The Power of Sorrow

March 12, 2012   |   61 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites


I don’t know if you have noticed this about your meditation practice, but one thing that many people report is a kind of softening—to your own experience, perhaps, but also to the world around you. There is a sense of permeability, of walking down the street and receiving input in a more direct way than before.

When you see a yellow daffodil poking up through the hard earth, you are struck by the delight of yellowness and touched by freshness. It is non-conceptual and immediate.

When you see the look of fatigue on the face of a saleswoman, the fatigue seems to momentarily seep into your own bones.

When you see a family reunited at the airport, tears of joy spring to your own eyes.

When something sad happens to you or someone you love, you feel it completely.

Somehow, you are becoming both more resilient and more gentle.

Without both of these qualities, you cannot accomplish much.

You cannot offer your heart.

You cannot love or be loved.

You cannot connect with your own creativity.

You can’t see the next steps along your unique path; your own destiny is a blur.

To be a warrior in this world, this kind of opening is necessary. However, one thing I have noticed in my own practice is that the more I cultivate this combination of strength and softness (aka compassion), the more I, well, sob. When you open up, everything can come in—not just what you desire and respect and long for, but also what you dread, reject, and find absolutely unworkable. The more you practice, the more joy you feel—and the more sadness.

Several years ago, I was at a program to study with my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He gave a talk on cultivating compassion and then asked for questions. I got up and went to the mic and, in front of 200+ people, began to cry. I said, “the more I practice meditation, the more I cry,” as if this needed saying. “This can’t be the desired outcome. What am I doing wrong?” I couldn’t imagine the world’s exemplars of compassion like, say, the Dalai Lama, going to his room at the end of the day and just wailing. What was he doing that I was not?

Sakyong Mipham looked at me with a lot of tenderness and said, “You know, some of the world’s greatest meditators have cried a lot.” In that moment, I saw and felt the tears of those I hold in the highest esteem, like the Dalai Lama, like Sakyong Mipham, and that somehow these tears did not mean I had lost my way, but in fact they were the way. The discovery and expression of our deepest humanity is inseparable from our ability to be compassionate, wise, and powerful.

So as you practice meditation, please try to remember that you are cultivating a kind of indestructible resilience, the ability to always, always, always return to balance. Thus you can afford to open, further and further. This is what is meant by softness. Without strength, your softness is a kind of wimpiness and without softness, your strength is mere aggression. Luckily, in our practice, we cultivate both simultaneously.

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  • Posted by:  Breton

    And exactly why a day doesn’t go by that I don’t recommend “Wisdom of a Broken Heart”.

    Thank you, Susan.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Thank you, Breton. Thank you, thank you.

  • Posted by:  Kathy Willard

    Oh Susan you expressed this with such profound perfection, nothing else needs be said. Not one word added or changed. I can only say thank you for having both and expressing it so succinctly.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Kathy, I am so grateful you feel this way. It means the world to know that what touches me, touches you. Thank you–

  • Posted by:  Kathleen

    Well, I started to cry within two minutes of your talk. Practice brings my resistence down, and my feelings out. Especially those I try to avoid. Then I feel more accepting of myself.

    Thanks Susan

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Me too, Kathleen.

  • Posted by:  Square-Peg Karen

    Reading this tears welled up in my eyes – it’s beautiful to have these feelings/tears validated (by which I mean – hear that I’m not the only one). Thank you!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are definitely not alone!

