Monday, May 15, 2006

Investing in Loss

Warning: You may want galoshes for wading through this one!

I’ve slowed down on writing these past few weeks. Sometimes that comes from having too much to say rather than too little. The mind needs to slow down and process stuff.

I was dealing with the loss of my old dog. Just when I started being ok with having made the decision to put her to sleep, my favorite cat disappeared. A week later, the mystery is resolved; she’s not coming back either.

Years ago I coined a phrase, “investing in loss,” which I later found also in the writings of Stan Grof. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering its meaning, and the simplest explanation I can come up with is learning to cope with change. A Native American approaches this by saying “we are strongest when we are most vulnerable because that is when we have access to all of who we are.”

Death has a wonderful way of re-ordering priorities. Those who have been brushed by it sometimes talk about what is really important. They see things in a new way. Usually that perspective fades as we sink back into the reality of ordinary routines, but as we get older we have more opportunities to experience change in this way. That is a function of time; the longer we go, the more we see others fall away. We become conscious of our own mortality in the passage of time, recognizing how it can all be taken from us, and that one day we too will be gone.

Furthermore, time moves more quickly as we age. A year at age 10 is 1/10th our experience. At age 50 it is only 1/50th, a much smaller increment to subjectively add to our experiences. If we were to experience loss at a steady rate, still they would seem to come closer together, but as we age, so do parents, siblings, friends and pets, and so there is both a subjective and objective increase in the rate at which loss happens in our lives.

How does one “invest in loss?” Part of it is learning detachment from materialism, which includes the living as well as the inanimate. No matter how much we may have, we can always lose things that mean a lot to us, and so we have to be able to adapt to that new reality when it happens. Challenges are opportunities to grow, and so every loss is a way to assess our capacity for acceptance and self-understanding. Buddhists say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

Learning to let go of "what is not us" helps our understanding of "what is us." Boundaries serve important functions in aiding our survival on this physical plane. Good boundaries are selectively permeable, allowing in that which is beneficial while blocking what is harmful. We also need to be able to let out what is toxic so as not to poison ourselves.

Another way is to hold closely to a memory. It is a part of who we are, and so we can embrace it in a way that expresses value to us in our lives. It can ennoble us or bring us down, depending on our capacity to process the experience.

Loss brings up emotion, “energy in motion.” Poorly channeled or suppressed, these can be dangerous forces. Viewed in a self-reflective manner, they become a conduit to realizing our deeper needs and a touchstone to find enabling resources within. Somatic psychology is based on that principle of duality, movement attracted towards or repelled away. This is simply yin and yang, direction of movement in spirit as well as in body. Awareness gives us choice, and our gift as humans is being able to distinguish and choose.

I once heard of a saying from Japan, that the ability to believe contradictory truths simultaneously is the sign of a civilized person. A simple person might only experience one overwhelming truth, such as grief. To also accept what has happened, and perhaps to even appreciate or celebrate that which was, demonstrates more sophisticated ways of modeling reality.

A certain amount of complexity can be valuable. Too much can cause schisms to our view of the world that can make it difficult to function. Still, the ability to compartmentalize experience allows us to chew on smaller chunks so that we can function on some levels while processing other stuff in the background.

Eventually we want to become reintegrated through synthesis of our experiences, what the Jungians call “individuation.” Though we retain the capacity to break experiences down into manageable bits, we have access to them as functions of who we are.

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