Softening into the Pain

January 12, 2011

The craziest yet most effective approach I know for dealing with suffering is to turn toward the monster we are programmed to run away from and take it into our arms.

This is the essence of Buddhist mindfulness practice, and it’s counter-intuitive, and it works.  It’s crazy because who in their right mind would embrace pain when they could find a hundred ways to avoid it?  And it’s effective because in the act of softening and surrendering, our hearts make a space to hold it all: the beauty and the terror, the love and the loss.

Our brains are designed to solve problems.  When a problem comes along that we are powerless to resolve, such as the death of someone we love very much, our minds go into hyper-drive, spinning around in loops, telling ourselves different versions of the same story again and again, in the vain hope that we might be able to make it turn out right.

The story usually goes something like this:  “If only…  I could have another chance… I had taken the keys away from him that night… the doctors hadn’t misdiagnosed the tumor… she had called me when she was thinking about killing herself… I had told him I loved him one more time…”

But the monkey mind is forever chasing the banana of serenity and the solution to the problem of death and grief eludes us.

So we shut the curtains, flip on the sitcoms, and drink a half a bottle of wine in bed.  Or we drive to the mall, go on a shopping spree, and run up the credit card we had finally paid off.  Or we seduce the unavailable lover.  Or we skip class and eat the whole bag of cookies.  We work longer, harder, faster, trying to outrun the pain.  We check out, because the inside of our heads are too maddening to bear.

Recently, I received an email from a beautiful young woman named Jen, whose husband died in her arms of a heart attack as she was going into labor with their first child.  She describes this mental turmoil with eloquence:

While the mother in me is so very proud, the heart of the woman continues to ache and struggle to open my heart and embrace the future.  I find that I get so busy that I don’t have the time to feel the grief.  When I do find a rare moment alone, the floodgates open and I realize how far I have to go to find peace.   I take comfort in collecting relics from happier times and in a lame attempt to fill the void, I buy too much, eat too much and feel like I’m alone even though I’m am constantly surrounded by people.

Never in my life, have I had so much; amazing son, a great job, comfortable standard of living… house, car, travels, nice THINGS, and yet been so sad.   I am plagued by a constant feeling that I’ve forgotten something … something important, like when you realize you’ve left your purse, credit cards, money and keys somewhere — Then I realize that it’s my husband that I’ve forgotten and the life we planned to spend together.

Jen participated in a Beautiful Wound retreat at Omega Institute with me last summer, in which we spent a lot of time experimenting with mindfulness practice in relation to grief and loss.  Many members of our circle were dealing with profound tragedies and radical losses.  They also shared a deep desire to allow these losses to transform them.

As we breathed into the truth of what had happened in our lives, safe in the protective community we built together, we began to discover that the unbearable became bearable, that by whispering “yes” instead of screaming “no,” an ineffable grace began to fill the space of our shattered hearts.  Soon, not only could we carry our own impossible grief, but from there it was a small move to take in the pain of the whole world, and offer our own most tender prayer of peace.

Try it.  If you’ve tried it before, try it again.  Find the smoldering ache of loss inside of you and soften into it.  Allow yourself to gently and lovingly explore exactly what it feels like to hurt in this way.  With compassion for yourself, disarm your wounded heart and breathe quietly inside the wreckage.  No need for fancy formulas or prescribed affirmations.  No goal.  Just be.  Right here.  Inside the fire of grief.  One breath in front of the other.

When you have spent some time with this practice, try taking out a piece of paper or popping open your laptop and write about exactly how you feel in the wake of showing up for the fullness of your experience.  I’d love to read the results.

(I wouldn’t dare to suggest this wild method if I had not successfully experimented on my own beautiful wound.)

Holding you in my tender heart,

With love,


6 Responses to “Softening into the Pain”

  1. Wow! So eloquent, so profound, and so hopeful. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for the affirming words, dear David. Hey, did you get my message a few days ago about GOD OF LOVE?

  3. Soosie said

    “So we shut the curtains, flip on the sitcoms, and drink a half a bottle of wine in bed. Or we drive to the mall, go on a shopping spree, and run up the credit card we had finally paid off. Or we seduce the unavailable lover. Or we skip class and eat the whole bag of cookies. We work longer, harder, faster, trying to outrun the pain. We check out, because the inside of our heads are too maddening to bear.”

    I’ve done every single one of these things and more. Still do, in fact. The bad times can be so bad and I find winter most difficult. But the good days outshine the bad ones, thankfully, so I keep going. Courage. I search for it, draw from it, use it every day.

  4. Beautifully said, Soosie. Honest & hopeful. Take care, dear one.

  5. Gaye Prior said

    I know and love your translation of Theresa but didn’t know you wrote on the internet and having found you this night I am profoundly grateful. I am dealing with terrible grief. Grief so overwhelming I have no idea how to deal with it.

    Everything I have tried … all you suggest and more left me exactly where I had begun. You suggest an approach so radical, so unimaginable that I do beleive it will work better than anything I have yet tried.

    Grace and blessing and thanks to you

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