Am I Contributing to My Living or My Dying?
In 1996, I was on an airplane that “fell” 25,000 feet in about a minute’s time. For the next two hours we did not know if we were going to live or die. Since then I have had a sense that I am living on borrowed time. I think I was supposed to die that day, but Grace prevailed. Now, I see every moment I live as a gift and remember that tomorrow is not promised. I have a strong desire to live in a way that allows me to die without regrets.
When I was a new psychotherapist, I assisted in a therapy group led by Delphine Bowers. She used to ask clients if the actions they were thinking about doing would “contribute to their living or their dying.” That question has stuck with me for almost 30 years.
I believe I am contributing to my dying, instead of my living, when I am:
I am great at getting things done. There was a time in my life when I was working three jobs, going to school, and raising two children. Throughout my adult life, I have generally been unwilling to stop “doing” unless I get so sick that I can’t do otherwise.
In the last few years, I have made great strides in stopping that behavior. Still, it is not lost on me that I have back problems which have impacted my level of activity since mid-February. While 97% of the time I am resting and doing what I know I should do, I still find myself saying, “Oh it’s okay if I plant a few seedlings.” Or I do other minor garden work when I know I should be avoiding all leaning over and bending down. What will it take for me to learn this lesson? I shudder to think of the answer.
I used to obsess about anything I wanted to say for so long that I often lost the opportunity to say it. I also obsessed about things I did say, analyzing my words looking for errors or wondering if I had said something that made me look stupid. While I stopped those behaviors decades ago, I believe that overthinking is still the most common way I make myself miserable. And it is certainly the source of most of my stress. If I am offended by something, I may fixate on it. Worrying about the future also leads me to overthinking. The fact that I avoid mind-slowing spiritual practices, such as meditation, perpetuates the problem.
I have long been aware of my tendency to overdo and overthink. In fact I have written about those behaviors before. (Recovering from Overdoing, Stay in the Present and Stop Thinking!) In the last month, awareness of another way I contribute to my dying has resurfaced.
Emotions like anger, sadness and fear are meant to show us that there are problems we need to deal with. If we feel the feelings and address the issues, the emotions are likely to flow through us. If we repress them, we probably won’t solve the problems and we may become depressed, anxious or sick.
I have long been conscious of the fear in my body, but I used to bury my anger so deep that I didn’t even realize it was there. Now I feel the anger at the time it is triggered. My new awareness is that I am repressing my grief.
When I was growing up, a frequent message from my father was, “If you are going to cry, I will give you something to cry about.” If I didn’t stop crying, I was usually spanked or sent to my bedroom. I learned it was not okay for me to express my sadness.
When I met Amma in 1989, grief began to erupt from inside of me. Generally that grief was not associated with any conscious memory. Even though I didn’t know what it was related to, I often had a sense that I was releasing the energy from traumas that had occurred earlier in my life. Sometimes I wondered if some of it was coming from other lifetimes, or if it was some form of “universal grief.” That spontaneous release of tears, which usually occurred during Amma’s programs, went on for several years. Letting them pour out felt very healing.
Then one day someone teased me about my tears. My childhood programming took over and I shut them down so fast it was mind-boggling. From time to time, something will still bring up that deep well of grief inside of me, but for the most part it is nowhere to be found.
A week or so ago, there was a moment when I felt sadness about my back pain and the resulting physical limitations. I shed a tear, or maybe two, before a firm inner voice said, “It’s good that you felt your sadness, but that is ENOUGH.” I saw that my father’s message was still operating within me. Certainly no healing can come from releasing one or two tears.
When I heard the news that Prince had died, I started crying, and I cried on and off throughout the week. The grief I felt was so deep, very similar to the level of emotion I experienced during my early years with Amma. While Prince’s “Purple Rain” album and movie, and especially the song “When Doves Cry,” was important to me in the 80’s, I hadn’t followed his career after that, other than taking my children to his 1988 Seattle concert. Even though I didn’t understand my level of emotion, I was aware that the tears I shed felt cleansing and therapeutic.
I believe that overdoing, overthinking and stuffing my grief are the three biggest ways that I am currently contributing to my dying. I know it is important for me to continue working on these issues and to keep the “Will this action contribute to your living or your dying?” question in mind as I make day-to-day decisions as well as when I consider long term decisions, such as when to retire.
I have no way of knowing whether I will live one more day or one year, five years, ten years or more. I am committed to making the most of every moment I have left in this lifetime.
Karuna is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is author of Getting to Joy and Letting Go of Suffering. You can find more information about her at KarunaPoole.com or on her blog Living Learning and Letting Go
Written for the On Living and Dying series. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more info here: 365 Days On Living and Dying. But first leave a comment and let Karuna know how you feel about what she said, and be sure to visit her over at Living Learning and Letting Go when you’re done.
Featured image by Karuna