You Aren’t Here Now: How Grief and Mindfulness Don’t Mix. A friend posted this article on mindfulness and grief and how the way mindfulness being interpreted in mainstream media has left it bereft of value and has turned it into something that is ultimately not useful at all, when the actual definition of mindfulness truly would be useful in grief situations. As I was reading it, I wrote down my reactions to what the author had encountered. Here is where I want to begin:
A recent magazine article ended with the suggestion: “when you get into the habit of watching your thoughts, you just might find that suddenly everything starts to go your way.” As it becomes more common, mindfulness is seen as a way to get things (including happiness), rather than as a tool for helping you live.
Even when mindfulness is presented with more thought, it is often misused as corrective rather than supportive. So much of meditation, guided visualization, even basic yoga classes, stresses the idea that if you would only breathe and relax, you would see that everything is perfect just as it is. Everything is unfolding for your deepest good, and this moment, itself, is beautiful. If you are having difficulties, all you need to do is see where you might change your perspective, and all will flow freely again. Where this modern interpretation of mindfulness fails, for me, and maybe for you, is how it is presented as a cure-all: any pain or trouble will be transformed if you think about it right, as though being in the present moment will fix everything.
Ok, the problem here is that we are missing the very real fact that there are multitudinous layers of reality. You cannot easily apply the paradigmatic truth of one layer of reality to the circumstances of another layer of reality, particularly when the layers are so disparate and far apart. I can think lofty abstract thoughts about past lives and reincarnation and whether it is accidental that I cross paths with certain people (or any person, for that matter) and still feel the irritating pain of a hangnail or a paper cut or the ache of arthritis. Both are valid experiences, both are vastly different layers of reality to deal with.
When trauma and tragedy strike, letting the pain and grief of those experiences flow through you is being in the moment. What is happening in this greater societal misinterpretation of mindfulness is that we’re becoming avoidant of that pain. That’s not healthy. That’s not what health is. That’s not mindfulness. It’s a New Age Bullshit Superficial Misinterpretation that Does Not Serve Anyone.
So yes, on one layer of reality, everything is unfolding for your highest good and there is beauty and perfection in everything that happens. Tell that to someone who’s just been raped and it’s impossible to reconcile that set of beliefs with what has transpired. The end result of that is that you basically sound like a sociopath, who can’t connect with the reality of that person’s experience. What’s missing here is the ability to code switch.
Code switching is what happens when you pass from one area of life to another and change some aspect in how you present yourself. For example, you speak and dress differently at an academic conference than you would at a nightclub. Two valid and real experiences with two vastly different codes of behavioural expectations.
Bringing in Wheaton’s Law of Don’t Be A Dick, all y’all New Agey people really need to check yourselves when you are tending to a friend who’s just had the literal and/or metaphorical wind knocked out of her. If you bring in high-minded perspectives, looking at situations from orbit, you’re in the ‘everything happens for a reason; everything happens for our highest good’ sort of paradigm. That’s quite a separate layer of reality from the physical, gut-wrenching experiences of actual pain and suffering: friends who have endured and survived heinously harrowing situations with emotional lives that are hanging by a thread. This needs a different approach if you want not only to keep your friend but also to be of service to her without damaging your friendship.
True health is being able to be with your emotions and not get stuck in them. When you do not acknowledge the very real grief that someone is experiencing and go so far as to try to get them to avoid their own feelings, you’re basically being an asshole to them. Don’t do that. That’s bad form. What it does is fuck up your friendship because it turns you into someone who cannot be trusted to be a confidant. This closes off communication between you and your friend, which means your friend no longer has that particular avenue through which to express her emotions. Which therefore means she will hold on to her emotions that much longer without feeling free to express and let go of them in an environment that feels safe. This is not helpful.
As a culture, we seem to believe that you somehow earned any difficulty you experience, and that the most reliable indicator of true wellness is how pain-free you are. These misunderstandings can make people think that grief is a problem, and worse – that it’s a problem you can fix by becoming “more spiritual.” In the mainstream language of mindfulness, if you would only change your thoughts, your grief would disappear. If you would only be here now, you would see that everything is okay, exactly as it is.
I see this, and it is so fucked up. This attitude is a manifestation of our collective fear of pain.
We’re misusing the concept of mindfulness in order to escape from pain and suffering and that does not serve anyone. We have to express grief. If we hold it in the body, it does us harm, particularly when held in and left unexpressed over a long period of time. (cf When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté)
True mindfulness, as I understand it, is being with whatever emotion and whatever situation arises and acknowledging that it is happening. Yes, I feel afraid when I hear footsteps behind me. Yes, I am triggered when a chair falls because it sounds like a gunshot when it hits the floor. Yes, I miss my recently-departed parent. Yes, I’m devastated and enraged that things turned out the way they did instead of the way I had wanted them to turn out. Yes, I’m crying so hard that I feel like puking. Yes, I’m feeling utterly numb to this surreal situation that has just unfolded in my life. Yes, I just lied about this particular thing because I didn’t want to address what was really going on. Yes, I just avoided that phone call because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Yes, I’m going for a swim because I know I will feel better moving my body. Yes, these emotions are all arising within me. Yes, I am observing that they are there. Yes, I am expressing them. Yes, it is ok to express these emotions.
