Become A Lake

Grieving the loss of a loved one is incredibly painful, like adding salt to an open wound. When my client unexpectedly lost her beloved friend, she returned to square one of the Change Cycle, and grief set up residence in her heart. As humans, we signed up for loss and its companions grief and pain. The more boldly and lavishly we love, the sharper the blade cuts when loved ones are excised from our lives.

Salt stings.

Pain is inevitable.

Suffering is optional.

The Buddha taught this concept with the metaphor of the two arrows. Stephen Hayes, of ACT therapy, teaches this concept with the metaphor clean pain vs. dirty pain. Both metaphors share the same underlying principle:  life will give us pain, how we choose to interpret pain is optional.

The first arrow is the pain that arises in life. Or as Hayes says, it’s the clean pain that comes when we lose someone we love, lose a job, get rejected, or our body breaks down in ill health. Life is painful. Salt will touch our wounds. Guaranteed.

The second arrow is a wound against ourselves. It is the arrow we shoot into the wound left by the first arrow. It is the dirty pain that we layer on top of the clean pain. The second arrow takes the form of self-aversion, self-doubt, self-loathing or self-hatred when we listen to and entertain our false-self illusions. In my client’s situation, her second arrow pain was a belief that she had failed her friend. The sudden loss was her fault, she believed, and her mind worked overtime to problem solve a different ending.

Life shoots the first arrow; we shoot the second arrow, and by so doing add its pain to the wound that is already present. This is the difference between pain and self-blame.

When we stay present to the first arrow, we allow the natural, temporary, episodic rhythm of painful emotions. We feel an intense and overwhelming primal pain that feels like our heart is breaking in two. We surrender without fear or judgment and allow the sensations to evolve and transform. We allow the contraction until our body is ready to expand. This continual contraction and expansion is grief in motion aligned to nature’s healing rhythm.


Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small
contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.
— - Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Healing is love turned inward.

Healing is a natural, unfolding of grief. 

This unfoldment is meaningful, purposeful, and complex beyond all imagining.

Healing from grief doesn’t happen on our timeline. It happens in a way that is so perfectly orchestrated that when we look back we only feel profound gratitude, reverence, and deep appreciation. I call this divine timing.

Divine timing happens for us, not to us. When we feel heart-wrenching pain, we can surrender and trust that this contraction is a temporary, benevolent bird attempting to take flight, and that the pain will end when it’s time to shift to the next phase of life.

We will fly again. We will soar.

Allowing our natural contraction and expansion is a practice of building equanimity – space to sit with our emotions. The Buddhist’s teaching for this inner space is a metaphor on salt. When we place a tablespoon of salt in a glass and drink it, our tongue is greeted with a bitter taste. When we take a tablespoon of salt and place it in a lake, our tongue does not detect it.

Salt is pain. The amount of pain did not change, the container the pain was placed in changed. The more we open to discomfort, the less impact it will have on us.

The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things.... Stop being a glass. Become a lake.
— -Mark Nepo. The Book of Awakening