By Lori Lines
This may, at first, appear inconsequential to those of you who have suffered great loss but I begin this article by telling this true story as a basis for where I was in my own spiritual evolution several years ago. Read on.
Many years ago, I came across this beautiful unique and expensive leather sofa when I was decorating my new home in Colorado. I fell in love with this sofa and it was delivered the next day. Over time, I lovingly cleaned it with leather cleaner and then spent hours conditioning the leather. It was gleaming in our family room as I admired it so. At the time, my daughter was about three years old, I told her never to get near the furniture with her art supplies. I kept a special place in our basement just for her, all set up with an easel, paper, play doh, paints and chalk...just waiting for her future masterpieces. One day, she found one of my big permanent markers that we used to label our moving boxes. You know, those really big fat pens with black permanent ink? And, as I was preparing lunch for her I noticed how suddenly the house seemed quiet. I looked around for my daughter but I couldn't find her. I called out her name and I heard nothing. Then I saw her. She was happily drawing a new masterpiece, with that black pen, all over my new light tan sofa!
Our beloved leather sofa was ruined. I immediately went into denial thinking it could be cleaned and returned to it's pristine status. Then I became angry. And, then I was crushed. The beautiful sofa in my elegant, newly decorated family room, was a massive piece of three year old graffiti.
Fortunately, and it took all I could muster, I had the presence of mind not to take my anger out on her. But I was LIVID, to say the least. And, I felt loss. It took a bit of time to recover my equanimity but of course, I did. Once again, I recognized the irony of my attachment to an image that that sofa portrayed. I had to remind myself, as the Buddha said, "All compounded things are impermanent." This leather sofa was most certainly a compounded thing as was clear by the vision of graffiti by my then 3 year old. Sometimes we give away possessions, say, to a friend, that we are attached to and we feel loss. But that is different. I had given away that possession voluntarily. But, this time, the loss came against my will. When giving something way, we have the time to relinquish an attachment before letting it go. The leather sofa, however, was gone before I was prepared. And. It. Hurt. Now I had to relinquish my attachment after the fact. In other words, I had to grieve.
Grieving is the process of coming to terms with loss in our lives. Almost from the very moment we are born, we are having to deal with loss. Newborns come into the world having to deal with the loss of the warmth and comfort of the mother's womb. And, from that instant onward, life can seem like a stream of losses. Some losses, of course, are greater than others. Losing a loved one to death is more significant and more distressing, for most people, than losing a mere material object like a leather sofa. But, the loss of anything can cause suffering and can require the process of grieving to help us to adjust.
I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the losses in your own life. Almost certainly you've lost someone close to you to death. You may have lost a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a friend, a relative. My own grandmother died a few years ago at the age of 94 and I wondered how many people she lost in her lifetime. Certainly the difficult aspects of a long life would have to be witnessing and coping with the loss of so many loved ones.
We endure loss through other means than death, of course...
We can lose our jobs, our life savings, we can see our cherished possessions stolen or accidentally broken. Our friends may leave because of a quarrel. Or, we may leave them when we move away to embark on a new career. In the American courtship system, one can go through a whole series of breakups before finding a spouse. Or, even after marriage when one faces a 50% chance of divorce. As we age, we may begin to recognize that the dreams that we had for so long are unlikely to materialize. These losses can cause us to suffer greatly. And, for the significant losses in our lives, we need to grieve.
A mindfulness practice can help us to grieve skillfully. Grief is a natural healing process that has several identifiable dimensions. Often, these aspects of the process can be referred to as stages....a notion that suggests that grief follows a predictable linear course as we come to terms with our loss. The typology of grief proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is perhaps the most widely known of these schemes. Kubler-Ross argued that the process of grief is characterized first by denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
While grief certainly can include these phases and experiences it may be misleading to suggest that grief is predictable or follows a specific time table. Each person grieves in different ways. There may be times when grief includes anger and sadness and other experiences. But the experiences may not come in a predictable sequence. And, there may be no sharp divisions between these stages. The mindfulness approach to grief is not to usher us through various stages so that we might hasten onward to the final goal of acceptance, rather, mindfulness practice can be used to ensure we accept and fully experience whatever the process of grief brings us. Staying present with our grief essentially means removing any obstacles that might impede the natural course of grieving.
Being mindful assists the grieving process by helping us acknowledge and accept the universality and inevitability of loss. Having to give up what we have is unavoidable. Throughout our lives, things are taken away from us - sometimes without our consent and sometimes with. Resisting necessary losses, of course, can cause us to suffer. Insight into impermanence of all reality helps ease our resistance to living in a world where ultimately everything that we hold dear will have to be relinquished.
