A Contemplative View of Grief
The Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent. Everything is changing in every moment, even in ways we don’t notice. The solid hardwood table on which I am writing is, at the subatomic level, a dynamic symphony of movement, and even its gross form is eroding at an undetectable rate. My body, even when perfectly still, undergoes constant biochemical and bioelectrical change, all of which will someday cease, whereupon all of its structures will start to decompose. I can deal with the table, no problem, but if I were to allow myself to really feel the fate of my body, it would cause enormous distress. So, I avoid feeling it. I have a far greater emotional attachment to my body than to any table.
Sit comfortably, settle in, imagine merging your mind with the sky, focus gently on your breathing for a short time, and then start to contemplate the ways in which your body is constantly changing. Notice any feelings that arise and acknowledge them, accepting them with loving affection. When they soften, return to contemplating the impermanent nature of your body. Then reflect on how all phenomena are impermanent. After a while, let all thoughts merge with the sky-like nature of your mind, and rest in that free and lucid state.
Eventually, however, impermanence will catch up with me, and I will no longer be able to deny it. But even before my own demise, I likely will experience personal losses that force me to confront the truth of impermanence head-on. Although grief can be profoundly difficult and harrowing, it also issues an invitation for personal transformation, by which I mean an enduring change in how we understand ourselves, others, and the world. The transformation that grief invites is psychospiritual in nature, meaning that it involves both psychological and spiritual elements operating in tandem. In order to understand grief’s transformative potential, therefore, let’s briefly examine a larger psychological understanding of the human lifespan and some developmental processes that will be revisited and transformed during the process of grieving.
Whereas Buddhism tells us that attachment is the source of suffering, Western developmental psychology tells a different story. In this view, following birth it is necessary and healthy for newborn infants to form a strong emotional bond with their primary caregiver (typically the mother). Why? We can only imagine how traumatic the birth process must be as we undergo sudden and mysterious contractions of seemingly unending duration, only to be painfully squeezed and thrust into an alien, chaotic, precarious, and cold world of bright lights and loud sounds. It must feel as though we are dying. Something must assure us that we are safe, and this something is the mother. She offers emotional warmth in the absence of physical warmth, an emotional holding environment.
Sitting comfortably and relaxed as before, contemplate the birth experience. First, consider what it is like to be in your mother’s womb, to be held in warmth, fed without effort, absent of a sense of self and other. And even though this space is cramped and uncomfortable, imagine how scary and painful the actual birth experience must be given your inability to comprehend what is happening. Contemplate what it is like to be painfully forced into the unknown open world. Allow yourself to feel the terror that accompanies this experience. Conclude by practicing tonglen for all beings having this experience right now.
But this anchor is not enough to feel truly secure. The infant still feels tremendously vulnerable for want of the cognitive ability to make sense of anything that is happening. Whenever our mother is out of sight, we feel tremendous anxiety, as though we are once again unmoored and lost at sea. It therefore becomes necessary to develop the cognitive capacity to recognize “object constancy,” through which the child develops faith that the mother still exists when out of sight. At this point, the game “peek-a-boo” becomes fun rather than traumatizing. Now the mother is understood as an enduring and permanent object. Buddhism will later tell us that this permanence is an illusion, but from the child’s point of view, this illusion is extremely pacifying. And, carrying this desire for pacification further, so much the better if we could see ourselves as enduring and permanent too.
When the infant/toddler is about six to eighteen months of age, she looks in a mirror and “recognizes” herself for the first time. Her reaction is one of sheer joy. She is so excited to see who she is! But the “self” that she sees is nothing more than an image. It’s not the real thing. As the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan puts it, her recognition is a misrecognition. The child’s genuine (or, at least, most immediate) self is an embodied, dynamic constellation of vital energies. If she looks at her body directly, without aid of a mirror, she can see arms, legs, and a torso, but she cannot see her body as a singular whole. She is perpetually and disturbingly incomplete. Therefore, she is so happy to identify with the image in the mirror. What a relief! It is as if she has come upon a life raft to navigate the mysterious and chaotic waters into which she had been thrown at birth. Her fear of drowning lessens. She is still dependent on others for a sense of safety and security, but now she enjoys a sense of being a separate, intrinsically existing, and whole self.
Sitting comfortably, look at your reflection in a mirror. Contemplate the location of that image. Does it have an actual intrinsic reality, or is it completely illusory? If you move the mirror away, where is the image then? Do you hold onto it in your mind? Is that real? Where is your mind?
The child’s newfound self-image provides the seed for symbolic and imaginative thinking, permitting her to enter into language and sociality. Her social acquaintances mirror back to her all manner of attributions (e.g., good/bad, pretty/ugly, smart/dumb) and narratives (e.g., “I must live up to [such-and-such social image/ideal]”), which she adopts as ideas about and directives for herself.
