But last month, I got off track. Things got difficult. My relationships suffered. My part-time job suffered. The compassionate space I usually hold for others shrunk and I felt very caught up in the dramas inside my body and mind. For the first time in a while, I actually felt despair. And I thought, “Seriously? Despair? I don’t have enough bad things in my life to feel despair!” I also had no context for working through it, since it’s an emotion that our culture fears, holding it at arms length, turning it into a clinical diagnosis, and throwing anti-depressants at it.
On a field trip in college, we went to the Berkeley Pit. The Pit is an old copper mine in Butte, Montana. It is more than a mile wide and feels like a mile deep. Birds flock to the water-filled bottom on their migrational flight, only to be killed instantly by the acidic conditions of the water. The mine created the biggest Superfund site in the entire US, largely due to the trailings that polluted the Clark Fork River downstream. When I stood on the side of the pit, I felt the despair of the earth and her creatures and was stunned to shock.
Sometimes, I feel like there is a hole inside of me where despair resides. Lots of little things build until the whole tower falls and becomes despair — the challenge living my values, maintaining my relationships, working on projects that feel like a waste of time so I can pay the bills while I try to make my dreams fill my bank account. Cultural despair, the fights of freedom and equality for all above bigotry and intolerance. Environmental despair, as I watch the health of the planet deteriorate along with the health of human bodies and cry out in frustration as we fail to see the connection.
We live in a time when cultural, environmental, racial and social despair is real. Yet we don’t allow ourselves to feel it because it’s so painful and there are such wonderful distractions — social media, reality TV, happy hour, legalized marijuana, porn, exercise, gossip, movies and CNN.
Some days, I can watch this pit of despair as any other energy that I would watch and manage. I notice how it’s influenced, how it grows, what makes it bigger, what lessens its impact, and how I can channel this despair and transform it toward positive emotion and action. Other days, I feel raw. I feel like I can see every inequity, every shadow side, every hard line and each piece of trash on the highway. On days like those, it is easy to think that I AM despair, or that the despair is me.
Emotions are real. The create chemical changes in our bodies and we feel different with different emotions. The stronger the emotion, the more it screams for our attention until we may start to feel like our emotion is our reality, that we ARE the emotion. But we’re not. We are not our emotions, any more than we are our bodies. They belong to us, like the clothes that we wear, but they are not us.
We are spirits, energetic beings, in human bodies having human experiences. When we can remember this, really remember it, then we can start the process of detaching just enough from our emotions so that we can begin the process of emotional alchemy — transforming darker emotions like fear, despair and grief into things like hope, faith and joy. But first we must remember that our true nature is spirit so that we can detach just enough to see that the emotion belongs to us but isn’t who we are.
We are love, light, pure consciousness combined with pure potential for action and creativity. We are the creative force in the Universe and also the watcher of the creation. We live in human bodies — just like any place we live, we are bound in some way by the structure around us. If we live in an apartment, for example, we have limited space to create gardens or grow food. If we live in the country, we might have miles between our nearest neighbor. Similarly, living as spirits in human bodies has it’s limitations. We must experience time linearly, whereas our spirits do not. We experience physical and emotional pain, drama, betrayal and violence. We are confined to the ideas of the mind that tell us that we’re separate, alone, too much of one thing and not enough of the other. Sometimes it can feel that our bodies or minds are out to get us, that they are pushing us around.
Luckily, we have the ability not only to experience life inside a body and mind but also to observe it. We have the ability to detach from the pain for just a moment and to recognize that we aren’t the pain, it’s just an experience that we’re having. This can help us detach from the story that our mind tells us about our pain and form a new context and story about our experience as a human.
If we can learn to detach, watch and tell a new story, we can start to thread together a tapestry for our lives that weaves together a stronger framework for understanding our lives. We may not finish the tapestry, but we can weave beautiful patterns of truth as we go.