Friday, September 9, 2011

Grief: A terrible gift

Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

I say this every morning. But knowing that death is certain, that this existence is ephemeral, doesn't make it less of a surprise and doesn't mean it doesn't hurt.

Last week one of my spouse's close friends was killed. He was riding his bike home from work and was hit by a drunken driver. He was a sweet guy. He was the drummer in my spouse's band, so I saw him most Wednesday nights. Will always stopped to talk to me before heading downstairs to play music -- really talk. He was curious about the world and the people around him, including me, and was right there in the conversation.

Ten years ago, 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Every one of them was precious. And all the people who died in between those events and before them and since -- they also were precious and their lives were ephemeral.

When death is simply an expected part of (this) life, do we grieve?

Oh, yeah.

Roshi Joan Halifax of Upaya Zen Center says that grief is not often addressed in contemporary Buddhism -- "perhaps it is looked on as a weakness of character or as a failure of practice," she writes.

"We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most of us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work for us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that eventually will be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion."

I've heard teachers describe grief as a particularly sticky form of sadness, a plaque that builds up in the vessels leading to our heart-mind, blocking our flow of compassion. I experience grief as a hand around my throat, squeezing til it's hard to breathe and my eyes water. It comes up when my heart is unguarded -- in the grocery store, heading into the cereal aisle, for example. It is a sensation easily characterized as unpleasant.

We don't want to sit with grief. My husband and I were driving to western New York to visit relatives and were standing outside a rest stop on the NY Thruway when he got the call about his friend. I asked if he wanted me to drive after that, but he said, no, driving would give him something else to focus on, would take his mind off Will

I think grief is hard to sit with because this intense form of sadness usually follows a loss that seems final -- a physical or psychic death, the knowledge that something is gone from your life and won't be back. It's a loss that breaks your habitual patterns: Will won't be coming over on Wednesday nights. The world is unsafe when terrorists can bring down four planes on one day. Your routine way of doing business or thinking is shattered. It is not so much the loss but the effect of the loss on you. I don't worry much about my own death, but I often tell my children as they get into their cars: Don't die. As if that is a promise they can make with certainty. (I am happy with, "I'll try not to," as a response.)

The poet William Wordsworth wrote about the coming of autumn:
Margaret, are you grieving/ over goldengrove unleaving?

Are we sad because the leaves are turning color and falling? No, that's actually a pretty beautiful thing. We're sad because it marks the passing of time and all that passes with it. As Wordsworth concludes:
It is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.

Even the Buddha knew grief. When one of his close followers died, he said it was as if all the light in the world had gone out. (Some translations attribute the statement to Siddhartha, others to another one of his followers.)

And he was approached repeatedly by those who were flooded by grief, swept from their moorings. He told one woman he would help her when she found a house that had been untouched by death. To another, crying for her daughter, Jiva, he said:
"Eighty-four thousand daughters
All with the name "Jiva"
Have burned in the funeral fire.
For which one do you grieve?"

It is Margaret, by any other name.

"The sorrow of great and small losses is a river that runs in the underground of all of our lives," Halifax writes. "When it breaks to the surface, we might feel as though only 'I' know this pain. Yet grief is a universal experience."

Find the house where no one has died.

But to know that, truly know it, bake it into your bones so that you live from that place, so that you feel compassion for everyone because everyone knows death, first you have to feel your own grief.

As Buddhists, we learn in meditation to watch as emotions rise and fall. The physiological part of an emotion, the flood of hormones or whatever, lasts 90 seconds, I've been told. Everything after that is the suffering of suffering -- the thoughts we attach to the original emotion like beads on a string. In grief, those thoughts are loaded with barbs: sweet memories, projections of what the absent person will miss, things we did together and now won't again, even if we go on to do those same things with others.

I don't know of any way around it. You have to feel the barbs, watch the pain rise like a rushing waterway after the rain, cry enough tears to fill Niagara Falls, and the see the riverbed of love and compassion that water flows over.

Halifax again:
Grief can call us into an experience of raw immediacy that is often devastating. Grieving, we can learn that suffering is not transformed by someone telling us how to do it. We have to do the work ourselves.
And that means letting go of what we think we know. When we move through the terrible transformation of the elements of loss and grief, we may discover the truth of the impermanence of everything in our life, and of this very life itself. This is one of the most profound discoveries to be made as we engage in Buddhist practice.
In this way grief and sorrow may teach us gratitude for what we have been given, even the gift of suffering. From her we learn to swim in the stream of universal sorrow. And in that stream, we may even find joy.
For this Buddhist, this is the essence of a liberative practice.

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