This post was originally published on Yoga for Healthy Aging
With the recent series of natural disasters around the world and endless mass shootings, there seems to be so much suffering and devastation happening right now. It’s hard to read the news without feeling sad or depressed. On top of all that, I’ve been having a very difficult time since my mother passed away this summer.
Her death was beautiful in many ways, but I’ve never felt grief like this before. It’s an odd feeling, like that nauseated feeling you get in an elevator when it starts or stops. She was always a strong presence in my life and an incredible support to me. As the weeks pass, I find myself slowly coming back to steady ground but it’s hard to know how hard to push myself back to my everyday life. There is so much work to do in daily life: cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry. I used to get all of that done and still be available to take care of other people, but now I’m trying to figure out how to take care of myself.
I remember one time I was at a talk with my teacher Swami Satchidananda, and someone asked him how much time we should put into taking care of ourselves versus doing service for others. He responded, “There is no limit to how much you should care for yourself. Spend as much time as you need. If you take good care of yourself, then at least other people don’t have to take care of you.”
For me self-care is doing my yoga and meditation practice. But, immediately after my mother died, I found myself avoiding my practice. I couldn’t bring myself to sit in meditation or do any asanas. I knew that if I sat with my feelings they would come out even more strongly, and I wasn’t ready for them. But when I finally got myself back to my practice, I had the opposite experience from what I expected. Instead of feeling like I was going deeper into the sadness, I felt a kind of inner calmness that was so surprising. I wondered if maybe I was just exhausted!
Now as I sit with this longer, it feels like I’m balancing between two worlds, my “normal” life and my spiritual life. In fact, this huge loss seems to have given me a push towards the spiritual side, because my mother’s death shattered many of my assumptions about the way life life works, like there is some specific goal or logic behind all of it. She created order out of the chaos just by being my anchor. The “normal” world feels different without her physical presence. It feels cold and strange without her patiently listening to my worries or lifting me up with her gentle encouragement.
Maybe this shattering of my “normal” life is actually a gift? I can’t help feeling the pull of my practice drawing me back inside to that space of peace—the eye of the storm—in my heart. The message that I keep getting is that I can love and nourish myself, just as my mother did for me. In fact, I’m beginning to see how the yoga practices prepare us to lose everything, because they teach us that we can give ourselves everything we need. I can offer my own mind the soothing and supportive presence that she was for me throughout my life.
I find my pranayama practice particularly helpful. I can feel the slowing of my breath in alternate nostril breathing soothing my nerves and untangling the knots of thoughts in my mind. My meditation has become an exploration of feelings more than a focused or directed practice. I seek out that neutral field somewhere in my heart and rest there as I explore my feelings and thoughts, offering myself a loving presence and learning to mother myself.
I am reminded of a famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita that I’ve always found confusing:
“Although you mean well, Arjuna, your sorrow is sheer delusion. Wise men do not grieve for the dead or the living.” (2:11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I always thought that passage was a kind of denial of our feelings. But, perhaps it’s a different lesson? Maybe the lesson is that a wise person knows we have what we need inside, and no matter who or what is taken from us, we are still okay. Maybe that’s why there is no reason to grieve?
I feel endless gratitude to my mother for loving and teaching me throughout my life, and now I can say I feel grateful to her for teaching me about death. She is showing me that by losing everything, we gain the most precious thing of all. We gain a deeper connection to the truth within us, a truth that will never die.