Deep sorrow, especially when caused by the death of someone close to us, is a powerful emotion. As with other emotions, yoga philosophy focuses on our response to grief. Whether it lifts us up, drags us down, or confuses us depends on our conditioning by the modes of nature.
There is also a spiritual form of grief (vipralambha-bhava), which exists beyond the modes of nature altogether. Ordinarily, emotions are seen as either positive or problematic, relative to particular circumstances, but spiritual emotions, even grief, are absolute. They all express ecstatic love.
Grief in Goodness
Let’s get the joke out of the way, “good grief”… Seriously now, the feeling of grief is universal, but each person’s way of growing from their grief is unique. The mode of goodness involves purification of heart from selfish motives by way of evolution into a service orientation in life.
The knowledge which comes from service to others matures into self-understanding. When our response to grief is empowered by knowledge of who we are as spiritual beings, the grief will motivate us to give more urgency to self-actualization. Even as we work for that aim, our hearts will know peace.
Grief in Passion
Passion is about seeking selfish enjoyment, and grief smashes that. The resulting confusion about how to find happiness for ourselves is painful. Referring to the exploitation of things for our pleasure, Bhagavad-gita 5.22 cautions us about the passionate mindset:
ye hi samsparsa-ja bhoga duhkha-yonaya eva te
ady-antavantah kaunteya na teshu ramate budhah
An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. Kaunteya, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise person does not delight in them.
The words duhkha-yonaya refer to our passionate exploitation of things as the mother of misery. This is perhaps never more true than in a state of grief. Finding no joy in things that ordinarily please us can escalate into anger, or devolve into depression. But seeking joy is inevitable.
If we try to please others, especially the Absolute Truth, or God, that service inspires us to feel a consistent, dispassionate flavor of happiness. The path devotional yoga, or bhakti, offers a framework of practices which help us transcend the mode of passion:
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhokshaje
ahaituky apratihata yayatma suprasidati
The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which people can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self. (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.2.6)
Grief in Ignorance
The mode of ignorance drags us down from our true identities and needs, replacing them with false ego and self-destructive habits. In this mode, we may blame our unhappiness on situations which trigger emotions such as grief, but actually ignorance brings misery all by itself.
Ignorance presents many challenges for yoga practice. Meditative yoga involves looking inward at the content of our thoughts, letting them go and in that way, seeing how we are not our minds. But in ignorance, we may not be ready even for this simple practice.
We may have to first bring awareness to the environments around us. Just like the world around us, our bodies are composed of material elements. By contemplating how we are not defined by the elements of our circumstances, we come to see that we’re not our bodies either.
Grief is particularly felt with regard to death. In yoga philosophy, death is seen as the loss of the body, because the soul is eternal. The importance of this difference is pointed out in the first instructions of Bhagavad-gita, given in chapter 2, verses 11-30.
For a sample, here are verses 11-18 from that section:
asochyan anvasochas tvam prajna-vadams cha bhashase
gatasun agatasums cha nanusochanti panditah
The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead.
na tv evaham jatu nasam na tvam neme janadhipah
na chaiva na bhavishyamah sarve vayam atah param
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.
dehino ‘smin yatha dehe kaumaram yauvanam jara
tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.
matra-sparsas tu kaunteya sitoshna-sukha-duhkha-dah
agamapayino ‘nityas tams titikshasva bharata
Kaunteya, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.
yam hi na vyathayanty ete purusham purusharshabha
sama-duhkha-sukham dhiram so ‘mritatvaya kalpate
O best among human beings [Arjuna], the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation.
nasato vidyate bhavo nabhavo vidyate satah
ubhayor api drishto ‘ntas tv anayos tattva-darsibhih
Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both.
avinasi tu tad viddhi yena sarvam idam tatam
vinasam avyayasyasya na kaschit kartum arhati
That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.
antavanta ime deha nityasyoktah saririnah
anasino ‘prameyasya tasmad yudhyasva bharata
The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable and eternal living entity is sure to come to an end; therefore, fight, Bharata.
Arjuna was a warrior, and fighting was his duty. We each have a calling in life, a special ability which we can actualize to reach peak happiness through devotional service. Responding to grief in the modes of nature, as described in this article, either helps or hampers this calling.
When we transcend the modes of nature altogether, our consciousness is enlightened and revives its eternality, perfect knowledge and bliss. Our interactions with souls, with God, and the energies of the Absolute Truth are then colored by a spiritual suite of emotions called bhavas.
The sweet taste of loving exchanges which these bhavas bring out is called rasa. On the spiritual plane, any emotion can elicit this rasa; in fact, the most powerful source of ecstasy is love in a state of grief due to separation from the beloved. This is called vipralambha-bhava.
That topic is unique to bhakti-yoga. Going into more detail about spiritual ecstasies is beyond the scope of this article, but a closing meditation will hint at the potential for any emotion, even grief, to rekindle our spiritual identity in relationship to the Absolute Truth, here called Govinda:
sancintya tasya sadrisim tanum apur ete
govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami
I adore the primeval Lord Govinda, the meditators of whom, by meditating upon Him under the sway of wrath, amorous passion, natural friendly love, fear, parental affection, delusion, reverence and willing service, attain to bodily forms befitting the nature of their contemplation.