The Power of Lamenting: An Alternative to Numbness and Rage

rain-against-windowHere are a couple of questions for you. What happens inside you when you when you read or listen to the daily litany of abuse of power, suffering, injustice, murder, war, and destruction of the earth? What do you do when someone close to you has been hurt by unethical actions?

Asking around, these are the things I’ve heard.

“I just get numb because I don’t think I could bear the amount of pain I would feel.”

“Well, I get mad at the news companies because they just seem to look for the bad stuff and don’t give us a balance. There’s good stuff happening too, but I guess that doesn’t sell.”

“I find I can’t see violent movies anymore even if they are Academy Award winners. Hurts too much.”

“I glaze over so I can subdue my feelings.”

“I feel so upset and helpless that it turns to hopelessness. When it’s hopeless, I disempower myself because there’s nothing useful I can do anyway, so why bother?”

“When something gets to me, I can’t sleep at night.”

“I feel disappointed in people. We know better than what we do.”

“I just don’t read the paper or listen to the news anymore. I don’t want to support this kind of newscasting.”

“I try to offset the bad news with looking at the bright side. I think I do this too quickly in an effort to avoid feeling bad.”

Do any or many of these responses feel familiar to you? Anything you want to add?

Of course, how we deal with human suffering is one of the universal core life questions that each of us must find an answer to. This question has two dimensions—how will you BE with suffering and what will you DO about it? This article speaks to the kinds of inner doing that can help you be with terrible and disturbing things.

Recently, I was singing in a chanting group. One of our songs was a lament. We were to let go in wailing sounds for some minutes, and then we sang the words of the lament. Stefan Waligur, the leader, reminded us that wailing and keening are an historic and current form of individual and group response to suffering, grief, and injustice. Wailing is often, though not always, the work of women on behalf of the whole community or the whole family. Wailing walls. Wailing in the streets. Wailing over the bodies of the dead. For many people and many cultures, this is the appropriate way to respond to terrible things.

For me, the lamenting sounds felt good and relieving. I was surprised because I tend toward stoically managing my feelings. Lamenting as a chant made it more acceptable for me. It felt good to let my whole body move and sound with the expression of deep grief. Stefan suggested we should make a place for group laments in response to a school shooting, flood, or insurrection.

Public or private lamenting, full of sound and movement, is a good antidote to the responses of fury, numbness, and hopelessness that have become our normal reactions.

My friend Robert said he noticed he regularly shut down about, as he called it, “news of the terrible.” He now has a practice of covering his eyes with his hands and taking a moment to let his grief travel through his body and soul after hearing something distressing. He says it helps him stay alive and real. When you numb yourself about bad stuff, you numb yourself about good stuff, too. Numbing is not selective.

Public or private lamenting, full of sound and movement, is a good antidote to the responses of fury, numbness, and hopelessness that have become our normal reactions.

A study comparing meditation masters and ordinary people in terms of how they respond to disturbing images found that the people in both groups responded to the disturbing images with an equal level of pain and upset. The only difference was that the meditation masters were more resilient and returned to their normal state of equanimity much sooner. Their emotions were quick spikes, whereas the non-meditators stayed in their distress for a significantly longer time. I think regular lamenting could have the same effect of increasing resilience.

My friend Charna suggests a Buddhist practice of consciously breathing in suffering and breathing out love. “We live in a field of energy,” she says. “When I focus on the suffering-and-love exchange, I feel like I am keeping my own system healthy and contributing to the health of the energy field.”

The TV series Nova has a program about the earth atmosphere that showed equipment measuring a remarkably constant global electronic signature of 8 megahertz. This is kept regular by the spikes of lightning that are constantly spread through the atmosphere, steadying the electrical charge. Globally, there are some 8,640,000 lightning flashes worldwide every day! It seems even nature keeps in balance by quick energy spikes.

The process of consciously lamenting could be an often-missing link to maintaining personal balance and resilience. It could help us stay emotionally open and respond to news of the terrible with grief and lamenting instead of rage, numbing, and hopelessness.

Please try making a place for lamenting in your life, and let me know in the comments section what you find out.

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  • JC

    July 1st, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    I couldn’t help thinking of this verse in the bible,
    “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered”.
    Romans 8:26

  • Fallon

    July 2nd, 2014 at 4:18 AM

    Thank you for the reminder to allow FEELING back into our lives. For the longest time, I think that may of us try to block out what is going on around us because it always seems all bad.
    There are other things out there, other stories that offer hope instead of that blinding rage, but these are the stories that we have to find and often cultivate ourselves.
    Rare is the time when good news trumps the sensationalized bad news.

  • Susie

    July 2nd, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Thank you for this post ♡Cedar. It is affirming.
    Our home of 34 years burned down in January. The end of May was the beginning of the Demolition. In a post I wrote about it to farewell our home.

    And then just last week I had the opportunity to go and listen to a performance of the Gyuto Monks with their deep guttural chanting. I bought a CD and have been chanting Om Mani Padme Hum [the Compassion mantra] along with them.
    I hadn’t made the connection till now of it continuing to cleanse the pain and keeping my heart open.
    With LOVE-ing gratitude,Susie♡

  • jorrell

    July 2nd, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    We have become so accustomed to hiding our feelings that for the most part it feels strange to have that encouragement to publicly lament, let others in on your feelings and to truly let it all out so that eventually you can let it all go.
    Why hold onto all of this internal pain when we do and it gets us nowhere? This does not allow us to ehal or to get stronger, it only serves to continue to weight us down.
    Let it out and become free of that pain, share with others your grief, and move forward to a better place that you feel more acceptance and embraced by the love of the world.

  • Cedar B.

    July 9th, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    So good to hear that this strikes a chord for you. Yes, I do believe that we hold our feelings in to our detriment. We so need to keep the channels clear and unclogged so we can respond to all the things life offers us. Thanks for reading this. Cedar

  • Cindy

    July 23rd, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    Cedar, Thank you for affirming an impulse I’ve had to offer a “Wailing Wednesday” once a month. If you have any lamenting or wailing resources you might share, please let me know. It is interesting you are also exploring/sharing around vulnerability and courage, both of which I find are currently “up” in spiritual, therapeutic and coaching conversations. On a different topic… I was surprised today to see a Sounds True title by Peter Block: The Right Use of Power: How Stewardship Replaces Leadership. Have you seen this? Love to you and Ren from the heartland, Cindy

  • Rebecca

    November 4th, 2015 at 7:56 AM

    This was an excellent article. Lamenting is what I have gone through my whole life during extremely bad situations. I am so intrigued that you have given it a name. I now know the name of my suffering: lamentation. Thank you so much for posting this!

  • Joan Leary, LPC

    January 23rd, 2016 at 4:47 AM

    Thank you very much for bringing this to my awareness. I often battle between listening to and reading the news vs hiding and attempts to protect myself from the horror of today’s violence and peoples’ acceptance of that being the norm. I am going to practice the lament.

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