Being mindful means not passing judgment. It means observing and not getting attached to a particular value-based meaning of that which we are experiencing. Expressing and being with your emotions is not bad. For that matter, there are no bad emotions. THERE ARE NO BAD EMOTIONS. True mindfulness means being conscious of what is unfolding in our lives, rather than avoiding it or explaining it away.
This modern perversion of mindfulness, however, is the exact opposite of what mindfulness actually is. It is calling on people to avoid actually living their lives by living in orbit and disengaging from their emotions. When you’re attending to a friend at Ground Zero, you cannot do that. That’s incredibly damaging. It is the opposite of allowing them to be in the moment and let things flow through them.
What I longed for, in that coffee shop, was an acknowledgement that things are not okay. Watching my partner die, being powerless to help him or stop it, becoming a widow at age 38 – these are not things that can be made better by changing my thoughts. It can’t be made okay by practicing gratitude. I wanted someone or something to meet me in the reality of that…
We need to learn to recognize what sort of behaviour is appropriate in situations where our loved ones are going through hard emotional times. This is a really good start here: A “how to” on how to help your fucked up friend
What needs to happen, more than anything else, is that we need to meet our friends where they are and not where we wish they were. This means addressing our own fear of pain and suffering. This means being courageous and vulnerable.
It means being mindful – being consciously aware – of our own emotional reactions to our friend’s pain and learning how to deal with that respectfully.
At its core, mindfulness does not try to talk you out of anything, nor does it judge what you feel. The pure practice of mindfulness is to bring your attention to exactly what is – whether that is pain or bliss, peace or torment. Mindfulness is meant to help you acknowledge the truth of the moment you’re in, even, or especially, when that moment hurts. Acknowledgment of the truth is a relief, and it heals.
The true path of mindfulness is to help you stay present to the pain – when pain is what is – and to witness it. This is especially true in grief: the work is not to overcome pain or to remove pain, but to bear it, to be strong and soft enough to be beside it, to find peace alongside it.
It bears repeating: acknowledgment of the truth of the moment is a relief and it heals.
To reiterate, when a loved one is in pain, what you need to do is meet her where she is and not where you wish her to be. Be in the moment with her, which first requires you to be in the moment with yourself – check in with your own emotional state and determine whether you’re at ease with her emotional state or if it’s triggering you and pushing you into “Run Away! Run Away!” territory. Frankly, I think we should all have a bit of training in grief counselling because grief is so terribly common and so hard to cope with because we are not taught how to be comfortable with our more challenging feelings.
If you’re able to be with your friend, then make sure you’re using the right language for the situation. If she’s feeling abstract, then be abstract with her. If she’s needing concrete acknowledgment of the pain she’s experiencing, then give that to her. If you don’t know how to begin, best bet is to start with acknowledgment that she went through/is going through a thing and it’s hard and terrible and utterly unfair and you’re sorry she’s having to go through it. Always start with responses grounded in the immediate and the Now. It’s about her not about you.
Pay attention to where her conversation goes and reflect that for her. Don’t try to cheer her up by telling her that God works in mysterious ways or that everything happens for a reason. That’s for waaaaaay later, if at all. That’s for when the pain isn’t so raw and terrible. If you find yourself wanting to say these things, check to make sure it’s not because you are uncomfortable with where she’s at. She doesn’t need to process your discomfort with her situation on top of her own shit. That’s not fair to anyone. The key is to just receive what she has to share. Don’t tell her what you think she should be doing or what you think she needs to do. Be gentle with her and let her show you what she needs.
A really good article to take a look at to help a loved one deal with the grief of a hard thing is this: How not to say the wrong thing
It gives a visual diagram of what sorts of things you can bring to a conversation and what sorts of things to leave out, depending on whom you’re talking to and how they’re related to the hard situation.
Be mindful, be conscious, be aware. Be with your emotions and do not judge them. Be with your friend’s emotions and do not judge them. There is no such thing as an emotion that you should be feeling in a given situation. Acknowledge where you’re at and let it be as it is. Acknowledge where your friend appears to be at and let that be as it is. Be supportive without overwriting her pain and trying to get her out of it. You cannot rescue people; you can only be with them and offer support. Whether they take you up on that support is their own business, not yours. Keep your religious and New Age platitudes for another day.
Above all, don’t be a dick.