Grief is a sacred journey

Befriending Myself: Rescued by Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron“There has to be more to life than this dark gloom,” I wrote. I was sinking under the weight of my widowed life with no sweet husband to listen to my smallest fears, to care if my belly ached or I was scared.

I was scared.

Submitting my book proposal meant waiting for doors to open a crack or smash in my face, so I went to default mode, longing for Vic and my old life. I forgot that his death meant it was time to create a different world for myself and that I was doing well with my rebuilding project. Instead, I defended against despair like a boxer in the ring before I dumped my misery on paper in Ellen Schmidt’s writing class.

As I read the despairing words I’d written to the others at the table, there was an inner commentary. You’re annoying and spoiled. Others have real issues and big problems. Get it together, you brat.

The more I scolded, the worse I felt. My heart knotted as I chastised myself for wanting what I couldn’t have and for not being grateful enough for what I had for so long. Have the years of meditation and psychological work taught you nothing? You should be ashamed.

I was ashamed. 

Listening to Pema Chodron in the car

Listening to Pema Chodron in the car

Driving through the dark winter night toward home, I glanced through a stack of CDs on the passenger seat. At the bottom of the pile was Pema Chodron’s Audio Collection. I chose a CD randomly from the three box set. The cover said “Good Medicine.”

In her warm voice, Pema Chodron spoke of maître or unconditional friendliness with oneself. She reminded me how I usually accept my friends’ dark moods and difficult moments with kindness, whereas I attack myself without mercy.

“This all has to do with our relationship with pain, our relationship with difficulty…,” Pema said. “A certain amount of pain in life is inevitable…, such as dying…, such as the more you love someone, the more grief there is at the loss of that person.”

Then she suggested we stop struggling against pain. I knew she was right. I knew this was my chance to practice letting discomfort in and letting it transform me. My breath softened as Pema’s gentle voice encouraged me to befriend my pain and so befriend myself.

Pema Chodron

“Stay. Stay. Stay,” she said about not running from difficulty. She paused between each word as though training an unruly dog.

“Stay. Stay. Stay,” I said to myself using the kind tone I use with my dog Willow. Stay with longing. Stay with fear. Stay with discomfort.

When I got home, I sat by the warmth of the wood stove and admitted to myself how scared I was to be challenged and exposed, how frightened I was of change or failure. And I stayed. Then I cried. I accepted that I was unmoored and forgave myself for being human.

The next morning my gloom had lifted. Once again, I learned that there is nothing more exhausting or futile than trying to hold grief and fear at bay, no matter how small or large the issues.

May I learn to breathe in whatever I feel, accept my weaknesses, and become my own best friend.

Stay. Stay. Stay. 

***

You might enjoy this short video of Pema Chodron speaking about maître. For other blogs about Tibetan teachers in my life, see “Zapped by the Dalai Lama” or “The Dalai Lama’s Templeton Prize.”

33 Comments
  1. I relate to every post you make and appreciate the way you put my feelings into words and the honesty with which you do it. My husband died almost 3 years ago.

    • Mary, thank you for reading my blog and for your encouraging comments. If what I write touches you, then I’m doing what I set out to do. I’m sorry about the loss of your husband. I’m sure it’s been a challenging 3 years. It’s been 4 1/2 years since Vic died, and I’m still wrestling with my new reality. Still, I see that loss opened new possibilities and changed me for the better in some (not all) ways. So, I keep moving forward, carrying grief along with me.
      Wishing you well.

      • Today’s blog is another one so relevant. Thank you. I agree, as time goes by I am learning to grow from and carry my grief as well as integrate it into this new person I am becoming. Thanks again.

        • Dear Mary,
          It’s good to know you are getting something from my blog. Yesterday I went to a big Climate Rally in Washington, DC. Long day trip from 4 am until midnight–on a bus fortunately. Driving home from the place where I got off the bus, I felt such a rush of sadness and longing for Vic. I remembered, stayed with it, wept when I got home, and then moved on to admiring last night’s Moon-Jupiter conjunction, warming the house, and making myself a cup of mint tea. Remembering to be grateful for what I have now as well as what I had before.
          Thanks for taking the time to send a note.
          Elaine

  2. Staying with one’s self, a difficult task. . .enjoyed this blog very much, Elaine, and I love your smile in the photo!

    • Yes it is, Kirsten, and I don’t always succeed, but I hear a voice in my head saying, “Stay. Stay. Stay.”
      Sounds like LA is full of interesting adventures and that it’s just where you want and need to be.

