Sudden, major upsets can happen anytime in our lives: losing a loved one or job, or perhaps it's that depressing sense that things on this beloved planet are going to get worse before they get better. When things don't go as expected, we can experience great pain and even question the point of continuing on.
But we mustn't lose hope, even as we cycle through those well-known stages of grief before arriving at acceptance of external things we cannot control: resistance and denial; anger; depression, and bargaining with the powers that be.
It can be a tough process, but instead of turning to unhealthy coping habits or addictive behaviours like over-watching television or shopping non-stop, it may be helpful to try out some mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is a simple, non-religious and easy-to-do form of mind-training that gets us more connected with ourselves and what's happening in the present moment, without judgement of self or others. This is no new-age fluff: there is strong evidence that suggests practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can reduce stress, boost our immune systems and encourage a general sense of well-being.
1. Observe the breath
This is the foundational practice that gets us unstuck from over-thinking that goes nowhere. Breathing is something we do constantly and automatically, and using the process of breathing as a object of concentration connects us intimately with what is happening, here and now, in the mind and body. Acknowledging our feelings allows us to honour them, and this in turn, can help us to move on and heal.
To begin, sit in a comfortable, upright posture either in a chair or on the floor with a cushion. Close the eyes, consciously relax the face, shoulders and body as much as possible. Bring your awareness to your breath, as it moves in and out of the body, perhaps using the tip of your nose or nostrils as a point of focus. If you notice your mind beginning to wander, bring it back to the breath. Your mind may begin to replay stories of what happened. Allow the story to unfold. If you observe feelings of deep grief, keep the awareness on the natural rhythm of your breath, but allow yourself to acknowledge and fully feel these emotions before releasing them. Take your time. If you have the urge to cry, do so. As these feelings surface, regard yourself with kindness, as a compassionate friend would. Continue the practice for 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as needed.
2. Visualizations with the breathOnce we become comfortable with observing the breath, it may be helpful to progress to more subtle practices that can have quite a bit of immediate impact on our mood.
Sit up tall in a comfortable position. Close the eyes, begin to relax and observe the breath as outlined in the practice above, allowing the breath to fill the belly, as it comes in through the nostrils. Now imagine that the breath is filling up your whole body, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Notice any sensations that may arise, without pushing them away or forcing them to change. Now visualize that with each inhalation in, you are breathing in a gentle, healing energy that revitalizes the whole body and your emotional heart. As you exhale, visualize tension, pain, anger and sadness releasing on the breath out. If you catch yourself engaging in any self-criticism, gently remind yourself to go easy on yourself. Continue the practice, breathing naturally, for 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as needed.
3. Mindfulness in natureThis practice can be done in your favourite outdoor spot, or on a slow walk.
Allow yourself to relax and to become aware of the breath. Begin to take note of the quality of the air: its temperature or its smell. Observe any sounds, near or far. Consciously feel the warmth of the sun on your face. If you are seated, begin to imagine your sitting bones 'rooting' into the ground, connecting deep into the earth. If you are walking, observe the colours and sounds around you, and become deeply conscious of how each footstep comes in contact with the ground. If you notice any feelings of sorrow or pain, give yourself the space to acknowledge them fully, and allow these feelings to gently diffuse out on an exhale, into air and into the ground. Feel unhurried, and supported by the earth, as you continue to maintain awareness of the breath for as long as needed.
Be willing to grieveThere are many variations to these simple practices that can be real life-savers in times of crisis and despair. Best of all, when mindfulness becomes a habit, practices like these can be done under-the-radar in daily life, whether you're standing in line, driving, or outside taking a walk. While it's okay to put on a brave face, sometimes what we really need is to recognize our own vulnerability -- and quite likely, finding our inner strength hidden along the way. As author and mediation teacher Jack Kornfield aptly puts it:
Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve.
And as they say, no matter what, the sun will rise tomorrow.