A woman hosts a costume party in her home where everyone is supposed to show up dressed as an emotion. The woman finds herself shocked when she opens her front door and her friend is completely naked, except for a pear around his penis. "Larry! What are you supposed to be?" she exclaims. "What?" he says, "It's not obvious? I'm fucking 'dis pear!" Needless to say, despair is an ugly emotion.
Emotions like despair and grief are tough to work with, because they feel so fathomless. Whether you are going through the death of a loved one, a rough break up, or sudden unemployment these emotions can get their hooks into you and, once hooked, they are hard to shake. Looking at intense grief is like staring into the sun. You can't do it directly or if you do, you look only for a second at a time. At least that's how I felt when I lost one of my best friends this summer.
Alex was 29 when he died of heart failure at work. Many wonderful things have been written about him since his passing about his compassionate heart and his loving nature, his humor and sharp intellect. For his work on the Obama campaigns he was written up alongside such notables as Whitney Houston and Neil Armstrong in New York Times Magazine's "The Lives They Lived" memorial issue.
Still, for anyone who has suffered a similar loss, you know that no amount of nice words can heal the sense of grief you experience every day. As I began to grieve, I noticed something very familiar arise in how I related to this process. A certain synchronicity occurred where my grieving patterns mimicked patterns often perceived as obstacles to meditation. They are: laziness, speedy-busyness and disheartenment.
For the first several weeks after Alex died I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't eat. I couldn't exercise. I didn't do anything. From an outside point of view this phase of my mourning could be perceived as me being lazy. The Tibetan word for laziness is lelo, which is interesting in that it sounds exactly how being lazy feels: You just want to lay low.
Laziness from a meditation point of view often shows up as feeling an aversion to the practice and convincing yourself you don't have to do it. It can be as simple as hearing the rain hitting your window, feeling the warmth of your comforter and looking over at the meditation cushion in the corner of your room with disdain. It isn't nearly as warm and cozy as your bed, and you deserve an extra 20 minutes of sleep, so you figure you ought to just skip your meditation practice. That's laziness.
If you find yourself struggling to get to your meditation seat, just remember to take it easy on yourself, drop judgment and exert yourself just a little more than you are comfortable with. When it came to working with my grief that meant going to see friends even if I wasn't feeling social, just to feel an extra layer of support and talk about what I was going through. It can also look like relating to the details of your life, such as cleaning up your home or catching up on work-related emails. You may find that the more you exert yourself beyond your desire to lay low the more inspired you feel. Of course, it is important to balance this advice with gentleness to yourself.
After my initial weeks of laying low I picked myself up and decided I needed a way to channel my grief. Alex had passed away while working for the Obama campaign. I made a decision to continue his efforts. I dropped everything in New York City, put my belongings in storage, moved out of my apartment and moved to Columbus, Ohio to work the campaign in his honor.
Campaign life is not easy. You work 14 to 16 hours a day, only occasionally taking breaks for food that is not particularly healthy. No minute is spared for months on end; you're on the phone talking to potential volunteers or voters all day, every day. There is no time off. No weekends, no days you sleep in, no time to catch up with a buddy back home for an hour. You are there to work so you work. You work hard.
It actually felt good to be in Ohio on the campaign in honor of Alex. However, I would notice that whenever I was in the car alone, or taking a shower, or any other time I had literally three or more minutes to myself, I would end up sobbing. My grief was all-pervasive and I was convincing myself I was too busy to deal with it.
From a meditation vantage point this is known as speedy-busyness. A real technical term, that one. It's the idea that you know you want to meditate. It's definitely something you want to do. But when you get up in the morning you check your email and then you realize you're late for work so you scramble to get there on time, swearing you'll meditate when you get home. As you're about to clock out a friend texts you and asks if you want to drop by and see her new place so you do but you really will meditate after. Then you get home and you smell so you decide to shower. Then your mom calls. Then you check your email again. Then it's 10 p.m. and you have to get up early so you realize you just don't have time for that 10 minutes of meditation.
