Grief is love in the face of loss; do you want to stop loving in order to stop feeling grief? Of course not. But we also don’t want to be controlled or overwhelmed by it. There are a number of Buddhist practices that can help us as we practice with grief – trying to face it, and making sure we don’t impede our own grief process. What I’ll share in this episode isn’t by any means a developed or exhaustive process of grief work, it’s just a short list of Buddhist practices that can be beneficial.
Quicklinks to Content:
What’s the Goal? What Does It Mean to “Process” Our Grief?
Mindfulness of Grief
Tapping into Our Grief Reservoir
Letting Go of Attachments
Grief as the Fifth Sublime Social Attitude, or Brahmavihara?
This is my second episode on the topic “grief in Buddhism.” In the previous full episode, I talked about how grief is simply love in the face of loss, and how important it is for us to acknowledge and face it if we’re going to stay in touch with reality and keep our hearts open. I also discussed a couple teachings from early Buddhism that deal with grief, and how you might conclude from them that feeling grief is a sign of spiritual immaturity, weakness, delusion, or attachment. I followed that up, though, with an argument that Buddhism is a living tradition. The science of psychology has informed and improved Buddhist practice by pointing out how easy and common it us for us to suppress our emotions in unhelpful and even damaging ways. In other words, just because you don’t feel grief after a loss doesn’t mean you’ve transcended or integrated the emotion. It might just mean that you haven’t faced it, or you’ve shut down the part of you that cares.
Today I’ll talk about how we can practice with grief in Buddhism. How do you want to practice with grief? Grief is love in the face of loss; do you want to stop loving in order to stop feeling grief? Are you willing to shut down your heart in order to avoid emotional pain? You may have been tempted to do just this on occasion, but I’m guessing it’s not really how you want to live your life. And I certainly don’t want you to shut down your heart, because if you don’t love yourself, and your family, friends, community, and planet, the future of humanity doesn’t look very bright.
One way to look at it, then, is that grief is the price we pay for being human beings who love.
Are there any Buddhist teachings and practices that can help us as we practice with grief – trying to face it, and making sure we don’t impede our own grief process? Certainly! Note: What I’ll share today isn’t by any means a developed or exhaustive process of grief work, it’s just a short list of Buddhist practices that can be beneficial.
What’s the Goal? What Does It Mean to “Process” Our Grief?
First, though, let’s talk about what our goal is in facing, or acknowledging, working with, or processing our grief.
When we’re feeling grief acutely, most of us want to find a way to live so our lives aren’t completely consumed by it. Shortly after a traumatic loss, of course, we may feel inclined to remain absorbed in our grief for a period, even though it hurts. Eventually, however, this becomes unworkable.
On the other hand, maybe it’s like our grief is conveniently stored in a deep underground reservoir – we have a sense that it’s there, but most of the time we don’t notice it. When we do end up tapping into our grief, it can feel frightening or overwhelming. In this case, we want to be able to overcome our fear of uncovering or drowning in our grief. It would be nice not to have to deny the existence of our reservoir of pain caused by loss, or to shut down our emotions whenever we dip our toe into it because of our fear of overwhelm.
The thing is, it sure seems like all of our grief ends up trickling into that same, underground grief reservoir. One of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, said “all griefs are one.” I’ve certainly found this to be true for myself. Somehow, when I grieve for my grandfather, I also touch my grief over neglected relationships in my life. When I weep over the loss of the albatross who died from eating too much plastic, I touch my grief over the lives of deprivation faced by so many human beings on our planet simply because of where they were born, or the color or gender of the body they were born into. The good thing about all griefs being one is that, to some extent, our work with any particular grief is our work with all of our grief.
I don’t think our reservoir of grief is ever going away. In fact, losses over the course of our lives will only add to it. And while our love for someone or something may shift over time, we’re not looking to overcome or end our love or care. Our love continues, the loss remains, and therefore the grief remains as well. I don’t know about you, but this feels right to me. I don’t like to think of “grief work” as resulting in the end of grief. I don’t want it to end. I just want to get more used to it and be able to live sustainably and honestly with it. I want to integrate it into my life, acknowledging and honoring it, but also balancing it with other emotions and activities. I want to be able to make free use of my grief to inspire my humility and love, and to spark my motivation to take care of what I haven’t yet lost.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presented a description of a five-step process of dealing with death and dying. Later, David Kessler worked with her to adapt the same process to describe people experiencing grief. They found that each person goes through grief in a unique way, but most people go through periods of:
- “Denial: shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred
- Anger: that [the person or thing we loved or cared about so much] is no longer here
- Bargaining: all the what-ifs and regrets
- Depression: sadness from the loss
- Acceptance: acknowledging the reality of the loss”[i]
Entirely aside from the question of emotional well-being, from the Buddhist point of view it makes sense that we should allow ourselves to go through the full grief process and arrive at acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t still hurt, and it doesn’t mean we’ve decided our loss is no big deal. Acceptance is about facing reality. It’s about coming to terms with the truth. There’s no way around reality in the long run, but fortunately Buddhism promises that facing the truth is always preferable to clinging to delusion or denial.
