grief

Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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Buddhism, grief, and loss

Ancient Buddha head without body in Sukhothai, ThailandRecently a meditation student who’s only just begun practicing wrote to say that she’d experienced a bereavement. She wondered if I had any suggestions to help her through the grieving process.

I have to say first of all that I’m not a grief counsellor. I’m just a meditator who has ended up sharing what he’s learned about working with pain. And I also would like to add that I’m hesitant to give advice in such situations because I know how feeble words can be in the face of powerful emotions. I long ago gave up on the notion I once held that there is some magical form of words that will make everything better.

Despite that, though, I know that sometimes when we share our perspectives with others (or when they do this with us) it can be helpful. So here’s an edited version of what I wrote to her.

Grief can of course be very painful. I think the main thing I’d emphasize is that the pain of loss is very natural, and to be accepted. It’s common to think that there’s something wrong when we feel pain, but when our life has been deeply entangled with that of another being, the two of us are part of one emotional system — a kind of shared love that flows between us. In that kind of a relationship we’re not, on an emotional level, two entirely separate beings. And so when we lose the other, it feels like a part of us has been ripped out. It feels that way because that’s exactly what’s happened.

So take a breath, and say, “It’s OK to feel this.” It really is.

Even those who are enlightened feel grief.

Just as one would put out a burning refuge with water, so does the enlightened one — discerning, skillful, and wise — blow away any arisen grief, his own lamentation, longing, and sorrow, like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.
The Sutta Nipata

When we think there’s something wrong about feeling grief, then we add a second layer of suffering, which is often far more painful than the first. This second layer of pain comes from telling ourselves how terrible the experience is that we’re having, how it shouldn’t have happened, etc. Accept that it’s OK to feel the initial pain of grief, and you’re less likely to add that second layer.

Grief is an expression of love. Grief is how love feels when the object of our love has been taken away. And that’s worth bearing in mind. Try being aware of the grief and seeing it as valuable, because it’s love. Without love, there would be no grief. But without grief, there would be no love. So we have to see grief as being part of the package, so to speak.

You can treat the pain as an object of mindfulness. What we call “emotional” pain is actually located in the body. When the mind detects that something is “wrong,” it sends signals into the body, activating pain receptors. The more you can be aware of where those painful feelings are located in the body, the less your mind will have an opportunity to add that second layer of suffering.

You can recognize that a part of you is suffering, and send it loving messages. While you’re paying mindful attention to the part of you that’s suffering (noticing where in the body your pain is located) you can say things like “It’s OK. I know it hurts, but I’m here for you.” You can find your own form of words if you want.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding yourself that all living beings are of the nature to die. It’s a natural part of life. We don’t do this to numb the pain or to make it go away, but to help put things in perspective. Today, thousands of people are mourning the loss of pets, parents, even children. You’re not alone…

The enlightened feel grief, but it passes for them more quickly than it does for us, because they recognize that everything is impermanent, and they don’t add that second layer of suffering.

So your grief is natural, but I hope it soon becomes easier and easier to bear.

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“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Rainer Maria Rilke

rilke_33A woman on the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Urban Retreat, which this year focused on the theme of cultivating lovingkindness, or metta, asked a question about how to deal with “strong emotion” — especially grief — that may arise during lovingkindness practice. For this person, grief tended to arise particularly while she was cultivating lovingkindness toward herself, and she wondered how to be honest with her experience but not dissolve into and become lost in it.

I offered her a few suggestions, which I’ll enlarge on here:

1. Stop considering grief as an emotion.

Is grief an emotion? Is “emotion” even a meaningful term, in the context of Buddhist practice?

Increasingly I find the word “emotion” to be an unruly and overly broad category. It’s not a traditional Buddhist term, and I tend to avoid it. Buddhism talks about vedana, or feelings, but these don’t overlap very well with our term “emotion.” Vedanas are a primarily a sense of whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They’re our evaluation of something we’ve perceived: look out of the window and see rain, feel your heart sink; see the sun come out from behind a cloud, feel a rush of joy. Those are things we’d often call “emotions.”

