At times, pain can reach such a powerful level that it can be devastating. In spiritual life, we might call it the dark night of the soul. In interpersonal life, we call it grief, and this intense emotional experience does not limit itself to the loss of someone who has died. It can occur as the experience of nearly any kind of deep loss. I learned that in a poignant way from a man who was deeply suffering.
A young soldier who had been deployed in Iraq came to IMS [Insight Meditation Society] within two weeks of having been released from the army. He was a beautiful person. He had enlisted for a few different reasons: a recent romantic heartbreak, a yearning to get out of town, and deeply felt ideals about love of country. Not only had he landed in an active war zone, he had also experienced massive disillusionment and real horror at actions he witnessed. I had never met someone in as active a state of traumatic distress as he was, outside of an actual traumatic situation occurring on the spot. His startle reflex was extraordinary; he lived on tenterhooks. His need to take measures to feel safe was absolute. His incredibly sweet nature did regular battle with his mistrust and persistent monitoring of others.
The intensive, silent retreat he’d signed up for wouldn’t have been the ideal environment to begin processing that recent experience, so we worked with him on a parallel track—more relational, emphasizing grounding exercises and especially self-compassion.
His later diagnosis was PTSD, but it could equally have been described as moral injury or a soul wound. The lead teacher of the retreat he entered was my colleague Rodney Smith, who had also founded and run two hospices. I was talking to Rodney about the soldier one day when he said to me, “Sharon, don’t you see? He’s grieving.”
Once I understood his mistrust and hypervigilance and alienation as grief, it registered within me as heartbreak, which I, too, have often felt. His pain didn’t seem as distant as a diagnosis like PTSD. Consequently, I was better able to be a friend and teacher to him.
To grieve, whether for a person, a set of ideals, or our hopes and dreams, is to watch reality, once so solid-seeming, become molten. It’s hard to get oneself to take the next step in a dissolving world—where will our foot land when it seems nothing will support us? How do we move toward inner or outer change?
To start with, here are some footholds for our next step, thanks to two insightful writers.
“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them,” says writer Martín Prechtel. “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.” Seeing grief in this way helps us respect what we are going through, rather than being mired in shame and discouragement on top of the pain we already feel.
What happens if we recognize the love inside of grief? Journalist Dahr Jamail writes about his grief for the planet on Truthout, a nonprofit news website:
Each time another scientific study is released showing yet another acceleration of the loss of ice atop the Arctic Ocean, or sea-level-rise projections are stepped up yet again, or news that another species has gone extinct is announced, my heart breaks for what we have done and are doing to the planet. . . .
Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things. Grief is also a way to honor what we are losing. . . . My acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself. The price of this opening is the repeated embracing of my own grief. . . . I am grieving and yet I have never felt more alive. I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.
Excerpted from Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Change (Flatiron Books, September 2020)
Join Tricycle for “Grieving Mindfully, Together,” a live virtual COVID grief circle on October 14 led by Sharon Salzberg and psychologist Dr. Sameet Kumar, a grief counselor and author of Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.