How to Find Self-Love and Acceptance Through Grief and Fear

In her new book, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, yoga teacher Jennifer Pastiloff examines how facing loss, grief, and vulnerability allowed her to find endless love, self-acceptance, and wild happiness.

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Four years into dating, Robert and I were walking to the movies to see Inglourious Basterds when he nudged me to the other side of the sidewalk. He always insists (still) on walking on the side closer to the street. I wasn’t expecting it, so when he pushed me, I almost lost my footing.

“So, um, would you ever want to be Mrs. Taleghany?” he asked, and he shoved me, which I equated to pulling the hair of a girl you like on the playground.

“Are you asking me to marry you?” I said.

“Well, would you want to?”

“Wait. Is this how you are asking me to marry you?”

It sure was. The next morning, I woke up to a velvet jewelry box on my pillow from a local jeweler. Inside was a small diamond engagement ring. I opened my eyes and rolled over onto the jewelry box. He said, “I waited for you for 10 years.” He had.

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I wanted to keep my last name. I felt like it was my only connection left with my father, who died at age 38, when I was eight years old. I am always going to be Jen Pastiloff, Melvin’s daughter. Daughter of Mel The Jew—his nickname when he hung out on 5th and Wharton in South Philly as a teen.

I am an Avoider, not a Facer. And that is what I call a Classic Bullshit Story. The patterns of holding my grief inside my body have created neural pathways that cause me to binge-watch Netflix for hours under the covers instead of facing what is really going on. I equated wedding planning with going to the dentist. So I waited. I didn’t have any money, and traditionally the wife’s family pays for the wedding. My mom sure as shit didn’t have any money, so eventually I suggested we just get married in court.

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I was really into Wayne Dyer at this moment in time, and I kept thinking of him saying, “How may I serve?” My mom had tried to get me to read him for years. I was a hard No. Until one day, I heard Wayne on PBS and realized my mom perhaps knew more than I gave her credit for. I downloaded all of his talks onto my iPod.

But the first time I heard him say those life-changing words was in an auditorium with thousands of people. I was in the front row because I was determined to meet the man who was changing my life, and also so I could hear better. When he said those words, I shuddered. How may I serve? It made me want to barf in my mouth because at the time all I was doing was serving people all day at my waitressing job. Veggie burgers and eggs and chocolate-espresso no-nut brownies and decaf coffee and screw serving.

Then it hit me. I never woke up in the morning and asked, How may I serve? If my friends booked acting jobs and I didn’t, even though I didn’t really even want to be an actress, my first thought was always, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not enough? I am never going to get out of this restaurant. I was living in a desert of lack, a city of not-enoughness. I listened to Wayne speak and wondered, What if there really was enough? What if I am enough? And, Oh my God, I have been such an asshole for so long. I suggested to Robert that we turn our wedding into an opportunity to serve other people.

I had no idea who was saying the words coming out of my mouth. Who was I? Having a wedding to serve other people? Did I think I was Wayne Dyer of the yoga world?

Each time I thought about breaking a pattern that wasn’t serving me, I took a breath in, asked “Now what?” and then waded into water. And there was always someone holding my hand. I didn’t get there in a vacuum, and neither will you. Look around for the folks who will help you identify your bullshit stories and call them out. Look for those who will ask you, like my mom asked me, “Do you want to keep getting what you’ve always gotten?”

“What do you mean?” Robert asked as we sipped pinot noir on my carpet.

“I mean, I can ask if they will let me cancel my Sunday yoga class and instead have a party and invite everyone but tell them they can’t give presents. We can ask them to bring donations, and if anyone wants to sing or speak or play music or whatever, they can. It’ll be like a yoga-party-wedding thing, and we won’t have to spend any money. Oh my God, this is such a good idea.”

“OK,” he said.

That’s Robert. OK. It’s going to be OK.

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We got married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse on February 25, 2010. I taught a yoga class that morning at a donation-based yoga studio. I rushed out yelling, “I have to go get married now!” and almost forgot to collect my donations. I ran home to shower and change. I had 30 minutes. I wore a black dress I’d borrowed from someone and a little mascara. Robert wore a dark suit and a maroon tie. The judge who married us, a funny and warm woman, had us take each other’s hands under a wreath of beautiful white flowers to take our vows.

It was just as I always imagined my wedding would be, which is to say, like any other day, only different. I had never imagined myself getting married because I could never imagine the future. I hadn’t thought I deserved one. My mind, even at 35 years old, would still freeze up when I tried to think of anything beyond one month into the future.

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Finding “Now What?”

