Why There's No Such Thing As Closure
My friend Phyllis Pilgrim is a yoga and meditation teacher at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Students from around the world, young and old, men and women, find her work inspirational and life-changing.
But things haven't been so easy for Phyllis. As a child during WWII, she was held captive with her mother and brother in Japanese internment camps in Java. Much later in life, her mother told her that she had survived those years in the camp because she had made it a practice to say thank you every day when she could “see something beautiful, hear something beautiful, and say something beautiful to someone.” Phyllis has made her mother’s practice the foundation of how she leads her life.
I thought of Phyllis recently as I listened to my client Cathy lament about how lonely she was. No wonder. Long ago, Cathy had come to the conclusion that no one could be trusted enough to share true love and affection.
“Everyone betrays you in the end,” she murmured in my office one afternoon. She learned this early on: when she was 13, her father had left her mother. So at 38 years old, she continued to view this bitter experience as the essence of what could be expected of another human being, and as a reminder of why it was better not to trust others.
Neither Cathy nor Pilgrim will ever “get over” their painful experiences. Sure, one of them (Cathy) has made her experience a blueprint to keep recreating the loss, while the other Phyllis) has found a way forward to embrace the best of life. But neither have aimed to forget about or de-emphasize the profound impact of their past.
And odds are that all of us have experienced traumatizing experiences in the past, varying in degrees of intensity and impact. So for all of us, it helps to remember that there are some basic truths about human experience that are universal.
We can find ways to incorporate these truths into how we live our lives, rather than pretend things could’ve been different. With that, here are seven foundational truths about human suffering and resilience:
1. Closure doesn’t exist.
How often do we hear a friend say of an ex-lover, “I just need to see her one more time so we can have closure”? Or listen to the survivor of a tragic story interviewed say, “When find out why the accident happened, I will get closure.”
The answer is often. But one of the hard truths about this life is that there is really no such thing as closure. We hold onto the myth of it as a comfort mechanism, but that mechanism is ultimately a defense.
The pain we have experienced may be reduced and even fade. But the memory is in us forever. And the scar doesn’t just go away, but rather becomes a part of us in the present.
Many of the great teachers and philosophers believe our wounds are the openings to compassion, consciousness, and wisdom. We can honor our wounds if we can recognize their purpose rather than deny them, which gives them power over us.
2. What we do with “unfinished pieces” is up to us.
No ceremony, no “big talk,” or goodbye ritual will change what has happened. Experiences happen, and it is our choice to figure out how to respond. To be an adult is to accept our wounds as a part of our past and to know our choice lies in how we move forward, which includes acceptance that life gives us pain and loss. Of course, it also offers new beginnings and joy, if we’re open to them.
3. Time doesn’t heal the wound; it changes how we see it.
The happiness in our lives doesn’t erase the pain and the pain doesn’t eliminate the gifts and the new beginnings if we allow them to come into us.
4. Everything is transient.
One of my granddaughters lives in New York. We’ve had a special bond practically since she was born. It’s always a delight for me to visit her.
But the last time I went to see her, there was a shift. She had just turned seven, and I noticed a difference in our dynamic. When I went to pick her up at school, she, like always, ran up to me and gave me a big, heartfelt hug. But then she turned away to rejoin her friends. It was totally right and age appropriate that she was far more interested in her classmates than in me. Still, I felt sad, even as I accepted this sign of the natural passage of time, from the seasons to the cycles of love. The only real stability we have is within ourselves.
5. Life isn’t always fair.
Vicki was the first person I ever knew who was into health food and fitness. I met her when she was 20. She died before she was 22, of an illness no one saw coming nor knew how to treat. Meanwhile, her mother Sue weighed at least 300 pounds, and spent her days watching television and reading Harlequin romances. She’s still alive at 94, and all her organs function perfectly.
How can this be? Life is unfair. Finding a way to do all we can to make our life turn out as we want it to, and then letting the outcome be what it is going to be is the only path to inner well-being.