Frankly, you do. You do have 10 minutes you can meditate. It's just that you've spent an entire day convincing yourself that you don't, making everything other than your meditation practice a priority. That is speedy-busyness, a form of avoiding your practice through conceptual means.
When you are grieving, you might experience a period within which you decide you need to do a hundred million things. You may not throw yourself into an around-the-clock work schedule like I did, but you might fill up your time with appointments, meetings, social engagements, everything and anything just so you don't have to acknowledge that poignant layer of heartbreak boiling away just underneath the surface. As soon as you're not busy you know you're going to be a mess, so you avoid that eventuality at all costs.
Speedy-busyness is one of the reasons I recommend that people have a set time that they meditate. If you say, "I meditate at 8:00 a.m. every day, Monday to Friday," then you will build out your schedule to include that commitment. It will not keep falling to the back burner. So I recommend having a consistent time you meditate, and making that a priority. Similarly, when working with grief, it may be helpful to have certain times when you allow yourself to just be with whatever you are feeling. A regular session with a therapist, or a daily long walk, or a consistent tea time might help you glance at the sun of your grief in a way that feels workable.
Throughout my grieving process I have definitely experienced fucking 'dis pear. Despair and disheartenment manifested as me wondering if I would ever be happy again, and feeling like I will never find a friend like Alex again, and in general just feeling lost and alone. The grief was so profound that I felt that my life would never again be more than that.
Disheartenment is considered the third obstacle to meditation. Because meditation is such a gradual path, where it may take weeks or months before you start to notice you become more present or calmer, people often get disheartened. They think that meditation isn't working properly, or they aren't doing it right, because they are not immediately at peace with themselves after a week of consistent practice.
For meditation training, the key antidote to all of these obstacles is having a strong motivation to practice. I have found that over the years meditation has made me kinder, or at least less of a jerk. I find that it has made me more present, not just with my breath while meditating but with conversations with friends and family, with the difficult moments in my life, when I'm kissing someone and enjoying their company. It has given me the ability to enjoy my life, and feel content within the present moment, regardless of whether what I am experiencing is conventionally good or bad, fun or painful.
Each of us has to come up with our own motivation to meditate. At first it might be something like, "I don't want to be so stressed out," or, "I want to learn to be comfortable with the strong emotions I am feeling." Those are both great. Over time you may find that your motivation shifts. You were in it to better yourself but gradually your heart has opened and you see that meditation is having a positive effect on your life. Your motivation might transition into, "I want to learn more about myself so I can be more present with others," or, "I want to be able to be of benefit to the world as a result of this practice."
As for grief, it has been said that time heals all wounds. Grief, like all emotions, shifts and changes over time. Not an hour goes by when I do not think fondly of my friend and miss him, but strong emotions like despair no longer hold such sway over my emotional well-being. Partly that is time, but partly that is because that I have developed a motivation out of this tragedy that I can look to as a compass for navigating my grief.
Alex was an extremely good friend. He was loyal, considerate and thoughtful. One motivation I have in working with my grief is to become as good a friend to others as he was to me. For someone who might be mourning a loss of a romantic relationship, your motivation might be to learn to love yourself more whole-heartedly before you love again. For someone who is grieving the loss of a job your motivation might be realizing that you are inherently capable and talented and coming back to that knowledge over and over again.
The bottom line is you have to engage this process, be it developing a meditation practice or grieving for a loss, with a motivation that feels right to you. Because both are such gradual paths of healing, you need to be patient and put in the time to let things shift within you. When you do that you can reflect back and say, "I guess this meditation stuff is working," or, "I feel less despair than I used to." It may take weeks, months or even years, but if you can look back and say, "Overall, I am starting to develop in a better way," then you will be motivated to continue looking at your mind and your grief in a way that feels wholesome and worth-while. Over time, fucking despair may fade away and you notice that you are actually content.