At one time or another, everyone loses something. We lose loved ones. We lose our health. We lose our glasses. We lose our memories. We lose our money. We lose our keys. We lose our socks. We lose life itself. We have to come to terms with this reality. Sooner or later, all is lost; we just don’t always know when it will happen.
Loss is a fact of life. Impermanence is everywhere we look. We are all going to suffer our losses. How we deal with these losses is what makes all the difference. For it is not what happens to us that determines our character, our experience, our karma, and our destiny, but how we relate to what happens.
Realistically, since we will all suffer many losses, we need better, more evolved and astute ways of approaching sorrow and emotional pain. We need to be more conscious about the ways our losses can help us become wiser and more spiritually evolved; we also need to be more sensitive to and aware of other people’s pain and suffering.
Different forms of universal wisdom may tell us to “shake it off,” “get over it,” “offer it up to God,” “learn and grow from it,” or that “time heals all wounds” and “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” To somebody who is suffering from a profound loss, these words can sound superficial and shallow; they can even be infuriating.
With every breath, the old moment is lost; a new moment arrives.
But none of this alters the fact that we need to find more enlightened ways of approaching loss. There are so many different modes of suffering and dissatisfaction arising out of the various troubles and travails that afflict us. How can we appropriately respond to loss, failure, illness, death, tragedies, calamities, injustice, betrayal, shock, trauma, abuse, grief, and life’s most hurtful wounds? Can we do so with wisdom? Our sorrows provide us with the lessons we most need to learn.
Compare the intensity of losing a tennis game with that of losing a child. Think about the difference between losing a job, a mate, a house, or a parent. Think about what it means to lose innocence, trust, faith, or belief. Some varieties of loss are momentary, while others are more lasting and not necessarily to be swiftly released and forgotten. Some losses, like bankruptcy, unemployment, or eviction are serious, but they can eventually be put behind us. But others, like the loss of family members, mates, and young children, can be so brutal that we may never really get over what we have known and experienced; nor do we need to. The deep pain we continue to experience reminds us of our love and keeps our hearts open. We discover, often to our amazement and relief, that love is greater than time and place and even greater than death. We discover that we can hold our lost loves in our hearts even as we slowly open to new love.
With every breath, the old moment is lost, a new moment arrives. This is something Buddhist meditators know. We breathe in and we breathe out. In so doing, we abide in the ever-changing moment. We learn to welcome and accept this entire process. We exhale, and we let go of the old moment. It is lost to us. In so doing, we let go of the person we used to be. We inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. We repeat the process. This is meditation. This is renewal. It is also life.
Teachings on the nature of loss and change are the most basic and essential to seekers on the Buddhist path. However, most traditional Buddhist teachers don’t call it loss or change; they call it impermanence. Buddhist teachings remind us not to run away from our thoughts and feelings about the losses in our lives, but instead to become intimately aware of the gritty facticity of life.
Meditation On Impermanence
Sit someplace where you can be quiet and alone. Try to find a place that brings you closer in touch with a sense of the natural ebb and flow of all life. In Tibet, this kind of meditation is often done outdoors in a charnel ground, or beneath clouds moving across the sky, but these particular forms aren’t absolutely necessary. You can watch the waves move in and out on a beach; you can sit near a waterfall or in a park. In autumn you can watch leaves flutter to the ground. Other places sometimes suggested to increase awareness of impermanence would be the city dump, car junkyard, or hospital entrance.
Wherever you are, get comfortable. Release the muscular tension throughout your body. Breathe in through your nostrils; breathe out through your nostrils. Do this several times until you are feeling relaxed and settled.
Rest in the moment. Stay with this awareness of breathing. Be aware, attentive, and mindful. Let your breath come and go, rise and fall. Simply be with what you are presently experiencing, beyond judgment and beyond interference or alteration. Don’t suppress what you feel or what you think, but also don’t allow your mind to get carried away into trains of discursive thinking. For the moment, don’t try to work or figure anything out. Let it all settle, dissolve, return back to where it all arose.
Let it all be, as it is. Love it and leave it, with a light, lovely touch. Let things fall as they may.
Start by listing your greatest losses. Just jot down whatever comes to mind. This is not a test; nothing has to be alphabetized. Skim the surface at first, and just see what comes up.
Don’t worry about whether or not you are writing exquisite prose. In some ways, writing in this way corresponds with the tantric principle of getting it all out until you are exhausted and then seeing who you are at the bedrock level. Some people are working through a current loss; others are enmeshed and caught up in the past. Start from wherever you are.
After you have skimmed the surface, you might want to consolidate your loss list or break it down into categories, such as “material loss,” “relationship loss,” “lost opportunities,” or “lost dreams,” to name just a few possibilities. Which areas stand out for you? With each of your losses, reflect on what happened. Reflect on your deepest feelings and get into the details. When you start writing, you might be surprised at the losses that take priority.
With each loss that you write down, ask yourself the following question: What did I really lose? List the answers and work them through. For example, if you lost your job, and one of your losses is a sense of status, ask: “Is this really important to me? And why?” Here are some suggestions for questions to get you started:
- What did I really lose?
- Why did I lose it?
- Have I healed from this loss?
- Will I ever heal from this loss?
- Do I want to heal from this loss?
- If I have healed, what lessons have I learned about myself?
- What lessons can I apply to current or future loss?
- Have I stopped blaming myself?
- What can I do to be more accepting and forgiving of my own behavior?
Then write down what you are feeling because of your loss. Ask yourself:
- Am I still angry and bitter?
- Why am I still hanging on to losses that have no real meaning in my life?
- Am I hanging on to unrealistic fantasies and illusions around my loss?
- How can I let go of my negative feelings?
Often when we have lost something, we blame ourselves. People blame themselves if their partners cheat or their children become ill, but it isn’t spiritually intelligent to blame ourselves. There are many factors involved with each event, and we can’t control the ungovernable world. Getting more in touch with your feelings about the major and minor losses in your life can help you heal and forgive yourself. This can be an important first step on the road back to wholeness.
Adapted from Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be © 2003 by Lama Surya Das. Reprinted with permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
The Arrow of Grief
Even if a person lives a century
from his community of relatives,
he abandons his life
So, having heard the arahant,
seeing the dead one whose time is done,
[think,] “I can’t fetch him back.”
Just as one would put out
a burning refuge
so does the enlightened one—
blow away any arisen grief,
like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.
Seeking your own happiness,
you should pull Out your own arrow:
your own lamentation,
With arrow pulled out,
attaining peace of awareness,
all grief transcended,
griefless you are
—Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. From the Salla Sutta, Sutta Nipata III.8
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