Dealing with Loss and Grief through Yoga

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The Holy Longing

Tell a wise person, or keep silent, because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive, what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights, where you were begotten, were you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter, now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so as long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on this dark earth.

-- Goethe

No matter how strong our practice, how balanced we feel – there will inevitably come along something in our lives that crushes our world and leaves us spinning with loss and profound grief. I recently have gone through such an experience, and still find myself in “the dark night of the soul” that follows events such as these…my hope is that my experiences may help you one day in your own loss.

A journey towards Death

Our lives are a journey towards death from the moment we are given birth into this world, yet for the majority of us, death remains a fearful, never-to-be-thought-of demon awaiting us at our life’s end.  Even when we sign on to a belief system that explains death, it does nothing to eliminate our fear of the moment when we step through death’s door; of the time when what we know ourselves to be ceases to exist.

I have begun to understand that the trick is to allow yourself to die every day…to everything. All the things we crave to surround ourselves with as security blankets – beauty, youth, money, power -- and all our fears – decay, age, illness, loss, death – are all out of our control anyway. We practice death in our losses of loved ones, friends, changing jobs, divorce, moving on…the list is endless. Even at a physiological level, our bodies continually die and regenerate on a daily basis – whether we choose to be active and conscious participants or not, all things rise…and end.

When I am true to myself, open and honest – I know I still tend to be a control freak. We carry around so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to maintain our grip on life; and yet the true nature and gift of life is that we are never in control, we can hold onto nothing. Intellectually, I understand this, and I have often thought I had internalized it on a deeper level as well, but I still struggle for control all the same.  The path I have chosen is one of learning to be at peace with this lack of control instead, relaxing into the infinite possibilities of uncertainty and allowing me to die continually to the moment.

Dark night of the soul

As with most of us, I needed a “a big alarm clock,” a major loss in my life to reveal to me what it truly means to continually die and set my feet on the path. Where I see tragedy and loss, I understand it may be the very thing I need to be liberated from my hidden fears of change and death – death to anything. I am still deep into the despair of abandonment and loss; what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul” I mentioned previously. My faith, my knowing, is that way down here in the darkness is my timeless and eternal soul; waiting for me to stumble upon it and then emerge empowered and healed. I have seen sparks of my soul, briefly illuminating the darkness and drawing me forward, even when another day would seem impossible.

My journey…and your journey, are through the valley of death; a journey from utter darkness into the radiant light of the sun…death and rebirth, dark and light, loss and finding, emptiness and fullness. We must try to understand that in order to make room for the new; we must let go of the old. Our loss is old the moment after it happens, but we hold it, refusing to let go, even as it begins to slip away from us. There is no room in our heart for the new in a heart that refuses to let go of the old.  This darkness should not be feared, but embraced as a valued friend. Without the uncertainty and continued change in life, nothing would be possible. This uncertainty and stripping away of our outer layers through loss and grief will lend us to new joy in what may come for us.

A doorway to joy

Doctor, heal thyself…Not as easy as it sounds, I can attest. There are a few ways to help strengthen your ability to see death and our daily practice for it through loss, change, grief and more as a doorway to the new and joyful:

Yoga – In Yoga, we die to one posture to be born into the next. Our bodies become a flowing picture of life on our earth rising, falling, rising again. From Mountain (pose) to Tree, to Downward Dog and Camel, we transition birth, life, death, change…When facing a loss or profound grief, allow your yoga practice to show you the realization that all things change. Feel as your acceptance of this fact seeps into your body…your transition from one pose to another will become smoother. Accept that as our body’s moves and changes, so does our life and circumstances.

The practice of Fana – One of the cornerstones of the Sufi faith is the practice of Fana; the practice of dying.  This practice stems from the soul’s homesickness for God, or the Eternal. Whenever you feel yourself resisting change, or refusing to let go of old grief and loss, understand it is the soul’s desire to be full, not empty. When you let go of grief, of change, of loss, the empty spaces will be filled by our spirit, by the Divine itself. Pray, as is the Sufi tradition, for your little self to die so you may step into your larger self. Pray for the Ego to die in the larger picture of our immortal and eternal selves.

Practice this visualization exercise from one of my favourite Buddhists, Thich Nhat Hanh: Lie on a bed, mat, or the grass in a position which you are comfortable in. Breathe normally and lightly.  Imagine that all that is left of your body is a white skeleton lying on the ground…Now imagine eighty years later, your skeletal remains long buried in the ground. Clearly see all the bones of your body…breathe very lightly, your heart and mind serene. See that your skeleton is not you. Your bodily form is not you either.  Be one with life, live eternally in the trees, the grass, in others, in the birds and other beasts, in the sky and in the ocean waves. Your skeleton is only one part of you.  You are present everywhere and in every moment. You are not a bodily form, or even feeling, thoughts, actions, and knowledge.

Namaste, my friends. May your times of change and dying to every moment bring you to the realization that everything is possible. May grief and loss lead you to your own eternal souls and out into the light again, with renewed hope and joy for the new and the unknown.