Here are some of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s most insightful teachings on grief and loss, together with self-care meditations and practices in the Plum Village tradition gathered by the editors. We hope that you will find them helpful for connecting with your loved one and all of life.
***Listen to Yourself
When you are suffering greatly, if you have suffered a profound loss, you need people who are able to just sit and listen to you with compassion. But what is even more important is that we can listen to ourselves with compassion. To do this, we need to learn the art of deep listening. We stop whatever we’re doing and come home to ourselves. We look deeply to recognize and name our suffering and embrace it tenderly. Listening deeply to our own suffering is an act of self-compassion.
***Like a Tree in a Storm
When a painful emotion comes up, stop whatever you are doing and take care of it right away. Bring your attention home to what is happening in your body. The practice is simple.
Put your hand on your belly and feel the movement of your breathing. Bring all your awareness down from your head to your navel and stop thinking about what has upset you. In a storm, the leaves and branches at the top of the tree thrash about wildly. The tree looks so fragile and vulnerable, as though it could break at any moment. But when you bring your attention down to the trunk of the tree, you see the trunk is very calm and still. You are no longer afraid because you realize that the tree is strong and stable, that it is deeply rooted in the soil and can withstand the storm.Self-Care: Belly Breathing
A strong emotion is like a storm, but if we know how to practice, we can survive the storm. When we are caught in a storm of strong emotions, we need to identify what is causing our emotional response immediately and disengage ourselves gently from it. Whether it is a thought, an image, a sound, a smell, a touch, or a person speaking, we turn our attention away from it for a moment and bring all our attention back to our breathing. If we continue to pay attention to or think about what is causing us to suffer, it will only increase our strong emotions.
So, we practice deep belly breathing. Whether standing, sitting, or lying down, we become aware of our breathing. If our breathing is rapid and shallow, we notice it, then we bring our attention down to the belly and focus on the rising and falling of our abdomen.
The practice is simple:
Breathing in, I am aware of my abdomen rising.
Breathing out, I am aware of my abdomen falling.
Gradually the storm will subside, our breathing and our heart will calm down, and we will feel more at peace.We Are More Than Our Emotions
Right now, you may find life unbearable. Yet everything is impermanent. Our emotions are impermanent; they come and they go. This insight can save your life. An emotion comes, stays for a while, and then it goes. This is the nature of all phenomena.
You are so much more than your emotions. You are your body, your feelings, your perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. You are your actions of body, speech, and mind. You are your aspirations, your capacity to love and understand; and you are connected with all of life. The territory of your being is infinite.
Focusing our attention on the rising and falling of our abdomen as we breathe deeply, our emotions will no longer overwhelm us or push us to do something destructive. When you survive a strong emotion once, you will have confidence that you can do the same again the next time.
***Going Home to Nature
The earth is our home. She is our true mother. In times of grief and loss, we can return to the earth who gave birth to us. The earth can embrace us and all our sadness and despair. She is always ready to receive you. Her arms are always open for you. Nature invites you to dive into her lap. Fall into her loving embrace and surrender yourself; release your suffering. The relief that we seek is right under our feet, and all around us. Each mindful step on the earth can heal us.
***When We Don’t Want to Be Overwhelmed by Grief
If we let the suffering come up and take over our mind, we can quickly be overwhelmed by it. So, we invite another energy to come up at the same time, the energy of mindfulness.
With the energy of mindfulness, we can recognize our pain and embrace it tenderly like a mother whose baby is crying. When a baby cries, the mother stops everything she is doing and holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of the mother will penetrate into the baby and the baby will feel relief.
The function of mindfulness is, first, to recognize the suffering that is there and then to take care of the suffering by identifying and embracing it. It is important that we are able to name what we are feeling, to identify what is making us suffer so that transformation, peace, and joy can be possible.
When we can embrace our sorrow and pain, our anger and fear with the energy of mindfulness, we’ll be able to recognize the roots of our suffering. And we’ll be able to recognize the suffering in the people we love as well.
