My Ant Story. - how a little creature became my guide to grief
Four years ago, I participated in a silent meditation retreat. I was just beginning to integrate meditation into my life and so I believed that an immersive retreat was a great way to dive in.
Like so many, I am someone who experienced trauma in my childhood. And like all of my generation and the generations prior, we were born into a culture where little attention was given to supporting childhood grief and trauma. Because of this, I have spent most of my adult life healing. Perhaps that scenario sounds familiar to you?
During this quarantine time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this retreat and season in my life four years ago, what it felt like being out in the desert all alone, to this period of isolation in our homes. While they on the outside may seem vastly different, the inside is the same. And by inside I mean finding yourself forced to be still and sitting with our chaotic minds.
Now, as I prepared for this 8-day retreat, there are two details about my then state of mind that are important to share right away. The first is that I had about as much confidence in my ability to meditate as I did in winning the lottery. Slim to none. So a lengthy period of time focused on meditation felt like jumping in the deep end for the first time without my floaties. But I was leaning on the days being interrupted by mealtimes, and activities that allowed me to meet new people, hold enlightening conversations and give lots of hugs. I love giving hugs. Well, that little confidence was stripped from me about a week before the retreat when I found out it was a silent retreat. I know, I know, how could I sign up for a retreat and not know it was silent. Well, all I can say is somehow the universe wanted me to overlook that detail so that I wouldn’t chicken out.
I remember being on the phone with my life coach MeiMei before heading out to southern California, I asked the simple, most common question any extrovert would ask, "so what will the people be like? Who should I expect to be there?" MeiMei's response, after a slight pause, "well, there will be all kinds, all ages, ya know, but it won't really matter. You'll really only be able to talk to them on that first night."
Uhh, come again? She went on, "Yeah, you do know this is a silent retreat, right, Kate?" - I couldn't help but laugh out loud at myself.
So off I went two weeks later, into the complete wilderness of meditation, to brave the scariest place on earth, my mind.
Let me first go back to the days and weeks after my mother died. As I mentioned, I experienced a great amount of loss as a young girl. In my adolescence, I went through a perfect storm of trauma, the most prominent event is the loss of my mother at the age of 12. Grief and healing have been a part of my life just as much as the sun and stars. And while I have done a lot of work over the years, I have come to accept that my journey will continue to be one of healing and transformation until the very end. I know I am not alone in this journey. All of us are healing in some way.
But to understand my journey is to understand its beginning. After my mother died, our lives and our house spun into chaos. Although she had been sick for several years, her death was a jolt. Suddenly our anchor, our guide, had left us. My Dad struggled, overwhelmed with sadness, exhausted from caretaking. My brother disconnected. And there I was, the baby of the family, and now the only woman, just wanting to pull it back together. I went into survivor mode. We all did.
One of the silliest but also prominent memories I have from that first year after my mom died is the ant problem we had in our kitchen. I remember being so angry, so disgusted that we had this ant problem in our kitchen, I put all of my energy into this mounting hatred. I got my Dad to buy cans of RAID, and every day I would go to work. Wiping out hundreds and hundreds of ants. I became a warrior to keep the kitchen clean and free of ants. Well, anyone who has experience with ants knows it's going to be a losing battle, especially in the warmer months.
One time during our family therapy session, Dr. Waters, our family grief therapist started off with the usual roundtable question, "how is everyone doing?" When he got to me, my sullen and sulky body blurted out, "I don't know. But if I see another f***ing ant again in the house, I am going to kill someone."
The doctor, my Dad, and my brother just stared at me, jaws on the floor. I was in the throes of grief, and I had identified enemy #1, ants.
My hatred for ants only grew over time. Unfortunately for them, they would always have a link to this moment in my life. Any new house, moving into my first dorm room, all these times of transition, it was like ants symbolized my triggers. And they paid a massive price for it.
Well, as I arrived at my retreat, knowing that we were in modest accommodations in the desert of So Cal, the first thing I noticed was...you guessed it, the ants. They showed up as if they were my welcoming committee with neon signs that teased," welcome Kate, we are so excited you are here." I, however, was not.
Now, remember, I was a total novice at meditation. At registration, the volunteers gave me a special code on my application as if to warn the teachers, "We got a live one here. Better watch out for her."
I remember asking where the weekly agenda was, and the volunteer at registration pointed to one 8.5X11 paper. That was it. The same schedule for 8 days. Here is what it looked like more or less:
5:30 – Wake Up by the Bells
6:15 – Morning sit (seated meditation)
7:30 – Breakfast
8:30 – Morning Guided Mediation
9:15 – Walking Meditation
10:00 – Seated Meditation
10:45 – Walking meditation
11:30 – Lunch
Well, as you could have guessed, I pretty much was going mad by lunchtime on the very first day. It wasn't pretty. How and the heck was I going to make it through 8 days? And to make matters worse, ants were all around me.
But of course, I did. I lived to tell about it. And of course, great things came from it.
