Have you ever had the experience of having come back from a good break to bad news? The contrast is so strong that somehow the event is magnified in one’s mind. What happened to that break? At least that was my experience in coming home from my break to hear that my aunt, my last surviving close elder relative in my small family, had died.
What I’ve noticed is a range of some classic emotions around loss and the grief cycle, shock, a false sense of energy and efficiency often labelled as denial, a more pronounced response including anger layered with upset, and a more generalised depression. I have worked with huge numbers of people in this whole field of loss, change, bereavement, transition, grief and new beginnings, especially in work and in people’s jobs. For example people grieve over a loss of job or a restructuring. And here it was happening for me. In the process, I was also dealing with material issues arising from the death, in particular the will which had been changed, and with others members of the extended family whom I would not normally deal with, accompanied by the surfacing of old agendas and unfinished business between us. In between that was the fact of someone, my mother’s sister, having died and what that meant for each of us with her and her with each of us. My rational self was saying, “John, you need to rise above this, to witness it, to return to your centred place”. My ego was having none of that and indulging itself in old patterns. And somewhere underneath was the hurt little boy in pain.
In the 80/20 principle, we can live our lives as we intend 80% but there are likely to be times when we don’t, maybe the 20%. It’s important to be aware of that and not give oneself a hard time when some of the 20% kicks in. This is where mindfulness or awareness, the ability to stay connected to the witness state is so important, however tenuous that may seem at times. What is so crucial, I believe, is to know that when I lose it, that is not who I am, that is my ego, ahamkara in Sanscrit, the limited self. The ego is one who I may falsely identify with, who I might think I am. By keeping my awareness, my witness, alive, I can at some point recognise and let go of the drama and return to a centred state.
Even when we may feel we’ve lost it, we haven’t, and we need not feel that somehow we’ve failed and that all this self-development stuff is a waste of time. Keeping and sustaining our practices and our mindfulness enables us to reassert our intentions, recognise and let go of the ego stuff and reaffirm our commitment to our path.
In grief situations of course it is not at all as simple as stated here. The emotions simmer and reappear. But if we are aware of how grief works and if we hold to our practice of awareness or mindfulness, what I call witnessing, we can work to be aware of each bubbling up of the ego and stay connected.
To me, the art of being a witness is central to self-development as I understand it. The moment when I notice what I’m up to at an ego level is the moment when I can notice myself in action. I can learn more about that in meditation. When I notice myself, I have already started to reconnect to that part of me which is always aware. That part is a calm part, a still part, often a joyous part. It does not judge, that’s more ego. It accepts. It is peaceful. It simply notices. It sits in the background of my awareness and reminds me that my dramas are not who I am. “I am not my ego. I am more than my ego. I am not my dramas. I am more than my dramas”.
Who that centred part is, is of course a matter of one’s own journey of discovery. Such is the mystery of life.