From Tight to Tender: Expanding Into the Heart of Loss

February 14, 2011, was my most heart-opening Valentine’s Day to date. As the sun rose, my father passed on.

If you had asked me a few years ago what it would be like for me to go through this loss, and to endure the three months of his illness, my answer would have included words like anxious, scared, frozen, tight, angry. But, amazingly, the experience was nothing like that.

While it was difficult on many levels, and sad beyond words, it was also transformational. And, unexpectedly, I discovered that I was able to be grounded, open, and present throughout. I did not panic or freeze up as I witnessed him in pain, coming to terms with the end of his life, and letting go of his body. Instead, I felt more connected to him, my family, and life than at any other time I can remember. In fact, it felt more like the process of falling in love than losing love—more expanding than contracting. This was a total surprise. And I credit my yoga practice for the grace I was able to receive.

I’ve been doing yoga and meditating regularly for almost 18 years and, usually, when I need it most is when I do it least. With so many time and energy constraints during this period, it would have been easy for me to skip my daily practice. But I didn’t. I rolled out my mat every morning, whether it was for five or 75 minutes. I’m astounded and grateful for the support that my practice gave me. It rejuvenated my energy, and opened my mind, my breath, and, most important, my heart, enabling me to unite with my dad on a level I had never before experienced.

For most of my life I was closed down, frustrated, or angry around my father. Our relationship was not always rosy, and I could have listed countless ways in which he needed to change. Over the past 30 years, my dad had faced 14 life-threatening surgeries, so I had written several mental eulogies for him. Each time I contemplated his passing, I longed to memorialize our relationship with sweet, loving words, but instead I’d think of all the things I was angry with him about. Yet I always truly longed to find peace with him.

In 1997, I had already been practicing yoga regularly for a few years when I began metta (loving-kindness) meditation through my work with Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg. And, without even knowing it at the time, I began transforming my relationship with my father. Instead of focusing on the ways I felt I wasn’t being loved or cared for by him, I began to feel empathy and compassion for the ways he couldn’t experience love, or wasn’t loved or cared for as a child. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I just stopped tightening up around him. I relaxed and opened to him just as he was, without anger. And, as I shifted and softened, at the same time, my dad became more loving and available to me.

In the last three months of his life, humbled by his cancer, I could describe my dad for the first time as being unconditionally openhearted. Had I not been present, had I not already forged a loving relationship with him in my own heart, I would have missed this final opportunity to connect with him. But I didn’t, And I am so grateful to feel at peace with my father, his death, and our life together.

As yogis, we lay down our mats to practice this type of moment-by-moment commitment. We explore poses, meditation, and breathing to learn to be both grounded and open to whatever comes our way, aspiring to complete presence. I can attest that, with intention and dedication, we can develop these skills on the mat, and then draw upon them during our daily life, especially at times when we need them most.

Ultimately, our yoga and meditation practice prepares us to stay open through the difficult experiences. Then the experience itself becomes the greatest teacher, offering us the opportunity to expand beyond our habitual way of being. As Pema Chödrön explains, “You continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart.” Our challenges, all the little and big deaths we face each day, are the ultimate opportunities to cultivate more compassion, strength, and openness. To expand into our hearts and our lives more fully, we may even embrace Dr. Seuss’ wise advice, “Don’t cry because it’s over—smile because it happened.”

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