I used to be (and sometimes still am) a very talented emotional “stuffer.” I could stuff with the best of them, put on a stoic face, and keep going like nothing was happening.
Years ago when my mother passed away, I was so resistant to appearing grief-stricken that I unconsciously arranged my face into a neutral expression. (Or, at least I thought it was a neutral expression. In hindsight, I’m sure it wasn’t.) One day when I came home from work, I finally realized that my face was incredibly tense to the point of pain from the effort at holding the mask. I had to stand in front of the mirror and massage my jaw and forehead for 30 minutes to get them to relax. Even that wasn’t enough — I was holding too much inside.
Weeks later, I attended a yoga workshop at a hotel out of town that was focused on opening the heart center. In that kind of practice, there are a lot of poses and breath work practices that help open the rib cage. This often includes back bends, which force the muscles around the lungs to open and relax.
In yogic practice, and in many other spiritual philosophies around the world, certain emotional experiences are attributed to different parts of the body. While this used to be considered new age quackery, more and more scientific research confirms the role of unexpressed, or “stuffed” emotions, and their effects on the body.
The teacher explained that, according to yogic tradition, the lungs and the rib cage are where we hold our grief and our sadness. In Chinese medicine, the strength of the body’s immune system response depends on the health of lungs and the colon, and their ability to work together.
As I listened, I thought about how much strength it takes to hold in the random bouts of crying that strike you in the midst of intense grief. You know when you try not to cry? And you kind of do this thing where you hold your breath and try not to move, as if you can keep it inside by staying very still? That creates muscle tension in your diaphragm (the muscle underneath your lungs that helps them expand and contract) and the muscles around your rib cage.
I was just getting into my practice at the time, so back bends were new to me. We did three in a row. They released so much emotion, and so quickly, that I barely made it to my hotel room before collapsing into racking sobs that I had clearly been holding in for weeks. It was painful and unpleasant, like a surprise thunderstorm — sudden, violent. But the feeling afterwards was as if I had been cleansed of things that were not in my interest to hold.
It strikes me that this pandemic so deeply affects the lungs of the people who are infected.
I believe that everything is connected. I believe that nothing happens in our physical world that doesn’t also happen in our emotional world, our mental world, and our spiritual world. One of my greatest teachers told me years ago that every illness we experience starts in the subtler bodies first, those emotional, mental, and spiritual fields around us that make up our energy body. I’m not asking you to agree with anything in this paragraph, and I realize that some of you just rolled your eyes so hard you sprained them, but I want you to understand the beliefs that inform this piece. You don’t have to agree to consider the ideas.
I hesitate in bringing spirituality into it at all — I’m not sure that spiritualizing this pandemic helps. In my newsfeed, there have been a lot of posts where the writer asserts that this is a great awakening, even though we have no idea what the fallout will be, and it’s a bit early to be making that call. Unfortunately, it’s equally as likely that things will go back to business as usual when this is all said and done.
Even with my reservations about assigning meaning to this event, I can’t help but wonder what kind of collective grief we’re holding onto. Maybe it’s sadness at our inability to value one another as equals. Maybe it’s rage at the disparity between people, and the collective unwillingness to do anything about it. Maybe it’s despair at the state of our planet and the lack of care that our leadership shows for it. (Already, leaders around the world, including our own in the US, are changing the rules while everyone is distracted, and no there is little we can do to fight it).
It’s not only old grief that we’re experiencing. As noted grief expert David Kessler says in a piece on grief in Harvard Business Review, it’s our grief at a collective loss of a way of life. While this will end, like 9/11, things will probably never go back to the way they were — and this will likely not be the last pandemic we face. He writes that we’re experiencing,
[T]he loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection… We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. [W]e’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain…. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this…. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.
We are in the middle of incredible uncertainty. We’re facing down waves of destruction, and some of us are already experiencing it deeply. It feels like it’s impossible to tackle things on the macro level, especially in the midst of intense emotion. But we can still act. As writer Aldous Huxley once said,
“I wanted to change the world, but I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.”
As for myself, the silver lining to this has been that I’ve resurrected a yoga practice that had become sporadic. It’s not just a luxury anymore. It’s become a necessary piece of my day, a way to regulate and move some of the emotion out of my body. And you can bet I’m doing a lot of back bends.
While I’m leery of doling out advice left and right, I have to say that I think the best we can all do is to start with ourselves.
Feel your feelings to their fullest expression.
You know that scene in Frozen II, when Kristoff’s proposal to Ana goes awry and he realizes she’s gone? Then Sven the Reindeer tries to help him out and sings “You feel what you feel, and your feelings are real. Come on Kristoff, let down your guard.” And Kristoff finally expresses his feelings in epic song form that calls to mind 80s rock ballads. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you must add it to your queue). Then, having emotionally expressed himself, he goes off into the woods in search of his lady love, having released his emotional burdens.
You don’t have to emotionally release in song form (but that might be cool). Just don’t do the stoic stuff.
Let yourself ugly cry if that’s what you need.
This is not the time for holding onto your feelings — now is the time to fully feel them and let them go.