…. you nights of anguish. Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really our winter, ……
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus
image by Ratnadevi
I was going to write something cheerful and bouncy this month, after my last piece on ‘patience’. I also thought it would go well with the season, April in the Western hemisphere being the time of leaping lambs and bursting buds. The predominant colour drawing my eye on my daily urban river walk is that tender, fresh, innocent, hope-giving spring-green. Many leaves are edible at this stage and we’ve made a load-full of wild garlic pesto, picking from the abundance of growth along the river banks. We also cook nettle soup and include nascent dandelion and blackthorn leaves in our salad. The young espalier plum and pear trees in our front garden are in full blossom, trembling and struggling to hold on in the sudden gusty cold spell at the time of writing.
Given what’s happening in the world, particularly the continuing war in Ukraine, the effects of the Covid pandemic, global warming and the general unease with regard to the manipulative spreading of disinformation, my heart is often heavy, at odds with the season. In my personal life too, there is cause for grief: my mum is suffering great physical and mental pain as she is nearing the end of her life, and it looks like I have lost a friendship that was an important part of my life. Time to draw out some of the tried and tested means for wise, compassionate and resilient living from my toolbox. Joy can’t be forced – but it may arise from acceptance of whatever feelings are actually present.
You may have heard about the acronym RAIN, the signature teaching of the inspirational meditation and Dharma teacher Tara Brach. I have taken the freedom to adapt this structure and added three steps, developing it into RAINING. In essence, RAIN invites us to use the two wings of awareness and compassionate acceptance to rise above the identification with our pain and find nourishment in the qualities we are longing for. From there, I move on to imagine a world that is filled with those qualities and devise a first action step that takes me from the meditation cushion into a different kind of engagement, a Going Forth.
Let me talk you through it, step by step, as I think you may also find solace and clarity from this practice. It’s a great way to resolve a protracted state of tension, anger, fear, helplessness, sadness or confusion, whether in the more personal sphere or regarding larger issues. It gives us respite from ceaselessly churning things over in our minds, which, as we well know, doesn’t really yield results, but keeps us stuck in the problem, ultimately perhaps, in the problem of our ‘selves’. Even if we make a decision to act, we can still be plagued by doubts and a sense of ‘not enough’ or ‘not good enough’. We are wired to operate like that, but awareness of these processes can open up some choice, lead to new insights, peacefulness and a sense of agency.
This is a meditative process, so start by setting up a helpful posture, allowing you to feel reasonably relaxed, open and connected. Spend some time doing nothing. When you are ready:
Recognise that there is an issue that bothers you and bring to mind some details. I will use the war in Ukraine as an example. Some images rise to the fore of destroyed buildings and refugees crossing the precarious remnants of a bridge, clutching their survival bags. I remember news headings about nuclear threat, atrocities against civilians and unwieldy UK immigration procedures. Together with these images and thoughts, some feelings start to press to the surface. They are uncomfortable and I don’t quite know yet what they are.
Allow the emotions that are alive in you. I know that whatever the outcome of this exploration, it will benefit hugely from what Tara Brach calls ‘Radical Acceptance’. Glossing over the difficult feelings won’t do, we need the emotional energy and authenticity of this step for any tangible possible transformation to occur. It takes a bit of courage, a leap of faith. What I am in touch with initially, is a mixture of numbness, fear and shame, about ‘not doing more’. As I start to explore how it manifests in my body, getting to know the tension in my jaws and neck, the clasping in the stomach, other less obvious feelings arise. I am looking for a fit of sensations and language: what is this vague, but pervading sense of weakness? Dismay and helplessness are the words that suggest themselves. And moral injury, the pain around action (or inaction), committed by myself or others that are against my deeply held values and hopes for humankind. Being curious about my felt experience helps to avoid just thinking about the situation, fretting or blaming. The difficult feelings want to be seen and held, and the naming of them is close to accepting, letting them be what they are, giving them space. Some relief comes from this allowing and in this softer, intimate atmosphere another feeling arises: sorrow. This resides closer to the heart, a powerful aching that seeks expression, wants to cry.
Investigate: related to your feelings, what needs are not met, what do you long for? There are other questions we could ask ourselves, but to avoid getting into the head and keeping it really simple, I focus on the discovery of need qualities. For example, if your main feeling was anger, you would probably long for something like fairness and justice. If it was loneliness, you would want love and friendship. My strongest feeling in this scenario is sorrow, so what does it want? The immediate answer that comes to me is ‘mourning’. ‘Really?’ I ask myself – is that what you want to explore, you want to give yourself over to grief? Rilke’s poem comes to mind, ‘loose myself in your loosened hair’ - it does have a certain allure, and I also acknowledge some caution about being swept away by raw emotion. In NVC (Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication) mourning is seen as a universal need, a necessary counterpart to celebration. When we experience loss, not just through the death of a loved one, but of relationships, status, treasured possessions and dreams, mourning can be the most life-enhancing response, that will eventually lead to new levels of integration and meaning. Well, let’s find out what happens….
Nourish yourself by experiencing the fulness of the need or quality that you are longing for. Tears are now rising but it doesn’t feel necessary to discharge, I just hold the ache, and it’s now closer to compassion, it has a poignancy. I can almost hear the sorrowful music of Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’, and the keening lament of women at a funeral. This is about so much more than me and I allow myself to be engulfed by the universality of grief, let its plaintiff beauty wash through me.
Imagine: from deep within you, let a metaphor for that quality arise. I see and feel a deep lake, a lake of tears maybe, surrounded by hills and nourished by a broad waterfall. The scene is illuminated by mysterious morning light and it seems as if a compassionate, smiling presence is hovering in the peaceful atmosphere, welcoming all sorrow.
No limits: from the perspective of this metaphor, what could the world look like? I see the whole world bathed in this beautiful compassionate light, it is both the sorrow and the easing of it. The light touches the faces of distressed refugees, who have just lost all their material anchoring and lets them know that grieving is okay. I imagine them finding support to process their traumatic experiences, finding people prepared to hold them and care for them.
Going Forth: what is a small do-able step? Two things spring to mind: Donate more money to help Ukrainian refugees. And explore setting up a ‘grieving circle’ for people who want a safe context to process their difficult feelings about what is going in on in the world.
At the end of this meditation, allow all thoughts to quieten down and rest, doing nothing.