How many here are grieving or have undergone deep grief? Do you have the support you need?
Are you told to quickly get over it as if it is the flu or a cold; to move on; that the loved one is watching over and taking care of you; that they would not want you to cry or grieve? And has this helped? Or has it come across as not understanding your pain, as an intolerance and impatience to the pain?
I have found meditation to be a very effective way, one of many, for making peace with a potent and natural human experience. There is no single template to follow—each of us makes our own way through it. Grief counselors, meditation teachings, say the only healthy way is through the experience and emotion, there is no way around it. Faith, religion, spirituality can be enormously helpful as well. I hope we can create a supporting environment here and share helpful resources.
Grief presents itself in so many ways: death, divorce, moving, challenging relationships, illness, abuse and betrayal, loss of mobility and independence.
So we all share this bond. The experience can be solitary in the sense that no one can undergo it for us—just as no one can eat, drink, or sleep for us. But we do need people who care, are accepting and patient listeners, and who do not judge us. We will cry, feel the need to talk—sometimes over and over again, sometimes we may need to be silent and alone.
How long should grief last? Life is messy, and it is not linear with arbitrary time lines that can be imposed on grieving. We may be asked to intellectualize, judge, these normal emotions; and when we cannot, it can come across as a lack of faith in religious and spiritual beliefs. But this is not an intellectual experience—it is felt deeply in the heart and it needs our compassionate attention.
Grief can be an expression of love. It can also be a powerful motivator for a deep, fundamental change, turning the trajectory of life. Buddha lost his mother in infancy and his life became the quest to end suffering, Virgin Mary lost Jesus, Jesus mourned Lazarus, Mohammed lost his young son Ibrahim as well as his grandchild. Abraham lost his wife Sarah. They all grieved and mourned.
In our modern culture, do we tend to look at grief/sadness/pain as unnatural emotions to be avoided? We are comfortable expressing happiness, even jealousy, greed, certainly political rage. But sadness and pain are just as natural and normal and yet people are uncomfortable, even embarrassed by the expression of these emotions. It may even be seen as a sign of weakness, especially in men. As a society, it is imperative that we give men and boys the space to feel, experience, and express this emotion. To recognize and honor their humanity and suffering.
Grief is the most natural, healthy response to enormous mental trauma. Its expression is essential, a sign of strength—like letting steam out of a pressure cooker. It is a way of de-stressing.
When friends and family avoid our grief, it may be because they don’t know how to respond. That they are uncomfortable with their own painful emotions—and when we are uncomfortable with our own emotions, avoid them, resist them, then we will do the same with other people’s as well. Discomfort and the dread of grief makes it so much more difficult to ever find peace.
As I looked at my own grief, it came as a surprise to notice that not only did I feel the loss of my husband, but I also grieved for myself and for my children. And that meant that there was a need for self-compassion (which we will talk about another day). Let us stop and think for a few moments—who all do we grieve for? Do you notice if you grieve for yourself as well?
I am going to briefly go through some of the feelings of grief to emphasize that they are all normal. Being in touch with our feelings can help us develop emotional intelligence and resilience. Initially, there may be numbness and shock. There may be denial and anger. It is normal to experience fear, loneliness, anxiety or depression, regret, remorse, guilt, lack of resolution. Let it all be. Look at the stories around these feelings.
Look at the physical sensations. Racing heart, sharp breath, knotted stomach, tight and painful chest, head feeling heavy and closed in, inability to sleep or concentrate, a fog through which it is hard to process what anyone is saying. Sometimes the pain is sharp, searing, cutting. Sometimes a dull, chronic ache. Other times, the grief swells in overwhelming waves as you struggle to keep your bearings and balance—like the ground has fallen under your feet. How insecure do we feel with that feeling of falling and spinning? Do any of these sound familiar?
Over time, the intensity and frequency lessen. And for this we must accept our grief. Resistance makes it harder than it already is. The dread of grief is even worse than the emotion. We let the pain come in peace.
Reflect upon the teaching: This too shall pass. What does that mean in this situation? Where does it all arise from and what does it pass into? Who is experiencing all this—who is this I or me?
Yes, people who meditate, who are very religious or spiritual also experience enormous pain. In it they find their humanity and inter-connection to the web of life. This quote from Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, says: To love means to open ourselves to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and thus an intensity of consciousness that before we did not know was possible. Grief is the single most unifying aspect of human experience.
As I sat with a group of women recently, there were three other women who had lost their husbands. We bonded around this shared, universal grief. I don’t own it or possess it just because it is my individual experience. It is not enough to just know that this too shall pass, everything is impermanent—there has to be acceptance of it as well, which is challenging.
Embedded in impermanence is the practice of non-ownership, which means neither clinging nor rejecting. In meditation we do not cling to, or reject, the breath and learn to apply this to aspects of our lives as well. Life moves through us and around us with the whisper of the breath—we experience it but we cannot own it.
