Charlie: This month’s newsletter includes an excerpt from a message that we received from Jack Kornfield that deals with the subject of grief. Grief isn’t a particularly popular subject in that it can stimulate feelings of despair, fear, dread, and other painful emotions. Living in a culture that often influences us to avoid or deny the presence of uncomfortable feelings, the impulse for many of us (and I include myself here) is to try to avoid experiencing distressful emotions. Staying busy and preoccupied with multiple concerns and responsibilities is a great way to fulfill this intention.
There is, however, a problem that successful avoidance can cause: That which we are denying or avoiding doesn’t necessarily go away or disappear. The feelings go underground or more accurately, under our consciousness; out of our awareness but not out of mind. Our unwillingness to acknowledge, experience, and come to terms with them inevitably provokes symptoms that are often more difficult to deny, such as impatience, irritation, depression, anxiety, and even physical reactions, such as insomnia, back pain, digestive problems, hypertension, and headaches. These symptoms can be our body’s way of trying to get our attention to pay attention to something that we need to pay attention to. Frequently (but not always) when I attune myself to something in my experience that I have neglected to attend to, my overall sense of well-being improves. And although this process of self-inquiry is at times, uncomfortable, I’ve found that more often than not, the result is a feeling of greater inner peace and self-compassion.
Jack’s message provided a wakeup call that invited me to reflect upon the possibility of whether I may have been in denial of grief myself. I almost immediately saw that there were feelings of deep grief within me that I had intellectually recognized but had not allowed myself to fully experience. In my case, it was the grief of having been subject to the horrors of the circumstances that the Ukrainian people have been going through for the past two months. In doing so, I let myself get a sense of what it must be feeling like for them to be going through the hell that they are enduring. I had previously understood this but now I was experiencing something that I had previously been thinking but not really feeling. In this awareness, I found myself not only feeling a sense of sadness and grief for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, but felt a connection, even an identification, with them.
The word compassion comes from the Latin words “com”and “pati” which mean to suffer together”. When we allow ourselves to feel our own pain or the pain of another, we experience a level of connectedness that is unavailable to us when we relate to our experience only through our intellect or rational mind. When we can not only fully experience our grief but also share it with others, it becomes more tolerable and less overwhelming.
Perhaps the most painful symptom of a failure to fully experience difficult feelings like grief is a kind of psychic numbness that prevents us from experiencing life deeply. The cost of this numbness is a diminishment or loss of passion and vitality, and a feeling of disconnection from the rest of humanity and even to ourselves. The antidote to it is the willingness to experience, as Zorba the Greek says, “The full catastrophe”. When we feel this connection to the rest of humanity, our grief doesn’t disappear, but it is transformed into love, compassion, and connection.
This is, as you will see, the underlying message in Jack’s message.
So, without further ado, here it is.
I hope you enjoy it.
Human life inevitably brings gain and loss, joy and sorrow. Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve, we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to simply grieve.
It takes courage to grieve, to honor the pain we carry. We can grieve in tears or in meditative silence, in prayer or in song. In touching the pain of recent and long-held griefs, we come face to face with our genuine human vulnerability, with helplessness and hopelessness. These are the storm clouds of the heart.
Most traditional societies offer rituals and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears and help one another. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.
Be aware that the grief we carry may be our own, or the pains of those close to us. It may also be tears for the world, the sufferings caused by climate change, human divisiveness, racism and war. When we touch our grief and tears honorably, they can empower us. They can lead us to care more deeply, to love more fully, to renew life through our actions.
To meditate on grief, let yourself sit, alone or with a comforting friend. Take the time to create an atmosphere of support. Sense a field of strength and support wherever you can, of your loved ones, of your spiritual teachers, of Mother Earth who has seen it all. When you are ready, begin by tuning in to your breath. Feel your breathing in the area of your chest. This can help you become present to what is within you. Take one hand and hold it gently on your heart as if you were holding a vulnerable human being. You are.
As you continue to breathe, bring to mind the loss or pain you are grieving. Let the story, the images, the feelings come naturally. Hold them gently.
Let whatever feelings are there, pain and tears, anger and love, fear and sorrow, come as they will. Touch them gently. Let them unravel out of your body and mind. Breathe and hold it all with tenderness and compassion. Kindness for it all, for you and for others.The grief we carry is part of the grief of the world. Hold it gently. Let it be honored.
Releasing the grief we carry can be a long, tear-filled process. Yet it follows the natural intelligence of the body and heart. Trust it, trust the unfolding. Along with meditation, some of your grief will want to be written in pages or poems. Some will need to be cried out, to be sung, to be danced.
Keep in mind that grief doesn’t just dissolve. You will notice how grief arises in waves and gradually, with growing compassion, there comes more space around it. Let it take its time. The heart opens in its own season, and little by little, gaps of new life—breaks in the rain clouds—appear. The body relaxes and freer breaths appear. This is a natural cycle you can trust: how life—and the heart—renews itself. Like the spring after winter, it always does.