Emotion as Messenger Part V: Negotiating the Waters of Grief

This article originally published in Equine Leadership: A model of peaceful and positive living for all ~ Issue 3 ~ March 2018

These thoughts on grief are based on a recent personal experience, and reflect my own meditations as well as lessons from many valued teachers.

~*~

“Grief is the last act of love we have to give those we have loved.
Where there is deep grief there was great love.”
Anonymous

~*~

It’s said that the act of grieving is like being hit by an enormous wave, or drowning in a deep ocean. Considering our emotions are mutable, flowing and changing from one moment to the next, this comparison seems entirely appropriate. Like emotions, water ebbs and flows according to the energy to which it is subjected. Since the human body is composed of up to 90% water this analogy is even more intriguing. For in effect each one of us is our own body of water ~ a continuously moving physiological sea inhabited by emotional creatures subject to the disturbances of outside events and environment.

Wave

Since the passing of my heart horse, Bear, this past November I’ve been negotiating the waters of grief. Introspection has led me to take the ocean metaphor one step further, something I’ll explore in this article.

Much as an earthquake strikes without warning, loss cannot be predicted. It rattles our world and in the process generates a swell of grief that rolls through our waters destabilizing and disorienting us in its wake. We lose our bearings. Our thoughts become muddled. We feel overwhelmed; vulnerable; fragile. Our deepest fears and anxieties re-awaken. How we ride this unnerving wave determines whether we’ll return to calmer waters or forever flounder in the dark depths inhabited by our unmet and unconsciously hidden emotional sea monsters.

In recent years science has demonstrated that water records and saves information; that it has memory. Dr. Masaru Emoto, respected scientist, researcher and best-selling author, discovered that water is deeply connected to our individual and collective consciousness. His experiments proved that energy and intention, individually and collectively, can alter the molecular structure of water for good or ill. e.g. With a powerful microscope and camera he showed that water molecules intentioned with love or gratitude altered to resemble beautiful, symmetrical crystal shapes ~ much like a snowflake. Conversely, water molecules intentioned with hate disintegrated into an ugly mass. Further proof that whatever we project, intentionally or absently, purifies or poisons our inner and outer environments.

So, how does this apply to grieving? Loss, like an earthquake, is a powerful change agent and grief is the potent swell of energy it generates that changes us. This overwhelming force manifests anger, fear, betrayal, denial, etc. which, if indulged unhealthily or not appropriately resolved, can lead to deep depression and dis-ease. Alternatively, wading grief’s troubled waters in the moment and with love, promotes healing and closure. In other words, over time our waters become still again.

Allow me to illustrate with my own recent experience of loss.

Dream Horse
Shakespeare (Bear) was my first horse; my dream horse; my heart horse. When he arrived almost 12 years ago I was 43, out of work, and beginning a mid-life transition. I was finally in a position to realize my life-long dream of a horse to call my own. Over the years, through training and experience, I built a bond of trust with Bear that supported us along our shared path. I had big plans for us to help heal lives and, of course, anticipated that we would grow old together. However, life had other plans.

Shakespeare

Bear died Tuesday, November 21, 2017. Gone in a flash due to torsion colic*. This was the earthquake that shattered our world.

Grief rolled through my body of water the next morning. After a restless sleep I awoke early. My head hurt. My heart ached. I felt nauseous. My disrupted emotional waters ebbed deep into the recesses of my broken heart and flowed back in a deluge of despair. Too powerful to be contained within its usual shores, salty tears spilled down my cheeks. A plume of shock vomit released pressure. Still, that first day the wave rolled over and over trying to re-establish balance within the context of a harsh new reality. With each swell emotional debris polluted the love-imbued waters that had held Bear and I for so long. I felt overwhelmed; exhausted, and this continued in gradually dissipating waves as the days passed.

As soon as I felt able I scrambled back to a routine. Spending time with Sophi, my other horse, helped to ground me as she needed me to be grounded. She had lost Bear, too. This mutual loss deepened our relationship.

About the third week I noticed a pattern. Each Wednesday following the initial swell of grief an echo of that original disorientation rolled through. If I attempted to push through it I felt overwhelmed and debilitated. Recognizing the pattern allowed me to adapt my mid-week routine to one of gentle self-care and reflection. As the echo continued to weaken I realized this break worked well for me, so I incorporated it into my new life without Bear.

Of course, each person’s experience of grief will be different. Our emotional conditioning, life experience, etc. largely determine how we negotiate those unsettled waters. Still, common to all is the fact that grief dredges the depths of our consciousness asking us to recognize, resolve and release those dysfunctional elements of our lives that pollute our waters. It also asks us to heal mind, body and spirit so the turbulent waters can be made still again. An open heart and mind is key to negotiating our way through the waters of grief.

