Everything Is Burning

Posted on in On Our Radar by Francis Weller

Tending to Our Grief in Overwhelming Times

These last few weeks have seen radical changes in the physical and psychic landscape of California. The fires that began in early November quickly engulfed homes and dreams, woodlands and security. Many awoke in the middle of the night to the acrid smell of smoke, sensing that something was wrong. Only later, with the dawn light, were they able to see the extent of this disturbing truth.

Everyone has been affected, whether we lost a loved one, a home, a beloved pet, our place of employment, a trail that we cherished, or simply our sense of faith in the ordinary assurances of daily life. No one in our various communities has been spared the sorrows that have fallen upon us like ash. We are living in a collective field of sorrows that will take a long time to metabolize.

How are we to respond when life confronts us with overwhelming circumstances? How can we hold all we are feeling when the source of the feelings is far beyond our ability to control? How do we recalibrate our inner lives to further the healing reflex of psyche in times of trauma? Here are a few offerings for a medicine kit for tending our souls during traumatic times.

  1. Practice self-compassion.

Times of great uncertainty call for a level of generosity to ourselves that can help to offset the effects of trauma that often envelop our emotional body. This must be our first and primary intention: to hold all that we are experiencing with compassion; to offer a safe place for our fears and grief to land.

We will not figure our way through this maze of grief and suffering. We must, instead, learn to turn toward our sorrows with kindness, tenderness, and affection. Lean in. Offer love, a touch of affection. We are all worthy of compassion and when we can turn toward our pain or grief with kindness, we open our hearts and grant the conditions necessary for healing.

  1. Turn toward the feelings.

There is no bypass or strategy of avoidance that can help resolve the difficult emotions we will encounter. Turning toward our suffering is essential. We must not only endure our times of pain and sorrow, hoping to get to the far shore of them, we must actively engage them and feel them fully. This move takes great courage. It is hard to open ourselves up to the painful emotions that await us without an adequate level of compassion and support.

To feel it fully, however, we require the arms and hearts of others, tethering us to a wider circle of belonging. The weight of grief and suffering that we are facing is more than we can hold in isolation. Be willing to share what has gathered in your heart with another. Call three or four friends together and share the communal cup of loss that we are all feeling in this uncertain time. Be mindful of how much conditioning we have received that tells us to go it alone; to not need anyone or bother anyone else with our struggles. “This is,” as one of my teachers said, “the solitary journey we cannot do alone.”

firefighters extinguish the fire
  1. Be astonished by beauty.

Trauma has a profound impact on our feelings of aliveness, often generating a state of numbness or anesthesia. This state protects us for a time from having to encounter the raw, searing emotions that often accompany trauma, but it also dulls our sensual engagement with all that surrounds us. At some point we will be required to meet the painful emotions and the sediment of sorrows that have accumulated around us. Beauty’s allure helps to open the full aperture of the heart. Sorrow and beauty side by side. The soul has a fundamental need for encounters with beauty. It is a central source of nourishment that continually renews our sense of vitality and awe.

  1. Patience.

Healing from trauma takes time. Patience offers a courtesy to the vulnerable pieces of soul life that have been splintered by the presence of trauma. Knitting a bone takes time. Mending the soul takes even longer. Be patient with your process. There is a deep wisdom in the soul that knows the value of going slowly. Stepping out of the manic pace of modern culture is essential to regain our footing in the world of soul. Patience is a discipline, a practice that offers assurance to the places of vulnerability and a ground for absorbing the benefits of our efforts.

The Buddha said, in one of his sermons, “Everything is burning.” In these extreme times, the truth of impermanence strikes at the very heart of our lives. Everything we hold dear—loved ones, homes, photos of family and ancestors, objects that hold a sense of the sacred—can all be gone in a flash. What remains are the bonds of love and friendship. What we witnessed during the smoke-filled days following the onset of the fires were acts of kindness, gestures of generosity, and a recognition that our lives are -mutually entangled with each other’s. May this spirit endure. May we find the courage we need to keep our hearts open to one another and to this wild, fragrant earth. Stay safe.

Francis Weller is a Sonoma County psychotherapist, soul activist, and author of the highly acclaimed The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (North Atlantic Books). Weller’s healing work of ritual has been introduced to thousands around the world and his writings have appeared in anthologies and journals exploring the confluence of psyche, nature, and culture. FrancisWeller.net

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