February 28, 2022
Grief as a Practice
The English language calls it Grief, and that is as close as we can come linguistically to naming the dark-watered ceremony of loss. It comes for us throughout our human experience; no being can escape the inevitability of losing what we know and love. Death – the mysterious other half of life – is an essential part of existence, and so we experience it in small and big ways. We come to thresholds of endings, moments of saying goodbye, and the drastic changes to the reality we were steeped in. Here is where we meet grief, that which we cannot accurately define in its rich totality, but that which we can feel.
Every spiritual tradition has a way of trying to guide us into deepened ease with transitions and ultimately to develop a relationship with our own physical death. Part of the spiritual path is to open up to the suffering that’s here, which includes death’s existential uncertainty. Navigating loss and transition is a potent and powerful arena for self-expansion and spiritual growth. There exists the possibility of transcending death, as saints and sages are said to have done. The Indian saint Ramana Maharshi was dying of cancer and his devotees wept at his bedside, begging him to save himself so that he would not leave them. He replied, “Don’t be silly. Where could I go?” Shortly after, he left his body.
Yes, there exists the potential of liberation from the suffering and anxiety around death. And, this in no way means we are meant to stop feeling the bite and sting of transition. We are meant to grieve and grieve well. It’s as if we have receptors in our hearts and physical body specifically dedicated to receiving the unique and utterly encompassing experience of loss.
It is not easy, appealing, nor comprehendible. There is no prescription practice or “perfect way” of navigating loss, which can be a real edge for practitioners that crave methodology. What takes us through the vast waters of grief are the simple tools of presence and patience. It is the advanced practice of getting through each day the best we can and remembering to breathe.
The practice is the lived and felt experience of what can be some of the darkest points of a human’s life. For as humans we get to love deeply, form natural attachments, fall in love with each other, our children, our pets, and the world. Because of this our losses can cut very deep. The more we love something, the more we bravely open ourselves to the pain of its departure. The release of the forms of these bonds or the beings that we form them with can be one of the most painful and confounding experiences.
Grief is a powerful and consuming space, one that permeates every crevice of our reality when it enters our world. Grief imbues itself, dense and thick, into the places we go, the music we hear, the conversations we try to carry on. Grief uses our life force to sustain itself, draining resources and demanding that if we want to be there to receive its teachings, we must get quiet and still and be willing to feel the immensity.
Grief is a teacher that like no other can take us to the bedrock of our reality. Who are we? What is important? Where do we want to spend the time and energy that we have? Grief has a way of decreasing our tolerance for anything that is not essential nor in alignment with what we truly need.
Grief presses us into spaces tight enough that out of necessity we get the courage to ask for help. Can you cook me a meal? Can you talk for a bit? Can you pick them up from school on Friday? Can I have a hug? In times of great grief, we are at our most raw and vulnerable. We are not meant to grieve alone, but rather we get the opportunity to lean into community. To receive the support of loved ones. Grief reminds us that the heaviness of life is shared, and we do not need to carry it on our own.
Grief can take over the body. Sometimes it asks us to curl up in bed for days, and then sometimes it needs us to become a dragon roaring fire from our mouths. Grief constricts our hearts, our jaw, our bellies. It destabilizes our reality and so the body oscillates between bracing itself and feeling like all of its scaffolding has fallen away. Grief sometimes asks us to dance like mad or walk for miles to help it to flip around, as if through the experience of loss, we grew pregnant with a volatile bundle of emotion.
Grief is a deep and holy ache in the heart, one that even the mind is baffled by. Grief defies our brain’s desire to keep homeostasis, to stay safe with the reality we know. The mind does not have its own space to hold grief, and so the body welcomes it in fully.
And then, there are the inevitable days when the clouds part and for a few moments a new kind of light peaks through. It is a light we haven’t before seen. It is our own light that has been given dimension, weight, and power through the experience of loss. For though grief can be one of the hardest experiences for a human, it is an undeniable alchemical pot. It is a cave that we must honor. We must prostrate ourselves on the floor before our own heartbreak, trusting that by breaking we are breaking open. Trusting the small whisper of knowing when it reminds us that the darker and deeper we go, the more expansive and bright the other side.
Ultimately, our capacity and willingness to grieve is a superpower. When we are in the most intolerable of feelings, in some way we are tolerating them. When we choose to sit with, lay with, cry with, make sound with, sweat with, and pray with our grief, we are telling life that we are the ones ready and willing to live fully. We are communicating to all the younger selves inside of us that are too feeling the loss and adding in their own pain to the mix, that we are a version of self that can hold space for the immensity of the moment. When we do not leave ourselves during moments of pain, we fortify our self-trust. We can lean on our own strength, and soften into our own compassion.
The practice of being with grief is the way of the heart warrior. A practice that is so personal and intimate, we cannot possibly know the experience one is having in its full form. And yet, as human’s who are deeply connected to each other in shared experience, there is part of us that knows. We go to the river with each other, to wail, to shake, to spit. To hold space for the unfathomable and yet excruciatingly real journey through grief. If we choose to accept it as such, the practice of grief forges us in its fire, and not any sooner than is precisely the right time, we rise from the flames ready to greet the world with hearts stretched open wide. Hearts are able to hold what our words can’t fully grasp.
Below are some recommended practices to help you explore grief as a practice: