Dear Dr. Rettger,
I am 54 and ending my second marriage. I want to find a new relationship eventually, but now I don’t trust myself or my instincts about people. I seem to pick people—husbands and friends—that only take from our relationship and are not willing to be there for me when I need support.
I thank you for writing in and asking such a powerful question that I think gives voice to deeply human concerns that we all are in some way living with. As I see them, they are concerns of love, self-acceptance, compassion, and trust, as well as belongingness and community. I am going to address these concerns while embracing your question within a framework of mindful grieving. The process of mindful grief came up for me when thinking about your question because you are ending a marriage. I will do my best to offer you some clear steps to take utilizing the tools of meditation and mindfulness during this difficult time.
Let’s enter our discussion of mindful grieving and letting go. As human beings it is our nature to form relationships and attachments. We all want to find and have a relationship that will last forever. We must, however, recognize that part of our human condition is loss. One of the most challenging forms of loss is that of a romantic partner. Because of the healthy formation of attachment, there are a lot of different emotions that surround loss, and therefore we must go through a healing process of grief or bereavement.
It is absolutely essential to give yourself sacred space and permission to grieve the fullness of your loss. One has to also realize that loss is multifaceted. This means that there is the loss of the actual person, and there is also the loss of all of the imagined possibilities. Grief is also a process that does not have clear endpoint either. In some cases elements of grief will always remain present, and that is not a bad thing. It also is not really possible to put a specific timetable on the grief process. Unfortunately our mainstream culture does not always recognize the complexity of grief and provide the needed supports for healing. Sometimes there is a desire to simply “muscle through it” or “get over it” without the deeper psychological work occurring. As a psychologist, I warn against any whisking away of emotions. Instead, I invite you to treat this grieving process as sacred. I encourage you to recognize this is a time for you to reconnect to yourself, to define what your own values are, and when ready to reestablish your being in the world in a way that is authentically aligned with those values. All of the above now being said, let’s dive deeper into the process of mindful grieving.
Grieving with mindfulness involves “mourning and letting go of the past without expectation, fear, censure, blame, shame, control, and so forth,” as defined by the Jungian, transpersonal and spiritually-oriented psychotherapist, David Richo, Ph.D. It is wise in your circumstance to acknowledge the existence of the full range of feelings that you are having. Even though I cannot be aware of all of the emotions that you are having right now, I hear in your question that you believe you are not able to choose healthy relationships, establish boundaries and also perhaps you have a fear of never being able to find a solid partner. I want to assure you that I believe we all have had similar emotions during times of loss and transition. I know I have. This recognition, that you are not alone in this kind of suffering, is a key element of building cultivating self-compassion. It is the realization that countless others, at this very moment, are also grappling with loss and deeply longing for authentic relationship. This realization by itself may not provide much hope however. This is where the path of meditation and yoga can prove useful, both intellectually and also experientially.
Yoga and meditation are paths that encourage us to deepen our relationship with ourselves through refining body, mind, and spirit. By connecting to the self through meditation practice, we come to discover that we are inherently lovable. We come to realize how truly amazing and sacred our very own body is. How all of this time we were mistaken in our belief that we are not good enough exactly as we already are. This is how meditation teaches us self-acceptance and trust. Of course getting to this place or realization may take time, require patience and the assistance of an experience teacher.
I’d like to also say that through my practice I have come to truly believe that, despite evidence to the contrary that we are often overwhelmed by in the press, all humans are destined to be beings of love and always moving towards pure, unconditional love. I cannot think of a higher purpose in our human existence other than to love deeply, unconditionally, and to love with every particle of our being. This realization alone does not offer immediate remedy from the many maladies of our times. It is our duty however to live a path of love that is caring first toward our own self, and then extending that care outward to eventually reach all of creation. I say all of this because the challenges and despair of the grieving process can overlay a thick veil of hurt, denial, and darkness over your heart. I encourage you to stay connected to and intentionally remind yourself toward this bright light of love that eternally burns in your own heart while you must also invite in the full grieving process. This is the journey toward a kind of “rebirth.” What is the path toward this rebirth?
