During one of our meditation group’s Buddha Dharma Exploration Classes, our guest teacher – Burmese monk: Bhante UJotika said that the Buddha stressed that we: cultivate compassion and not sorrow. One of the sangha members asked how to deal with the deep sorrow one feels with the death of a loved one. This was a great question that propelled me on a personal contemplation and exploration process around how to not cultivate more personal sorrow, when one is already experiencing sorrow. I have surmised that one can experience sorrow skillfully without cultivating more sorrow, and this article tells you how.
The Buddha referred to sorrow as dukkha. His first words after his enlightenment spoke to this sorrow: “Oh house builder, thou art seen at last. Broken is the ridgepole, smashed the rafters, awakened to freedom, no more imprisoned by sorrow, am I”.
The Buddhist teachings continually point out to us that sorrow occurs within us because we cling to positive experiences and have thus formed attachments to others and things. In my opinion, until we reach full enlightenment, and maybe not even then, it will be impossible to not get somewhat attached to others whom we deeply love. I remember hearing a dharma teacher talk about a contemporary Buddhist master who was deeply mourning the loss of his mother, and was consoled only by a deep understanding that his mother still lived within him as part of the moon, the stars, and all things vibrating with beauty and life.
In the Buddhist teachings, sorrow is considered one of the eight worldly winds, with its counterpart – joy. (aka pain and pleasure). You may remember hearing the expression of the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows that affect all beings in a human incarnation. You can’t have the joy, without knowing sorrow and vice versa. Experiencing joy and/or sorrow is as natural as breathing. So, as I see it, the main point here is not to never experience sorrow, but instead, that how we deal with this grief and sorrow, will either lead us to cultivating more sorrow or more compassion.
Leave me be
Sorrow, sorrow why must you take me so
Why have you left me in such a big hole
Sorrow, sorrow when will you leave my soul
And let me finally breath so
There is nowhere to go
If you keep beating on my heart so
Sorrow, sorrow it’s your time to go
Let your heart leave from my soul
– Dillon Crawford.
This poem beautifully exemplifies the sorrow, hurt and difficulty all of us have either experienced or will at one time or another during our lives, along with the desire for the pain to just go away. Death, loss, abuse, abandonment, rejection and betrayal are experiences that lead to great sorrow and grief. The older one gets, the greater ones chances of experiencing major loss. If we live long enough, we will lose loved ones – family and friends. This is a natural and unavoidable part of life.
So, how do we deal with sorrow without cultivating sorrow, especially when it is overwhelming our bursting hearts with intolerable pain?
By taking the middle path – On one hand, we don’t want to get lost by drowning to death in our sorrow, while on the other, we also don’t want to avoid feeling its resulting emotional pain. Many avoid dealing with such emotional pain in their lives by numbing their minds with alcohol or drugs, or escaping into fantasy land – lost in books, sex or technological gadgetry. We’ve all engaged in activities to avoid this pain. You’ve probably seen people immediately engaging in new and exciting relationships to avoid feeling and processing the sorrow and grief from their last failed relationships.
I once heard a dharma teacher state that people from other countries say that Americans are out of touch with their emotions, and thus do not know how to grieve properly. It was postulated that Americans are so busy, being busy and keeping up a happy front, that they’ve never learned how to process their sorrow and grief.
Whatever you do, please do not try to repress your grief, or you’ll just have to deal with the whole painful process later in your life. And it will be more difficult and complicated later on. Sooner is better than later when it comes to bereavement. Unresolved sorrow and grief hardens the heart and actually works to cultivate more sorrow in one’s future.
Other unskillful practices that you want to avoid, because they cultivate more sorrow include:
- Acting in ways that brings more sorrow in to your life, like continuing to marry one abusive partner after another.
- Becoming attached to your sorrow, by forming a permanent identity around a sorrowful experience. Such identities may include: divorcee, widow, victim, etc.
- Becoming attached to your sorrow, by holding on to your sorrowful story, like “He really screwed me over”, or “I always get dumped by every person I date”.
- Looking for the negative in every situation. If we dwell on all the things wrong with the world, all of the time, we will be filled with chronic low-grade sorrow and frustration.
- Dwelling on the sorrowful past, like the person who continues to blame their shitty life on their awful childhood.
When I was going through a difficult period of grieving, studying the five stages of grief and seeing how I was naturally experiencing these typical stages, helped me realize that my grieving process was normal and there was nothing wrong with me. These stages, which folks do not necessarily experience exactly in this order, include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Ways to Practice and Work with Deep Sorrow/Grief
- During your meditation practice, open up to and be present with your sorrow and grief. Do not push it away, but stay open to it as long as possible. Give the sorrow, sadness and grief the space and time it needs to express itself.
The stream of tears you have shed is more than the water of the four great oceans. – Buddha
- While meditating and during the day when you can give yourself time-outs, if you feel like crying, let the tears flow.
If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate. – Ajahn Chah
- As always, do your best to drop the storyline and give your bare attention to the raw emotions and associated physical sensations.
- If the grief gets too overwhelming to handle, focus on your breath or some other pleasant sensation in your body, until you can calm down enough to attend to your sorrow and grief again at a later time.
- Put extra effort into attending to your physical health: Get sufficient sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly.
- Do NOT judge yourself. Grief and sorrow get worked through in their own time, and everyone processes differently. This is not one of those situations you can control.
- Get the social support of caring family, friends, support groups, or even a bereavement counselor.
- Look for the gifts of this experience. For instance, many people report having felt more alive, connected to others, and their priorities became more crystal clear, as a result of working through their grief.
I once heard about a really cool practice I try to implement daily. That is: to imagine myself in a future reality in which all of my loved ones are already dead and gone. This helps me get more grounded with the impermanence of existence and lessens my attachments to my loved ones. It also helps me be more appreciative of and fully present with them when we do spend time together.
Last year was possibly the most difficult year of my life. There is a long story I won’t get into, but in essence, I lost my husband, step-son, home, job, a vibrant business I helped build, and many friends I dearly loved. The grief and sorrow I experienced was indescribably excruciating. Every time a new wave of despair hit me, I used the tools I learned from my vipassana meditation practice to help me work with these difficult emotions. After several months, I began to think that these waves would never stop and started wondering if I’d ever get over the pain of my loss. Dealing with unsupportive, judgmental family members who communicated a “Just get over it!” attitude, or who took my sadness personally, only added more to my already full plate. But occasionally, I would somehow drop into states of deep peace and equanimity. During these times, it was clear to me that my gaping heart was more open and full of love than it had ever been. The process of allowing myself to be present with and fully experience sorrow – cracked my heart wide open! As the result of my sorrow, my heart was and continues to pulsate with deeper love, more compassion and acceptance for all beings. This loss and great grief left me with the greatest gift imaginable– a boundless and loving heart.
Ring the bell that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
-Chorus to Leonard Cohen song “Anthem”
So, stop being a victim to your sorrow and start seeing it as a teacher who is here to help you open your heart, to everything life has to offer!
*** A wonderful resource book on dealing with grief: The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke ***