The Power of Sorrow

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.

By Susan Piver


Susan Piver is an authorized meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, the New York Times bestselling author of 6 books, including the award-winning How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) and The Wisdom of a Broken Heart (Simon & Schuster, 2010). She has practiced meditation for over 15 years and teaches around the world. Visit her website for more writing and discussion on meditation practice.