Knowing that grief is an experience shared by all humanity lets me see myself as just one wave on a great sea.Ram Dass
Consider the advantages of this rare human existence.Jamgon Kongtrul
These two quotes stood out for me this week and as they seemed to want to be considered together the question arose, is grief considered an advantage? As I ponder these statements, I realize how our rare human existence is supported by seeing ourselves as one in the whole of life as well as understanding and accepting our experience of grief as one of the advantages.
Thinking about the advantages of my existence on this earth and making a mental list, I was not too surprised that the beauty of all we see and hear through these eyes and ears brings nature high up on the list. The heartful joy of a sunrise as we enter the day, the awe of a sunset that can at times take our breath, the joy of seeing a cardinal perching on the spruce in the midst of a cold white winter, the sound of the ocean that both soothes and calms, the amazement of seeing a moose standing at the lake shore.
Then we have all the people we encounter in this one life. The vast array of differences that astound us as we find those we call mates and those we name children. With this amazing brain and prefrontal cortex, we humans can engage in complex creation through music, art, and technology and profoundly change the world, for good or for ill. All that I have named are experiences that easily have the potential to open our hearts. And, within all of these and more we experience our grief, the losses before us that impact us in varying degrees. These also have the potential to further open our hearts.
All animals share in this beauty of nature as well as their relationships to both humans and other animal species expressing feelings of grief and other emotions and making choices. Humans, however, hold the unique experience in how we think about all of these. It is not enough for any of us to feel the beauty, the pain, the grief, or contentment, as we have the capacity to ponder the experience, to refer to it in the past, to retell the story, to fear for our future, and to hold all of this awareness while staying present in the moment. With our capacity to think about our experience we give each moment meaning. The meaning I give the sunset on Kuai becomes part of the story of my life. The narrative I create around the birth and death of my infant daughter becomes a marker in my life journey that holds meaning for me and continues to grow as I grow with it.
When we tell ourselves our stories, we then have the ability to make choices. Not everything I tell myself I can believe because thoughts also arise from past experiences and how I thought or felt then may or may not be true in this moment. I have the capacity to discern and then choose both how I think about this past in the present and how I want to move forward. Through my story telling, my choosing, my ability to advance my thinking through reading and learning, I see I am not alone in my most challenging experiences of life. I witness others pain and loss and can feel with them and offer myself to them in support and care.
In the midst of my grief, or a diagnosis, or fear and anxiety, I don’t necessarily go to how grateful I am that this is now happening but from my experience I know that these events can and do bring me to really see life and what I would miss if it is taken from me. I might have many more immediate concerns and thoughts but if I can take the time to ponder the wholeness of life, I might see that what has happened to me was not done to me but is all part of my life on this planet, in human form, at this time. As Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully states in his poem, Please Call Me by My True Names,
…Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one…
Wholeness is our life, we are interconnected, and in seeing and knowing this we marvel at this rare experience of life and our role in it. What am I bringing to this planet through this incarnation? In what way is my grief of value to my human existence? As we embrace the life we have been given as worthy of our respect and our reverence, we do so not only by the choices we or others make, but how we respond to those choices, events, and all the joys and the sorrows that hold the potential to awaken our hearts. We risk a heart broken open and whether we encounter a crack or a chasm the invitation is to enter and, in so doing, allow for the process of transformation.