As October rolls around, many Pagans begin preparing for Samhain, the Celtic festival of summer’s end, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead is especially thin. For Pagans today, this is often a time for acknowledging those who have died in the previous year and telling myths about death and rebirth. For all who may be grieving or remembering grief at Samhain, I would like to offer some suggestions about how meditative techniques can help you experience and move through those feelings.
Concentrating on these emotions, especially the ones we usually seek to avoid, may seem like the very opposite of the calm peace and even detachment cultivated through meditation. I have often written that when other thoughts or concerns arise during meditation, you should acknowledge them and then return your attention to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on. It’s true that this is the best course to take when your distractions are relatively simple, everyday sorts of matters. But deep emotions, like grief, cannot be dismissed as easily, and forcing ourselves to do so can become an unhealthy form of repressing our feelings.
If deep emotional issues are a concern for you as this Samhain draws near, instead of treating the emotional experience as a failure in your mediative practice, you might try embracing the emotion and allowing yourself to feel it fully as a necessary part of letting it go. This is tricky; you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the feelings or reinforce their presence in your life. As a result, the rest of the suggestions I give in this article will be fairly general ones that you have to adapt to your own situation. I strongly suggest trying these kinds of techniques as part of a steady meditative practice, and taking other actions to work through your grief at the same time, especially talking with people you can trust. Above all, be compassionate with yourself.
Grieving is a long and complex experience, and every situation is different. In the process of coming to terms with a death, many different emotions can play a part, including fear, anger, remorse, and resentment. Allow yourself to acknowledge any and all of these in turn, even if they seem paradoxical or difficult to explain to others. What you are feeling does not make you a bad person – it’s how you handle the feeling that matters. You may want to read about the stages of grieving; these are not a simple linear sequence, but they may help you understand that you are not alone in going through a lot of different, difficult feelings while grieving.
Facing these feelings, acknowledging them, is the first step to beginning to move through them towards acceptance of what has happened. Accepting the current sitation does not mean that you have to like it, but it enables you to turn your attention to the future again.
As you go into your feelings and begin to acknowledge them, the same meditative techniques of self-monitoring that you use to direct your attention can help you stay in the feeling, rather than turning away to some more desirable topic. You might use these while doing an activity you’ve chosen to help you express the emotion, such as a creating a piece of art. Meditatively centering yourself on the emotion can keep you engaged with the purpose so that you fully explore the emotion and can release it into the activity as much as possible.
On the other hand, if you feel like you’re drowning in the emotional current, you can use that same approach of self-awareness to help you identify when you’re getting in over your head, so you can take steps to turn your attention elsewhere. Again, these two approaches complement each other: you don’t want to repress your feelings during the grieving process, but you don’t want to stay stuck in them forever, either. Use your best judgment and ask those around you or a trained counselor for help in striking the right balance as you move through the process of grieving.
I have found that the best time to engage with, experience, and begin to release an emotion is when I can move my attention back and forth between the emotion and the calm, compassionate self-awareness that I usually occupy during meditation. This usually happens only after some time has passed since the event that caused the emotion. As needed, I switch my focus in a way similar to the technique I suggested for meditating using opposites.
If this is too difficult for you, another approach is to visualize an interaction between different aspects of your self. Let one part of yourself give voice to the emotions and struggle you’re experiencing while another part of you listens as attentively and compassionately as you would for your closest friend. If you are familiar with the way Starhawk talks about different parts of the self, you might consider these to be your Younger Self and Talking Self, respectively. Or they might be the person you were before and the person you are coming to be in the present. Regardless, the goal is not to increase the separation between parts of yourself but to make healing and wholeness more possible by allowing yourself to go through the emotions to be able to return to your center.
Ultimately, as the immediacy of a feeling diminishes, you will be better able to apply these techniques and to come to terms with your emotions. Remember, above all, that these emotions are not a failure of your meditative practice or an impenetrable barrier. They are not separate from you; they are part of you. Using meditation to help yourself cope with and reconcile them can be a valuable part of returning, again, as always, to your center.