Tending the Garden of Grief with Mindfulness Meditation
Author: Heather Stang
In my small, mid-Maryland farming town, autumn 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 also a time when nature’s energy begins to wind down in preparation for winter, which I like to think of as nature’s sacred pause. Autumn is further 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.
Autumn: A Time of Reflection and Transformation
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. To name a few ideas, we can attend TAPS events, do charity work in honor of our loved one, walk in nature, or spend time with friends and family.
We may also decide to dig up some weeds– those pesky habits that are not so supportive to our health and wellbeing. But, remember to 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 needs support. Let go of the shame and blame to whatever extent it is possible. The work ahead is about empowerment and choice!
The Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Sound easier said than done? Fortunately, several, easy-to-learn meditative techniques can help us weed out our mind chatter so that 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 its practice is effective in reducing anxiety, depression, and chronic pain as well as in improving brain and immune functioning. And that’s a partial list of the benefits of mindfulness.
I love mindfulness meditation because it has taught me to relate to my thoughts differently. 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.
How To Be Present in the Moment
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 you were 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 but rather about the quality of attention and your attitude while you’re doing it.
Formal mindfulness practice simply means that you have set aside a designated time to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. You may notice things you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel in or on your body, or you may carefully listen to 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 while meditating.
Ideally you will incorporate a blend of formal and informal mindfulness practice into your life each day. Start with five minutes of seated meditation. Over four weeks, work your way up to 20 minutes of meditation a day. Sprinkle in a little informal practice daily. Taste the first bite of your sandwich at lunch. Stop and literally 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.
Practice to Retain and Calm Your Mind
One of the pitfalls of practicing mindfulness is the myth that you need to have a clear mind to be “good” at meditating. 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. Although it is abnormal to steady your human mind on the present moment, it is incredibly rewarding. Each time you bring yourself back to an object of focus— such as your breath— after catching yourself drifting towards distraction, you are retraining your brain to work with you rather than against you.
Ultimately, you are cultivating the quality of equanimity, of a steady, 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 that you are not your thoughts or your grief. You are much bigger than these things. You are awareness itself— the sun shining over your garden of experience— no matter what the season.
Mindfulness Meditation Activity
Set aside 10 to 20 minutes when you won’t be disturbed and your environment is relatively quiet. Make sure to 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 intentions for this meditation practice. What do you hope to receive today? Do you hope to become more peaceful, cultivate self-compassion, or reset your anxious mind from this practice?
Locate the place in your body where you feel your breath rising and falling. Notice where you feel your breath moving in and out.
Exaggerate the next five rounds of breathing so that your breaths are 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 the sensation– there is 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 that you haven’t been paying attention to your breath, choose to refocus your attention on your next exhale. The practice of refocusing cultivates a calm, 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, perhaps in a journal, and spend the rest of the day being kind to yourself.
- What did you learn about yourself during this meditation practice?
- How can you relate what you learned to your grief experience or the rest of your life?
- Now that you have looked within yourself, is there anything you want to change, nurture, or increase your awareness of?
Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT is an Author, Thanatologist and TAPS Advisory Board member.
Photos: TAPS Archives