6. Our real power lies in how we react to what happens to us.
We can’t erase our past as though it didn’t exist, and I don’t believe we’re meant to get over our losses. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has written, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If we see our sorrows as a passage or a way station, they can inspire us to use the incredible gift of our life.
7. Finally, we don’t “get over” anything.
Each day we create our future by choice and with the gifts of the lessons we’ve learned.
Especially the hardest ones.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
4 Beliefs To Keep In Mind For A Happier, Healthier & More Authentic Life
I find Arrien's simple formula a code to live a happier, healthier and more authentic life in many ways. To me, the principles reflect most wisdom traditions in the world. Here is my own take on the four principles, and some tips on how we can integrate them into our lives.
1. Show up with presence.
Deep down, most of us understand what exactly we need to do in our lives to be the best humans we can be. Of course, this knowledge is useful only when we take theory into practice, and follow through with commitment and with action. To show up in our lives, in other words, is every person's spiritual practice.
Showing up is about action, whether we are inspired to or not. It can be about doing your best at getting your kids off to school happily, taking your morning walk, making a healthy meal, writing in your journal each morning, or performing any daily ritual even when you’re feeling bored, uninspired, even defeated.
Many religions set aside specific times for people to focus on a specific spiritual practice. Muslims bow in prayer five times a day. The Balinese Hindus offer baskets filled with flowers and rice to their deities every morning, afternoon and evening, and the Benedictine nuns sing daily Gregorian chants. So establish a schedule for your own practice. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to make you happy. But it must be one that you will meet, one that’s both realistic and compelling enough to get you to show up and stay grounded.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
To become spiritually literate, pay attention to what’s in front of your eyes at each moment. If you dwell on your past (yearning, regretting, and fantasizing about what could’ve been), you automatically diminish the potency of the right now.
The day she began, they stood quietly outside her room. But soon after, she could hear the boys: pounding one another, yelling and then bursting into tears. In exasperation she jumped up, opened the door, and screamed at them, “You two better stop it right now. I mean stop it, damn it.”
Her sons’ faces fell at the sight of their enraged mother, and Lily was struck by the absurdity of this scene. Her practice was hurting all three of them. What her true practice should be, she realized, was to use every event in the day as an opportunity for kindness and patience to emerge. Nowhere was this more important than with her children.
3. Tell the truth, but do so without blame or judgment.
Certainly there is truth in the cliché that “honesty is the best policy.” But truthfulness can also be a weapon. We must learn to tell the truth kindly and carefully, to give everyone involved the best chance of being heard.
The ninth step of the well-known 12-step Program advises us to “make direct amends to people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If we view honesty in the same way, we can learn to speak without blame, and others will be more inclined to hear the truth in what we say.
To refrain from blame doesn’t mean that we deny the pain or difficulty caused by someone else’s actions. Here’s an example of nonjudgmental honesty: “I asked you not to share what I told you about my health condition with others. The fact that you did has upset me.” Now here’s a similar statement that judges and blames: “You’re a terrible friend with a big mouth who can’t be trusted with anything.”
4. Open yourself up to the outcome.
In other words, don't attach yourself to particular expectations, especially in high-stakes experiences or situations. Take Jake, for example. Jake is dating a woman that he really likes and wants to impress. He’d like to have a relationship with her. Once he becomes attached to this outcome, however, he will do whatever he can to make it happen: he may monitor what he tells this woman about himself, and try to influence her view of him by not being authentic. His desire for her to like him is fine. His trying to force it into being by misrepresenting himself, however, could lead to disappointment, even disaster.
Sure, most of us do have preferences about what we’d like to see happen in our lives. And that's not only normal, but healthy. So when isn't it healthy? Well, if we let these desires determine how we act, we can become inauthentic and try to manipulate people and situations (even unconsciously) to get what we want.
Arrien reminds us that the outcome of practicing “the Four-Fold Way” is the same outcome of most forms of spiritual seeking. She says, “The heart and the essence of all spiritual seeking is the reclamation of the authentic self.” Who knew that cultivating the simple (but difficult) practice of being your true self is the most spiritual practice there is?