Something else I’ve discovered is that finding a constructive way to honour the memory of the deceased helps to distill the waters and allows us to move on. After my grandmother’s death over 20 years ago I vowed to honour her memory by living my best life. I can thank my gran for the wake-up call I needed to start down the healing path. With Bear, I honour the many important lessons of self-awareness he facilitated. This helps me keep my energy focused on the path of light and healing.

Official Portrait 2013

It’s been two months since Bear’s departure, and while the swells of grief still roll through my body of water, they’re also fading. I miss my dear equine friend, but take comfort in knowing that by being fully present and honouring his memory as an act of love, and focusing on extra self-care on Wednesdays when my waters feels disrupted, I can move on while holding Bear forever in my heart.

~*~

*Torsion is one of the more severe forms of colic, and occurs when the large colon displaces and twists 180 to 360 degrees. … Source: https://horse-canada.com/magazine_articles/unravelling-the-mysteries-of-colic/

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2018 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

Emotion as Messenger: Part IV … Anger

Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?

In this 12-part series I share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more peacefully and abundantly.

My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.

Part I … Fear
Part II … Sadness
Part III … Vulnerability

~*~

Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.

Louis D. Brandeis
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

~*~

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel anger. Everyone knows what’s it like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s wrath. However, what most people don’t realize is that beyond this hurtful, inflammatory, uncomfortable feeling lies an important message. A message designed to return us to a state of peace if we just listen, honour and respond to it appropriately.

As with all emotions, anger has a specific role to play. In essence, this dynamic feeling warns when a personal boundary has been crossed. It tells us when our personal space has been invaded by unwanted attention or manipulation, and asks us to restore the boundary to a healthy status quo.

Most of us have been taught from early on not to entertain our anger or, at the very least, to suppress it so as not to make a scene. Of course, it’s important to manage our anger, however ignoring or burying it is not a healthy option. When we do this we not only miss an opportunity to teach someone how to respect our personal space, we give them permission to invade it again … and again. Also, we create an environment for emotional volatility.

Is there someone in your life you have to tip-toe around all the time? Withheld anger creates a powder keg that, with a seemingly random trigger, may blow at any moment. And if it doesn’t blow outward, it implodes. Many deeply angered people manage their feelings through addiction which, of course, numbs them to their emotional environment. They want to feel without feeling. Before I sought help my addiction was emotional self-battery through negative self-talk and the need to prove I was perfect. It almost destroyed me.

Anger’s healthy expression is more about explanation than explosion. Confronting the offender in the moment opens the door to understanding and solutions rather than unnecessary, escalated arguments. If, in the end, the other party refuses to acknowledge or accept responsibility for their actions we have, at the very least, allowed ourselves an opportunity to express our feelings. This helps diffuse the negative energy that accumulates when we stuff hard emotions down where they can fester. Acknowledging our anger in the presence of the one who has angered us is the first step toward finding our own peace. It also helps us to decide whether or not we want to continue being with someone who demonstrates so little regard for our space and such lack of empathy for our feelings.

Ultimately, taking care of our personal emotional welfare is our own responsibility. If others are offended by this, that is their battle. Why would we want to be drawn into their fight?

Boundary Dance

A lesson in boundaries

I first became aware of personal boundaries 10 years ago as an apprentice in Chris Irwin’s horse training program. I was approaching woman-of-a-certain-age-hood ~ 40+ years old with no concept of a personal boundary. I was angry and reactive with no idea why.

One afternoon I was engaged in a round pen exercise with an unfamiliar horse. While I don’t recall the exact details (due to my penchant to dissociate under stress), I remember finishing in tears, overwhelmed, frustrated and angry that the exercise had not gone “perfectly” as I’d envisioned it. I felt exposed and fraudulent. Another participant, a social worker/therapist, sat with me as I attempted to process my experience. When it seemed appropriate she shared her observations and introduced me to the notion of setting personal boundaries. Why? Because the horse had clearly shown me I had none.

I remember thinking at the time, “Setting a boundary? What does that even mean?”

This was the pivotal moment in my life that set me on the experiential learning path. Having uncovered this sad personal truth, I finally understood how I’d relinquished so much of my own power in favour of yielding to the agendas of others. The reason was, at that point, still beyond my understanding.

Through the years my continued study and participation in equine experiential learning has helped me realize that many of our individual challenges, and those as a society, arise from the fact that most of us are never taught the importance of setting, and respecting, personal boundaries. Attentive parents teach children to refrain from taking candy from/talking to/getting into a car with a stranger. Still, who teaches their child when and how to be appropriately angry after someone has invaded their space? The sad fact is that most parents have little or no concept of this themselves never mind know how to teach it.

Due to their open and trusting nature, children are particularly vulnerable. Abuse of any kind is a devastating violation of their personal space as they have no defence. Their mental and emotional world is so fragile that such an assault is a horribly traumatic experience. Without proper support to manage their overwhelming feelings, their normal emotional and mental growth patterns are hijacked. In essence, their healthy sense of self has been sabotaged leaving them primed to serve an ensuing line-up of advantage-takers who can spot just such a victim miles away. This paves the way to an angry, frustrated adulthood and the negative pattern persists until some force beyond them issues a wake-up call, or a series thereof. I know this to be true from my own experience. The round pen exercise was one of many.

