My friend L has been hanging out for months in a swamp of sad feelings. It all started, she tells me, a week after she broke up with a guy she’d been dating. She doesn’t understand why the experience triggered such a reaction. It wasn’t a serious relationship, and she was the one to end it. “But now,” she says, “I’ve become obsessed with endings—all the things that haven’t worked out for me, all the sad stories I hear about other people. I can’t let go of this feeling of grief.”
L says that all she wants to do is cry, watch sad movies, and cry some more. It’s as if she’s enjoying the blues. She says the sadness feels juicy, even delicious. It feels good to let herself grieve.
You might wonder why anyone would want to hang out in sad feelings. Most of us try to get over our sadness, or at least come up with other ways of engaging life. Yet if you’re at all romantic or nostalgic, if you’ve ever experienced the strange sweetness of missing a person or a place, or mourning love’s passing, if you’re a lover of Rumi and the other Sufi poets of longing, you’ve probably felt the depth and aliveness that sadness can engender. You might even notice, as L did, that it feels quite a lot like love.
In L’s case, there’s a good psychological explanation for her tendency to conflate sadness with love: She was the youngest child of busy parents who never showed up at softball games or choir recitals, and she grew up crying over broken promises and sad love songs. Nonetheless, L in her own way is discovering the truth that sadness can itself be a path.
“This sounds weird,” she told me, “but I feel as if all this grief is opening my heart. It feels painful, but it’s tender as well. I look at people on the street, and I wonder if they don’t have grief in their lives. Sometimes it’s as if my heart is about to spill over.”
Sadness is a swampy emotion. Like a fugue with only minor chords, sadness tends to cycle round well-known melodies—the ache of self-pity with its narrative of victimization, the somber notes of despair, the dark tones of hopelessness. Left to feed on itself, sadness can turn into depression, and it unquestionably messes with your immune system.
Yet, paradoxically, there’s another face to sadness, a sweet secret core that opens like a hidden doorway into a state that, yes, looks a lot like love. Just as anger can be a doorway into strength, and desire the force behind creativity, so sorrow can trigger soft-heartedness, humility, and other profound spiritual emotions.
All this jibes with a fundamental insight of the Tantric traditions: the understanding that difficult feelings—terror, lust, and anger as well as sadness—which act like poisons on the body and mind, can also be ladders to transcendence. Their power to drag you down can, if properly engaged, lift you beyond the ordinary way of seeing and being.
The Tantric tradition regards everything that exists as being made of divine creative energy, a radically nondual view that can help you recognize the hidden power that arises when you approach negative states constructively. As a Tantric aphorism goes, “That by which you fall is that by which you rise.”
Granted, this way of working with sadness isn’t easy. It’s a lot like surfing. To succeed at it, you need to attune yourself to the currents and swells. You need to be willing to suffer the occasional wipeout. And you need to be clear about the qualities of the surf—in other words, to know which level of sadness you’re engaging.
The Trouble with Sad Stories
On one level, sadness is simply a natural emotion, the basic human response to any loss. Ideally, you’d let it move through you, feeling it without holding on. But simple sadness has a way of morphing into something more shadowy when, instead of letting go, you let it settle in, becoming part of a growing bundle of losses. Early childhood griefs, emotional whammies that at the time simply felt too overwhelming to be processed, often get locked into the body, forming neuronal connections that are triggered with each new loss.
For someone like L, breaking up with a boyfriend is that sort of trigger. The recent event brings up her cache of childhood disappointments, so that what should be a passing sadness becomes a huge swell threatening to swamp her. To complicate matters, L, like most of us, has a story she developed to make sense of those early losses.
It’s our stories as much as the losses themselves that perpetuate the sadness, even becoming self-fulfilling blueprints that shape future situations. My friend C, whose sick mother rarely touched or even spoke to him, grew up with the assumption that “No one is there for me.” Not surprisingly, he involves himself with friends, business partners, and lovers who “prove” that assumption correct.
Transform your Sadness
The good news is that the very recognition of the different layers of your personal sadness can open the door into what I like to call “transformative sadness.” Transformative sadness often begins with the realization that suffering and grief are universal, that they occur in everyone’s life. Knowing that, you can step away from identifying with your sense of sadness and begin to work with it.
An influential novel by the great 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, told the story of a student whose sadness seemed to arise without a personal cause. Goethe referred to this sadness as Weltschmerz (literally, “world-sorrow”)—an almost transcendent feeling of pain for the state of the world. Goethe’s story struck such a chord that it inspired a fashion for melancholic behavior and even a rash of teen suicides in Germany.
Nonetheless, Goethe was hinting at something about the nature of reality. He seems to have understood that when you face your own sadness, you realize that sadness is not just personal. On some level, all sadness is The Sadness, the nonpersonal human sadness you feel when you recognize that nothing lasts, that plans and dreams rarely turn out as expected, and that the world is filled with apparent injustice. Looked at from that point of view, transformational sadness is the felt experience of the Buddha’s first noble truth: There is suffering.
