Opening Up to a Flash Flood of Sorrow

At certain moments, says author and change consultant Susan Quinn, meditation practice catches her by surprise.

Susan Quinn
6 August 2013
Photo by Matthew Henry

On Tuesday morning I started my sitting practice in the usual way. I pulled out my cushion, linked to the meditation timer on my computer, lit the candle on my altar… The next thing I knew, I was caught in an ugly flash flood of emotion. Sorrow, anger, frustration, bewilderment, loss—all of these emotions dragged me along in a silent, raging torrent that I could not run from or avoid.

Suddenly I recognized the deep sorrow in my chest, a lump in my throat, and thought of my favorite uncle and my aunt who had passed away a year ago; my mother who had died in February. I heard the brittle echo of my husband’s chronic cough; felt the tears for my loved ones whose friends, family and neighbors were dying; of those who were lonely and frustrated and undecided; who felt helpless and desperate as they floundered in their own uncertainty and fear. I was desperate to think about these poor, suffering human beings, but I knew that thinking was my usual strategy to avoid pain and create solutions. So I decided to submit to this flood of suffering and be carried along by its energy.

And then my own powerlessness kicked in—oh, how I hated that! That I felt there was not a thing I could do in the face of all of this suffering. I grasped at thinking again, to avoid the ugliness and anguish. So again I thought — of the pulsating dissension of our own country; of the countries who rage with wars and tribal resentments. Of a courageous little girl who at the age of 11 ran away from her family when they tried to commit her to a marriage. I’d much rather think of others who suffer, immerse myself in my own outrage at the historic divisions that seem to flourish in the emergence of crises that simmer and explode all over the world.

But powerlessness persisted. I knew I had to submit once more to do justice to my practice and to my life. I had to feel my own loss, my vulnerability, my own despair and believe that I would not drown in it. That the flash flood was demanding that I open to my full experience, not just to beauty, but to ugliness, not just to hope but to hopelessness, because I share all of it with the world, with every being, with all of the dharma. It is my nature to avoid the unpleasant, to see myself as separate from the despondency of others, and instead to celebrate the joy in my own life. And those can be good things. To appreciate, to know gratitude, to embrace friends and hold them close. But not just when it’s convenient. Not just when life is good or pleasant for them.

So I let the sadness and inadequacy flow over and through me. I just felt. Let go of thinking, analyzing, wishing, and desiring. And suffered. And then slowly, my heart began to feel lighter. The lump in my throat began to melt. I realized in one sense that my aunt, uncle and mother were always with me. That I could survive pain and powerlessness and sorrow when I succumbed to it and then felt it move on. As my practice has deepened, I have become more attuned, more aware that I do not live independent of others, but that we are literally connected. I can no longer cut myself off, protect myself or separate myself from what is. Instead I try to accept that there is often little I can do but bear witness, listen, and offer compassion. When I try to find my way back to comfort and safety, the flash flood may well deluge me once more, to remind me that I am all of it. In that moment, will I allow myself to be swept along once more?

Susan Quinn

Susan Quinn is a semi-retired independent consultant in the areas of communication, conflict and change. She wrote an essay included in the book, Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power. In addition, she leads a meditation group in Poinciana, FL, and trains with Lawson Sachter Sensei at Windhorse Zen Community in North Carolina.