Letter from the Publisher: An Interview with Francis Weller

Posted by – September 29, 2016
Categories: Interview

The Wild Edge of SorrowNot long ago, I had the honor and pleasure of working with psychotherapist Francis Weller on his groundbreaking book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief.  Shortly after North Atlantic Books published the book, The Sun magazine featured an interview I conducted with Francis about grief, death, authenticity, joy, and the sublimity of being human. An excerpt of the interview is included below; Weller’s perspective is so compelling I want to share it as widely as I can. I hope you are moved as much as I was by the conversation.

Tim McKee

Interim Publisher

North Atlantic Books

For a man who specializes in grief and sorrow, psychotherapist Francis Weller certainly seems joyful. When I arrived at his cabin in Forestville, California, he emerged with a smile and embraced me. His wife, Judith, headed off to garden while Francis led me into their home among the redwoods to talk.

I had wanted to interview Weller ever since the publisher I work for, North Atlantic Books, had agreed to publish his new book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Over the previous few years my father, grandfather, grandmother, father-in-law, and sister-in-law had all died, and I’d also moved across the country and was missing the friends and community I’d left behind. I’d been living with a free-floating state of unease, but I’d largely sidestepped direct encounters with my losses.

In his book, Weller invites us to view grief as a visitor to be welcomed, not shunned. He reminds us that, in addition to feeling pain over the loss of loved ones, we harbor sorrows stemming from the state of the world, the cultural maladies we inherit, and the misunderstood parts of ourselves. He says grief comes in many forms, and when it is not expressed, it tends to harden the once-vibrant parts of us.

Weller’s own experience with grief began at the age of fifteen, when his father suffered a massive, disabling stroke, dying eight years later. The long process of dealing with his sorrow eventually led Weller to his current vocation. Today, at fifty-nine, he uses what he learned whenever he sits down with a client in his psychotherapy practice or facilitates one of the grief retreats he organizes. Having been a therapist for more than thirty years, Weller says, “I sometimes think my work is simply to let people feel their losses.”

Weller holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay and two master’s degrees—in clinical psychology and transpersonal psychology—from John F. Kennedy University. He trained with the West African healer Malidoma Somé for two years in the U.S. and then accompanied Somé back to his home country of Burkina Faso for further study. Somé and Weller then taught together for five years. Somé says, “Weller guides us into the difficult geography of sorrow and brings much-needed medicine to a culture… [that denies] the daily losses that surround us.”

In addition to his practice, Weller is a staff member at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, which supports cancer patients who have a life-threatening diagnosis. In 2002 he founded WisdomBridge, which seeks to combine the wisdom of traditional cultures with insights from Western spiritual, poetic, and psychological perspectives. He leads rituals designed to help participants release their grief through writing, singing, and movement. For the last seventeen years he has led the year-long Men of Spirit initiation program through WisdomBridge. Weller has also taught at Sonoma State University, the Sophia Center in Oakland, California, and the Minnesota Men’s Conference.

Our conversation at Weller’s small kitchen table lasted several hours. He often quoted philosophers, poets, and sages, saying he’d committed many verses to memory because they helped him in his work. At one point I reminded him of an earlier offer of lunch. We laughed as we realized that we’d become so intent on our discussion, we’d forgotten to eat.

McKee: You say our society is averse to grieving. How so?

Weller: Expressing grief has always been a challenge. The main difference between our society and societies in the past is how private we are with it today. Through most of human history grief has been communal. The Pueblo people of the Southwest, for example, have “crying songs” to help move grief along. The Mohawk traditions have the “condolence ritual,” where they tend to the bereaved with an elegant series of gestures, such as wiping tears from the eyes with the soft skin of a fawn. The healers in those traditions know it is not good to carry grief in the body for a long time.

But now we’re asked—and sometimes forced—to carry grief as a solitary burden. And the psyche knows we are not capable of handling grief in isolation. So it holds back from going into that territory until the conditions are right—which they rarely are. The message is “Get over it. Get back to work.” Again and again in my practice clients come to me with a depression that is more of an oppression: a result of so many years of sorrow that have not been touched with kindness or compassion or community. You’re left with an untenable situation: to try to walk alone with this sack of grief on your back without knowing where to take it.

In traditional cultures people were often given at least a year to digest a major loss. In ancient Scandinavia it was common to spend a prolonged period “living in the ashes.” Not much was expected of you while you did the essential work of transforming sorrow into something of value to the community. The Jewish tradition observes a year of mourning filled with observances and rituals to help the grieving stay connected to their sorrow and not let it drift away. Most people today might get a week of bereavement leave, at best, and then everything should be fine.

