Grieving for What Wasn’t

Image by John Morgan
Image by John Morgan

Recently, I realized that I have been going through a subtle process of grieving. I say subtle because it’s not as if I experienced a more obvious and tangible loss. No one close to me died, my personal relationships seem to be doing well, and my life has been quite enjoyable and fulfilling. So, it took me a while to realize that what I was observing wasn’t just a mood.

As the reality of grieving settled in, I began to examine: What was I grieving? What was the loss? Often, an aspect of grieving the loss of something – regardless of cause – includes acknowledging the loss of a hoped for future. We build dreams, and then we’re faced with the reality that these dreams are no longer possible. At least not in the shape and form we hoped for.

I’m not someone who is easily prone to regret and remorse, but over the last couple of years, I have come to recognize a deep and pervading guilt. What I see is guilt over what I am not, what I have failed to accomplish, and doubting my value and usefulness in this lifetime. I realize that I am grieving the loss of a hoped for past. The dreams that I had that would validate my continued choice to remain unemployed that never materialized.

As a feminist, I am still a bit taken aback by how my lifestyle has manifested. But, that too is an example of how we shape our identities based on cultural and contextual beliefs, judgments, and expectations. If you would’ve asked me prior to this: Are you someone basing your life choices on expectations? I would have answered with a resounding NO! And, there is another delusion uncovered. My liberal mind is just as susceptible to external conditioning as a conservative. And there goes the rebel in me; exit left.

In Buddhism, we are frequently reminded that our identities do not represent who we truly are. “Not me, not mine” is a common phrase many of us use to foster an ability to simply observe, experience, and let go as opposed to avoiding, denial, and aversion. We attempt to not attach and become what we are feeling. Attaching to identity stops the process of growth and sustains suffering.

For me, one of the strongest themes in this lifetime is a desire for personal and spiritual growth. Even though I told myself that not being employed was a choice for what really matters, I just couldn’t shed the ingrained conditioning that somehow in some way I was wasting my life and screwing up. I realize that frequently I discount the skillful choices I make due to a sense of not measuring up. Consequently, I understand that I am far more attached to a conventional reality and the identity that creates than I like to admit.

Enter community and monastics in my life. This was a real game changer for me. It’s as if just hanging out with monks validates, on a deep level, so many of my life choices! Hence, I experience the realization of deep guilt that I have been carrying and burdening myself with. I start to see the illusion of old excuses and how they serve no purpose but suffering and dukkha. I start to glimpse the self-created hell I have sentenced myself to as I realize the limitations that I’ve created and placed on myself and my life. I acknowledge the prison that I sent myself to even though no crime has been committed.

Suffering really is optional. The reality is that if I am genuinely committed to a path of Buddhism, then I am required to believe that liberation is not only possible, but attainable. I am asked to take responsibility for how I feel, think, and behave without attaching to or denying any of it. I am called upon to free myself from the prison of my mind.

What really amazes me is how diligent the mind can be at discounting what is fulfilling in the name of supporting a lack perspective. It’s as if I can’t be trusted to make responsible choices, so I have to limit the value of that which does not fit within the more acceptable life view. It’s ironic really and quite amusing. Once again, I have another testimony to how easily the mind can trick us with politicking and marketing.

Image by Sohil Patel
Image by Sohil Patel

Here’s the good news: Recognizing, observing, and experiencing all of the above leads to realization. Another identity and defilement is exposed creating space and energy for transcending and healing. The truth is: I am sitting at the doorway of amazing opportunity. I have created a life that is everything I could ask for in spite of all the feelings of inadequacy and guilt! I can see the bars on the jail cell for what they are: Self-created dukkha! All I need to do is step out, enjoy the freedom, and remember that expectations, especially the subtle ingrained and less obvious ones, are simply another hindrance to happiness and well-being.

As the grieving process comes to an end, healing and opportunity abound! Out of the muck comes beauty.

© Sallie Odenthal 2014

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