Tears Are Our Medicine

“I see you’re frustrated when I cry
I’m finding out how sacred as time goes by
Process, purify
I am lighter, much lighter

Look at my eyes and cry with me…
Let it all out, it’s meant to be
Tears are our medicine…

I see you’re frustrated
Yeah, you don’t cry 
You’re finding out how sacred as time goes by
Process… purify
You’ll feel lighter, much lighter

Look at my eyes and cry with me…
Let it all out, it’s meant to be
Tears are our medicine”

I am enamored by this song by Cuban-French twin-sister duo, Ibeyi. The lyrics point to a question that’s been nagging at me for a while: why do tears often seem to arrive in the company of shame? I find this particularly true for myself when I am in the presence of other people.

Crying is one of the few very explicit signs of feeling that we have as human beings—a little window into the heart, if you will. Why on earth do we feel the need to hide, suppress or quickly wipe away this beautiful gift? I’ve cried a lot more in the last six years than I used to and I’ve started to notice the inner emotional and cognitive processes that accompany my tears. 

Last year, I took an online class called Deja que la Gran Madre te Alimente (Let the Great Mother Feed You). It was small, just five women. We had been on a journey together for an entire lunar cycle; we had shared deep intimacies. One woman checked in saying that she was feeling deeply connected to the Earth… experiencing a sense of innate belonging. Something about this unleashed a wave of grief and longing in me. I didn’t realize it until the other woman shared, but the contrast was quite jarring: I was feeling empty, broken and disconnected from this place we are meant to call home. The tears did not come until it was my turn to speak. 

When I noticed the waters welling towards the surface—a show of emotion visible to the outside world—I felt a concurrent urge to repress this external expression of feeling. Perhaps I feared that I would occupy too much of our time, that the tears would flood and permeate the space with their melancholy. Somehow, I just did not think that it was an “appropriate” moment for this emotion. I did let the tears flow that day, I chose not to hide… AND I also stayed with that little voice inside me that tells me it is unsafe to do so. I have become quite curious since then about what it is that makes us feel uncomfortable, ashamed and afraid to cry. I’ve an inkling that it is largely rooted in our social conditioning and modernity’s dominant collective contracts. Whatever the cause, it seems pretty fucked up… quite frankly.

There is a pretty remarkable space that I’ve had the privilege to be in several times where tears are made explicitly welcome. They are not just not tolerated and no one will hand you a Kleenex to wipe them away. This isn’t always a physical place but a kind of gathering known as a YES! Jam (read more about the Mexico Jam in this post). At the beginning of my first Jam, one of the facilitants relayed a snippet of wisdom from Mesoamerican indigenous culture: the Earth actually needs our tears. When we let them fall from our eyes and onto the ground, we are communing. Perhaps she is able to feel our pain (or anger or joy or whatever emotion is present) a bit. I don’t know whether or not this is true but I also heard that by damming the flow of these waters, we are further damaging the planet. The Earth is parched and thirsty, longing to with-ness us as full emotional beings. Not only does our “contemporary” lifestyle, ontology and worldview destroy this place we call home, modern humans also repress, hide and are ashamed of the very tears that might connect us more deeply and perhaps offer a tiny measure of healing and consolation.

And though I truly believe in the medicine of my tears and understand—on a heart-level— the vital significance of authentic emotional expression, some shame persists. The overlapping layers of complex mental, emotional and instinctual processes that are unfolding within me when my tear ducts fill are very much still a mystery to me.

I’ve noticed that I feel more ensnared in these inner enredos when tears arise while speaking, especially to a group of people I know. I don’t usually feel shameful about weeping in front of strangers or in public (though my shame wizard much prefers silent crying to any kind of audible sobs). Over these past four years I’ve learned to let my tears flow freely in a group while listening to someone else or experiencing something that moves me. I am no longer ashamed of this at all. And then, of course, there’s the safest way to cry of all: alone in a bathroom stall. While I don’t feel embarrassed by this behavior at all, I sometimes actually find it difficult to connect to genuine emotion when I am all by myself.

Yes, there’s something about speaking… about attempting to make words turn into coherent thoughts: when emotion wells up in those moments, sometimes in an utterly unexpected way, it can feel like too much. Something has to be pushed down. I believe this phenomenon has to do with our relational nature as humans. One of the reasons I think I experience this is because I know that sharing of myself vulnerably inexorably connects me to those who are witness to my emotion. There is a part of me (mostly likely the “white lady part”) that feels like I will be responsible for other people’s responses to my tears and I don’t wish to carry this (imaginary) responsibility. There’s still something mildly terrifying about allowing the borders between us to blur and become porous. There’s still some inexplicable fear that I’ll lose a sense of myself if I allow my tears to transgress the physical boundary of my body: to run, to pool and, perhaps,to mingle with yours. 

