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Unwholesome Grief

by Fleda BrownOctober 11, 2011

In our local sangha, we continued our reading and discussion of the chapter titled “Doing No Harm” in Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma. Since I wasn’t able to be there, Karen led discussion. This is her report:

This week we talked about what Goldstein called “ill will” as one of the three unwholesome actions of the mind. Some other words he suggested may be used in this context are aversion, anger, hatred, and also sorrow and grief.

Goldstein focused sorrow and grief. He writes: “What is our relationship to the experience of loss, which is really another word for change? Is there aversion to it? Is there attachment to what was lost, whether it is a person, possession, or situation in our lives?” These words sparked a lot of conversation in our study group.

Grief? An unwholesome action? Isn’t it supposed to be healthy to grieve? What about attachment? Isn’t it natural to be attached to our loved ones, or to situations in our lives?
Sometimes in Buddhist teachings we hear that we should cut attachments. Does this mean that as “good Buddhists” we should not feel anything? Not care? Are we supposed to be passive…do nothing? These are things that were brought up.

Words can be tricky. They are concepts that have different meanings to each of us. For this conversation we are making a distinction between emotion and grief. Emotion is just what arises, naturally. Intense and raw emotions arise with loss. They just do. But we don’t want to feel the pain. We are attached to the having things the way we want them to be instead, resisting what is really the case. So we grab on to things to make us feel better, blame others, ignore what is. This only adds to our own suffering, and we project this suffering onto others.

The grief of resistance to loss is seen in the light of contrast with the genuine emotion of loss. If resistance to loss is noticed, resisting resistance just adds to suffering. Practice just noticing and see what happens. This is what sitting practice is.
If we have the patience to stay with the pain, suffering will ease, though it may appear to take a while. This does not mean that we don’t take action when action is called for. With awareness, in the absence of attachment to outcomes, wise action arises spontaneously. It is done…as it is…and that’s it.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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