When Life Sucks: Buddhism, NVC, and Mourning

Originally posted on Tuesday, August 23, 2016

As I sit at my desk in California, awaiting the trick-or-treaters, an e-mail my sister just sent me is reverberating through my mind. She wrote from New York, "No power. No school. Halloween postponed 'til next Friday."

I picture my little niece and nephew all dressed up in their adorable costumes, having to wait over a week to celebrate one of their favorite holidays.

As the Buddha taught, sometimes life really sucks.

I'm writing this in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and am struck by the theme of loss that seems to be calling out for my attention this month, so I thought I'd muse on the topic of mourning, and offer some insight and support I've learned from my adventures in both Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

Above me, the floor creaks continuously as my housemate of four years maneuvers the last of her furniture and belongings out of our house. She's moving out today. Two weeks ago, one of my closest friends lost her mother. This weekend, I discovered that someone in my community lied to me, and the tenuous trust that had existed between us now seems to have eroded completely.

Lots of loss in my world this month. And I know I'm not alone. What losses have you experienced lately?

How do you tend to relate to loss? Do you fight it, holding on for dear life to the past? Do you deny it, quickly moving on, distracting yourself from any grief or sadness? Do you indulge it, burying yourself in the drama of it all, forgetting that outside the sun is shining? If you're like me, you probably do a combination of all of these, but perhaps you recognize yourself more in one approach than another.

Buddhists talk about the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows, that life includes both happiness and sadness. We suffer when we think it should be all joy all the time--all winning, no losing; all praise, no blame; all success, no failure; all calm, no storm. We try to hold onto the pleasant experiences of life and push away the unpleasant ones. We forget, over and over again, that life is a mixed bag. We forget, innocently, that death is part of life, that you can't have one without the other.

One of my beloved NVC mentors, Kathy Simon, often says, "We're all always a bundle of met and unmet needs." I appreciate this reminder from her because NVC's focus on empowerment and meeting needs can sometimes lead one to believe that if one's needs are not met, there's something "wrong." 

NVC, as I understand it, is not about getting all of our needs met all the time; it is about acknowledging our needs as often as possible and choosing how we want to relate to these needs. We can celebrate when our needs are met, and we can mourn when our needs are not met. NVC helps us befriend both the joys and the sorrows of this human life.

So what does NVC have to offer us about mourning?

As with all things NVC, mourning involves bringing our attention to our feelings and needs. Sounds simple, yet it's amazing to me how when life isn't going the way I want it to go, my attention tends to go outwards towards what's wrong with x, y, or z. 

My attention gets hijacked by all of my thoughts about the situation, like what a jerk someone is, or how unfair life is, or how it should have gone differently. The mind will do that, and there's nothing wrong with it, and not much you can do about it, since the mind has a mind of its own, so to speak.

However, here's the good news: the moment you realize what your mind is doing, you can choose where you want to turn your attention, and I suggest turning your attention to yourself, because, the truth is, you're in pain. You wouldn't be railing against how wrong everything is if you weren't in some amount of pain.

NVC gives us a further pointer: turn your attention to what you're feeling. Is it sadness? Grief? Frustration? Anger? Disappointment? Fear? Loneliness? Regret? Despair? How do these feelings actually feel, like in your body? Tight? Heavy? Constricted? Aching around your heart? Hard to breathe? Clenched jaw? Watery eyes? 

Remember, for most of us, the tendency is to try to get away from these unpleasant feelings, but this is an invitation to move towards the feelings with curiosity. Feelings let us know what is important to us, so if we skip over the feelings, it's harder to know what we value.

Then, turn your attention to the beautiful human needs your feelings are alerting you to. What is it you truly value that this situation is revealing to you: Is it safety? Trust? Honesty? Transparency? Connection? Stability? Then give yourself some time to feel into these needs and how precious they are to you. 

Notice the urge to push the needs away or bypass them, and try to stay with them a little longer; remember, these are beautiful universal human needs showing up in your awareness in this moment. The most loving thing you can do for yourself is to acknowledge them, and to see their beauty, because this is your life force, this is what matters to you, this is what drives you. Embrace it.

Take some time to hang out with the beauty of these needs. Try imagining a time you felt your need for honesty met, and how that felt. Or call to mind how it might feel if your need for connection was met. Or let yourself surrender to how much you love safety and stability. The point is to be with yourself and your tender human heart, to stay close to your life energy, to avert the tendency to abandon yourself when you most need your loving attention.

Mourning in this way will give you the opportunity to connect with what matters most to you, because you matter, and your needs matter. If it helps, you can picture yourself as a child, all dressed up in your costume, totally bummed out that Halloween's been postponed, longing for the fun and excitement and joy you've been so looking forward to. Hopefully that will help you soften your heart towards yourself, because really, that's what mourning is all about.

Written by Ali Miller, MFT. An earlier version of this piece was originally published on Psyched in San Francisco on November 1, 2012.

Ali Miller