“At first, you may not be able to meditate. And when you can, all of your meditations are not going to be epiphanies.”
Boom, there it was! Diane concisely and sagely described the same experience I had when my grief was raw and new. Speaking with Diane Wilde was very validating and helpful. In some ways, it made me wish that when I had first met her, I had shared with her my status as a new widow. We were at a retreat for volunteers who teach the Dharma in California State Prisons and this was within my first year on my own. Sharing our life stories was not the purpose of the retreat, and I was very private about my grief. Little did I know that we had walked the same path.
It was not until a couple of months ago, when I interviewed Diane for the upcoming Death Dhamma podcast series, that I learned of our shared experiences. Speaking with her was so validating. Full of so many “Aha!” moments, and instances in which I said, “Me too!” One of the biggest “Aha” moments I had was when she brought up the topic of meditating while grieving.
In the early stages of grieving. I could not meditate without it turning into one gigantic, ugly cry. I was confused and frustrated. As much as I sought to practice self-compassion, I was very judgmental of my inability to meditate. I thought to myself, “What kind of Buddhist are you, Margaret? You’re in your deepest, darkest moment and you can’t use your Buddhism?” As it turns out, it was not that I could not use my Buddhism. It was that I was too fixated on what I perceived to be the right way to meditate. And I was also attached to what I thought meditation should look and feel like.
Diane recalled talking to her teacher about her own experience. She expressed that when she tried to sit, her grief was overwhelming. Each time she was overcome by images of her husband, Larry, as he was dying. And all she could focus on was how much she missed him. Instead of giving her concentration techniques or telling her to keep sitting, Diane’s teacher told her that what she needed to do was to get back into her body. He advised her that right now was not the time to sit. It was time to walk. It was not that she could not meditate; walking meditation was a better tool for her. And so that is what she did. She walked and walked. And while the walking did not wholly remove her pain, it helped tremendously. As Diane began to get back into her body, she was able to experience her grief differently. She was able to investigate it. She became both a scientist and an experiment. And she was able to locate where her suffering was in her body.
When Diane told me that she felt her grief in her throat, I had yet another “Aha” moment. About a year into my grieving process, I went to a holistic doctor. And she asked about what I had been experiencing. And I recall mentioning a tightness in my throat. I did not know that this was a shared experience. I remember having days where I felt like someone had punched me in the throat. It was that strong.
Walking meditation is an essential part of our meditation practice. The Caṅkama Sutta (AN 5:29) states:
“Monks, these are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation. Which five?”
“He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed & savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.”
“These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation.”
When Diane’s teacher prescribed walking meditation for her, it was not for endurance or good digestion. It was to come to terms with the grief that occupied her body and her heart and her mind. It is true that while you are in a place of deep sorrow, your physical body can suffer, and walking will make you stronger. The significant reward is the return of your concentration. “. . . the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.”
Through walking meditation and observing her grief, Diane began to become interested in following her grief. In feeling it rising and falling. And the more that she was able to watch her grief, it seemed to fade. It had less power over her and it became an interesting phenomenon. And it began to become more livable—merely another facet of her experience as a human being. Getting back into her body was what allowed Diane to concentrate on what it meant to grieve. You might say that walking meditation allowed her to sneak up on her emotions in a way that made them less overwhelming.
If you are dealing with sadness and grief or feeling overwhelmed by other difficult emotions, permit yourself to take a break from sitting meditation. Give walking meditation and movement a try. See what it is like to live in this body that is grieving. You will be able to come back to sitting meditation when the time is right. And in this way, you are continuing your meditation practice.