Buddhism also talks about cetana, which is volition or intention. Metta (lovingkindness) is the desire that beings be happy, and the intention to act in a way that makes them happy. Anger is the desire to hurt, or wound, or to destroy an obstacle. So we might often call cetanas “emotions” as well.

But from a Buddhist point of view, vedanas/feelings and cetanas/intentions are completely different things! We can’t directly choose what feelings arise, but we can choose what intention we’re going to put our energy into. For example, you can’t choose not to be hurt by a cutting comment, but you can choose not to express or reinforce our anger, and instead to focus on being kind. Feelings are part of out “input” (i.e. experience that arises in consciousness) while intentions are what lead to output (i.e. actions).

So our term “emotion” covers two different phenomena in an unhelpful way.

Also, some intentions may not have much feeling associated with them. We can be kind to others without actually feeling anything like love. We might even feel rather depressed, but still want to act in a way that’s helpful and considerate to others, and we wouldn’t want them to suffer. This confuses people sometimes when they’re practicing meditations in which they cultivate lovingkindness. They look for something resembling an “emotion” of love (gushing warmth in the heart, a feeling of radiance) and don’t find it. So they think they’re doing the practice wrong and don’t have any of this “thing” called lovingkindness. Actually, they have the intention for beings (including themselves) to be happy, so they have plenty of lovingkindness.

So that’s why I tend these days to avoid the word “emotion” and to stick to the traditional terms vedana and cetana, or their translations, feeling and intention.

And I suggest that the primary experience of grief is what Buddhism calls a vedana. It’s a feeling. In this case it’s an unpleasant feeling, and it usually arises when something we’ve loved or clung to has been lost. Sometimes we’re not even conscious that we have lost anything, so grief can seem to arise randomly.

2. Accept your feelings.

Since vedanas are not something we consciously do, they are ethically neutral. Ethics, in Buddhism, is about intention. Grief is therefore ethically neutral, and so it’s not something we should try to rid ourselves of. It’s not “bad” to experience grief. It’s just uncomfortable.

But what we call grief can also have a volitional, or intentional, aspect to it as well. After the primary experience of grief comes our response, which can include aversion, or thoughts about how this experience shouldn’t be happening, or how we just want it to go away, or we think that we’ve “failed” because we’re suffering, etc. Those are all volitions, and they intensify our suffering. Every time we respond to our initial experience of grief with a thought akin to “woe is me,” a new wave of unpleasant feeling is generated.

The initial grief — the first pang — that we experience is what the Buddha called the “first arrow” of suffering. Our resistance, etc., is the “second arrow,” which we fire ourselves, and which adds to our pain.

So first of all we need to accept that the grief is there, and that it’s OK to feel it, even if it’s unpleasant. You can even say to yourself, “It’s OK to feel this.” So we keep dropping all the “second arrow” volitions, thoughts, and actions, and mindfully pay attention to the grief as best we can.

3. Cultivate self-compassion.

But we can also have compassion for our own pain. This doesn’t mean wallowing (that would be the second arrow again) but simply recognizing that there is a part of us that is in pain, and giving it our kindly and loving attention. You can locate where, in the body, the grief is principally located. (It’s often the solar plexus). And you can wish your pain well, as you would to a friend in the metta bhavana practice. You can even place a hand on the place where the grief is manifesting and say something like “I love you, and I want you to be happy.”

Rilke’s statement, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” is very apropos, but it might suggest to some people being overwhelmed by feelings. Allowing yourself to be overwhelmed is not what Rilke is suggesting, though, since he also advises us to “just keep going.” When we’re lost in our feelings we become passive and so we give up on the “going.” The feeling becomes the only thing we can know or see. When we “just keep going” we’re aware that we’re going through a process that will naturally end. The more we resist our feelings, the longer the process will take. The more we can accept them and have compassion for them, the more quickly they’ll pass.

“No feeling is final.” Every feeling we have ever had has arisen and passed away. It came from emptiness and returned to emptiness. This is true for whatever you’re feeling right now. That anxiety, that dread, that feeling of hopelessness and despair, that grief — it’ll pass. Just accept it, and give it your compassion, and help it on its way.

