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Softening the Belly... of Sorrow

by Stephen Levine • New Mexico

Reprinted from: Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart ©
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. It’s 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 lifetime’s worth of grief in the belly. This is our unattended sorrow, from beyond which some inherent mercy calls upon us to release the heart.

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; we’re a bit more able to continue on with our lives.

"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 belly.

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 there’s 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 it’s 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 don’t think we can. When we think we’re not up to our grief, that’s 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 won’t 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