One of the core practices of my work is simply sitting and noticing. The idea behind this is to pay attention to the changing qualities within the mind and body, to see that they are ever flowing through us. In this practice, I pay special attention to the thoughts and desires that want to control this natural process. The example I want to write about today concerns the feelings of grief related to a loss that can arise throughout our life. I have been blessed to work with many people around this issue, as I have worked with it myself for many years.
Recently I was going through some books from my early studies on working with grief, and I began reflecting on the persisting cultural beliefs about loss and the grieving process. Many of us are taught that grief follows a specific path before vanishing from our life like smoke. When we lose someone, we might be given space for a time, but eventually we may be guided towards a sense of closure. In fact, we might even have a desire to be over it ourselves, which might then lead to the arising of guilt and shame. I was deeply touched by the story Patrick O’Malley told in his 2015 Op-Ed for the New York Times, in which he described a client named Mary. Having spent six months of despairing the loss of her child to infant death syndrome, as Patrick writes, “she had diagnosed her condition as being ‘stuck’ in grief, believing that a stubborn depression was preventing her from achieving acceptance and closure.” But Patrick offers a different perspective, as he writes, “I suggested to Mary that there was nothing wrong with her… She was just very sad, consumed by sorrow, but not because she was grieving incorrectly. The depth of her sadness was simply a measure of the love she had for her daughter.” By believing that she needed “closure,” she was attempting to control the natural process within herself that was calling out with sorrow.
There is another way. It is important to remember that we each have our own style and way of working with loss. Some of us are more intellectual, some have a more emotional center, and some are more kinesthetic and action or movement oriented. I find that we need to balance our way of working with the head, the heart and the entire body for inner peace while touching our inner pain. If we are grieving, the feelings of anger, sadness, shock, overwhelm, or despair can come in different degrees and in different order. We may discover new ways of working with old grief that can provide insight and new forms of release.
Ultimately, this idea of closure is at odds with my teaching and practice because of the way it constricts the mind to only one way of being. My practice focuses just on what is present. I have worked with many people, including myself who have felt a shift come after some time. Sometimes you feel lighter after working through some grief and that can go on for any length of time, but we never know when the memory of that person meant so much to us or the loss can come back and hit us in a new way. So it’s important to work with just whatever is coming up without judgement.
I have found that grief is a natural part of life. When I know about how many species are becoming extinct each day, and see many people dying from various causes, learn about wars being waged, my heart aches for all sentient beings. When I acknowledge my sorrow and meet it with compassion, just pause and sit still for a bit, I feel this glimmering light that grows into love. I see how much love is available, a love so large that I cannot even hold it. It holds us all. And, in this process, with each breath, and each step, there is just this, whatever needs to be faced right now, with love.
A couple of thoughts that came up as part of my morning meditation. Right now, you may be experiencing some resistance to doing something that would be more beneficial for you. There are a variety of ways to work with resistance to change.
- Meet that part with loving kindness and try to understand what it is saying. It may be that a part of you feels threatened by making a change in your habits, and needs to be seen and heard.
- Resolve to put it down or rise above it. This is a way of not being violent, but firm. Say to your inner resistance: “I see you and I am not allowing you to rule my mind, my heart or my activities today.” An adult knowing of, “No, not this,” can grow with clarity. It can also help to remember someone who set a firm boundary with you and while you did not like it, you respected it.
- There is a third way which is a combination of the above two. Often this works the best. Find a way to be still and to listen to the feelings surrounding your resistance. Then, after you have compassionately let that in, resolve to stop participating in the thought pattern or behavior pattern that you would like to change and feel it in the exhale, in the present moment.
- A fourth way is to cultivate gratitude and joy for the breath in the body and for giving even a moment of attention to your inner process because it is already changing and truly wonderful!
There are many more ways, more that I can describe, open up to your own unique process!
Please share your way of being if you wish.
Warm wishes, Constance
Recently, I was given a gift to attend a two-day workshop with a master painter, Jeffrey T. Larson, who paints in a realistic style.
He started out by instructing us to “first hit the precise high and low notes”, match colors with the strongest or weakest elements in the image, then work the gradients in between. This breaks down the painting into pixels making it less likely to get lost in the small details to begin with.
The discussion he presented also flowed along with his understanding that he will never be able to capture the exact image. His painting will always be a series of unique gestures or “mistakes” as he said.
How often whatever is seen is already changing, I thought. The next thing he mentioned was the fact that the skylight overhead was already presenting a new reflection as the day passes.
We watched as he started with a blank canvas, adding bright colors and alternating with the darkest areas. It appeared to me his notes were perfect, his vision excellent. I innocently asked him, “Do you have perfect vision?” Everyone laughed. I was thinking about how I have glasses and bifocals and he did not wear glasses and appeared to have perfect vision for his task.
It occurred to me as I sat there aware of the breath, breathing in and out, that the high notes or low points in the body are also being understood and that with awareness the gradients of feeling or leaning in any direction are happily understood. Each stroke is like each breath as one tunes into the rising or falling of the abdomen.
Jeff continued to gently repeat, “just hit the main notes, then you can move on later.” This clarity of purpose is also clear in the first jhana: just focus on the breath, then when you have ascertained what is mind and what is body, you will see cause and effect, and on and on.
Our assignment was to paint a turnip. Using a small case of old paints I picked up twenty years ago at an estate sale for a dollar, I selected primary colors, mixing them to match the purple note, the shadow gray, etc. My palate became full of various spots of mixed colors. I wondered as I stirred: what is the right note? I glanced back and forth from the sitting turnip to my canvas. Hmm, I compared the turnip color to the colors on my palate trying many times to match the color.
Jeff came along at the end of the day, and gently picked up my brush, and in a few minutes put each high point and each low point on the canvas. He put bare white right where it needed to be, dark purple, a mustard yellow, and jet black on the bottom. He quietly handed my brush back to me, and I humbly understood him.
I’ve followed instructions in meditation, but wasn’t getting how to paint until he showed me: First things first.
After working all afternoon, I could see what a skill it is to understand color, mix colors, and stand there all day putting dabs of paint on a canvass. How does one learn this except by practice? Can one allow the information to pass through and see clearly? Yes, but the stirring and mixing takes time and practice. The application of the brush stroke and how to blend precisely takes experience.
It was much simpler to sit back and look around the room at all of the people painting in silence and see the changing colors in each person bending toward their palate, squinting, and leaning toward their canvass dabbing on a small spec of paint.
I pulled up a chair and sat watching. The eye organ meets light and it passes through a tiny place inside the head, which separates it out into gradients. How wonderful. The empty canvas of the eye organ meeting with awareness already paints everything in total perfection. With that noticing, equanimity arises and there is just seeing the hand, the knee, all the colors in perfect flowing union.
The entire world is a canvas.