Grief comes to us all. Perhaps a family member, a partner, a child, a friend or a pet has left you in past few years. Perhaps more than one. This author has lived long enough to see a number of the above loved ones pass away, the most recent being my beloved grandmother. The sense of loss, once the numbness had dissipated somewhat, was heart-wrenching. A deeply-loved woman by all in her family, her departure, though not entirely unexpected, came earlier than any of us expected. This happened six months ago, and though the waves of grief are becoming less frequent & less strong, they still come, sweeping away thoughts & emotions in the wake, drowning them in an ocean of sadness. But, if we’re wise, we learn how to not drown in this ocean. That way we insult a loved-one’s memory rather than honour it.
Being awake to the current moment, to what we might call the 'buddha space' that underlies our every experience, can definitely help with the grieving process. Trying to overcome feelings of grief with doctrinal thoughts such as, “Well, she’ll get reborn again,” or, “She’s in heaven now,” or even, “As everything is not self, nobody died anyway” don’t really help. At best, they’re platitudes used to alleviate some of the sorrow, at worst they’re unfeeling dogmas used to bury uncomfortable feelings. Being attentive to our grief is a much more pragmatic approach, however, giving it the space in which to express itself. Everything in life, including grief, needs to live out its natural life-cycle; being ‘born,’ existing, and then dying away. Suppressing or denying negative emotions simply hides them in the unconscious, from where they can wreak untold damage later on.
Of course, if we are simply aware of grief, allowing it full expression, it’s possible that it may overwhelm us, and then it can harm us just as if it had been buried away in the unconscious, the main difference being that we will often be aware of why we feel so sad. However, we will still suffer, perhaps even enter a depression, hurting those around us and possibly harming relationships, both private & professional. Being awake to our buddha space can allow our grief to be fully expressed but not to the extent that we get lost in it. This is because being awake to this spacious buddha-nature both allows a powerful emotion like grief the opportunity to be fully lived and does so in the peaceful, calm & compassionate space of our innate “buddha-ness.” All this may sound fine, you might think, but something more practical or concrete is needed to back up such a claim. With this in mind, the reader is invited to try out the following meditation to see yourself.
This is a three part meditation to explore, understand & deal with negative feelings at least a little bit better. It’s probably best to do each part several times in turn before moving on to doing all three.
Part I: First, we need to establish the peaceful base (or, ‘buddha space’) which will be used as the stable foundation upon which any observations can be built. In a quiet environment, close your eyes and rest in the moment. Take notice of each sound as it arises; is it loud, soft, long, short, pleasant, unpleasant, etc. After a few minutes of this, turn your attention around to that which is hearing all these sounds. Please look with honesty at what you find based on current evidence, not on previous knowledge or assumption. Is it noisy or or quiet? Is it moving or still? Perhaps, like this author, you find a silence that hosts all the sounds you can hear. It is awareness itself, awake to every sound that is occurring, but is itself perfectly silent, wonderfully still. It is the ‘buddha space’ that is awakened to this present moment.
Part II: Next, we will use this buddha space to take note of thought rather than sound. So, as a preparation for observing thought, we need to repeat the first meditation and become aware of this spaciousness in which sounds are heard. Take a few moments to listen to sounds before turning attention around to the listener. Once you’re awake to this welcoming silence, you’re reading for Part II. Think of a place you know: Your home, workplace, the park or wherever. Visualize this location fully, but all the while be aware of the open awareness that is observing this memory. Be alive to the fact that this memory is occurring in a clear, welcoming knowing. The famous Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah called this “our real home.” Whatever place is imagined, it appears in this real home; the only home we really ever have. Now, do the same with a person. Visualise their face clearly, the sound of their voice, their personality and actions. Again, as you do so, be awake to the buddha space that plays host to these memories and thoughts. Try this meditation with people you like and with people you dislike. Whatever the emotional responses you have, can you see the non-judgemental spaciousness in which they arise? If you can, you’re ready for the next stage.
Part III: Finally, having made sure you’ve gone through parts I & II first and are established in your ‘true home,’ think of an event that causes you some discomfort: a time when you were done wrong or embarrassed. Be open to the uncomfortable memories and associated feelings. Stay awake to what they exist in: buddha space. Give them room to be, observe them from this spaciousness, recognising what happened and the feelings that arise in you as a result. Don’t judge any of this, but simply give it room to breath; it will dissipate on its own when the time is ripe. Now, think of a loved one that has passed away, allowing all the good memories (and bad) to arise in this buddha space. The pain is still painful, perhaps even more so if this is the first time that you’ve faced it, but, if you stay aware of the peacefulness in which the pain exists, it won’t be able to ‘catch’ you and overwhelm you. In other words, if you identify with that which is aware of negative emotions, including grief, they are able to express themselves fully without causing you unbearable suffering. Often, such feelings remain buried in the subconscious where they may wreak all kinds of chaos, much of which you may not even realise is related to your suppressed grief. Grief, after all, is a natural reaction to the death of somebody that we love, but it needn’t cause damage. Not if we stay aware of the buddha space that is always here, always calm, always open.
Such an awareness has certainly helped this author to deal with feelings of grief regarding my lovely grandmother’s death. Rather than trying to think of other things, escape into a movie, or rationalize away negative feelings, being this spaciousness for grief to arise, exist & cease has made the grieving process a tolerable, even insight-laden experience. Not that grief is over and done with any quicker this way than if experienced from the viewpoint of a suffering personality, but the suppression, depression, and intense sadness often associated is less likely to occur. Grief is cushioned by awareness of buddha space, recognised and allowed to be, but not indulged in or lost in. Moreover, through being this buddha space, insight into this existence can develop, such as the impermanent nature of both physical & psychological processes.
Of course, being buddha space isn’t only useful when we’re grieving or experiencing other intensely negative emotions, but the fact that it can help with such strong emotions reveals its power. Being spacious awareness can improve the quality of every moment in our lives, from the mundane to the profound. Indeed, part of living from this buddha space is the revelation that what we take to be mundane is in fact profound. Every moment is profoundly important when experienced from the viewpoint of buddha space; the trick is to keep looking back and recognising this spaciousness at our centre. As to grief, if given the space it needs to go its natural course, it will not only be less devastating, but – along with those that we miss - will also be our teacher. Thank you, Nan.