  3. Hi Elaine,

    Pema is my very favorite author too. I think you will be my next favorite!
    OmShanti
    Patt

    • Oh, I hope so, Patt. I read Pema some, but mostly I listen to her on my half hour rides in and out of Ithaca–drives I take at least three times a week. When I’m struggling, she lifts me out of my stuck place.
      Sending you much love,
      Elaine

  4. I loved this Elaine. It’s scary to STAY sometimes but so necessary to make friends with the pain and let it mold and move you to new places.

    • Thank you, Robin. I agree it’s scary to Stay, but I haven’t found another alternative that works. So, I practice staying–can’t say I’m always able, but it gives me a place to return.

  5. so you help again….
    With love
    Johanna

  6. Dear, Dear, Elaine,

    I feel such fondness toward you, and we’ve yet to meet. It also makes me happy to know that I feel such an affinity for the partner of one of Rufus’s closest friends. I know how much he loved Vic and how he treasures your friendship.

    I loved this honest post, like all your others.

    I found maitre to be the most challenging and the most powerful teaching in my own practice. I do find that when I am gentle with myself, my real feelings emerge and I remember that I am no more than human.

    I struggle with overcoming fixed beliefs about my worthiness as a woman, a partner. I expect the worst from men because, until Leonard, I did not respect myself enough to ask for what I want and need. I thought it was THEIR fault, haha! Then I realized that I my intention to love and to be loved was not very clear.

    I realized last night that I feel so at home in my sangha because all of us are headed in the same direction. A tribe! It’s wonderful.

    I feel the same when I read your blog. And I know I will love your book.

    I am still hoping that as our Societal Health and Well-Being committee gets underway, I can connect more and more people to your blog. We meet again in a few weeks.

    thank you for all you give.

    Ava

    • Dear Ava,

      It seems to be hard for most women I know to befriend themselves. The exceptions stand out. It’s interesting that Pema teaches the idea of maitre in the unusual way taught by her teacher, where we first extend compassion to ourselves before extending it to those we love and lastly those who arouse the shadow. Like everyone, I have the impulse to run from disturbing feelings, but it doesn’t work. I’m grateful for a teacher who understands spiritual practice and psychological practicalities. I’m grateful to have a woman as a teacher–as you’ve mentioned elsewhere.

      I hope we will meet sometime. It’s sad that Vic and I lost touch with Rufus for so many years, and I’m glad to be in contact again and then to find such strong inner resonance with the woman he loves. Perhaps we’ll meet in CA or when you come east. In any case, it’s wonderful to be in touch and thank you for sharing my blog with anyone who might find it useful.

      With loving gratitude,
      Elaine

  7. PS: when my thoughts start up during meditation, I often hear Pema’s voice in my head, saying, “Stay, stay, stay.” And it helps! She is an amazing ambassador for Shambhala. I hope one day to go to Gampo Abbey to meet her. Heck, I even think of going to Gampo as a resident!

  8. As I said earlier in our exchanges, Elaine, you inspire me. I am so new to my grief of losing Jim that it is still very hard for me to move through this journey. I do it with the encouragement and support of people like you. Hope is a wonderful thing. You give me hope. I love this blog site. Anne

    • Dear Anne,
      Thank you for your encouraging words. If my blog supports you, then I’ve done what I want to do. This grieving process still astounds me–how much I long for what was and how this longing comes along with me and even supports me as I engage with new possibilities and have adventures I wouldn’t have had without Vic. I miss him every day and find that I can also move forward to make a life that matters. When I feel discouraged, the love that remains still comforts and encourages. I’m grateful for what remains even as I miss what is gone.
      It’s great to be in contact with you as you find your own way to deal with life after loss.
      Warmly,
      Elaine

  9. as i move from bed to couch with coffee in hand, thankful for the cloudy day (an excuse to feel gloomy) and disappointed that i allowed myself to sleep in, i see your post on a friend’s facebook feed. after losing 3 of my closest friends to suicide in a two year period i had vowed to walk thru the fire of emotions but i know i have become stuck ~ a smoldering ember of grief. i know it is true because your beautiful post hit a nerve and tears now fall. learning to feel the fear and stay has been a lifelong lesson for me, more so now. grief is its own powerful teacher ~ and i’m thankful that today’s class includes this beautiful reminder from you. i have a magical life, full of blessings. just need to untether and then “stay, stay, stay.” thank you for sharing what you have endured.

