Responding Wisely to Sadness
Drop-in posts written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
30th of July 2020
Responding Wisely to Sadness
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how a holiday – amidst its blessings – can create a space in which feelings that have been accruing emerge, sometimes unexpectedly. This is particularly true in difficult times. When things are urgent and important, we barrel through, and place things on the emotional shelf to be dealt with 'later'. ‘Later’ can come as quite a surprise: the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, describing the loss of her partner, says of her grief that it comes in waves, and she usually gets about five seconds’ warning that one is coming.
Sadness, in particular, is such a powerful human emotion that when it wells up in us, we react equally powerfully. We often try to push it away: we tell ourselves that we have to get through the workday, so we can’t afford to be sad; we remind ourselves how much sadder other people are; we decide that we must be strong for others, or that there’s no reason to be this sad. It can be wise, sometimes, to place something carefully to one side; to say, ‘I know the time will come, and it is not now.’ But when sadness persists, we can feel swamped by it. It takes over our thoughts: how can I fix it, why am I all alone with it, it will never go away. We can get angry with it, and ourselves. And yet – here it is, heavy, solid. It wants something. What?
When sadness returns, it is because it wants to be felt. We resist it, as human beings, because we fear that if we allow it to be here, we may crumble once and for all. But in the end, trying to hold back sadness is like trying to hold back the waves. We can try: we come up with brilliant techniques, like drinking too much or working too hard, that seem to keep it at bay for a time. But sadness wants to wave through. When we are sad, it is because something important has happened. And so to respond wisely to sadness, we need to feel the water in our hair, and the salt on our skin, in ways that will tend it as it needs.
Last week, we looked at how to ground and settle the attention for a sense of safety and resource, and how helpful this can be when followed by Tara Brach’s practice RAIN. Here, now, is what my Oxford colleague Chris Cullen calls a GRAIN practice – Ground, Recognise, Allow, Investigate and Nurture – for times when sadness is here.
You might wish to do this sitting down, or, if you feel particularly agitated, on a walk, where you can pause or speed up as you need.
Feel your feet on the ground – the texture of the carpet, floor, or earth. It can be good to take your shoes off for this, and really feel the contact with what is holding you up. If sitting down, sense your sit-bones on the chair or floor. Spend some time here, allowing your awareness to pool and settle in the base of the body, almost as if your body were a mountain, reaching down into the ground.
Notice what emotional tone is present in your experience right now. Sometimes, when we go to look for sadness, we find numbness. Looking more closely, there may also be anger, or anxiety, alongside sadness. Notice if the mind pulls you to thinking, and narrative. Some of our most compelling thoughts are images: a strong memory may pop up, or a visualisation of the future. See if you can name, internally, the emotions that are around: ‘here is sadness,’ ‘here is anxiety.’
Touch back in with the sense of the soles of the feet, and your seat. Feel how sadness can be here, and your contact with the ground is also here. Bring a sense of gentleness and allowing to the feelings, knowing that it’s OK that they’re here. You might even say, internally: ‘here it is. Here it is.’
Allowing your sadness to be here is not the same as resignation to what is causing you pain. Rather, it’s acknowledging that it is OK for you to feel the way that you feel about it. When we fight sadness, it often intensifies, as it asks, louder, to be heard. So hold it gently. Know that the ground can hold you, amidst it.
Notice what sadness feels like in the body, and name this. It could be heaviness in the stomach; you might feel cold, or as if your body wants to curl up in on itself. Notice, too, your reaction to the sadness – there may be a sense of trying to push it away, or problem-solving. Note this, gently, and check back in with the soles of the feet, and your seat. These are always here to support you.
As you attend to sadness in the body, the body may well tell you what it needs. If it wants to curl up, then curl up, and pull a blanket over you, and rest for a while. If tears come, give yourself space to cry. Sometimes, it helps to drop in the question, softly: ‘what does this need?’ Listen to what comes back: a thought, an image, a spontaneous movement. Give yourself permission to follow this through, however small it seems.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem ‘Kindness’, writes:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Sadness can feel as though it is just ours, and we are alone in it. But it is so very human, and the size of the cloth is the size of all of us. As you tend your sadness, sense that you need not bear it alone. This is something that we share, that we carry with and for each other. Read your favourite poem, or call a loved one; as you sit or walk, give the sadness to the ground, and allow the ground to carry some of it for you.
If we have pushed sadness away for years, there may be a lot of sea waiting to come through. When we finally begin to listen, it can feel as if we are feeling all the sorrow of the world. It may shock us, how much sadness is here, and it can feel as if our head will never emerge from beneath the water. You may find yourself grimly pushing through GRAIN, teeth clenched, determined to feel it all and be done.
We don’t need to heroically purge ourselves of our sadness; that is only another form of trying to push it away. We honour it by attending, with gentleness, and care. Sometimes, that means sitting down with it, giving it space and time, perhaps with another person to help. Sometimes it means acknowledging sadness very lightly, greeting it as it laps at your feet. There may be days, weeks, and months of your life where it is entirely appropriate simply to Ground, and Recognise, and Ground again – maybe with the breathing space.
A wave rises and falls; this is its nature. It rises, as it seeks to make itself felt. It falls when we plant our feet firmly on solid ground, when we recognise the wave for what it is, when we say ‘it’s OK that this is here,’ when it moves through the body, and when we care for ourselves in its midst.
As we allow ourselves to feel the water, and taste its salt, we emerge, blinking, into the sun.
I send warmest wishes to you all this week.