NOTES ON A BUDDHIST GRIEF OBSERVED
After a lull, waves
Rush up and whiten the shore–
Where has my friend gone?
I pulled off my wedding ring after the memorial service in late January. Someone asked me about it and I said, “I can’t be married to ghost. But I was haunted. If a grief pang hit while I was alone, I would just scream a bit. (Page 11)
Guy Newland, A Buddhist Grief Observed (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2016). Sources of further quotations (below) are indicated by bracketed page numbers.
Guy Newland’s account of his wife’s death from metastatic disease in 2012 and his description of his corresponding grief (they had been married 28 years) makes for pungent yet eloquent reading. Valerie Stephens had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. There were “two young adult children.” (Page 1). Interestingly, Newland chooses not to focus exclusively on her story and certainly not to view it in any bathetic way. Even when he writes: “Most of the weekend we cried together. But Valerie had to spend hours each day alone on the phone contacting each of her thirty clients privately, breaking the news” there is a kind of objective authorial calmness which enhances rather than suppresses the emotional impact of this powerful little book.
But there are also splashes of humor:
“And she was good humored. Her immune system was depleted by chemo and it seemed an impressive instance of mind over body that none of us got any colds or infections that would stop us from being near her. Overhearing on us comment on this, Valerie chimed in: “And I haven’t been sick at all either…except for the terminally ill part!” (Page 7)
Of course the terminally ill have special license to laugh, whether at themselves or the uncanny play that is the special lot of those engaged or engrossed in dying.
One suspects this decision to compose with gentle, even wistful detachment is in the delicate name of decorum: to posthumously respect her privacy and, with that, honor, without clamor, the unbounded, the unbridled fullness of her memory. So, rather than the expected narrative treading, as it were, with relentless self-objectifying steps, page after page, towards the final denouement, he turns the ravaging occasion of his own searing pain upon her death into catalyst for contemplating the significance of deep grief and, more particularly, to ask the wonderful question: are Buddhists (who presumably are accomplished–even masters–at handling death and impermanence) meant or even able to have it? Is it Kosher? The last: my words, not Newland’s. But the intent is the same.
Lord Buddha in death repose. Kushinagar, India. Photograph Ross Moore
These are important questions and ones infrequently asked. Instead, like Socrates,  like Buddha, Newland regards death as an ideal place from which to launch into philosophical enquiry, albeit–and this is the whole point–one not remote from the demand for an everyday ethics capable of broaching private and public pain together with its demands for responsible action.
“This book is an odd duck” Newland declares, in a comic twist on the anthropomorphic (fallacy) and perhaps to release the tension coiled within the very suggestion that we might be wading into any indulgent midst of personal testimony and revelation: “I reflect on Buddhist practices and Buddhist ideas that were–and sometimes were not–of aid to me in the throes of loss. I make some suggestions about how we might help one another.” (Page 3)
This is certainly candid. And the language, unencumbered by (obvious) poetry, is happily, plain enough. At every turn, Newland is committed to direct honest integrity.
This said, Newland disarms us when he says:
Soon after she died, a friend wrote, “You set forth on a voyage into another realm; be sure to bring us back a record.” Indeed I had entered a hidden world, a work coiled up tight inside the ordinary life-space of supermarkets and highways–a world where I stumbled, for a while, blind and raw. Could I somehow map it?
My friend offered a mission, the prospect of doing something useful. As a Buddhist practitioner, I could examine my grief as an object, a curious specimen under the mindfulness microscope. And in that way I could separate myself from it. But for the first few months, my concentration was such that I could scarcely write a sentence. (Page 2)
That writing should fall victim, or be subsumed, disarticulated, and so early, to intensely scarifying deep grief/trauma speaks to its own status as medium not somehow transcendentally divorced from its own basis in all-too-physical signification: if meaning is to be found in the pervasively recurring scene of death, it is as something en-fleshed. Like (the very possibility of) language itself, it must be rhythmically marked, tangibly impressed, within the warm palpable stuff of our own experience. So when Newland does again manage, piece by piece, to gather the capacity to write, it is driven, swept along by an irresistible force: the need to awaken “from the delusion that our pain is a private prison.” And it is the writing of that artifact, that vehicle, that generous offering: a public book that is asked to convey away from delusion’s grasp towards the outside of self-contained pain that otherwise threatens to so tightly enclose as to mummify. Render our pain of loss in yet another traumatic way, effectively mute.