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Sorrow is failed compassion (Day 28)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI’ve had more people asking me about the “near enemy” of compassion. So here goes…

The “near enemy” is, by definition, something you might confuse with compassion. You might think you were cultivating compassion but were actually cultivating something else, in the same way that you might water and care for a weed, thinking it’s a useful plant. The “far enemy” is quite straightforward. It’s cruelty, or indifference to suffering, which is just the direct opposite of compassion. That’s easy to understand. But what is compassion’s “near enemy”?

People often use the word “pity” to describe the near enemy, but the traditional commentaries use the word “grief.” Compassion is also said to fail when it becomes sorrow, and that also seems related to the notion of the near enemy, since grief and sorrow and virtual synonyms. I’m going to point to three things that I think can be the near enemies of compassion.

But first, as a reminder:

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

1. Your suffering’s making me feel bad, dammit!
Now, grief is a sense of loss. We can be attached to our own “normal” state of mind and find it unpleasant to have that interrupted by seeing someone suffering. We experience the “grief” of losing our normal sense of ourselves — even our normal ego-centric sense of ourselves — taken away from us.

So we see someone suffering, and it’s unpleasant. Now we’re suffering too! Now we may just turn away, or we may want their suffering to stop and in doing so think that we’re being compassionate. But we want the other person’s suffering to stop because we want to stop our own suffering. We really just want to remove an obstacle to our own happiness! There’s no real empathy. No real recognition of the other’s suffering. There’s just our own pain, which we want to get rid of. So this is very self-focused and it’s essentially egotistical pseudo-compassion.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, so we need to connect with our own vulnerability, which is something I’ve talked about in relation to compassion, and with lovingkindness. I wouldn’t recommend going into compassion meditation “cold.” We should always start by acknowledging that we suffer.

Another form of this may be when we feel the heart-ache of considering another person’s suffering. This heart-ache is completely normal. It’s just a deep-rooted response to pain in another person. But it’s uncomfortable, and we may not be very good at dealing with discomfort. You know what it’s like when you have a cold or some other minor ailment, and you find yourself wallowing, telling yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) about how awful it all is? And it ends up that 95% of your suffering is actually caused by your reaction to the cold, not to the cold itself? Well, that can happen with developing compassion as well. We move from the heart-ache of being aware of someone’s suffering, to going on about how awful everything is.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, but we also can’t empathize with others’ suffering if we’re not able to accept our own. We need to learn to become comfortable with discomfort, otherwise the heart-ache of compassion turns into a wallow-fest that’s all about me, me, me.

2. Stop samsara, I want to get off!
Another way attachment can get in the way of compassion is when we get despondent (i.e. we experience sorrow, which is failed compassion). So we might be aware of someone’s suffering, and we get overwhelmed. Maybe we try to cultivate compassion for a friend who has terminal cancer, and we feel dreadful because we’d like to help but can’t. There’s attachment to the idea that we should be able to make things OK. We can’t accept that there are things we can’t fix.

Or the mind takes this one step further, and we start thinking not just about our friend, but about all the other people who have cancer, and maybe other terminal diseases as well. Now we get despondent because there’s so much suffering in the world, and we can’t fix it! So we feel terrible. But compassion isn’t about saving the world, because none of us can do that. We can and should act where we can, but it’s just going to make us suffer if we’re attached to being a “savior” and think that we should be able to help everyone.

As they say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s grief and sorrow when we don’t know the difference.

This very much connects with the Buddha’s teaching about the “two arrows” of suffering:

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

The first arrow here is simply the heart-ache of sensing someone’s suffering. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to consider someone’s suffering. But how do we deal with the discomfort of compassion? The second arrow is the reactions I’ve described above, where we “sorrow, grieve, and lament” about the fact that we or others suffer.

