The Power of Lamenting: An Alternative to Numbness and Rage

Dr. Cedar Barstow

Here are a couple of questions for you. What happens inside you when you when you read or listen to the daily litany of abuse of power, suffering, injustice, murder, war, and destruction of the earth? What do you do when someone close to you has been hurt by unethical actions?

Asking around, these are the things I’ve heard.

“I just get numb because I don’t think I could bear the amount of pain I would feel.”

“Well, I get mad at the news companies because they just seem to look for the bad stuff and don’t give us a balance. There’s good stuff happening too, but I guess that doesn’t sell.”

“I find I can’t see violent movies anymore even if they are Academy Award winners. Hurts too much.”

“I glaze over so I can subdue my feelings.”

“I feel so upset and helpless that it turns to hopelessness. When it’s hopeless, I disempower myself because there’s nothing useful I can do anyway, so why bother?”

“When something gets to me, I can’t sleep at night.”

“I feel disappointed in people. We know better than what we do.”

“I just don’t read the paper or listen to the news anymore. I don’t want to support this kind of newscasting.”

“I try to offset the bad news with looking at the bright side. I think I do this too quickly in an effort to avoid feeling bad.”

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Do any or many of these responses feel familiar to you? Anything you want to add?

Of course, how we deal with human suffering is one of the universal core life questions that each of us must find an answer to. This question has two dimensions—how will you BE with suffering and what will you DO about it? This article speaks to the kinds of inner doing that can help you be with terrible and disturbing things.

Recently, I was singing in a chanting group. One of our songs was a lament. We were to let go in wailing sounds for some minutes, and then we sang the words of the lament. Stefan Waligur, the leader, reminded us that wailing and keening are an historic and current form of individual and group response to suffering, grief, and injustice. Wailing is often, though not always, the work of women on behalf of the whole community or the whole family. Wailing walls. Wailing in the streets. Wailing over the bodies of the dead. For many people and many cultures, this is the appropriate way to respond to terrible things.

For me, the lamenting sounds felt good and relieving. I was surprised because I tend toward stoically managing my feelings. Lamenting as a chant made it more acceptable for me. It felt good to let my whole body move and sound with the expression of deep grief. Stefan suggested we should make a place for group laments in response to a school shooting, flood, or insurrection.

Public or private lamenting, full of sound and movement, is a good antidote to the responses of fury, numbness, and hopelessness that have become our normal reactions.

My friend Robert said he noticed he regularly shut down about, as he called it, “news of the terrible.” He now has a practice of covering his eyes with his hands and taking a moment to let his grief travel through his body and soul after hearing something distressing. He says it helps him stay alive and real. When you numb yourself about bad stuff, you numb yourself about good stuff, too. Numbing is not selective.

A study comparing meditation masters and ordinary people in terms of how they respond to disturbing images found that the people in both groups responded to the disturbing images with an equal level of pain and upset. The only difference was that the meditation masters were more resilient and returned to their normal state of equanimity much sooner. Their emotions were quick spikes, whereas the non-meditators stayed in their distress for a significantly longer time. I think regular lamenting could have the same effect of increasing resilience.

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