  • Posted by:  Donna

    Hello Susan, Thank you for this post. I have felt so many new happy feelings like I have never before. I have more friends, more life in many ways. But I too can cry more now. I cry without knowing that is going to happen. It’s hard to honor that process sometimes because my conditioning say no don’t cry its a sign of weakness. Recently I got on a radio talk interview with an author I admire greatly. Instead of asking a question I started crying yet I knew I was happy. I tried and tried to work through my joy and unbelief that I was going to ask this person a question. I could not stop crying and hung up as no question came to me. I kept listening to the interview and they said Donna call back. I cried in joy. I laugh now at how really silly fun I felt! That’s a wonderful new cry for me!!!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      There are so many ways to express yourself through tears…

  • Posted by:  Emily

    Thank you so much for posting this today. Tomorrow my 82 year old mother is going in for some very risky and scary surgery. My family has been in a state of great worry. When I sat down to meditate recently, I thought I was feeling fine but after 5 minutes on the cushion, I started to cry and wondered, “Oh my god! What will I ever do without her?” I was able to sit there for a full 30 minutes, focusing on those feelings of grief and on the breath and I felt about 20 pounds lighter afterwards. I was reminded of a quote by Trungpa Rinpoche. He said that most people think that meditation is going to be a sedative, but it’s not a sedative. It’s a laxative!

    The ability to calm my mind and access those feelings opened me up to them and allowed me to experience them and release them for that moment. They come back and I can do the same as many times as I can breath in and out. That lightening of feeling made me feel lighter and helped me be all the more present to my family who really need me right now.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Emily, holding you and your mother in my thoughts. I hope everything will go as easily as possible for both of you.

      Love, love, love that Trungpa Rinpoche quote!

      With love, Susan

  • Posted by:  Diane

    I am hoping that meditation will alleviate my need for cymbalta (only 20 mg now) as I feel it keeps me from feeling and expressing my emotions. -any input is surely welcomed and appreciated.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Diane, everyone is different. Whether or not meditation alleviates the need for medication, it will definitely make your path more workable. In all cases, stick with your doctor’s advice. Wishing you all the best– Susan

      • Posted by:  Donna

        Just a note: I to stopped psychiatric medications (one by one, titrating, taking my vitals daily) with meditation. I had a teacher that supported me and watched me. Honor emotions: meditate not medicate!

        • Posted by:  Susan

          V glad it worked out this way for you, Donna. But everyone is different! May all beings find the path that works for them. xo Susan

  • Posted by:  Sharon

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I sometimes would think I was weak as sometimes during meditation strong emotions would overwhelm me to the point of tears and I thought I was doing something wrong, thank you for sharing your clarity and wisdom.
    Love and kindness and may all be well for you and your Grandma

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sharon, thanks for the comment and good wishes! xo s

      • Posted by:  Sharon

        Susan, sorry I made a mistake; may all be well for you; and I send good thoughts for things to go smoothly for Emily and her Grandma; my illness at times can make my mind a bit foggy so forgive me;
        I am learning alot thru your talks and the support of regular meditation practice.


        • Posted by:  Susan

          Oh, Sharon! No worries. I appreciated your care and concern–they are what matter.

  • Posted by:  Amy

    Thank you, Susan. For so many years my heart was impenetrable, rock hard. With meditation I’m opening more and more, and welcoming all sorts of emotions that used to feel frozen. I love to cry in joy and in sorrow. It’ s how I know I am alive!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      That is so beautiful, Amy.

  • Posted by:  Sue Lesser

    I am grateful to you for sharing the wisdom you have learned from your own personal experience. It rings so true. I never would have thought that so much could be learned and shared on such a deep level on a website, you are remarkable and I thank you for your courage and bravery, writing to all of us out here that you have never met and yet are open to.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sue, I am so glad our paths have crossed.

  • Posted by:  Titilia


    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are so welcome!

  • Posted by:  Sonja Haller

    Ah yes! I feel this. The more I meditate the more I soften and the more I cry. But the difference in the tears is that they are not born of frustration or shame or despair but — just as you so beautifully described — a kind of empathy and connectedness.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      That is lovely, Sonja.

  • Posted by:  Katherine

    Thank you, Susan, for this beautiful talk. It reminded me, as I seem to always need reminding, of the beauty and the power and the tenderness of this open heart. It’s not always easy to remember this, in the difficult, crazy, sometimes mean, often challenging worlds we inhabit. So I will carry this reminder and your words in my heart tonight and tomorrow and ….

