When Grief Comes Knocking

December 30, 2013
Recently I was driving south on Hwy 101 from my home in rural Humboldt County, California on my way to San Francisco, about 300 miles away. The route is extremely beautiful as it winds away from the Pacific Coast, through ancient Redwood forests, along the Eel and Russian Rivers, then in and out of endless soft rolling grassy hills of Live Oaks and vineyards that hug the contour of the landscape, arriving finally at the Golden Gate Bridge where the road once again meets the ocean. This is a drive I’ve done regularly for the last 30 years. It’s truly stunning. I’m accustomed to this beauty and depending on the season, I anticipate how it will look each time I travel.
In the winter it rains here and the hills turn many shades of lush green and the rivers grow wide and full. But this winter is different. There’s been no rain, and the hills aren’t their usual shade of end-of-autumn brown. They’re gray, ashen gray. The rivers are nearly dry, and the water that remains barely moves. The sun shines every day, there is no rain in the forecast, and I am worried. I never imagined a day when waking up to sunshine would give me a sinking feeling. What does an impending drought mean for everything? It’s so big I can barely wrap my mind around it.
I am, by nature, very optimistic. It’s my default setting. So much so, that in order to not be blind-sided by my own optimism, I have developed the habit of asking myself “what’s wrong with this picture?” before diving into new ventures that have long-range consequences. This sort of discerning question keeps my potential impulsivity in check and helps me stay balanced.
But over the last several months I’ve found myself on the other side of things; often feeling pessimistic, stuck in the rut of everything sad, rubbing up against grief. Not just my small personal griefs, but the Big Grief, the Grief of World; global environmental degradation, climate disruption, extreme economic inequities, the effects of wide-spread poverty, (to name a few), and the outrageously painful fact that by being alive and living in the world, consuming any goods at all, I am part of the problem.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Actually, there’s everything right with this picture. It’s right to feel grief. It’s right to see things as they actually are. It’s right to feel outrage, and it’s right to feel up close, in our bones how the small self is deeply and inextricably bound to the Big Self.

“In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men [and women] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”    -Martin Luther King, Jr.

From the perspective of mindfulness practice, there are many ways to approach grief, pain, and sadness. When my teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, is caught in a knot she stops and says to herself, “Sweetheart, you’re in pain. Take a breath.”
This is really excellent advice on three fronts. First, by addressing herself as “sweetheart,” she holds herself with love and compassion which, right away, relaxes the mind and reduces the sting of the current pain. Secondly, by naming what’s happening, “you’re in pain,” she identifies what’s happening. When we understand what’s happening, we can choose how to respond, hopefully with wisdom and skill. And thirdly, the instruction “take a breath,” gives her something to do in the immediate, to offer herself some relief. Stopping to breathe is like pressing the pause button. It calms the mind and for the moment, turns down the volume on whatever story is playing. It’s brilliant, it’s compassionate, and it works.
I realize that saying “Sweetheart, you’re in pain, take a breath,” is not going to end climate disruption or feed hungry people, but it will give me the space and courage I need to pause and think about what I can do. It also teaches me to respond to my own pain with kindness and compassion. 

When grief comes knocking, let compassion answer.