Dealing with Grief

A Dharma teacher in New York, Josh Korda, recently wrote a very nice piece which appeared on the Huffington Post about grief. That led to a conversation on Facebook, which led me to really think. Here’s my reflection in repainted to my friend Swami Sankaranda’s question. Please enjoy and please join our conversation. What are your experiences with dealing with grief and pain and how do you seek transformation from suffering to freedom?

Dear Swamiji,
The Buddha said that none are exempt from the three major causes of change: sickness, aging and death. He also detailed the many other ways we suffer due to change and clinging and craving. Also, this suffering arises from a delusion about who we really are, a confusion in the mind that we (or anything or anyone else, for that matter) has any ultimate permanent reality, that is gross and solidified.

 Our confusion that we have any permanent or ultimate fixed reality causes us to suffer. This also means that what ever harms we have experienced, whatever wounds have been inflicted, we may mistakenly believe, they will never change or go away. That sense of unchanging, solid, I, Me, and Mine is a core cause of trouble for us then. 

When we can understand that we are not separate from the rest of all that is, (the whole of the universe, seen and unseen) we can experience all our emotions, grief included, as part of the passing wave of experience, we can see then, that even grief will come to pass. (I think this is hard to do. It’s one thing to have a cognitive understanding of this idea, another to experience it directly. 

My own experience has been that long periods of meditation have been most effective in this regard.) I think that part of what Josh is pointing to, is that many in the West ( and perhaps elsewhere) have the mis-understanding that practice is about feeling neutral all the time. Or that there’s an intention to learn Dharma and practice meditation with a goal in mind, that is about a detached flattening of experience, not feeling grief or joy or any of the human emotions very much. But we know that in fact, if we do not allow ourselves to fully experience any moment, painful or joyful, or otherwise, we drain all existence of the joys of being human, until we feel like all the life, all the joy, is literally sucked out of us. 

At a ten day retreat this winter, I experienced several things, two of which stand out to me now, regarding this conversation especially:

1. I had profound experience of the flow of energy that is everything and recognized that the self I generally and in a conventional way, recognize as me, is part of that. No separate I, me, mine. No gross, solidified self. 

2. That what my friend Amy Briggs and I came to call our “thought breaks,” were an essential part of the experience of our practice. I know I needed to re-connect to huge chunks of life which had vanished. It was like seeing life flash before my eyes, thus reclaiming all that has been part of myself, even the shitty bits. 

In this way I could grieve losses, and recognize karmic patterns, seeing the seeds from which they’d sprung and seeing how they played out through out my life so far, thus allowing me to compassionately make changes, little by little, by recognizing when those opportunities are presenting themselves once again. 

This allows me now, to do as Stephen Cope puts it, in describing what he calls the reality project, : “…begin to relinquish our attempts to make life the way we think it should be, and we turn our attention instead to a minute and thorough inspection of the way life really is. … At the heart of the shift to the reality project is the eagerness to investigate exactly how things are right now. The preoccupying question is no longer, “what is wrong with this moment?” Or “how do I change this reality so that it conforms with my ideals?” But, rather, what is the nature of this moment – precisely? How can I examine it more deeply?” 

The 10 day retreat allowed me to let go of questions about why things are the way they were because I could understand them now. This allows me to ask questions more related to my direct experience of being. I can ask things like what is actually happening here ? What is the felt experience of this moment? It allows me to ask questions like how is this moment right now for me and what does this moment most need? 

Of course I don’t always do this perfectly. Far from it. Just last week I experienced a radical failure in this regard, even though my intentions were good. But my intention always, of course is to alleviate suffering for myself and others through compassion and awareness. 

Sometimes this means looking at those things which are painful directly and learning how to work with them in a way that is not too overwhelming. Taking them in bite-size pieces, breathing into them, relinquishing the habits of the mind and the body which hold onto pains, all our pains, breathing into them, releasing them bit by bit. 

Also by realizing that grief or sadness – joy and love are all universally felt. When we do as the Buddha taught us, that is, to face reality clearly and directly, even experiences of grief, thus facing them we can be released from the grip they can have on us, which would otherwise cause of ongoing suffering, only deepening non-beneficial karmic habits of heart, mind and body. 

By facing them, seeing that the pain of doing so won’t destroy us, we can do as Sylvia Boorstein suggests and discover that life, even our troubles, fears and griefs, are actually manageable and that we can all live with a bit more grace. May all find peace. 🙏🏽



Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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