The Art of Grieving

When my grandmother was alive, grieving was a part of living. People died from influenza, from blizzards, from childbirth, from broken bones… There was a time of mourning, when the person grieving was not expected to do more than experience grief. Today, we have lost connection with this potent emotion. We no longer know how to live this rich, life altering experience of change.

Grief is now a study of science, instead of a natural part of life. As Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher/translator, pointed out years ago: ‘Grief is now seen as a disease, something that needs “treatment”.’ Additionally, most of us are under the false impression that we know how to keep our emotions hidden. Many professions are based on this premise. Unfortunately, we forget that our first way of knowing is sensory. That does not end when we become adults, it merely becomes second fiddle to speech. Sensations, movement, emotions are all definitely there, easy to see to an aware eye. Yet, when grief arises we work hard to ignore it, bury it or run from it.

Is grief the opposite of happiness? Is it a disease that needs pharmaceutical treatment? If we feel grief, should we simply “open happiness” as a cola company leads us to believe? I remember many years ago, in the late 1970s, there was an advertisement on television. It showed a male gymnast doing his perfect ring event. After his dismount, he smiled with success and drank a cup of coffee. The announcement simply said “Join the coffee generation”. Is coffee really the way to win and avoid the grief of loss? It has worked for many fast drive-through coffee shops.

Joan Didion, in her book “My Year of Magical Thinking” quotes Eric Lindeman’s description of grief from 1944: “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain”. I am struck by how accurate this description is to my own experience. I know this well.

Now, compare it to Wikipedia’s: “multi-faceted response to loss… Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.”

In “When Elephants Weep”, the authors present observations of the responses of animals to death and birth of their own species. One observation is of elephants circling around the body of a deceased elephant while trumpeting, stroking the body, and rhythmically swaying for days. This book received a lot of criticism based on the belief that “mere animals could not possibly know more about emotions than humans”. And yet, we have that Wikipedia description of grief…

Grief is practical. It is natural. When my father died, it was as Eric Lindeman describes above, waves of somatic tension, then wandering that lasted for years. When I lost the use of my right arm, it was mental fatigue plus a keening ripping in my lungs. When many a project or event does not succeed, it is the sighing, emptiness in the abdomen and the combined rhythmic dropping of my hands upon my thighs with the downward tone in my speech. When grief arises, for no reason whatsoever, it is a the slicing pain in my gut, loss of appetite and foggy connection to the world.

Emily Post wrote in 1918 at a time when grief & mourning was integral to life. I am touched by the practical observation she offers. “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain the nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends. …The bereaved must be urged to “sit in a sunny room”, preferably one with an open fire. …A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral. The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming…”

Grief is a part of life. It’s wisdom unfolds gradually, shifting and changing outside of time. Awareness of that which would be normally ignored is increased. Everything is alive, poignant, awake and unconcerned.

Due to its timeless development, we can easily forget that grieving is working its magic. Here is where bringing back an element of mourning can be useful. It can be simple – wearing a black rubber band on your wrist. It is a reminder, so when you feel: ‘tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen…’, you can see the black rubber band and remember: “Oh yes, I am grieving. I need to ‘sit in a sunny room’. I need to air out the house of my mind. I cannot push. I can allow this rich life altering change to unfold.”

©Copyright 2012 Gail H Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs


In the west, at least in our portion of North America, equanimity has become confused with ‘it’s all good’. This is a misunderstanding. Obviously, it is not all good. Take a look around, or inward. Everyone I know is suffering from one thing or another, if not now, a few hours from now, or tomorrow. And if we take a look at the news from around the world, it’s rough out there. Suffering is reliable. It is not, all good, unless one is very, very, numb.

But wait! Isn’t all experience an expression, a manifestation, a play, of mind nature? Yes! When we reach the actual realization of that, rather than just the conceptual understanding, we will be Buddhas. We will be awake. And we will be more aware than ever before of how for most beings, it is not ‘all good’. Beings suffer.

