The Mayans thought about grief very differently. Is this the key to reaching your full potential?
In the Mayan Tz’utujil culture in Guatemala, they use the same word for ‘grief’ and ‘praise’.
The first time I heard that I was like, “Hey??”
I thought they’ve got to be doing some sort of psychic gymnastics to equate those two in their minds. It’s like ‘sunshine’ and ‘snow’.
Or maybe they just don’t have enough words to go around. Or maybe it’s a homonym, like we have in English – like ‘morning’ and ‘mourning’. Totally different words that just happened to sound the same.
But no, apparently they are literally the same word.
This is one of the things that we’ve learnt from Martin Prechtel – a Tz’utujil chief and shaman who has become popular in the west in recent years – in a sort of underground way.
He says that they have exactly the same word, it’s just the expression of time that changes.
That is, ‘praise’ is the feeling of gratitude and celebration we feel for the things we have in the here and now.
‘Grief’ is the gratitude and celebration we feel for those things when they have passed and they are no longer with us.
It is the same feeling for the same object. It’s just our relationship to it that changes.
Grief and praise are therefore just two sides of the same coin. The same feeling, just at different points in time.
Let that sink in for a bit.
I think it’s telling how foreign this idea feels to us in the west.
To us, grief is a sadness – a kind of malady that needs ‘fixing’. If someone is grieving, we feel we should do our best to help them “move through it” or “get over it”.
Praise on the other hand is a good feeling – a kind of joy. It’s a feeling we want to hang on to as long as we can. It’s something we want to cultivate – encode in a gratitude practice or something.
One is a flower, the other is a weed. And we have a strong view about what the ideal garden should look like.
But if Prechtel and the Mayans are right, then it’s a bit of a problematic way to look at it.
If it’s the same thing, then if we try to pull out the weeds of grief, then we’re pulling out the flowers of praise as well.
And the garden is left bare.
And that’s what Prechtel reckons is going on in the west.
He reckons that we just don’t know how to grieve anymore. It is a skill that has been lost.
The modern economy took away the space for going into grief. You couldn’t spend the week mourning your father’s death. You had to show up to work and get on with it.
And the modern psyche refused to allow room for grief. We thought we needed to be tough, bright and optimistic, full of blissful tranquillity all the time. We saw grief as a problem – a sign that something was ‘wrong’ with us.
And with each generation that passed (do you ever remember seeing your parents cry? What about your grandparents?), we grew more and more distant from grief. More estranged.
And some of us lost the ability to grieve all together.
Prechtel reckons that depression is not a sadness. Prechtel says that depression is the absence of grief. It’s the absence of a mechanism that allows us to feel all of what our pain is asking us to feel.
And without an outlet, we become blocked-up, sorrow stagnating within the body. (He also says that the Mayan word for tumour translates as ‘petrified sorrow’ – sadness that has turned to stone.)
But if we can’t grieve, of course depression is an epidemic. Its becoming one of the biggest killers in the west, and we have no idea how to deal with it.
But that’s only half of it. One side of the coin.
Because when we lost our ability to grieve, we also lost our ability to praise.
When you grieve for someone or something, it is the highest praise you can offer them. And it is praise anchored in the fragile mortality of life – in the recognition that everything we love, everything beautiful, will one day be lost.
It is when this recognition becomes woven into praise that praise becomes perfected. We celebrate it with the fullness of our hearts, because it is alive with us in the here and now. It becomes all the more precious because we recognise that, one day, it will be gone.
But if we are closed to grief, then we are closed to this reality. We are closed to both pain and joy, and we’re left with a sort of numb no-man’s land.
The garden is bare.
I’m still getting my head around all this, but it just struck me as a really interesting idea. (And partly I wanted to write about it just so I could get my thinking around it a little straighter.)
And it does ‘feel’ right to me.
My own parents were cut of this stoic cloth. Like most families who have migrated to Australia over the years, they were refugees of a sort – willing to uproot themselves and say goodbye to everyone they’ve ever known and loved, in search of a better future.
There was a lot of pain there. A lot of sorrow. But we never saw it. We just ‘got on with things.’
And when I look back at it, it probably is true. Their praise and celebration and joy was probably coming through on a restricted bandwidth. It maybe wasn’t all it could be.
(That does makes me feel a bit sad for them.)
Anyway, it feels to me that there’s three lessons here for people like us on the journey towards being the most full-power, full-spectrum beings we can be.
1. Grief is not a problem
We need to stop treating sadness and grief as problems – as a sign that there’s something wrong with an individual.
It’s not a problem that needs fixing. All we need to do is witness it. As Prechtel says, if someone comes ‘crying on his shoes’, he is not allowed to turn them away. In Mayan law, if someone is crying, you have to listen. You have to bear witness.
To them it is a healthy sign – a sign of a heart working at full capacity.
2. Exercise that muscle
If we see grief and praise as the same thing, then we see that the road to living a more heart-filled, joyful life, is through becoming more open to our grief and sadness.
As Prechtel says, grief and praise, laughter and tears “live in same house”. They are related. They are expressions of the same ‘muscle’.
And so the more we can open into our sadness, the more we open in to joy.
I think this is a really important one to people like us who are committed to personal growth and development.
Often we measure our success in these things by how we are experiencing life.
“I’m having lots of fun and am I’m in a really good mood. Therefore I must be doing a good job of developing my mindset and positive attitude.”
Or, “I haven’t been sad for 8 weeks now. My affirmations are really paying off.”
But these are the wrong metrics. This is the wrong fruit to be looking for.
Rather, we should be asking, how fully am I feeling my sorrow? How fully am I feeling my joy?
It is not which emotions. That’s not our measuring stick. Rather, it is their intensity – how fully we are feeling all the emotions – that’s what we should be trying to calibrate our mindset around.
3. It takes a village
Another point Prechtel makes is that you cannot face your grief alone.
When you are lost in grief (or lost in ecstatic joy), then you are in an irrational state. You’re a bit mad.
And in this madness, without a capacity to problem solve or deal with the world at all, you are vulnerable – like a deer that has been blinded and left in the forest.
So to be able to go fully into grief, you need to be somewhere you feel safe. Somewhere you can let go and go into the vulnerability that comes when your rational mind goes to pieces.
For Prechtel, this is one of the factors driving the west’s epidemic of numbness and depression. We’ve lost our villages. We no longer have access to the communities that could support us through these processes.
And we replaced those physical and emotional communities with a culture of rugged individualism – which is great if you want to make shoot-em-up movies, but not so great if you’re trying to find the safety you need to fully go into your emotions.
I’ve said it before, but this is a difficult journey to go it alone. I really love it when I see our students teaming up and forming groups to support and encourage each other.
This is essential work. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I’m sure that students who have the support of an encouraging network would be achieving much better results than those that don’t, on average.
R U OK?
Apparently Valentines Day is one of the key flash points for depression statistics. It is a time where we’re told we should be joyfully praising our beloved, There’s no room in the story for those people who feel alone – whether they are inside a relationship or not.
The depression statistics are tragic. We really need a new way of dealing with this.
And I think Prechtel and this ancient Mayan wisdom maybe is part of the puzzle.
Whatever you are doing, wherever you are at, feel it fully.
And maybe your grief holds the key to your full potential..?