It is not a question of whether we will one day have to navigate a difficult time, it is just a question of when.
A sudden death, a diagnosis, an accident, a betrayal, a financial loss, a break-up—these difficult events are here to help us learn and perhaps even heal a part of us that is seeking to be healed. The process of getting through these tough times is one that requires the balance of a magician.
On the one hand, we want to stay with the feelings, we want to look these feelings right in the eyes—the pain, the sadness, the anger, the fear, resentment—all of them. At the same time, we want to proceed to the next chapter with ease and grace.
What we like to create is an ability to stay with the feelings just long enough so that we grieve the event to completion, but then emerge on the other side, having learned all the lessons which are hidden behind the facts so that we can embrace the next chapter of our own becoming. It is certain that what will emerge on the other side, if we stay open to an upward pull, will be a transformed life, for the better.
I believe that there is technology to help us navigate such dark terrain. This technology, if used properly, shortens the period we stay in darkness while fortifying our emotional muscles for us to carry on. I used this technology to navigate cancer, a tough break-up, and a business betrayal. And, the more I practice this technology, the quicker I am able to move through the different steps. No one is ever perfect at this, but by becoming familiar with it, we create the ‘muscle memory,’ that puts us back in balance, quicker.
The first tool in this technology is to recognize that we cannot heal by trying to emotionally bypass the experience. Trying to run from the emotional waves only creates frustration and lengthens the time it takes for us to move on. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes “but there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
It takes courage to be with the pain, as it takes courage to leave it when the time comes.
When we are in the pain, we can use the experience to open ourselves up to the feeling of being truly in touch with who we are—the part of us that is always there and is never caught up in the story; the part of us that in the Buddhist tradition is known as the witness self.
There will be moments that our inclination will be to be outside of the pain, to look at the circumstances and create stories that protect us, or that makes us wrong. Stay with the feelings. Look at the emotions straight in the eyes, but use this time to recognize the part in you that is quiet, compassionate and graceful, no matter how dark the situation seems from outside.
One exercise that can help us get there is writing about the dark night. Let the feelings and the observations flow through you, but remain silently aware of that in you that is bigger than the condition. That part is the part that will come with you into the next spiral of your becoming. Other parts of you, many of which you have known for a very long time, might have to be let go as you move on.
In the the next step, we become curious. The mind will want to us stay in the story (stories about blame, victimhood, guilt), but we can begin to shift our focus as we make a decision that whatever the circumstance, we know that there is a lesson behind it all.
It takes making a decision to believe in the gift, even if we cannot see the gift right then.
When I was going through my most recent dark night, a situation I went through in my previous company, I moved quickly into this step. I let myself be in the pain and sadness for two weeks, and in that time, I remained openly curious to the gift. When the gift showed up, it opened myself up to move on to the next phase. It was essential in my process to remain aware that this phase was a single chapter, and not the whole book of my life.
As the Dali Lama puts it, this is about the long view, a view that can see the part within the whole.
One thing I have learned, especially going through my most recent darkness, is that life has a powerful method of sending us soft signals to show we are out of alignment. I call this life’s natural chiropractor, these longings and discontents that are constantly providing us with feedback on how close or far we are from being and living a life worthy of us. Before every single major darkness I experienced, I had had numerous softer signs that were there to help me get back on track. When we ignore them long enough, life may send us a heavy two-by-four.
Joseph Campbell, in his brilliant book The Hero’s Journey, speaks of the path through darkness in four primary phases. The first two are the departure and the adventure phases. These are, somewhat, the two steps I just described. The next two, are what he calls the initiation and return. Initiation is letting go of resentment and guilt while allowing a new you to emerge.
Every time we pass through deep darkness we get to emerge on the other side with renewed strength but we have to sacrifice habits that no longer belong. I would say that, in all cases of darkness I experienced, I chose to sacrifice these habits in order to step into the newer version of myself. Again, this is about making a decision for the gift.
Finally, in the return phase, the last of the four phases in the hero’s journey, we get to emerge as the hero. In this important step we create an empowering story around the event—this is the version of the story you will use when retelling the facts to yourself and others. It is not sugar coating—this is an incredibly important step of staying with the gift that you have recognized as you moved through darkness.
I rarely use the word betrayal when speaking of my work experience because in fact I do not see it that way. I truly see it as one of the most important gifts I have ever received—one that has put me in a position to finally choose for a life that I truly wanted to live. This is not sugar coating, and it is not embracing someone else’s behaviour. I will never chose to act or do unto others what was done to me, but I can recognize that the players in that story were the exact players I needed to help me grow.
Being a hero is about seeking for the gift.
To conclude, here is a quote I carry in my heart. It describes the power of the choice we can make, no matter how dark the situation:
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
I dedicate this to my grandmother Klara Mozes, who having herself been a concentration camp survivor (like Frankl), has taught me that even the worst of all darkness can bring the best of all gifts. She lived every day of her life, until her last breath, in gratitude for having been one of the few that did survive.
To you, my true hero, Grandma Klara.
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Asst Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Sara Crolick