t need to forget the profound learning and gifts that she has given me. In fact, when I finally asked her what she wanted, without skipping a beat, she whispered “let me go – I yearn for movement and space and transformation. I yearn for peace”.
My teacher and I both yearned for the same thing. We both needed to release each other.
So I wrapped her in a rose-colored blanket of love, kindness and gratitude. I gave her some beautiful golden wings. I said farewell to my pain, and watched as she took flight from her well-worn nest amongst my ribs.
And my pain was transformed in that moment. She became possibility. She became space – a space to move in new ways.
And she left a final departing gift - forgiveness. The most significant gift that I ever received from my pain was when I let her go. Forgiveness. And with this, even more room for movement, compassion, love, and gratitude.
And of course new teachers in the names of pain and grief will still visit me. This time I will not only be open to their arrival but I will also be open to their departure; their transformation. I will say good bye to the teachers when it is time, and I will keep the teachings and gifts that I receive from them.
I am bypassing Christmas this year.
And, no I don’t have a ‘good’ excuse in terms of what is usually deemed appropriate: I am not going away for a vacation to a warmer climate, I don’t have a partner and kids to have a quiet holiday at home, most of my family doesn’t live far away making flight costs a barrier, and I am not grieving the loss of a loved one.
Nope. I am doing it because this year it is right for me.
Was it scary for me to tell my family about my decision – hell yes! Has it been awkward in social situations when the “holiday conversation” comes up – mostly. Partly because I still feel tentative in my courage to tell my truth.
(Although some people breathe a sigh of relief and tumble into their story of how they are doing the same – usually with a sense of liberation, followed by a sense of guilt. Are we being selfish?)
There are a lot of expectations and pressures around this time of year that I had to push through. I fear that I may be disappointing others. I fear that I may be judged. I fear that others may think I am judging them for their choices on how they celebrate the holiday. I fear that I may alienate myself from those I care about. And worse, I feared that my family would take it personally.
I love my family and have solid and loving relationships with them, even though I don’t get to see all of them as much as I would like. And I really value connection…like, A LOT. In fact, most of what I do in life is tethered to the values of connection - connection to self and others.
So why am I choosing to bypass this holiday season? For several reasons:
1. I am disheartened and pissed-off that the values of capitalism and consumerism have usurped this time of year. I can’t help but be hyper-aware of the consumer-driven focus that propels this season. And this sucks my soul dry. I am left feeling depleted, every time.
I can’t NOT think about it. I can’t NOT feel it.
And, I am left in existential anxiety about the state of our world, Western privilege and over-abundance, and all those people ‘going without’. I go there. Every. Time.
2. Following from the point above - this leaves me in total inner conflict. I love my family – we all deserve to have thoughtful gifts. And I do LOVE giving gifts. I love finding really meaningful (or what I hope will be meaningful!) and unique gifts for my family and friends, and spending the time to either create or support local businesses to buy gifts. But again, more times than not, this time of year doesn’t leave many of us the time, energy, or budget to do such.
3. The level of waste – from plastic packaging, to wrapping paper, to gifts that aren’t really needed or wanted, to trees. Oh god, the trees – it hurts. My insides are screaming "Why on earth, when we are living in an age of environmental collapse, are we still CUTTING DOWN trees? And then watching them die in our living rooms?". This makes me cry. I physically feel sick to my stomach. Existential anxiety = heightened.
4. I am an introvert and a highly-sensitive creature (perhaps obvious by now). I thrive best in one-on-one interactions and I desire to connect on things like our hopes and disappointments, relationships, feelings, community, what makes our soul come alive, and I truly want to listen to others stories. These conversations don’t usually happen in the busyness that this time of year brings. And, because I tend to shut down...
5. Add my sensitivity on top of everything I have mentioned so far, and I find myself feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated, which tends to make me shut down or run off to find some quiet solo time.
And then my own story-lines about “not belonging” and “my inability to fit in” start to run rampant, and I am left feeling shitty. And then I usually feel angry and resentful that I am feeling shitty. Expectations and pressures, self-imposed and otherwise, become my worst enemy. And this can turn into a woeful puddle of deflation and sadness…on top of the existential dread.
Not conducive to holiday cheer.
6. Loss of magic and innocence – I guess I do grieve this. I wish I could still feel the magic and connection of Christmas. But I don’t. I feel a “season of shoulds” and hear this all around me in conversations, complaints and within heavy hearts and crowded highways.
7. Soul activism – I needed to choose differently this year. It is the truth of my soul, and I need to heed its call. It has taken courage, and I still feel a bit anxious about it. I also feel good about it. I am not saying that my choice to totally opt-out is the right choice in the grand scheme of things. But it is the right choice for me now. For this year.
And I am not naïve to the fact that this holiday will be just as difficult, but for different reasons. I will miss my family – and, I will make plans to be with them and connect at other times in the year.
Instead, I participated in a holiday-giving event that will bring gifts to women in need who are leaving abusive relationships. So that they will feel supported by a community that cares. And, I supported a local artist buying her beautiful art cards and writing personal messages to friends and family... bypassing the envelopes.
I will also be practicing my own rituals of gratitude for all the beautiful abundance in my own life - for my family, for a beautiful community of friends that support me, for a comfortable home, and for my ability to do meaningful and fulfilling work while also nurturing my creative expression through music. I have a lot to be thankful for. And I will send love and light to our global community, because this is how I roll, and it is needed.
I sincerely wish that you have a beautiful holiday season, however that looks for you, and that it is all that you hope for. I wish this for everyone.
My anticipation for this evening had been building for over a year. Francis Weller was giving a public talk at Royal Roads University about his newly released book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow – Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief”. Francis is someone whom I have looked up to and learned from for the past 3 years, and have since had the pleasure of being taught by.
