Liberation through Mourning

By Lama Rod Owens

I am in mourning. I have been sitting in my house for two months, lonely and longing to see my friends, family, lovers, and to even go to the grocery store or a walk around my block without fearing contacting Covid-19 and enduring a potentially painful illness and/or death. I, like many people, am hurt by the loss of my old life as well as the death of so many people. On top of this, I struggle to figure out how to step into a new world which will be socially, economically, and politically unstable. I am pissed off about this.

I have a new book coming out called Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger. To say that the book is about anger is true. However, it is as much about grief as it is about anger.

I understand anger to arise out of experiences of being hurt. Anger arises to tell me that my hurt needs to be cared for. And while anger will be a major epidemic on its own soon, the pain that we have accumulated during the pandemic will be the primary public health concern. As I look to the future, I know that I must also take refuge in my mourning.

Mourning has become an important practice for me. I am learning to intentionally mourn in a skillful way. This may sound strange. However, I am noticing that so much of my freedom and joy is bound up in my capacity to mourn things. When I say mourning, I am speaking to my capacity to notice my grief, and allowing that grief to be in my experience by not judging it or pushing it away, which offers me the space to actually experience this difficult material. Experiencing my grief is how I began to experience liberation through mourning.

One of the ways I experience my grief is as brokenheartedness. Brokenheartedness is a composite experience that holds other experiences like pain, aching, frustration, loneliness, or even anger. Sometimes I describe heartbrokenness as an expression of deep disappointment that wants to be taken care of. Mourning is how I take care of my broken heart because, above all, my broken heart wants to be seen, held, and experienced just like we want to as well by other people.

Mourning is my attempt to acknowledge brokenheartedness, accept it, and offer it space to be in my experience so it may do its work of teaching me and passing through. I am learning how to let myself experience my hurt whenever it comes up, even if it means I have to stop everything that I am doing to support this experience through meditation, breathwork, movement, or even shedding tears. Whenever I feel this energy I allow it — and it is something that I am encouraging others to do as well.

In my practice, I'm trying to be in power with my brokenheartedness. I don't want to have power over it. I don't have to have power under it. I want to be in power with it. Power is so important here because it means that I meet my woundedness, my discomfort, with a kind of friendliness. This friendliness is a warmth and openness that allows the discomfort to be there. This friendliness is an expression of love — and that love is the energy that opens up the space around the discomfort. When I can notice the space, I can have the room to be in power with my brokenheartedness. In this sense, my discomfort becomes something I can be collaborative with, not overwhelmed by.

If I can meet my brokenheartedness head-on in this collaboration, then the chances that I will learn something from my woundedness increases. If I try to control the brokenheartedness, I find myself pushing it away, and saying, "I don't want to deal with this." If I find myself being in power under the discomfort then I find that it becomes overwhelming for me to deal with, and there is no learning.

When I'm in power with, on the same level, I meet it head-on, and I'm able to stay aware, and attentive to all the aspects of the discomfort as it's happening. Then I am in a better position to learn the wisdom from and experience the wisdom of my discomfort. The wisdom actually comes from my ability to experience the discomfort or brokenheartedness. The heart of contemplative practice, meditation, and Buddhist practices is about experiencing, not just noticing what's happening, but we're experiencing what's happening, and understanding that we can survive the experience if we have enough space, or enough of a sense of spaciousness to survive it.

If we get shut down, and get really tight around an experience, we will lose ourselves in the experience, and that experience will be overwhelming. But when we instead get loose, and wide around the experience, then within the space around the experience is a lot of potential for other things to happen. There's the potentiality for happiness to arise, for contentment to arise. There's the potentiality for other choices to be made in how we relate to discomfort, so we have agency when there is space around the difficulty.

I know that if we are to adapt into a new world beyond this pandemic, we must embrace the path of mourning. We must be willing to allow our hearts to break open and we must do the even harder work of taking care of our broken hearts. What we can’t do for ourselves we must ask others to help us with. To care for our broken hearts will mean that we will also be caring for our anger, resulting in the reduction of violence in the coming days. I know that the more I can model what mourning looks like, the more I can offer permission for others to do this same work by example.

Lama Rod Owens, an author, activist, and authorized Lama (Buddhist Teacher) in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers. He is the author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger, and is a co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. He has been published and featured in several publications, including Buddhadharma, Lion's Roar, Tricycle, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Lama Rod holds a Master of Divinity degree in Buddhist Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, a Buddhist tantric practice and study community. Lama Rod has offered talks, retreats, and workshops in more than seven countries.

Click here to visit Lama Rod’s website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 11: Mindfulness & Meditation Summit