Softening the Belly... of Sorrow
by Stephen Levine New Mexico
from: Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the
by Stephen Levine (Rodale, 2005.)
We hold our grief hard in the belly. We store fear and disappointment,
anger and guilt in our gut. Our belly has become fossilized with a long
resistance to life and to loss. Each withdrawal, each attempt to numb
our grief, turns the belly to stone. Have mercy on this pain you have
carried for so long, the pain that sometimes makes you want to jump out
of your body.
Quite naturally, in the process of girding for self-protection, our belly
guards old wounds and steels for the battle. Over the years, we have buried
the ache of impermanence and the remnants of fear and helplessness there.
A shield develops across our abdomen, which mirrors the armoring over
our heart. As we soften around the sensations and gradually move into
them, they melt at the edge. Its not opposing the hardness but rather
meeting it with soft mercy, knowing that we cannot let go of anything
we do not accept. But sometimes, as much out of exhaustion as self-mercy,
we momentarily let go of the rigidity that holds our suffering in place.
Our belly softens just for a moment, and we get a glimpse beyond grief.
When we soften the fear-hardened belly, letting go of the tightness gives
us space in which to process afflictive emotions. When we begin to soften
to the knot of sensations that accompany a sense of loss in the belly,
heart and mind, there is a gradual release of pressure. As we soften to
the fear, anger and distrust that hardens us against life, we discover
a lifetimes worth of grief in the belly. This is our unattended
sorrow, from beyond which some inherent mercy calls upon us to release
As we soften the belly, letting go of trying to control the rise and fall
of each breath but instead observing it as sensations come and go with
each inhalation and exhalation, we begin to free level after level of
holding. In the levels and levels of softening are levels and levels of
letting go. Let old holdings begin to float in the new openness created
by softening, as there arises a new willingness to heal, to go beyond
our pain. As we begin to soften the belly, we unburden the body and mind
of their automatic withdrawal from and walling-off of pain. As these burdens
begin to lift, we find ourselves a bit lighter and the road ahead that
much easier to travel; were a bit more able to continue on with
"Going on with our lives," though it may seem somehow sacrilege,
is in our own time the work we do to honor the life we share with all
who have ever been born and will ever die. By opening into the possibilities
of the heart, expanding the space that is able to absorb all that is let
go of, we are able to find our own true compass of what is appropriate
to our own healing and go mercifully on with our lives.
Gradually, our attention settles into the abdomen and begins riding the
rising and falling of the ocean of our breath. On the inhalation, the
belly rises with the tide. On the exhalation, the tide goes out. A liberating
awareness begins to settle in as we soften to the breath and to the distrust
that hardens us to life. Let thoughts come and let thoughts go in a soft
belly, without holding, and without resistance.
The healing practice of attending our sorrow is done by: Sitting quietly,
closing your eyes and just letting your attention come into the sensations
of the body. Feeling the body you sit in, you begin to bring your attention
into the abdomen, feeling the belly rise and fall with each breath. And
you begin to soften the abdominal muscles, letting go of whatever holding
tightens your belly and maintains your suffering, softening the tissue
all the way into the belly.
Make room for the breath as it breathes itself in soft belly, noticing
how much grief there is in the form of resistance and an ache held deep
in the belly. So much fear and armoring. Let it all float in soft belly,
not hardening it to suffering, just letting it be in soft belly, in merciful
Let go with each inhalation, softening the belly. Let go with each exhalation,
making peace. Soften the belly to uncover the heart. Each exhalation lets
out the pain. Make room for our life in soft belly.
Expectation, judgment, doubt and all sorts of old griefs congregate in
the belly. Softening allows them to disperse. Pains, fears and doubts
dissolve into the softness, the spaciousness of a merciful belly. Even
the hardness floats in the softness. And theres nothing to change;
we are just attending to ourselves; there is no urgency in soft belly.
There is room for our pain in soft belly. The spaciousness in the belly
mirrors the opening of the heart.
When you open your eyes, maintaining this increased awareness, notice
at what point the belly tightens once again. At what point does the sense
of loss reassert itself and you feel a need to protect against further
pain? At what point does the armoring reestablish its long presence?
Soften with the eyes wide open to the world, softening to the pain we
all share and the legacy of healing exposed in our deepening softness.
Many people say they come back to softening the belly dozens of times
a day. And its a better day for it. Some begin the day with this
exercise for fifteen minutes or more and notice how this softening in
the body produces a deeply relieving letting go in the mind.
There are considerable gradations of our capacity to stay soft and work
with things that we dont think we can. When we think were
not up to our grief, thats a form of grief. When we distrust ourselves
and the process, our grief sometimes misinforms us about our capacity
to work with it. When we soften to that grief, we find that even when
we feel hopeless, we are not helpless.
Softening the belly wont perfect us, but it can set us free. It
initiates a letting go which frees the mind to open the heart.
We hold our unattended sorrow hostage in the belly, marbled in the muscle
tissue with fear. Our resistance to life and our impatience with ourselves
rigidifies the belly and excludes the possibilities of the heart. It makes
shallow the breath. But softening the muscles, softening even the flesh,
letting go of the age-old tension held there as if our life depended on
it, invites the breath, invites life, deeper within.
When we come back again and again throughout the day to a soft belly,
a sense of ease increases, which allows the quality of being loving to
flow unimpeded, as natural as breathing.
Softening the belly demonstrates how self-mercy affects our reality.
In a soft belly, there is room to live and to grow, as our nature allows.
Room to let go of the judgment that considers us somehow imperfect, room
to send with each softening breath loving kindness into the grateful heart.
Steven Levine is the best-selling author of many books, including A
Gradual Awakening and Embracing the Beloved (co-authored
with his wife Ondrea.) With her, he has counseled terminally ill people
and their loved ones for more than 30 years. His renowned work in grief
counseling has inspired radio segments and interviews as well as magazine
articles. Videos and audiotapes are available through: www.warmrocktapes.com