Healing My Grief with Creativity, Part 5
Silence and Solace
You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself. – Pema Chodron
January 26, 2019
About two years ago, I attended a full-day silent retreat at my church. It was offered by two followers of the Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew nothing about Buddhism at that time and I had never experienced anything like a silent retreat before. I entered with a spirit of optimistic curiosity, however, and the experience did not disappoint; the day was, in a word, inspiring. The two facilitators led our small group in about 6 hours of silent practice which included periods of seated meditation, a few readings from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, gentle walking and tai-chi movements, a silent lunch outdoors, and some unstructured “lazy time” for stretching, journaling, or whatever we felt we needed, also done, of course, in silence. My introvert self found heaven! I connected with my heart, my body, and my taste buds much more deeply when I was noticing and listening in silence. In addition to self-connection, I felt connected to the other group participants even though we never spoke to each other. So, when one of the leaders of my Friday meditation group proposed beginning a monthly series of “leaderless” half-day silent retreats, and invited me and a few others to attend the inaugural retreat at her home several weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to revisit the bliss of community silence.
Today I attended the second of our monthly half-day silent retreats, and after an emotionally messy week, I was ready to get my “silence on.” It’s 9:30 in the morning and I am one of five women who has gathered in the kitchen of the retreat host bearing nutritive gifts. One of us has brought a big pot of vegan African peanut soup, another one of us has contributed bread to go with the soup, and the rest of us have brought a mélange of fruit, sides, and dessert items. After reviewing some administrative matters, we gather in the host’s living room to begin our silent time. She provides a map of the day: We will sit for 30 minutes, then do a self-guided walking meditation or other movement practice for 15 minutes (either inside or outdoors), then repeat a 30-minute sit, and continue this sitting-walking alternation until lunch. During lunch, we will eat together in silence. After lunch, we will continue with our sitting-walking alternation until it is time to leave. Before we leave, we will have a few minutes to share with each other about the experience.
Two adorable dogs, one large, one tiny, also live in this house. Meeting the dogs delights me. Our host tells us that the larger dog (I’m not sure of the breed; maybe a mastiff mix?) has some troubles with anxiety around new people, so she will give the dog a large bone to chew while we meditate. No sooner does the dog receive the bone than she carries it into the living room and settles herself on the shag rug right in the middle of our circle of chairs: She has claimed us as her pack. We begin our silent sit and I lose myself in the deep, satisfying sounds of canine contentment as she gnaws slowly and intently on her bone. The way this creature shows up fully to her present moment inspires me to do the same. She concentrates on her bone, I concentrate on her chewing sounds, and we are psychically connected. My mind is empty of thoughts, at long last, which is incredibly relaxing.
When I leave the house for walking meditation, I feel chilly inside my t-shirt, which is covered by only a thin hooded sweatshirt. The sky is overcast and the temperature has dropped about 10 degrees since earlier in the week when I was walking the nature trails in a t-shirt. I consider going back inside. No, noticing the difference in temperature is a part of mindfulness and it’s not terribly cold outside, just a bit chilly. I walk slowly up the street, then pick a point to turn around and walk back to the house. I chuckle at myself as I move my hands to my pockets for warmth. Yes, yes. I’m a true Floridian now. My blood has thinned or some such thing. Here I am complaining about temperatures in the 50’s that my New England friends, facing much colder temperatures, would consider warm. I recall a phrase the British comedian, John Cleese, used on the sitcom, Fawlty Towers, to contradict what someone had referred to as “gloomy” London weather: “It’s not gloomy! It’s brisk and bracing!” Yes, it’s brisk and bracing today! I welcome it. Soon enough it will be 85 degrees again with suffocating humidity; surrender to the seasonality.
After welcoming the cold for 15 minutes, I welcome even more a return to warmth inside the house. I feel a pang of sadness to see an empty shag rug; the dog has moved on. I settle into the quiet and allow my thoughts to come. The past week of grief-work has been emotionally-intense and exhausting. The week began with intimate experiences of solitude and ended with re-connection to community. Grief can be isolating and I extend curiosity toward others who may be feeling isolated due to grief or loss. It occurs to me that I could spend this sit offering vibes of psychic compassion to all of those who may be grieving alone, as I had earlier in the week. I place one hand on my heart and begin an impromptu “metta” meditation: For all those who are grieving over the loss of loved ones, especially anyone who knew and loved my friend, Judy, I offer blessings of love, compassion, and peace. A few tears come during this process. I notice that I am no longer experiencing heaviness in my chest; my grief has shifted toward gratitude. I have turned the corner on such intensity.
