Is grief and loss more than in the mind?
There is no denying that we live in a world where knowledge and intellect informs our very being. We are surrounded by technology that allows us, each minute of the day, to tap into resources which have the power to intellectualise away the innate part of humanity that is more than the brain. In a way, our culture has become one where even “feeling” is something we have come to “think into” a rational form.
It almost seems that we, as a human species of the western culture, have become entangled in a web of rationalised “I am’s” that removes the inherent human ability to recognise and allow the wisdom of the body and spirit. For example, the following feelings are ones we hear and speak daily: I am feeling lost, I am feeling abandoned, I am feeling denial, I am feeling: abused, betrayed, blamed, cheated, criticised, ignored, intimidated, manipulated, misunderstood, neglected, overworked, patronised, pressured, rejected, put down, threatened, tricked… Yet these words, these “I am’s” are perceptions or interpretations rather than embodied feelings that allow discoveries of what we are in need of (Centre for Nonviolent Communication). Moreover, the somewhat overwhelming nature of this is that we have seemingly been educated into it. Our culture, our relational attachments as children, and our educational system, has, more often than not, instilled a conceptual worth on that which can be controlled, or “fixed” through rationalisation.
There is no greater example of this than in grief and loss.
Though there is often this concept that grief and loss is something that pertains specifically to death, illness, or great defeat, in fact grief and loss is a reality of everyday. And, even in circumstances that may be attributed to more overt associations of grief, many of us still paradoxically believe that grief is an obstacle to get through, something that we can control, perhaps even “fix”. Yet, it is not grief itself that is an obstruction to our wellbeing. The obstruction to wellbeing occurs when overidentification and a need to control the “I am’s” becomes the predominant drive in our lives; there is then a subconscious push to urgent action and an ongoing suppression of the embodied feelings. This is potentially then perpetuated by an underlying fear of change or a longing, perhaps even from the repetition of unfulfilling habits or from the consistent resistance to an intuit sense of being.
It is this notion that, in eastern culture, represents deep suffering, or Duhkham. Yet, even with this in mind, the question “why” remains. Why is that we see grief as suffering? Why do we attribute the idea of change as “bad” or something to be “fixed”?
What if it is that, since the days of the Greek empire, western society has gradually become conditioned to avoid the uncertain through rationalisation and control? Perhaps even entrenched in our very being is the notion that to truly let go into our embodied emotion means to fall into an abyss of a certain form of death?
What if our minds have convinced our bodies and hearts that without control we are in impending danger? That when change arises it is a threat to our very survival? And what if this has become so imbedded in culture that our instinctive response is now a primal reaction to a perception or an interpretation rather than a mindful response to a need that is truly present?
Are we now genetically wired so that any inclination of suffering us to fall into a reactive pattern informed by the ancient animal survival instinct? In the face of change are we simply falling into flight, fight, or freeze – the sympathetic nervous system response to threat – rather than seeing and allowing the wisdom of the heart to guide us through the waves of energy designed to inform our minds of what our spirits are in need of?
Yet, even within all these questions there is an abundance of śraddhā (unwavering faith) that comes from the cultivation of insight and understanding of what is conditioned within us, and what is truly from our spirit.
When we take time to form insight, we begin to see the paradox of our intellectualised culture: that knowledge and research is now showing us what the ancient wisdom of the east conceptualised many moons ago. That suffering is indeed the deep embodied ache that comes from the inability to truly feel what our hearts are telling us. Indeed, research now shows us many things about the heart-brain connection, or even one could fathom it to be the body, mind, soul connection that can be applied to the nature of grief or heartache. Specifically, there are two research-based notions have very relevant to how we approach suffering as it relates to eastern philosophy; that is, how we find our path to the place where change does not mean a fearful and reactive state, but rather a response based in mindful presence and a sense of resilience that is enduring.