Remember: Freud called grief, when tipped entirely inward and bound into chronic libidinal or narcissistic self-mirroring, “melancholia.” Only able to see itself – even in the face of others – it was interminable and thus relentlessly pathological. Investment in the cut-off imago, one addicted to recycling and feeding on its own ghostly juices, supplants the world. Merely an extreme or petulant version of ordinary selfishness a wag might say.
Albrecht Dürer, engraving, 1514.
Newland prefaces his account by noting how our ordinary resistance to change involves a sequence of habitually conceived micro-griefs in response to everyday losses occurring “in the form of any number.” Yet, “deep grief” caused by the deaths “of those for whom we truly care: constitutes a “special case: a season in hell” he reckons:
“We come to it when we lose someone we have set as our foundation, someone with whom and around whom we have built our lives and our identity. Along with our beloved teacher, child, parent, or partner, we lose our very selves.” (Page 1)
A little later he writes:
“In these early months I most often felt numb. I was disinterested in most of the activities that we take to constitute “living.” My ordinary sense (or ordinary illusion) of my self as a real person did not operate.” (Page 11)
Of course the discrete reference here is to the subtle Buddhist (Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamaka) proposition that we exist in conventional terms as a “mere I” labeled in dependence on our body and mind yet appear to innate self-grasping ignorance as something solid and innately, objectively, real. This means there is a divorce between the way we exist and the way we appear to exist: thus the illusory nature of (the appearance of) our “ordinary self.” But Newland’s intention, in alluding to this, and as a scholar in such matters, is in no way metaphysical. Far from it. The basic point he is suggesting is that even the ordinary mundane sense of self (which does validly exist as mere imputation) was rendered incapable of normally operating, effectively functioning, so intense was the pain of loss. Such was the disheveling extent of his travail. This incapability, this bringing undone, was registered in the vibratory depths of his body:
“I had whole-body aches and spells of violent shaking. This intense shivering was weird and baffling, until I found in grief literature that this is among the normal things that can happen. There was a constant, hollow sensation in my gut, something that felt desperate to be eased in a sigh. Yet sighing did not ease it at all.” (Page 10)
Death for all its mundane ordinariness when positioned to pierce, wound, shake and jeopardize in a particularly intimate bone-rattling way, may also embody the exception to its own identity: yawn into something so enormous, so difficult, so incomprehensible to the eyes of the commonplace as to refuse “adequate” accommodation within the domain of symbolic expression, not to mention any reasonable residence within the space of our “very selves.”
Intense grief spills up and over then returns to subsume us, rob us of viable selfhood via a flooding composed of all that is uncontainable/uncontained. The abject in other words: precisely what our ordinary self might have hoped to safely exclude. Or at least appear to do so, for illusions, self-deceptions, abound. This is the context in which Newland informs us:
Another friend emailed me that his long engagement with the Buddhist tradition was of no avail when his father died. This disappointed him. Unlike many others, he urged upon me no prayers, meditations, or mantra recitations. He wanted only to know: Was the Dharma helping me? What helped, how much, in what ways?” (Pages 2-3)
Newland responds with what is really the open gist of the entire book: “This is always the right question. What helps? That was the seed. I hope there will be some benefit from its fruit.” (Page 3)
I find this willingness to lead with an open question as well as still leave us with one dangling, by book’s end, a thoroughly satisfying and invigorating decision as it dispels any tendency to foster cheap or even ill-gotten certainties by resorting to what might otherwise become doctrinaire, or even dogmatic.
In the same immensely polite interrogatory gesture, Newland hinders any tendency to answer, or rather, foreclose life’s vital questions, together with life’s often overwhelming or even shattering experiences (those that so rapidly confound our expectations) by applying pat answers such as “Oh, life is impermanent.” What are we to take this to mean when delivered as advice upon the devastating loss of our dear partner? Like, “what’s the fuss”? “Get over it. Her death was inevitable anyway?” “We’re all gunna die.” Another: “grief is just attachment” delivered as edifying homily to someone hunched over and weeping with unimaginable loss?
