Buddhism and Grief: Where it Gets Tricky

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog, which begins with this installment, explores daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).

It is a warm afternoon, early March. I am deep into the retreat — ten weeks so far. As I head out for my daily walk in the forest that surrounds the center, I pass the communal message board near the dining room. A note is posted with my name on it. This is very odd. I read: Someone has called with news that my friend Bob died.

I turn back and return to my single dorm room, lie down, and cry. It’s a brief, clear, unobstructed cry. A few minutes later, I head out again to walk in the forest.

Bob’s death was not unexpected. He had been battling stage-four cancer for a year. When I entered the retreat, his situation was already precarious. He was 52 years old.

As I walk I register surprise that the woods are no different, as if instead they should reflect this tectonic change. But of course it’s not a tectonic change. For all but the tiniest sliver of humanity, it’s not a change at all.

For ten weeks, I have walked in this forest every day. At various times I have seen the woods as indifferent, sympathetic, or consoling; as inclined to compassion or wisdom; as a metaphor for resilience or resignation. I have invested the trees with wizardly secrets that they choose to reveal or not, based on their own arcane whim. But these are all my colorings. The woods are just the woods.

As I move, I step in and out of sadness. I reflect, as I do with every close death, every grief, how each loss still shocks on its arrival. How each causes a transient but deep upheaval. And, as with other deaths, I wonder: Where is the manual for grief? Am I doing this right or wrong — too nonchalant, too uncaring, too indulgent? Am I grieving more for myself, my own fears, my own losses, than for the person whose life has ended?

A friend has died. How different this actual fact of impermanence from the abstract “truth” of my meditations! I’ve spent months now trying to grasp impermanence, to get it into my bones. All that suddenly feels like a game. Could I not see that I subtly controlled “impermanence” the whole time? That it was as if deep down I was exempt, toying with the idea of impermanence, reflecting on it from a place of imagined immunity?

The thought arises: I prefer the game impermanence to the real one. And then: This is the best teaching yet of the entire retreat. And then, in rapid-fire succession: I am co-opting Bob’s death into a teachable moment. Is this disrespectful? Should I feel guilty? Am I jerk? I watch all these thoughts and reactions come and go, waves breaking on an endless beach.

It strikes me that Buddhist teachings are at their trickiest in regard to grief. Everything changes, we are taught again and again. All that is born dies. It’s right there, in the foundation of the philosophy, in the four noble truths: The cause of suffering is attachment. This key opens the great door of liberation. All is impermanent.

Grief, then, is clinging to a delusion: the delusion that death should not occur, that anything is outside the tenacious purview of impermanence. Our attachments put us at risk for our own suffering.

Yet what is more natural than to attach to whom and what we love? Without this attachment, is life anything more than neutered, mechanistic quasi-engagement? Isn’t it attachment that turns the hollow into the hallowed?

Yes, suffering arises from attachment – but doesn’t every single thing we cherish in life? If we attach to nothing, then what of our heart?

If grief is just another manifestation of avidya, of ignorance, then the practice loses its humanity. But if it is not, then the basic edifice of non-attachment crumbles.

This is not about how attachment differs from clinging. I appreciate that distinction, but here it feels like passing the buck. Can love of anything or anyone specific, sustained over time, exist free of attachment? When we lose what we love, do we not grieve?

It’s one more koan, another paradoxical riddle with no rational answer. Welcome to Buddhism. And to life.

I continue my walk. The sunset burns fiery in the late winter sky. The landscape is still saturated in brown. A few buds pop up here and there, but it’s too early for greenery, for color.

Fifty-two years old: Bob was young. A year younger than me. Too young to die? Called before his time? How am I to know? By what measure, according to what yardstick?

I breathe in deeply. For a moment, the moist forest air tastes of an earthy fug, a hint of the changing season, of impermanence.

I watch Bob’s esteem rise in my mind. Thought by thought, step by step through these silent woods, I sense my memories of him white-washed in the superstitious laundromat of bereavement. This happens to the dead, especially those with whom we have touched hearts, however lightly: We quickly elevate them, grant them hero’s status.

I continue walking. The sky’s fire is fading fast, dimming to grey. The orange and red clouds grow wan and lose their distinction. I hear a flock of geese fly overhead, but looking up I now see only shadow against shadow. In the gathering dark the trees also lose their clarity, clumping into indistinguishable masses. No longer individuals, each looks like any other.

Night is coming. I return to my temporary shelter while enough light lingers to guide the way.

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