Firstly, we see in the research from the HeartMath Institute that the heart and the brain (mind), in conjunction with relational connection cannot be separated. In fact, the heart and brain are so intrinsically linked that we see a neurological (nerves), biochemical (hormones & neurotransmitters), biophysical (pulse waves), and energetic (electromagnetic fields) communication that is so dynamic by nature, that this correspondence between the heart-brain is never static. Meaning, by design we are destined to change! (Science of the Heart). Furthermore, research suggests our responses to change are informed first by the heart, not the brain.
This is a direct contradiction to what we have been brought up believing.
Albeit, in western society we have been taught that heartache is “all in the mind” or something that can be rationalised, in fact it cannot. Indeed, in 1974 the discovery of the potential of the Vegus Nerve begat the beginnings of a new understanding of the heart-brain connection that now brings significant validity to the ancient wisdom of yoga: evidence now proves the complexity of the interconnectedness of the nervous system and the heart. Moreover, and perhaps more pertinent to our discussion, is the evidence that confirms that the heart has its own logic that acts and informs the nervous system independently of the brain.
What does this mean?
This means that while culturally, socially, and relationally we are profoundly wired in this world to be run by our brains, a brain that perceives and interprets change as a threat to our existence, something that is to be run from or rationalised away, the truth is we cannot actually negate change, nor explain it away. The ache we have in our hearts in times of grief is a real and unfilled message our embodied-self is sharing with us: that what we are going through is meaningful, that this is a feeling to be felt through and through.
With this idea that all body, mind, spirit states are meaningful we begin to see just how interconnected we are to everything that envelopes our existence. Further evidence within the field of interpersonal neurobiology confirms that the social- self (that which the HeartMath Institute recognises as the electromagnetic fields) and the embodied-self overlap in such a way that findings (Siegel, 2012, p.19-40) indicate that social rejection, degradation, constant contradiction, devaluation, or denegation of our intuit-self (our hearts) activate the same brain informed response (the immune response) as that to physical pain.
Once again, the ache in heartache is real, and indeed it can physically harm our bodies – this is certainly not something to be ignored!
We see the importance of this within continued research and publications. Recently Dr Nikki Stamp, a renowned heart surgeon, published “Can you die of a broken heart” – within this book Dr Stamp writes beautifully on the enigmas of the heart, that it is indeed more than “a pump”. She affirms that the heart, as aforementioned, can. “set off” responses that can have dire consequences. In fact, the aching heart can lead to a life with a level of continued stress that leaves a body with states of increased heart rate activity and variability, as well as variable and high blood pressure. These states not only create strain on the heart, so too they create sticky blood, immune system turmoil, and basically leave one susceptible to any range of cardiac or autoimmune disorders. Furthermore, and most interestingly, we see that indeed, we can die from a broken heart! (read more here). That, in extreme cases the embodied-self reacts to the stress of heartache by releasing so much adrenaline that the heart is overcome and responds in a similar way to a heart attack. And, although not all grief and loss is this dramatic, the adverse reactions that come from the suppression of the real and unfilled message our embodied-self is sharing with us are along the same lines.
So we come to see, if change is inevitable – if grief and loss is a part of our embodied existence – and if we do not recognise our aversion to change and the culturally immersed “need” to rationalise the unrationalisable and to control the uncontrollable, then suffering becomes the inevitable as well.
Yet it does not need to be!
Through the exploration of heart health, and the deep insight and wisdom that comes from ancient eastern tradition, we are able to begin cultivating a space for the heart-brain connection to be recognised and vitalised.
Next week we will begin exploring the basic yogic practices that can help you specifically through transitions that have brought grief to your life. At the same time, due to the relational nature of our hearts, we have put together a course specifically designed to bring you an immersed relational learning of the heart.
Our BioMedical Yoga Therapy™ for Trauma, Grief & Loss is a higher level learning course supporting an understanding of philosophy, psychology, and the physiology of trauma, grief and loss as it relates to stress and suffering. People who suffer with stress or anxiety, chronic pain, depression and ill health often find powerful relief through meditation. This course touches on the understanding of suffering from a biopsychosocial perspective. This course will also offer you the knowledge of what a trauma informed practice is, and how to best assist a multiplicity of clientele in finding the wellbeing they seek.
We look forward to seeing you there.