Healing through the dark emotions

Below are some excerpts from a Sun Magazine from a few years ago. The article is about Miriam Greenspan’s work about healing through grief. This book was helpful when my brother died, several years ago now. I posted these excerpts with different commentary first in 2007. I’ve made some edits to the commentary.

Grief has a tremendous power. When we submerge it in avoidance, we can’t use it for spiritual growth. Allow grief’s power to propel you.

The book is about embracing what is so that one can heal and transform through what becomes a process of acceptance. This has worked for me with not just more commonly understood grief issues but trauma in general too.

Miriam Greenspan, from Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the interview:

A psychotherapist for more than 33 years, Greenspan sees the dark emotions as potentially profound spiritual teachers—if we can live mindfully with them. She knows from experience: fate has brought her the death of one child and the disability of another. Though she believes in the idea that conscious suffering can deepen our connection to life and make us more compassionate people, Greenspan understands our tendency to turn away. She quotes from Carl Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious….This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular.”…….

……in her most recent book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, she argues passionately that the avoidance of the dark emotions is behind the escalating levels of depression, addiction, anxiety and irrational violence….her therapeutic approach encourages what she calls “emotional alchemy,” a process by which fear can be transformed into joy, grief into gratitude, and despair into a resilient faith in life. She questions the prevailing psychiatric attitude toward grief and despair, which relies heavily upon psychopharmacology to return as quickly as possible to a “normal” state. Her focus is on transformation rather than normalcy.


Fear, grief and despair are uncomfortable and are seen as signs of personal failure. In our culture we call them “negative” and think of them as “bad.” I prefer to call these emotions “dark,” because I like the image of a rich, fertile soil from which something unexpected can bloom. Also we keep them “in the dark” and tend not to speak about them. We privatize them and don’t see the ways in which they are connected to the world. But the dark emotions are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.

Oh psychiatry take heed! The DSM 5 of course now pathologizes grief. The following article was written before the DSM was published. What was feared has come to be: Grief to become just another form of depression? another disorder for the DSM5 (and alternative ways of thinking about that pain)

This is a post with a collection on grief: Grief is subversive. We might consider no longer pathologizing normal human emotions and behaviors even when we find them difficult or challenging.

Here are more quotes from the article with Miriam Greenspan:

Rather than let suffering expand our consciousness, we succumb to feelings of victimization of ourselves as sick. For example, psychiatry has no concept of “normal” despair. We speak only of “clinical depression,” an illness that can be reduced to a neurotransmitter deficiency. Even grief after a major loss is diagnosed as a menra1 disorder if it lasts more than two months. Our culture tells us to get over our pain; to control, manage, and medicate it….

…Cognitive therapy is great for becoming more aware of our self-destructive thought patterns and how they affect our emotions and behavior, but it doesn’t really address how to befriend intense emotions in the body. If I am awash in grief after my child has died, I need to go through that grief journey; I can’t simply think my way out of it…

….The third skill, surrendering, is the spiritual part of this process. Surrendering to suffering is usually the last thing we want to do, but surrender is what brings the unexpected gifts of wisdom, compassion, and courage. Surrendering is about saying yes when we want to say no — the yes of acceptance. This is what really allows the alchemy to happen. We don’t “let go” of emotions; we let go of ego, and the emotions then let go themselves. This is “emotional flow.” When we let the dark emotions flow, something unexpected and unpredictable often occurs. Consciously experienced, the energy of these emotions flows toward healing and harmony. I’ve found that unimpeded grief transforms itself into heightened gratitude; that consciously experiencing fear expands our ability to feel joy; and that being mindful of despair – really entering into the dark night of the soul with the light of awareness – renews and deepens our faith….

….”Surrender,” as I’m using it, means a radical acceptance of our emotional experience. We can simply say, “I’m feeling despair right now.” How can that be dangerous? If anything, this acceptance makes it’s less likely that we will act out of the emotional intensity. The danger comes when we can’t tolerate the discomfort of an emotion and so lose our awareness of it. That’s how emotions overwhelm the mind or impel some kind of impulsive, destructive behavior. It’s not the “emotion per se that’s destructive; it’s the behavior that comes from not being able to bear it mindfully….

….It sounds odd to us, but what we call” depression” can be a creative process and not just a destructive one….

….Grief is a teacher. It tells us that we are not alone; that we are interconnected; that what connects us also breaks our hearts – which is as it should be. Most people who allow themselves to grieve fully develop an increased sense of gratitude for their own lives. That’s the alchemy: from grief to gratitude. None of us wants to go through these experiences, but they do bring us these gifts.

The same is true for fear. We think of fear as an emotion that constricts us and keeps us from living fully. But I think it’s really the fear of fear that does this. When we are able to tolerate fear, and to experience it consciously, we learn not to be so afraid of it – and this gives us the freedom to live with courage and enjoy life more fully. This is the alchemy of fear to joy….

…Yes, we carry this mistaken belief that enlightenment means we do not suffer anymore. But it is possible to suffer with a calm, loving heart. These two are not mutually; exclusive. Enlightenment for me is about growing in compassion, and compassion means “suffering with.” Enlightenment has something to do with not running from our own pain or the pain of others.When we don’t turn away from pain, we open our hearts and are more able to connect to the best part of ourselves and others – because every human being knows pain. I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I’m sure it has something to do with turning pain into love…

….When I say we are “intervulnerable,” I mean we suffer together, whether consciously or unconsciously. Albert Einstein called the idea of a separate self an “optical delusion of consciousness.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are all connected in an “inescapable web of mutuality.” There’s no way out, though we try to escape by armoring ourselves against pain and in the process diminishing our lives and our consciousness. But in our intervulnerability is our salvation, because awareness of the mutuality of suffering impels us to search for ways to heal the whole, rather than encase ourselves in a bubble of denial and impossible individualism. At this point in history, it seems that we will either destroy ourselves or find a way to build a sustainable life together.


More posts topic: 

The book:

●  Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair


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