Grief, fear and despair are part of the human condition. Each of these emotions is useful, says psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan, if we know how to listen to them.
I was brought to the practice of mindfulness more than two decades ago by the death of my first child. Aaron died two months after he was born, never having left the hospital. Shortly after that, a friend introduced me to a teacher from whom I learned the basics of Vipassana meditation: how to breathe mindfully and meditate with “choiceless” awareness.
I remember attending a dharma talk in a room full of fifty meditators. The teacher spoke about the Four Noble Truths. Life is inherently unsatisfactory, he said. The ego’s restless desires are no sooner fulfilled than they find new objects. Craving and aversion breed suffering. One of his examples was waiting in line for a movie and then not getting in.
I asked: “But what if you’re not suffering because of some trivial attachment? What if it’s about something significant, like death? What if you’re grieving because your baby was born with brain damage and died before he had a chance to live?” I wept openly, expecting that there, of all places, my tears would be accepted.
The teacher asked, “How long has your son been dead?” When I told him it had been two months, his response was swift: “Well then, that’s in the past now, isn’t it? It’s time to let go of the past and live in the present moment.”
I felt reprimanded for feeling sad about my son’s death. The teacher’s response baffled me. Live in the present? My present was suffused with a wrenching sorrow—a hole in my heart that bled daily. But the present moment, as he conceived of it, could be cleanly sliced away from and inured against this messy pain. Divested of grief, an emotionally sanitized “present moment” was served up as an antidote for my tears. However well meaning, the message was clear: Stop grieving. Get over it. Move on.
This is a familiar message. Its unintended emotional intolerance often greets those who grieve, especially if they do so openly. I call this kind of intolerance “emotion-phobia”: a pervasive fear and reflexive avoidance of difficult emotions in oneself and/or others. This is accompanied by a set of unquestioned normative beliefs about the “negativity” of painful feelings.
Emotion-phobia is endemic to our culture and perhaps to patriarchal culture in general. You’ll find it in sub-cultures as different as spiritual retreats, popular self-help books and psychiatric manuals. In fact, my teacher’s supposedly Buddhist response was very much in line with the prevailing psychiatric view of grief.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (the “bible” of psychiatry), the patient who is grieving a death is allotted two months for “symptoms” such as sadness, insomnia and loss of appetite before being diagnosable with a “Major Depressive Disorder.”
Grief, perhaps the most inevitable of all human emotions, given the unalterable fact of mortality, is seen as an illness if it goes on too long. But how much is too long? My mother, a Holocaust survivor, grieved actively for the first decade of my life. Was this too long a grief for genocide? Time frames for our emotions are nothing if not arbitrary, but appearing in a diagnostic and statistical manual, they attain the ring of truth. The two month limit is one of many examples of institutional psychiatry’s emotion-phobia.
Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy. They are our natural and inevitable responses to existence, so long as loss, vulnerability and violence come with the territory of being human. These are the dark emotions, but by dark, I don’t mean that they are bad, unwholesome or pathological. I mean that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark—shameful, secret and unseen.
Emotion-phobia dissociates us from the energies of these emotions and tells us they are untrustworthy, dangerous and destructive. Like other traits our culture distrusts and devalues—vulnerability, for instance, and dependence—emotionality is associated with weakness, women and children. We tend to regard these painful emotions as signs of psychological fragility, mental disorder or spiritual defect. We suppress, intellectualize, judge or deny them. We may use our spiritual beliefs or practices to bypass their reality.
Few of us learn how to experience the dark emotions fully—in the body, with awareness—so we end up experiencing their energies in displaced, neurotic or dangerous forms. We act out impulsively. We become addicted to a variety of substances and/or activities. We become depressed, anxious or emotionally numb, and aborted dark emotions are at the root of these characteristic psychological disorders of our time. But it’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem; it’s our inability to bear them mindfully.
Every dark emotion has a value and purpose. There are no negative emotions; there are only negative attitudes towards emotions we don’t like and can’t tolerate, and the negative consequences of denying them.
The emotions we call “negative” are energies that get our attention, ask for expression, transmit information and impel action. Grief tells us that we are all interconnected in the web of life, and that what connects us also breaks our hearts. Fear alerts us to protect and sustain life. Despair asks us to grieve our losses, to examine and transform the meaning of our lives, to repair our broken souls. Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful—if we know how to listen to them.
But if grief is barely tolerated in our culture, even less are fear and despair. The fact is we are all afraid and act as if we’re not. We fear the sheer vulnerability of existence; we fear its unpredictability. When we are unable to feel our fear mindfully, we turn it into anger, psychosomatic ailments or a host of “anxiety disorders”—displacements of fears we can’t feel or name.
According to experts, some 50 million people in this country suffer from phobias at some point in their lives, and millions more are diagnosed with other anxiety disorders. One reason is that we’ve lost touch with the actual experience of primal, natural fear. When fear is numbed, we learn little about what it’s for—its inherent usefulness as an alarm system that we ignore at our peril. Benumbed fear is especially dangerous when it becomes an unconscious source of vengeance, violence and other destructive acts. We see this acted out on the world stage as much as in the individual psyche.
As for despair, how many among us have not experienced periods of feeling empty, desolate, hopeless, brooding over the darkness in our world? This is the landscape of despair. Judging from my thirty years of experience as a psychotherapist, I would say that despair is common, yet we don’t speak of despair anymore.
We speak of clinical depression, serotonin-deficiency, biochemical disorder and the new selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors. We treat the “illness” with a host of new medications. In my view, “depression” is the word we use in our highly medicalized culture for a condition of chronic despair—despair that is stuck in the body and toxified by our inability to bear it mindfully. When we think of all despair as a mental disorder or a biochemical illness, we miss the spiritual metamorphosis to which it calls us.
In retrospect, a more helpful answer from my meditation teacher (and one more in line with the Buddha’s teachings) might have been, If you are grieving, do so mindfully. Pay attention to your grief. Stop and listen to it. Befriend it and let it be.
The dark emotions are profound but challenging spiritual teachers, like the Zen master who whacks you until you develop patience and spiritual discipline. When grief shattered my heart after Aaron’s death, that brought with it an expansion, the beginning of my experience of a Self larger than my broken ego. Grieving mindfully—without recourse to suppression, intellectualization or religious dogmatism—made me a happier person than I’d ever been.
What I learned by listening closely to grief was a transformational process I call “the alchemy of the dark emotions.” Many years after Aaron’s death, after a second radiantly healthy child and a third who was born with a mysterious neuromotor disorder, I began to write about these alchemies—from grief to gratitude, fear to joy, and despair to faith—that I had experienced in my own life and witnessed countless times in my work as a psychotherapist.
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