Grief is selfish, and it needs to be.
When death hit and my life exploded, I scrambled to save all the pieces before they were lost. I had to be selfish with my time because no one else knew what to say for someone who died suddenly in her forties. I had to do it myself, and it took all my energy to get up, go to work, make something for dinner, and endure the long nights without my wife.
As I learned grief’s ways, there came a time down the road when I began to see the world again. I noticed other people who were grieving, and felt the desire to use what I was learning to help them.
In Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, she mentions a one-breath-out meditation in several places. The first time she does, she speaks of the willingness to die in the time after exhalation before inhalation begins, and calls it a little death.
This reminds me of something I experienced in the days right after Evelyn died. I would breathe out and not want to breathe in again. Then my body’s reflexes kicked in and dragged me back. I’m not saying I wanted to die, although I would have been perfectly happy doing so because living without Evelyn was too painful. There was just something in that moment when I was emptied of breath that I think ties into what Chodron is saying. I noticed that in that brief moment I felt balanced and at peace.
I’m not going to say I understand everything Chodron is meaning, but later she says your breath out is sharing your energy, your compassion, with the world. The imagery of the breath feels right for this. In the sixteenth century, Gyalwa Karmapa said, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.”
This attention to breath, this mindfulness of the moment, is also in the Jesus Prayer of the Russian Orthodox tradition, a two-breath meditation practice. The pilgrim, walking alone in the Russian forest, takes in Jesus’ spirit through the in-breath, and lets go of self, sin, and focus on personal gain through the out-breath, so that one gradually becomes Christ-like and carries Jesus’ love to others. Both traditions say we are transformed by its meditation practice.
In the context of grief and Chodron’s first meaning, in the beginning, as I took in the enormity of my grief and pain through my in-breath, I also took in the compassion of others. I allowed them into my pain, and they helped loosen grief’s protective blockade. All of this went through my heart and came out on my out-breath as compassion for Evelyn. Then my attention turned to me, and when I breathed out, I let my pain go. In time, when I was ready to help others with what I had learned, this shifted to Chodron’s second stage, of taking in the grief of others, and letting compassion flow out to them.
At this point you might be saying I’m just breathing on people. Well, kind of. But when I’m with people, listening to them talk about their grief, I feel like I am taking in their suffering, physically and emotionally. I can feel myself filling with breath and with their tension. Notice what you do when someone tells you bad news. You take in a deep breath that is filled with apprehension.
As we breathe in, in our head we deal with the fact of suffering. We can feel their pain, and we try to remove the fear it contains. If we let their words move through our heart, the suffering of the other person softens in us, and we discover how to respond with compassion as we breathe out.
Chodron says this is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, of sending and receiving, of feeling tenderness for others, of sending our love out without conditions.
If I am protecting myself from others for whatever reason, if today I am overwhelmed with my own grief and close myself off, then I physically find it hard to take a deep breath. My breaths are shallow, letting as little in as possible. There is no room inside for other people. But when I take a deep breath, I take in the world. When I exhale, I breathe my compassion out to all who are around me. This intention, this focus, softens the hardness in me and allows me to feel their suffering. As I walk in public, this openness welcomes interaction with others, and a desire to listen to their struggles and try to help.
Now that I’ve said this, I don’t know if I’ve said anything important at all.
Mark Liebenow’s writings on grief have been published in a variety of journals, including “Madonnas” and “Grief Walkers” in The Manifest-Station. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. His essays have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His grief website is https://widowersgrief.blogspot.com. Twitter @MarkLiebenow2.