In yoga, we talk all the time about “letting go”. Let go of what no longer serves you, let go of what is weighing you down, let go of attachment, let go of ego, let go of thoughts, let go of everything and surrender to what IS.
But what happens when your world is so fundamentally turned upside down and inside out that you’re freefalling, and things are so BAD that you desperately need to HANG ON for dear life to something (anything!!!) that keeps you from succumbing to total and complete despair?
How do you surrender to senseless tragedy, when accepting what IS simply does not seem like a viable option?
How do you LET GO of losing a loved one, especially when the loss is so sudden and senseless that letting them go (again) after they’re already gone seems impossible? When all you have left of that person are memories and emotions that are attacking you from the inside out? Does yoga have an answer for THAT? Does anyone?
A few weeks ago while I was still in India in the middle of my yoga teacher training, one of my closest friends lost her brother under horrific circumstances. The fact that her father had recently passed away not too long ago was already tragic, but reading her gut-wrenching message to me regarding her brother’s death was by far one of the most horrible and senseless losses I’d ever heard of.
All I could do was cry in silence (during a no-talking morning at the yoga compound) and scramble to find something, ANYTHING, of comfort to console my friend with. I came up short. There were no words, literally or figuratively. My fingers hovered above my keyboard, frozen. I had nothing.
Later on that day, I was sitting (very upright, under duress) in a Philosophy of Yoga class. Although I had managed to tune out most of the lecture, something the teacher said penetrated through my silent ruminations. She was talking about the yamas and nyamas (a series of “right living” rules within Hinduism and Yoga), and going through the various moral commitements that affect the yogis’ relationships with themselves and the world around them. All I heard was: “In the middle of difficulty there is opportunity…”
While I would normally agree with this, hearing it at THAT particular moment simply pissed me off.
My hand shot up, and I asked Vyriam (a quite enlightened, wise lady who seemed to have all the answers to any extistential question ever asked) :“What if that difficulty is so senseless and horrible that there IS no opportunity whatsoever, nada, no lesson, no gain, no silver lining, no growth to be had? What then? Hmmmmm?”
And then I proceeded to (vaguely) describe my friend’s horror story. I explained her inability to make any sort of sense of what had happened (despite the fact that this friend is a true yogi, armed with all the wisdom yoga has to offer), and more than well-equipped with yogic wisdom and spirituality to deal with anything life has thrown at her thus far in a wise and graceful manner. Anything, that is, except THIS.
All the mantras, breathing, wisdom, EVERYTHING yoga had to offer fell short. What now? And then, the most surprising thing of all happened: the teacher (a proverbial fountain of wisdom and knowledge) tried, and failed to come up with an answer.
What she DID do was share with us the fact that recently, she too had recently lived through a tragedy, and she felt that yoga had failed her in dealing with it.
After having accumulated decades of quasi-enlightenment, spiritual growth and detachment from the monkey mind, she suddenly found herself unable to deal with her situation in any sort of spiritual or philosophical manner. All the yoga in the world would not come through, when she felt she needed it the most.
She had a hard time stepping onto her mat. Once there, she would burst into tears and get right off it. She actually admitted (outloud!!!) that for a time, she was “mad at yoga”. All she COULD do was go through her life day by day, as we all do, and hope that time would eventually do it’s thing and help her “let go”, little by little. She held a grudge against yoga for quite some time, until she felt she was ready to let the grudge go. It took a while. A very long while.
Which leads us to the next logical question: where does all that stuff that you “let go” of actually GO, anyways?
There’s a whole lot of space out there to accommodate all our discarded mental and emotional baggage. Here are some perspective-inducing tidbits about how much space there actually IS, and how little of it we occupy.
There are more stars in existence than grains of sand on all the world’s beaches.
That’s a lot of stars. Humans (that’s us!) are all made out of the same stuff that stars are made of. Earth has been around for over 4 billion years, but us humans have only inhabited it for a miniscule fraction of that time. As far as space goes, we take up very little in the vastness of the universe.
