Right now I am navigating through a space of despair. Owed to a specific set of unpleasant circumstances that are threatening to shake up my world, I am finding myself at a peak of this powerful emotion at this very moment. I want to explore it and I want to write about it.
The activating event happened very suddenly. It was not caused by ongoing stress, sadness or depression. In fact, I had difficulties remembering the last time I felt this way before realising that it had been over six years! Six years ago I had experienced the lowest point of my life emotionally. I remember it as being mostly darkness, aloneness and emptiness. It was the worst and the best, and it was necessary. This is why I am so curious about my current emotion. Six years ago I allowed it to dominate me. Today, I want to make friends with it, converse with it and I am inviting it to tea. I want to sit with it, breath it and experience it fully. I am genuinely curious about what it really feels like; emotionally, physically and mentally, and about the lessons it is trying to teach me.
The definition of despair in the Cambridge dictionary indicates that it is "the feeling that there is no hope and that you can do nothing to improve a difficult or worrying situation". It is indeed an easy emotion to 'fall' into when we face difficulties. However, the intensity of it varies from individual to individual. I experience all emotions very deeply and despair is no exception. On the physical level, my body goes numb, my digestion shuts down and I lose appetite and the sense of taste. I feel tightness in my belly and my chest and the muscles around my shoulders and my face become tense. My body temperature drops and I experience frequent episodes of nausea as well as cramps in my stomach. Sometimes my eye would twitch for hours. These physical symptoms come in waves and vary in intensity but the sense of overall dullness appears to be an ongoing symptom. Right now I am on an emotional 'roller coaster'. My moods swing in a matter of milliseconds and fall within the ranges of mild to high anxiety all the way up to feelings of hopelessness, confusion, regret, self-judgement, guilt and blame. It is not an easy ride and it is exhausting. The images in my mind are often perpetuated by the damning nature of my thoughts. Thoughts that fluctuate with an alarming intensity and create panic. Thoughts that dwell on regret and self-blame. It is easy to dissociate and lose connection with the body in this state - become lightheaded, disconnected. At times I want to escape, both metaphorically and physically. Why do this then you ask? Why sit with despair and face all this pain?
In the past I would try and do my best to run away from these feelings. The pain was at times just too unbearable. I would bury myself in work, blur the emotions with alcohol, seek validation through relationships and sex. Anything to not face or experience this sense of despair and to fill the emptiness inside. I'd push it back down and close the lid tightly but somehow, reflecting back on it now, it was always there, as a sort of a background noise. When it would finally resurface, and it always did, that same cycle would start all over again. So, the emotion itself remained faceless, intimately familiar but ultimately strange. Until finally, six years ago, I have plucked up the courage to look at it and say 'Hi'. Now that it is back, I want to befriend it. As I allow myself to slow down, stay still and observe, it begins to unravel its secrets to me.
In Yoga and Ayurveda, the state of darkness corresponds to Tamas or inertia. According to Samkhya philosophy, from which the above sciences derive, nature consists of three main forces, or qualities, called Gunas, which are Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas. These qualities exist in all things, including our body and mind. Tamasic states are characterised by laziness, attachment, depression, helplessness, doubt, guilt, shame, boredom, addiction, hurt, sadness, apathy, confusion, grief, dependency and ignorance. Despair is generally a Tamasic state. However, some of the emotions, such as anxiety, stress, self-centeredness and greed also correspond to Rajas, which represents movement, anger, euphoria, fear, irritation, worry, restlessness, courage, determination and chaos. Neither of these states are considered good or bad. Both are essential to our existence and are part of our psychological, energetic and physical being. Without Tamas, for example, we will not be able to fall asleep, rest or recuperate. Rajas, on the other hand, is what keeps up active through the day. Ultimately, however, it is the Sattwic state that we all aim for, consciously or unconsciously, in our day to day lives. Sattwa is a state of harmony, balance and equilibrium. Anytime we feel happy, peaceful and calm it’s courtesy of Sattwa guna! How does this information help deal with despair you ask? In my experience, understanding the gunas can help us see things more clearly. It helps us understand the quality of our thoughts, actions, and the things with which we engage so that we could transform our Tamasic and Rajasic states into Sattwa. It also helps up to take ownership of our actions and our emotions.
My current experience with despair has been interesting on many levels. If I indulge my mind, negative thoughts multiply, triggering fear and irrational thinking followed by irrational decisions and actions. But when I sit with it quietly and ask it to show me what actions, beliefs and decisions brought me here and the lessons it wants to teach me, it begins to feel gentle and loving. Like a patient, compassionate teacher, it reminds me that life is an experience, that regret does not belong in the past, and that being human involves making mistakes. The biggest thing we could learn at times like this is to be compassionate towards ourselves. Perhaps, these emotions are something of a compass, showing us the right direction even before we ourselves realise that we are lost. For me, I have realised that I have began to sink into a life of complacency and rigidity. Perhaps I've become too attached to and fixated on the 'future plans' to the point of losing sight of flexibility and lightness, and maybe even softness and love towards myself in the NOW. Being driven is good, but at what point does it become obsessive, destructive and unhelpful? Amongst other things, this experience has forced me to investigate and evaluate my current approach to everyday life.
Having tea with despair. Conversing with our negative emotions is healthy. Energetically, by bringing things to the surface in this way, we may begin to shift old repressed emotions and clear blockages on mental, physical and energetic levels. We move closer to the Sattwic state of being and begin to experience more harmony and peacefulness in our daily lives. More than that, however, we get the opportunity to practice dealing with fear that these emotions evoke in the most profound and transformative way. 'Befriending' despair or any other unwanted, negative emotion helps create space in the body and mind. Within that space we can again reconnect to our light and touch the divine within.
I bow in gratitude to despair as we finish our conversation for today. Namaste.