    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are so welcome, Katherine. And great to hear from you.

  • Posted by:  Karen

    Yes, Susan…

    Once again, you said it perfectly. I have always been a crier, but somehow felt that the cushion was an inappropriate place to cry. Yet, despite wishing tears away, they often come when I am beginning or ending my meditation. I’m realizing now that they are all a part of this opening process, of looking at the whole world with greater compassion, and especially, in holding my own broken self with more gentleness.

    Thank you again.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Yes, exactly. I wish you exactly this gentleness.

  • Posted by:  Lindsey

    Oh, I love this. It’s funny – I relate so much to the way the world has a direct connection to my heart – the daffodils, the family in the airport, the tired saleswoman. I haven’t yet begun to realize or believe that this has something to do with returning to balance, but if you say so, I want to trust it! xo

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Trust, but verify! Make sure it’s true for you and I’ll be interested to hear what you discover! xo S

  • Posted by:  Jorge

    Thank you for this post and thank you to all the commentators. All of it was useful to me. I have been angry for the last three months at someone. I won’t go in to the details, in a way the details don’t matter, except to say the anger was deep, very strong and a long time coming. Sometimes this anger manifested as anxiety, sometimes as rigidness, sometimes as a zombie-like depression. Your post today gave me a chance to catch my breath and for the first time I saw what the outlines of my forgiveness might look like. I felt better immediately.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Jorge, I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that I wish you well on the journey to your own healing. xo Susan

  • Posted by:  Chris

    Saying thank you seems so inadequate. Very recently my life has been shadowed my deep grief of loss that has occurred and more loss soon to come. I consider myself Wiccan (with Buddhist tendencies) but haven’t really been practicing despite feeling drawn toward it again. I’ve been afraid of being overwhelmed by all that I’ve been going through in addition to throwing in all that I would be opening myself up to if I would start meditating on a regular basis. This post made me realize that it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” choice – that meditation will make me feel more but will enable me to handle those feelings. I feel like you’ve returned a long lost precious gift to me and for that I say thank you. Yet I still say those two words are not enough.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Chris, so glad this was helpful. Means a lot to know that. xo S

  • Posted by:  Prashant

    Thanks Susan ! this was a profound articulation. Often softness is considered as weakness and meditation imparts the sensitivity to feel joy or sorrow deeply is a also vent for deep rooted remorse/guilt which is repressed and often hidden deep within. In addition is also as you mentioned develops compassion and deep empathy for the others makes the heart to heart connect.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      So glad to hear this, Prashant. Thank you. We think alike!

  • Posted by:  Dawn

    Such beautiful comments and such a wonderful posting by Susan. I am new to this community and I am so impressed! I look forward to exploring more.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Dawn, glad our paths have crossed. xo S

  • Posted by:  Suzanne

    Wow, So glad to read that my response in reading this (crying) was not an aberration.
    With love to you for all your teachings. You have definitely helped me to “connect” with others and myself.

    • Posted by:  Susan


  • Posted by:  Matthew

    Hi Susan–
    Everyday, the equanimity, the fine balance within my own life and how I perceive the world around me, becomes more apparent as I meditate more and more. The equation of softness and strength together is truly my sense of self warrior. Though I find I am concerned about the increased level of internal sadness within this process. I suppose it is a natural part and parcel of this path as it begins in earnest.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Matthew, I so appreciate the way your are cultivating the path or warriorship. Yes, it is disorienting to open to so much sadness as a path to wisdom or dharma. As you work with this, don’t forget the other two jewels: Buddha (the wisdom principle itself) and Sangha (the love and support of our fellow travelers). When we can balance the three jewels, we are in great shape, the best. With much love, S

