In this excerpt from his new book, Navigating grief and lossKimberly Brown introduces us to the practice of “standing on the ground,” which can help us in times of great change and grief.
In August 2011, a doctor at a central Wisconsin hospital called to tell me that my mother was in intensive care. She explained that mum was suffering from dehydration and kidney failure and had been taken by ambulance to the emergency room. Sitting on my couch in my downtown Manhattan apartment, I was angry and impatient, interrupting the doctor to ask, “Is she dying? There was a pause as she considered her words. “Well, I can’t be sure. . . but it doesn’t look bad. I think you might want to come here.
When someone is alive, it is almost impossible to imagine that they will no longer be there.
That’s exactly what I didn’t want to do. My mother, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as emphysema, had been hospitalized four times in the past year, being discharged as early as possible and refusing to comply with doctors’ instructions to eat, take his medication and to quit smoking. drink and smoke. I thought this time would be the same as the others, and I was angry even when I booked a flight to Mosinee Regional Airport and started packing. My friend Stephanie came over to help me, and as I was sorting through my drawers and closets, she said, “I think you should get a dress ready.” Annoyed, I asked, “Why?” To which she replied, “Just in case there is a funeral.” I wore this dress a week later. Even though I knew that she had been in decline for several years, that her illnesses were progressive and worsening, that she was over eighty years old and that she seriously abused her body, I was the last person to understand that my mother was dying and was completely shocked when it happened.
When someone is alive, especially someone we love or know well, it’s almost impossible to imagine that they won’t be around. Even if, like my mother, they have been ill for months or years, the irrevocable and mysterious nature of death seems almost beyond our comprehension.
Buddhist students like me are continually reminded to recognize the impermanence of all things and to remember that every human being will get sick, grow old, die and lose everything they hold dear. We are thus trained so that we can face the truth of our precious and brief lives and help alleviate suffering for ourselves and others. Death and heartbreak are inevitable, but it is possible to learn how to respond to this reality of life in ways that support and strengthen our relationships.
Although sudden death seems like a big surprise, we all know it’s not. it’s just that we tend to forget that our lives are impermanent and vulnerable and can end at any time. A practice of early Buddhist teachings is designed to help us remember: the Five Contemplations, or the five memories. It is a way of understanding reality and preventing us from denying or rejecting the truth. If you recite the reminders daily, you may be less surprised by the impermanence of life and more compassionate towards yourself and others, for recognizing the brevity and fragility of our own lives means recognizing the poignancy and precious of all lives.
The Five Contemplations are:
- I am of a nature to grow old and grow old. There is no escaping aging and aging.
- I tend to get sick. There is no way to escape the disease.
- I am likely to die. There is no way to escape death.
- Everything that is dear to me and everyone that I love is subject to change. There is no escaping being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true possessions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the foundation on which I stand.
Some believe this moment in time is the most dangerous and divisive in our human history, as we suffer the devastating results of environmental damage and pollution, recognize the deep inequalities between us due to ignorance and greed, and face a mental crisis. health crisis rooted in a lack of compassion and a failure to prioritize the development of mindfulness and generosity. At no other time has it been clearer that we need each other like never before, that we are connected by our shared pains and joys, and that we can use these terrible challenges to come together and share our abundant resources, reconnect to our wisdom and courage, expand our circle of care, and create a healthy and equitable world for all. If you or someone you love has experienced a loss, and neither I nor anyone else can tell you how to act or be.
Using mindfulness practices can bring you closer to both your sorrows and your joy, so you can welcome life as it unfolds with presence, balance, and peace. It can give you the confidence to reconnect with yourself and rediscover that you have everything you need to work through grief and bereavement. Tools like practicing mindfulness will help you embrace all that is in your heart – the painful, the delicious, the ugly, the beautiful – so that you can become what you already are: a dear and loving friend to yourself.
This practice helps you cope with sudden change and death, after which you might feel like doing something. To contact someone, to make arrangements, to figure something out – or to shout loudly and smash a few dishes just to make sure you’re not dreaming. But don’t. For a few moments, do nothing, just stay there. Stand on the ground, take a few breaths, and wait a few minutes before speaking or acting.
Standing on the Earth
You don’t need to take a formal meditation posture or a special seat to grab your attention and feel your feet on the ground. Try this exercise whenever you feel carried away by shock or confusion or when you feel unsettled and groundless.
1. Stop what you are doing and stand up. If you cannot stand due to a disability or for health reasons, remain seated and adapt this practice to your abilities.
2. Pay full attention to your feet. Feel the soles of your feet, your toes, the tops of your feet. Notice the weight of your body and feel the ground beneath you.
3. Raise your arms above your head. Gently press down on your feet, straightening your knees. Notice that you are firmly grounded even as you stretch up to the sky.
4. Let your arms hang freely at your sides. Take a few breaths, inhale towards your toes and exhale from your stomach.
5. Repeat if necessary.
6. Before you get up, take a few deep, mindful breaths and thank yourself for your care. Then, rest and give yourself whatever might make you feel nurtured and comforted. Maybe you have time for a nap, a walk, or a chat with a good friend. Pay loving attention to your feelings and remember that you can always rely on your body and breath to ground and ground you whenever you need them.
Extract adapted from Navigating Grief and Loss: 25 Buddhist Practices to Keep Your Heart Open to Yourself and Others. Copyright © 2022 by Kimberly Brown. Reprinted with kind permission from Prometheus Books. All rights reserved.