Think of cows, pigs, and chickens; yes, in terms of their DNA spreading and species survival, they have been very successful, but in terms of individual lives, most of these beings live in misery and don’t make it past their 4th month before they become our or our pets’ food. Think of your neighbor, your friend, think of you; all these beings spend most of their time doing repetitive work that is not often interesting, putting up with a truckload of amazingly petty emotional crap – usually their own, increasingly having more and more physical pain, and continually trying to figure out how to make things better, since clearly if things are not better it is their fault because we all have the power to have whatever we want immediately upon wanting it…….

Given that, for most of us, experience is not all-good, and most of us have not yet fully realized our Buddha Natures, how do we live with all this suffering? How do we find our way?

Equanimity, being with what is, is an incredibly useful gift, and tool. Just what might this ‘equanimity’ be?

Consider this definition, paraphrased from Shinzen Young:

Equanimity is not a cooled out, passive or indifferent attitude. Rather, it is not interfering with the operation of the six senses, including the level of preconscious processing. It does not imply that one would fail to take action with respect to external circumstance, nor does it imply passivity or apathy. Equanimity is radical permission to feel. Equanimity is a dropping of internal friction with respect to the flow of these six senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body and the thinking and feeling mind. As a state of radical openness, equanimity is equivalent to love.

Equanimity – being with, experiencing, whatever arises as we live. Deeply experiencing – not shying away, or getting lost in trying to figure out how to fix it or in imagining a ‘better’ reality.

What good is this? This is your life, live it. It may be rough, but at least you’re alive to it, rather than lost in a hazy dream.

A Look at Discipline

Everyone I meet follows some kind of Discipline. We practice disciplines such as raising children, following a career path or paying our expenses. Culturally we are meant to believe that the discipline of acquiring objects, peak experiences, and money are most noble. Perhaps you have not thought of these activities as ‘a discipline’? Lets take another look.

Disciplines can be life-long such as maintaining a daily meditation practice or short lived such attending a conference. To follow a discipline is to make a vow. That vow is often unspoken, but if you look closely, you will find out the vows you have internally taken. The vow includes many elements: to show up, to apply limits, to engage optimal conditions, to attend to learning, to be aware globally and specifically to what is harmful or fruitful to the process… A discipline requires us to work deeply with certain habits or behaviors in order to learn a new skill, a new way of living or at the very least to reach a goal. So, if you look closely at a discipline that you have followed, you will find out quite a bit about your relationship to diligence, time, effort, difficulty, truth, rules, technique…

I have found that one of the most important aspects of following a discipline is that interest must come from inside. Others can encourage you, point it out to you, and describe how it may be a fruitful endeavor for you. Others can even take you to that class or inspire you to begin. Nevertheless, after that initial spark, the interest, curiosity, enthusiasm, effort must come from inside. This is not as grand an idea as intention, but rather a small sense that arises. The sense is that this discipline seems very ‘rich’ and you would like to partake of that richness to ‘learn/experience more’. This internal sense is bigger than a hunch, as it has definite non-conceptual sensory-physical energy within it. It is this energetic awakening, to subtlety beyond your mind’s voice, that will provide you with the resilience to follow the discipline, even when faced with the inevitable difficulties of any path. Look at a discipline that you have followed, what is one of the most important aspects in your experience?

I have the fortune to work with high level competitive figure skaters. They train on the ice for easily 5 hours daily, 6 days a week. They train off the ice 2 hours daily, 7 days a week. Three to four times a week, they have sessions with support people such as physical therapists, psychologists, myself, and massage therapists. They move here to work with a coach. They live often without their parents and family. They take college or high school courses. They see choreographers, clothing designers, and boot & blade specialists… Finally they have the competitions, where all that effort culminates in a scored event.

Many of these skaters begin at 8 years of age and are driven in their discipline by familiar patterns of behavior: pleasing any outside person of ‘authority’. This works to a point, until they are faced with inevitable physical, emotional & mental difficulties. A young woman of high school age is currently facing what she sees as overwhelming difficulty. For the past year, she consistently medals in the top three after her short skating program, but while skating her long program she faces overpowering mental, emotional blocks that affect her ability to skate. The result? She finishes in last place. Now, she asks, what should she do? Is her mind correct when it tells her there is something wrong with her? Does she have any worth when the coach is not pleased? How can she still follow this discipline, Now? Who & what can she rely upon to help her modify the methods she has used within her discipline?