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
5 Unexpected Health Benefits of Love & Friendship
Typically, individual well-being is assessed in terms of how well we're doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially. So let's take a look at how cultivating love and healthy relationships positively affects our health and well-being in these five areas:
1. Physical Health
Oxytocin, often called the “cuddle chemical,” is a hormone released when we touch someone we care about. (It's also a factor in our connection with animal companions.) Many of us know that this hormone increases with regular sexual intercourse, but we also have more of it in our systems when we are simply hanging out and having fun with friends.
So the more loving our connections, the more we amass this fabulous chemical, which is known to lower blood pressure, decrease stress and even boost immunity. Oxytocin reduces aches and pains, increases energy and enables us to experience life more often on the upbeat.
In fact, studies of psychology and aging show that loneliness increases blood pressure while the feeling of being “connected” lowers it. Studies also show how oxytocin overrides fear and reduces anxiety, which is why people do such great (and also "crazy") things in the name of love. Yet this chemical also improves our ability to recognize and respond appropriately to social cues and enhances all aspects of our well-being.
2. Intellectual Health
Intellectual health involves increased alertness, knowledge and common sense. Sure, we can cultivate our intellectual health with books, cultural events and other formal educational experiences. But we can also learn an incredible amount from the people we surround ourselves with.
A person who exhibits intellectual health is able to access their own gifts. From that awareness they can tap into their capacity for creativity. But it's also inarguable that our connections to others feed all of these self-discoveries. We learn through building our relationships and learning to improve our communication with others: opening up, listening to others open up, and simply having fun all sharpen our emotional intelligence.
Smart people make good decisions after some thoughtful consideration to decide how to move forward. Brainstorming often is an invaluable part of the process, whether on social media or through a tête-à-tête with a friend. Such connections increase our skill and capacity to think, respond, cultivate resilience and expand our minds.
3. Emotional Health
Studies have found that people who maintain close relationships with others are less likely to suffer from clinical depression. There's a reason, of course, which isn't often articulated: to maintain successful relationships, we will have already learned to manage our own emotions in healthy ways.
In fact, that kind of accountability to oneself is a prerequisite to successful connections. If we have already cultivated self-awareness, we most likely will also have developed social skills, including the ability to read social cues and show appreciation, care and concern for others. These skills establish the healthy ground on which relationships can thrive.
4. Spiritual Health
Let's face it: humans are imperfect and often annoying. We hurt one another's feelings. We fall into the traps of assumptions and unmet expectations. We let one another down.
But people who have successful long-term relationships practice generosity, forgiveness, patience and acceptance. Gratitude and appreciation are often said to be the most important qualities in a successful relationship, and there is much research to support this assertion. Studies suggest that communicating gratitude actually contributes to neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to make changes in response to our experiences. More generally, these are the benefits of practicing mindfulness. The more we practice being thankful, for ourselves, others and for life itself, the easier and more natural the feeling becomes.
5. Social Health
Successful relationships require us to develop particular skills: to be supportive without attempting to “fix” the problem, to communicate warmth without intruding on another's privacy and to manage conflict without damaging our connections.
To understand how to traverse the slippery slope of good boundary management is essential to healthy connection. The reach of such skills extends to our relationships with other loved ones, and carries over to enhance the power and meaning of our interactions in the workplace and in community life.
In the wellness space, we're swamped by information overload about what to do and what not to do in order to remain healthy and live longer. We hear the latest about the benefits of kale and the detriments of BPA in plastic. Sometimes the information is contradictory or the research confusing, and much of it changes on a regular basis. What does stay consistent, however, is that healthy connections with others means fewer visits to the doctor, shorter stays at the hospital and a longer life span. This is undeniable.
The Beatles were right when they sang, “I just need someone to love.” We all do. In fact, we need a community of people to love. It will reward us with health in all areas of our lives.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.