The Role of Grief on the Spiritual Path

07/22/2015 03:19 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2016

Many people I've worked with in one-on-one mentoring have survived traumatic events in childhood--the death of a caretaker, sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, violence. Yet decades after these events, many of the entirely natural feelings of sadness or anger haven't been felt; over the years the emotional pain has been buried by narratives of how the abuse should never have occurred--true, but moral indignation is no substitute for attending to the emotional remnants of abuse that seek attention. Furthermore, having read that spiritual practice is 'all about letting go,' many people I work with hope that I'll provide the perfect forgiveness mantra, which will allow them to bypass attending to the buried emotional pain; but healing doesn't work that way. To forgive an abuser before the pain has fully been attended to is, once again, a form of bypass, not healing.

It is my contention that without grieving, the right hemisphere maintains old relational models of the world; without grieving my losses, I never learn that an attachment figure, such as a parent or old lover, has abandoned us, that the person I relied upon is no longer available. Without grieving, the emotional brain fails to learn anything; I'll seek out my abusers in the hope that this time my needs will be met; the wounding occurs again and again and again.

The longer I stay in a thought-based, figure-it-out mind state, the worse the underlying emotional activations may become. As the unattended wounds accumulate, I may find myself filling my hours with a ceaseless array of chores, obligations, and projects, scheduling each minute of day to the degree that there's no time to stop and feel anything; this is an attempt to outmaneuver the spreading physical sensations of sadness, anger, or fear that are lingering just beneath conscious awareness. The right hemisphere, aware of the body, is invariably cognizant of these developing feeling states. So I'll keep constantly busy by living entirely up in my head, pinning my attention to chores, distracting myself from the unrest signaled by the breath, body, and mood.

No matter how fast I rush from one appointment to the next, the creeping feelings of disconnection and emptiness are felt by the emotional mind, creating the sense that an ever-present shadow is just behind me, dampening each life accomplishment and triumph. When such pain seeks my attention, I will rely on increasingly addictive strategies to numb the heartache.

What addictive strategies do I use to contain the repressed? Naturally, the solution promoted in capitalist societies is to shop; the Buddha referred to this as the craving for sensual pleasures (kama tanha) to deflect attention away from my suffering (dukkha). In one period of my life, before I was prepared to face some emotional wreckage from my past, I suddenly felt the drive to accumulate a variety of claw hammer banjos, many of which I still own, though rarely play. (Also, I have an abnormally large collection of hoodies, more than I'll ever need. Hey, none of us is perfect.) When I was working at one of those advertising gigs I thoroughly disliked, I fell into the habit of pushing down the feelings of inauthenticity and purposelessness by shopping for audio CDs. I wound up with an absurdly large collection of music to which I never listen.

When repressed emotions arise, neurotic anxiety is sure to follow; throughout long periods of my life I've experienced insomnia, the spiraling thoughts and inner chatter that never switches off when sleep should beckon. The rational regions of my brain will churn out of control, desperately trying to create the perfect thought that will distract me from the abandonment, the rejection, the interpersonal disappointment asking for awareness.

And then there are the avoidance strategies. During times of unacknowledged sorrow I've found myself isolating, as when I've interacted with friends, the repressed emotion I'm struggling to conceal will no longer be fully contained; it announces itself through the cracks in my voice, the uncontrollable frown, the slumped shoulders. While the left hemisphere/narrative mind can control the words I speak, it cannot control the tone of voice, nor can it control the micro-muscle movements occurring at the corners of my mouth and eyes.

Isolation, which only worsens emotional dysregulation, occurs during the return of the repressed, especially when unwanted feelings are bubbling up, just beneath the surface of awareness; as the shadow of an old fear--rejection--catches up with me, I'll hide myself away, knowing that around other people the sadness will seep through, the long-withheld anger will finally make itself known. The sad irony is that in isolating, my wounds will only be made worse; only through empathetic interpersonal connection can I hold the universal challenges of life--what the Buddha called the inevitable pains of aging, sickness, death, and separation from the loved--without taking the experiences personally and feeling unique in my despair.