This young skater is faced with difficulties in an extremely competitive discipline. However, every day when you follow any discipline you are faced with the similar difficulties. I ask you to connect to the interest inside. How do you reignite the energy to continue when faced with a wall? Do you know how to work with your judgmental, critical mind? Who or what could you rely upon to learn something fruitful for this path, this discipline, right now? No matter what discipline anyone follows, be it parenting, career, or competitive figure skating, we are faced with physical, emotional and mental challenges. This is the nature of disciplines, they require us to look at, understand and perhaps even shift out of the comfortable box we had thought was the limit of whom we were, are and will be. Perhaps following a Discipline is not such a tremendously arduous activity, but a definer of life itself.

I wish for you to explore this word Discipline. Look closely at the disciplines you follow. Find out about your internal interest, right now. Find out what you rely upon for support, education, assistance, encouragement when faced with difficulties. Find out what is harmful or helpful in the process of following your discipline. Apply what you know from Buddhism’s three disciplines: the practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom. Find out about Discipline in your life, so that you can continue, adjust, start afresh or with the great kindness teach another how to discover what is life itself.

Copyright© 2016 Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio

Why start meditation classes?

The fish needs to say,
“Something ain’t right about this
Camel ride –
And I’m Feeling so damn

Most of us come to meditation classes or retreats for exactly what Hafiz points to in this poem.  We get an inkling that something just isn’t right about our lives.  We cannot exactly say what it is that isn’t right.  All the externals may look great, yet the fish on the camel feels that it is not in its natural environment, and it is thirsty.  There is a yearning to connect to something deeper or higher or different.  “Is there something beyond being thirsty on this camel?” This thirst, this niggling feeling, becomes the initiator to start seeking.  What we seek is not yet known.  This is how the path begins & continues; following a feeling and seeking something that will start to quench that thirst.

In my own life, I came to practice through this kind of seeking.  In 1986, I was a dancer -training and auditioning in that competitive world.  I had studied with the “greats” of my time: Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, etc.   I landed a coveted position with a prestigious dance company.  I was filled with the sense that I had “made it”.  In the third week of rehearsals it dawned on me, I was at the top of the world & yet I was “feeling so damn thirsty”. Something wasn’t right.  All the glamor was not touching what I was seeking.

I did something crazy.  I resigned.  I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I could not continue on the camel ride.  I spent many gloomy weeks doing my usual ritual of movement classes.  Technique was no longer fulfilling, other dancers avoided me & my internal critics had a heyday.   Then it dawned on me:  though I did not yet know what I was seeking,  I did have the use of a large old room at a local church in exchange for caring for their alter.  For three hours daily, for one year, I locked myself in the empty room, with the intention to move, listen & engage what I was seeking.

For a year I listened.  Sometimes I was inspired by movement, often I laid on the floor wide awake.  At times my mind drove me crazy and periodically there was complete peace.  After a year, I said goodbye to this practice & sought a teacher who would be able to engage what I now knew & guide me in ways to follow what I yet did not know.  It a took a few years to find such a teacher.  When I found one, my heart spun; like a compass that has finally found north, like a dog, who finally understands that a person’s language means something & the possibility of a whole new world awakens.  And so it has continued for me.  I practice, I reach impasses, I listen, I contemplate the seeking heart and a new teacher appears. This is why many practice meditation, to learn to engage what we seek.  Meditation practice is not about ignoring some part of your life.  It starts like the fish on the camel; recognizing something isn’t quite right.  Then it proceeds to asking your questions, engaging your seeking heart and learning tools to bring this heart into your life.

First, The fish needs to say, “Something ain’t right about this Camel ride – And I’m Feeling so damn Thirsty.” – Hafiz

Copyright© 2015, all rights reserved Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio offers meditation classes in Colorado Springs, online and meditation retreats