For all humans, but especially the highly sensitives, one of the most difficult truths to accept is that all seasons pass, all stages come to an end, all beings die. Just as the gorgeous peach tree in full-tilt pink spring bloom drops its blossoms to reveal summer fruit, then drops its leaves in autumn’s melancholic dance to stand bare-limbed in winter, so we watch with grasping hearts as life closes out: from people and animals we love passing from this planet to childhood ending to the day’s close. What we’re resisting is the passage of time as we hold tight to a belief that says that all good things must last. It cannot be so.
Yet we try desperately to fight reality and create a world where life doesn’t die, where relationships don’t end, where sweet stages last forever. We hang on tightly with the part of us that lives and breathes its sole purpose of controlling outcomes – our ego – and learn over and over again that our work is to soften into that fear-based part of us and send the message that yes, we can handle pain, which means, we can live life fully. For when we live with the ego at the fore, steering our car of psyche, the fullness of life is squeezed out until it becomes a flat-lined, narrow place. While we may have created the illusion of safeguarding against loss by hedging our bets and minimizing risk, we’ve also prevented joy, excitement, and enthusiasm from entering. I often hear people say, “I don’t want to feel excited in case it doesn’t work out.” What that really means is, “I don’t know that I can handle disappointment.”
These past months, I’ve been walking alongside one of my long-time clients as she’s navigated the excruciating road of her beloved dog’s battle with cancer. This client, like so many of you, is on the sensitive-anxious spectrum, and not a session goes by when I’m not touched by the degree to which she feels the pain of the world. It’s evident to me that the intensity of her lifelong anxiety is in direct proportion to the beauty of her sensitive heart. In other words, without the tools to navigate through her sensitivity as a child, she only had one way to protect her heart from the overwhelm of big feelings: to seal it over with the protective barriers of anxiety, depression, worry, and intrusive thoughts. It’s such a wise choice that psyche makes, one that serves a child immensely; the problem is that this defense mechanism no longer serves as an adult. As we get older, we need to develop tools for addressing what’s embedded inside the anxiety, which is the well of feelings.
We talked about many themes in our sessions as she traveled the painful road toward loss. We talked about how she can absolutely handle the pain even when everything inside of her said she couldn’t. We talked about her fear that she wouldn’t know when it was time to let him go. We talked about her beliefs about what happens after we die.
At lease once a session we talked about how most people don’t understand grief, let alone grief about a pet. We tend to minimize pain of all kinds and especially pain about what the culture deems “lesser” relationships with “lesser” beings. It’s part of our anthropocentric tendencies to assign more importance to a human life than an animal life, to place loss and grief on a hierarchy according to what the mainstream mindset asserts as “more important” and “less important.” But all highly sensitive people know that pain is pain, and the degree to which we love and attach to a pet can be exactly the same as how we love and attach to humans. The most sensitive among us place all life in all forms – from humans to mosquitoes – on the same plane and as deserving of the same respect. My client struggled with what she accurately perceived as shame and judgement from her bosses when she needed to rearrange her schedule to accommodate her dog’s vet visits. It’s not likely she would have received the same judgement if she had been caring for a sick parent.
As the end seemed near, we delved more deeply into the finer strategies that the ego-mind employs to avoid direct contact with the raw feelings. (By the way, these are the same strategies that the mind uses in all areas of anxiety, including relationship anxiety.) In one session a few weeks back she sobbed, “This isn’t fair! I would do anything to take this away from him. This is too much; it’s too painful. I don’t want to feel this much pain.”
“It’s not fair and I know it feels like too much,” I replied. “It’s important to remember that the depth of your pain is in equal measure to the depth of your love. Would you want to take away how deeply you’ve loved your dog?”
“No,” she responded.
“This is the price we pay for having hearts that love hugely. It’s heart-shattering when we lose the ones we love.”
“It’s not just the pain. When I let myself have a big cry, I’m actually okay. I feel more grounded then. It’s also that I’m a nervous wreck. I’m checking him constantly for symptoms. It’s like I believe that if I can figure it out, I can control this and I stop it from happening.”
“Yes, that’s the hypervigilent part of you – the part of all sensitive-anxious types – that is genetically programmed to look for danger. And it’s the ego-control part that believes that if it can find the source of the problem, it can fix it and control the outcome. This is the part of you that’s creating your suffering. The feeling of raw pain, while heart-searing, is manageable; the anxiety is unmanageable because you’re beating your head against reality. The ego thinks its found its toehold against the slippery slope of life but it’s actually preventing you from being in the flow of life.”
This is such a hard concept for people to comprehend as it goes against every habitual mindset we’ve been programmed to follow. Said again, the ego believes that if it worries, checks and ruminates, if it excels at its post as sentry where it scans the horizon in hypervigilent over-alert, it can prevent something bad from happening. Rationally, my client knew that there was nothing she could do to reverse the diagnosis and prognosis, but she, like most (if not all) of my clients and course members, has a lifelong habit of protecting against dissolving into the source feelings that live inside the hypervigilance: the powerlessless, the fear, and ultimately, the oceans of grief. As with all transitions, she has the opportunity now, as she’s softened by the exquisite pain of loss when all non-essentials fall away, to name this defense mechanism, which will allow it to soften and give her the chance to practice a new habit.
The new habit, of course, is to feel the raw feelings that are living in her heart, the ones she touches when she can peel away the hardened ego-habits and let herself puddle into tears. It’s these small moments when something big shifts inside, when we allow ourselves to step into a new direction by tending to ourselves in a new way.
Her beloved companion passed away last week. Her heart shattered into a thousand pieces, and she’s struggling with the emptiness, confusion, and heart-wrenching grief that follows the loss of our loved ones. Yet I have full faith that she will move through this and find her way back to back to wellness, perhaps even a stronger state than before. This is part of what pets teach us: that we can love and lose and love again. As guardians of the realms of being and feeling and teachers of unconditional love, that’s much of what they’re here to teach us.
What I try to impart to all sensitives (myself included) is that, just as loss is inevitable, we’re also held in a visible and invisible web of life. Sometimes I sit in our yard in the middle of summer and realize that I’m enrobed in a cloud of insects. They’re so tiny I can’t see them up close; it’s only when I look around the yard and see other clouds puffing everywhere that I realize I’m sitting inside one as well. Or when I sit next to our lavender plants that attract hundreds of bees through the month of August: I slow down and listen to their hum and allow the awareness that I’m being held in their feminine wisdom to enter. Their song and dance fill my soul-pours like honey and drips me into a happy high. We are not alone in this vast, mysterious universe, and certainly not alone on this beautiful, painful planet. It’s when we drop into the subtle layer that we remember that we are always being guided and held.
I titled this post “Nothing Lasts Forever”, but it’s not exactly true that nothing lasts forever. While we can’t hold on to physical form or stages of life, what endures, what lasts beyond the body, is the one sustainable life-source that powers the universe: love. In the beginning, in the end, and in between, that’s all there is.