A Buddhist Grief Observed - Introduction
Amid the world-shattering pain of loss, what helps?
Grief is the process of adjusting to unwanted change, and since change is unrelenting, we bear every day unrecognized microgriefs. Call it stress: we just feel like a massage or, perhaps, we think we need a drink. How was your day? Loss and fear of loss give us our daily shape as we feel and think and choose, anxious and scrambling.
The years are punctuated by more dramatic losses, the deaths of those for whom we truly care. Most of us know well what we’ll wear to the next funeral.
Deep grief is a special case: a season in hell. We come to it when we lose someone we have set as our foundation, someone with whom and around whom we have built our lives and our identity. Along with the beloved teacher, child, parent, or partner, we lose our very selves.
Valerie Stephens was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and with metastatic disease in 2012. She died in 2013. We had been married twenty-eight years; we had two young adult children.
Soon after she died, a friend wrote, “You set forth on a voyage into another realm; be sure to bring us back a record.” Indeed I had entered a hidden world, a world coiled up tight inside the ordinary life-space of supermarkets and highways—a world where I stumbled, for a while, blind and raw. Could I somehow map it?
My friend offered a mission, the prospect of doing something useful. As a Buddhist practitioner, I could examine my grief as an object, a curious specimen under the mindfulness microscope. And in that way I could separate myself from it. But for the first few months, my concentration was such that I could scarcely write a sentence.
And we already have some impressive records of harrowing grief. It is commonplace, all around us, every day; we each have our turn in horror. Only a few will wonder what I mean—and they will come to know. We are all posttraumatic, pretraumatic, or—most often—both.
From within our grief-world our private pain feels like a singularity, as though with no bones we collapse, cut off from the willfully unwitting inhabitants of the utterly oblivious world. In my case, I felt as though I were undergoing something extremely strange, like a secret LSD experiment. I was alienated from everyone who seemed not to have been, or could not acknowledge being, in this world of utter loss.
This book is about that isolating sense of specialness. It is about awakening from the delusion that our pain is a private prison.
Another friend e-mailed me that his long engagement with the Buddhist tradition was of no avail when his father died. This disappointed him. Unlike many others, he urged upon me no prayers, meditations, or mantra recitations. He wanted only to know: Was the Dharma helping me? What helped, how much, in what ways?
This is always the right question: What helps? That was the seed. I hope there will be some benefit from its fruit.
This book is an odd duck. I reflect on Buddhist practices and Buddhist ideas that were—and sometimes were not— of aid to me in the throes of loss. I make some suggestions about how we might help one another.
But it is unlike anything I have published before. My usual voice as a scholar and teacher presents the Dharma—particularly Tsongkhapa’s Tibetan reading of Madhyamaka— in a relatively accessible manner. Some have taken that voice to represent fully my own perspective; it does not. I have received with deepest gratitude teachings from many traditional teachers. Yet readers will find that my sense of karma is not that of a traditional Tibetan Buddhist. My reflections engage with many Buddhist lineages but do not transmit the views of anyone else. Dharma is universal, flourishing in ways that are helpful in each time and place.
Here I write as a human passed well beyond the middle of the road of life. This is a personal account, an artifact of a painful time. My hope is that when you are in anguish, you will know that you are not alone. And when you meet those in anguish, you will help them to know that they are not alone.
The Structure of This Book
Loss is a universal experience, but each loss is particular. In many ways, my story arises from my relationship with Valerie Stephens. For this reason, I include a eulogy at the end of this book. At the end there are also acknowledgments and, in lieu of footnotes, brief narratives identifying my sources chapter by chapter.