Boundary Dance

Linda Kohanov ~ author, speaker, riding instructor and horse trainer internationally recognized as an innovator in the field of Equine Experiential Learning, and a respected writer on the subject of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy ~ describes boundary setting as “… the dance of respect and connection.”

From my own experience, and through observation, I’ve learned that taking back our power by learning this dance with horses is one of the most life affirming ways to understand the concept of a personal boundary and experience a positive shift in personal power.

Meet and Greet

 

 … horses approach each other; ears pinned slightly and tails swishing in anticipation, they begin the tenuous dance of respect and connection.

Linda Kohanov
from Way of the Horse

It’s fascinating to watch herd members set boundaries with one another. When a new horse is introduced the approach is cautious and respectful. “Who is this new guy?” everyone wants to know. “Who are these guys?” the initiate wonders. With many squeals and snorts and much stomping of feet ~ a moment of emotional elevation while they sort it out ~ the horses engage and establish the new hierarchy. If a boundary is crossed at a later time it’s quickly re-established with a squeal or a nip, or the threat of a kick. The anger released and order established, the herd goes back to grazing.

Toxic Emotional Soup

Humans, for the most part, don’t manage their anger half as well. Because expression of anger, even the healthy variety, is frowned upon, negative emotions are harboured and left to stew. Most of us are unaware of the toxic emotional soup we keep adding to each day, nor can we connect with the moment someone put the pot on and told us to stir.

For example, civil wars and family disputes going back generations are held in the collective conscious of those involved for so long that most a) are reacting to a fight that isn’t even theirs, b) aren’t aware of their own feelings about it because they’ve been supplanted by the agendas of others, and c) are afraid (and don’t know how) to establish a boundary that says “this is not my truth.”  All they know is that this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it will always stay. It’s anger fed by hate fed by ignorance fed by anger, served up in double portions and force fed to the innocent all for the sake of an unresolved trespassed personal boundary which happened, perhaps, centuries ago.

When not dealt with in a healthy way, anger spins off into its noxious cousins ~ frustration, rage, fury, shame, guilt, boredom and apathy ~ a dangerous and debilitating posse of emotions that inflicts further trauma on the one holding the anger and crosses boundaries to wound unfortunate bystanders. Abusers have been abused; haters have experienced hate. Their feelings of pain and loss of control, as well as the underlying fear that there is no hope of change, perpetuates anger until it explodes all over the next hapless victim ~ whether family, friend, social group, country or themselves, it is the same.

Boundary infraction

The truth is that well-placed anger, in the moment, re-establishes the invaded personal boundary. Just as the angry horse issues a warning kick of trespass, we need to be aware of our personal space and protect it in a way that allows us to remain open and engaged with the fullness of life. Personal melodrama, often due to suppressed anger playing out through addiction and similar debilitating activities, is simply unacknowledged emotions repeating their important messages over and over until the intended recipient finally “gets it” and takes appropriate action to resolve the inner conflict.

Learning how to set a personal boundary and becoming aware of our impact on the world around us are two of the most important lessons of equine experiential learning. Horses as objective third parties with no judgement or agenda powerfully reflect who and how we are in the moment. They can teach us, with the guiding hand of a qualified practitioner, to understand how to set and manoeuvre our personal boundaries so we feel more in control of our lives without offending the boundaries of others.

A final word

With reference to the quote by Louis D. Brandeis at the beginning of this piece, I feel that anger is indeed born of ignorance ~ ignorance of our own, and others’, boundaries. I also believe that learning to turn ignorance into awareness helps to develop empathy.

I’m reminded of a quote in Charles Dickens’ classic work A Christmas Carol:

 … They are Man’s and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Ignorance flourishes in a closed heart and mind, and a lack of self-awareness in this regard spawns a terrible, destructive anger. Those whose boundaries have been violated and never restored harbour their anger and are most likely to cleave to ignorance as a means of false protection. They’re also more likely to become the predators among us because, having no empathy, they act out with no regard for the welfare of others.

Horses are perfect mirror for our emotions. That disconcerting experience in the round pen offered an awakening for me. It was the invitation I needed to begin exploring my inner world so that I could understand the hidden sources of anger crippling my emotional life. It gave me the awareness I needed to begin remedial action.

The fact is we cannot feel at peace with ourselves and the world around us until we acknowledge and respect the message of anger. By answering its call to action in a way that honours our truth without offence to others we re-establish the boundary crossed and teach others how to treat us.

Be the peace you so dearly seek. Let the horses show you how.

Be well,

Dorothy

~*~

Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

~*~

Next: Part V … Grief

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2016