The Alchemy of the Heart: Witnessing Grief
When we allow pain in fully (and then release it fully), the heart can transform pain into gold.
Grief and sadness can be hard enough to manage when we feel them in our own bodies. But what about when we witness them in someone else? When we see someone we love suffering a loss we can’t even understand, we’re stuck not knowing what to do or say.
I was at a winter solstice grief ceremony last year with the facilitator Elisa Lee, who described the alchemy of the heart as she learned it from her teacher, Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. The idea is that the human heart is capable of holding an immense amount of pain, both for ourselves and for other people. When we allow the pain in fully (and then release it fully), the heart can transform that pain into gold—the love, compassion, and empathy that can help us connect more deeply with others.
Many of us do not allow the heart to do its alchemical magic. When we feel or witness pain, we tense up against it, not letting it fully into the chambers of the heart. Or we take in the pain, but then we hold onto it, guarding it fiercely, taking ownership over pain that may not even be ours. When we hold onto it, we also cannot allow the pain to transform into gold.
The key to this practice is, of course, the breath. When we see or feel pain, we must take a deep breath, right to the bottom of the heart, softening and allowing the pain to enter us fully. But then we must also exhale, surrender the pain to all that we cannot control.
Let Go of What’s Not Yours
In Elisa’s grief circle, we learned the power of witnessing. When a person expressed their grief, we could either stay silent or say “We’re with you” or “We hear you.” Then, when the person left the circle, having completed their expression of grief, we took three deep breaths, letting it into the bottom of the heart, and then releasing the breath out into the world again, resolving to let go of what’s not ours. People in grief don’t generally need advice or solutions. They just want to be be heard, to share their experience with a compassionate witness. It’s incredibly healing just to be with someone expressing pain.
It’s very common to tense up with our big emotions. We fear feeling the true depths of our anger, our sadness, or our disappointment. Sure enough, these emotions are painful, but there’s also something quite peaceful about simply allowing whatever the true emotion is to arise to the surface.
When we tense up, we often invite instead inhibitory emotions like shame, guilt, and anxiety. These emotions give us something else to focus on—they are, essentially, protecting us from feeling what we really feel. We may have learned to do this in our first families, but we also live in a culture that is generally very uncomfortable with the genuine expression of deep emotions, so we sidestep to guilt or anxiety instead. (See “Breathing Through Grief” for more.)
No emotion is wrong or bad to feel. Our actions, of course, do matter, and what we choose to do about our emotions can certainly have an impact on the world for good or for ill. But if we never allow ourselves to honestly feel, how can we make mindful choices about what to do with our emotions?
So in order to tap into the alchemy of the heart, to allow ourselves to feel our deepest feelings, empathize with others, and let that practice heal us, we must be brave. We must allow ourselves to be present with whatever is coming up and let it shift and change as we relax our muscles and breathe. We must trust that, when we let ourselves feel pain, we are healing ourselves, not hurting ourselves. We are cultivating our capacity for love, compassion, empathy, and the precious gold of an open heart.
For more on grief, read the story “Honoring Grief.”