Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Grief and Grieving


Grieving is self-talk, the stories we tell ourselves about the death of a loved-one. To understand grieving and how to grieve, we need to think of the mind as a filter: it filters the environment in a way that makes sense to us, filtering some things in, filtering others out. These filters are called “stories.” All stories have certain characteristics:

1.     For things to be other than what they are
2.     For us to know what to desire more of (or get less of), and
3.     To present a world that if permanent (reification)

Also, stories:

1.     Provide the basis for our self-awareness, and
2.     Make our sense of self and of the world consistent

Understanding grieving asks us to look even further into how our minds work so that we can process the grief and gain relief in a reasonable amount of time. Looking deeper, we see that we
are not really attached to the person who has passed, rather we are clinging to the “I” of our stories: “I didn’t want this to happen to my child….” From the perspective of how the mind works, it is an “I and of me” story. This means that what in fact has happened is that we have changed a static external condition into a personal problem.

The more value, meaning or weight we assign to the condition (family vs. friends vs. strangers, for example), the stronger and more difficult the problem. When it comes to grieving, the intensity of our stories makes in nearly impossible to see that we are imbedded in stories and that our grieving isn’t at all about the person who has passed on, but about our own displeasure at losing a story about who we are and what our relationship was. That last sentence may be the most difficult, and yet the most important, sentence in this whole blog. It is the key to unlocking our pain and suffering at the loss of a loved-one.


Grieving is one of the strongest, deepest and most profound of our stories, and grieving for a child is stronger, deeper or more profound that any other form of grieving. No relationship is as unconditional, as selfless and as other-centered as our relationships with our children, and so the loss of a child produces the most intense and long-lasting stories.

We don’t need to examine Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, nor does it make sense to assume that if the grief is long-lasting it is because we are stuck in one of those imaginary stages, it just means the intensity of the stories around the loss are stronger. What we need to do is to look at how our minds twisted what really happened into suffering. How we attach story to story, story after story, to reinforce our notion that the death should not have occurred, and not the way it did occur. Seeing that, the story begins to dissolve and our suffering lessens and gradually ceases.

Simile of Kisa Gotami

When her young child had died, Kisa Gotami refused to believe it was dead. After asking many people — in vain — for medicine that would revive the child, she was finally directed to the Buddha. When she told him her story, he offered to provide medicine for the child, but he would need a mustard seed — the cheapest Indian spice — obtained from a family in which no one had died.

She went from house to house asking for mustard seed, and everyone offered to give her one. But when she asked if anyone had died in the family, the response was always, "Oh, yes, of course." After a while, the message sunk in: Death is universal. Her mind settled, and she was able to bury her child.

This teaching speaks to the universality of impermanence and death, and the power of the path of practice: that in the midst of this human world with all its sorrows and lamentations, there is still a way to find that which is free from grieving, aging, and illness: the Deathless. Deathless meaning the death of our stories that things should be other than what they are.

The Simile of the Mustard Seed Sutra
Slightly edited from the commentarial text

After flowing-on for beginningless time
Gotami arose in a poor family in Savatthi in the time of the Buddha.
Her name was Gotami-tissa,
but because her body was very skinny
she was called 'Skinny Gotami.'
When she went to her husband's family,
she was scorned [and called] “daughter of a poor family.”

Then she gave birth to a son,
and with the arrival of the son she was treated with respect.
But that son, running back and forth
and running all around while playing met his end.
Because of this, sorrow-to-the-point-of-madness arose in her.
She thought: "Before I was one who received only scorn,
but starting from the time of the birth of my son I gained honor.
These [relatives] will now try to take my son,
in order to expose him outside [in the charnel ground]."

Unable to accept her son’s death, and
under the influence of her sorrow-to-the-point-of-madness,
she secured her child’s lifeless body to her hip
and wandered in the city from the door of one house to another
pleading: "Give medicine to me for my son!"
People reviled her, saying "What good is medicine?"
She could not understand what they were saying.

Then a certain wise man, thinking:
"This woman has had her mind deranged by sorrow for her son;
the Buddha will know the medicine for her,"
said: "Mother, approach the fully Awakened One
and ask about medicine for your son."

She went to the to Buddha and said,
"Blessed One, give me medicine for my son!"
The master, seeing her situation, said,
"Go, having entered the city,
into whatever house has never before experienced any death,
and take from them a mustard seed."

"Very well, Sir," she replied,
and glad of mind she entered the city and came to the first house:
"The master has called for a mustard seed
in order to make medicine for my son.
If this house has never before experienced any death,
please give me a mustard seed."
"Who is able to count how many have died here?"
"Then keep it. What use is that mustard seed to me?"
And going to a second and a third house, and on and on house after house,
her madness left her and her right mind was re-established.

