What does grief ask of a human being? When the heart is aching to break, what’s to be done?
A breaking heart brings a surge of pain. Whether physical or heartfelt, pain is never welcome. Our animal selves evolved to register discomfort as a threat to well-being, possibly to life itself. It’s natural we’d have the impulse to try to “fix” grief, or to escape it.
But to turn toward it? To welcome grief, when it comes uninvited?
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Here in Vermont (well north of the equator) the warmth of summer is being felt now to take on a bit of chill in these days of early September. The sunlit days are noticeably shorter than before. The coming of autumn — much cooler, sunlight shrinking — means something particular in this pandemic time.
Spirituality is not about protecting yourself from the pain of life. If that’s what it is for you, look again.
The relative safety of outdoor encounters has enabled leisurely times with loved ones. Those times, for me, have been luscious. My adult children and I have remarked on the fortunate timing of the coronavirus: if it had to visit, at least its arrival coincided with the warming months. In the season of the pandemic, when everything’s been turned upside-down, some features of daily life have been felt oddly to open up. There have been, for my children and me, experiences and conversations that will stay with me a long time. All of it unfolding in the green and fragrant beauty of benign summer air. My gratitude for this summer’s bounty is enormous.
And so now, with the recognition of summer’s winding-down, with the diminishing of leisurely encounters, grief comes. We’re soon to say goodbye to the meandering woods walks, the kayak paddling, the refreshing dips in local ponds. The timeless lazy summer days.
Even as time has all along been doing its thing: continuing to move.
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Of course the heart breaks, in the face of such a moment. I don’t know what else to do than to feel it. To grant sorrow all the space it asks.
Nor does it take up the “space” occupied by gratitude. Grief and gratitude are comfortable bedfellows. One doesn’t wipe out the other, nor should it. I can — I do — celebrate the blessing of the fun and rewarding encounters with my daughter and my son, even as there is also the sorrow of knowing there will be fewer of those now, and briefer ones.
There’s no impulse to protect my heart, or to “console” it with trade-offs: Yeah, but we’ve had such good times. As if that yeah but should somehow cancel out the sadness. Nor do I hold at a protective distance the delicious memories of these times. No: I sink gladly into the heart’s revisiting of those memorable talks, the laughter, the shared reveling in the natural world.
All the while letting grief have its way, when it comes.
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Did you think that being awake meant no more pain? The oh-so-human experience of grief does not magically undo itself. What wakefulness means is that you no longer resist a breaking heart (or wish it would hurry up and resolve). You’re patient with it. Grief is granted its necessary space. You let it in, opening your heart to it. You rest in it, simply because it’s inside you. It’s what’s real, just then.
Among other things, being awake is being attuned to reality, without holding it away. There’s no felt distance between awareness and momentary reality. Part of what’s real is what’s happening inside the body, the heart. And there’s also whatever’s going on around you: the season, the pandemic, the circumstances of others, the condition of the planet, of our fellow human beings.
Spirituality is not (as sometimes supposed) about protecting yourself from the pain of life. If that’s what it is for you, look again. Ask yourself what it would feel like to be fully alive, entirely in your oh-so-human life — and yet not to suffer.
To allow reality to be what it is: why does that not equal suffering? Why does it feel simply alive to allow yourself to be fully in the presence of the real? How can that be?
Oh, do not ask the ego-saturated mind to contemplate such a thing. It is ill-equipped to sort it out. The ego-mind is the same “creature,” after all, that’s hellbent on getting pain to stop — the made-up self that keeps us from knowing what we deeply are. That self can never access the truth, nor can it hope to wake up. That’s not what happens.
What happens is that at long last, the thinker — which is also the spiritual aspirant — ceases to feel like what you are.
One of the essential discoveries of fearless spiritual exploration is learning to distinguish between two sorts of pain: what’s caused by the mind, and what comes naturally from life itself, full as it is with change and loss. Being awake stills the first one, and opens the door wide to the second. Seeing the distinction between the two sources of pain (life and thought) is a radical game-changer.
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To avoid grief is more “life-threatening” than to relax into it. Denied grief distorts into hardness and regret, crippling a person’s ability to ever move on. Avoidance walls off the heart from its terrible fragility — and so from life itself, as it continues. Nor does this perceived “protection” distance a person from pain only. It blunts too the experience of moments of sweetness, of spontaneous joy.
Resisting the heart’s pain doesn’t make it disappear. No, it sends it underground. It morphs into a buried knot, lingering unacknowledged, all the rest of our days, walling us off from unfolding life, moments of which could otherwise be delightful. Alive-feeling.
The bodied sensation of opening to the fullness of grief brings a palpable aliveness — not so different, strangely, from the radical aliveness of ecstasy. Aliveness (like consciousness) is “neutral” in and of itself. The variety of experience that can happen “within” it is endless. Being fully here, fully human, brings sorrow as inevitably as it opens the heart to cherishing.
The cost of unallowed grief is dear. So long as we don’t erect walls in the heart, consciousness can receive each thing that comes. Love and gratitude are the natural companions of grief, life being in constant motion.