I call myself a “soul activist” – what does this mean to me? It means that my motivation in life is to live deeply, feel deeply and provide others supportive opportunities to do the same.
In this dominant North American culture we are flooded with messages and means to numb out – to avoid pain, to ease discomfort, to perpetually chase after an elusive happiness with superficial ideals. This is at a great disservice to our ability to connect with ourselves, each other, to create community, and to our potential for leading deeply meaningful, wisdom-filled lives.
This is not a new revelation to any of us.
For me, a part of living a soulful and enriching life is being companion to my grief and nurturing those difficult places where transformation occurs. I am deeply committed to this.
I believe that embracing our grief, and re-learning the skills to help ourselves and others through it, is a form of soul-activism. When we embrace grief, we come to realize that our grief is a doorway into deep connection with all life around us.
It takes great courage to face our pain when we are steeped in societal messages that grief is a personal pathology. This is, quite frankly, bullshit and only perpetuates feelings of shame and weakness.
Historically, grief was never something done in isolation. It was always the community’s responsibility to care for a griever.
Our grief needs both our loving attention and the support of others to help us carry its weight and to transform it into renewed vitality.
I would like to tell a story of transformation - a metaphorical story that came to me and is continuously evolving the more I tell it. Grief often speaks the language of metaphor, so I share this story often with rooms full of people as I lead workshops and engage in public speaking events. Through this story we can relate to our own losses and those of others.
This story stems from an expression often used when we are faced with sudden loss or a painful reality.
The sudden pain we feel is like ‘a large boulder’ that has been placed on our shoulders, weighing us down, burdening and immobilizing us.
So here you find yourself with this heavy boulder placed on your back. Your legs are trembling under the weight, your shoulders are tight and pained under the pressure, and your neck is crooked and cricked.
You may hardly be able to stand under the immense weight, and all you can do is feel the pain and discomfort. Then, a little time passes and you notice that your legs have stopped shaking. You notice that perhaps your muscles are getting stronger, and by golly, you may even have some new muscles you didn’t even know existed!
And, maybe a few people in your life have come by and lent you a hand, propping up the weight of the boulder for a little bit. You find yourself with small pockets of energy. Slowly, you are able to devise a pulley and strap system so the weight is more evenly distributed, your neck is no longer cricked, and you are standing more upright.
One day someone comes along and says “hey – there is a piece at the back here that looks like it is ready to fall off – let me get that for you” and they pull out a small chisel and gently tap the boulder and a little piece falls off. They then leave the chisel with you as a gift. Eventually there are more bits of the solid boulder that loosen. Bit by bit you are able to reach up and chisel small pieces off.
Another person comes along and says “hey, I can empathize with having a boulder – I found it really helpful to do 15 squats and lunges a day to strengthen my legs to carry the weight”. Maybe you try this and it helps a little. Maybe you really don’t like squats, so you just do 8 lunges every second day, and it seems to work for you, strengthening your ability to hold the burden of the boulder.
Time passes and you weather storms, winds, hail, and a few sunny days here and there. The weather wears away at your boulder, polishing it off. And soon that boulder is noticeably lighter – it isn’t gone, but you realize you are carrying it differently.
And with more time, slowly, that boulder starts taking on a new shape – a polished statue perhaps, or a small carved totem. Or perhaps a beautiful crystal starts to be uncovered as the boulder pieces fall away. This new ‘something’, in its half ragged and half polished new form, becomes a source of strength and resilience.
Your transformed boulder is a marker of how far you have come through your pain. Perhaps it even becomes small enough to tuck away in your pocket, or to leave at home on certain days. You can now decide when to bring it out or when to share it with others.
Your boulder has become a source of compassion.
You realize your boulder has gifted you strength, empathy and the ability to be with others who have a newly placed boulder on their shoulders. You understand that to help another doesn’t mean to reach over and try to lift that person’s heavy boulder off them, because it is not just a burden for a while, it is also a potential for transformation.
Everyone has a right to experience their boulders and its potential shape-shifting transformation.
And you don’t ignore their boulder and pained bodies shaking underneath its weight. Instead you say – “here is my hand, let me walk with you awhile –perhaps I can leave you with my chisel”...
To be there for ourselves and others through difficult times is to not turn a blind eye to the boulder heap upon each others' shoulders. To not try to knock them off and bury them, but rather to see the boulders, acknowledge them, and to know them for their sorrow and joy.
To companion is to walk alongside another who is carrying a heavy boulder, and to lend a hand for a while – to do a few lunges and squats together.
Our pain and the difficult times in our lives are a great source of transformation and connection.
The more we are willing to be with our own boulders and take the courage to carry them and see them through to their potential for shape-shifting, the more we are able to be there for others to do the same with their boulders.
For the most part however, our society encourages us to take those boulders, dig a hole, hide them away, and to never look back. This perpetuates shame and myths of weakness and personal pathology.
I will never forget what a young man shared with me while in a youth group I was leading. He told me that for years he had buried his boulders deep into the ground. Many were stashed there. But recently, because he was experiencing community and more supportive people in his life including his girlfriend, he felt he had the courage to go back and start digging up those boulders to carry them and to allow them the opportunity to transform.
We all have boulders, and we all need supportive companions to help us carry their weight and offer moments of solace. This is our soulful right.
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.
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)