She thought, "This is the way it will be in the entire city.
By means of the Blessed One's compassion for my welfare,
I have realized the universal truth."
And having gained a sense of spiritual urgency from that,
she went out and covered her son in the charnel ground.

She uttered this verse:
It's not just a truth for one village or town,
Nor is it a truth for a single family.
But for every world in the ten directions and the three times,
This indeed is what is true — impermanence.

And so saying, she went into the presence of the master.
Then the master said to her,
"Have you obtained, Gotami, the mustard seed?"
"Finished, sir, is the matter of the mustard seed" she said.
"You have indeed restored me."

And the master then uttered this verse:
A person with a mind that clings,
Deludedly, to sons or possessions,
Is swept away by death that comes
— Like mighty flood to sleeping town.

At the conclusion of this verse, her “stories” dropped off,
her insight then grew... and she became a diligent seeker and disciple.

Practicing with Grieving

Death is a natural process: birth, aging and death are simply the way all life proceeds. The process is not the problem. It is our stories that the process shouldn’t happen: our wanting things to be other than what they are, our belief, as a 103 year-old woman said to me, that “no parent would ever have to watch her child die of old age”; our misguided assumption that “good health and long-life” are the natural process, not aging and death; our conviction that we are healthy and well (always), not aging and dying (always), that there is a “right” sequence to dying (no one should die young,” etc. When a death “seems” to fall our of our imagined right sequence, or when it is that of a child, the stories become even more intense and the grieving is even longer-lasting and profound.

As we know from the Sutra of Gotami and the Mustard Seed, whenever a life arises, it abides and then ceases. This is the natural way: birth, aging and death. It is the natural law of the universe. This natural law: we aren’t responsible for it, we can’t change it. And to cling to it, meaning to our ideas of what should be rather than what it is, especially in the face of the death of a loved-one, very dramatically increases our pain and suffering, our anguish and stress.

Our clinging is not something “real,” it is merely a concept, a concept that arises when we want something to be other than what it is and we focus our attention on it. To sustain grieving, we must constantly refocus on the idea, and to do this we must slightly intensify the story each time. So the causes of the grieving and our suffering are not outside us, but right inside us. And with patience and understand, we can allow it to transform our hearts rather than continue to causes us sorrow.

Once we begin to understand and realize how we cling, we can look closely at how our mind creates stories and begin the process of realizing that all our stories are our fabrications, created by the mind in a specific pattern that the mind has found useful to order to create a consistent universe for us, regardless of whether it has any validity or not, regardless of whether or not it is painful or beneficial.

As we practice with these understandings, we develop the crucial insights necessary to move from our traditional story-telling and self-talk, which leads us to suffer, to a new, wiser understanding that lets our suffering diminish and cease and allows peace of mind to return and creates the conditions necessary for the peace of mind to be sustained, even in the face of a powerful loss.

Our practice does not ask us to deny our feelings in the face of one of life’s greatest challenges, it simple asks us to look honestly at what is happening. It is only with a truthful and truth-filled heart that we can genuinely process death. When the grieving is kind and gentle, it calmly and quietly dissolves and then we can begin the deeper practice of realizing that there are no comings and goings.

Metta Practice for Mourning

Here’s a mourning practice that very quietly and naturally reshapes our perception of a loved-one we have lost so that we can move forward with them joyfully filling our hearts rather than overwhelming us with grief and sorrow.

Recite this chant, slowly and out-loud, twice a day for 49 days. As you recite it, visualize your loved-one with a big smile in a comfortable and happy setting. Sharpen the image and hold it in your imagination as you recite the chant.

Metta Chant

May I be free from anger and hatred.
May I be free from greed and selfishness.
May I be free from fears and anxiety.
May I be free from pain and suffering.
May I be free from ignorance and delusion.
May I be free from negative states of mind.
May I be peaceful and happy.
May I experience peace and tranquility of body and mind.

May name of the deceased be free from anger and hatred.
May name of the deceased be free from greed and selfishness.
May name of the deceased be free from fears and anxiety.
May name of the deceased be free from pain and suffering.
May name of the deceased be free from ignorance and delusion.
May name of the deceased be free from negative states of mind.
May name of the deceased be peaceful and happy.
May name of the deceased experience peace and tranquility of body and mind.

May all beings be free from anger and hatred.
May all beings be free from greed and selfishness.
May all beings be free from fears and anxiety.
May all beings be free from all pain and suffering.
May all beings be free from ignorance and delusion.
May all beings be free from negative states of mind.
May all beings be peaceful and happy.
May all beings experience peace and tranquility of body and mind.

Over the course of the 49 days of chanting, you will notice that your self-talk, your stories, will gradually shift from the pain of loss to memories and images of the person that are filled with joy and happiness. Forty-nine days is a the traditional mourning period in Buddhism, but feel free to continue the practice as long as it brings you comfort and allows you to integrate the loss into your life with a peaceful heart.