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Lions Roar : January 2003
58 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 spiritual retreats, popular self-help books and psychiatric manuals. In fact, my teacher’s supposedly Buddhist response was very much in line with the prevailing psychiatric view of grief. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (the “bible” of psychiatry), the patient who is grieving a death is allotted two months for “symptoms” such as sadness, insomnia and loss of appetite before being diagnos- able with a “major depressive disorder.” Grief, perhaps the most inevitable of all human emotions, given the unalterable fact of mortal- ity, is seen as an illness if it goes on too long. But how long is too long? My mother, a Holocaust survivor, grieved actively for the first decade of my life. Was this too long a grief for genocide? Time frames for our emotions are nothing if not arbitrary, but appearing in a diagnostic and statistical manual, they attain the ring of truth. The two month limit is one of many examples of institutional psychiatry’s emotion- phobia. Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy. They are our natural and inevitable responses to existence, so long as loss, vulnerability and violence come with the territory of being human. These are the dark emotions, but by dark, I don’t mean that they are bad, unwholesome or pathological. I mean that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark—shame- ful, secret and unseen. Emotion-phobia dissociates us from the energies of these emotions and tells us they are untrustworthy, dangerous and destructive. Like other traits our culture distrusts and devalues—vulnerability, for instance, and dependence—emotionality is associated with weakness, women and children. We tend to regard these painful emotions as signs of psychological fragility, mental disorder or spiritual defect. We sup- press, intellectualize, judge or deny them. We may use our spiritual beliefs or practices to bypass their reality. Few of us learn how to experience the dark emotions fully—in the body, with awareness—so we end up experiencing their energies in dis- placed, neurotic or dangerous forms. We act out impulsively. We become addicted to a variety of substances and/or activities. We become depressed, anxious or emotionally numb, and aborted dark emotions are at the root of these characteristic psychological disorders of our time. But it’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem; it’s our inability to bear them mindfully. Every dark emotion has a value and purpose. There are no negative emotions; there are only negative attitudes towards emotions we don’t like and can’t tolerate, and the negative consequences of denying them. The emotions we call “negative” are energies that get our attention, ask for expression, transmit information and impel action. Grief tells us that we are all interconnected in the web of life, and what connects us also breaks our hearts. Fear alerts us to protect and sustain life. Despair asks us to grieve our losses, to examine and transform the meaning of our lives, to repair our broken souls. Each of these emotions is purpose- ful and useful—if we know how to listen to them. But if grief is barely tolerated in our culture, even less are fear and despair. The fact is we are all afraid and act as if we’re not. We fear the sheer vulnerability of existence; we fear its unpredictability. When we are unable to feel our fear mindfully, we turn it into anger, psychoso- matic ailments or a host of “anxiety disorders”—displacements of fears we can’t feel or name. According to experts, some 50 million people in this country suffer from phobias at some point in their lives, and millions more are diag- nosed with other anxiety disorders. One reason is that we’ve lost touch with the actual experience of primal, natural fear. When fear is numbed, we learn little about what it’s for—its inherent usefulness as an alarm system that we ignore at our peril. Benumbed fear is especially danger- ous when it becomes an unconscious source of vengeance, violence and other destructive acts. We see this acted out on the world stage as much as in the individual psyche. As for despair, how many among us have not experienced periods of feeling empty, desolate, hopeless, brooding over the darkness in our world? This is the landscape of despair. Judging from my thirty years of experience as a psychotherapist, I would say that despair is common, yet we don’t speak of despair anymore. We speak of clinical depression, serotonin-deficiency, biochemical disorder and the new selective sero- tonin-reuptake inhibitors. We treat the “illness” with a host of new medications. In my view, “depression” is the word we use in our highly medicalized culture for a condition of chronic despair—despair that is stuck in the body and toxified by our inability to bear it mindfully. When we think of all despair as a mental disorder or a biochemical ill- ness, we miss the spiritual metamorphosis to which it calls us. IN RETROSPECT, a more helpful answer from my meditation teacher (and one more in line with the Buddha’s teachings) might have been, If you are grieving, do so mindfully. Pay attention to your grief. Stop and listen to it. Befriend it and let it be. The dark emotions are pro- found but challenging spiritual teachers, like the Zen master who whacks you until you develop patience and spiritual discipline. When grief shattered my heart after Aaron’s death, that brought with it an expansion, the beginning of my experience of a Self larger than my bro- ken ego. Grieving mindfully—without recourse to suppression, intel- lectualization or religious dogmatism—made me a happier person than I’d ever been. What I learned by listening closely to grief was a transformational process I call “the alchemy of the dark emotions.” Many years after Aaron’s death, after a second radiantly healthy child and a third who was born with a mysterious neuromotor disorder, I began to write about these alchemies—from grief to gratitude, fear to joy and despair to faith—that I had experienced in my own life and witnessed countless times in my work as a psychotherapist. The alchemy of the dark emotions is a process that cannot be forced, but it can be encouraged by cultivating certain basic emotional skills. The three basic skills are attending to, befriending and surrendering to emotions that make us uncomfortable. Attending to our dark emotions is not just noticing a feeling and then distancing ourselves from it. It’s about being mindful of emotions as bodily sensa- tions and experiencing them fully. Befriending emotion is how we extend our emotional attention spans. Once again, this is a body-friend- ly process—getting into the body, not away from it into our thoughts. At the least, it’s a process of becoming aware of how our thoughts both