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Samsara and Selfhood: The Courage to Grieve
Submitted by Angela Carter on Wed, 3/16/2011, 8:29pm
Over the last week, much of my practice has been sitting with grief. Although I started working with grief earlier in the week, Friday’s devastation in Japan deepened, expanded and reoriented my practice. This work, actually sitting with grief, is new for me. Like fellow IDP blogger, Taz Tagore, I have spent years resisting and refusing my grief. In her post “The Art of Surrender” Taz writes, “Last fall, I realized that I couldn’t move forward until I held those losses up into the light and learned something about myself – about life – from them.” For me, learning from loss begins with acknowledging it as such.
In her Dharma Talk “On Grief and Buddhism” Roshi Joan Halifax from the Upaya Institute and Zen Center, talks about grief in a way that really resonates with me. Instead of exploring something like the Five Stages of Grief (which has been argued as unfounded), Roshi Halifax talks about the five territories of grief. These territories could be seen as the kinds of grief that are commonly experienced. They are: 1) the loss of a loved one, 2) the loss of an identity, 3) the loss of a relationship, 4) the loss of a place or thing, and 5) the loss of capacity or ability.
Most of us are familiar with the first territory or experience of grief, the loss of a loved one. Although incredibly painful, the truth of impermanence is usually recognizable in these moments of loss. Grieving the loss of a loved one is heart wrenching, but it is also the most culturally acceptable form of grief. Generally, we know what this kind of grief looks like. The other four territories of grief aren’t as readily understood as worthy of grief, and accordingly they are where I have struggled most. In order to work through, and let go of, your emotional suffering you have to first be with what it is.
Here is the irony of the ego. For years, I’ve adamantly denied myself grief believing that I was rejecting the ego. Really, I was attempting to refuse reality (dukkha) by disconnecting myself from myself. Which in turn, disconnected me from everything else, and actually perpetuated the ego. Despite all my Buddhist intentions, my thinking went something like this: “I feel loss. Which means I was attached. Suffering is caused by attachment. If I don't allow myself to feel the loss, then that means I wasn’t attached. If I wasn’t attached then I won’t suffer.” This would usually follow with “Impermanence is real. Attachment is bad. Get over it.” It seems so obvious now how truly misguided (not to mention not compassionate!) this thinking is, but I was really stuck there. It’s really easy to get stuck there.
Among other things, I’ve started the process of getting unstuck by re-listening to the September 2008 IDP Podcast entitled “Working with Grief.” The guest lecturer Jessica Rasp spoke about the complexity of the ego working with grief. There is some truth in my connection of ego, attachment, and grief. To paraphrase, Jessica explained that of course, “an ego reaction and story” can come from loss, but there is also something about loss and heartache that isn’t the ego. Something we should really be thankful for because it is from that place of brokenness that profound compassion and a real sense of interconnectedness emerges. It's how you work with grief that determines how much ego shows up. By running from my grief I wasn’t deflating the ego, I was allowing it distract me from the moment that was really there.
The IDP Podcast, the Upaya Podcast, and my current Pema Chödrön read The Wisdom of No Escape all talk about allowing ourselves the time and space to really be with our grief. To be with the pain, without adding to it or distracting from it. Without blaming, trying to justify our feelings, or trying to escape them. To have the courage to be with our grief so that we may discover all that it can open to us. Just as moments of loss help us to understand our impermanence, and vulnerability, grief too is part of the path. I think in many ways this is what Ethan means when he reminds us that meditation is “becoming friends with yourself.”
There was an article in yesterday’s New York Times entitled, “In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief.” I can’t begin to imagine what the Japanese are feeling right now, though from my own experience I do imagine that they will be feeling a lot of things for years to come. As they try to move forward, may they have the courage and compassion to grieve. May we all.
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