Coping with Grief and Fear

I lost my husband in November after 25 years of marriage. I’ve joined a bereavement group on line and realize that there are so many people suffering. Grief and fear have always been part of the human experience but now with the virus, we are facing these emotions globally. I’m learning that emotions like grief and fear can transform into compassion with the practice of mindfulness. It is slow and painful but necessary.

Grief and fear go hand in hand. When we lose somebody, we grieve the loss of love and we also face an unknown future. Death forces us to remember our immortality and the temporary nature of all things.

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Albert Gyorgy, ‘El vacío del alma’

When your whole identity breaks apart, you feel like you no longer fit in or even trust your skin. Conversations and events seem inconsequential and we find ourselves half in and half out of the real world we live in. What can we hold on to when everything is unstable and transitory?

We’re wired to believe that life is rational and love everlasting. Our perception of our life with a spouse, however imperfect, just makes sense. There’s a reasonable sequence of events, a social function, a shared commitment. When a person dies, or there’s a traumatic event, our perception of a fixed life shatters and we feel betrayed and empty. How can this be after having invested so much time and energy? We experience the truth of the temporal nature of all things and our immortality. We begin to see that underneath the routine of the material world, there’s a powerful energy that alters our reality, that forces us to evolve. It is infinitely organic, ineffable and seemingly indiscriminate.

My husband used to say, No somos nadie, which means, We are nobody. He was right.

There is no way around death, except to go through it. Each person copes with grief and fear differently but I think everyone should expect to feel sick and crazy. It is normal to lose our moral and physical strength and sensibility. There are feelings and behaviors that people don’t like to confess, but death encourages all sorts of things like excess, escapism, unpredictability, anxiety, saying bizarre things, breaking things including people’s feelings, listlessness and selfishness.

When we embrace these adverse experiences as normal, without judgment or labels, we realize that we are simply human and that somehow out of pain and suffering, out of confronting nothingness, we are part of the universe. When we accept that we are no longer our self, that we are in fact different, we begin to give ourselves time to become reacquainted. To become balanced and compassionate.

Meditation helps. Sitting and doing just that, being with oneself in acceptance. In this case, meditation can take on the role of forgiveness. It communicates to yourself that in spite of your anger, your sickness and your craziness—you deserve to be loved and to sit in dignity and have peace.  In spite of all the ugliness and darkness, there is light and goodness in your heart and in your being. There is unconditional love and you are deserving.

I also do light yoga and running. I think we underestimate the impact our body has on our mindset and emotions. It really helps to get blood flowing, to insert air into our spine and joints, to feed our heart oxygen. Our heart requires a lot of nourishment when it’s broken.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that death leads to reincarnation for the deceased and for us, the living,  the opportunity for rebirth after all the suffering. Part of the suffering is facing heavy memories, digging up old skeletons and getting angry.  Part of letting go is forgiving ourselves and our love ones for all transgressions and recalling the loving, sentimental moments. To say, It’s okay and I’m so sorry.

I’m thinking this is a form of redemption and a transition to new life.

Mindfulness Starts at Home. Then Social Justice

“The way to experience newness, is to realize that this moment, this very point in your life, is always the occasion. So the consideration of where you are, and what you are, on the spot, is very important. That is one reason that your family situation, your domestic everyday life is so important. You should regard your home as sacred, as a golden opportunity to experience newness.” 

~Chögyam Trungpa

In the past, I traveled a lot for work. I enjoyed being on the road. I felt free. I had meals prepared for me and the cleaning was taken care of by a staff I could not see. I focused on my work, my thinking, my Self, my needs. I loved my work so I thought this is what it means to be happy. Even when my neck started hurting and my back ached from too much traveling, I accepted it, as part of business.

When my work contract ended, I found myself stuck at home. It was hard to adjust. Even though I was writing and job hunting, my daily routine featured shopping, cleaning, carpooling, cooking, care taking, walking alone. I became the master of our home. I noticed every lint, every dropping. I bought mop heads and knew when my neighbors were coming and going.

Domestic life felt oppressive and ordinary. I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember feeling I had lost my identity.

I felt disconnected from the world. I felt unseen. Less useful suddenly.

People around me seemed to be working on important projects, teaching and traveling, attending conferences, fighting for social justice, saving the planet.

One day, in my research, I came across a Buddhist writer and philosopher Chögyam Trungpa. He wrote about how mindfulness and building an enlightened society start at home. I found this very hard to understand. And even harder to put into practice.

How can shopping, washing the dishes enlighten me, make me feel at peace, make me happy? How can my life at home, with my family, cultivate world peace?

It has been almost two years living a home life. I have learned that mindfulness requires discipline, time and trust. I read and reread, read and reread wisdom writings and traditions and practice meditation and contemplation daily. I join a Sangha occassionally but mostly it’s just me, on an island, listening and grappling with the now, and the very, very ordinary reality.

It has taken me a long time to find calm. And even calm is temporary. I have begun to see how patience and compassion does grow. Awareness of the details matter. I find that in every wrong, I have been there. And the wrongs that I am still unaware, repeat over and over again until I see myself in them, and then I am sad again realizing that all along, I am the misfit, that we are all misfits, and shy of it, and that I am the carrier of every wrong, of every pain and how can I do better?  Understanding and forgiveness is in the Self first, and then knowing that you are the mirror image of every human being, and then multiply that by society.