Are we able to sit with the grief and pain that are inevitable parts of life without clinging, rejecting? Let them move through us? Can we see in our contemplation that attraction and rejection, raga and dwesha, are inextricably linked to ownership, possessiveness–I wants this, not that. Who is attracted? Who rejects? It is I. I has a way of getting us away from peace which is fundamentally who we are in the meditation/spiritual traditions. If this too shall pass—can we own anything that is passing through? It may pass again and again. This too shall pass means we don’t cling to it, don’t create stories/narratives around it that sustain the emotion’s strength and stickiness, keep giving new life to it.
I is also a passing thought, no more.
Our first step to healing, making peace with grief is to accept it. If it hurts too much, take in a little at a time. Place a soft hand over your heart or belly, hold or touch the pain lovingly, and breathe into the pain. Breathe right through it.
As we breathe through this well-defined, solid heavy cloud, the pain softens. Clouds look so well-defined and solid until you go through them and see it is just air, open space, no form. “I” and “me” are also less solid upon examination than perception suggests. In Yoga Nidra we lose all sense of the dense, physical body and the experience is that of expansive space. As we go right into it with the breath, pierce it with awareness, grief and pain feel less solid, more open.
Our hearts open up and there are seeds of other potent emotions in the grief—yes, there are seeds of anger, bitterness, resentment. But we also see how the sword of grief spontaneously breaks open the heart to become the flowering of empathy, love, compassion. There is no effort and there is the possibility of instantaneous, unconditional love and forgiveness.
In our pain, we connect with the pain of others. Love for one, and our perceived loss, has led us to infinite love for all. What we could not let go before, what we could not forgive before, now can suddenly become petty as our heart and mind open wide to forgiveness. We don’t even have to try! And we are reminded: This too shall pass, everything is impermanent. I too shall pass–and suddenly life takes on a new perspective, meaning, and purpose. We wonder how we fritter our time and life on what seems remarkably irrelevant in our current situation. Our suffering exposes our strengths and weaknesses bringing them into sharp focus as we strip ourselves bare. It makes us think what do I want to discard? What is truly important to me?
When we see someone else grieving, suffering, whether we know them or not, even in a movie or on TV, our eyes well up and hearts fill. There is a natural instinct to wrap our arms around the pain and comfort it. We forget ourselves, me/mine, as we become one with someone else’s pain. This is our infinitely compassionate heart, the heart of who we are where there is no I that dwells. This core of our being is revealed in a way joy or happiness may not. It brings out the best in us, our true self that is covered up at other times under our ego-centric, I-centric existence. Our grief is perhaps envied less than our happiness. When we are stripped, vulnerable, exposed, with no ground under our feet, we touch our deepest and truest self. This is making peace with grief. We can wrap our compassionate arms around ourselves, our grief, with forgiveness that includes us.
Neither clinging, nor rejecting, feel grief as grief. We give ourselves time, reflect on all that this experience has revealed to us and try to retain some of our true, compassionate selves, when the intensity diminishes. Grief can bring us home to the infinite compassionate heart.
In the recent book Why We Sleep: Unlocking Dreams, the author Matthew Walker talks about REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). REM is a unique phase of sleep in mammals and birds, characterized by random, rapid eye movements, accompanied by low muscle tone throughout the body, and the propensity of the sleeper to dream vividly (as defined by Wikipedia).
Matthew Walker explains the healing power of REM sleep: An astonishing change in the chemical cocktail of the brain takes place during REM sleep. Concentrations of a key stress-related chemical called noradrenaline, also called norepinephrine, are completely shut off within the brain when we enter this dreaming sleep state. In fact, REM sleep is the only time during the 24-hour period when the brain is completely devoid of the anxiety-triggering molecule. REM sleep reprocesses upsetting memory experiences and themes in this neurochemically calm, low-adrenaline, or safe brain environment. REM sleep is perfectly designed nocturnal soothing balm—it divorces the emotional bitter rind from the information-rich fruit. We an therefore learn and usefully recall salient life events without being crippled by the emotional baggage that those painful experiences originally carried.
That is why sleep is so important after trauma and that is when it is often so difficult to sleep. Yoga Nidra is now used to treat PTSD in veterans. Some of the veterans brains continue to produce adrenaline giving them no respite for REM. Yoga Nidra takes us to REM stages but we are alert in that stage, not sleeping. It may be possible that Yoga Nidra induces the calm, low-adrenaline environment with possible resolution of challenging emotions so they are no longer crippling–much more research is needed beyond the limited studies that have been done.
And the Yoga Nidra we will now do gives us the structure to be at peace with grief. If we are deeply aware of what we feel, grief has the potential to dramatically change our old habitual thinking. We can be transformed by it and find an enduring sense of peace. It may force a re-examination of everything.