Sitting with Sorrow: A Practitioner Considers Grief

Our highly developed cerebral cortex is evolution’s gift to us: because of that adaptation, we can have rich cognitive, emotional, and spiritual lives.

The downside is that we can anticipate the future: as far as we know, ours is the only species aware of its own mortality. We can anticipate a difficult event long before it occurs, and therefore can suffer much more than other animals from inevitable difficult life events through anticipation. Our remembrances of things past can trigger painful memories as well. It is precisely because our emotional attachments and relationships have the potential to be so rich and fulfilling that our grief is so powerful in loss. Grieving is an inextricable part of the fabric of the human experience.

Antonio Porchio wrote, “Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.” I would concur with that view. To deny our perhaps-unique depth of ability to mourn loss is to deny an essential part of what defines us as human beings. I’ve been to memorial services in which the mourners were exhorted not to mourn: this day was one of celebration for the departed, who was now in an infinitely better place. The ones left behind should be rejoicing in that knowledge, they were told, and in the certainty that they will see that loved one again.

I think this is a fundamental mistake, and has the potential for being emotionally abusive. First, the grieving family and friends may not share the minister’s enthusiastic certainty about the persistence of consciousness beyond physical death. Secondly, even those that do have still lost a loved one today. Their grief and pain are real; they should be acknowledged and allowed expression.

How does the observance of grief present for yoga and meditation practitioners? First, our belief systems run the entire gamut: we’re members of conventional faiths, adherents of secular philosophies; we’re theists, non-theists and pantheists. For some of us, the principal goal of spiritual practice is to achieve enlightenment through a direct encounter with the Ultimate Reality beyond all words, thoughts and concepts. What we have in common is that all of us have found yoga and meditation (or perhaps just yoga) to be an integral, important part of our lives.

I would suggest “sitting with sorrow” in a time of grief. Rather than resisting thoughts and feelings of grief, fully embrace them. Experiencing fully the normal feelings of loss and bereavement has the power to make us more compassionate human beings, deeply aware of others’ pain. It may bring insight to an interpersonal conflict: rather than looking at your opponent as if across a vast chasm of incomprehension, we can say to ourselves, “Perhaps she’s dealt with a major loss recently. I remember when I was in that state; I was barely sane!” Experiential understanding of the depth of feeling involved in grief can traverse the often huge ideological chasms that divide us, particularly in our current, highly-polarized society.

I return once again to the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Avalokitesvara is a mythological construct of the human being defined at his or her core by the energy of compassion. To simply sit with our grief, neither denying it nor wallowing in it, we can become the embodiment of this bodhisattva for other grieving human beings.

Namaste,

William

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