In my empowerment workshops, I talk about how unbelievably hard it is to break patterns. How we can’t beat ourselves up when we struggle. We all struggle. It’s part of being human. I’d see someone come to my workshops again and again, and she would write the same things down when asked what she wanted to let go of. I didn’t judge. I was, in my late 30s and early 40s, doing the exact same thing. Moaning about how I needed to let go of the belief that I didn’t deserve a future, that I couldn’t plan anything. I would panic when I had to think about any moment beyond the one I was living in. I’d hear these women (it wasn’t just one woman; we all do this) repeat the same things over and over. It was from listening to them that I saw myself.

If I wasn’t asking, “Now what?” after identifying a pattern that I claimed I wanted to break, then I was just making a list of reasons why I sucked. I saw these women doing this, paying a bunch of money to come to a weird yoga workshop and make a list that they would stick in a drawer and forget about. It’s what we do.

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I started asking them to ask themselves, “Now what?” after making the lists. If I was asking them to do this, I absolutely had to do the same thing. I thought about how my mom, despite how complex our relationship is, has taught me so much. She introduced me to Wayne Dyer, and without him I never would have started the journey I am on. When I started dating Robert and I was deep in a cycle of over-exercising and starving myself (yet another pattern that came and went over the years like a virus), I called my mom and said, “I don’t know, Mom. He’s so great, but I’m not sure I’m ready for a relationship. I like my routines. I like coming home from the restaurant and being able to do my exercise and not talk to anyone and sit on the computer all night if I want to. If I have a boyfriend, I can’t just do whatever I want.”

She said, “If you keep doing what Jenny Jen P has always done, you’ll keep getting what Jenny Jen P has always gotten.”

“Oh my God, Mom. Did you really just call me Jenny Jen P? But, ugh, you’re right. Why are you always right? I love you. Bye.”

Jenny Jen P was my nickname and my AOL Instant Messenger screen name and email address at the time. Essentially, my mother was asking me to ask myself, “Now what?” I would have talked myself out of allowing myself to be in a relationship just so I could keep up my self-destructive patterns.

Turns out, being in relationship did interfere with my patterns. Thankfully.

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“Now what?” will be my challenge for the rest of my life, as it will probably be yours, too. Allowing myself to enter into a relationship with Robert, and then having him move in, and then marrying him, helped me break the cycle. The first step was asking myself, “Now what?” Now what became “Yes, I will go out with you.” Then, “Yes, I will marry you.” Both things terrified me. And yet, moment by moment I entered into them as if entering cold water. And look, it did not kill me.

Each time I thought about breaking a pattern that wasn’t serving me, I took a breath in, asked “Now what?” and then waded into water. And there was always someone holding my hand. I didn’t get there in a vacuum, and neither will you. Look around for the folks who will help you identify your bullshit stories and call them out. Look for those who will ask you, like my mom asked me, “Do you want to keep getting what you’ve always gotten?”

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A Leap of Faith

I wrote a blog post about my upcoming wedding and why it was special—and it wasn’t about how much money (that I didn’t have, that my mom didn’t have) I’d be spending, but about something much greater that had started to come together for me as a yogi, and as a leader of yoga retreats, and, finally, as the writer I’d always wanted to be. I wrote:

This is such a special occasion. Not only is it marking my new life, but it is a sign of the yoga (meaning “union”) of the human spirit. When I told people I was giving the money to Haiti for my wedding, they wanted to be a part of it. Not only are we all coming together on Sunday, February 28, 2010, for something as beautiful as a marriage of two people (Jennifer Pastiloff and Robert Taleghany), but for the marriage of two different cultures: one in need, one in the place to give.

The pots and pans and dish towels will always be there.

I would really love a wok, though.

At the wedding party at the yoga studio, little kids walked around with white buckets and collected money from everyone for the Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti. A woman who had taken my yoga classes for years did my makeup as a wedding gift, and I didn’t wear shoes since there was a “no shoes” policy in the yoga studio. I painted my own grubby toenails. Not surprisingly, I didn’t plan it very well because I only had wine, cheese, and crackers. My friend Gabby ran out and bought tons of burritos and tacos and came back with them 30 minutes later. We ate Mexican food with donated wine as we collected money for Haiti and celebrated my new life in our bare feet. We ate leftover bean burritos for a week.

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I asked anyone who wanted to perform music or read poems or get up onstage to do so. A friend of mine played the cello, another sang. Someone read poetry, some said prayers. Someone offered a blessing. My friend Annabel gave a speech. I stood on stage and spoke, although I have no idea what I said.

I remember thinking I had to get up and speak. I hadn’t planned to, but as soon as I got up there in my silky dress and bare feet, the words poured out of my mouth. It wasn’t the wine, either. Being in front of people and speaking—connecting with them—was home for me. Once I was up there, I never wanted to get down.

