The spiritual Practice of Lament
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Our spiritual practices can be of great comfort and grounding during times of distress. Whether a global pandemic, loss of a loved one, or a myriad of other life challenges, spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation, or breathing can be balm for an aching soul. How fortunate are we, who travel a spiritual path, to have these practices for support. But…..
What if these practices are engaged in attempt to avoid the pain of grief and suffering? Maybe to talk ourselves out of the hurt? Phrases like “it is what it is”, or “it wasn’t meant to be”, or “it’s all good”, may be used to dismiss difficult situations in attempt to avoid the pain.
I wonder if in yoga communities, we become so focussed on ways to create stillness, peace, and calm in the body and mind, that we have forgotten the unavoidable, integral, and healing practice of lament? The spiritual way is often aligned with a positivity bias, and seeks out the silver linings, focussing on ‘counting our blessings’. While these are all great places to land on our journey through life, the problem comes when these practices are employed to bypass the reality of what it means to be human. This includes the inevitability of pain and suffering. Life is a cycle of birth, growth, decay and death. It’s the way it is. This cycle involves many challenging times, situations, and experiences. No one escapes pain and suffering.
All emotions need their full expression, to be met completely, including those we do not deem as spiritual; like grief, anger, jealousy, or fear. To meet these emotions and give them expression allows them to pass. Without this expression, they are suppressed, relegated to the basement of our psyche, only to return again and again, in an unending cycle of private suffering or self-defeating behaviours.
Lament historically has a communal context, such as funerals, wakes, and times of public mourning. The way communities would physically gather to help a neighbor rebuild a burned down barn is another example or acknowledging loss. In these communal expressions, people knew they were not alone. They cried together, sang out their sorrows, shared their broken hearts. Together, grief and suffering were processed through these bodily expressions of crying, singing, hugging, shared story-telling or reminiscing. The most intolerable part of suffering is being alone. Communal gatherings by design, expressed grief and voiced lament, and reminded all that we are not alone.
The need for lament in the time of the Covid pandemic is indisputable. How to lament when human gatherings are counter to our wellbeing is another challenge we face. We need to be creative and intentional to allow for the lament of isolation as well as the lament for the suffering involved in life that continue throughout the pandemic. Lament opens our hearts, expresses grief, bitter doubt, blame, anger, impatience - everything we believe should not be part of our spiritual path - but is equivocal with being human.
Whether we grieve the loss of a loved one to death, a severed relationship, loss of a job or career, loss of health or youthful vitality, or loss of contact with beloved others due to the need for physical distancing, lament is an appropriate, healthy, healing response. The spiritual practice of lament helps us to meet these painful emotions, express them, and ultimately allow them to pass.
Allow yourself a few minutes of intentional, mindful lament with this song written as an expression of grief following the Asian tsunami in 2004.
Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson