I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?” “You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business, how can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?”
By the time some readers see these words, Valentines Day will have become a distant memory. Nevertheless, the entire month of February has been designated American heart month, and for twenty-eight days we have permission to pay attention to the human organ, the heart, yet throughout the entire year, we have little or no permission to pay attention to the psycho-spiritual “organ” we call “the heart.” During the month of February, however, it is acceptable to think about the physical organ by focusing on heart disease and to cautiously entertain the psycho-spiritual organ on Valentines Day by way of eating chocolate, having sex, and sending flowers.
Modernity has little relationship with the deeper, ancient, spiritual symbolism of the heart. Nor does mass culture connect the high incidence of congestive heart failure with the clogging of emotion, particularly grief, in the body and psyche. Additionally, little attention is paid to the diminished capacity for compassion in cultures fixated on science and technology and how that deficit may be somaticized into “heart failure.”
Industrial civilization trains us to consider compassion toward others and toward ourselves as irrelevant. Author and psychotherapist, Francis Weller notes that compassion arises from the “fertile ground of belonging.” Exile is inherent in modernity—no tribe or community to which we belong. But what does it mean to belong? Does it mean that we are born into a family or particular group of people and that by virtue of carrying their DNA and becoming a member of the family, we belong? My answer to the question is a resounding no. Belonging in traditional cultures meant much more than being part of a family. Rather, it meant that one’s family and indeed the entire community perceived one’s birth as a momentous occurrence. To use language that might be more typical of tribal cultures, the birth of a child was often perceived as an “advent” or a “visitation” from invisible realms and signified a kind of revelation for the entire community. Because the child was perceived as a sacred messenger from eternity, it was the community’s duty to care for, protect, and forever claim the child as its own. From the child’s perspective, he or she would never feel exiled because they always had a home, a soft place to fall, a refuge, a fixed point in a changing universe.
Equally important in traditional cultures was a sense of belonging to the earth. The indigenous man or woman knew that if they lost their entire tribe, they could seek refuge in the earth which was their most elemental tribe.
Such a cellular, deeply-ingrained sense of belonging is not fundamentally cognitive, but rather, heartfelt—communicated from the heart of the community to the heart of the child. In this way compassion is cultivated, both compassion for others and for oneself.
But what is the essence of compassion? Generally, it means “to suffer with” the other. It means the willingness to feel in one’s heart the pain of loss which another person is experiencing—and the pain which we ourselves may be experiencing. It also requires us to feel deeply the pain of other species who are suffering because of humanity’s heartless, bloodless, profit-driven madness. But feeling in itself is not the primary purpose of compassion because compassion is meaningless if we do not act on what we feel to whatever extent we are able.
And while it may be easier to have compassion if it has been ingrained in us by virtue of growing up in a tribe and having a cellular sense of belonging, we can deepen our compassion by cultivating an intimate relationship with the earth. As we deepen our sense of belonging to the earth, we deepen our compassion, as well as our commitment to taking action.
Another means of deepening our compassion, and perhaps easing the “congestive heart failure” of our own bodies and our culture, is to allow heartbreak followed by conscious, intentional grieving. Again, this is not a passive, self-absorbed process in which we mourn without end or without taking action, but rather, a willingness to grieve personal and planetary losses as a healing practice both for ourselves and for other beings. Immediately the question arises: Will an elephant in Africa being murdered for its tusks feel my pain for its tragic demise? Certainly, feeling its pain is not sufficient. Hopefully, the pain motivates us to get involved with organizations that are working to stop the genocide of species or at least support them financially. Yet, I’m not sure that my pain for the endangered elephant has no effect on it. I can’t prove that it does, nor can I prove that it doesn’t.
We know that animals grieve, as verified by countless videos that traverse the internet revealing how a particular creature will not leave a dead or dying mate and may remain by its side for days or weeks after death. If I cannot or will not grieve, then in a sense, I am abdicating my animal self and my relationship with other animal selves.
What I’m really talking about here is the willingness to let our hearts break wide open and why that is not only important but necessary. The inescapable, searing truth is that there is no way we can inhabit a body on this planet and not be confronted with heartbreak at every turn.
If we were to stop resisting what the body and a dying planet are pleading for us to do and instead, open to the heartbreak, we would ultimately experience the magnificent, resplendent, sacred core of our being—and inevitably experience more joy than we imagined possible.
Author and poet, David Whyte, speaking at a Psychotherapy Networker Convention in 2011 on the topic of heartbreak stated:
When you think about it, there is no journey of sincerity that a human being can take in life without having their heart broken. And there’s no love affair you can follow, without that imaginary organ being rent asunder at one time or another. And there’s no marriage, no matter how happy it is, that won’t leave you helpless and wanting at times, leaving you literally with a broken heart.
Not only that, there is no work you can follow without having your heart broken. If you are sincere about your vocation, you will get to thresholds where you will not know how to proceed, and where you will forget yourself, and where you will start to imprison yourself with the very endeavor that was first a doorway to freedom.
And then, in that third marriage with the self, a really sincere examination of the old interior substrate should, if you are sincere, lead to existential disappointment. And, if you don’t become disappointed in yourself, you’re not trying.
So, it’s interesting to think that there is no path a human being can take with real courage that doesn’t lead to real heartbreak. It’s astonishing to see how human beings actually spend an enormous amount of their time and energy turning away from that possibility and trying to arrange for a life where you won’t be touched and you’ll be left immune by the great forces and elements of life.
And, of course, when you leave those forces and elements behind, you leave the very genius at the heart of what you’re attempting to bring into the world, to incarnate into the world, including the incarnation of your own presence.
While grief work is both necessary and empowering when attempting to recover from industrial civilization, it should not be done alone. Certainly some people prefer going off by themselves in order to “have a good cry,” but by both blatant and subtle means, this culture has instilled in us the notion that if we really descend into the depths of our grief, we will never return or we will become clinically depressed or psychotic. And while we may know intellectually that this is not so, our programming against grieving has been quite effective, and usually, some part of us is terrified of delving into it more than superficially. In most cases, the very opposite is true. Trust me, congestive heart failure is not caused by crying too much or too long. We more often get “stuck” in our grief as a result of not feeling it in which case it manifests in less obvious but possibly more surprisingly damaging ways. But in order to grieve safely and without inhibition, we need the support of others.
So why allow heartbreak and embrace our grief? Isn’t this self-indulgent at best and psychologically dangerous at worst? In fact, it is neither. Grief work is the work of responsible, mature women and men. Moreover, as predictably as day follows night, when our hearts are broken open, the very natural and innate joy which is the lifeblood of our humanity is liberated. Or as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron notes, “This is the beauty of being alive, laughing until you cry or crying until you laugh.” In this culture we think we know what joy feels like, but as with all emotions, joy is multi-layered. Without the catalyst of grief, we are able to experience superficial or even moderately-deep layers of joy, but deep grieving unleashes the deepest layers of joy and in my experience restores wholeness to a fragmented psyche so that we can more skillfully create wholeness in a broken world.
Rumi’s ingenious quote at the beginning of this article captures the quintessential essence of heartbreak: In the end, it can be the most precious gift imaginable if we are willing to follow the path of grief onto which it beckons us. Without heartbreak, there is no happy heart. “Life is glorious,” says Pema Chodron, “but life is also wretched. It is both… One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”