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Marshall Dunn learned many things in the years following his older brother’s suicide. Possibly the most important lesson he learned, however, is the need to be in touch with one’s heart so that, in all walks of life, love becomes the way forward.
Grief hits people in different ways, according to culture and performance consultant Marshall Dunn. For him, it didn’t involve “lighting a candle, listening to music and expressing my emotions”. Instead, he underwent a 10 to 12-year process that took him deep inside himself when his older brother, Mitchell, took his own life in 2002.
“It really cracked me open in a way that I didn’t expect. When people talk about suicide, they talk about the bomb being dropped in the middle of the living room. It’s kind of like that. It feels like a smack in the face. You’re a washing machine of emotion. You’re angry, you’re sad, you’re blaming people, you’re feeling guilty, you’re ashamed, you feel like the spotlight is on you,” he reflected while speaking on The Wellness Daily Show.
“It took me deep inside myself. But with that, was the suppression, I didn’t put my hand up for help, I numbed, suppressed, didn’t ask for help. And that was kind of my undoing to be honest with you – my way of dealing with it was to drink more, smoke more weed, take ecstasy, do coke, sometimes all at once.”
While Mr Dunn notes that this form of coping wasn’t as healthy as it could have been, he said that it did help open up a passage within himself that allowed him to investigate who he was at his core and attune himself to his natural essence over time.
“I would seek out the help of books, teachers, mentors. I’d spend more time in nature; meditation came to me. I say I feel like I got my PhD in self-awareness, because I leaned so heavily into it. I leaned into the pain, I leaned into the darkness, but I also took a couple of steps forwards, and then I’d slide back down the slippery slope,” he said.
“It was a back and forth process that just took time for me. And it’s funny, when you’re in this process of grief, and I found like I was getting more and more closed off from my heart, I just sunk into my own self-loathing.”
Looking back, Mr Dunn – who recently completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Columbia University in New York – says that he doesn’t blame his brother Mitchell for what he did.
“What I’ve learned through this whole process is to accept the reality moment to moment, and work with that, and know that these obstacles and these challenges, they’re always designed to help you grow and evolve to know yourself,” he mused.
“It’s all about self-awareness. And with your self-awareness, you build confidence, and with your confidence, you build a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. And then you understand what type of love that you have to give.”
Discovering the heart
For him, this meant better understanding and appreciating the immeasurable value of one’s heart.
“I had a giant slab of rock around my heart. I did all the forgiving, and working with vulnerability, and overcoming self-doubt, and all this stuff, great, but there was still something around my heart called the heart wall – and I didn’t even know this until recently – there’s a sack of embryonic fluid around the heart which is designed to protect the heart. The more you try and protect your heart and close off to your source of love, that starts to build,” he explained.
“One thing that I noticed is that in relationships, I never liked my partner to be touching me around the chest, and I just thought it was like a physiological thing for me, I just didn’t like people touching my chest. What I started to realize is that I didn’t like people touching my chest because I was so f***ing closed off from it.”
“And what I’ve come to learn about the heart is that is sends around 400 times more information to the brain than the brain does to the heart. We’re governed in our minds by our hearts, and every great soul that’s ever walked the face of the planet have all talked about the undeniable power of the heart as the access point to knowing yourself, the essence of the human experience, your source of love. When you’re a fetus, what’s the first organ to produce? The heart. Science can’t tell you why that heart starts beating like bolts of lightning,” he said.
“When this is closed off, when you’re closed off from the heart, you can imagine all of a sudden how that affects your thinking and your feeling. If you’re closed off from yourself thinking and feeling wise, of course it’s going to impact how you act, and of course it’s going to impact your future-based reality in your present.”
The heart has its own consciousnesses, Mr Dunn outlined, and when you sit within it and direct love back within your heart, and start to put your heart in bloom through gratitude or compassion and kindness, “what happens is chemically and physiologically your heart produces that oxytocin, which signals nitrous oxide, and nitrous oxide signals derive endothelial relaxing factor”, he said.
It is the equivalent, he said, of like looking into your child's eyes and seeing those like that beaming love coming back at you. “They only know love,” he said.
“When you start to open up your heart, it produces different chemicals that restore and regenerate the body. I just think these days we’re so mind focused, everything’s about the brain, and that’s great. But there’s also an aspect of like the more we study the brain, the less we know about it,” he said.
Practical ways to get in touch with the heart
When asked how best individuals can be better at being more in tune with their heart and, therefore, their capacity to love and be loved, Mr Dunn had a number of suggestions.
“First of all, you can take some time to actually sit within yourself, such as meditation, and can bring your attention and your awareness to your sternum. And, with your attention and your awareness, start to breath from that place, as if it had its own nose, and start to witness the rise and fall of your breath as through your sternum, and direct your attention and your awareness, all of it, and sink down into that space,” he said.
“See if you can draw your attention out of here up top, and sink down here, and while you're doing that, you can place your right hand over your heart, not your chest and not your solar plexus, find your heart. Place your left hand over the top with your thumbs touching and make physical contact with the heart as you're doing that.”
“And you’ll notice already, whenever you place your hands on your heart, you make physical contact, and you try and find the pulse of your life force, and you let that vibration kind of move through you as you breathe, that’s when it’s a great anchor for you to start to sit within the heart, and get out of your head, and just breathe into that place,” he noted.
“From my perspective, the heart’s messages are always crystal clear, it’s almost like the heart amplifies the soul and the intuition. That’s the way I’ve experienced it.”
“The more you can sit and be quiet with your heart in a practical sense like that, and just listen, and just listen, and ask questions like for example if you were going through something, you could ask a question like, ‘What else is there I need to know right now about making a decision around X? What else is there I need to know about making changes in this job X?’ and just listen.”
“When you do this enough, you start to distinguish the two voices. There’s the rational mind, and then there’s the deeper seated, the seat of the soul, the ancients would call it, or if you would study transcendental meditation, that deep ocean of calm, that deeper level of the mind that is always clear, calm, still, and benevolent. Sit in that place.”
Reflecting on the grief his family has experienced, Mr Dunn said he remains very grateful that he had 26 years with his big brother.
“There were days where you wish it was different, but hey guess what? If he didn’t go, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing in the world if it wasn’t for his passing. So, I think I’m able to see really clearly the silver lining, the blessing in his passing and to honor my own gift of life as he would want it to be lived,” he explained.
“I don’t think he, wherever he is, in the other realm, is thinking to himself, ‘God, I hope they’re all still thinking me in terms of like feeling sorry for themselves or blah blah blah’. No, I think he would want myself and the family to be living their ‘best life’. I think it’s given me the perspective of life here is very short, and quit wasting time on s**t that doesn’t matter.”
“And that’s a daily practice, because worries creep in from time to time, and you got to go back to your practice of steering away from that. But when it comes to the cracks of it all, it’s helped me get to my truth, and when you come face to face with the truth, you got nowhere else to hide, you can either choose to embrace it, to own it, to live it, and to be curious with it, and move in that direction, or you can ignore it, and settle for a life that you don’t examine really, and that to me is a wasted life,” he concluded.