December 18, 2000
Brook Stone, MSW, LCSW
It's December and with it we enter the holiday season. Now, the days shorten dramatically, and the rains begin. For some of us, the holiday season is a joyful time of connecting with family and friends, giving gratitude for the abundance in our lives. For others, it is a time when we are aware of our lack of connection or the complexity of our connections. For still others, illness, losses or their memory lend the holidays a bittersweet mood. Whatever our current circumstance, this is a time to consider what connection means to us.
At first we may think of connection as relating to other people. But connection is about connecting at all levels of our being. We may have dear and loving friends, but if we are disconnected from our bodies, from the earth we live on, or from our inner lives, we feel diminished in our capacity to make genuine contact.
During this time of unparalled prosperity, we often read of the sense of dislocation and loss of meaning that many people suffer. We hear about, or may ourselves experience, the breakdown of community and of the family unit. A great many people in our culture feel fragmented, separate, and alone. Even those who have tremendous material success often feel impoverished in their sense of meaning and value in life.
Science and religion both point to the unity that underlies all phenomena. We may believe we are all separate, but at some profound level we are all connected, we are part of a greater unity. Whatever your belief system, none of us can deny our interconnectedness. Think only of how the trees give us oxygen and our exhalation gives them carbon dioxide to live. No matter how we might feel, we are not self-enclosed islands. We are each and all a part of Life.
What is it that allows for a sense of connection to be present, and how might we invite it into our lives? Fundamentally, I believe it is the freedom to be open and authentic that allows for the greatest sense of connection to develop. When we are hiding our pain for fear of rejection or protecting our joy, we cannot open to others. When we are busy judging others, we cannot connect with them. Where there is anger, bitterness, or hatred, there may be a feeling of righteousness. But this can never lead to a sense of human community and harmony with life. It's not that our genuine feelings are bad, or that we must all go around acting sweeter than we feel. But it is possible, and perhaps vital to understand that we're all in this human dance together.
Ultimately, none of us will get of here alive. So, how do we want to live our days? Our first impulse is often to blame another person or our circumstances for our unhappiness. But when we look more carefully, we discover that most often it is our own actions that determine our happiness. Perhaps there are things in our lives that do need healing: an old hurt, a loss, an injury or illness. We may need to attend to ourselves in a different, more honest way. When we do this, opening to our pain and releasing our joy, we are free to meet directly with life.
In my professional life, I work with women with breast cancer at the Breast Cancer Complementary Support Program of CPMC/UCSF. I consider this work a great privilege. The program offers women with breast cancer a comprehensive program that includes health education, expressive art and movement, meditation, yoga and guided imagery, in addition to group support. Combining the best of East and West, we offer fertile soil in which women can find the tools, experience and support to learn new ways of dealing with illness.
I repeatedly witness how women enter our program frightened and feeling deeply alone. Our culture seems to shame those who are ill, as if illness were a personal failing. Perhaps this is because so many of us find it difficult to face our own fear of illness. Most of us don't want to admit that this could happen to us. None of us is guaranteed good health. All of us will die, and all of us fear our own mortality.
Women come to us feeling shocked by having breast cancer, frightened of death. They feel that there is no one, even among deeply supportive friends and family, who can quite understand what they are going through. Then they come through our door, and quickly realize that they have entered a safe haven. This is a place where feelings are honored, where pain can be shared and heard, where others will receive one's authentic experience. The entire staff watches as a group develops, as trust grows and connections get built. It is this sense of connection, born in safety and the honest expression of personal experience, which allows the healing.
Each of the healing modalities offered helps women touch themselves and feel empowered to participate in their own healing. The interpersonal connections that are made, and the sense of belonging complement and enhance the inner journey. It is in the meeting of human hearts that the deep connection to oneself and a higher power can be made.
One example from a recent group can illustrate this. A woman who has considered herself an agnostic was deeply touched by a reading given out at temple. There was a phrase about God's hands reaching down to touch humanity. For this woman, it was the loving connections forged in the support group that felt like the hands of God.
How then can we connect more fully with ourselves and with our lives? Often it is in some form of giving that our hearts soften. Perhaps it is time to let a grudge go, to make up with a friend or family member whom we have hurt, or who has hurt us. Maybe we can offer to do a favor for someone who needs some help. We can volunteer to work in a soup kitchen, or help those whose need increases with the holidays and with winter.
We can reconnect with an old tradition, cultural or religious. We can take a walk by the ocean and connect with nature, and with the currents of life that are beyond our personal sphere. We can spend time creating something: a poem, writing some prose, making art, dancing or writing a letter of apology or forgiveness. We can meditate or do yoga to connect with our inner selves, to nourish the body and the spirit. Connecting in any of these ways can relax the rigid boundaries of our personal sense of self, and open to the awareness that we are part of a great web of life.
Sometimes, reflecting on the life of someone whom we greatly admire can help to inspire us. For many, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela are living examples of generosity of spirit and courage in the face of great adversity. What if we ourselves were to live with greater kindness and less selfishness? What if we were to laugh at our failings, rather than criticize ourselves? In order to feel more connected in life, we need to examine the ways in which we separate ourselves. It may be helpful to think about or write about times in our lives when we felt most connected, and about what allowed that to happen.
Can we creatively shift our priorities to allow the time to connect? Often I hear from those diagnosed with cancer that the illness forced them to reorder their lives, and to remember what is most important. Often what they prioritize is time to care for themselves, and time to spend with others. Do we need to wait for illness to drive home what's most important to us? I invite you to reflect on the theme of connection and find ways to break down the walls of separation in your own life. Have a happy, meaningful and connected holiday season.
Brook M. Stone, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. For nearly thirty years, she has studied psychology and the healing arts, while also practicing meditation and spiritual inquiry. She works part-time in the Breast Cancer Complementary Support Program, where she teaches meditation and guided imagery, as well as facilitating group support. This program is a collaborative effort of The Institute for Health and Healing at CPMC, the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF, and the Carol F. Buck Breast Care Center at UCSF at Mt. Zion.Parts of this article previously appeared in the New Fillmore Newspaper