  • Posted by:  Elspeth

    This is profound, thank you for this post. I think at our heart’s center, we all know this as truth. However, in an attempt to avoid pain, my experience has been that many learn to draw a separation between ourselves and our emotions. We think that we are building a wall of protection which will not only keep the hurt and pain “out there”, but also will keep the good within. Meditation has helped me to see that this “wall” is more like drawing a heavy curtain against an open window to keep out a bothersome noise. The noise continues to come through a curtain, of course, and what you miss out on is the fresh air and sunlight when you draw that curtain between yourself and the world. And to miss out on the greatest sorrow is to miss out on the greatest happiness as well. The whole spectrum is so vital to being human.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Elspeth, I so agree with your point of view! xo S

  • Posted by:  Alesha

    Hi Susan,

    I have felt this way also. I actually have had to stop my meditation practice for a while because the emotions were too powerful for me at this time, and were interfering with my studies (I am currently in a rigorous master’s program). I kept crying! And it was preventing me from being on my rigorous schedule. It wasn’t something that was a bad feeling though…. I actually wanted to stay in it and give it it’s due. I do feel a loss that I can’t be that intense with my practice as before, but I am hoping that I continue to so when I have more time available.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Alesha, there is a time for everything. Sometimes we simply can’t allow ourselves to fall apart and have to keep pushing forward. It is no easy task to be aware of your emotions and to balance them skillfully with your responsibilities, but it sounds like you are on your way! xo S

  • Posted by:  Leann

    Oh I am so glad to have found someone else who understand what this means! I sat my first Shambhala retreat a month ago after sitting zen style for 11 years. I barely made it past the first morning I was crying so hard! The teachers there completely understood anscribed it as touching the sad part of kindness (something like that). I haven’t really stopped feeling that way ever since. Makes it a little awkward at an office, I must say. 🙂
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Leann, you are so not alone!! I love what the teachers at your retreat said about touching the sad part of kindness, also known as the “genuine heart of sadness” in the Shambhala tradition. Yes, it can be awkward at the office! But as you continue to practice, you are able to stabilize your heart in the open state. Most of the time. There will always be those moments where it’s just impossible… Still, we are so lucky to have been given this technique to re-find center. Wishing you well! Love, S

  • Posted by:  Sharon

    Is there a practice that can help when feeling the pain or emotion of another in your own body; when it feels as though their pain has over taken your own body and functioning is difficult.


    • Posted by:  susan

      Hi Sharon. IS it really true that I missed this comment? I am so so sorry. If you’re still around–the basic shamatha instruction still applies, as difficult as that may sound–to feel the feeling, label it “thinking” and return to your breath. I hope this is (or could have been…) helpful…

  • Posted by:  Florence


    Your book The Wisdom of a Broken Heart helped me when I thought there would be no end to the pain and grief I was feeling. Now I’m slowly realizing I had been building up a whole lot of tears behind an increasingly strained smile, and I’m (mostly 🙂 ) grateful for the opportunity to start on a path where I will feel both grief and joy more authentically. It is comforting to know that others have experienced something similar and that there are others on the path with me. Thank you for creating the Open Heart Project.

    Be well,

    • Posted by:  susan

      Florence, I’m so glad the book was helpful.

      You are definitely not alone in your experience of heartbreak, although at the same time, each broken heart is unique…

      And thanks for being a part of the OHP!

  • Posted by:  Kelly Ann Pope

    This is exactly what I feel and I kept knowing in my heart that the tears were perfect and needed.. for guidance and adjustment.. things really are perfect even when we cry only when we also know we are centered, surrendered & loving ourselves.. you really helped understand.. I just found you for the first time.. and I will make sure to come and see you many many more times.. now I just need some more carbs.. lol Light & Love -Kelly Ann Pope

    • Posted by:  susan

      Perfect!! Nice to know you, Kelly Ann

  • Posted by:  Jaki

    and that is where I most feel the grief for my son… Thank you Susan for the work that you do -You are reaching my heart…

    • Posted by:  susan

      Sending love, Jaki.

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