Late Wednesday evening, I pulled up in front of my apartment complex to find a hearse waiting outside. Perplexed, I hastily double-parked and watched as a stretcher came down the stairs. It was Joe, my neighbor of nine years. He was jolly, Irish, senile, and utterly delightful. He passed away at 87.
I spoke with his sons, who were remarkably lucid and composed. They invited me into his apartment to discuss the details of Joe’s passing and offered me some of his furniture. But there was something off, almost zombie-like, about them. They were highly functional, but disconnected – from me and themselves. The real mourning had yet to begin.
Two days later, I realized what made me uncomfortable about Joe’s sons: I saw myself in them. I, too, was in a state of mourning. I, too, was disconnected from others, and myself. But it took weeks to recognize the symptoms.
On Monday (two days before Joe’s passing), I came back from my seventh year at the Burning Man festival. For me, Burning Man has always been about intense, authentic connections to others. I have described past years as “heart opening,” or “rekindling my belief in humankind.” But this year this was different. Beautiful things happened: I ran into old friends at sunrise in a vast sea of dust; I was driven back to my camp by a white palace on wheels; I conversed with countless strangers, leaving bejeweled with hand-made necklaces and stickers they gifted me. Yet I chronically felt unable to fully “plug in” to the festival, like an iPhone cable missing a few of its connector pins. My favorite moments were those spent alone, or in silence. The whole week, I worried about this. Why am I distancing myself from others? Why can’t I just sink into this experience?
Joe’s sons put my concerns into perspective: Disconnection is not only okay, it is necessary and healthy. The only way I can open myself to deep connection in the future is to embrace disconnection at the present, taking the process of reconnection slowly and gently.
On reflection, I see now that I am mourning many relationships in my life, in different ways. I ended a short but intense romance this June, which I truthfully am not really over. The week before Burning Man, I had a challenging conversation with one of my first true loves, where we concluded that our friendship will never truly be whole again. And at Burning Man, a friend of mine hurt me deeply, and then did not make the time to repair the damage; out of self-protection, I must distance myself from that friendship. It took a corpse on my doorstep to recognize that I spent Burning Man mourning my ties to several important people, still processing old wounds and letting myself fully feel them. All relationships evolve, and some even die. I had been affected by these changes, and my instinctive response was to withdraw. Embracing this disconnection and aloneness is the most important thing that I can be doing right now. Because in this disconnection, I can at least start to reconnect with myself and my own feelings.
In yoga class, students frequently request heart-opening postures; they want to leave practice feeling blissfully connected to everything. Yet the most powerful idea that I learned I learned in my yoga training is the concept of bandhas, or energy locks. Bandhas are a way to contain and channel our energy, to create boundaries, to draw our life force and senses inward. Every morning, before I do my heart opening sun salutations, I first activate my bandhas to contain and focus my internal energy.
I think the same principle applies to our relationships. We want to feel more connected – yet particularly when in a sensitive place, we first need to go through the process of turning inward, fully feeling and experiencing our disconnection.
This does not mean cutting out people entirely. I am only writing this piece because, after a deep conversation with my brother, he asked me to put my thoughts into words. My friends, and strangers at Burning Man, have been instrumental in my mourning and gradual process of reconnection. Yet I also see now that my emotions are more closed off, and I am uncharacteristically guarded before letting people “in.” And that is okay. That is my natural defense mechanism while the wound is raw, like an emotional bandage. It gives me space to focus on healing myself internally. At some point, these feelings too shall pass. And the process of re-opening myself to connection is happening, albeit in baby steps.
Can we honor the process of disconnection as much as we value connection? Can we allow ourselves to sit in sadness and fully mourn, as a starting point for reconnecting with ourselves?
My hope is that Joe’s sons are able to see their disconnection, let it serve them, and take the space and time they need to truly withdraw and mourn. It can be a long journey, but I believe it is the only way to heal.