Our galaxy is so huge, humankind can’t even venture outside of it, not even hypothetically. Yet, as far as we know, there are thousands (yeah right, millions) of galaxies just like ours, each containing BILLIONS of stars and planets. That’s in the “observable” universe, which looks like this:
If the universe is infinite, that means it goes on FOREVER. We can’t fathom what forever looks like, because we don’t have any knowable point of reference to which we can compare it. Everything we know, see or conjure up (even with our “advanced” technology) has a boundary. A limit, if you will. There’s always an enclosure, a fence, or an extremity. As far as the eye can see, or the mind can imagine. Yet imagination is limited by our senses, which in turn are limited by what we have experienced, read about, heard about, or watched.
All that we see or experience, as humans, has a visible boundary: a horizon, a door, a skyline, or a page we turn in a book.
The human brain, by nature, is wired to make sense of the world by things it can measure or quantify. In other words, by things which it KNOWS.
So, we are limited, by definition, by what we are exposed to. We can’t fathom the “infinite”, because we have never seen anything without a boundary. Our very existence is made up of boundaries. We can be in the most remote place on earth, and we will still see a horizon, a mountain-top, or a cloud.
So, to sum up, you can’t describe the indescribable, by describable means. The only ways humans can imagine or convey heaven, hell, being, non-being, the ultimate unknown, or WHATEVER, are through means we know, which inherently have physical limits: painting, drawing, poetry, movies, virtual reality, videogames, text messages, all have frames, beginnings, ends, and physical enclosures.
Maybe the answer in dealing with something we CAN’T explain through concepts we know (such as death, which nobody ever comes back from), is to surrender to NOT KNOWING. The reason we are so collectively freaked out by death is because NOBODY COMES BACK from it.
It’s an inevitable fact of life, yet the greatest source of fear in human existence. Why is that?
I’ll tell you: it’s because we have zero control over it, and no way to explain, quantify, justify, rationalize, control or understand it. It’s both undescribable, and unquantifiable. It’s the ultimate lack of control. It mirrors both our helplessness, and our ignorance. And THAT is a hard pill to swallow.
Maybe the universe, and all it’s unexplainable “stuff”, knows something we don’t. Maybe we can take some comfort, however small, in the incomprehensible mass of black holes and question marks that I have to believe possess more wisdom than our logical Earth-minds do.
It’s almost too easy to blame ourselves or others for things we might have done or not have done to prevent a tragedy. “If only I’d done this”, if only “I’d have said that”, then maybe this would have happened differently, or not happened at all. We can go in circle after circle with this circular blame game, but ultimately it doesn’t help anything because we JUST DON’T KNOW.
So, let the blame go – it’s not serving you, it doesn’t help anyone, and there are loads of vacancies out there to accommodate it.
Trying to answer what we will never know with ideas we THINK we know won’t make the pain go away.
It will just make us really sad or really pissed off. Either way, it will take time away from us. And time is precious. We don’t have that much of it to begin with. So stop wasting it on the guilt game.
Maybe the things we DON’T see or can’t grasp hold all the answers. Maybe in cases like this, when we come up short with rational explanations for our deepest sadness and loss, we need to surrender to the unknown, and have hope that something bigger, better and wiser than us knows better.
Because when all our cognitive attempts at rationalizing the unrational fall short, all we have left is hope. Hope that there’s something bigger than ourselves that makes sense of a senseless situation.
I have no words of comfort for my friend, because words fall short in times like these. All I can do is choose to believe that anything is possible, and that is something I want to hang on to.
Some things are not worth letting go. Sometimes hanging on to hope and to an irrational faith in the vast wisdom and wonder of the universe seems like our best chance of making it through.
Until then, get back on your yoga mat. Even if you’re mad at it, even if you just sit on it and cry, just show up, breathe, and have hope in the unknown.
Now there’s something you can hang on to. At least, until you’re ready to let go.