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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 57 I WAS BROUGHT tothepracticeofmindfulnessmorethan two decades ago by the death of my first child. Aaron died two months after he was born, never having left the hospital. Shortly after that, a friend introduced me to a teacher from whom I learned the basics of Vipassana meditation: how to breathe mindfully and meditate with “choiceless” awareness. I remember attending a dharma talk in a room full of fifty meditators. The teacher spoke about the Four Noble Truths. Life is inherently unsatisfactory, he said. The ego’s restless desires are no sooner fulfilled than they find new objects. Craving and aversion breed suffering. One of his examples was waiting in line for a movie and then not getting in. I asked: “But what if you’re not suffering because of some trivial attachment? What if it’s about something significant, like death? What if you’re grieving because your baby was born with brain dam- age and died before he had a chance to live?” I wept openly, expect- ing that there, of all places, my tears would be accepted. The teacher asked, “How long has your son been dead?” When I told him it had been two months, his response was swift: “Well then, Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy, ” says psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan. “Each of these emo- tions is purposeful and useful—if we know how to listen to them. ” that’s in the past now, isn’t it? It’s time to let go of the past and live in the present moment.” I felt reprimanded for feeling sad about my son’s death. The teacher’s response baffled me. Live in the present? My present was suffused with a wrenching sorrow—a hole in my heart that bled daily. But the present moment, as he conceived of it, could be cleanly sliced away from and inured against this messy pain. Divested of grief, an emotionally sanitized “present moment” was served up as an antidote for my tears. However well meaning, the message was clear: Stop grieving. Get over it. Move on. This is a familiar message. Its unintended emotional intolerance often greets those who grieve, especially if they do so openly. I call this kind of intolerance “emotion-phobia”: a pervasive fear and reflexive avoidance of difficult emotions in oneself and/or others. This is accompanied by a set of unquestioned normative beliefs about the “negativity” of painful feelings. Emotion-phobia is endemic to our culture and perhaps to patri- archal culture in general. You’ll find it in subcultures as different as “