Kisagotami, a woman of much wealth and high status who lived in the time of the Buddha, was married and gave birth to a son who died as a toddler. She was devastated. In her grief she carried the lifeless body of her son from house to house and village to village begging for medicine to bring the boy back to life. One wise man advised the woman to see the Buddha, who, he said had the medicine she needed. Pressing the lifeless boy against her heart, she began the journey. The Buddha told her to find a mustard seed from a household that had not been touched by death. Thinking the seed would be used to make the medicine she wanted, she carried her dead child from house to house making her request. Everyone was willing to help but she couldn't find a single family untouched by death. Soon, she realized that hers was not the only family that had faced death. At last, she brought the corpse to the forest and made a bed of leaves. Just as she placed his remains on it, she realized the dead body was no longer her son. And, her attitude toward his death completely changed. She was then able to begin to make peace with his passing and she returned to the Buddha to share her experience. The Buddha said, "Kisagotami, you thought that you were the only one who lost a son. As you now realize, death comes to all beings before their desires are all satisfied." On hearing this, Kisagotami fully realized the impermanence of life. She understood that her refusal to realize the death of her son kept her in a state of suffering.
This story reminds us that loss and grieving are common experiences. No one is exempt. The Buddha's lesson allowed her to discover how her refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of loss compounded her pain. She realized this truth and was then able to let her son go.
In my early forties I had to face a similar shock. It's a shock that happens to all of us, past a certain age, that we have to experience. It is the awareness that we are aging. For the first two decades of your life, you're usually looking forward to getting older and the new privileges and freedom that brings - getting to drive a car, staying out late with friends, dating, going to college, getting married, having children. During these decades you actually look forward to getting older but you don't give a single thought to aging. One day, you look in the mirror and you see evidence that not only have you gotten older, you've actually begun to age. You can see it in your face and when you do, it can be quite a shock. I clearly remember it happening to me. I also remember experiencing the dimension of grief known as denial. "Wait a minute! This isn't supposed to be happening to me! It's supposed to happen to other people."
It took me a while to accept the fact that I was getting older. That my body and my appearance were reflecting that process and I recall the many fears I had. Particularly, the strange fear that if I appeared older, somehow people would no longer accept me. Realizing my solidarity with someone else, that is recognizing that we are all getting older, helped me to ease that fear. We don't often recognize it but grieving our lost youth is an experience that many of us will have to face.
Being aware of the commonality and the inevitability of loss implies that we are well-advised to begin to prepare for it now. Why wait? All throughout our lives, almost on a daily basis, we are given ample opportunities to practice mindfully coping with loss. These occasions are chances to remind ourselves of the impermanent nature of reality and of potential hazards of becoming attached to transient things.
I was able to come to terms with my ruined leather sofa by turning my material loss into a spiritual gain. I realized just how foolish I had been to become so attached to a mere object. A thing that I knew could not last. That is a lesson that we have to learn again and again.
Even Zen Masters have to be reminded of it. In a Zen monastery several centuries ago, a monk of no more than the age of 10, accidentally broke his masters antique tea cup while he was cleaning. When he heard the Master approach he quickly gathered the pieces and put them behind his back. Then he cleverly asked the Master, "Sir, why must people die?" The Master answered, "It's natural. Everything has a finite life span and everything must die." Then the little monk produced the broken tea cup and told his master it was time for his cup to die.
Remembering the transience of all life helps us to avoid all attachments that can cause us to suffer. But how does mindfulness help us cope with the loss of those things to which we have already become attached? It's fine and good to say "avoid attachments." But on this side of enlightenment we still get attached and the suffering it causes is very real. What is the mindfulness approach to grieving these losses? Quite simply, it's no different than handling any other unwanted experience that we might have, including anger and pain. It involves acknowledging fully, accepting, and letting it go. In other words, grief is an invitation to welcome our experience with equanimity without fear or aversion. It is to be open to whatever grief brings us and to allow ourselves to experience that fully. As noted, grief is not always predictable and it doesn't always follow a set time table. It has to be allowed to happen on its own, taking its own good time.
I recall going through a grief experience many years ago and being advised by a wise friend who had been through the same experience. She told me to take every opportunity to cry. She wasn't suggesting I force my tears, just to let them come whenever I felt the need. I greeted her advice with skepticism, but I trusted her a great deal and decided to try what she said. I found it easiest to let the
tears flow when I was alone, in part, because my solitude prompted them. Over several months I cried a river of tears. Then, one day, I simply observed that I had stopped crying. I hadn't shed a tear for a long time. It was then that I realized that my grief was over. I still felt twinges of sadness on occasion but the intensity of the experience had dissolved.
