Intimations of Grief: A Zen Dharma Talk

Intimations of Grief: A Zen Dharma Talk January 29, 2022




Intimations of Grief

A dharma talk by

Jan Seymour-Ford

Delivered at the
Empty Moon Zen
Saturday Zazenkai

29 January, 2022


Zen means participating in loss. – we are present and don’t turn away from our loss and pain

Zen doesn’t save us from our lives.

I’m … anxious … angry, etc.

The “I” is extra.

So I’d like to talk about loss. I’ll start with a poem by Robert Frost.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Once a week I sit with the Worcester Zen group with my teacher Melissa. Recently David Rynick gave a great dharma talk. He said several things. One of them is, “Zen means participating in loss.” He didn’t say that Zen helps us confront loss, or cope with loss, or come to terms with loss. He said it means participating in loss. This has really been resonating with me.

I’ve been pondering all the ways I experience loss, and the ways I do or don’t participate in it. What does that mean? What does it mean to participate in loss instead of trying to escape it or deny it?

We all have losses. It’s easy to think of the big ones first. One of my earliest memories of loss is from the third grade. I was cast out of my circle of friends because I inadvertently antagonized the mean girl who was the ringleader. Weeks later, I abruptly changed schools in mid-semester because my family situation changed. The new school was really tough and hierarchical, and I found myself near the bottom of the bullying hierarchy. That bullying has marked me to this day.

In my twenties, I finally found the courage to leave a bad marriage. Even though I absolutely had to get out of an emotionally abusive situation, I was throwing away the security and stability of a long relationship. I had a dream in which a treasured figurine of a goose was smashed. In the dream I wept inconsolably, and I woke up grieving for the elements of the relationship that were good and irreplaceable.

I encounter new kinds of loss as I age. My body and brain are weaker and less resilient. My health is more fragile. I can’t do what I used to do. I can’t even eat what I used to eat. People I know die, and I’m confronted with the reality that I will die and lose this life, sooner rather than later.

Here’s another one: anticipatory grief. Do you do this? I think about my senior cat, who won’t live much longer. My mother is 94. She won’t live much longer. My husband, me. The inevitability of loss is painful and inescapable to contemplate.

It’s easy to think of the big losses, but the reality is that every day brings us loss. My hopes and expectations are seldom met. Nobody ever acts out the script I create for them in the drama starring me.

David’s teaching about participating in loss is a practice of daily intimacy. And that prompts me to think about how I’ve met loss in my life. Not always skillfully.

My first reaction is to deny and resist, sometimes to try to bring back what is gone. Then, because I can’t escape from the reality of the loss, my second reaction to try to escape from the pain of it. Maybe it sounds familiar to you, as well. I think these reactions are pretty universally human, and totally futile.

How can my practice support me in participating in loss instead?

I remember that one of the cornerstone teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. Loss and change is life. And it brings me to the teachings of the Four Noble Truths.

The First and Second truths tell us that our lives are characterized by suffering. We create the suffering by clinging to what is impermanent. Exactly what I’m doing when I deny and resist, and thrash around trying to escape the pain of loss.

I tried to find a poem or reading that illustrates this teaching. But a lot of it is mawkish stuff about grief and loss transforming to joy. These days I think we call it toxic positivity. I run this test: could I imagine reading it to my brother-in-law, who’s suffering from a cruelly painful degenerative disease? Mostly no.

There’s a poem we were given twice by hospice workers when family members died. Its final line is:

Do not stand
By my grave, and cry—
I am not there,
I did not die.

Yeah, you did! James’s Mom and his Auntie will never come back. I didn’t find this sentiment comforting or wise at all. It merely promises the pain will subside and present us with something else to cling to instead.

So if loss is inescapable, how does our practice bring us to participate in it?

I’d like to say a bit about that anticipatory grief I mentioned. I hold my cat and mourn her while she’s still purring on my lap. I catch myself doing this a lot. What I’m doing is turning away from the intimacy of the moment, mourning its impermanence even while it is gloriously in my lap. It’s a way of forgetting to be present.

I think that brings us back to David’s teaching of participating in loss. Our practice calls us to be present with every moment. Just to close the circle of the Four Noble Truths, they bring us back to this practice and presence.

I’m going to read the Robert Frost poem again:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

He does a beautiful job of capturing the pain and loss of impermanence. He’s expressing the pain of clinging, of certainty that gold is better than not-gold. That dawn is better than day. It’s the error of picking and choosing, the error I make a thousand times a day. It’s so easy to prefer one moment to the next, which is a way of clinging to what is impermanent.

And sometimes what loss brings us is grief, rage, or despair. Sometimes our practice calls us to be fully present with those realities.

I seem to need to learn the same teaching over and over. Fortunately, my practice is infinitely patient with me. My practice teaches to meet each moment with open hands, even though I encounter loss over and over.

Here’s a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver. We’ve heard it so many times, because we need to hear its teaching over and over:

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.




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