I had always been terrified that if I really accepted the beautiful scene in front of me, that it would all vanish, so I kept a part of me at bay, locked in my time machine, fiddling with the dials, trying to escape. I looked over at my stepfather, Jack, and my new father-in-law laughing with each other and I closed my eyes and imagined my dad in there, too, trying to smoke inside as if it were still the ’80s, making everyone laugh even though he wouldn’t have wanted me to leave him. He’d discreetly look at me and press his finger into his nostril and say, “You know what I mean?” Our secret code. And I would say, “Yes, of course, I know what you mean.”

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I had spent so long not allowing myself to be present, drifting off and leaving when things felt like too much, that I didn’t even know whether I was physically hungry or not. I wasn’t ever sure how I felt. I was married. Oh. OK, I am married now. I remembered when my dad died, I said I didn’t care. That was not the truth, but that’s all I could allow myself. Only I don’t care. I smiled really wide for pictures, and I made jokes, but I wasn’t 100 percent there. I can see in the photographs I was indeed there, but I was not inhabiting my body.

I wished I had continued therapy through the years. I had only gone a few times to a few different therapists over the span of 37 years. It’s always felt overwhelming, like dating. Having to go and retell your story again and again and hoping you find the right match. The closest thing I had to working through my shit was listening to Wayne Dyer and doing yoga. I had never dealt with my grief, my eating disorder, my relationship with my mother. And yet, there I was, married. A real adult.

The guilt and the drama that don’t belong to me or that once belonged to me? Goodbye.

Lightening the Load

The next day, I walked into the local Red Cross with our donations. I don’t remember ever feeling as good. How could I keep doing this, this idea of serving?

In life, we have so much shit, and we constantly collect new shit on top of the old shit, and we mostly don’t even remember the shit we already have, so when we get a new espresso maker we act delighted and we use it for a while before we stick it in the cupboard with the other things that don’t fit on the counter and then forget about all of them because they’re hidden. Isn’t it funny how we house so much crap that we aren’t even consciously aware of? We do the same thing inside our bodies. So much pain piled on top of pain and memories on top of memories that we just shut the door to our minds and pretend there is nothing in there. That we are fine.

After I brought the money to the Red Cross, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of stuff. I’m a stuff person. The kind who always has an indentation in her shoulder where the big heavy bag digs in. The kind who always leaves a trail and is always knocking something over because there’s so much stuff around.

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When I worked at the restaurant, the guys in the kitchen used to put things in my bag. Melons and cast iron skillets and bottles of hot sauce. There was a fantastic blue cornbread we served in a cute little cast iron skillet that always ended up in my backpack. I wouldn’t realize until I got home because my bag was already so heavy and filled with unnecessary things like shoes, hardcover books, sneakers, underwear, bottles of water, bananas. Sometimes I’d be happy, because, Hey, I needed a cast iron skillet! But mostly I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed, that I walked around with so much that I didn’t notice when someone added their own stuff to my life. That’s how it is, though, isn’t it? When you have a lot of crap it takes a while to notice that more is being added, however slowly. This guilt? Not mine. This hot sauce? Not mine (but I’ll keep it). This shame? Not mine. This drama? Not mine.

It’s hard to not realize you have the cast iron skillet before it’s too late. Once you get all the way home with it, you might as well keep it, right? Because, let’s face it, it’s kind of embarrassing to go back with it, explaining that you didn’t steal it, that someone stuffed it in your big-ass bag and you just didn’t notice. Or maybe it’s not embarrassing and you just want to keep the cast iron skillet because you think you should have one. Maybe you think you deserve one. That’s what we do: I know it isn’t mine to take on, but I’ll keep it because I probably deserve it.

You think as you get older the weight gets lighter? It doesn’t. It gets heavier and heavier until you are buried in a pile of it and you can’t even reach to the front door.

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The things we take. The things handed to us that we walk around with as they dig into our shoulders and cause us pain, and yet we say, “No, I’m fine. I got this. I can carry it all.” When you carry so much shit, you don’t notice when other people add their shit, so truthfully, I was glad to have not gotten any more. As I walked out of the Red Cross, I remembered those days with my backpack at the restaurant and remembered my hiker friend Joe, who told me: “Carry only what you need.”

After I got married, I thought about what I could carry. I decided to take an assessment of what was on my back and in my car and in my heart and to imagine what it would be like to be free of it all. If I imagine myself free of my dad’s memory, I want to vomit. So thank you very much, but I will keep that one. The rest, though? The guilt and the drama that don’t belong to me or that once belonged to me? Goodbye. I am putting you back with the cast iron skillet and the melons that aren’t mine.

I did get a bunch of woks, though. But what I got more was the power of community. I saw how I was able to bring people together, not just at my retreat, but at my wedding, and on the internet. And I wanted more of it.

Excerpted from On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard by Jennifer Pastiloff, published by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Pastiloff. 


To find out what we learned at Jen’s On Being Human retreat, head to

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