On the Remarkable Potential of Grief

I’m glad to say that all is not sorrowful. I have just celebrated my dear older sister’s 40th birthday. There was merriment as we luxuriated and romped around our old family home. Doggerel verse was declaimed in her name, songs were sung, and coastal walks were claimed. My newborn nephew Rowan was there also – a gurgling, ham-fisted delight! Ah – the passage of time..

And now 2016 is here. Stretching invitingly before us. There is much for me to be thankful for, excited about and engaged with. This is set to be the year we find our home in Devon, launch our new retreat business, and translate some of the learning of these last years, studies and travels into a tangible experience of benefit for others. Scary and delicious! Who knows what will actualize? All I know is that it’s time to step up and into the next phase of life. And it’s a whole lot easier to do that when you’ve got some fine listening to soothe you along the way.. Here’s Ryley Walker’s live rendition of On The Banks of The Old Kishwaukee should you want some as we delve into the uncomfortable territory of grief..

There were certain pivotal moments in the Becoming Indigenous course during which grief shifted from the fringes of my awareness into centre stage. Our teachers had a beautiful range of different responses to the horrors of where we find ourselves, and the enormity of what we face. Some deeply proactive – Louis Fox (film), Atossa Soltani (activism) and Drew Dellinger (poetry) spreading information, educating and activating. Some more ceremonial: Pat Macabe, Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook, Linda Lorimer and Carolyn Hillier, bringing rich lineage of how to engage with the worlds behind the veil. And some more focused on using the grief as a means to finding soul purpose: Bill Plotkin, Colin Campbell, Lucy Hinton and Tim Mac Macartney. All engaging generously and inspiringly with their gifts to help heed the call.

One of the practices we undertook in our amazing introduction to indigeneity was an overnight 24 hour fast and wild vigil.Tree-of-Life-Meditation Time almost stood still, measured only by the imperceptible movement of the moon, which, over the course of the hours, arced in luminous post-fullness across the blackened sky. My mind ranged impatiently, exhaustedly, listlessly, illuminatedly over that vast expanse of moments. I returned with many gifts: in the midst of that vast silence a meeting with a busily bungling badger, face to face; sight of the fluid, fleeting slink of fox across dusked fields; dragon, in my dreaming.

But, nestled amidst the vigil trove, was a less welcome awareness. Despite being in the depths of the Dartington Estate, over the course of the entire night I encountered only three wild creatures. I had anticipated the sound-stirrings of unnamable life throughout the night – rustles, twig-cracks, flutterings that would set my heart alight with wild imagining. I was met with devastating silence. I can count the number of owl hoots I heard on one hand. And the refrain “Where are my animal brothers and sisters? Where have they gone?” has haunted me since.

Surrendering to this loss is the only way I know.images-3 Taking all the actions that will support the emergence of a different future, yes, but surrendering to the oceanic sadness that sits just beneath the urgent doing, the desperate distracting, even the artful activist-ing, feels like an interesting and fertile way through.

Bayo Akomolefe, our poetic philosopher-psychotherapist-teacher, whose infectious humour and intelligence crackle in his words, facilitated an exercise that dissolved my sense of blame, guilt, rage, and righteousness over the destruction we are reaping on our world. The systems, the peoples, the nations, the individuals morphed into each other, leaving only love standing. The love that “bears all things”. “The times are urgent…”, he is fond of saying, “…we must slow down”. For how can a solution that springs from the consciousness that created the problem, solve a crisis as complex as the one we are facing? I found, to my surprise and delight, that the sense of disruption to my usual rationale and the significant discomfort that ensued, then harmonized into a sense of greater possibility not lead by logic alone. Through the acknowledgement of and emotional immersion into my own inability to solve this problem, suddenly room for something else was possible.

The price for creating a space within ourselves for an emergent possibility is the letting go of certainty, absolutes, binaries. That means experiencing VULNERABILITY. If we’re not holding a fixed cognitive position we can feel what’s there, what’s so often denied in our everyday attempts to navigate life in a culture that over-values logic, achievement, the material and the illusion of safety this creates. The cost of that illusion is now becoming apparent – the illusion is shattering.. See Bayo’s brilliant talk at Dartington to get a richer flavour of what I mean.

