Healing Grief through Compassion and Love

Frank Ostaseski was recently interviewed during the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit by Rheanna Hoffmann on the topic, Grief and the Healing Power of Love and Compassion.  With so many deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus (410,000 at the time of writing), the issue of grief and its manifestations becomes increasingly prevalent.   Frank is the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (now called The Zen Caregiving Project) and founder of the Metta Institute designed to provide creative education in the art of “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.

Healthcare professionals may not have lost loved ones through the virus, but they can experience grief too with the loss of patients that they have been caring for – this is in addition to other stressors that challenge their resilience.  In his interview responses, Frank explained the nature of grief and the power of compassion and love to heal people who have experienced profound grief.

The nature of grief

Frank who has supported more than 1,000 people in the process of dying maintains that grief is not a single point but a process – an evolving process of “loss, losing and loosening”.  There is the initial shock of the loss that can result in physical collapse and total disorientation.  Shock impacts people differentially – some people may experience numbness, there is no “one way”.   Beyond the initial shock of the loss, is a process of “losing”, where in the midst of other things an overwhelming sense of loss returns accompanied by strong emotional and physical symptoms.  “Losing” can persist for many years and eventually become an intermittent event.  In the meantime, the process of “loosening” commences with progressive release of the hold that grief has over a person.

People grieve in different ways – some withdraw and have a strong desire to be alone with their grief, others experience tears and crying uncontrollably, while still others may take out their grief by aggression and violence (such as is occurring in the riots in America in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement).  Grief and our response may be aggravated in challenging times such as the pandemic where everyone is experiencing a form of “emotional inflammation”.

Frank maintains that grief has many faces, e.g. anger, rage, sadness, depression, fear and even regret.  He also suggests that grief results not just from the sense of loss of a loved one but also from the associated lost opportunities – a young life cut off in their prime, a missed opportunity to reconcile with a loved one, a lost chance to say goodbye or to be physically present with someone as they were dying.   For people exposed to dying and death as a result of the Coronavirus, there can be a collective grief brought on by the lost opportunity to save lives, as well as the lost opportunity of the lives lost.

Healing grief through love and compassion

The starting point for being able to show compassion towards the people experiencing grief is having an understanding of the nature of grief and its many forms of expression. It is important not to add to the stress of people who are grieving by communicating expectations of how their grief should be expressed.  Grieving is a very personal process and requires compassionate attending and listening, not the projection of personal preference.

Pema Chödrön discusses ”compassionate abiding” in our own grief and suffering as the pathway to expressing compassion for others.  Frank suggests that we need to “metabolize” our own fear and suffering by facing it fully, experiencing it in our body, mind and heart and converting it to compassion for others.  He maintains that when we can explore our own experience through self-observation and self-inquiry we can “build an empathetic bridge to other people’s experience”.  Otherwise we can be working out of our own distress and needs rather than the needs of others who are grieving.  Without this level of self-intimacy we can appear dishonest or disingenuous to others we are trying to help in their grief.

Frank explained that he has difficulty expressing self-compassion but has developed a number of processes that enable him to express compassion for others.  Each night before going to sleep, he focuses on the suffering of others – those who might be suffering through loneliness, those experiencing grief or those who are caring for others who are dying.  Through this process he feels love and warmth towards others and the emergence of his “innate compassion” that is broad and deep enough to absorb or dissolve his own experience of suffering.   In the morning, with his hand on his heart, he asks himself, “What would love have me do today?”

Reflection

Self-intimacy is a key to genuine compassion towards others who are grieving.  Compassion and love help to heal grief because they involve abiding fully with someone who is experiencing grief, not trying to fix them.  Our very presence, uncontaminated by unrealistic expectations of the other person, can be a source of healing just as “listening generously” can be.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop self-intimacy, calmness and peace and be better able to be present to and compassionate towards others.

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Saying “Yes” to What We Are Feeling Now

Tara Brach highlights the fact that we spend a lot of our time in a belief trance, lost in thought and focused on going somewhere – looking towards what is coming up in the future. We overlook the present which is the real source of happiness, creativity and calm. She tells the story of the Dalai Lama being interviewed and being asked “What is the happiest moment of your life?” He responded, after a thoughtful moment, “Now”.