Later in adulthood, this image will be further “actualized” through love and work relationships. Our attempts to protect and glorify this image will surely generate a plethora of emotions, as we encounter situations that run counter to all of the notions we hold of ourselves. This life raft, our self-image, will be buffeted about by this sea of emotions, sometimes violently, and we respond by clinging to it with ever greater force. This is what Buddhism calls “ego clinging.” Given that the ego is not real—meaning that it is merely a constructed idea of being a separate, intrinsically existing, and permanent self—we can see how clinging to it constitutes the source of all suffering. But from a developmental point of view, such a move is necessary for the child to cultivate the capacity and courage to step out in the world.
Look at your mirror image again. What stories do you have of this image? Do you take up this image as a figure in some narrative you tell about yourself? Does that narrative exist outside of your mind? Are there other narratives you could tell? Are any of them “true” outside of your decision to believe them?
We might say that attachment to self is the price we pay for being human. It is necessary in order to enter into sociality, and yet it also is the primary source of our future karma. Looking at our sense of self more closely, we see that it is built upon our relationships with others, grounded most fundamentally in the attachment we formed with our primary caregiver. Whatever we accept about ourselves reflects something that someone has said or thought or fostered in us. Therefore, despite believing ourselves to be a separate and wholly independent self, we are still extremely attached to other people, places, and things. As much as we want to be a refuge unto ourselves, we actually are radically dependent on others. When a loved one dies, we can no longer deny that part of our identity is tied up in their existence,and that they in fact are part of our life raft. The old feelings of attachment-to-other as our original refuge are reactivated, and we become upset from a very deep place. Our original birth-trauma experience can be reactivated as we are plunged into the world of grief, a world in which we may not be able to breathe, let alone function. It is as if our life raft has capsized, and we are (once again) lost at sea. Fortunately,unlike the newborn, as adults we have benefit of our cognitive faculties to negotiate these waters, even as those faculties likely will be suspended for an interim period in the grieving process.
As Dharma practitioners, we may think grief is a fault. We might think, “If I had full realization of emptiness, I would not feel grief.” This view assumes that grief is a klesha, or afflictive emotional pattern. But according to Thrangu Rinpoche, this is not the case. Whereas kleshas (e.g., anger, craving, ignorance, pride, jealously) are causes of future suffering, grief simply is suffering. It is the effect of our attachments, not the cause of them. When I am angry, my anger issues from my attachment to myself, but it also generates additional karma. When I am bereaved of a loved one, I feel the loss very deeply, but this feeling in itself does not generate negative karma;however, if the loss activates additional neurotic attachments, then a different story emerges.
For example, if I harbor some ambivalent feelings toward the deceased, I may not know what to do with the negative part of that, so I direct those feelings toward myself. Then, as Freud described, we will lapse into depression—which is a cause of suffering. But to the extent that we can feel our grief purely and deeply, it purifies karma rather than creates it. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
On this account, we can identify two types of attachment that enter into grief. The first is that of loving affection. This kind of attachment (if that is even the correct word) is not negative at all. Loving affection is an expression of our inherent nature, prior to identification with the image of self. When we lose someone whom we regard with loving affection, sadness is natural. It is suffering, not a cause of suffering. The other kind of attachment is a form of fixation rooted in ego-clinging. We attach to the other because of what they can do for us, rather than what we might do for them. When as infants we attach to our primary caregiver, we do so out of necessity so that we won’t drown in the chaos. It is survival. This original attachment provides opportunity for the cultivation (or manifestation) of loving affection; however, it also carries with it the seed potential of fixation. We will have to grapple with both of these poles throughout our lives, and circumstances will help to shape the extent to which we develop one over the other. When a loved one dies, we will find ourselves confronting both of these attitudes toward the deceased.The specific combination of them, their quantity, quality, and duration, will vary according to our individual karma and our capability of negotiating them.
Sitting comfortably, contemplate the experience of having lost someone with whom you had a strong emotional bond, whether to death, relocation, relationship breakup, or some other event. What was that experience like for you? Following the loss, did you feel nothing but pure loving affection toward this person, or were there other, more complicated feelings? What were those? Sit with them and investigate them with acceptance, love, and understanding.
Given that we surely will amass a vast collection of egoic patterns as we move through life (and from life to life), the question arises as to how our grief experiences might intersect with such dense karma. Generally, there are two ways we can purify karma. We can purify karma through suffering, enduring the ripening effects of our previous actions until they are exhausted; alternatively, we can purify karma through spiritual practice, liberating the effects of previous actions before they fully ripen. As we have seen, grief involves the first way of purifying karma because it is suffering. But grief also relates to the second in its potential to deeply connect us with a primordial sense of pure love while simultaneously exposing our neurotic attachments and fixations. That is, grief presents an (admittedly painful) opportunity to connect with our deepest nature while recognizing and eventually liberating our egoic patterns. This is so because even as our inherent love is indestructible, all conditioned phenomena are impermanent.