Staying present is of great benefit in the grieving process. In keeping us focused in the present moment is the place where we ca fully feel the pain of loss. Upon losing something or someone, our minds can race ahead by worrying about the future. The loss of a significant other might bring fears of loneliness and anxieties of how to cope with day-to-day living. Divorce might arouse concerns about our worthiness as a person and fears about ever finding meaningful love again. Loss of something important in our lives almost inevitably provokes us to worry about how to fill that void and to face the future. These are absolutely legitimate concerns and they must be faced. But inordinate attention to the apprehensions to the future can also hinder the process of grieving which requires momentarily setting aside these anxieties and being completely aware of our experience in the present.
During the period of grief, I can think of no better practice than meditation with presence which provides us with deliberate opportunity for attending to the present. Fully experiencing what we find in each moment is the pre-condition for thinking and acting wisely. Practicing deliberate acts of self-compassion is also essential to grieving. I can think of no time where we would need compassion more. Being self-compassionate during these periods not only relaxes our usual tendencies to self-judgement and self-criticism, it means being open to expressions of compassion from others.
During times of grief, in my past, I finally permitted myself to let others reach out and befriend me. This was something that I always had difficulty doing. Letting others show me kindness was surprisingly comforting for a woman who had always thought of herself as self-sufficient and self-contained. When I allowed others to befriend me, it suddenly seemed that the whole world had gone through the same experience that I had. I even managed to attract clients who were going through similar circumstances which allowed me to authentically bring compassion into their lives as well. Like Kisagotami, knowing that I was not alone in my grief was immeasurably consoling.
Because our foresight is so limited, we are well-advised not to rush to judgements about the events that happen to us. Realizing our solidarity with others in grief is one way to ease suffering. Another is to realize the serendipitous way of life. Serendipity is the phenomenon of discovering pleasant things not sought for. Part of the surprising and unpredictable quality of existence is the way that, sometimes, things turn out better than we ever could have imagined or hoped.
With this said, I am reminded of a client who was overlooked for a promotion and he was crushed...
He found another job in another country and began to flourish. He poured his grief and anger into his writing and he became prolific and respected. I sometimes tell him that not getting that promotion was the best thing that could have ever happened to him. Remembering that we truly do not know what the future holds for us, except the certainty of death, can often ease the anxieties that we have about the future. We fear the worst but often, what turns out, is for the best.
But, what do we do with losses that seem staggering? What about those losses that are outside the realm of normal human experience? Even more unexpected than the loss of a child. There are times when people lose almost everything. One only has to think of the earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, genocides, and terrorist events of recent years. Disasters whose horrors are difficult to comprehend and to integrate into our ordinary experiences of life. Perhaps we may be able to understand these experiences by appealing to the providence of God or the belief of rebirth and reincarnation. In which cases such massive suffering can somehow be redeemed. I confess that my hesitancy to such metaphysical claims makes it difficult for me to put such losses in a comprehensive framework. Sometimes it seems, is that the only thing these disasters are good for is giving survivors some perspective - which, of course, is no consolation to the victims. But, perhaps to provide us with some motivation to be more compassionate.
These are times when ritual can come to our aid. Whatever our faith or culture, joining with others to share our grief, moving through the elements of a ceremony and sharing words that have been spoken by others in our situation for generation after generation can help us keep in mind that this is part of our human lot and always has been.
And, here's where your own suffering can be of use to you. Many people find that it's not until they have had to cope with setbacks of their own that they're able to truly be compassionate for others. For as long as we meet with nothing but success, warm friendships, loving family, a rewarding job, we are likely to think that all good things come to us because we deserve them. Only when we experience some losses ourselves do we realize we had less control over events than we had once believed. It is humbling and disillusioning in the best sense of the word. It helps us rid ourselves of whatever illusions of permanence and control that we may have been holding.
Many who endeavor to practice mindfulness have come to see such losses as supports for meditation. It may be going too far to say that these problems are actually welcomed. But once you use the tools of presence in your daily life, it's almost certainly true that you will at least see your problems as opportunities for gaining a more intimate knowledge of the way your mind works. If you practice developing skillful means with life's every day challenges you'll be able to react more skillfully when the greater losses come to you as they inevitably will.
You'll come to understand that you're not being singled out for suffering, you're just having a life.
© Lori Lines, All Rights Reserved. 2015
Author Lori Lines
This blog represents messages through and from Lori Lines.