    • Dear Karal,
      I wrote this piece because it’s so easy to forget what I need to do and Pema Chodron helps me remember. I’m glad it helped you return to what you already know.
      I often need to remind myself to “stay” these days. Maybe it’s winter cold or my husband’s approaching birthday or my son’s coming wedding, but if I face where I truly am, I have to let continuing grief be part of my life.
      I’ve only experienced suicide from a distance, but know from others that it is a particularly hard loss to endure with lots of complications. I’m sorry you’ve had a shocking three losses in a short time.
      I looked up your website and look forward to exploring it.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond. I hope we both have a day filled with the ability to notice small gifts–a smile, a gorgeous fruit, or the fragrance of mint tea.
      Beat to you,
      Elaine

  10. Elaine, thank you for this post–perfectly apt for my life and my difficulty in accepting myself and my pain. I love Pema Chodron also. Thanks for reminding me to return to her.

    • Dear Lynne,
      We know we are not unusual in this inability to accept ourselves and our pain, but we have our own flavors of this experience. I’m grateful for Pema Chodron’s support. I’ve enjoyed her books, but find that listening to her CDs in the car keeps me on track. Her soothing voice, her sense of humor, and her teaching stories about spiritual and psychological matters.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond.
      I hope your day is filled with color,
      Elaine

  11. Thank you for reinforcing the importance of self compassion. I am familiar with Pema Chodron’s teachings and find her to be wonderful.

    My daily mindfulness practice assists me in staying calm, composed and self accepting. Not to mention also avoiding being tired, hungry and lonely…..:-)

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Eleanor. I’m grateful for everything from nature to specific teachers that helps me accept what is with composure. Not that I can do it, but I can keep trying.
      Warm greetings to you as the snow slowly melts in the Finger Lakes.

  12. Dear Elaine,
    I just opened your blog for the first time and reading it just opened my heart and so many emotions poured out. My love for John and my grief and longing for him, my search for self-compassion and forgiveness, and my feelings of friendship and connection to you all spilled out from that wound that is so easily broken open. Thank you and I hope to be sitting across the kitchen table over a cup of tea with you very soon.
    My love,
    Karen

    • How nice it is to hear from you, Karen. Writing both heals my wounds and exposes them. I constantly remind myself that missing Vic is the way I love him now and keep him close to the heart. From the experience of the last few years, I know this will hurt a little less in time.
      I also look forward to seeing you in March.
      With love,
      Elaine

  13. Thank you for another lesson in grief. In living. I’m glad that you share these on FB, otherwise I may have missed it. I think I have read every post, but maybe you re-post them just when I need them 🙂
    P

    • Thank you, Patti. Two years ago, I listened to Pema Chodron tapes whenever I was in the car. Since my hearing took a nosedive, it makes me too tired to listen so much. I remember the major lessons and use them daily.
      Back I go outside to uproot or at least rough up the weeds. They’re way ahead of me.

  14. So glad you re-posted this…such a wonderful gentle reminder and I love the video of Pema also. You speak for so many Elaine, including me.

    • Thanks, Mary. I wrote this a while back but needed to remember this teaching about staying. I imagine you love Pema’s wonderful practical wisdom and ability to laugh at herself. She takes our ego problems lightly and helps me realize I could do the same. Working on it.

  15. Stay. Stay. Stay. Thank you for reminding me of sitting with my grief. Tomorrow will be five years for me. The first days after Sam died I counted the hours. The first weeks I counted the days. The first months I calculated the weeks, the days, the hours since he died. Now I count the years and see my mourning has begun. Great piece, Elaine.

    • What else can we do, Jill? Running doesn’t work. Five years is forever and just the blink of an eye. I’ve thought of you coming home to life surrounded by reminders without your dog companions. Ouch. I’m thinking of you with love.

  16. Such a lovely post Elaine thank you. You touch a chord very strongly. I loved reading the comments as well and your comment back where you say ‘…where we first extend compassion to ourselves before extending it to those we love and lastly those who arouse the shadow ..’ is very powerful. It’s a practice we’re not especially good at but it is so true,

    • Thank you, dear Susan. It’s a powerful practice. Vic and I practiced tonglen when he was sick. When we were struggling ourselves, it made the practice immediate and potent. I can’t stay at the level of intensity I felt at that time of threat, but I’ve keep practicing. I especially love her “tonglen on the spot” when I see a stranger who needs support–instead of judging, I can offer compassion.

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