There’s more we can do besides just facing reality, as well. In his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, David Kessler also describes a six stage of grief, “finding meaning.” He explains that people who are able to find meaning in their grief experience much deeper healing. Finding meaning doesn’t mean they think their loss was justified, but somehow people are able to find meaning through the way they remember or memorialize what they have lost, or the ways they find to serve others or take care of what they have. There are all kinds of ways of finding meaning, and I think our Buddhist practice can help us do this.
Now I’ll go into a handful of Buddhist practices that can help facilitate the grief process.
Mindfulness of Grief
The most basic – and probably the first – Buddhist practice we can use to help us experience and integrate our grief is the practice of mindfulness. In this case I’m not talking about mindfulness of body or breath in order to calm your emotions, although there’s definitely a time and a place for that kind of practice. I’m talking about mindfulness of grief – the experience of grief, in and of itself.
The Pali Canon doesn’t specifically advocate mindfulness of grief, but it does describe the practice of diligent, mindful exploration of various other experiences. For example, practitioners should take as subjects for mindfulness things like feelings of pain, pleasure, and indifference, and the experience of constricted, scattered, or expansive mind states. This process of mindful inquiry involves shining the light of awareness on your experience, as illustrated in this passage from the Pali Canon about mindfulness of feelings:
“And how does a monk remain focused on feelings in & of themselves? There is the case where a monk, when feeling a painful feeling, discerns, ‘I am feeling a painful feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling’… he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to feelings, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to feelings, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to feelings.”[ii]
To apply this approach to grief, I would say we remain focused on grief in and of itself. That is, we pay attention to our experience of grief in this moment, including the thoughts that are arising, but not getting caught up in all the stories associated with our grief, which are about the past or future. We simply notice when grief is present within us. We don’t fight, judge, or grasp it, we just notice it has arisen. We also notice when grief is not present in us, because no matter how awful and sad we feel, the experience of grief is not constant. We notice what tends to trigger our feelings of grief, and what tends to soothe them.
In mindfulness we just observe, becoming more and more familiar with the subject of our mindfulness. This may or may not sound like it would be very helpful for processing grief, but what we’re really doing is letting our grief process unfold. Mindfulness is like uncovering and cleaning a wound, instead of letting it fester. The healing happens by itself.
Tapping into Our Grief Reservoir
However, what about when our grief stays below the surface, hidden in what I’m calling our underground reservoir? Much of the time, the emotion can be not just easy to ignore, but difficult to access. We may suspect there’s a vast quantity of grief lurking below the surface of our more or less happy and well-adjusted everyday lives, but what are we to do about it?
The Buddhist practice meant to help us with this is ritual. Sometimes, converts to Buddhism feel skeptical about formal ceremony and ritual, but when you think about it, using ritual to tap into our emotions is a universal human activity. There’s a reason why cultures and religions all over the world have death rituals. There’s a reason we play tear-jerking songs at memorials and share sentimental eulogies about the deceased. These elements are meant to help you tap into your grief, and they don’t even have to be religious.
Of course, many death rituals are insufficient to see us through the extended grief process. In many places and cultures, we have a quick funeral and then you’re supposed to be over it. Significantly, Buddhism has traditionally offered people memorial ceremonies, which can be done for particular person multiple times. Personal memorials are often repeated annually. Many Japanese families also keep a family altar in the house with pictures of departed relatives, and there are specific times of the month or year when it’s traditional to remember these people and honor them.
If you want to use ritual to tap into your grief but don’t have the benefit of a full-service temple nearby, or if the loss you’ve experienced is something other than the death of a human being, you may want to experiment with creating your own ritual. It can be quite simple. Basically, you want to create a “ritual space.” This means selecting a place and setting aside some time so you won’t be disturbed. Demonstrating care for the space is valuable, perhaps by cleaning it or decorating it. Use an altar or designate a spot for the main activities. Have a picture or symbol of who or what you have lost and place it in the special place. Address the person or being by name, or say aloud what you have lost. Dedicate the ritual to the person or being, or to your own sense of grief. Make an offering, such as incense, food, or water. You may want to say some words – the more emotionally evocative the better: Perhaps a poem, a song, or a remembrance.
Ideally, ritual will help you feel some of your grief, which may manifest in various ways, including feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, or the arising of memories or mental images. Try to have faith that it is beneficial simply to access whatever feelings you can, and don’t judge yourself no matter what you do or don’t feel. If you really can’t access your grief, you may need to ramp up the effort and engage the help of a clergy person, or involve family or friends. You may need to get creative and watch a really sentimental movie that gets your tears flowing, or to go through old photo albums. The idea isn’t just to make ourselves feel bad, it’s to shine the light of awareness on our grief and make sure we’re not impeding the natural grief process by suppressing our emotions.
Letting Go of Attachments
Of course, there’s bound to be some attachment mixed in with our pure love for whatever we have lost, which is where other Buddhist teachings come in. We have attachments to all kinds of things, which make our losses even more painful. Attachment, or grasping, is about refusing to let go even when faced with the reality of impermanence and loss. Believing our well-being or even our being itself is fundamentally dependent on something outside of ourselves, we cling to it even when it’s being pulled from our grasp, screaming, “Nooooo!”