As a psychotherapist, author and grief ritual leader, Francis spoke passionately about grief, community, ritual and spiritual employment. In poetic words, he emphasized the need for a ‘village response’ to our grief and pain, and the cost of living in a society that instead privatizes our pain and makes it a personal pathology.
He had a gentle presence and a good way with us in the audience. The evening was filled with moments of laughter, insight, and tearful eyes. I left feeling inebriated with joy and inspiration – his words speak the language of my soul.
I have been reflecting on his words and wisdom ever since that evening…
For many of us who are settlers to Turtle Island, and children of dominant Western culture, we have become untethered from ancestral practices of grief tending. We are in dire need to reclaim our ancient wisdom for participating in grief ritual within a ‘village’ setting – expressing our grief while surrounded by others. It is only in the container of the community that grief can truly be expressed and then released and transformed.
Grieving always needs containment and release. Grieving always needs the community to hold space and provide the compassionate container for grief to then be expressed and transformed.
As grievers, we cannot provide both containment and release for ourselves when we try to grieve and heal in isolation.
Yet, we live in a society obsessed with rugged individualism that strongly dictates that grief be done in isolation, behind closed doors. It is easy to feel shame in the midst of cultural story-lines that tell us to always be strong, be in control, and to hurry up. We may feel like a burden if we tell our stories to another.
Yet, grief is vulnerable, messy and moves at the pace of a sloth. Our stories of pain and loss need to be told, and often retold many times, as we live the transformation that grief invites us to embrace.
In North American culture, grief has mainly been ‘privatized’ – stripping us of our capacity to be in community and be intimate with each others pain and grief. This is a great detriment to us as individual grievers, and a detriment to our larger community, friends and family.
For grieving individuals, privatizing our grief only allows us to hold on to our pain, to contain it, for excessive amounts of time. Our societal conditioning forces us to carry our pain within our minds, bodies, and hearts, when it was not meant to be carried there for such a long time. Unexpressed grief is detrimental to our health – mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Pain is meant to be a visitor within our hearts; it is not meant to set up home there. Our pain seeks freedom from the cages of our chest. It seeks to be released and transformed.
For community, friends and family of grievers, privatizing grief does not allow for them to respond in a caring way and to fulfill their soulful obligation to be of service to those they love and care for. This comes at a cost to our relationships and connection to others.
Our capacity to be present to pain is something that we all innately know, and yet have become disconnected from. We have lost our village. Many of us no longer feel secure in our ability to share our grief with others. And, many of us no longer feel secure in how to respond to the grief of others.
Francis Weller reminds us that historically, and in many contemporary indigenous cultures presently, grief is a call and response process. He affirms that an individual’s pain is always a part of the larger village – not solely a private affair. It is necessary to have not just the calls and cries of the griever, but also the caring responses of the village members.
The griever needs the village to compassionately witness and hold the space for them as they express their pain. The village needs the griever so they can fulfill their own spiritual employment – the opportunity to respond to the griever in caring and nurturing ways.
To be spiritually employed is to fulfill our birthright as compassionate and loving people and to respond to a person or community in pain.
As I reflected on this call and response process that allows a griever to be held by others, and allows others to be spiritually employed, I realized more deeply the significance of its value.
Reclaiming our call and response to grief creates intimacy.
It creates the grounds for intimate connection between people. And it nurtures those vulnerable spaces that wisdom and love grow out of. I believe in all of our hearts and bones there lies an ancient ‘knowing’ that grief needs community to keep us in healthy balance as emotional, physical, social and spiritual beings.
I have experienced the detriments of societal conditioning in my own life. I spent years holding on to pain accumulated from early life experiences and losses, believing that I was somehow at fault and weak for not being able to get over their impacts. This unexpressed pain left me feeling isolated and alienated, and yet also highly empathetic to others in pain. I became the one everyone else came to for comfort and help, and yet I couldn’t seem to reach out for help myself.
Being strong and independent kept me distant from my pain, and kept it locked inside my chest. My pain nested in my body and I carried it around as dulled, achy and ever-present sorrow for years.
I still struggle at times to ask for help; to feel vulnerable in my grief. And, the more I create experiences for myself to grieve in community, witnessed by others, the more I trust in the healing necessity of grief shared. From this place I am able to create genuine intimate connections with others and offer compassion and forgiveness to both myself and others. And from this place I am now able to experience more inner joy and freedom.
I take comfort in knowing that by asking for help, I am also inviting someone else to step in to their soulful right to be spiritually employed.
I feel fortunate to have had opportunities to grieve surrounded by others holding the container for me. And, I feel fortunate to be spiritually employed to others, witnessing their pain and stories, and offering a container for them to release and renew their vitality.
What a gift to be spiritually employed!
I am now committed to creating more collective opportunities for people to experience the transformation that comes with connecting to a community of people around experiences of pain and grief. And subsequently the experiences of joy and vitality! I have been harvesting the insights from my own experiences, and eagerly learning wisdom from others, such as Francis Weller, to start leading collective grief rituals here in our community. I will have more information and details about these offerings in early 2016.
My hope is that we can re-remember and re-create the conditions for us all to live in intimacy with each other in our grief and spiritual gifts.
Shauna Janz, MA is a passionate speaker, writer, educator, and musician. She engages audiences with her ability to create connective experiences that inspire empathy, insight and both personal and trans-personal awareness - never without a sprinkle of humor and laughter.
Sacred Grief - Shauna Janz
550-2950 Douglas Street
Victoria BC V8T 4N4
(Upper level, above Lifestyles Market)