Something difficult has happened to me, and I would like to share my experience with you.
This is not an easy piece to write. More than ever, I feel exposed, and even mildly paranoid about what this may bring on. However, when I take my Small Self out of the equation and listen to my intuition, it is saying that there is value in being fully transparent and vulnerable. Bad things happen to us all the time; whilst my insights may not be applicable to you, in times of difficulties I want you to know that you are not alone.
I was robbed yesterday. It was rather drastic and shocking, to the extent that half of all my savings were gone, with no chance of recovery.
I do love my work, but the money was accumulated over 10-month of hard work, where I had traded in precious time and energy.
The ‘shock’ phase was not so bad. I used the initial adrenaline rush to efficiently go through all the sensible, ‘adult’ steps, like dealing with the police, and bulletproofing my security. As soon as my cortisol level dropped, however, I found myself escalating downward into a black hole of shame, fear, rage and loneliness.
Whilst I was surrounded by loving and supportive friends, I was too brittle for any ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘what’ that came my way. I found myself wanting sympathy from others whilst at the same time fearing that I would displace my frustration and despair onto them. I recognised that a lot of what I felt was bound up in historical fear, rather than a simple reaction to the present event. Whenever I closed my eyes, I got in touch with my older wounds of growing up feeling lonely, unsafe, and that everything was my fault.
The most painful part of injustice like this is that there is no obvious reason behind the suffering. We human beings are no good at coping with suffering without meaning. We like cause-and-effects, explanations, answers, and certainty. We want to believe that the world is fair and that it operates in a way we can predict and understand. We can endure a great deal of pain as long as we know the ‘why’, yet without a sense of meaning and purpose, we can get thrown into a daunting spiritual crisis.
Whilst the following may simply be a big temporary project to self- soothe and to rationalise, I found myself ramping up my engine to find meaning for what had happened. Here are some of the ideas that I came up with on the day after the crisis:
1. Perhaps this is an advanced course in gratitude?
This may seem obvious, but amongst all the consolation I received, I found the simple‘it could have been worse’ (said to me in the most matter-of-fact manner by one of the metropolitan police), the most helpful. Indeed, it could have been worse. It could have cost my life, my health, or people I love.
For the week after the incident, I set the intention to run a little exercise with myself. Whenever I felt good or grateful about anything in my life, I asked myself the question: ‘Now how much would I be willing to pay for THIS?’
And then I pretended that I was paying it forward: Yes, I would pay to have a friend like Alexia in my life. Yes, I would pay to have my loved ones alive and well. Yes, I would pay to have the ability to love and enjoy my work as much as I do now.
To my surprise, I happily ‘paid for’ all the abundance in my life with the amount I had lost in less than 2 days.
Whilst ‘living in the present moment’ might have become a self-help cliche, in moments like this, I recognised the value of this teaching. When the grief first hit me, a part of me was worried that my sense of joy will be gone forever. However, when I focused on the present moment and looked around the ACTUAL reality of what was around me, nothing had changed.
I was in a warm house with comfortable clothes, and my fridge was stocked full of fresh broccoli for a delicious dinner.
Had or had I not lost that money, all that would be different is a number.
When I was able to break off from free from my trance of sorrow, it hit me not just intellectually, but viscerally that I do already have all that I need.
2. Locating my secure base- so I can be the Super Mario
The ability to cultivate and hold onto a sense of safety within myself has always been one of the hardest lessons for me.
A lot of emotionally intense individuals have a hard time ‘returning to the baseline’ with our emotion ups and downs. When things happen, not only do we react more intensely, but we may remain emotionally impacted for longer. In my case, when I am triggered and remain triggered, I know it is because deep down I feel unsafe— not just in a physical, literal way but in a cosmical and spiritual way. It has not been natural for me to simply rest in the faith that when I fall, there is something there to ‘hold me’. When bad things happen, I fall into a bottomless pit, where I believe that the world is an unfriendly place and that I have been abandoned by life.
This sense of despair comes from not having a ‘secure base’ within myself.
Psychological studies found that children who have good attachment with their caregivers can trust and use them as a ‘secure base’; they can then use their ‘secure base’ as a springboard to safely explore the world. When put in a ‘strange situation’ where there were toys laying around but their caregiver going in-and-out, these children remained relatively calm and felt secure in the belief that their caregivers would return shortly. In contrast, children without the sense of a ‘secure base’ demonstrated greater and longer distress. Even when left in a room full of toys, they were too frightened to play.
The ‘secure base’ is what gives us the emotional freedom to explore the world. Without it, it is very difficult to be courageous.
When we have a secure base within us, life becomes a fun adventure, a roller coaster ride. We can enjoy the journey knowing that we are fundamentally safe and have a ‘home’ to go back to. Without it, however, we would feel crippled by fear; Bad events may leave us feeling disconcerted, and all signs of threats seem like nightmares that would never end.
As Bowlby (1988) stated : All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base.
When we were children, A secure base is provided through by our caregivers. As adults, many of us have no choice but to find it within ourselves. So I thought, perhaps this incident was a golden opportunity for the ‘parent’ part of me to step up to the game, and to take care of the scared little child within me.
Through silence, meditation, and lots of crying, I was eventually able to locate a sense of safety within me- which admittedly still come and go on a minute-to-minute basis. I set the intention to take life a little less seriously, to preserve a sense of curiosity and wonder, and to practise approaching it like a Super Mario game— I have just started a new level and it is time for me to collect another bag of coins (or mushrooms) !
3. On ‘yielding’ to Life.
This has been an ongoing spiritual practise of mine, but it is not always easy.
This one is about believing that there are some unforeseen divine order that I can trust. I did, for a couple of days, felt extremely persecuted and foolish. I felt that life was not on my side. Actually, I felt that she was mocking me, calling me names, saying that I was naive and careless and I brought this onto myself. But even in the midst of the battle with my internal critic, deep down there is a part of me that knew it wasn’t the case. I can choose to believe that life loves me.
The world is always unfolding in an order that we cannot yet see, and as Steve Jobs say, you can only connect the dots looking backwards, not forward.
In the most compassionate tone and voice, I asked myself:
“What makes you think that it ‘shouldn’t have happened’?
What makes you think you are ‘entitled’ to that money in the first place?
In order to embrace life the way it is, and to feel free again, I ought to let go of the fixed idea of what I think it ‘should be’.
If I can do that in the midst of such difficulties, that ‘muscle of trust’ can be trained to get stronger.
4. On impermanence
The Buddhist have always known this. Buddhist teachers that I admire— Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron all talk about this. To become more resilient, I want to practise riding the waves of ‘gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain’. The impermanent, ever-changing nature of life can cause stress and frustration. But when we embrace the impermanence, we can live life fully.
5. The bigger purpose
There was this strangely lucid and profound moment where when I realised I was robbed, the first question that came to my mind was: ‘ Shit, would I still be able to turn up to work today? Do I have to cancel with my clients? ’
I love the fact that in that immediate moment, I was more resentful towards not being able to show up to my work, rather than the financial loss. That was my true self speaking- she was driven by love rather than fear, and she lived not for her egoic-self, but for her sense of purpose and mission.
If what matters most to me is my intention to generate value in this world with all that is in me; If all I am is a conduit of the creative spirits (borrowing Elizabeth Gilbert’s work on The Big Magic) ; If my work is done through me, not by me or for me, then there is nothing that I can lose and there is nothing that I need to fear.
Then I asked myself, if what I did in the last 10 months did not come with a financial reward, would I still want to be doing what I was doing? The answer is HELL YES. Yes, maybe I will work a little less hard and take a little time off, but not much. I have always found my work incredibly rewarding, and if I were to choose again I would be doing exactly the same thing (Maybe with a short vacation to Tokyo, but that’s it!).
That is when I realised money is nothing more than a useful vehicle that temporarily motivates me to the finishing line so that I can enjoy the fruits of joy and fulfilment that is in my work. Perhaps the ‘money’ had served its function and it was, therefore, free to leave.
Final Words- The truth about grief
The truth is, it hurts. It still hurts. I am angry, sad, and resentful. The money will never come back and with all the rationalisation and meaning-making in the world, it still hurts. Sometimes it hurts just like a mild paper-cut, and sometimes it tears me up. It comes in waves.
When I feel into it, it brings back all the insults, trauma and pain I have experienced throughout my life. It reveals the string of scars that are buried beneath the surface of the current incident.
People do not ‘get back to normal’ after a loss. The ‘function’ of grief is not to find a new solution, but rather, to move us towards a transformation. A crisis like this can set us free by revealing the truth about life— that it is unpredictable and sometimes precarious. We are forced to break through the illusion that we can control life, and to face the raw reality of how little power we have. If we can face and accept this, we can access the deep peace that is within us.
And so perhaps my final and most precious lessons of it all, is to let go of the expectation for me to have to ‘go back to normal’. Perhaps my biggest practise is to allow the grief and the rage to come in and flow through, and not set an arbitrary ‘baseline’ hat I need to go back to.
I simply sit back, and with benign curiously allow this experience to transform me.
It seems that the only way through is through.
For those of you who prefer visual-audio to reading, I have made a video version of this post, with the same content.
I wish you love and peace, and that such a horrible event never happens to you. And if it does, I trust that you will ride the waves with your inner strengths, just like you have been doing all your life.