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In psychology and meditation, there usually are many rivers to reach the same ocean. Since I cannot articulate them all here, I will offer you one such path. I encourage you to create some form of a safe, healthy, sacred ritual to signify the ending of this marriage and the birthing of something new. In the appendix of his book How to Be An Adult in Relationships, David Richo offers beautiful guidelines on how to create a “grief ritual.” I want to point out however, that it may be that this process is too difficult to go about alone, in which case I would advise working through this ritual with a licensed therapist or qualified spiritual guide or counselor.
The first step is “Acknowledgement.” Richo suggests journaling to acknowledge the entirety of your painful experiences and record your grieving process. Meditation can support you in this process by helping you to unearth the deeper emotions, the fears, worries, anxieties that may be lurking in the far corners of the psyche. By taking time to consciously sit and invite everything (thoughts, emotions, body sensations, mental images, etc.) that is there to arise, be seen, and be held in a space of abundant compassion, you will have the opportunity to gain the wisdom and power of self-awareness and unconditional self-acceptance.
The second step is what Richo calls “Abolishing.” This step may involve the burning or destruction of the journal pages. You may consider using environmentally-friendly paper so you can bury the remaining ashes beneath a tree or with pair them in their burial with plant seeds to sprout new growth. Another way of working this step would be to use the power of the ocean to wash away the ashes. There is a special power in using the elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Air, etc.) in ritual to join your energy to the energy of the Great Mother Earth. This beautifully symbolizes our belongingness to the Earth as our true home.
Richo’s third step is “Renewing.” This involves creating affirmations that truly symbolize the release of your past. They recognize the authentic resolution of your grievances, and your commitment to move forward in your life with happiness, liberation, and gracefulness. I encourage you to move as slowly as you need to through the stages of this ritual. It is best not to rush your healing as a rushed process will not hold power.
The final step in this Richo’s process is “Giving Back.” As the intensity of the grief process begins to ease, Richo suggests “joy, release, and healing” emerges. These positive energies are born of your work and of the bountiful grace of the Universe. The Universe is always here to support you. This is your opportunity to create more meaning in your life, to make sense out of your emotions, to broaden your life context and to bring your healing process into the world by giving the world the gift of you. It may be that you engage in volunteer work or offer support to other women as they struggle through divorce or separation, or give to charity.
Before I end our discussion, I want to address your concern of choosing healthy relationships. A critical part of being on this life journey is to have fellow travelers. This is even more essential during times of tribulation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a safe, supportive, and loving community around you. I also recognize how difficult that is in our modern era. There is so much isolation and dissociative uses of technology that wedges distance between human beings. It is our job to recognize it and not let it stand in the way of a warm hug, or joining arms with a friend. When I think of you, Kerry, my intuition suggests that finding a women’s group or circle in your area may be of incredible value for you during this time. Further, I invite you to view this critical junction in your life as your version of what the mythologist Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey.” Perhaps with the end of this second marriage you are becoming aware that the Universe has sent you a “Call to Adventure.” This is a time in which you can evoke the timeless archetypal energy of the Hero. Campbell’s research suggests that a common step along every mythological journey is to have allies and helpers. Think of the “Wizard of Oz” and Dorothy’s support system! As you embark of this new journey of self-discovery and creation of a new life for yourself you will need wise council. Other possible ways of connecting to wise community may be through trying out different meditation and yoga centers. I encourage you to use your intuition and discernment in forming your council. Even spiritual circles suffer from unacknowledged and unprocessed shadow elements of the psyche. If you doubt your ability to filter out dangerous personalities, then have a trusted friend offer input on your screening process or consult with and process your experiences with a qualified and licensed therapist. Psychologytoday.com is an excellent resource for locating qualified therapists in your area.
I truly wish you the best on your journey. Namaste.