by Dimitri Ehrlich
Death. Few of us want to talk about, but unlike taxes there is no avoidance. When a friend loses a loved one, most of us feel an impulse to help, but often don’t know quite what to say. So we end up doing nothing, or relying on the tropes of a Hallmark condolence. Which is why when a book comes along that deals with the subject of death in a bracingly honest and insightful way, there’s extra reason to rejoice. Guy Newland’s “A Buddhist Grief Observed,” published last year, is one of those books. Part memoir and part a “how to” guide, it includes advice on navigating the difficult terrain of losing a loved one based on the author’s personal experience.
Newland, who wrote the book after his wife, Valerie Stephens, died of breast cancer in 2013, is a professor at religion at Central University of Michigan since 1988, and chair of the department of philosophy and religion. He is also the author of several scholarly works, all translations of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. In the early phase of his grieving process, friends reached out and sent him books about grief, but he realized that there was a deficit in the available canon. Most of the books Buddhist friends sent him were full of traditional doctrine, but didn’t explain how these teachings might work for a particular individual going through the experience of grief.
One element of “A Buddhist Grief Observed,” is Newland’s reflections about how mindfulness and emptiness helped--or didn’t help. “I felt like I could be really honest about how these things worked and didn’t work for me in practice, and then share some advice about mistakes to avoid.”
One lesson? It’s OK not to know what to say. Being quiet and sitting with someone who is grieving can be better than nervously muttered platitudes. “There are no magic words to say to someone who is grieving,” says Newland.” “Any word can be magic if you say it at the right time and place, which means being attuned to the situation you’re in rather than sticking to doctrine. The right thing to say could include being silent. The right thing to do or say is whatever’s helpful in that moment. What the dharma really teaches us is, we don’t know. We’re not psychic. We don’t know the other person’s mind. So it’s good that we have the impulse to help but we need both compassion and skill. You may have great knowledge of the dharma but what it tells you is to go be present with the person who is suffering and see what you can learn about their mental state in that moment by being present.”
Mindfulness has, of course, become a buzzword, and it’s presented in pop culture as a cure-all from everything from chronic pain and stress to anger management and memory loss. But mindfulness is like surfing: it has great upsides but it’s also possible to be sucked under and dragged out to sea. It requires sharp clear attention to maintain balance moment by moment. And in the same way that every surfer has his or her limits, people can only go so far when it comes to maintaining open awareness—especially during times of intense grief. “There’s a point at which our experience can be overwhelming,” says Newland. “Which doesn’t mean it’s a failure of oneself, or the dharma. The point is, dharma doesn’t make life OK and solve the problem. You still feel horrible! But it’s OK to have pain over losing someone you love.”
As human beings, of course we all have attachments, and the fact that it hurts to have those attachments broken is normal. “You can’t think, ‘Oh I’ve fallen short as a Buddhist because I feel pain over loss,’” says Newland. “The problem is the degree to which we identify as the person who has the loss. There are some people who think the goal is to put that pain behind you and get on with life. To me, that’s suppression. That’s one extreme. The other extreme, which I was falling into for a few months, is to become so overwhelmed and identified with your pain, that you feel alienated from the rest of the world. When you are in hell and birds are still singing, you feel cut off from the world because you have constructed a sense of your self as the wounded one, the grieving one.”
There is a famous Buddhist sutra in which a woman is in a state of psychotic grief over the loss of her son. Buddha tells her to gather a mustard seed from everyone in her village who has not suffered grief; at the end of one day she has heard hundreds of stories of loss and is transformed by the realization that she is not alone in her suffering. This sutra had particular relevance for Newland. “After my wife died, I was in this state of numbness and alienation,” he says. “I was still giving dharma talks, and couldn’t help talking about what I was going through. Afterwards, people would come up and tell me about their own experiences of grief and some of these stories were so heartbreaking there was actually a physical transformation within me. I found that empathy dislocated the tendency of the mind to create my own private pain prison.”
Perhaps the ultimate takeaway of Newland’s book is Buddha’s famous dictum that compassion is the ultimate cure for depression—and a balm for a grieving heart. “People don’t really want to focus on pain or loss because they associate it with depression and being alienated, but we all have that,” says Newland. “So when I meet people who have had traumatic losses, I feel a sense of kinship. That connection is what opens our hearts and gives us a sense of genuineness with one another. We’re all vulnerable, and we all have suffering. We’re all together in the family of pain.”
For those interested in learning more, Newland will be teaching a weekend workshop called “Living With Loss: Grief, Consolation and Communion, from May 19 to 21st in Ann Arbor. (It’s also possible to attend the workshop via webinar; for details visit JewelHeart.org)