The last-ditch desperate move to ward off the return of the repressed is to seek out numbing substances such as drugs and alcohol--which are essentially substitutes for connecting with empathetic people--to kill off the emotions at all cost. I spent almost two decades in that hell realm, attempting to bury all the disappointment, self-consciousness, and lingering hypervigilance that stemmed from a childhood navigating around the volcanic eruptions of a raging, violent alcoholic father.

The work you and I have signed up for in attempting to heal via meditation and wise spiritual friendships is not just to develop a beautiful inner peace (tranquility being the result of all the concentration skills I develop in meditative practice).

Negative emotions are not my true self, just a part of my experience. In learning how to attend to the wounded parts of experience, it's helpful to remember that these feelings are only parts of the mind, just as our thought-based content is only a part as well. Neither emotional activations, panic attacks, nor rigorous thought can constitute a true, 'core self' (as the Buddha taught in the many suttas on the insight of anatta, the lack of a stable, core self in our mental landscape). As we turn toward grief, fear, anger, loneliness, or frustration, we may worry that unleashed the emotions will consume us, a wave of sensations which might crescendo in a psychic tsunami or nervous breakdown. "My grief is so great that if I even give it an inch, it will take a mile." But the general result of spiritual practice is that when I skillfully learn how to offer repressed grief an outlet, even a half an hour a day, it doesn't overwhelm or flood us; properly handled, I can still get out of bed in the morning, attend work, produce my art, join my friends, and do whatever I want. So I have an outlet for it.

The wounded child deprived of an outlet will seep out anywhere it can to get my attention and the attention of other people, but welcomed and given daily attention, the sadness settles into the background, knowing it will be given attention.

The first way I do this is I welcome it. I might hold in mind a mental image that summarizes a painful experience: for example, the face of a romantic partner seen during the "We can't be together" conversation. I maintain this image in working memory but don't recite the story of the relationship. Then I might ask myself: "What needs to be felt?," or, "How does it feel to be misunderstood, abandoned, not appreciated?" Simple, open-ended questions. And I bring my attention to the breath and body, which is where the emotional mind expresses itself. In my case, I experience sadness as a clenching in my upper chest; there's also a tightness in the micro-muscles around my eyes. If the emotions are very old, the accompanying physical activations can be uncomfortable to say the least; I may feel waves of contractions arising from the stomach to the chest, rapid heartbeats, panting breaths, even a sense of panic.

Whatever the degree of physical unrest, I can soften the experience by repeatedly relaxing the shoulders, neck muscles, and face, while "breathing into" the most uncomfortable sensations. So if I feel the tightness in the belly, very often the real underlying poison that needs to be attended to can feel like waves of contraction moving up from the stomach to the chest or like a blow, a kick to some area in the body, and so I soften it by breathing into it, creating the beginnings of a safe container. I can relax the shoulders and relax the parts of the body that resist, allowing myself to have an emotional experience. While I want to feel the emotions in the torso, the chest, the throat, and the face, very often muscles in the arms will tighten. The left hemisphere is triggering this resistance, "I don't want to feel this way." So the jaw might lock. Again I relax those muscles. I stop the physical war that's going on.

The safe container I'm developing, allowing myself to attend to difficult emotions, can be strengthened by sending thoughts of kindness and compassion to the areas of the body that display affects: "It's okay. I'll take care of you. I'll protect you."

A safe container also should provide enough soothing sensations that I can back off should the pain of grief or fear become too great: we can carefully choose external surroundings that are secure and soothing. Someone I knew who was grieving the loss of a lover told me he couldn't cry about her death in his apartment, as his apartment felt small and too familiar, without enough calming sensations; he unconsciously realized that the grief would inundate his entire being. So he found a secluded beach where he could lie in the warmth of the sun, feel sand, hear the waves, all of which created a safe container that allowed him to move toward the grief that needed his attention, while assuring him he could use the soothing sensations as a safe way to back off when the pain felt overwhelming.

As one of the great Buddhist teachers I've studied with, Ajahn Sucitto, notes so often, the key to mindful awareness is developing a secure frame that can contain any feeling; no matter how painful, it needs to be received with grace.