The Buddha called wallowing a “bottomless pit” of pain, because we generate pain in response to pain. It’s bottomless because there’s no end to that. But this wallowing is not necessary. “When a well-taught noble disciple is afflicted by painful bodily feelings,” the Buddha says, “she will not worry nor grieve and lament, she will not beat her breast and weep, nor will she be distraught.” And thus she becomes one “who can withstand the bottomless pit and has gained a foothold in it.”

We can learn to bear suffering mindfully, without reacting. We can practice being aware of suffering, and beaing aware of — and letting go of — our thoughts and reactions to suffering. We just let the suffering be there. It’s OK to feel discomfort. Over time we become better at experiencing the first arrow without adding a second.

3. Poor you!
And maybe related to this is a sense of superiority, where we’re feeling good about ourselves in relation to all these “poor souls” out there that aren’t as “sorted” as we are. So that is “pity” in that we feel superior. But here the grief is hidden, because we’re probably having a blast thinking of ourselves as being so wonderful and benevolent. The grief comes later, when the people we’re so “benevolently” helping tell us how arrogant and out-of-touch we are, for example. This is what the Buddha called the “suffering of reversal.”

The cure again here is acknowledging our own vulnerability. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. And yet over and over again you encounter suffering when you hadn’t expected it. Suffering sideswipes you. So you’re not in control. You’re not “sorted.” You’re struggling, like everyone else. Compassion doesn’t make us superior. Bearing this in mind helps keep us real.

Doubt is deadly! People are always looking for excuses to think that they might, secretly, be doing a meditation practice wrong. So I feel compassionate, but maybe it’s not real! Just keep going. If you feel despairing, then that’s probably a sign you’ve tipped over into “grief” or “sorrow.” If you just have an ache in the heart then that’s probably just the “first arrow,” which is an unavoidable part of the practice.

All of the above are simply things we have to work through, so don’t beat yourself up or despair. But maybe if we learn about these unhelpful patterns we can recognize them a bit earlier.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Defending against loss

The Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain.

Yet, this life is not only burning and falling apart; sorrow and joy are woven inextricably together. When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

One of my clients, Justin, distracted himself from the loss of his wife, Donna, by armoring himself with anger. He’d met her in college, and married her right after graduation. Donna went on to law school and to teaching law; Justin taught history and coached basketball at a small urban college. With their teaching, passion for tennis, and shared dedication to advocating for disadvantaged youth, their life together was full and satisfying.

On the day that Justin received the unexpected news of his promotion to full professor, Donna was away at a conference, and caught an early flight back to celebrate with him. On her way home from the airport, a large truck overturned and crushed her car, killing her instantly.

Almost a year after her death, Justin asked me for phone counseling. “I need to get back to mindfulness,” he wrote. “Anger is threatening to take away the rest of my life.”

During our first call, Justin told me that his initial response to Donna’s death was rage at an unjust God. “It doesn’t matter that I always tried to do my best, be a good person, a good Christian. God turned his back on me,” he told me. Yet his initial anger at God had morphed into a more general rage at injustice and a desire to confront those in power. He’d always been involved with social causes, but now he became a lightning rod for conflict, aggressively leading the fight for diversity on campus, and publicly attacking the school administration for its lack of commitment to the surrounding community.

His department chairman had previously been a staunch ally; now their communication was badly strained. “It’s not your activism,” his chairman told him. “It’s your antagonism, your attitude.” Justin’s older sister, his lifelong confidant, had also confronted him. “Your basic life stance is suspicion and hostility,” she’d said. When I asked him whether that rang true, he replied, “When I lost Donna, I lost my faith. I used to think that some basic sanity could prevail in this world. But now, well, it’s hard not to feel hostile.”

The pain of loss often inspires activism. Mothers have lobbied tirelessly for laws preventing drunk driving; others struggle for legislation to reduce gun violence; gay rights activists devote themselves to halting hate crimes. Such dedication to change can be a vital and empowering part of healing. But Justin’s unprocessed anger had aborted the process of mourning. His anger might have given him some feeling of meaning or purpose, but instead he remained a victim, at war with God and life, unable to truly heal.

