Yet we often forget until it is upon us, how transformational grief can be if we have the tools to navigate it in a constructive way. This notion was completely foreign to me for the first half of my life. I used the age-old approach of letting my grief become anger and conveniently projecting it at others, or the world, then going out and playing some sort of aggressive physical sport to channel my energy. From the personal to the global we see individuals and nations going through this pattern every day in the news. Though we rarely take the time to dissect and understand it. Only through understanding grief internally can we transform it so that instead of being victimized by it we can emerge with a level of compassion and personal power that actually makes us feel grateful for it.
Grateful for grief? The idea sounds ridiculous, especially when we are engulfed with darkness. This is not at all about shoving it away, de-valuing it, or acting as if it is insignificant. Grief is every bit as powerful as love in it’s ability to shape our lives. Just the simple mental switch of considering grief as a teacher can be profound. I was first introduced to this concept while seeing Palden Gyatso speak with nothing but love and forgiveness about his experiences in a Chinese torture camp. I thought of all the things I have moped and complained about, comparing my minor struggles with his. Seeing his triumph I realized that it was time for me to learn some new coping skills.
During this time I was introduced to Tonglen Meditation. As I began to open up to my own grief with these new coping tools, the gates blew wide open. I became a bit overindulgent with the grief as I felt fearlessness for the first time in my life. While practicing Tonglen Meditation I noticed how often I made choices based on how to avoid the most possible grief. I became aware of how fear had been ruling my life and I started to see how it ruled the lives of others around me.
I am not a Tonglen teacher, but there are plenty of good ones out there including Pema Chodron who has a wonderful audio-talk called Good Medicine. The basic concept is simple though… You sit quietly and breathe in all the fear, grief and pain happening in your life. You breathe it right into your heart and feel it with all your senses. When your lungs are full of air, it is time to exhale and let it all go, to focus on a deep and eternal peace. At the end of the exhale, you begin to inhale grief again, and in this cycle it is as if you allow your body to be a pump breathing in grief, and breathing out peace.
The other component is that you cultivate the ability to become the observer of this internal process that is common to all humans. Nobody makes it through this life without experiencing grief, and an intimate relationship with grief also allows one to feel connected in a profound way with everyone who has ever lived. It is strange to consider, but grief might be more common than even love…
Grief is most often associated with the loss of someone or something that we love. Martin Prechtel speaks of the Mayan wisdom that considers grief as the highest form of praise. In the Mayan tradition, crying is seen as a form of prayer and tears actually feed our ancestors. When we can be present with our own grief we are less likely to project it in anger or violence onto others, we become compassionate warriors.
We can not expect nations to act on this principle until enough individuals are able to embody it. We don’t want war, the oppression of others leaves us in spiritual bondage. Power over others does nothing to make us more secure as we will become obsessed with maintaining that kind of control. Real strength and resilience comes from the personal power of being liberated from fear. Since most fear is based on calculating to avoid grief or suffering, we can cast fear away by becoming intimate with the unavoidable in our lives.
We have many traditions to thank for this basic wisdom, especially Buddhism. How different would the world look if this understanding was part of our dominant story? I can say that it continues to change my life every day to see the world through this lens.
Palden Gyatso changed my world in a very short moment, by challenging me to change the way I look at the tough parts in life. I had the pleasure of bringing Palden to the Hopi Mesas to meet elders and discuss ancient history the day after his talk. He laughed at me a lot as I continued to ask him about prophecy and earth changes. He assured me over and over that if we are in the right place within our heart nothing can harm us. Coming from an individual who endured torture to speak of compassion and forgiveness, I knew I better listen to what he had to say! So if you are going through grief remember that it will pass, welcome it as a teacher and you will become a stronger, more resilient person when it passes.