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Important Insights on Grief from Stephen Jenkinson and Buddhist Psychology

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Grief, a profound and universal human emotion, touches us all at some point in our lives. It's an emotion that can be both deeply personal and universally relatable, transcending cultural and geographical boundaries. In the exploration of grief, two significant perspectives stand out: the insights of Stephen Jenkinson and the transformative power of love within the Buddhist understanding. In this blog, we delve into the work of Stephen Jenkinson, an acclaimed author, and teacher on navigating grief, and how his insights align with the Buddhist psychological approach to transforming grief through love.

Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian author, teacher, and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, has dedicated his life to understanding and guiding others through the complexities of grief. In his work, he challenges the prevalent cultural notions of grief as an obstacle to be overcome or a problem to be solved. Instead, he views grief as an essential part of life that demands our attention and presence. In a sense grief must claim us and have it's way if we are to fully let go and love.

Jenkinson's perspective emphasises the importance of sitting with grief, feeling its weight, and acknowledging its role in our lives. He believes that modern society's tendency to fear, suppress or avoid grief or rush through it deprives individuals of the profound lessons it has to offer. According to Jenkinson, grief is not something to be "fixed," but a powerful teacher that can awaken us to the depth of our emotions, the impermanence of life, and the interconnectedness of all things.

Buddhism, a spiritual tradition that spans centuries, also offers valuable insights into the transformative potential of grief through a map of psychological experience. At the heart of Buddhist teachings lies the understanding of suffering (dukkha) as an inherent part of existence. Grief, in this context, can be seen as a manifestation of suffering, arising from attachment and impermanence. However, Buddhism doesn't leave us trapped in suffering; it presents a path to transform it through love and compassion. Joanna Macy calls this path, "active hope" in her engaged Buddhist practice of ecological activism.

Buddhism teaches that love and compassion are antidotes to suffering. By cultivating love for ourselves and others, we can soften the edges of grief and find solace in the interconnectedness of all living beings. The practice of mindfulness, central to Buddhist teachings, encourages us to fully experience our grief in the present moment without judgment or anxiety. This approach allows grief to be a catalyst for personal growth and a deeper understanding of the human experience.

When we don't face our grief an unseen link between grief, anxiety and depression can form. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health challenges faced by people around the world in our modern times. While they may manifest differently, there can be a deep and intricate connection between the two, often intertwined with the way our culture is not very effective at processing grief.

Grief, is a complex emotional response to loss. This loss might be the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a major life change, the loss of habitat or wildlife or even the loss of a dream, expectation or world view. When grief is not fully allowed to manifest and is suppressed or denied, it can lead to a cascade of emotional consequences. One of these consequences is anxiety.

When grief isn't addressed, the emotions associated with it can linger beneath the surface, simmering with unexpressed intensity. This unresolved emotional burden can give rise to anxiety. Anxiety is often characterised by feelings of apprehension, restlessness, and a sense of impending doom. It's as if the mind is on high alert, anticipating something challenging or threatening to happen.

The connection between unprocessed grief and anxiety can be thought of as a sort of emotional pressure cooker. The more grief remains unacknowledged, the more it contributes to a general sense of unease. This can lead to a persistent state of anxiety as the mind grapples with the weight of emotions it hasn't been allowed to process.

Over time, the persistent anxiety arising from unaddressed grief can evolve into depression. Depression often carries a sense of emotional heaviness, emptiness, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. The energy it takes to suppress the unexpressed grief can be exhausting, leaving individuals feeling drained and hopeless.

Depression can also be seen as a sort of defence mechanism. When the mind realises that the anxiety and suppressed grief are too overwhelming to manage, it might shift into a state of depression as a way to conserve emotional resources. This can lead to feelings of numbness and a desire to withdraw from the world and isolate ourselves. Processing grief is different because it connects us to life and ultimately what we love.

Understanding the link between anxiety, unprocessed grief, and depression underscores the significance of addressing grief in a healthy and compassionate way. Allowing oneself to grieve, to feel the pain of loss, and to express those emotions is crucial for emotional wellbeing. It's not about dwelling in sorrow indefinitely, but about honouring the depth of human emotions.

Therapeutic interventions, support groups, and even personal practices like journaling, nature connection, grief practices or mindfulness can provide avenues for processing grief. By acknowledging grief, we not only reduce the risk of it transforming into anxiety and depression but also create opportunities for personal growth, emotional depth and resilience.

Stephen Jenkinson's insights and the Buddhist perspective on transforming grief share common ground in their emphasis on presence, awareness, and love. Both approaches encourage us to engage with grief rather than avoid it, acknowledging its transformative potential.

Jenkinson's call to be "grief-literate" aligns with the Buddhist notion of cultivating mindfulness. Both philosophies invite us to engage with our emotions authentically, allowing them to unfold and reveal their teachings. When we face grief head-on, we create space for compassion to emerge, both for ourselves and for others who share in the experience of suffering.

Grief, a universal human experience, holds the power to shape our lives profoundly. Exploring the insights of Stephen Jenkinson and the wisdom of Buddhism allows us to navigate this complex emotion with greater understanding and compassion. By embracing grief as a teacher and allowing love to guide us through the process, we can transform our sorrow into a source of profound growth and connection. In the intersection of Jenkinson's teachings and the Buddhist path, we find a holistic approach to grief—one that honours the depths of human experience and the transformative potential of love.


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