This clinging often feels very justified. For me, I feel deeply passionate about stopping human beings from destroying our planet’s natural life-support systems. When I feel grief about what we have already destroyed, there is definitely attachment mixed in with my sincere love. I really don’t want to live in a world filled with senseless destruction. I really don’t want to accept that such destruction has already happened. In other words, the loss I’m feeling is tied up with my attachment to my belief (or hope) that the world is, in the final analysis, a good and just place. I’m attached to my hope that reason and compassion will prevail. These attachments, however noble they may sound, cause me unnecessary suffering, and impede my grief process. This is basic Buddhism.
It’s not easy to give up attachment, or to sincerely and fully appreciate what Maha Kassapa meant when he said, “Don’t grieve. Don’t lament… What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”[iii] Fortunately, even though it’s difficult to give up attachment, much of Buddhism is aimed at helping you do just that.
The question we can continue to ask ourselves, and answer for ourselves, is, “When are we experiencing pure love, and when is there attachment mixed in?” Another way to put this: Even when we’re experiencing grief – love in the face of loss – is there anything extra we can let go of, while maintaining our love, that relieves some of our pain? If you do this, you may notice a distinct difference between the rather clean and straightforward pain of grief, and the comparatively twisted-up, tense, troubling, stressful pain of dukkha, arising from attachment.
For example, perhaps you are feeling grief about the loss of job and the comfortable and secure way of life it enabled you to live. You could compound your pain by dwelling on whether other people are going to lose respect for you because you’re now unemployed. If you can let go of your attachment to what others think, you can relieve some of your suffering. Again, it’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth examining your experience for something you’re able and willing to let go of.
Grief as the Fifth Sublime Social Attitude, or Brahmavihara?
Ultimately, though, I don’t believe grief is just about attachment. You can feel it even if you’ve given up all your attachment, even if you understand and accept the reality of impermanence with your whole body and mind. If someone or something is an intimate part of my life, they are part of what makes up my dependently co-arisen self. When I lose part of myself, there is an emotional and physical reaction, just as if my arm were cut off. This is primal and natural. While painful, it is not a problem in a spiritual sense. Feeling grief is confirmation that our true nature is not bounded by our skin.
In fact, if you’re not attached to your own emotional comfort and safety, you may be even more able to open to grief. I imagine this is why Rinzai teacher Yamada Koun said this about kensho, or the awakening to true self-nature, “if you cannot weep with a person who is crying, there is no kensho.”[iv] In other words, if you aren’t able to feel and express normal human emotions in empathy with another person, you aren’t enlightened.
This leads me to my radical proposal that maybe, just maybe, we could practice with grief as the 5th Brahmavihara, (a.k.a. Divine Abiding, or Sublime Social Attitude). The classic Brahmaviharas are goodwill, or metta; compassion, or karuna, which is goodwill when we see beings suffer; sympathetic joy, or mudita, which is goodwill when we see beings happy, and equanimity, or upekkha. I’m playing with the idea that grief might be goodwill, sometimes translated as loving kindness or even love, when we lose beings. Even if there are ways in which grief doesn’t fit in with the Brahmaviharas, I think we can borrow something useful from Brahmavihara practice for use in our work with grief.
When approaching the Brahmaviharas, we understand that these are social attitudes – that is, they are emotions we feel about other beings. We also understand that feeling them is beneficial for our practice, but that our capacity to feel them – and especially to extend them unconditionally – is usually quite limited. Therefore, we engage in deliberate practices to strengthen and expand, for example, our sense of goodwill or compassion.
Perhaps we can similarly cultivate our ability to feel grief. At first our heart struggle against it, constricting, letting us feel only so much grief at a time. We want to retain control of ourselves, and resist falling apart even when we experience devastating loss. We want to make sure our grief is doled out only for when appropriate – that is, for deserving beings, or for culturally accepted reasons, or about situations we have some hope of being able to control. We quickly reach the edges of our willingness to feel grief, just as we reach the edges of our willingness or capability to feel goodwill, compassion, or sympathetic joy when we practice with those social emotions.
Like the other Brahmaviharas, grief requires an open heart. When we acknowledge grief, we acknowledge our love and interdependence with other beings and things. Like other Brahmaviharas, our self-centeredness is worn away as we make an effort to extend grief further outwards, so it’s not just evoked in us when we lose beings or things important to our own personal lives, but we feel a connection to all being and therefore feel grief at the loss of any part of creation.
Perhaps if we regard grief as something positive, as a Brahmavihara, we will find ourselves exploring it and inviting it into our experience. We can find ways to cautiously open up and tap into our underground reservoir of grief, becoming more familiar with it, and overcoming our fear of drowning in it. We can cultivate our capability to experience grief, learning how it passes through us in waves and can leave us feeling purified and more intimate with life. I offer these as possibilities to explore, which is really what Buddhist practice is all about.
[i] Kessler, David. Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (p. 1). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
[ii] “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference” (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html .
[iv] MacInnes, Elaine. The Flowing Bridge: Guidance on Beginning Zen Koans. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. 2007 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensh%C5%8D#Cultivating_bodhicitta