Recovering from Sorrow, Loss and Heartache
Exercise & Meditation to help recover from sorrow, loss and change.
Posted May 14, 2010
Sometimes, when we are recovering from sorrow, loss or heartache we feel the need to push aside our grief lest it overwhelms us with its intensity. This is understandable, but the longer you avoid your pain and attempt to push it away, the more difficult it will be to break out of your paralysis. Just as birds are drawn to bread crumbs on the ground, the pain will keep returning after you shoo it away. Buddhism teaches that as you sit with your pain and grief, simply noticing it as if you were sitting on a riverbank watching these heavy feelings float downstream, you’ll discover how to live, learn, and heal through it.
One helpful tool that I use with my patients for transitioning through sorrow is to envision yourself going through the experiences of someone else who has been in a similar situation and was successful at putting the pain and heartbreak behind him. Cinematherapy and bibliotherapy can be useful tools for vicariously experiencing the suffering and triumph of someone else and developing the courage to begin your own similar journey. In these forms of therapy or self-therapy, you watch a movie or read a book that touches upon the themes in your own life, and allow yourself to experience any emotions, thoughts, or sensations that come up in response to what you’re viewing or reading. Afterward, you ponder the parallels between what happened on-screen or on the page and what’s happening in your own life.
Years ago, I attended a ten day mindfulness retreat to help me overcome the feelings of despair I was experiencing after a traumatic breakup. At my lowest emotional point, I experienced a series of endless thoughts that the best way to end the pain might be to quietly go off into the desert like a sick or wounded animal and die. It seemed that everybody else in the meditation hall was in bliss, but here I was, an esteemed and highly trained clinician and student of mindfulness, wrestling with such dark, bleak, and lonely thinking. It was then that the following healing meditation came to me.
Broken-Heart Recovery Meditation
Relax and gently sit on your meditation cushion or in a sturdy, straight-back chair (if you have back pain, lie down on a solid floor), and begin to notice your inhalation and your exhalation. As your breath brings more and more comfort to you, and you can notice that your lungs are supporting your brain with more and more oxygen, settle deeply into that space of mindful relaxation and exploration. Go now to your heart and feel the pain, emptiness, or sadness. Breathe deeply and bring mindful awareness to the suffering within your heart.
You may become surprised and delighted to discover that while you’re simply noticing your grief or sorrow and experiencing compassion for yourself, a wondrous mind flow has begun. Like ice melting in the mountains, pain and sorrow ebb away, flowing out of your heart and your body, out from your feet and hands. Continue to breathe and allow these powerful and painful feelings, sensations, and thoughts to move through you and out of you.
If your suffering isn’t alleviated, allow yourself to become curious and imagine someone who suffered terribly and overcame her loss, someone whose story you know well. Picture this person in your mind’s eye and take yourself through her story of loss and pain from its inception in all its intensity and agony. Place yourself inside her heart, mind, and body. Allow yourself to feel every feeling, and experience each and every dark moment and mood you imagine she suffered. Draw strength from her tragedy and triumph. Visualize and bring mindful awareness to the exact moment in her mind when she made the decision to heal, to transform the direction of pain and sorrow in order to move from internalization to expressive flow. See, feel, and experience yourself as this person as she drew strength, wisdom, and compassion from this heartache.
Envision your heart and imagine the tissue within its wounds begin to repair itself. Feel a stirring of vitality as your heart beats and you imagine seedlings in the earth beginning to awaken from dormancy and buds on the branches of trees beginning to open to the sunlight as flowers burst forth with a new aliveness and energy.
Notice that your heart and mind are beginning to transform. Be mindful of the feelings in your heart as you draw from your inner resource of compassionate awareness. Notice the loss, sorrow, and sadness beginning to shift toward feelings and sensations of vitality, passion, and well-being.
The feelings that arise when you let yourself slow down, become quiet, and access what’s in your heart can be intense. If you’ve been avoiding painful feelings and thoughts for a long time, you may not be able to handle more than a five-minute-long session of mindfulness meditation initially, and you may need someone with you to support you in your process of uncovering this pain. A skilled psychologist or mindfulness meditation teacher can be enormously helpful in guiding you through these emotions and modulating their intensity.
Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change. He is the Executive Director of the OpenMind Training® Institute, practices mindfulness-based mind-body psychotherapy and leadership coaching in Santa Monica, CA, for individuals and corporate clients. He has taught personal and clinical training groups for professionals in Integral Psychotherapy, Ericksonian mind-body healing therapies, mindfulness meditation, and Buddhist psychology nationally and internationally since 1970. (www.openmindtraining.com)