Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Conversations on Loss: Grief, Mindfulness, and the Present Moment

Our culture doesn’t know what to do with grief, loss, and failure. The culture says these things are bad and if we experience them, we are less than. I wonder how we got to this perception? People are quick to comfort when someone is experiencing the pain of grief, too quick to offer pablum. It is hard for people to sit with the pain of another–there is a strong tendency to fix it.

When my grandfather died, I was eleven or twelve. This was my first big loss. I was distraught. I remember the party after the funeral, the crowded house with people stuffing their faces. I couldn’t understand how they could eat, drink, and laugh.I sought the refuge of solitude in a room far from the crowd. In that dark place, I convulsed with grief until some well-meaning family members came to “comfort” me. Their intervention took me out of that grief place and left me where? Unfinished. Perhaps I am still working through that grief decades later?


The culture says we should be embarrassed by loss, that loss is shameful–something to hide. We look upon failure as something bad. Yet every successful creative person–whether entrepreneur or artist–testifies to the value of failures in later productive success.

Can we overcome the cultural conditioning to embrace grief, loss, and failure? The poet Rilke encouraged us to do this in his Tenth Duino Elegy:

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels,
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or an ill-tempered string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.


At the risk of simplifying, there are two ways to handle grief. The first way is narrative and takes place within the default mode network of the brain (DMN). The DMN is responsible for self-referential thought. It places us within stories and time. The second mode is experiential–the way of mindfulness. Instead of situating the feelings of grief inside of a story, we seek to explore the energy of the feeling–without words and, more importantly, without a sense of “me.”

Since we are creatures who embody both modes, the processing of grief requires both modes. The story presents itself unbidden to attention. The painful narrative is relived in the mind and gives rise to strong emotions. These emotions resonate in the body and after the narrative has arrived we can shift to the body and sit with the energy of those emotions–without the storyline. A few moments later, the DMN may once again bring the story to us in 3-D. The emotions arise once again. Another opportunity to sink into the feelings is present.


Ananda was the Buddha’s cousin and most faithful disciple for forty-two years. However, he had not attained enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime. When the Buddha left the world at the age of eighty, Ananda used his profound grief for transformation. The loss was a gift. The sorrow was a vehicle for awakening. He meditated all night on the intense feelings, no doubt shifting back and forth from the DMN to the pulsing presence of now.

I don’t think we need to be afraid of the “dark” emotions. We can embrace them, live them, and grow from them. Grief, loss, and failure don’t have to diminish us. We can be whole, even when temporarily broken with the depth of feeling that loss brings.


  • Ellie

    Thanks for this, Dr. K. After you mentioned DFN last week (should it be DMN?), I tried to remember your explanation, but I was off and running with my own inner conversation. I’m very happy to have your clarity on the default mode. And I especially like the Rilke poem.

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