Creating Sacred Altars for Grief

December 28, 2012

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This is a blog about grief, the end of the year, and authenticity.

This season I’ve been present to many layers of experience: joy, relaxation, doubt, playfulness, stillness, creative churning, time pressure, peace, and a great deal of grief. We grieve the people we miss who are no longer with us each holiday season. We grieve the passing of time and the reflection of dreams not yet met. We grieve the recognition of how quickly life moves. We grieve lost children, we grieve lost parents, we grieve losing beloved animals who have touched our lives, we grieve break ups, we grieve feeling helpless to help someone we love, we grieve violence in the world, we grieve self-limiting patterns we have not yet let go, and we grieve the impact of greed on our planet and its people.

I guide students in awareness practice and can say that everyone I speak with feels some degree of grief over the holidays. It is a shared experience for many that does not get collective recognition. Not only do we not have proper grieving spaces in our culture, but we continually emphasize cheering up, numbing out, and turning away from “negative” feelings – primarily out of fear. Grief is considered morbid and the message is that we’d do better to put on a smile, be extroverted, and try to fit in. I think of the student who is afraid to socialize unless she’s in the “right” mood. I think of a friend who, when bringing up the loss of her 10-day-old child at a party, felt shunned. Just like we throw unwanted trash away and the aged leaves our trees shed into waste bins (instead of providing new carbon to our soil), we also sweep our precious treasure chest of sorrow under the rug, in order to make life “tidy”… in order to look a certain way…in order to hide our vulnerability…fully ignorant of the power and depth of love that is hidden in that grief.

Who are we pretending to be? Who are we pretending for? Is anyone served by allowing social conditioning to dictate which emotions are acceptable?

What would an appropriate loving sacred grieving space look like if we made room for it? A silent sanctuary such as ones I visited on the Ganges in India where there remained remnants of ceremonial funeral burns from the day before? A space for recognition of the ancestor realm as is practiced in non-Western cultures around the world? Or simply allowing pain to be met with the same welcome as joy in the fabric of social engagement? As a child who lost my father young, I always appreciated that at the end of every Jewish celebration, we would pause and take a few minutes for the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer honoring our loved ones who had passed. It affirmed and strengthened the part of me who knew sorrow to be recognized alongside the celebration. It made me feel that sadness and celebration were not at odds.

If I could invite you all to an end-of-the-year gathering, we would meet in a still forest around a large bonfire and make a circle as wide as our bodies. We would collect twigs and sticks and leaves, ignite the flames, and watch them build… slowly at first, and then as it became a raging roaring fire, witnessing its light and warmth and power, we would take turns tossing our grief from the past year into the flames, allowing ourselves to name it, to feel it, to be seen and heard … to make grief something that unifies us rather than separates and isolates us. Every expression would be welcome… it could be laughter, it could be tears, it could be a dance or a roar. We would honor it all and give it all back to the earth, releasing it from our veins and letting go of our isolation. We would weave our feelings together in a warm blanket of honesty. We would then wrap this blanket around us and allow it to nurture renewed aliveness, strength, and interconnection.

It is a shame that our culture focuses so much on appearance and on “staying positive.” We miss so many opportunities to be real, authentic, connected to the earth, and to honor our animal selves. By animal selves I mean the part of us that is a creature of the planet, our ecological self, sensitive to the pain of our world and other beings, sensitive to the violence in the world and the shifts happening on this planet…..sensitive to it all.

When I turn towards my grief, I meet a raging fire that has been burning for centuries… grieving the recent shootings of school children, the illness of a loved one, the loss of my dad as a child, the rape of the planet by corporate greed, grieving the loss of friends and mentors, and the unfathomable extinction of animal species in my lifetime. It is vital that we feel fully our pain for the world. Our heart’s response comes through in listening to that pain. When we let the fire of sorrow burn, it melts into a distilled and purified form of love. Our heart’s response says, I recommit to kindness. I recommit to love. I recommit to non-separation. I want to help. My heart goes out to every living being. I am here to love. I am here to be part of the solution. Spirit, how can I serve? I will live according to your instruction. Show me the way… Thank you. Our heart’s response – which is the response of our ecological self, our interconnected animal being, the soul that knows the oneness humans seek – comes from letting our hearts break open.

There is value in creating space – for ourselves and for others – to feel grief and to let it move full course through our animal bodies, so that we can release it and let go. How can we let our hearts open if we don’t let them fully break? How can we feel one another’s pain if we turn away from our own?

If you have worked with me, you have heard me say, “Our strength is in our vulnerability.” Our power, our clarity of intention, and our deep capacity for love cannot be accessed unless we allow ourselves to feel fully. The more we hold space for and witness one another’s pain the more we connect with what is real and uncensored. This is what fuels our participation in the self-healing of our world.

You may be present to your own sadness as you read this. You may be present to another emotion. It does not matter. What matters is that we honor NOT the social expectation of the conditioned world around us, but the honesty and raw nature of our feelings. “This is what I feel.” Whatever it is, we need to allow space for it and learn to bring that space with us wherever we go. We may access that space through sitting in silent meditation or by dancing to explosive music or writing a song. We may access it by spending time in nature or calling on a friend who can simply listen. We cannot access it by putting on a smile and trying hard to be the life of the party when we don’t feel it. We cannot access it by turning to food or intoxicants to numb out. We do not access it by pushing anyone or anything away. We also do not access it through milking our emotions and identifying with the victim. Acceptance and authenticity are accessed through meeting our emotions with non-judgment, gentle curiosity, kindness, and a willingness to be with what is.

If you can learn to meet your sorrow in this way, you can learn how to meet every one of your feelings in this way and everyone in your life in this way.

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