Loss exposes our essential powerlessness, and often we will do whatever’s possible to subdue the primal fear that comes with feeling out of control. Much of our daily activity is a vigilant effort to stay on top of things—to feel prepared and avoid trouble. When this fails, our next line of defense is to whip ourselves into shape: Maybe if we can change, we think, we can protect ourselves from more suffering. Sadly, going to war with ourselves only compounds our pain.

A few months after my first phone consultation with Justin, his seventy-five-year-old mother had a stroke. His voice filled with agitation as he told me about the wall he’d hit when he tried to communicate with her insurance company. They couldn’t seem to understand that her recovery depended on more comprehensive rehab. “There’s nothing I can do to reach this goddamned, heartless bureaucracy … nothing!”

Justin was once again living in the shadow of loss, and gripped in reactivity. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring mindfulness to his immediate experience. He began by quickly identifying what he called “pure, righteous anger” before pausing, and allowing it to be there. Then, after a several rounds of investigation, he came upon something else. “My chest. It’s like there’s a gripping there, like a big claw that’s just frozen in place. And I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked gently. After a long pause, Justin spoke in a low voice. “She’ll probably come through this fine, but a part of me is afraid I’m going to lose her too.”

We stayed on the phone as Justin breathed with his fear, feeling its frozen grip on his chest. Then he asked if he could call me back later in the week. “This is a deep pain,” he said. “I need to spend time with it.”

A few days later, he told me, “Something cracked open, Tara. Being worried about my mom is all mixed up with Donna dying. It’s like Donna just died yesterday, and I’m all broken up. Something in me is dying all over again . . .” Justin had to wait a few moments before continuing. “I wasn’t done grieving. I never let myself feel how part of me died with her.” He could barely get out the words before he began weeping deeply.

Whenever we find ourselves lacking control of a situation, there’s an opening to just be with what is. Now that Justin had once again found himself in a situation he couldn’t control, he was willing this time to be with the loss he’d never fully grieved. Instead of rushing into a new cause, he spent the next couple of months focused on caring for his mom. He also spent hours alone shooting hoops, or hitting tennis balls against a wall. Sometimes he’d walk into his empty house and feel like he had just lost Donna all over again. It was that raw.

Justin had finally opened to the presence that could release his hill of tears. Six months later, during our last consultation, he told me that he was back in action. “I’m in the thick of diversity work again, and probably more effective. Makes sense . . . According to my sister, I’m no longer at war with the world.”

By opening to his own grief instead of armoring himself with anger, Justin was finally able to start the healing process. His grief had never gone away; it had just been hidden. Once he was willing to open to it and feel it, his own sorrow could show him the way home to peace. As Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue tells us:

All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

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Yoga, meditation helps heal grief

People cope with the death of a loved one in different ways.

A local woman is using mind-body therapies such as yoga, meditation and journaling to help grieving folks cope with the loss.

Heather K. Whittington holds a master’s degree in thantology, the study of death and dying, from Hood College. She is also a Certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner.

She combined her professional training in both to launch Mindful Grief at Mind-Body Therapies, 5 N. Bentz St., Frederick . Services include Yoga for Grief classes, group relaxation workshops and private Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions.

“Grief is a physical reaction to loss that causes emotional, physical and behavioral responses that creates more stress,” Whittington said.

Frederick News Post: “Losing a loved one is hard on the heart and hard on the body, but there is some good news in that there are easy-to-learn techniques that can at least relive some of the physical complaints, and even calm the mind.”

Whittington began planning for the new business while completing her coursework at Hood College, where she earned the master’s degree in January. She presented a poster of the business at the Association of Death Educators and Counselors annual meeting last year. She wrote “Living in the Body: Using Awareness of Physical Sensation to Cope With Loss” in the organization’s October edition of its quarterly publication, The Forum. The response was positive from the death education and counseling community, she said, and decided to move forward with her plans for the business.

Whittington has managed Maryland Yoga Therapy at the Center for Mind-Body Therapies since 2003 and was honored for her entrepreneurship for a former business, Gecko Media Group, in 2002.

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