When I started meditating many years ago, every time I sat down and closed my eyes, I burst into tears; it seemed like a problem. Other people appeared so damn peaceful when they meditated—eyelids gently closed, hands folded nicely in their laps. What was wrong with me? My crazy mind was on fire with thoughts and all I wanted to do was let out a long, piercing shriek. Still, every morning and evening I plopped myself in front of my altar and tried again. Without fail, as soon as I began to scan my inner terrain, the tears made their way out of hiding and demanded my attention. Dammit! Wasn’t I supposed to be a happy little Buddha? Wasn’t meditation supposed to make me feel peaceful and loving towards every speck of dust in the universe? If so, something was wrong because that definitely wasn’t happening. Instead, my experience on the cushion was complete torture. I spent most of the time berating myself for being such a miserable meditator, and the rest of the time worrying about what to do with my life.
One evening, after a very hard day at work, I begrudgingly sat down on my cushion. After lighting a few candles, I closed my eyes. Again, the intense emotion pressed against my chest, but before I could bolt, the tears began to flow. This time, instead of running away or resisting the pain, I surrendered. The grief felt unbearable, but there was no turning back—every ounce of sadness I had ever suppressed was in my face, or at least it felt that way. I wept for everything: lost love, resentment, loneliness, fear. It was all right there, and it hurt.
This sob fest went on for a really long time—so long I wondered if my eyes would ever be dry again. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, something shifted: My mind relaxed into a deep space of effortless meditation. No matter how hard I tried to dig up painful thoughts and feelings, I couldn’t find any. Everything was quiet and, for the first time in ages, the world felt soft again.
Sometimes, the more we resist something, the larger it looms. This is particularly true when it comes to painful emotions, which perpetually ebb and flow in the ocean of consciousness. When we turn within, these painful emotions often rise to the surface of our awareness in order to be released. The problem is, as soon as we sense such uncomfortable feelings, we often run away or distract ourselves... but that’s hardly a surprise. After all, how many of us want to look our pain right in the eye?
Unfortunately (or fortunately), that’s what spiritual practice asks us to do. Whether we choose silent meditation, chanting, yoga, or prayer, attentiveness strips us down. Such practices expose our strategies of self-protection and reveal all of the places we are stuck or insincere. This often feels like shit, but ultimately it is the willingness to be real with our experience that truly sets us on the path. As we look with love at our self-contraction, it begins to unravel in the most natural way. Like a dark cloud that releases its rain to the earth, our tears purify us.
In the bhakti tradition, or the yogic path of love, it is said that we don’t have to abandon our emotions; rather we can channel them in a higher direction. This means that when we feel sad, we don’t have to will that sadness away with platitudes. Instead, we can ride each wave of emotion back to the source of our pain—the sense of separation from our own heart. Rumi articulates this truth in the most beautiful way: “The grief you cry out from / draws you toward union. / Your pure sadness / that wants help / is the secret cup.” Yes, it is.
Though we may not like it, grief can be a gateway to enlightenment if we embrace it without turning away. So can confusion, disappointment, envy, joy, and everything in between. All we need is an attitude of acceptance—a willingness to meet ourselves completely, knowing that who we really are is beyond any thought or emotion. We don’t have to fear our habits of closure because, in truth, they are portals to great openness. As we step towards them, we awaken the tenderness deep within and tumble into silence.