As a result of this I am now engaged in working to support the movement into culturally-sanctioned expressions of grief. As Francis Weller so insightfully explains, without witnessing grief remains dry. In the past tribal societies had their grieving rituals – every week if not more often. It was never meant to be a solo experience! In this validated acknowledgement of the profound losses that our very existence ensures, we are given a catalytic container in which our grief can transform, fulfilling Rumi’s assertion that “Tears water the garden of your soul”.5-stages-of-grief

I often think of Dylan Thomas’ incandescent injunction “Rage, rage against the dying of the day” as the culturally sanctioned response to loss. Despite recognising the defiant strength and yearning I always feel a sadness when I hear them because I experience them as a further discouragement to revealing the softer, deeper, more potentially transformative emotion of sadness that rests untapped beneath reactive anger.

So I am now part of a Grief Composting Circle. It’s a community initiative to enable all those who want to touch and transform their grief – to allow it to be witnessed as it is, in relation to whatever it comes from. It’s a true priviledge to be a part of it. It will be offered monthly and we’ll see where it goes. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/events/815165645258604/

We are drawing from the work of Joanna Macy, Francis Weller, Stephen Jenkinson, Sobonfu and more. Francis Weller gives an extraordinarily clear-sighted, elegant explanation of the place of grief in our contemporary culture illustrating why it can be so difficult to successfully grieve, and the consequences of this on ourselves and our world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaI-4c92Mqo  It’s not too long and truly worth coming back to if you don’t have time to watch it now.

images-2May we each find our optimal pathways through that which must be felt, and create the conditions for others to do the same, so that we can make the shift that must be made. And recognise that it might not go in a neat, straight line!

Meditation: A minute to learn, a lifetime to master

by Thomas Buckley-Houston

The benefits of meditation have been known by the wise of the East for millennia, but recently, within the last decade or so, traditionally conservative Western institutions such as the NHS have begun taking note. There are many academic papers asserting the scientific efficacy of ‘Mindfulness’, a perspective on the world of meditation complete in every aspect but its religious trappings. Research cites such evidence-based facts as its ability to significantly reduce depressive relapse and diminish certain kinds of anxiety.

So how do we do it?

When I was a child there was an advert for a board game called Othello, that made the claim “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master”. Its intriguingly paradoxical sentiment has always stayed with me. How can something be so simple to understand in its essence, yet take many years to perfect?

I think meditation is exactly like that. All we’re trying to do is sincerely open up to the immediacy of our experience, but my goodness is it challenging to sustain for any significant length of time! I’ve long suspected that it’s actually convenient for our minds to think that meditation is somehow more complicated and esoteric than it actually is. After all, if we can convince ourselves that it’s an advanced practice that we don’t quite understand yet, then that justifies our excuses for not doing it.

Taking five minutes to sit quietly and direct our undivided attention onto our felt experience may seem innocent enough, but it can often mean having to face some rather difficult home truths. When I’m not feeling very good about myself the last thing I want to do is rub that even further into my face. I want to distract myself with the plethora of  possibilities available to modern man. Or, if I’ve accepted that meditation will help me, I want my fantasy ideal of a perfect meditation technique right now please! I want to be able to apply the advanced teachings of the Tibetan yogis and dispel my suffering! Yet because I am a mere, unenlightened mortal I can’t. I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect of course, but this kind of thinking can happen sometimes.

How can I carefully and kindly open up to the pinches in my heart? How can I humbly hold the raw emotion of being a lost and confused human that struggles with the enormity of this thing we call life? It’s not easy. Meditation isn’t asking us to overcome these things, or to somehow become bulletproof against their piercing shots. Instead it’s quietly encouraging us to simply meet ourselves as we are. To ask, as if for the very first time,  “what is it actually like to be me right now?” And sometimes the answer will be, “it feels like I don’t want to be me right now”.