Tara suggests that we are strongly conditioned to not be present but to be “on our way to somewhere else”. We view some future moment as the most important in our life when the present moment is really the most important – it is what really matters. This leads to an honest inquiry, “What is it that takes us away from the present?” We can check in on ourselves as each day progresses and become more aware of what is consuming our thoughts.

What is going on for us in our virtual reality?

Tara points out that we are effectively living in a “virtual reality” – disconnected from our senses and the world around us as we become totally absorbed in our thoughts. Underlying this state of “lost in thought” are our embedded wants and fears – what we think we want and what we fear . We become preoccupied with the thought that something is not quite right, that something that should be here is missing. Invariably, this leads to the conclusion that there is “something wrong with our self”.

This preoccupation with deficit in our life leads to a sense of unworthiness. Tara maintains that meditation is a way to wake up from this preoccupation with negative self-evaluation. She explains that meditation has two “wings” – the awareness wing that notices what is going on for us and the kindness wing that treats us with self-compassion. In the final analysis, meditation leads us to accept ourselves non-judgmentally.

A guided meditation – coming home to “yes’

Tara provides a guided practice which she calls, Coming Home to Yes. After becoming grounded through your breathing, you are encouraged to focus on a conflict that is current in your life that generates “difficult emotions”, but that is not overly dramatic. The practice involves exploring the two wings of meditation – awareness and self-compassion.

The focal situation needs to be something that created strong negative emotions such as resentment or envy or that resulted in your acting in a way that you wished you hadn’t – that led to some regret. The meditation involves visualising the catalytic situation and revisiting the strong emotions generated – experiencing them in their full depth and breadth.

When you are able to name your feelings, you can focus on the nature of your reactivity – is it reflected in fight, flight or freezing? Tara encourages you to notice what you are doing when you are trying to resume control – to prevent the reactivity by saying “no” to your emotions, disowning them because they make you feel “less”. You can sense the “no” in your body, mind and heart – opening to the very real experience of your resistance to these negative emotions.

After interrupting the reflective process with a few deep breaths, you can revisit the situation, the triggers, the emotions and instead of saying “no”, you can say “yes” – letting the strong negative emotions “just be”, not denying or acting on them. This gives yourself permission to own these feelings – to allow what is. It does not mean that you automatically accept the actions of the other person, but that you allow yourself to feel anger or hurt, to be real in the situation. You can sense the experience of “yes” in your body so that you can revisit this sensation when a situation in the future engenders strong negative emotions. As Tara points out, in the process you are experiencing the two wings of meditation, awareness and self-compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection on our strong negative emotions, we can learn to own the emotions rather than denying them or acting on them. We can say “yes” to their existence.

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Living the Present Moment

The present moment is all we have – this very moment is our life.  Yet we spend so much time being someplace else.  We are thinking about what we have to do or wishing that our life was different.  We can be caught up in the emotions of envy, disappointment or regret and overlook what is happening now.

So often we look forward to an activity with a friend or colleague and yet when the moment arrives, we are thinking of something else – our focus is elsewhere other than the present moment.  When we can be really in the present moment we can savour being alone, being with someone we value and appreciate, experiencing the joy of our child’s development and happiness, or the beauty of the nature that surrounds us.

The role of meditation practice – bringing us back to the present moment

In one of her many meditation podcasts, Tara Brach coaxes us to show up fully for our life experiences, instead of being absorbed by our busyness.  She encourages us to be with our mind and our body in the moment.

Meditation practice trains us to bring our attention back to the present moment again and again.  It helps us to develop the discipline to stop our minds wandering or entertaining thoughts that take us away from the moment that we are experiencing, whatever form it takes.

If we can maintain meditation practice over a sustained period with a degree of frequency, we can begin to find that we tend to stop ourselves in the course of some experience and remind ourselves to savour the moment.  This present-mindedness can grow and develop and embrace more of our life and our interactions with others.  We can learn progressively to be truly present to ourselves and others.

As Tara points out the starting point is often getting in touch with our own bodies and our bodily sensations – whether it is the sensation of warmth or cold, tightness or softening, retracting or expanding.   What we develop through being in the present moment is gratitude and appreciation and we can experience joy and happiness through the process.  Tara describes what we develop through meditation practice in these words:

The art of appreciation and showing up for our life and living with more connection and gratitude. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can appreciate each moment and savour more of our life, instead of letting the present moment continuously pass us by.  Through regular and persistent meditation, we develop the art of bringing ourselves back to what we are experiencing in the moment.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Pexels on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.