These are not theoretical examples; they are ones I have directly encountered as a cancer patient. Another, in relation to the news of my own terminal diagnosis (now temporarily averted via a stem transplant?): “It’s karma ripening, Ross. Remember that. You are so lucky to have this opportunity to practice.” Yes, but..is that really the most supportive thing to say right now? Is this the time to trumpet sentimentalizing clichés we all secretly know offer no more relief than a wet (and yes, pre-used) ball of cotton wool, no matter how enthusiastically, how lovingly, how frequently applied?
So one of the central discussions in the book revolves around the implications of this ready-made “tendency” one which, not just people, but, yes, Buddhists also have: to avoid, by various distractive or repressive devices, the sheer actuality of our pain. Writes Newland:
We need a middle way: not denying the actuality of our pain, while not identifying with it as our core self. If we think, “I am the one who remembers and dwells in pain,” “I am the one who lost his wife,” then it recycles again and again. Samsara. It is like someone constantly picking off a scab. When we have deep pain that seems not to touch others, we get sucked into this sense that pain is our deepest identity. Intense anguish feels as though it were our own private, secret, inner selfhood.
On the other hand, don’t avoid what is happening. Don’t try to bury your pain…Sitting with Valerie’s cooling body: looking at the pain is like staring at the sun. But pushing it away won’t help. We have to do what we can, feeling out what more might be possible…As we get more able to watch pain with a bare mind, not identifying with it we may see it slowly ebb. It is not a constant–quite the opposite.” (Page 31)
Of course this advice deeply locates us in the Buddhist tradition of bare mindfulness (the source of many contemporary cognitive therapies). But it also invites us to be simply, and thus radically realistic. As Newland puts it: “To be human is to set sail for the next shipwreck.” (Page 31) We are never far from the First Noble Truth: the Noble Truth of Suffering. Indeed, we don’t need to look for it, so much as compassionately observe, and this includes ourselves. Rather than “feeling bad about feeling bad” we can allow ourselves to be legitimate objects of responsible, even tender care. It would be negligent folly to do otherwise.
Newland is nothing if not pragmatic. “But wait” he says. “Aren’t Buddhists supposed to have transcended grief? What were we expecting? Was the Buddha not clear enough? We just need to “let go.”
A delicate irony is woven into the last sentence. Mindfulness meditation and “letting go” as its slogan has become almost an industry. Corporate Speak. But the subtle dig is also on us:
Having met some Dharma and engaged it, many come to feel that they have taken death and impermanence into account. We might have. But probably not. Like everyone else, Buddhists seldom die as they expect. We die in some other way, too soon or too late, in ways we never imagined. We die in fear, and sadness, and in disappointment. Death is what happens when we are making other plans, And if our lives are committed to service, we will die while we still have critical work to do.” (Page 32).
And in the midst of a detailed yet concise presentation of the Buddhist topic of selflessness and emptiness (under the subheading: Who Dies, which must be a riff on Steven Levine’s famous book), Newland similarly observes:
“So it is that when someone asked me in the early months whether my familiarity with Buddhist teachings on emptiness had consoled me in my grief, my reflexive answer was just no. All I could think was that Valerie, empty or not, was definitely around here before and now she is definitely not. And that hurts.” (Page 37)
Then adds, perhaps surprisingly:
To deny this is to miss the Middle Way. Those who think emptiness cancels out this fact cannot have understood.” (Page 37)
But not so surprisingly, if we consider that dependent arising and emptiness are like two sides of the one coin: without one we can’t have the other. In the end, Newland’s presentation is unashamedly, indeed, comfortably, happily, traditional: “We all suffer needlessly because we don’t see things as they are. I think this is the core idea of the Buddhist tradition.” (Page 57) What makes “A Buddhist Grief Observed” a valuable read, is his openness to the importance of, well, openness:
When facing personal loss, or giving personal care, forget for a while what you think you know. Set aside every supposed solution, philosophical consolation, and religious device with which you have armed yourself. Drop all ideas about what is supposed to be happening or what you really ought to do. As Shunyru Suzuki says:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert’s mind there are few. (pages 58-9)
Again we are back to the earlier topic of how counsel such as “this loss is an amazing spiritual opportunity” or you will “get over it” or “that things will be OK” usually “works only to manage your own fear.” (Page 74). In this regard, your advice, though surely not so intended, becomes unconsciously-controlled deflection. It becomes armoury dressed as dharma and designed to personally protect.
