Being Present with Pain Part 2: Grief

epa04176741 A grief-fuelled moment for a father of a victim of the Sewol ferry accident,  at a joint incense-burning altar set up at Ansan Olympic Memorial Hall in Ansan, south of Seoul, South Korea. 23 April 2014. Officials say about 200 people are still missing and at least 150 confirmed dead after a passenger ferry carrying hundreds of teenagers sank off the southern coast of South Korea on 16 April. Only 179 of 475 passengers and crew were rescued. Lee Joon-seok, captain of Sewol, the ferry carrying 475 passengers and crew, has reportedly been arrested.  EPA/YANG JI-WOONG

Our ancestors put in place many rituals that were specifically designed to give an outlet to purge lingering, unexpressed emotions. From Confucians to Jews, many systems had specific systems for expressing grief and sadness, which, sadly, we seem to have lost, as the inefficacy of psychotherapy and mass-medication points out. Our present systems are emotionally unhealthy, and we are experiencing the emotional debt of that.

Recently, I attended a funereal for someone I cared for very much – an old lady I had looked after, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s, and who died from a pulmonary embolism. I was asked to speak at her funereal, which I knew would be a challenge, but which I was very keen to do.

As it was one of my first experiences of genuine loss, I was quite disappointed by the disingenuousness of the proceedings. Sure, the funereal service was poignant, and well-put together another enough. But I wanted to see crying – I wanted to see people coming together to express their grief fully in the security of eachother’s compassion. But, in typical British fashion, emotions were kept below the surface, and I only saw a few who had the courage to share their tears. Though both myself and my fellow speaker almost started sobbing during our speeches, we both held together, and were applauded for our fortitude.

This was a far cry from Jews rending their garments, Australian Aborigines cutting their flesh, or a Confucian student mourning the death of his parents for three years. What good is having the strength to carry on through pain, if that pain carries on within us? Their must be some healthy vehicle for exorcising it. Much better a temporary scarring of the flesh than a permanent scar inside.

In the Analects of Confucius, after being criticized for mourning his pupil openly and un-self-consciously, Confucius said that we cannot be excessive in grieving for someone we care about. And he was right. We need to be present with our grief, and squeeze it out, to the very last drop. Being prim and proper is pure cowardice if we cannot be sincere and authentic, in expressing our emotions. Do not be ashamed of how you feel – but neither wear your hurt feelings as a defiant badge of pride. Just let them be for as long as they’ll be, and be ready to heal yourself once you reach the other side.

Being Present With Pain


One of the purposes of meditation and mindfulness is to make us more present. Through cultivating our awareness, we can live fully in the moment, without being held back by the past, or feeling anxiety about the future. It helps us to experience life in a much richer, more subtle and sensitive way.

But being truly mindful is not just about being fully present when experiencing bliss; it also means being fully present whilst experiencing sorrow, grief, and suffering. This might sound strange to some people. Who would want to be fully present whilst in pain? Surely we should want to try to lessen and ameliorate our pain as much as possible, and use whatever physical or psychological painkillers we have at our disposal?

But numbness is the opposite of the truth. A follower of The Way is dedicated to fully experiencing the truth, however it manifests itself.

Naturally, our practice revolves around making our minds strong and secure enough to prevent pain from occurring to begin with. But once our pain has entered into us, we must accept it, and express it healthily. We cannot simply ignore it or misplace it, like a man who would much rather pretend his living room wasn’t on fire, and get burned up in the process; we must accept that pain as part of our present experience, and flow along with it, until it disappears, as it surely will.

Someone who has been on the path for long enough soon learns not to fear pain. Pain is always transient and never lasts. It is an impermanent part of existence – but it is not existence itself. This does not mean that we go looking for pain – just that we do not allow ourselves to be distressed by it once it arises.

This is something that I have noticed in my own practice. When I feel anguish, sorrow, or grief, I still feel calm, in spite of my suffering. My inner peace does not disappear just because my emotions are in ascendant – it simply shines a little less brightly. I am not afraid of hurting, or how long I will hurt – I reflect that it is an essential, inescapable part of growth, and submit myself to it until it passes. This very submission, acceptance, and awareness of its temporary nature, makes pain pass so much quicker. Ignored pain is like debt – it doesn’t go away just because we ignore it – in fact, it increases. Until we can face it boldly and courageously, it will always be there lurking under the stairs.


Don’t Poke the Boil!


I take very good care of myself. So, I was quite surprised, yesterday, when I noticed I had what appeared to be a large sting on my bottom. I was so surprised, in fact, that I kept poking it, scratching it, and making it worse. Before I realized what a stupid thing that was to do, and resolved to stop.

It made me think about how many of us do the same with our other sources of suffering.

When we become aware that we’re feeling angry, irritable, horny, lonely, or sad, instead of leaving it alone, and letting it pass, we start poking the boil. We remind ourselves that we’re feeling lonely, angry, and unsatisfied. We tell others that we’re feeling that way. And instead of doing things that might resolve those emotions – (like meditation or something productive) – we practically make a comfortable environment for our frustrations and sorrows, so they’ll be more inclined to stick around for good.

But this is no good. It is like getting stung by a bee, but refusing to remove the stinger, pushing it in deeper. By holding onto our problems, and treating them like permanent things, they become just that – permanent problems.

We need to understand that all our negative emotions are temporary and without a permanent reality. They are not a product of our external environment, but originate entirely in the mind.

If we hold onto them, we create a distance between reality and our self. There is You – there is Your Anger – and then there is Reality. But if you take that negative emotion away, everything becomes reality again.

So, the next time you feel angry, lonely, sad, frustrated, or dissatisfied, remind yourself these feelings will end – that they are not permanent – and that they have no basis in reality. No one is to blame for these feelings. Any cause that you can find for them outside of yourself is illusory. It all starts within you, and must be solved within you too.

Tell yourself that you will overcome them. Tell yourself that peace, equanimity, and compassion are the only eternal parts of your being. These negative feelings are just like dust falling on a perfect mirror. Insignificant, tiny particles of non-truth, that can always be cleared away.

Meditation is the best way to keep the mirror clean.

Just stop poking the boil!