When I return to the outdoors for another 15-minute walk, the chill in the air feels colder and a light drizzle falls. This weather reminds me of Massachusetts in March. Not quite winter but not quite Spring, the dreary in-between. I pull my sweatshirt’s hood up around my head for extra warmth. I wish I had a worn a long-sleeved shirt or a sweater under this hoodie. Some winter gloves would also be nice. If we’re fantasizing, let’s go all out and throw in a cup of hot chocolate with those strange, dehydrated marshmallow bits. Okay, now that I’m sufficiently cozy in my fantasy, let’s walk, time proceeds a pace. I decide to walk despite the cold and focus on the movements of my feet on the ground. At the first silent retreat I attended, I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh provides this instruction for walking meditation: “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” I recite a mantra as I walk, “Every step is a kiss upon the earth.” On my way back to the house, I stop to pick up a sweetgum tree seed pod I see near the curb. I marvel at this fascinating thing shaped like a celestial body, a little sun frozen mid-explosion. I’d love to watch a slow-motion video of the seed pod opening and releasing the seeds. I should YouTube that.
This time when I re-enter the house for another 30-minute sit, I consider breaking silence and asking for a blanket. Instead, I decide to notice my body defrosting. I keep my sweatshirt on and notice my body temperature shifting gradually from uncomfortable to more comfortable. Wow. I appreciate so much the heat inside this house! I also notice some sensations and sounds emanating from my stomach; I did not eat much breakfast. I wanted to appreciate fully this good food we will eat for lunch. When we move to the kitchen to begin the lunch practice, my body has mostly warmed up and I am looking forward to eating a bowl of soup. Our group is quite generous, there is so much food to eat: Soup, bread, baked cauliflower nuggets, macaroni salad, marinated mushrooms, crackers with cheese, and small Dove dark chocolate pieces wrapped in red foil. My contributions are clementines and almonds. There is a line for the soup, so I pour a glass of cold tea and take it to the dining room table, which our host has dressed with lovely crocheted place mats, napkins, and silverware. Then I return to the kitchen and select a slice of baguette-style seeded bread, a clementine, and two chocolate pieces.
At the stove I fill my soup bowl nearly to the top. Oh, I am being greedy… I should take less, but I am the last one to take soup and there is plenty here. I am hungry. Plus, I must inoculate myself against the cold for my next outdoor walk. I accept this rationalization. As I walk from the kitchen to the table holding the cup of hot soup between my hands, I can’t help but notice how lovely the heat feels. This is a practice in itself. My body is mostly warm, but my hands are sometimes slow to warm up; but now they are becoming warmer by the moment. Ahhh… The African peanut soup smells delicious. I take a steaming spoonful, smell it, blow off some steam, taste it, hold the soup in my mouth, savor the flavor for a few moments, then swallow. Ohhh… The sensation of heat traveling from my mouth, down my throat, into my inner chest feels like sunshine radiating inside me. I continue to eat the soup mindfully and recall a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh about drinking tea: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves–slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Yes. That is how I shall eat this soup, slowly and reverently. Mmmm… Sweet potatoes. Kale. Soft. Creamy. Peanuts. Crunchy. The soup tastes delicious. I am not supposed to talk to anyone during this practice, so I send psychic waves of gratitude across the table towards the woman who took the time to make the soup for us. She is a talented cook. I feel grateful for this meal, this warmth in my body, this physical and spiritual nourishment. I am like a dog savoring her bone.
I eat the bread and finish most of my soup; I feel pleasantly full. I will take a rest from tasting and instead explore mindful smelling—a little aromatherapy. I dig a fingernail into the skin of my clementine and lift off a small piece of peel. I hold the fruit in one hand, place the exposed area up to my nose, and inhale deeply. The citrus scent is pleasant and powerful! I sit with my nose attached to the peel while others begin to stand up from the table and deliver dishes to the kitchen. I decide I have room enough in my stomach for the two dark chocolate pieces. I unwrap the foil and read the messages written inside. One says, “Always time for love.” The other says, “Inhale the future, exhale the past.” I smile, place a chocolate morsel into my mouth, and let it melt on my tongue: Mmm… A subtle sweetness. I bite down. Mmm Hmm… Chocolate goodness.