***Self-Care: Begin Anew When a Loved One Has Died
Guilt, regret, and remorse can cause us unbearable suffering long after a loved one has died. Sometimes we carry these feelings with us for many years and suffer deeply each time we think of what we regret.
We may regret some things we said that were not very kind or loving, and we may also regret some things we didn’t say to the person we love before they died. We may feel remorse for past actions that hurt them or regret that we neglected to do something important that we now wish we had. Often, we regret that we weren’t kinder to our loved one during their lifetime or didn’t show them enough how much we love them. Now we may feel it’s too late. But we don’t need to feel that kind of regret—our loved ones live on in us and we can speak to them whenever we want. We can apologize for our unskillfulness and ask for forgiveness. We can smile to them and say the things we should have said but didn’t have the chance to say. Say it right now and they will hear it. We can begin anew with our loved one even after they have died.
***Self-Care: Seeing Your Loved One Alive in You and All Around You
Bring to mind all the people your loved one knew and came into contact with during their lifetime—their friends, their family (children, parents, siblings), people they worked with, people they went to school with, and write a list or draw a web of their many relationships. Look deeply to see how your loved one is still alive in all these people, as well as in yourself.
If you can, speak to some of these people. Ask them to share stories. What do they remember most, and what do they treasure about your loved one? This is nourishing and healing for both you and the other person. Whenever you miss your loved one, speak to one of the people who knew them well.
What ideas have you inherited from your loved one? You might bring to mind the work they did and projects they accomplished, their good deeds. Recall all the ways they have changed the world, no matter how big or small. It is often the small things that touch us most deeply.
Sometimes we know exactly how our loved one would feel about something—whether they would like this food or drink, this book or film, this scenery, this person or activity. Keep an open dialogue going with your loved one. You can ask them if they like the taste of the food you are eating. Would they like to go here or there with you? This is a way to keep the connection alive with your loved one. You can also ask them their opinion about important decisions, and you may be surprised to find they will give you good advice.
What are the most memorable things your loved one ever said to you? What are some of the kindest, most generous, most courageous, most adventurous things your loved one ever did?
Sometimes we cannot transform our grief because we believe our loved one suffered terribly during their lifetime. This may be true, but it is not the whole
truth. There were times when your loved one didn’t suffer, when they were happy and healthy and enjoying life. We need to have a more balanced view. Make a list of all the happy moments, the joyful moments, all the times you saw your loved one laugh and be happy. The more you reflect on this, the more happy moments will come to mind. This can bring us great relief.
***Sunflowers in April
In summer, the hills around Plum Village are covered with hundreds of thousands of sunflowers. But if you come in the month of April, the hills are bare. Yet when the farmers walk through their fields, they can already see the sunflowers. They know that the soil has been prepared, the seeds have been planted, the rains are good, that every condition is sufficient but one. The one condition that’s missing is time. With time, the heat of the summer months will allow the sunflowers to grow tall and blossom. Sunflowers depend on many conditions in order to manifest, not just one, and all are equally important. In the sunflowers we see the earth, the minerals, the farmer, and we see time and space. When all the necessary conditions come together, the sunflowers will manifest. When the conditions are not sufficient, the sunflowers will hide.
Who can say that your loved one has passed away? When you touch your loved one in the ultimate dimension, you see that they are still with you. The same is true of a flower. A flower may pretend to be born, but it has always been there in other forms, in the soil, the rain, the sunshine. Later the flower may pretend to die, but it is just playing a game of hide-and-seek. The flower reveals itself to us and then hides itself again. If we are attentive, we can see it anytime we want.
We need to recognize the interbeing nature of all that is. In the light of interbeing, life and death are not separate. They inter-are. We cannot have one without the other, like happiness and suffering, darkness and light. They lean on each other. They contain each other.
Copyright © 2021 by Thich Nhat Hanh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.