Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Short Meditation on Grief

I'm having one of those days. There's nothing in particular going on, in fact I'm just sitting in a coffee shop, reading and writing. But for whatever reason, I feel extremely sensitive to the unease within and around me. Earlier, there was a short, but really sarcastic and bitter discussion about the recent elections here in Minnesota. The one guy was talking almost right across the space I am sitting in to two others. I felt the energy run right through me. Then there was a father and daughter sitting next to me, discussing some poor choices she had made, and the disappointment they both felt. And then a woman sat down next to me, and wanted to plug in her laptop. I thought the person on the other side was still plugged in, and as I bent over, said "there's no outlet available." She responded there was, and I turned, saw it, felt a little twinge, and said "I'll just shut up now."

It's easy enough for me to point to a few reasons for this sensitivity. One being that there have been some challenging discussions about the direction of our zen center going on, and I have been in the middle of many of them - doing a lot of listening, some risk taking talk, and some wondering about where it might be all going, and what impact that might have on my practice life. I also have had a few more people in my life flake out on things they said they would do, presenting me the opportunity to either stand up for myself, or let it slide again. And finally, I just think this breath practice work we've been focusing on this fall has opened me up some, but I'm also finding the increased attuned to what's present quality isn't always easy to experience. My own dis-ease is more palpable when it's there, and so is everyone elses'.

I find myself relying more on chanting practice, short mantras like the one for Jizo Bodhisattva, during this time. Even though I'm also doing more zazen than I had over the summer, the slashing through the story lines quality of chanting - even silent chanting - allows for a sense of ease with whatever is return quicker.

Slowing down and taking time to listen to your life's deeper wishes unfolding is not only difficult at times, but it's so completely unappreciated by the culture at large that the alone-ness (sometimes coupled with loneliness) of doing so is striking. Some societies and cultures, in the past and today, have dealt with such pivotal periods more reverentially, which perhaps made the alone-ness each person must go through a little less challenging. I'm starting to see how any loneliness I feel is somehow ultimately tied not to the fact that I don't have a romantic partner right now, or that several friends have dropped out of my life over the past year - no, it's really tied to the fact that there is almost no cultural support for living out the bardo periods of one's life fully, so that transformation may occur.

I think maybe awhile ago, I accepted that for the most part, going fallow for a period of time, being mostly "not productive" in a conventional sense, is not appreciated or embraced. Unlike some people who get lost in their grief and anger over this, I have sought out enough kindred spirits, and learned enough teachings sympathetic to these periods of life, so that I have support to carry me through.

But there's still grief there. I feel it for the time I've spent muddling to get to this point. I feel it for all those who, when faced with an opportunity to listen and be transformed, end up lost in their own fears and confusions and feelings of having no support. I feel it for those who never even reach that point for whatever reason.

I think a lot of people mistake feeling the kind of grief I'm speaking about for depression or some other form of mental disorder. This is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the saturation of western psychology that has occurred. Historically, many people viewed grieving well as a sure sign of an ability to both move on in one's life, as well as an opportunity to transform whatever was lost into the gold of the next stage in one's life. Perhaps, more of us need to return to such a view, to be able to recognize that there is no such thing as awakening without going through deeply felt loss.

p.s. For those interested in poetry, I've posted some new poems over the past week on my creative writing blog. Enjoy!


daishin said...

dear nathan, sadness and grieving may or may not be 'depression,' maybe it's the other way round, or none of the above. who knows?

your words touched a spot inside my heart, bringing tears of connectedness.

it hurts to sit these days (due to hernia op), so i'll chant standing up: OM KA KA KABI SAN MA E SOWA KA, the jizo chant, "wishing happiness on nathan and all feeling beings."

Daniel @ Campinas said...

yo nathan youve been a bit "dark" with your posts lately.. just hope things turn around..

Nathan said...

I can tell you guys that I've been depressed before - that's a place who's territory I know well.

This stuff I'm experiencing now isn't depression.

But thanks for the well wishes all the same. Even when I'm totally joyous, I appreciate kind words.

Robyn said...

Hey Nathan, sorry to hear things have been dark for you lately. I know money is tight but I wonder if there is some room available within your budget for a intensive retreat with a teacher? I know you said you are feeling like you don't need that so much anymore, but maybe....

I must add that I am impressed with your fearlessness to put your poetry out there. I thought about doing the same this morning and chickened out! So, good for you and thanks for being an inspiration.

Jan Morrison said...

Hi - I'm new to your post. I like where you're going - it's down and deep and you are renting apart the cozy cocoon to do it. I wish you well on this journey.
I find myself chanting many of the protector chants especially 'Ekajati'. They rouse this dark and bright feeling in me and I let it come. It is all good.

Algernon said...

Sounds like the opposite of depression: sounds like you've got your channels mostly open, taking things in, and feeling your responses to them.

My experience of depression is a flattening, of cutting off the flow of information (i.e. "negative" or challenging feelings), perhaps because there is too much coming in and I'm overwhelmed. (Thus, I depress.)

So keep looking, friend. It's all information.

Brikoleur said...

I've had a small taste of walking around without my skin too. It was scary, and I'm sorta glad I grew a new one, although it might have been more fruitful not to.

Good luck, Nathan. It's rare to have people chronicling this kind of stuff so honestly and immediately. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


I find that silence or re-treaving can be very restorative and also give me a chance to meet the feelings you described without trying to analyse them first. I try not to make that call to a friend but face the feelings.

"Depression" is used in many different contexts but the type I can relate to (not being a clinical depression) is the psycho-dynamic process, a call from the soul (psyche) that something is off and I need to attend to it. I am on the care rather than cure side. Sadness is part of life just like seasonal changes are.

And I just heard on the French radio of something they called "seasonal sensitivity" that is stronger with some people than others. What do you know?! :-)

Autumn is a time of year when we witness a lot of things dying but don't see much being born so it is easier to focus on that. And I am thankful for that - it is easier for me to feel the sadness and express it, when the external world sort of corresponds to what happens in the inner world. Just like that poem of yours I read last night that brought up on the surface the feelings I was not aware of. Unexpectedly, I started crying and afterwards felt very emptied and fulfilled at the same time - relieved.

Good luck with caring for your soul!

PS I sometimes wish I had more training in chanting. It feels it can be a good grounding point sometimes. Would you be able to help me with that some day?

Nathan said...

Hi Everyone,

Thanks for the comments.

Robyn: We do have a two week intensive practice period coming up in January at the zen center. It's not full retreat, but I think where I am would respond better to something a little more ventilated than a full retreat.

What Algernon writes about depression is mostly what I have experienced. There's a certain cutting off process to depression, and a lack of curiosity.

Hi Jan - welcome! Thanks for the comments. Jizo seems to have been supporting me in a way that the Tara chants have for you. I think I'll look into those a little more as well.

Hey Cat,

The shift into deep autumn with it's lack of light and the more commonplace presence of death certainly has an affect on me. It used to just be depressive and a kind of shutting down. Now, it's something different. Thankful for impermanence on that one.


Carol Spooner said...

Dear Nathan,
Your post really touched a chord in me. I've had a similar year. Left my old teacher & sangha and joined a new one, other changes, losses, griefs, and now immersed in the fire/lotus of family and professional upheaval as well.

I'm finding it a rich time, really. There is an autumn koan that accompanies me through this ... you might like it, too.

"What happens when the trees wither and the leaves fall?

The golden wind, fully revealed."

Thanks for your generous reflections about this.


Nathan said...

Thanks for the autumn koan Carol! Best wishes on this time of upheaval to you.