Newland quotes Sheryl Sandberg (coauthor with Adam Grant of Facing Adversity, Buiding Resilience, and Finding Joy: an account of how she managed the “sudden” death of her husband Dave):
A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, “How do you know it is going to be okay?” Real empathy is something not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.” (Page 74)
This is not the place to further pursue counselling strategies for death, dying and grieving. Nor, regrettably, is there time to comment on Newland’s fascinating chapter on karma which rhetorically raises the proverbial question “Who says that Life is Fair?” A variation on the proverbial: “Why Me?” “I don’t deserve to die right now! Or even, “I’m too young to die!” So I would like to conclude by proposing that the following encapsulates Newland’s own rationale in composing, clearly at the expense of more tears, his brave book:
“From within the nakedness of not knowing, bearing witness means giving full and open attention. Such attention is to the heart what light and water are to a wounded tree. It is rare because it is hard to give. It demands not deflecting back to yourself or to something so similar that happened to your grandmother. It demands not turning away in the presence of what terrifies us and not trying to make it all right, even when everyone so wishes that it were.
This is precisely what he has done by taking, by accepting himself as a (worthy) object of compassion, surely a legitimate “someone” to “be observed.” And that he does this while eschewing transcendentalist tropes and mystical sentimentality, while drawing so richly upon spiritual literature and sacred classical traditions, not to mention Buddhist-inspired psychotherapies with contemporary on-the-ground efficacy, speaks to a maturity that is also youthful and refreshing. As he says: “It is easier to give a mountain of food than to have a real conversation.” One final quote:
When asked, “Is there a way for a person to live?” the master Dongshan replied, “When you become a person, there will be.” (Page 82)
 I will allow myself one footnote by way of a perhaps not entirely incidental distraction concerning the death of Socrates. Plato’s Crito: “So we went in, and found Socrates just released, and Xanthippe, you know her, with his little boy, sitting beside him. Then when Xanthippe saw us, she cried out in lamentation and said as women do, “O Socrates! Here is the last time your friends will speak to you and you to them!” Socrates glanced at Criton and said quietly, “Please let someone take her home, Criton.” Then some of Criton’s people led her away crying and beating her breast.” From “Phaedo” in Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W. H. D. Rouse (Phaidon Signet Classics: New York, 2015), 450. So Socrate’s wife is banished from the death scene by dint of being overly-emotional. That is, she is banished–as a woman–for she is prone to excessive lamentation, as that is what apparently “women do.” Of course he is showing his love and consideration for his wife in that banishing gesture, but it is the form of that concern that is under discussion here. Yet later, Socrates prepares to drain the cup of hemlock and thus signal he holds the body lightly and lives in philosophy: “With these words he put the cup to his lips and, quite easy and contented, drank it up. So far most of us had been able to hold back our tears pretty well; but when we saw him begin drinking and end drinking, we could no longer. I burst into a flood of tears for all I could do, so I wrapped up my face and cried myself out; not for him indeed, but for my own misfortune in losing such a man and such a comrade. Criton had got up and gone out even before I did, for he could not hold the tears in. Apollodoros had never ceased weeping all this time, and now he burst out into loud sobs, and by his weeping and lamentations completely broken down every man there except Socrates himself. He only said, “What a scene! You amaze me. That’s just why I sent the women away, to keep them from making a scene like this. I’ve heard that one ought to make an end in decent silence. Quiet yourselves and endure.” When we heard him we felt ashamed and restrained our tears.” Ibid., 509. So are we then to sex the scene of death as well as devise separate theories to explain away the respective politics–or inundating liquid semiotics if you would rather–awarded to male and female tears? Or are we to take it that in so openly, so incontinently weeping, Socrate’s male gathering has been inadvertently feminised? Hence the need to hold, even to bursting, and despite all appearances, those tears in? Behaving like a man. Another way of framing the question: can men be hystericalised? And, if so, can they still do philosophy? Or speaking now juridically: are they still fit to plead?