Note: This is a post written by Emily Willen.

Of the many spiritual teachers I have been blessed to have in my lifetime, none has taught me spiritual lessons as poignantly and as deeply as that of grief.

Grief is not a meek teacher. It is not a teacher that nudges you softly towards your destination, nor does it allocate your lessons in small doses that are gentle enough for you to handle. No, grief is a teacher that instead sweeps through your heart and internal landscape like a violent, raging thunderstorm. Its ferocity, its intensity, and its relentlessness shake the very foundation of your being to its core. In an instant, grief topples over whatever grip you thought you had on life and on reality, reminding you without any doubt that you are not the one in control. It plows through the entirety of your being, engulfing every nerve, every cell, every bone and tendon and muscle with its presence. It is a storm so strong and so wild that upon its departure, there is not a single remnant of the original landscape that existed prior to its arrival.

The lessons that grief teaches are many and the space that it leaves behind is vast. In my twenty-six years on this Earth, no teacher has so efficiently and thoroughly stripped away my ego. The sense of self I had so carefully crafted throughout my entire life—what made me “me”—was, in an instant, completely annihilated. That sense of self plummeted straight into the river with my sister Allison. My history, my childhood, my sister, my sense of who I was were gone. Grief washed all of this away instantly, just as raging thunderstorms winds can crush and clear away a house that stood erect for decades.

And what of that empty space—the space created from that storm?

What happens when grief comes to knock at your door? When he visits you and presents you with the most painful, heart-wrenching lessons that we as human beings can be asked to undergo in this lifetime?

What happens, ultimately, is up to us. Like any good teacher, grief presents us with a choice. Grief gives us the opportunity to take a path that will lead to the highest evolution and development of our soul. Conversely, it also leaves us with the opportunity to take a path that keeps us confined in smallness and brokenness.

Grief is the harshest teacher you will ever meet. And yet it is also a privilege to meet him. He has many lessons to impart to us when we listen to him and are receptive to his gifts. The transformation that can take place in the midst of grief is as deep and profound as the pain that comes from loss. But if we decide that we want to transform from our grief—if we decide that we want to take the higher path—then it becomes necessary for us to become very well acquainted with grief.

What this means is that we must allow ourselves to feel the pain. We must be willing to open ourselves up to the heartache and the sorrow and allow it to wash over us like a river that clears away everything in its path. We must stop viewing the pain as the enemy. We must stop running from it, stop trying to change it, stop trying to fix it, and simply become aware of it exactly as it is. We must allow it to manifest itself in our minds, bodies, and spirits, and breathe into it with courage. We must learn to watch the pain from a place of acceptance and equanimity. We must become aware of its presence in our lives and accept the fact that we are going to be living with pain for quite some time.

Only when we shift our relationship with the pain can it begin to transform us. Adopting this mindset—making this conscious, intentional choice—does not make the pain go away. It does not lessen the anguish or numb the sorrow. What it does is allow us to see the pain clearly and be present with it. This is a practice that we choose to undertake every day, every moment, with every breath. It is the profound practice of simply being with what is.

It is here that grief can present us with its gifts. When we open up to our grief, something inside of us begins to shift, almost imperceptibly at first. The energy that we were using to struggle and resist is suddenly freed up. Now we can see and begin to understand the lessons that grief has so graciously given to us. This is what grief asks of us as a teacher and it is what must be done on the spiritual path. It is impossible to truly walk this spiritual path without letting go of everything. We must be willing to face all of our fears, be willing to let go of anything and everything that holds us back.

Pain is purifying. Pain has the potential to purify the spirit and the soul, if we chose to let it. And, like everything else in this physical world, it is transitory. May we hold the pain in awareness while acknowledging that one day the pain too will pass. For now, let the pain come! Find the courage to walk straight into the fire. Let it sweep violently through you, let it burn up all attachments, all illusions, all the stories about who and what you were so that the truth of who you really are can shine through: unlimited, unmanifest, infinite Spirit.

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