Part of mindfulness practice is to have a nonjudgmental acceptance of how things are, right now, in this very moment. Seems simple enough. However, I have found that hidden beneath this nonjudgmental, accepting mindset—way down deep, in places within me I’d often rather not go—is still a yearning desire for everything to be the way I’d prefer it to be. When I become so tired, just emotionally and physically overwhelmed, is when this yearning surfaces and makes itself most known.
Tired. That word barely scratches the surface of the mental exhaustion I experience at times. A metaphor I have found useful in describing these experiences is that of a swimmer, far out at sea, desperately treading water while waiting to be rescued. There are times when this swimmer experiences a rush of adrenaline, and fresh energy pulses through his body, allowing him to easily tread water and keep his head above the waves. During this time he feels rejuvenated, hope and determination are at their strongest. Then, as time passes, and the waves continue to rise, and there’s no sign of rescue, the swimmer’s arms begin to tire, then his legs, then every muscle throughout his body seems to scream out in pain and exhaustion. During these times the swimmer must summon all the strength within him just to keep his head above the water. Waves overwhelm him, the water chokes him, and thoughts begin to cross his mind that maybe giving up isn’t so bad. Maybe there will be peace and rest if he just succumbs to the exhaustion. Maybe the pain will finally go away if he just gives up and allows himself to gently ease into the darkness below him. These are dark days.
Struggling through dark days
Right or wrong, I have come to accept these experiences as part of my life. These dark days seem to be as much a part of me as the tide is a part of the ocean’s ebb and flow. These dark days have been with me for almost 30 years now, coming and going, rising and ebbing. I must admit that it’s during these dark days that my deep yearning for things to be the way I prefer them to be is at its strongest. I don’t want to accept this. All the teachings on mindfulness, acceptance, loving-kindness—all seem shallow, dreary, and at times, almost repulsive. Because it seems that no matter how hard I try, I always seem to find myself struggling to just keep my head above water. I grow weary, and long for peace.
Why hang on during these days? That’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times over. I believe I would have long ago succumbed to this exhaustion and eased into the darkness if it were not for one simple realization. Sadly, it took a long while for me to truly grasp the depths of this realization. Part of the reason has to do with the mindset I’m entangled in when caught in the throes of the dark days.
During the dark days, it seems as if I’ve never experienced a happy day. It feels as if the heavy weariness I’m drowning in will forever be present, consuming me. During the dark days I doubt I’ll ever experience peace, love, acceptance or understanding ever again. When the dark days are at their worst, I don’t even long for peace, love, or even some form of heaven or paradise. Instead, I long for non-consciousness, or a state in which there is a total lack of awareness—nothingness.
The simple, yet profound, realization of impermanence
The realization I came to did not change my felt experience during the dark days, rather, it changed my relationship with those times. I slowly came to accept that while I seemed incapable of preventing those dark days from coming, I could have some control over the way I related to those days.
The simple, seemingly obvious understanding that I came to, and in many ways desperately grasped and clung to, was that the feelings I experience during those dark days, are not going to last forever. That simple. At some point in time, I’m going to feel refreshed, alive and rejuvenated.
Now, I understand those who think that my realization is about as obvious and significant as the realization that water is wet. In my defense, however, I cannot stress how powerful and overwhelming the belief is that I will always feel as I do when caught in those dark days. The belief that the feelings will last forever is just as strong and intense as is the desire to quench one’s thirst with salt water when lost at sea. Furthermore, I have come to realize that the most profound truths are oftentimes little more than simple truths experienced at a deep level. Now when the feelings seem overwhelming, I can take comfort in the truth that they will change.
When the dark days decide to visit now, I try to have as much self-care and self-compassion as I can. At a practical level, this means that I try to avoid depressing movies, depressing music and I limit the amount of news I watch as well. I no longer try to force myself into doing meditation or reading material pertaining to meditation or spiritual practice.
After many years, I’ve come to accept that the dark days have a way of teaching me lessons that are profoundly different from the methods often found in the “meditative lifestyle.” This was a difficult lesson to accept. In the belief I had constructed, I was supposed to be and act a certain way if I claimed to be a practitioner of mindfulness meditation. Thankfully, I was able to abandon that belief and come to accept the path I am on, a path where dark days provide difficult, uncomfortable teachings.
