Dealing with loss in the family: How meditation can help

Dealing with loss in the family: How meditation can helpLockdown and mortality arising from the Covid-19 pandemic has caused grief for many. Separation and loss are challenges for us all, and it can be so sad for those left behind with their mourning and bereavement. Skilful actions may help us to manage loss in the family, and loss of dear ones.


During this difficult time, many of us are struggling to absorb the infinite grief in our hearts for loved ones who have left us for their heavenly abode.

It may push us into asking some particularly hard questions like: Why did this happen? Why do I have to suffer like this? Why can’t I get over it? Why did they have to die? In the tangled web of “Why,” we cannot find the reasons or words to make sense of our sadness.

Grief is a strong emotion, and it causes a great sense of suffering in our lives. At the same time, though, it can also be a great teacher. When Gautama Buddha saw a deceased person for the first time, a strong current passed through his being, marking the moment that changed his life path forever.

When faced with uncertain situations, it is difficult to control our emotions and focus upon our daily lives. These are moments that come up in everyone’s life. We all deal with it differently.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t wait for us to catch up. So how can we stay driven towards our responsibilities towards work, life, and society while dealing with this suffering and grief for a loved one?

Learning to cope

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars,” Khalil Gibran once wrote. Today, these words remind us that, no matter how dark the times may seem, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel… eventually.

It may be a long road ahead, but here are the baby steps to begin:

  • Right understanding of the situation and a gradual acceptance that this is the course of nature. Death is a natural part of our life cycle. Understanding this saves us from false comforts and brings us closer to healing.
  • Right concentration on the important things in life. As tough as it may seem, concentrating on the positive things in life like our family, our work, our kids, and our support systems can keep us rooted in the present.
  • Right actions to deal with an agitated mind. It can be difficult to meditate when emotions are overflowing, but meditation will eventually help us distract ourselves form grief and focus on being, and feeling, better.

 

pile of stones

Benefits of meditation

Over time, people have found ways to adapt meditation and its many benefits into their daily routines. It can be as simple as breathing exercises and mantra meditating, or it can extend to shavasana (lying down pose), yoga nidra (guided sleep meditation), or kirtan (chanting of holy name).

Meditation can be practised in any comfortable position where we can keep our spine straight, like sitting on a chair. Unlike popular belief, sitting cross-legged in the meditation pose isn’t always required for meditation.

Of course, a crucial aspect to achieving the benefits of meditation is consistency. Even if it’s five minutes a day, it’s important to practice it at the same time every day.

A huge part of the healing process is learning to accept the uncertainty of things we once thought to be constant, and to let go. With regular meditation, this sadness can eventually be transformed into strength.

When we stop looking over our shoulder at the past instead of ahead to the future, letting go of futile and ultimately painful goals, we embark on a spiritual path with strength and resolve.

With the help of meditation, we can slowly ensure that grief no longer controls our life but sits quietly in our hearts, making us value the gift of life and keeping our hearts open for others who are on the same path as us.

 

Buddhist monks at meditation

 

What is mindfulness?

In the last 20 years, many schools of meditation training for the lay public have emerged. One such is that of ‘mindfulness’ meditation which in modern terms is equated as ‘choice-less awareness’ or ‘awareness of present experience, with acceptance’ or more appropriately ‘paying attention on purpose, in each moment, without judgement, to things as they are’. Of course this is not as easy as it sounds for we have to learn to maintain the balance of our attention, emotions and thoughts, if we are to be truly mindful every moment.

In Buddhist contexts, the word ‘samatha’ is used often. This roughly translates as ‘calm abiding’ or tranquillity or equanimity. Vipassana meditation, a worldwide movement at present, is a mindfulness technique, aimed at training the mind initially in concentration of attention, followed by the arising of insight into the true nature of reality. Cultivation of mindfulness is sometimes wrongly seen as being calm, paying bare attention and being free of judgement. Bare attention supports mindfulness. While this can be helpful, without the insight gained from a true experience of this state, it can be limiting and even used as a tool to rationalise wrongdoings. Choice-less awareness is only one aspect of mindfulness, and several other mental faculties that are gained from being mindful need to be attained to truly appreciate the value of this practice.

Everyday benefits

Everyday mindfulness used as a mind-training technique can be beneficial to enhance well-being and personal effectiveness. It has immense potential for personal growth and satisfaction. It helps one to develop a discipline of entering a sustained relaxed state of being which allows appropriate discernment of each experience as it happens. This would lead to acceptance of even unpleasant events as they are, and not as one would wish it to be. This would progress to changing one’s true non-judgemental appraisal of events and effective self-management.

Reducing suffering

A state of unhappiness arises from a feeling that we are suffering. Suffering is defined as psychological or spiritual state that diminishes an individual’s capacity to find peace or solace in their present situation. It is also seen as unique to each individual.

A leading psychologist and researcher in the field, John Teasdale from the UK, has discussed three strategies for changing the three mental processes that give rise to suffering, and thus reduce the suffering. These processes are the content, process and our relationship to the material. We can change the content or what is being processed, change the process or how the material is being processed and we can change our relationship, our view, to the material being processed. Training in mindfulness enhances our capacity to practice changing these processes.

The idea of maintaining the balance of these three important aspects – thought, word and deed – to reduce one’s suffering is not alien to followers of sanatana dharma. Congruity between thought, word and action is repeatedly reiterated in many prayers, poems and stories. In the Hanuman Chalisa, the poet Tulsidas says, “Man, vachan dhyan jo lave” – mind, word and attention all have to be present. This is not just being mindful in chanting the verses, but in our everyday life.

Long term benefits

Long term benefits of mindfulness meditation practice are associated with personal qualities of “patience, a capacity to allow things to unfold in their own time; confidence, an enhanced ability to staying in contact with private experience; non-reactivity, an increased feeling of inner calm and overall emotional resilience; wisdom, a self-knowledge that allows us to give up needing things to be other than they are; and compassion, an improved empathy and attuning towards ourselves and for others” as a Buddhist psychologist Ven. Thupten Lekshe (Ivan Milton) succinctly puts it.

Mindfulness is the starting point to understanding ourselves; it is also what we need to do to achieve understanding and finally where we end up: it would seem the path and goal are rolled into one when one becomes proficient in being mindful.


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