A Buddhist Grief Observed is a new book by Guy Newland, due out on August 9. Newland is a respected Buddhist teacher and scholar who has been working at Central Michigan University since the 80s. This is a mindful look at the Dharma, and in particular how Newland’s lifelong Buddhist practice helped or hindered him during his wife’s terminal illness and his grief that followed.
Most people assume that Buddhism’s philosophy of “no attachment” encourages its followers to stifle their emotions. Quite the opposite, Buddhism encourages feeling everything, but cultivating non-attachment to one state over another, as it is the attachment to objects and ways of being that cause us discomfort.
Grief is the process of adjusting to unwanted change, and since change is unrelenting, we bear every day unrecognised micro-griefs.
Newland takes us on the journey of his wife’s diagnosis and illness, and his learning to be in the world without her. He reflects that death and impermanence makes up a good portion of the Dharma, but even this did not prepare him for the grief he encountered after his wife’s death. Grief is a unique experience for everyone and not all of the Dharma is helpful to the grieving process. Newland recognises that useful adage of the Buddhist practitioner – take what helps and leave the rest.
Newland identifies the practices that helped him manage his grief and his through processes during this difficult time. He recognises that sitting with the pain is necessary but it can also be completely overwhelming.
When we have deep pain that seems not to touch others, we get sucked into this sense that pain is our deepest identity.
He debunks the “cancer as gift” mentality that seems to pervade some of Western thinking, and asks us to reflect that death may be an experience that brings positive growth and change to some, but it certainly is not this experience for everyone. He suggests this is not only narrow and over simplified, but robs people in an awful situation of the freedom to authentically articulate their experience.
There is lots of good stuff in this book – I lost my father at the beginning of May to a long running illness. His death was not a surprise. My grief was. Newland has many words of comfort and support for those going through something similar.He notes how his “Guy-as-teacher” personality was still able to pop up and function with little input from the rest of him, which still felt completely wrung out. (I felt much the same – it’s amazing how much you can achieve on autopilot if you need to).
A good understanding of Buddhism would be ideal before diving in to this book though – it is not a beginners piece. It is also worth noting that this is more a reflection of Newland’s personal beliefs and practices rather than any particular branch of Buddhism.
3 out of 5 Mala beads