Lessons from the dark: One definite reason to avoid suicide
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”—Rumi.
What lessons, insight, or wisdom have the dark days blessed me with? One of the first insights I was fortunate enough to comprehend was the depth of my love for my children. During one of my psychology classes years ago, a professor stated that the suicide of a parent doubles the risk of suicide in the children. I must admit I’ve never researched the issue to confirm if what he said was accurate. The complete accuracy of the statement was not my concern. Instead, I focused upon the truth that if I decided to end my life, the pain and suffering that I experience and that I’m trying to escape, would then be borne within the hearts and minds of my children. The fear of that happening is beyond all comprehension. I could not stand to bring that upon my children. I then made up my mind, that if I must continue to suffer so that my children do not, then I will gladly do so. Without realizing, I had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the most profound teachings found within many of the great religions.
According to Christian teachings, Christ endured the crucifixion, he endured the suffering, so that others did not have to suffer. According to Mahayana Buddhist teachings, one of the highest forms of bodhicitta, loosely translated as love, is having the desire and willingness to take others’ suffering upon oneself. What I surprisingly discovered was that the dark days, when viewed differently, actually provided me with the opportunity to gain a deeper and richer understanding of these profound spiritual teachings.
I found this insight to be not only helpful to me, but helpful to those with whom I worked with in therapy sessions. Whenever I started to work with a new client who was feeling depressed and suicidal, one of the first questions I asked was what has kept them from following through with the desire to end their life.
“Because I can’t do that to my family,” was the answer given almost every time. I would then calmly, and with great confidence, inform my client that there was good news. I told them that even though they feel as miserable as they do, they had working within them the highest form of love, a love that says, “I will suffer, so you do not.” With that love working within them I insisted, depression had little chance of completely overwhelming them. On almost every occasion that I said those words to a client, a look of hope and relief would flash across their face. My dark days had taught me how to bring relief and hope to those who were intensely suffering.
Comfortable with suffering
Another unexpected, somewhat ironic lesson I learned from those dark days was that I had become comfortable with suffering, mine as well as with others. To end someone’s suffering was no longer my goal in therapy. Instead, I took a lesson from the Book of Job found within the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Job, the main character, Job, experienced a degree of loss and suffering few, if any, could ever compare with.
Within a few short hours, Job lost all of his children, all of his servants, all of his livestock, and eventually he lost his health as well. Three friends went to be by Job’s side. The scriptures state that the friends sat with Job in his suffering, without saying a word, for thirty days. Unfortunately, after the thirty days, the friends decided to speak and of course said all the wrong things. They were determined to fit Job’s suffering into a construct they could understand. The idea of an innocent person suffering was incomprehensible to them. By the end of the story, God has Job offer sacrifices for the three friends due to all the ignorant statements they had made.
I took a couple of lessons away from this:
- First, you can’t seem to go wrong when you’re willing to quietly sit with someone in their suffering and resist the temptation to explain it away or rationalize it.
- Second, sometimes suffering has a meaning far beyond our understanding, and it’s best to allow suffering to do the work it’s intended to do. I realize the second is a statement of faith, but it’s what I have come to believe as true.
These insights have affected the way I do therapy in two ways:
- First, I resist the urge to see suffering as an enemy, or a form of cancer, that must be eradicated, cut out and discarded.
- Second, I want to hear what a client’s suffering may be saying. What difficult life lessons are being seared into the client’s mind and inner being? To accomplish this, I must be comfortable with suffering; I must be open to its expressions and willing to sit close with it, to welcome it as a revered teacher.
I cannot say that I enjoy my dark days. I admit that I would rather have learned these lessons in a manner not quite as difficult. However, part of mindfulness practice is being open and accepting to what reality and life are presenting us with. That reality may not be comfortable, it’s likely not what we prefer, it may in fact be filled with what seems to be unbearable pain and suffering—but it will pass. Laughter will come again, as well as sadness and loss again. It’s a part of the path.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“There is the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain; what others hear from your words is so distant and different from what you are actually suffering.” – John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom