How to Navigate Sadness Mindfully

When we’re separated from or lose someone we love, when things don’t go our way, sadness naturally occurs. It’s the sign of a tender heart. Unchecked, it can be deeply unhealthy.

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Discussions of sadness, depression, and meditation have become controversial, for the simple reason that severe depression has become such a widespread health condition. It is difficult to draw a bright line between depressions that are treatable through self-care and therapy and major depression requiring medication. We caution you, then, that meditation is not a panacea that instantly cures deepseated difficulties. If you are suffering from depression that is having a significant effect on your ability to lead a productive life, you need to seek guidance from a mental health professional.

One of the most common forms of sadness that all of us will experience is grief, arising from the loss of someone close to us. It’s well known by all who counsel the grieving that accommodating and healing feelings of loss is a process that can’t be rushed. It has its own clock, and the longer we were close to someone, the longer that time is likely to be.

Meditation can be helpful because when we get used to spending time with our own minds and not trying to rush things, we become more patient. We can also come to appreciate the necessity of sadness, how it grounds us and keeps us from becoming superficially cheery—glossing over real pain.

Paying attention to the physical sensations of sadness can help us to discover that the tendency to withdraw, to go inside, to conserve our energy. We are like a plant in winter: cold, dark, dormant. If we can accept this feeling as a natural part of having a human heart—that it breaks sometimes—we can give it the attention and love it needs. It may be painful, but being with the sadness without trying to do much with it is the best way to let the winter pass of its own accord.

Practice: Reducing Me-Time

One of the most helpful ways to let sadness be there without trying to fix it right away is to counteract the withdrawing tendency of sadness a bit. First simply contemplate others who have felt sadness, grief, and loss. Think of how your mother felt when her father died or the loss a parent felt when their beloved child moved away. You can also simply think of the sadness generated by war or oppression. In this way, rather than my sadness, it can become the sadness.

Practice: Take a Walk

Another practice that helps to moderate sadness and grief is walking meditation in a natural setting, perhaps together with other people. Find a place, like a woodland trail, where you can walk in nature silently and semi-slowly for 30 to 90 minutes.

Take a friend, agree on the basic route and length of time, and walk quietly. Feel the sensations in your body, take in the sounds and sights, while still keeping a steady pace and looking mainly ahead. Try not to engage anyone else you meet.

When you’re finished, do something nice with your friend, and don’t dwell too much on the darkness.

More in this series:
Working with anger
Letting go of jealousy
Lean into your fears
Connecting with love

Getting Started: Emotions was compiled by Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful, in consultation with:

Jeffrey Brantley, MD, director of the MBSR program at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Author of Calming Your Angry Mind.

Vinny Ferraro, meditation teacher and senior trainer, Mindful Schools.

Stefanie Goldstein, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of the audio program: Mindful Solutions for Addiction and Relapse Prevention.

Christa Turksma, child-clinical psychologist and specialist in developing mindfulness for teachers and families.

This article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Mindful magazine.
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