What is a detail? Each detail is a small view of the bigger picture of the world. Like discovering the simplicity and complexity of a snowflake. One single snowflake in the world of snow. Think about that.

Now, with all this time and space around me, I think about those years on the road. Eating and living in hotels. People cooking and cleaning and taking care me so that I could be an intellectual, thinking and busy.

In some strange way, I have found new meaning for the words, social justice, freedom and fairness. Thinking about how sometimes it is time to say, “Now, it is your turn.” or “Now, it is my turn.”

My turn to make life easier for other people, like my husband and children. Every day they have to go out there to work, commuting on the train. They work, go to school, navigate the real world— which is too often callous and cold and too busy to be sensitive to their needs.

I am beginning to think differently about not having and suffering. About waiting. About what we value in life and society. How we assign worth and status to some jobs, how the traditional woman’s work in the home, is never valued enough. How we need to be compassionate and careful in our treatment of others, who are busy or not busy enough.

How sometimes we have to live it and breathe it before we understand desolation, anxiety, hunger, despair, forgiving.

Isn’t this mindfulness and its relationship to social justice—when we become aware of who we are, outside our role, our helplessness, our vulnerability, and that wheel of fortune turning and turning? Where it stops nobody knows. Isn’t that the beginning of compassion and treating each other with dignity?

What Happens When Teachers Get Too Attached?

Exploring Engaged Mindfulness

In my previous post on compassion fatigue, I talked about the fairly common ailment of teacher burn out, when teachers enter a cycle of apathy and weariness, usually following an intense period of supporting students with countless needs. In that post, I challenged the notion of using mindfulness meditation to detach ourselves from student outcomes, and find happiness in teaching, regardless. Being attached to outcomes is a complex and important topic. So is being attached to our students. I have spent the last week contemplating on attachment and how we should mentor and support teachers who experience mixed emotions about what healthy attachment is and isn’t, especially when painful experiences arise, like apathy and fatigue.

teacherandstudentPerhaps you have heard of engaged mindfulness? This term is used to describe the practice of mindfulness so that we are in a better position to help and respond to the needs of others, so that we are more connected to others and to our commitment to the happiness of all beings. I have been going around in circles wondering if it is possible for us to respond to the needs of others in education with care and compassion without attachment, without making ourselves vulnerable, without allowing ourselves to experience the debilitating blow of failure, the sting of loss in spite of doing everything, the despair of watching high hopes descend into ordinary, harsh reality.

When we talk about attachment in the context of schools, we are talking about the deep and enduring affectionate bond that connects one person to another across time and space. We are talking about trust, safety and security, the knowing that there is a person out there that is deeply concerned and invested in our personal well-being and development. Attachment is not encouraging dependency, but rather, it is communicating that you are not alone; that even as you explore the world, take risks, grow and learn— you are being seen, loved and guided gently. How can we teach without attachment, in this sense of the word? How can we expect our students to trust us without our attachment, without our willingness to be vulnerable to this intimate, loving connection with another human being?

In my previous post, I suggested that teachers who experience compassion fatigue should use their meditation practice to cultivate self-acceptance. As a follow up, I would also suggest that teachers spend some time contemplating what it means to build bonds and healthy attachment with their students in the school setting, knowing that authentic relationships lead to an open and tender heart, pain and sadness, failure and other vulnerabilities. Quote2Mindful meditation practice can help us to know ourselves and accept our limitations, and it can also prepare us to absorb and transmute heavy emotions into a healing energy that can be applied to how we teach.

To transmute means to change the state of being. In Native American medicine, the snake represents transmutation because snakes shed their skin. Snake medicine is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind. How can mindfulness meditation transmute pain, suffering, sadness, failure and vulnerability?

When we sit in quiet acceptance of the truth, and allow it to be exactly what it is, we begin to see how the pain we experience also contains the pathway to freedom. In my experiments in the practice of meditation, I have discovered four states of being that can be associated with transmuting painful experiences:

  1. Bearing Witness: Our experience of suffering is real, a natural part of life and universal
  2. Anticipation: Each situation that arises involves some kind of suffering and all suffering is impermanent
  3. Gathering Energy: Relaxation and meditation relieve suffering and lead to clarity
  4. Application: We can relieve suffering for ourself and others by applying specific behaviors and cultivating dispositions

It is only natural for teachers at the start of their career to shy away from getting too close to students or getting too attached to outcomes which can result in painful experiences, especially when we work in distressed areas with chronic failure due to inequities in society. However, when we are ready to embrace our noble profession for what it really is, and for what it requires, we realize that teaching involves cultivating authentic relationships with students. This makes us open, vulnerable and deeply attached to their hopes and dreams, their pain and suffering, their sanity and insanity, their struggle and achievements.  Only in this way do teachers become master teachers, or change agents for an enlightened society.

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References:

Thich Naht Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, Parallax Press, 2012

Attachment in the Classroom by Christi Bergen and David Bergen, Educational Psychology Review, June 2009

Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, Jamie Sams and David Carson, Bear and Company, 1988