After lunch, I decide that the soup’s gift of warmth is too precious to me to lose; I will remain indoors for the walking mediation time. I do a gentle movement practice facing a picture window where I can watch some cardinals flittering about in the yard. I make slow, sweeping, circular movements with my arms. It is wonderful to be moving in this space surrounded by inspiring nature-themed paintings on the walls. A few minutes before the final bell rings to call us back to sitting, I move to the now-cleared dining table, sit down, and write in my journal:
“Always time for love.” I like this sentiment. It reminds me that grieving is caring, grieving is loving. The only way we’ll never grieve is if we never love. Am I willing to give up on loving because grieving is painful? I am behind on my work tasks, but I’m glad I made time to grieve this week. In so doing, I made time for love.
“Inhale the future, exhale the past.” I like this sentiment, too. It resonates with my desire to let go of past grief and feel optimistic about the future. But yesterday I noted how living with too much focus on the future can lead me into distress… too many unknowns. I prefer to say, “Inhale the present, exhale the present.” I don’t need to “make it happen.” I could “let it happen” and appreciate what comes. Just breathe. Let the future fall into place; it will anyway.
I would like to remember this day. I would like to remember this week. I could write about this experience of grief… Yes, I wonder what that would be like. Well, what would the theme be? Grief? Gratitude? Resilience? Yes, all of those. I could write about all of those topics. Doing so would be a gift to myself.
I flip through my journal pages to find a quote about resilience by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, which I love. She said, “You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself.” Annihilation is a strong word, but it’s appropriate–grief is a form of trauma which can and often does annihilate us unless we learn strategies to become more resilient, ways to adapt well to significant sources of adversity or stress. And the thing about grief is, it never stops. At any given time, we may be grieving all sorts of losses that can range greatly in severity. Over the course of a lifetime, we lose friendships, promotions, jobs, possessions, health, and loved ones. Sometimes we even lose a sense of self. We encounter all kinds of hard times, but the more we can survive, overcome, and be transformed by those adversities the more we learn to trust that we have the capacity to do so.
Chodron’s quote reminds me of another piece of wisdom I picked up when I first started keeping a gratitude journal. I don’t remember who said this, it could have been Iyanla Vanzant, but the gist of it was that instead of asking, “Why is this terrible thing happening to me?” we could shift our perspective and ask, “Why is this challenging experience happening for me? What part of my character is this experience building?” When a loved one dies or we survive a traumatic event, we might feel like “There is no way this experience is happening for me! I loved this person and now they’re gone! This sucks! There’s no way it doesn’t suck!” But the experience of loss happens for all of us, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. The choice is how we handle the hurricane: Are we like a blade of grass that sways in the wind or like an oak tree that falls over? The artist M.C. Richards once said, “The capacity to be wounded, to be vulnerable: this is part of what equips us in our caring. The wound is a mouth…and the healer need only listen.” The grief, despair, and sadness we feel shows how much we care, how much compassion our hearts can hold. And it can be scary to begin to welcome such vulnerability. But the reframing strategy connects us with gratitude: Resilience is a skill. We can begin to see the challenges we face as opportunities to gain knowledge and appreciation about the fragility of life, learn how to move forward despite the loss, and become better equipped to extend compassion towards others who experience similar losses. All of that learning takes time and heaping doses of self-compassion. Clearly, I continue to work on these things…
At the end of our silent retreat, we regroup and share about our experiences. I share about how much I loved the comforting sounds of the dog chewing her bone; how I regret that I underdressed and felt cold while walking outside; how grateful I felt for the seemingly simple comfort of receiving warm soup when my hands and body felt cold; how delicious the soup was (and how I’d love to have the recipe); and how grateful I felt for the entire day’s experience, for the host’s hospitality. After I leave, a word comes to me: Solace. Yes, solace. At the end of an upside-down inside-out week, I heard the sounds of silence and felt the sweetness of solace in a time of sadness… Just breathe. Just keep breathing. Just keep noticing. What a gift it is to be in community with others who value mindfulness, gratitude, generosity, and compassion. What a comfort!
This post ends my five-part series on “Healing My Grief with Mindful Creativity.” Thank you for coming on this journey with me, friends. Your “likes” and kind comments most definitely help me feel less alone. I write with the intention to understand myself, but if my words touch or resonate with at least one other person along the way, all the better.