Simple Presence – Open Heart

By Deborah Morris Coryell

We each of us yearn for one moment of awe where we can feel connected to the source of life. The moment of a birth, the embrace of unconditional love, the heart of loss—each contain such moments. We are essentially changed by these moments, transformed, as we witness birth, embrace love, or feel loss. Yet we protect and defend ourselves from being fully present in these moments, because to do so would mean being open not only to life but also to its potential losses. So we construct elaborate defenses against not only loss but against love and other acts of creation. What would it take to stay present and open in the face of love, in the act of creation, or to the challenge of loss?

First, in order to stay open we need to have the desire, the intention, the commitment to keep our hearts and minds present. Perhaps what drives the desire to stay present to loss is twofold: the belief that something, anything, will be revealed to us out of this loss, and the sense that we are pulled into the present by the love we want to continue to have for what we feel is lost. The belief that there is meaning in loss balances the feelings of betrayal with which we are struggling. If we can stay open to the possibility that the loss has happened “for us” and not “to us” then it does not need to be a punishment. We continue to suffer the pain of loss, but alongside of it, in addition to the pain, comes something else. What that something else is, is different for each of us in each moment. It is our responsibility in the face of loss to stay present. It is our responsibility to heal the break in the vessel of our being so that we can be available for what comes next.

Belief. Presence. Openness. All of these are ideas in our minds. Paying attention, observing the parade of thoughts that goes through our minds 24 hours a day is the second resource we need in honoring our intention to keep our hearts open and our minds present for the reality of our grief. Ordinarily we pay no more attention to our thoughts than we pay to the complex digestive or respiratory processes going on in our bodies. Yet thoughts create feelings. Knowing what thoughts go through our minds can move us from being overwhelmed by the pain of what we’ve lost to trusting that we will weave this loss into the tapestry of our lives. This trust begins to develop by reminding ourselves that we could not have “lost” any of our past because it is an integrated part of us, and, because it is a part of us, it will continue to be a part of our future. We begin to change our minds about what it means to have “lost” something precious by being an objective observer of the parade of our thoughts and by choosing to have (only) those thoughts that keep us open and present. When we find thoughts that close us down by intensifying our fear or pain, we gently put those thoughts aside. We can say “no” to them, sometimes by simply visualizing a traffic stop sign. Stop. Bringing in an image to support our intention to stay open can ease the way. Sometimes a simple image of universal love or peace. A flower, a bird, a sacred place will begin the process of shifting our attention.

The third ally in our new relationship to loss is breathing. Simple inhalation and exhalation. By focusing our attention on our breathing, a great deal happens. We change our minds. We move our thoughts intentionally from one object to another. Go ahead. Pay attention to your inhalation. Just notice the breath at the tip of your nose as it enters the body. Slow it down. Deepen it. Notice how it calms you down. When you feel overwhelmed or simply confused in a moment, pay attention to breathing—counting to 10, paying attention to each inhalation, will calm the body/mind reaction. It gives us a moment to regroup, to rethink this moment. Where do we want to put our attention? What thoughts do we want to have? What will support us in our intention to stay open, clear, and present? When we feel pain, in our bodies or in our minds, we automatically respond by holding our breath, contracting our muscles, closing down in defense. Our decision to fight against pain, resist it, actually keeps us in pain longer. By thinking ourselves, breaching ourselves, soft around the pain, the pain quiets down.

Intention, self-observation and breathing are the tools for simple presence in the face of loss. This is as true for those surrounding the one in grief as it is true for the “griever.” Over the years, I have often been approached by friends, families and coworkers who fear that they will say or do the “wrong” thing. It is as important for the people around us to stay open and honest about our loss as it is for us. In the moment that we look at someone meeting the challenge of divorce, death, disease, or betrayal as if this is happening to “them” and not to us, we lose our openness, our presence. The gift we bring to each other in these moments is this gift of connection. We don’t usually think of connection when we think of grief and loss; we usually think of loneliness, separation, and isolation. But the truth is that what is happening today in my life will also happen, perhaps tomorrow, in your life. Maybe not in exactly the same form, but close enough.

When Bill Cosby’s son Ennis was murdered, Mr. Cosby had the “presence” to reach out to those other families who were that day also facing the murder of their children. He was not alone. When I sit in simple presence with a friend or client or colleague struggling with financial loss or a loss of health, dare I separate myself into thinking this is “her” struggle and not mine?

Some time ago I was invited to speak to a group of bereaved parents. Before I began the seminar a man stood up and asked if I had a child that had died and if I didn’t what right did I have to be leading this group? After more than a decade of sitting with families struggling to integrate the death of a child, I was able to honestly say to this man: “When your child dies, my child dies! In sitting with you with an open heart, I sacrifice my innocence, my arrogance, in thinking that I am safer than you are.” We are all at risk at all times. The only mistake I can make in being with a friend or family member who is grieving is separating myself from them. The only error is in trying to touch your pain with my mind instead of with my heart. The fear of contagion, the fear of getting too close to grief and “catching it” keeps us isolated.

The wisdom that teaches us that we have all been exposed to loss from the moment of our birth keeps us connected to each other. Say what is in your heart, and if there are no words, trust the silence. Do what is in your heart, and if there is nothing to do, do nothing with your heart open.

Excerpted from Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss

Related articles:
What Helps When We're Experiencing the Unthinkable
Comfort Quickies: Self-Care While Grieving
Creating Inner Space Through Prayer or Meditation
Creating a Caring Space Through Prayer
Seasons of Grief

Also by Deborah Morris Coryell:
Time Does Not Heal All Wounds
The Art of Losing

Deborah Morris Coryell Devorah Morris Coryell has worked in the health field developing wellness programs since 1974. She founded the Wellness Education Department for Canyon Ranch Spa Resorts as well as for the Pritkin Longevity Center. She is a visiting faculty member for Dr. Andrew Weil’s program in Integrative Medicine and is cofounder and executive director of the Shiva Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and support of those dealing with loss and death, located in San Luis Obispo, California.

Photo by Mrinkk/StockXchng


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