Grief and Mindfulness: spending time in the present
I was worried that if I posted on mindfulness and grief you might get the impression I am a new-age, raw-foodist who has all the time in the world to read, do yoga, and meditate in an ashram. So if you don’t mind, before we get going I’d like to get a few things straight – although I have been known to read Nagarjuna, do yoga and meditate; I have more often been known to drink beer, get sucked into all-day Law and Order marathons, cover my house with to-do lists to try to keep my life straight, and change into my yoga clothes only to decide to go to brunch instead. What does any of this have to do with mindfulness? Not a thing. Which is exactly the point – I want you to know that meditation and mindfulness is not all or nothing. One can learn a lot from Buddhist concepts without becoming a Buddhist. One can learn about mindfulness without moving to an ashram. These are just interesting concepts that regular people can apply in every day life as they please. You may not practice these concepts every minute of every day, and that is okay. Choose what speaks to you, don’t feel intimidated, and definitely don’t feel guilty grabbing your coffee or a glass of wine while you read on.
Mindfulness and Grief
At the core of Buddhism is the concept of mindfulness, and it is deeply connected to impermanence. Impermanence is a Buddhist concept that brought me much comfort in the first few years after losing my dad. When we value permanence we look to the future obsessively or we dwell on the past. When we accept impermanence we allow ourselves to live in the present moment, which in many ways changed my thinking about life. Impermanence is a whole other topic that we talk about here, so for now let’s just talk about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a way of life in which we become aware of the present – our thoughts and feelings, our physical experience, and the world around us. Once we have accepted that there is no permanence, we can look at the present and examine what we are truly feeling. Though people often associate mindfulness with meditation, meditation is just a way for us to learn and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness stretches into every part of life, giving us the tool to live in each moment, knowing it is fleeting.
What does this mean for grief? There are two common ways many of us cope with grief – we become completely consumed and feel trapped by our grief. Or, from fear of that, we try our best to avoid the pain and emotions so we can “move on”. Mindfulness reminds us that pain and sorrow, like all else, are impermanent. Does this mean grief goes away completely? Of course not. But it does mean that it will change shape and form, it will ebb and flow, some days it will hurt like hell and some days you will start to smile. It means that our grief, like everything else, is impermanent and ever-changing. Once we accept this, even if only on a rational level, some of the need to avoid our grief starts to diminish. We can stop believing it is permanent and will never change, even when we feel it will last forever. We can start noticing and accepting our grief for what it really is and the small changes every day in our experiences.
Let me start here by saying that I am no guru and this is the briefest of introductions. I make no claims that these are the concepts in their purest form, but they are the practices that have served me well. If you are interested in learning more there are many books, websites, and podcasts that can truly get you started. Mindfulness practice in meditation begins with diaphragmatic breathing and developing a deep awareness of our breaths. This type of breathing causes the diaphragm to expand as you breathe in and contract as you exhale. Start by sitting up very straight in a cross-legged position, relaxing your muscles. Keep your shoulders, jaw, and arms relaxed and find a focal point in front of you. Make sure you are in a quiet space without a lot of distractions. Once you are comfortable you can begin your breathing and counting your breaths. When you are just getting started you may want to keep your hand on your belly to ensure your breathing remains in your diaphragm. Count each breath on the exhalation.
There is an intimidating rumor about meditation that it is all about “clearing your mind” and emptying it of all those thoughts that are constantly flooding in. Don’t be scared off by the idea clearing your mind. This practice is about building an awareness of our thoughts, noticing them, and letting them go. I can promise you that emptying my mind continues to feel nearly impossible on most days – don’t let this stop you from developing a practice.
As you start your breathing try to focus on the movement of your body, the air coming in and out, and your counting. Thoughts will come up as distractions, pulling your focus away from your breath. When this happens notice the thought, identify it, and let it go. You may be shocked by the constant flow of thoughts that pull your focus away from the present moment. Everything from what that clicking sound is, to what you will have for dinner, to regret for something you did or didn’t do, to pain around your loss and loneliness, and everything in between. At first letting these thoughts go may seem difficult – how can you let a thought go???
Like everything, this takes practice. As the thought of what is for dinner comes into your mind, it may quickly start to spiral – what do we have in the fridge? Did I remember to pick up peppers at the store for that recipe? Oh wait, I can’t make that anyway because we don’t have cumin. Oh no, Jim’s friend is coming over too. Does he have any food allergies? And on and on and on. Suddenly you have completely lost track of your breathing. One technique I found very helpful early on in noticing thoughts and letting them go was a visualization technique called leaves on a stream. There are many variations on this, but this one is simple. Imagine a stream on the edge of the woods. As a thought arises in your mind notice it, label it, and imagine it is a leaf floating on the stream. Watch the leaf float down the stream until it disappears and resume the focus on your breathing.
You may be wondering what the point of this is – how is this going to make any difference. Rather than letting thoughts run away from us with no control of them, or fleeing from distressing thoughts because we hope to avoid them, mindfulness teaches us to notice our thoughts in the present moment, accept them, and then let them go. As you practice mindfulness it will grow far beyond just the moments of sitting and counting breaths and can become part of so many parts of your day. As you do the basic tasks of life, which can seem so impossible while grieving, you can slowly incorporate mindfulness. You can become aware of the thoughts that are flooding your mind, notice them, accept and acknowledge them, let them go, and remain focused on the present moment and task.
After both the losses of my dad and my sister’s boyfriend I found driving an impossible task. I would get in the car and be flooded with tears. This went on for not days or weeks, but months. Even when I felt in control in other areas, the car always set me off. Applying mindfulness techniques was what finally helped me. I would concentrate on my breathing and the experience of driving. I would focus on the physical experiences in my body when I would start to feel overwhelmed by emotions. I would focus on noticing my thoughts and letting them go, refocusing on my breathing and my experience of driving. It wasn’t always easy. It didn’t always work. But it was a start to accepting the thoughts that were overwhelming me while remaining the moment of the tasks in front of me.
This is not easy – it takes hard work and practice. It will not happen in a day or a week or a month. But each day it will get easier. It will become a more natural part of how you approach the world.
A Final Note
It is important to mention that when we talk about letting thoughts go this is not avoidance or ignoring thoughts. In fact, these techniques can make us more aware of the specific thoughts and feeling that are consuming us. Though we often know we are experiencing general feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, and pain, mindfulness can help us notice exactly what specific thoughts and feelings are consuming our mind. Noticing and accepting these thoughts can let us find the appropriate time to address them.
I will close this with an example related to grief that I often find important to my work. Having gone through my own losses and supporting others grieving there are times that I start to become distracted in working with a client or family. By developing an awareness of my own thoughts I will sometimes notice that a situation is bringing up something that reminds me of my own family or my own loss. By taking a moment to notice and accept this, I am able to let those thoughts go and be present again with the family, rather than allowing the thoughts of my own loss to consume me. At the end of the day, in the peace of my home, I may revisit those thoughts. This might be through writing, art, talking to my husband, or simply taking some time to think about the impact of that day and how or why it brought up painful feelings for me. By noticing and accepting those thoughts in the moment they come up, I am able to let them go and return to them at an appropriate time. Sounds easy enough, but for many of us it takes time and practice to build the awareness and let those thoughts go.
So set aside some time each day to give it a try, be patient, and don’t get discouraged. Please leave a comment if you have tried any mindfulness techniques that have worked for you.
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