I think I’ll spend the next few months intentionally inviting porosity into my life in as many ways as I can. I will allow the edges of bodies to blur into the air, down into the dirt, through the waters. I will practice in pleasure and in grief. I trust that I will not become lost to myself. I use the compasses of the heart, felt-sense and intuition to navigate through the landscapes I may find myself in. I will stay with the fear of being vulnerable and even offer it a blessing: that the fear may also flow and mingle with the waters of the more-than

I’ve realized that since the last miscarriage, I’ve been feeling stuck. It seems that I’m in kind of a weird limbo-state, waiting for the next phase of my life to begin. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to my menstrual cycle. I missed my period the last two months. In a recent session with my herbalist and naturopath about my menstrual situation, we talked about how my womb is holding on, holding in. I was feeling a deep need to allow in release, movement… flow. Many friends have been recommending that I spend more time dancing, moving my body and sweating. These somatic practices help to bring my energy back to this Earth, offering an outlet down and out, through the soles of my feet.

Over this past Day of the Dead, the age-old rituals of this place offered a beautiful opportunity to let the stuckness flow through wails, prayers and, yes, many tears. As I shared in this post some four years ago, I usually enjoy going out and festejando los Días de los Muertos. This year, a friend who was staying with us approached me on the morning of November 1st. They said, “I had a dream about you last night. You came to me and told me that you were going to become La Llorona. You said that you would be weeping and wailing and you wanted me to be warned.” This classic Mexican folk tale recounts the tragic story of the mournful soul of a woman who drowned her own children, and then—repentant and cursed—searches for them at night, haunting all who hear her relentless cries. As soon as they told me about the dream, the tears welled up and I could not contain them. I spent the next two days in front of the altar we had lovingly erected for our dearly departed, including Rafa and the other unborn babies.

I wrote:

This year, for the first time in 13 years, I am home on the night of November 1st, All Saints Day. I have spent eight hours at our altar, weeping, resting, thinking… convening with the departed little ones. This life is precious and painful, more so than I ever could have imagined.

I’ve also been listening to and observing with curiosity my friends and colleagues share their feelings and practices when it comes to crying. As with so many things, people have different kinds of relationships with their tears. My business partner told me that she recently had a teary conversation with her boss. “Well,” she said, “it was tearful after I got off the call with him… because I don’t like to cry in front of other people.” Yet another person shared that her therapist is encouraging her not to allow inconsolable crying to carry her away from staying with the actual emotional experience of the present moment. For her, in fact, turning into a total puddle may be an avoidance tactic. 

What seems clear is that this innate impulse that we have as humans when we are overcome with emotion is something we often have a complicated and shameful relationship with. I’ve been working to follow the practice I learned in the Jam to just let my tears run down my face, unabashedly, whenever they come. Someone offered me a tissue the other day in a workshop on shame and I just said, “No thanks. I’m practicing just letting them be.”

My dear sister, Signe Ruddy, once wrote an ode to tears. It ends with these lines:

“It is all about loving one 
so go ahead 
just let it out “

I invite you, dear reader, to begin to notice your own relationship to crying. Perhaps you may begin to feel more comfortable and less ashamed or afraid to let the tears out… and perhaps not. I believe that whatever deeper awareness we can cultivate will, in the end, benefit us all and prepare us for the griefs-yet-to-come in our lives and in this world.

Ode to the White Blossom by Signe Ruddy.

4 thoughts on “Tears Are Our Medicine

  1. Well said. I also thought of how many different ways people interact with their tears, or lack of them. Then it occurs to me that we all came into this existence with no thought about what to expect when crying. I’d say it spans from getting ones needs met to the instruction “stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about”. Many may feel it reveals their “weakness”, and can be used against them. It is a very important feeling, and needs more thoughts from many. Thanks for letting yours come, I try to do the same.

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  2. Dear Aerin what a talented and moving writer you are. When I was going through peri-menopause and menopause I was in the Army. You can guess how well tears went over! I think there are many kinds of work places and maybe even churches currently who frown (strongly) on tears. I still remember from working in a hospital in the 80’s a nurse who handed a family member a kleenex (family member had just died) and said “now dear here is a tissue just dry those tears” I have been on this earth 69 years and I am not sure that as a society we are any better at handling tears: whether others or our own. For me one of the pro’s to living alone is I can cry and not be concerned about another’s reaction. When I had a dog he used to lick my tears but my kitty cat has no response unless I am holding her and get tears on her soft fur. Then she lets me know “enough” and down she goes. I am grateful that tears are an expression of my feelings. I think we have all met people who are “full up” with emotion and we just want to say -let it out!! It is OK (natural, normal, healthy) to cry.

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  3. Awww… thanks for this message. I really cannot imagine going through peri-menopause and menopause in the armed services. What a journey that must have been. I hear you about the sanctuary of being alone with tears and I do appreciate that… though I have noticed (as I mentioned in this little part of the post about crying alone in a bathroom stall) that sometimes this expression doesn’t feel that genuine… but then that has me wondering about whether or not I need to be seen to be validated in my emotion. Is my crying sometimes a pattern of performativity? Hmmm… thanks for the opportunity to reflect more deeply on this today. Sending love and blessings to you, your 69 years, your tear ducts and your feelings! – Aerin

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