Life guarantees us two things: change and loss. Together they compose the unpredictable rhythm of life.
They also exert tremendous pressure on the soul. If we don’t stop long enough to notice, we’ll wake up one day and wonder why the light has gone out of our eyes and why passion is but a distant memory. As counselors, we need to help clients understand that all of the losses in their lives are significant, no matter how insignificant they may appear, because each loss has contributed to shaping their beliefs about life, God and the world around them. Because most of us equate loss primarily with death, we’re unaware of how abstract losses such as shattered dreams, unmet expectations and loss of trust, hope or even faith can have serious long-range consequences on our hearts.
The downside of hakuna matata
Hakuna matata may have worked for Pumbaa and Timon in the Disney movie The Lion King, but the “don’t worry, be happy” (bury your problems) mentality many of us have adopted to avoid pain doesn’t always work. In fact, it can shut off our hearts to real healing. Because we are created as three-dimensional beings — body, soul and spirit — we need to teach our clients to take inventory of how the losses in their lives have affected them at each of those levels. As a counselor, I teach people the “art of noticing” by asking them to pay attention to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that accompany their pain. Noticing helps us connect to that pain, which is a very important first step in this process.
Internal and external responses
Noticing how we experience grief includes teaching our clients to develop an awareness of both the internal and external responses to their losses. Later, noticing will help them attain perspective and hope for the future and allow them to see the gains that have accompanied their losses.
External noticing requires that we stop long enough to realize how what is happening in the outside world is affecting our mind, emotions and physical body. External cues influence what we tell ourselves about our life and our losses. For example, if you’ve lost a loved one or are facing a divorce, being in a familiar place or hearing a special song can take you back to times of pain and sorrow. Negative thoughts that accompany external cues can stir up old beliefs such as “I’m a failure” or “I’ll never recover.” These thoughts only serve to keep us stuck in our pain, and the messages spill over from our souls into our physical bodies, sometimes causing us to experience tense muscles, stomach pain, nausea, anxiety or depression.
The internal expressions of grief require us to pay attention to the host of emotions that accompany loss. At first, many of us feel only numbness. As the heart begins to thaw under the frozen layers of pain, we can slowly begin to identify a broader range of emotions, ranging from sadness to acute sorrow. The key here is that we notice what these feelings are trying to tell us about the condition of our heart.
Facing the music
The journey through grief must begin here, cultivating the gifts of noticing and putting words to our pain. Grief is not our enemy. Restoration will come, but only as we find the courage to face and identify our losses. Pain and suffering can change us profoundly, and not always for the good. That’s why the book of Proverbs warns us: “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
So how do we help clients to guard their hearts? By teaching them to pay close attention to what is happening to them as the issues of life unfold. The art of noticing allows us to recognize that we are in a battle for our very lives, and if we are going to survive the assault, we must make difficult choices and take deliberate and intentional action. To reclaim our hearts, we must be willing to enter the battleground and face the silent scream of our own souls.
What you don’t notice can hurt you
Story is a powerful teaching tool, so I often use movie clips to generate discussion and help drive home a few salient points to my clients. For example, in The Lion King, we follow the lion cub Simba, son of King Mufasa and rightful heir to the throne in the Pride Lands, through a story of epic adventure. The assault on Simba’s heart begins early when his uncle, Scar, kills King Mufasa, making it look like an accident for which Simba is responsible. The young cub is devastated by what he believes he did. Scar seizes the opportunity, telling Simba to run away and never return, leaving Scar free to take the throne. Simba’s heart is broken, and he lives for years carrying the guilt that he killed his own father, even as he tries to live a carefree life with his two new friends, Pumbaa and Timon.
Here’s what I ask my clients to notice from the story: Simba didn’t see what was happening. He didn’t realize he had an enemy and that he was in a battle for his very life. His fear of facing what had happened limited his ability to choose wisely. When we are unwilling to see, we are left to use whatever coping strategies we can to stay alive. The problem is that in so doing, we wall off part of our hearts, just as Simba did, because the pain seems too great to face. Then we deaden the desire to hope again, settling instead for lives of mediocrity.
Scar, the enemy of Simba’s soul, knew that to mortally wound the heart is to cut off the wellspring of life. When we stop paying attention to what’s happening in our hearts, we lose part of what makes us passionately alive and fully connected to God. As our story illustrates, the results can be disastrous.
Developing a new attitude
Noticing is what finally effected change for Simba in The Lion King. His father’s voice echoing from the past at last reminded Simba of the things to which he had long forgotten to pay attention — his heart, his purpose and his true identity. As he chose to be responsive to the truth, he was able to face his fears and return to the Pride Lands with a new perspective. Desire, once again stirring in his heart, could move him forward to live the life for which he was created.
By teaching our clients the art of noticing, we can also help them to cultivate a grateful heart for that which remains. By heightening awareness of the simple pleasures in life that most assuredly get overlooked in times of sorrow, we can encourage clients to move forward with greater resolve to accomplish those things which remain for them to do.
Beginning the practice
So, how do we help our clients practice the art of noticing? The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude provide a great place to start.
Clients should understand that the key to entering into silence and solitude begins with a willingness to abandon all distractions. Silence and solitude are an invitation to search and explore both the outward and inward dynamics of our hearts that we work so hard to ignore. Practicing silence and solitude is risky business because it pushes us beyond our comfort level and challenges us to find contentment in being alone. Clients should begin this practice slowly, starting with a few minutes each day.
Embarking on this journey requires quieting the mind and body, adopting an external awareness of what from our environment affects the five senses. Give clients some questions to consider as they sit quietly. For example: How does doing the difficult work of grief feel in your body? What do you notice in the world around you that causes difficulty? How do you respond? Do you notice tension in your muscles, a tightening of your jaw or a sense of generalized anxiety? As you begin to notice your breathing, is it shallow or rapid? Do you find yourself holding your breath when painful thoughts or feelings emerge? Practicing silence and solitude gives space for attention, outwardly and inwardly, to that which we usually ignore.
When grief is our companion, everything going on inside our hearts, whether we’ve put words to it or not, will spill over into our physical bodies. Have clients scan their bodies for tension and stress. Have them close their eyes and ask themselves what they are noticing. What parts of their bodies come into their awareness? Silence and solitude provide a beautiful segue for listening and learning.
Our mind struggles to keep a tight rein on our emotions, instructing us not to feel, not to cry. But our tears are the heart’s attempt at healing, watering the dry and arid places of our soul, bringing us back to life and feeling. Our feelings are trying to expose our pain. We must not do them the injustice of denial.
When we teach our clients to practice noticing, we help them learn to slow down the mind and give space for learning from their experiences, thoughts, emotions and observations. We give them the opportunity to interact with their thoughts by simply accepting them and finding out what messages they may be trying to communicate about what lies deep within.
There is a knowing and a power that comes with stillness. The disciplines were given as gifts of refreshment meant to restore and nourish our souls. When we cease all our striving and calm our minds, we may notice we can actually listen and receive.
The most important part of the grief work we do takes place in these quiet moments of silence and solitude. It’s there that we can uncover our deepest fears and begin to face them with courage. In those moments, the depth of our pain is revealed, but so is the resiliency of our hearts. Here, free from all constraints, we find out who we are and what we’re made of.
Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in northern Virginia who hosts a weekly podcast called
Heartline in which she talks to counseling professionals about topics affecting the lives of people today. Follow her at siftedaswheat.com. This article is adapted from her book Sifted as Wheat: Finding Hope and Healing Through the Losses of Life.
Letters to the editor:
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