Tending the Garden of Grief With Mindfulness Meditation

Author: Heather Stang

Autumn in my small farming town in mid-Maryland is a time of harvest and abundance. Farmers markets are in full swing, nourishing our bodies with healthy vegetables and filling our senses with vibrant colors and smells. And yet it is a time where nature's energy begins to wind down in preparation for winter, which I like to think of as nature's sacred pause. Autumn is a time of transition and reflection - of letting go and receiving. It is not surprising that many cultures across thousands of years have associated autumn with the complex experience of human grief. 

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Just like the wise farmer, we too can use this season as a reminder to reflect on the fruits of our grief work. We will find that some activities help us blossom, such as attending TAPS events, doing charity work in honor of our loved one, walking in nature or spending time with friends and family - to name a few.

We may also decide to dig up some weeds - those pesky habits that are not so supportive to our health and well-being. But be kind to yourself. This is not the time to beat yourself up. The key to successful self-inquiry is self-compassion, or treating yourself as you would a beloved friend who is in need of support. Let go of the shame and the blame to whatever extent it is possible. The work ahead is about empowerment and choice!

Sound easier said than done? Fortunately, there are several easy-to-learn meditative techniques that can help us weed out our mind chatter so we can create space for our new harvest. One of my favorite tools is mindfulness meditation. You may have heard about mindfulness on the nightly news or from your doctor. A recent surge in mindfulness-based research has proven that it's effective for reducing anxiety, depression and chronic pain, as well as improving brain and immune functioning - and that's just a partial list of the benefits.

I love mindfulness meditation because it has taught me to relate to my thoughts in a different way. Rather than viewing my thoughts as permanent fixtures in my mind, I have learned that they come and go. I also have the power to shift or expand my attention when a thought tries to take over my experience. You have that power, too - it just takes a little practice.

Don't worry if you have never meditated before. Chances are you have experienced moments of mindfulness in your life already. Do you remember a time where you felt totally present, alert and awake? You were not thinking about the past or the future but just paying attention to the moment at hand. Maybe you were gazing at a picture-perfect sunset, taking a bite of the most delicious dessert, focused on knitting, running or fixing a vintage car. These are examples of informal mindfulness - paying attention on the spot. It's not so much about what you're doing, it's the quality of attention and your attitude while you're doing it.

Formal mindfulness practice simply means that you have set aside a period of time to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, which may include things you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel in and on your body and even your thoughts. You have probably seen pictures of meditators sitting on cushions on the floor, but it is perfectly acceptable to sit in a chair or even walk.

Ideally you will incorporate a blend of formal and informal practice into your life each day. Start with five minutes of seated meditation. Over a period of four weeks, work your way up to 20 minutes a day. Sprinkle in a little informal practice each day. Taste the first bite of your sandwich at lunch. Literally stop and smell the flowers on the way to work. Or take 15 seconds to gaze at the sky as though you are looking at it for the first time.

One of the pitfalls of practicing mindfulness is the myth that you have to have a clear mind to be a "good" meditator. In my professional opinion, the only requirement for being a "good" meditator is that you try to meditate! It is normal for the human mind to have ruminating thoughts about the past or future. It is abnormal to steady your human mind on the present moment, but it is incredibly rewarding. Each time you catch yourself drifting and then remember to bring yourself back from distraction to an object of focus - such as your breath - you are retraining your brain to work with you rather than against you.

Ultimately, you are cultivating the quality of equanimity - a steady and calm mind. Just as the autumn equinox gives equal attention to both day and night, the practice of mindfulness meditation sheds light on all aspects of our experience - pleasurable, unpleasurable and neutral. This in turn illuminates the sources of our habits and addictions, including what we do to seek pleasure and the measures we take to avoid pain. Once you unearth these patterns and discern what serves you, it is time to pull the weeds and plant new seeds. There is freedom in realizing you are not your thoughts, and you are not your grief. You are much bigger than that. You are awareness itself - the sun shining over your garden of experience - no matter what the season.

Mindfulness Meditation:

Set aside 10 to 20 minutes where you won't be disturbed and your environment is relatively quiet. Read through these instructions a few times before you practice.

Close your eyes or softly gaze on a point in front of you.

Reflect on your personal intention for your meditation practice today. What do you hope to receive from this practice? Is it to become more peaceful? Cultivate self-compassion? Reset your anxious mind?

Locate the place in your body where you feel your breath rising and falling or where you feel it moving in and out.

Exaggerate the next five rounds of breath so that it is bigger and more expansive.

Notice the places where your breath moves with ease as well as the places where it feels stuck or tight. Just notice sensation - no need to change a thing.

Return your breath to a natural rhythm, focusing your attention on your exhales for the next five to 15 minutes. Each time you get distracted, or realize you haven't been paying attention to your breath, choose to refocus your attention on your next exhale. It is the practice of refocusing that cultivates a calm and steady mind.

Notice any impulse you have to change your experience, and consider the possibility of simply letting things be just as they are for now.

Spend the last five minutes of this practice responding to the following self-inquiry questions in your journal:

  1.  What did you learn about yourself during your meditation practice?
  2. How does it relate to your grief experience? To the rest of your life?
  3. Now that you know what you know, is there anything you want to change? To nurture? To be more aware of?

Spend the rest of the day being kind to yourself. 

By Heather Stang: Heather Stang is the author of "Mindfulness & Grief: With Guided Meditations To Calm Your Mind & Restore Your Spirit." Her focus on teaching others to use mindfulness-based techniques to cope with grief and cultivate post-traumatic growth is inspired by her own journey of love, loss and post-traumatic growth. She is the founder of the Frederick Meditation Center in Maryland, where she leads mindfulness meditation groups and private Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions. Her articles, blogs and free guided meditations can be found at MindfulnessAndGrief.com and on Twitter under the handle @HeatherStangMA.