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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Nine - Global Healing in a Brokenhearted World
Starting in the year 1992, I began to research emotional ecology by reading the news. I was looking at how large emotional currents move through world events; how the environmental crisis and mass violence affect our emotional lives; how emotions were reported in the media. Every morning, I read everything I could find about the kinds of events in the world that inspire the dark emotions of fear, grief, and despair. My family got used to seeing me reading while eating breakfast, marking off important articles with my red marker, shearing through the newspaper with my scissors.
I accumulated dozens of articles and organized them roughly into labeled folders: carriers and bystanders in the news, patriarchal violence, wars and civil strife, racism and hate crimes, worldwide poverty, dark emotions in the headlines, biomedical crimes, and ecocide. After a while, I began to feel like the protagonist in Doris Lessingís The Golden Notebook whose nervous breakdown was marked by her increasingly frantic clippings of dark news stories into a series of notebooks. I kept this up for a year, at which time I had a kind of breakdown of my ownómore physical than mental. But clearly there was a mind/body relationship here. For months, Iíd been experiencing increasing stomach pain. I paid it no mind and continued my obsessive vigil of world events. It wasnít until I was literally on the floor in intractable pain that it occurred to me to have this thing looked into.
A series of tests told me that I had an acute inflammation throughout my gastrointestinal tract. I could no longer eat without pain. In fact, I was in pain most of the time, but particularly just before, during, and after a meal. I became averse to eating. What little food I did take in was poorly absorbed, so I grew weaker. My energy level declined alarmingly until I could barely walk to my beloved Jamaica Pond and back (a distance of less than half a mile), much less the two-mile walk around it. Soon, walking two city blocks became a strain. I was well on my way to some kind of chronic fatigue syndrome, if not already in it.
Somewhere in the midst of this project, Iíd forgotten the first and most essential skill of emotional alchemy: attending to emotional energy with awareness. As a result, I lost my balance. Along with my cereal, I imbibed the tears and blood, loneliness, misery, trauma, and horror that is daily life for millions of people on the planet. In the telling language of body-metaphor, I ďcouldnít stomachĒ the pain of the world. I was not alchemizing the dark emotions, I was swallowing them whole.
It took me about a year to recover my health: a year of exacting attention paid to my dietónot just to what I ate and when I ate but how I ate. I had to retrain myself to eat calmly, to be in the present moment, to enjoy food again, and to give it time to digest properly. I did yoga, saw an acupuncturist, and returned to my lost meditation practice. I initiated a new family custom: taking three long breaths before eating each meal.
In the laboratory of my own body, I learned what happens to a carrier who ingests the globeís bad news and its attendant emotions with breakfast and doesnít circulate the energy through the heart, but lets it sink into the guts and stay there. The result was a fire that swept through my innards and left me weak as a dishrag. Everything that I wrote about in chapter 3 happened to me: grief devolved into chronic anxiety and a leaden, physical depression. Fear got lodged in my guts. Despair for the world sank me, body and soul.
After I got sick, I had to put away all thoughts of the world for some period of time, except when I held the world in my prayers. Iím more aware now of the merciful nature of emotional numbing and denial. I can see the compelling appeal of the fantasy of innocence: I want to believe that we can cultivate our own individual gardens at a distance from the world and live the good life. I wish that this were possible. Iím aware of my own need to screen out reality and live with blinders on. Iím aware that my capacity for emotional alchemy is sometimes quite limited. Iím aware of how much all of us, the wounded, the healers, and the wounded healers, need each otherís help, support, and guidance. We must be humble and learn from one another.
In the end, I threw all my news clippings away. I realized that there was no further need for more facts about how we are living in an age of global distress and terror, or how the human species is committing ecocide. We know this viscerally. Our bodies know. Our hearts know. And our souls know.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan