10 minutes | Apr 29th 2020

Death, Pain and Feeling it All

More and more my friends are dying, and not just from Covid -19. There are also people I know who have died of heart attacks, accidents, and cancers. It’s awful and I feel such grief if I allow myself to feel at all. I am 57years old, so this is really just the beginning of this happening more and more in my life.

In this modern era, we try to teach men that it’s ok to feel in our culture, but there is still this hangover from the past and the influence of stoicism which perpetuates the idea that men need to remain in control of our feelings. Stoicism is somewhat maligned, it didn’t always mean emotionally unavailable, but it seems to have that connotation now. I still struggle with this myself as a man, despite the fact that I have been in a deep practice of allowing myself to feel since I was a boy. My parents made a big point of teaching us that feelings were ok, while we were growing up. I have been given all kinds of permission to let go and allow myself to experience the unknown, to feel, to allow the intense surge of emotional tides. Yet it is still frowned upon in many circles in our culture. Groups that want to hold on to a type of masculinity that represents strength. I honor that vision, but all too often it tips over into brittleness, unfeeling and being emotionally unreachable.

Despite my upbringing, there is still deep social conditioning that is given to men. Something very serviceable really, when you think about what we ask of our first responders, our warriors. It’s the practice of men like Marcus Aurelius, Claudius Maximus, and Cato. The practice of stoicism. This double-edged sword of strength and surety, that cuts out empathy, and fear, sometimes to our detriment. Where is the line between strength and flexibility? Between holding my feelings at bay for the sake of the moment, to meet the call of the warrior’s heart, standing still and in my breath, as the maelstrom surrounds me and the impact of that on my stress level and thus my health. Yet, in the best form of this, I have the courage and willingness to feel and allow the processing of emotions to take me over. I’ve done it before, I know the idea of it, but in the moment, it always feels like it might be too much. I feel the resistance, the fear of my emotional tide sweeping me out to the sea of chaos. These moments don’t define me really, because past experience has shown me that allowing myself to fall into the reality of the momentary loss of control has positive impacts on my well being, my mental state, and my immune system. When I allow my feelings, it is always less stressful and better for me, than if I resist and deny. Resistance causes tension and stress, when I feel the constriction of resistance, I want to escape and avoid feeling the loss of control and the vulnerability that goes with it. Yet, it’s inevitable, we can’t escape how we feel for very long, especially in relation to death. Grief is relentless even it’s silent form, it can take over and rule us. The more time I spend in resistance and avoidance the more prolonged the tension and constriction in my cells. The longer I hold this constriction in my body, the more amplified the anxiety and hormonal disruption. This leads to a cortisol response which is highly damaging to our immunity and our metabolism. Long term these kinds of stress can cause insulin resistance, hypertension, and digestive issues. Avoidance provides a momentary escape, I could have a few drinks and avoid thinking about it, but when the morning comes, in addition to the higher stress and unresolved emotional, issues I will have the regret of the hangover to add to my pain. People do continue the pattern and go ever deeper into addiction and avoidance, but it will eventually catch up with you in myriad unhealthy ways.

Recently, one of my teachers reminded me that the fear of feeling, the resistance of emotion, often lasts much longer than the actual expression of the emotion of the body. The body typically will run 90 seconds of tears, heaving sighs, and loss of breath. This may be true, but it also comes in waves sometimes wave after wave. Yet my teacher is correct, I know that when I am on the other side of the experience my body is freer more relaxed, and cleansed of toxins. Not so with resistance and avoidance, which prolongs the toxicity and threatens to return again and again, much like the snake swallowing its tail. Similar to drinking and a hangover, the avoidance of the pain leads to having another drink, the hair of the dog and then the cycle repeats, I am off to the distraction Olympics again, drinking my troubles away avoiding feeling, until I end up right back where I started, with grief banging on the door of my consciousness. In the many experiments, I have made examining this principle, without fail, I inevitably end up losing my shit and having the emotional breakdown overtake my nervous system anyway, despite all my resistance. I believe that even if I were successful at stuffing my grief, controlling my emotions, I would eventually manifest PTSD, or some other physical illness that is related to stress. That’s not how I want to live my life.

I want to live life fully, I want to laugh, and cry. I want to look up at the mountains or some incredible piece of art and feel awe. I want to have friends who can empathize with me, and I know that creating those kinds of relationships with people, means I will feel their joy and their pain as well. This is part of life, the experience is full of sensations and not all of them are welcome. But, I very much want to feel the cold breath of winter, the warm cuddle of summer. I want to feel exhilarated, feel the skin on my arms rise, my pulse quicken. This thing we call life comes with all of it. It’s a three-ring circus, a dance of daring-do on the emotional high wire.

I know that when I feel so sad at the loss of those people close to me, that I can feel that precisely because of the amazing love we shared, the amazing adventures, the long nights spent talking till dawn, sharing our hopes and dreams, our visions of the world we want to make, and philosophical discussions about the meaning of things. Even with all this, I see my grief as a precious gift, a reminder of my human capacity for love. I see it as part and parcel to the memories of the highest heights, the freight to be paid for my deepest belly laughs, and those quiet moments of sublime repose with my lover. Emotions like ecstasy or grief come and go. After the tears come, in the empty moment when I can catch my breath after the storm, there is space to feel alive. Eventually, I will feel precious joy once more. I trust, that despite all the turmoil and even with the heartache that goes with death and loss, I am grateful to be alive and for the gift of being able to feel, the education that comes with the human condition. For me, the alternative is emptiness and unwelcome flatness, a world without color, without passion, or excitement.

In my world, I am man enough to feel it all and be the better for it. Welcome to the mystery school where the tuition is pain, pleasure, and the in-between. If you make it far enough through the curriculum of hard knocks, you get wisdom, with a post-graduate degree in whimsy.

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