For centuries, yogis, mystics, and meditators skillful or lucky enough to confront their bedrock suffering with some degree of awareness have found it to be a catalyst for profound spiritual growth. The 20th-century spiritual master Chögyam Trungpa, when asked what he did when facing great discomfort, said, “I try to stay in it as long as I can.” Trungpa (whose own life included exile from his homeland, serious physical disabilities, and alcoholism) was not suggesting that we wallow in or cultivate suffering. He was describing a Tantric practice for dealing with strong negative experience by being present with it and, ultimately, working with it as energy.
Notice how radically different this approach is from the ordinary response to sadness. If you’re like most of us, you deal with any form of suffering by avoiding it. Even if you’re a dedicated yogi, you’ll have moments when psychological pain may drive you to eat comfort food, have a drink, watch TV, or bury yourself in work. At a more sophisticated level, you might use an endorphin-releasing approach like aerobic exercise, yoga, or even meditation to bypass sadness. Or you might take refuge in psychological or spiritual understanding, telling yourself, “I guess this is supposed to teach me compassion.”
This is not to deny the enormous value of practices that increase your well-being, nor is it an argument for getting mired in sadness. But it’s true that sadness begins to reveal its transformational power only when you’re willing to step away from even the most spiritually correct avoidance strategies and turn toward sadness as an immediate present experience, while dropping any ideas, associations, or stories you might want to make up about it.
You begin by simply sitting with the sadness and letting yourself feel it. You notice where it is in the body. You breathe into that part of the body, letting the feeling be there. You stay with it for a while. Insights might come up, information about yourself. When that happens, note them and come back to the immediate experience.
This kind of inner work takes a degree of courage and willingness. It isn’t easy to face into feelings of hurt and grief, especially because most of us identify, or merge, with these feelings. Even when we know better, we all seem to have a natural tendency to believe that we are our feelings.
To work with sad feelings without getting swamped, it’s important to have a practice that lets you experience that there is something beyond the “me” that identifies with emotions. That wider sense of being is often called the witness. Another way of describing it is as the nonverbal “I am”—the felt sense of awareness that can be present with those feelings without justifying them, judging, or blaming.
For most of us, the encounter with pure awareness happens most easily in meditation. The more you can anchor yourself in the part of you that is larger than the sadness, the more easily you can process the emotions that come up.
As you work with sadness in this way, you may become aware of another layer of transformative sadness—a sorrow at your own stuckness. Spiritual psychologist John Welwood calls this “purifying sadness,” or soul sadness, a direct recognition, he says, of “the price we have paid for remaining stuck in our narrow patterns while turning away from our larger nature.”
This purifying sadness is one of the most powerful of all incentives to transformation—especially if you can resist the urge to beat yourself up for not being better, more awake, or more compassionate. When you allow yourself to feel purifying sadness, you also open to your own longing to awaken, your wish to live with integrity, your desire to drop your persona and truly find out who you are as a free, fully alive being.
A Crisis of Love
A few years ago, I was privileged to watch a student, Bea, go through this process. As so often happens, it began with a crisis of love. She had been married for 10 years to a man who was also her business partner. One day, he called her from an out-of-town trip to say that he had been in love with another woman for some time and had decided that he wanted a divorce. Bea was, of course, stunned by the betrayal—blindsided by anger, a fear of the future, and, most of all, intense grief.
Her morning meditation, normally a refuge from stress, turned into a kind of cauldron of multilayered grieving. Because her thoughts felt so punishingly intense, she would focus on the part of her body where the emotion felt most acute.
In each meditation, she would find herself remembering and reliving another layer of her grief. Her husband was just the tip of the iceberg. She had a backpack of sadness: memories of lost lovers, of feeling hurt by friends in high school, of an overwhelming feeling of abandonment that seemed to have no origin. As time went on, she saw that she’d been living out a blueprint of loss, that her identity was based on a sense of herself as a person who was not allowed to be loved and happy.
The sadness that arose from this was so sharp and intense that it was like being cut with a knife. Yet, as she sat with it, she began to feel her way into the core of it, as if she were experiencing the very heart of sadness. One morning, she found herself feeling the grief of orphaned children in war zones and of men and women who’d lost their families. She began sobbing—but this time her tears were not just for herself but also for the wrenching poignancy of human life.
At that point, she said, her heart seemed to open outward, as if it were the doorway into a huge sky, and a feeling of tenderness moved through her. She said that it felt as if an ancient wall within her heart had cracked open, and she was sitting inside a field of heartbreaking, compassionate love.
Bea’s willingness to stay with her sadness—sitting through the layers of blame, anger, self-pity—had let her move into the profound empathic compassion that is its heart. She was experiencing divine sadness, the feeling that some mystics have called God’s grief for humanity. Paradoxically, that sadness was also filled with a sensation Bea recognized as ecstasy.
That event was her personal turning point. A few days later, Bea got up from her meditation with a clear recognition about her next step in life. Her grief had been processed, and though it didn’t disappear overnight, it was manageable. What I noticed about her was that her personality had deepened. Her conversation and her personal practice had taken on a more resonant, soulful quality. When I spend time with her these days, I’m impressed at how freely she is able to allow emotions to come and go without identifying with them.
Because, after all, sadness—even transformative or purifying sadness—is not a place in which to make your home. It’s a station you move through on your way to living your life with a fully open heart. When you learn the art of letting sadness move you into the heart, what you find there is not sadness but softness, not suffering but peace. The other face of sadness is something that looks an awful lot like, well, love.
Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute.