This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.
In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.
It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and that make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.
Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.
But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.
Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.
I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.
Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?
It’s important to acknowledge some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.
We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.
If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.
Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.
We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.
Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.
Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.
Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.
In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.
We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.
Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.
Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.
So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.
Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.
In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.
I was recently introduced to Havening. I’d never heard the term before, but I was intrigued by a brief explanation that Havening is a neuroscientific tool to assist in repairing emotional trauma. I looked at a couple of links and was so interested I tried the technique myself, just to see what would happen.
The human brain’s structure, function and capability are still a mystery to us in many ways. The brain does appear to be highly plastic; that is, we learn, we unlearn and we can develop new neural pathways and rehabilitate, to a greater or lesser degree, some kinds of physical traumatic brain injury as well as emotional trauma. We obviously treat some brain-based dysfunctions by pharmacological means, in the form of prescription drugs or self-medication via alcohol, nicotine and illicit substances.
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In our current culture of emotional illiteracy, sometimes the only way we know to mitigate our emotional pain is to numb out or distract. Relieving our symptoms, however, doesn’t address the root cause of our difficulty, it only covers it up for a time. Havening is a tool that allows us to address the source of our trauma and pain without chemical substances or the need for specialized (and expensive) treatment. It empowers us, the experts on our wounds and broken places, to become our own healers.
Nowhere on the Havening website or in the video is there mention of us giving our consent to the possibility that we can change, grow and heal. However, that is in fact the first step. I have observed, in myself and others, that sometimes we become so deeply invested in our pain and limiting beliefs we’re really not willing to heal and change. We say we are. We say we want to feel better, but when it’s time to do the work of exploration, excavation and learning to make different choices in managing our thoughts and feelings, we don’t. We’re not willing to be wrong, let go of our grievances and stories, practice forgiveness and give up the satisfaction of shaming and blaming others.
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I suspect Havening is a waste of time for those who approach it unwillingly, just as more traditional therapies are a waste of time (and money) if we’re only going through the motions.
Assuming we consent to give Havening a chance, the technique requires us to sit with ourselves in a quiet, safe place and deliberately bring to mind a single difficult memory or event. Rather than running away from our feelings, we intentionally recreate and recall them in all their vivid intensity, and as we do so we notice how our bodies process and express our difficult feelings. When we have re-experienced, as fully as possible, the feelings around our memory or event, we begin to lightly stroke or rub our arms, self-soothing with our own touch and presence. Still stroking our arms, we close our eyes and visualize walking along a beach, counting slowly to 20. Still stroking our arms, we open our eyes and, without moving our heads, look to the left, then the right, then the left. We don’t have to do this quickly or with strain. We practice this lateral gaze, combined with stroking our arms, for a minute or two, then close our eyes and visualize walking through a summer meadow, counting slowly to 20 again. We follow that with the lateral gaze for a couple of minutes, all the while still stroking our arms. The third and last visualization is of walking down a staircase, combined with arm stroking and counting slowly to 20. We follow that with practicing the lateral gaze for a couple more minutes.
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At the end of this series of steps, we relax and intentionally probe the memory we started with. We notice how our bodies feel and what our feelings are compared to when we started.
I know from emotional intelligence training experiencing our feelings fully and completely is the best way to allow them to move through us and dissipate, but I frequently feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions that I’m afraid to do that. Sometimes I think if I start crying, or expressing rage, I’ll never be able to stop; I’ll fall over some invisible edge of self-control into permanent madness and chaos. Havening is enormously useful for me because it gives me a safety net to fall into. No matter how strong my feelings are about a specific memory or event, I know I’m going to be able to successfully help myself calm down and feel better immediately. I don’t need to wince away or try to minimize my feeling experience.
I’ve spent much of my life starved for loving touch. I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about skin to skin touch that says “I’m here. I care about you. You’re safe with me.” In times of high stress and upset, I frequently wrap my arms around myself, the closest I can get to getting a hug. Havening provides the physical comfort of touch, which we know can calm stress and produces serotonin, a natural chemical our brains make that gives us a feeling of well-being.
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Anyone who meditates or has done Lamaze breathing for childbirth knows when we focus on breathing or a mantra our minds learn to be quiet. The three visualizations used in Havening, combined with self-touch and counting, immediately distract from the intensity of our emotional pain, as does practicing the lateral gaze. We rarely use our eyes to look laterally without moving our heads, and to intentionally and repetitively do so takes focus.
The purpose of this specific set of steps is to “rewire” a neural pathway caused by emotional damage or trauma. The links in the first paragraph explain the science and neurology behind this better than I can, so I won’t reiterate. What I will say is, somewhat to my astonishment, I noticed a sharp decrease in the emotional pain surrounding a memory the very first time I tried Havening. I didn’t lose the memory, but it was no longer attached to such an intense emotional reaction. I could think of it and remain physically relaxed and centered. I could see it more objectively. I could say, “Yes, that happened. It hurt me, but now it’s over.” Overwhelming unpleasant feelings were no longer connected to the memory.
As I practice Havening, I notice a couple of interesting things. The first is that the memories that give me the most trouble are small. A single phrase that broke my heart and irrevocably changed everything. A memory of no words at all, just someone else’s strong emotion. I use Havening to address my most private mental slideshow, where each slide is a single small period of time; a single scene, rich in sensory detail; a single moment of terrible clarity and revelation. I marvel at the power of these small pieces to shape our lives so profoundly. I never think of Havening around divorce and break-ups or even deaths. Those obvious upheavals are not the events in my life that have had the most power.
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The second thing I notice is how my visualizations are changing. The first time I did Havening, I followed the cues in the video exactly. I had no plan to elaborate on the three visualizations. As I’ve made a practice of the technique, though, my visualizations are becoming more and more vivid and sensual. I imagine walking hand-in-hand with someone. I imagine the feel of the sun, the sound of the sea, the grand sweep of a lovely curving staircase and a crowd of people waiting for me at the bottom. I also note that the unintended elaboration of the visualizations is all positive. I feel safe, protected, loved and joyous. There’s no lingering feeling of pain or discomfort from the memory or event I recalled just a minute before.
Havening is, above all, a flexible tool. Anyone can use it and fit it into his or her particular spiritual, religious or philosophical framework. It’s completely private and open-ended. Havening can be done once a week or three times a day. I can work with a single memory for a week if I need to, or tackle a new one each time I practice. It works equally well with old memories or new upsets.
Havening provides a kind of emotional detox. Since I’ve been doing it I feel lighter, more peaceful and as though I can think more clearly. I’m less easily triggered and hijacked and I respond more and react less. My head and heart are less cluttered. My feelings seem more like allies and less like enemies.
The biggest gift of Havening is the way it supports my intention to be authentic. It seems to me we all suffer some degree of shame about the things that really hurt us. It’s hard to explain, even to ourselves, why a few words or a gesture hurt so much. We tell ourselves and others not to be silly or dramatic or have such a thin skin. Havening provides an open door, an invitation to honestly acknowledge our hurts and take responsibility for soothing them. It gives us permission to feel our honest feelings without the need to minimize, explain or justify. We are fully empowered to respect and address our own pain.
Finally, Havening has become a ritual of self-care. I like essential oils, and I set out a blend from Young Living, a bottle of massage oil and a small hand towel by the chair I practice Havening in. I rubbed a white candle with the essential oil blend, and when I sit down I light the candle, mix the oils and use the mixture on my arms, hands, cuticles, etc. as I practice. Ten or fifteen minutes of deep moisturizing, aromatherapy and massage, in combination with Havening, leaves me feeling calm, strong, centered and cared for.
Havening is a new technique with a lot of promise. I’m interested to watch it evolve and be subject to scientific studies. Several practitioners are expanding Havening for other psychological applications, and I follow the blog with interest. In the meantime, it’s a powerful tool that costs nothing, does no harm, and results in significant benefits.
I’ve been thinking about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.
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Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.
All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?
I learned in emotional intelligence training our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.
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Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.
An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.
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After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.
This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?
After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!
Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker attached to other feelings.
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A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!
I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.
It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.
I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?
Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.
I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!
Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way. Joe Blow (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.
Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.
Quite a difference, right?
I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt be frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.
We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
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Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
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Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
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May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.
We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.
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Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.
I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.
In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.
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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.
Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.
Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.
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When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones needing the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.
It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.