As practitioners, we can do our best to carry this understanding with us in life, and to negotiate its undeniable truth in grief. Perhaps this is why Chogyam Trungpa described our ideal emotion as “sad-joy.” Grief combines not only the two ways of purifying karma, but also the two dominant (and competing) paradigms identified in the bereavement literature. One paradigm advocates that we must “break bonds” with the deceased, while the other argues that we instead must “continue bonds” with them. The contemplative view, by contrast, suggests that we need to apply both approaches in specific ways—namely, grief provides opportunity to let go of our egoic attachments to the deceased (breaking bonds), while also maintaining a relationship with them on the basis of our feelings of loving affection (continuing bonds). The transformative potential of grief lies in its capacity to soften our strong, rigid sense of separate personal identity while reorienting us around a sense of caring connection and loving concern for others.
As you continue to think about the person you previously lost, contemplate the nature of the relationship you presently have with them. Aside from being imaginal rather than physical, is this relationship otherwise different from when that person was in your life? If so, how? Notice (without judgment) any lingering negative feelings you may hold toward that person or toward yourself. Accept these feelings. Embrace them. Look deeply into them.Eventually, you can imagine your feelings of pure loving affection expanding to fill the sky-like space of your mind, and the negative feelings as little birds that fly off into the distance and disappear. Rest in that state of unconditional love for this individual. Feel a glow in your heart center.
Of course, the mourning process is very difficult and painful. Our sense of ego- identity and our certainty in it—indeed, our very life raft—will be ripped out from under us, and we will need to reorient and reconsider who and what we are. We may find ourselves doing anything we can to prevent the feeling of our original birth trauma. For many, denial and/or anger will be our handiest (and bluntest) tools, but insofar as these reactions create more negative consequences, they are not a long-term solution. Eventually, we must feel our loss, feel our sadness, and follow that feeling to our very core. Doing so will connect us with existential angst, confrontation with our own mortality. Looking more deeply still, we might catch glimpse of the fact that even greater than the fear that we will die in the future is the fear that we don’t exist right now, at least not in the way that we think we do (as a separate, permanent entity). Entering fully and deeply into our grief brings us directly into the territory of our birth trauma, which enables us to heal it. In the process, we are also brought face-to-face with our genuine nature, prior to the separation of self and other. The challenge is to enter this territory courageously, noticing whatever arises, without judgment (as Phakchok Rinpoche would remind us), and letting go. We must completely surrender.
Sit comfortably and contemplate whatever grief you might have in your life at present. Grief can take many forms, so do not casually dismiss this notion, but reflect deeply on all the losses you suffer from day to day. Whether the grief you identify is mild or acute, permit yourself to feel it as deeply as you can. If you become extremely distressed, pull back. But if a feeling of sweetness accompanies your grief, take this as a sign that your experience is healing, that loving affection is present and being nurtured. Touch the heart of this sadness and let it envelop you.
I would like to illustrate this healing and transformative potential by drawing from Robert Romanyshyn’s The Soul in Grief, a hauntingly lyrical work describing the inner process of the author following the sudden and premature death of his beloved wife. It is evident that Romanyshyn, a phenomenological psychologist (and not a Buddhist), totally immersed himself in the grief experience with no gaining idea: “In the depths of my mourning everything I ever was, and everything I ever imagined I could be, was torn away.” Later he says, “Grief was the tempest which blew apart the fiction of my well-ordered and meaningful life.” He comes out of the experience two years afterward with a new appreciation for life, expressing Buddhist-like insight:
There were sounds, smells, tastes, textures, but it was not me or my personal mind which experienced them. Instead, there was a kind of identification with them, so that in these moments the boundary between myself and the world disappeared.
Compare this statement to that of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, discussing the insight that can come while contemplating a deceased mother: “If you look deeply, you’ll see already the continuation of your mother inside you and outside you.” Commenting on the spiritual method to achieve this insight: This is the wonder of Buddhist meditation—with the practice of looking deeply you can touch your own nature of no birth and no death. You touch the no-birth and no-death nature of your father, your mother, your child, of everything in and around you.When we juxtapose the statements of these two authors, we see clearly that grief and spiritual practice can arrive at similar insights, perhaps because they are not so cleanly separated.
Consider these quotations and contemplate the ways in which spiritual practice serves the function of grieving losses before they happen. For example, in what ways does the insight of interdependent origination serve to break our neurotic bonds with others so as to purify and amplify our feelings of loving affection? How can you bring this new insight about grief into alignment with your own spiritual practice?
In this brief essay, I hope to have demonstrated the transformative potential of grief. A classic Buddhist metaphor likens spiritual practice to churning milk in order to get butter. Our buddha-nature (butter) is latent within us, and we need to make an effort (churning) in order for it to manifest. We could use the same metaphor for grief. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, our depths are churned in sometimes intolerable ways; but as we have seen, this process also enables us in time to contact and amplify our genuine loving affection while identifying and liberating our neurotic attachments. In the same way that at present our mind wanders in meditation, we may have difficulty staying present with our experiences in grief; however, simply seeing grief as an opportunity rather than obstacle might encourage us to persevere in the experience and gain from it. In this way, grief can be a huge catalyst in our spiritual development. That is good news, because so long as all phenomena are impermanent, we will have plenty of practice.
Final Reflection Exercise
Sitting comfortably, contemplate whether the nature of grief described in this essay is valid of your experience. Can grief truly be welcomed?