As with any practice, commitment and perseverance are the keys to unlocking any level of success. The beautiful thing about meditation is that those levels are left for you to figure out and decide. Eventually, after a couple of days, I would ease into a calm acceptance of the practice. I go a little better. I wasn’t trying to get up every five minutes. I was able to tune into my breath and my senses. I started to build rewards into my day, like getting up and watching the sunrise, folding my clothes, massaging coconut oil on my legs and arms, drawing in my sketch pad (I’m not an artist) and then getting to watch the same sun set at the end of the day. Simple, little things that broke up my day, and felt more manageable. As I did this, I began to feel more connected to my life, to my mind in a way I hadn't for all of my adult life. This helped me move from denial and anxiety to acceptance and presence.
On Day 5, after a beautiful guided meditation in the sanctuary on forgiveness, I headed outside for a walk. Walking meditation for those who are curious, is not a vigorous power walk, it is a slow and deliberate practice when you quiet the mind and focus on the senses all around you. Feel the ground. Smell the scents. Listen to the sounds. You can see incredible detail and feel incredible peace when you get the hang of it. For me one of the biggest revelations was presence. First the first time I became aware of how much I am trying to race through life. I found myself asking, “what for?” “What’s the rush?” “Where am I trying to go?” I mean, when you think about it, the finish line is the end. Why are we rushing to get there? This was one of the biggest lessons I learned at that retreat. It helped me go from acceptance to presence. With presence is where the growth begins.
As I set out on my walking mediation that afternoon, forgiveness was on my mind. Forgiveness is a powerful tool. I bet about 90% of our suffering is due to our inability to forgive: to forgive ourselves, to forgive others who have wronged us. Our inability to forgive keeps us in two states of mind: the past and the future. Our ability to forgive has the power to keep us in the present.
I'll be the first to admit there are still blocks I have when it comes to forgiveness, but that warm summer day, day 5 of my silence, as I walked in a small patch of desert ground, I become acutely aware of one group I could reconcile my past around, my enemy #1, ants. In a state of relaxation and humility, I decided, at that moment, that I would ask these ants for forgiveness. After all, I had killed hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even thousands of them over the years.
So I got down on the ground, literally laid on my side so I could be as close to eye level with them. I noticed a whole colony of them, walking in order, the upstream on a path towards their new makeshift kingdom on the hill, the downstream keeping order by replenishing only what I could imagine was needed supplies for the community. Have you ever watched a community of ants closely before? It’s quite incredible and very moving.
As I began to ask for their forgiveness, yes, words actually were spoken, I couldn't help but notice this one ant, outside of the group. He was frantic, circling without order, while others navigated around him, focused on the building and work ahead of them.
I watched this ant. I felt connected to his chaos and confusion. I was trying to understand what was wrong with him when then I noticed it. There it was, right upfront… he was carrying a dead ant on his back. It was a remarkable sight. I was so struck by the sight all I could think of was how parallel and symbolic this scene was to how humans feel in the throes of grief. Uncharted, unpredictable, frantic, and disorderly.
You want the world to stop because yours has.
You want the world to pay attention when no one is.
You feel the weight of the pain and sadness and it immobilizes you.
How are others moving forward when you can possibly take two steps in the same direction?
I thought through all of this in 3 seconds, which felt like 50. But hey, presence doesn't know how to hold time, does it?
And then, just with the blink of the eye, it happened.
The ant carrying the dead ant on his back just dropped him. Let him go. Released. The weight. The burden. The pressure. The expectation.
I watched this simple tiny creature do what I had been trying to do for 20 years, LET GO.
And then I watched him march over and get back into the line with the other ants.
I lost him at this moment, and my sight grabbed hold of the bigger picture at hand. The bigger lesson of ants and how they are community builders, dream casters, and collaborators. The bigger lesson of letting go.
Grief can grab a hold of you, but the journey is about letting go. It’s when you let go, not of the person or the love, but of the shame, blame, anger, fear of it being gone… that you can begin to move forward, to build again. The problem is too many of us feel that it’s safe to hold on, to grasp tightly to the pain and suffering because it's more predictable than to let go and find freedom in the uncertainty. I write this today, having learned that the freedom from uncertainty is where all the beauty and wonder of life are found. But I also know that it’s a journey through grief to get there.
That day I went from hating ants to now understanding them and accepting them. To this day, I notice when ants show up in my life. I have come to learn that ants symbolize incredible traits such as strength, willpower, honesty, unity, patience, determination, endurance, sacrifice, and loyalty. These are the same traits I have aspired to in my healing journey.
I take notice when ants appear in my life. They are my ultimate reminder that we are always building, always changing, and we are never alone.
The lesson that day from that ant was powerful for me. Today, I want to pass it all along to you. We are all experiencing the chaos of grief. The burning desire to stay busy and do stuff. We do this because we don’t know how to stop and sit with our grief, to face the changes in our lives, the losses that will forever change how we move through the world. We feel like, well an ant carrying a dead ant on its back.
But if we learn to let go and accept the changes, give ourselves the space and time to grieve, and look out for each other along the way, we can build incredible things, realize new dreams and new connections.
We can all learn from these ants during this time. Ants are big dreamers, they represent strength, community, and perseverance. They accomplish big things because they are connected by the greatness of working together. They build, again and again, offering the most authentic testimony of resilience and perseverance. They build slowly and steadily. We should take note because, like the ants, the ultimate lesson in this time in our lives, is not just how this too will pass, but more so that loss is all around us and will come again, and through it all, if we choose to focus on the growth and the opportunity instead of grasping for what was, we are certain to reach new heights throughout.