And so we come full circle to another paradox; the meditation master is the one who can wholeheartedly admit and embrace, without justification or excuses, their poignant resistance to meeting the immediacy of their experience.

Remarkably, in this state of self-acceptance, a new possibility arises. What has felt intolerable in our active avoidance of discomfort, becomes bearable after all. Troubling thoughts and feelings have room to move and more often than not they move on. With practice and application even old enemies less easily opened to – sadnesses that have been lurking in neglected corners, injustices that smart with the heat of their sting, fears that control us like invisible puppet-masters – these can become respected visitors eventually revealing their long-hidden gifts.

Recommended meditation resources:

It’s always best to learn in person if possible:

* Triratna, formerly Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, have accesible and friendly centres throughout the UK with good dogma-free instruction. See: www.thebuddhistcentre.com

However, if not, there is *Jack Kornfield’s Meditation for Beginners – Book & CD. These are safe hands to put yourself into if exploring meditation for the first time.

Having guided audio meditation helps and you can find plenty free material here: *www.freebuddhistaudio.com

If you want to take the plunge for a weekend (or longer!) try *Gaia House – you won’t be expected to sit in the lotus position for hours but you will be surrounded by supportive respectful people and excellent instruction in the beautiful South Devon countryside. www.gaiahouse.co.uk

Nonviolent Communication: from personal development to social change

by Shantigarbha, CEO of SeedofPeace.org

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) provides a foundation for engaging with our world powerfully, clearly, compassionately, and authentically. It builds capacity for personal and organizational development, social change, community peace-building and conflict transformation.

NVC offers an understanding and awareness, a set of skills, and a way of communicating that are rooted in the idea that all people have the same human needs, and that our actions are attempts at meeting those needs. We focus on building connection – within our own families and communities, between differing groups and in conflict situations – on that level of shared humanity.

NVC is a powerful tool for reaching win-win solutions, resolving and mediating personal, organizational and community conflicts and for transforming conflicts between groups and societies.

I spent New Year’s Eve 2011 in the desert on the West Bank. I was one of a team of NVC trainers who’d gone to share NVC for nine days with a group of around 100 Israelis and Palestinians. We thought that if NVC could work here, it could work anywhere.

On the first morning I read Rumi’s poem: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” As Rumi was from the Middle East, it seemed the perfect introduction to the training. That evening there was laughter, enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat music, Muslim prayer, Dubke dancing, tears, deep listening. We’d started forging connections between Arabs and Jews.

As the days continued, we participated in a pretend Palestinian wedding, Jewish songs, a fire ceremony, deep empathy, mourning and celebration. I loved the opportunity to learn, connect and contribute. Towards the end I facilitated a ‘Restorative Circle’ on the topic of the wall which now divides Israel from the West Bank. The conversation touched depths of pain and fear on both sides. I noticed that when people were in deep pain, it was deeply difficult for them to hear the other’s pain. Then it was really important for the team and I to just keep on listening.

Immediately after the end, the training team went into a spontaneous huddle. We held onto each other in shock and overwhelm. We all wanted to acknowledge that we’d been scared at times. We couldn’t believe that we’d created something that was much bigger than ourselves. I can’t remember how many people said that their hearts had opened through the process, and that they felt more hope where before they had felt despair. And I can’t remember how many heart-to-heart hugs I had with people who thanked me for coming to Israel/Palestine and wished to see me again. Did NVC come through? I think so.


Shantigarbha is based in Bristol and certified with the Centre for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC.org). He leads workshops worldwide and offers coaching / counselling for individuals and couples. He’s author of the forthcoming book ‘Empathy: the art of compassionate presence’.

Visit Shantigarbha’s website at SeedofPeace.org

Forthcoming Bristol trainings:

* Sept 8-9th, NVC Foundation Training

* Sept 11th onwards, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course (Eight Tues eves.)

* Sept 27th onwards, Mindful Communication Course (Six Thurs eves.)

* December 8-9th, Deepening + Conflict (intermediate NVC Training)