Sorrow, Suffering and Spirituality

“… There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen

I got to speak with my own spiritual advisor last night, who talked with me about the words of wisdom from Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield (read below). People who are cracked open by loss, grief, abuse, sorrow, pain, injury ,illness — all of which initially seem “bad” and unwanted — can be, at the end,  an enormous source for going deeper and, paradoxically, opening more expansively to the world and all its sentient beings’ pain and sorrows.

Our first instinct when struck with any of the above conditions is to turn away, to distract, to make oneself busy, perhaps drink more to “get through it.” Overwork. Over sleep. Purchase self-help books with titles like “5 Steps to Getting Over ‘Him'” or “Recovering from Grief.” Isolate in our homes with a pint of ice cream. It is so easy and perhaps instinctual, to close down, curl under, shrink when we are assaulted by really negative emotions and/or situations, grief and loss and pain.

But as the great philosopher Sting once wrote, “Everybody’s got to leave the darkness sometime.” Don’t let well-meaning friends or family give you platitudes about how it was “meant to be” or “you’ll get over this” or “things will get better.” Ironically, all those things are true; we WILL get over this, things WILL get better and perhaps, just perhaps, we will see in time that the thing that caused us so much pain actually transformed us in some way we could have never imagined. You will leave the darkness … sometime. On your OWN time. Could be days. Could be months. Could be years. For some people, it is a lifetime. There is no standard timeline. and anyone who suggests that you “should be over this/him/her/it by now” is either uncomfortable feeling their OWN grief, or tired of listening to you — like, can we stop talking about tis already?

Either way, this is not the person to be sharing with.  There’s a saying from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous which says, “Obviously, you can’t transmit what you haven’t got.” Friends and relatives and co-workers will not be good, healing accomplice sin your journey into grief if they cannot face the transformative fire of loss and grief within themselves.

The spiritual opportunity here is to go deeply into the experience, rather than away from it. Let yourself grieve, howl in pain, cry for days or weeks, do rituals to mark the loss, meditate, be kind to yourself. And then, a few weeks later, do it all again. You will find that if you allow those feelings to come, they will indeed, later, go. And you will be a person of more depth, more hope and more compassion for others having lived through these rings yourself.

When we are deeply touched by sorrow or loss, it can feel like we are free-falling off a cliff and will land who knows where. The feeling seems vast and unknowable, the terrain unfamiliar, a hot and dusty desert and we cannot find the water. I fear experiencing grief because it is so real and relentless. It demands that I attend to it. It comes in waves that threaten to throw me into the deep end of the vast ocean. I might die.

In fact, mourning anything is by definition, letting go and experiencing a loss.

I am not saying, however, that grief and depression are the same, although they share characteristics. Grief can feel like depression. Sometimes, while grieving, we become depressed and need to seek assistance from a medical professional. Let yourself have that assistance. Depression is a real thing, and frequently accompanies hard times. Get some help if you sense that you are having more than just an appropriate response FOR YOU to a hard experience. I have never bought the idea that the grief process is a one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to feel it, let is crash over you, and realize that in fact, after the wave, you are still standing. Yes. You are still standing. Perhaps weary, scarred, sad, betrayed … but you are standing. And you will continue to stand the more you are able to give your grief the space to meander all over your soul. You will find it opens doors that had heretofore been shut. You will discover  a strength from within that perhaps you’d never thought you had. All those cracks will, as Leonard Cohen suggested in his song, Hymn, let the light in.