In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction. Because we cannot acknowledge our grief, we’re forced to stay on the surface of life. Poet Kahlil Gibran said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” We experience little genuine joy in part because we avoid the depths. We are an ascension culture. We love rising, and we fear going down. Consequently, we find ways to deny the reality of this rich but difficult territory, and we are thinned psychically. We live in what I call a “flat-line culture,” where the band is narrow in terms of what we let ourselves fully feel. We may cry at a wedding or when we watch a movie, but the full-throated expression of emotion is off-limits.

McKee: How can we make ourselves more receptive to that downward journey?

Weller: The bias against going down arises from our cultural conditioning. Christian mythology teaches that resurrection and ascension are the proper directions for a spiritual life. The very earth is seen as a fallen place, and our bodies are perceived as fallen objects that can be redeemed only by the soul finally getting out of this tawdry place and moving on to its final reward. You rise above, getting better, higher, and lighter. But low-lying places of regression, of descent, of lamentation are not less sacred. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “No matter how deeply I go into myself / my God is dark, and like a webbing made / of a hundred roots that drink in silence.”

Right now your heart is beating in utter darkness inside your chest. You were conceived in the dark of your mother’s womb. Everything that is happening above ground is because of what’s happening below, in the shadows. We have to descend into the dark, yet we are continually trying to climb out of it. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake said we have to go to heaven for form and to hell for energy, and marry the two. There is vitality in that move. I notice a kind of anemia in a certain sort of New Age spirituality. There’s not much blood in it. It lacks the black earth of what in Spanish is called duende: the erotic, juicy energy that makes things shimmer. Blake knew that much of that energy is cut off from our lives and relegated to hell. So we have to go into the shadows and bring it back out. Our hyperpositive tendencies want us to do a spiritual bypass around the mess of it all, but it’s there in that mess that we are most human.

Ascent and descent should vitalize each other: when you polarize them, you end up splitting off what is “good” from what is “bad.” We praise success and despise failure. We value strength and devalue weakness. But then every time we encounter defeat, inadequacy, or loss, we’re at war with ourselves, and that’s a bitter fight. A client apologized to me the other day for “going backward” in his work with me, as if forward were the only acceptable direction. But the psyche moves every which way. It’s our job to follow its lead and be curious about where it is taking us.

Think about how much energy we expend trying to deny and avoid these parts of ourselves. What if all that energy were available to us again? We would laugh more. We’d know more joy. Life is asking us to meet it on its terms, not ours. We try to control every minute detail, but life is too rambunctious, too wild. We simply can’t avoid the losses, wounds, and failures that come into our lives. What we can do is bring compassion to what arrives at our door and meet it with kindness and affection. We can become a good host.

McKee: You’ve said that anesthesia and amnesia are the two primary “sins” of modern society.

Weller: We go numb to try to cope with the fact that we have not been granted what we need to thrive. The levels of addiction in our society are off the charts, and I’m not just talking about alcohol and drugs; I’m talking about shopping, working, sex. Addictions are an attempt to cope with intolerable states. The meager lives we are asked to live, in which we are often reduced to “earning a living,” are themselves intolerable. We are meant to have a more sensuous, imaginative, and creative existence. As children we are enchanted with the world, yet as adults we end up, as poet Mary Oliver said, “breathing just a little, and calling it a life.” That’s the anesthesia.

McKee: And the amnesia?

Weller: We are living in what writer and cultural critic Daniel Quinn calls the Great Forgetting. Many of us have forgotten that we’re a part of an ecosystem, a watershed. We’ve forgotten that we’re kin to all the other animals. We’ve forgotten that we need each other. We have forgotten what I call the “commons of the soul.”

For thousands of years we were nourished by being members of a community, gathering around the fire, hearing the stories of the elders, feeling supported during times of loss and grief, offering gratitude, singing together, sharing meals at night and our dreams in the morning. I call these activities “primary satisfactions.” We are hard-wired to want them, but few of us receive them. In their absence we turn to secondary satisfactions: rank, privilege, wealth, status—or, on the shadow side, addictions. The problem with these secondary satisfactions is that we can never get enough of them. We always want more. But once we find our primary satisfactions, we don’t want much else.

Though primary satisfactions are rare in our culture, we do experience them. We can remember what that felt like and let our longing for that state become our compass, telling us what direction we need to go to get back to those satisfactions. We can find them through our friendships, by spending time in nature, by risking being vulnerable with someone we trust.

McKee: A minute ago you spoke of the “soul.” How do you define that word?

Weller: I don’t use soul in a religious sense but rather the way psychologists Carl Jung and James Hillman and the Romantic poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake use it: to speak of the experience of depth in our lives. Soul invites the marginal, the excluded, and the unwelcome pieces of ourselves into our attention. Soul is often found at the edges, both in the culture and in our lives. Soul takes us down into the places of our shared humanity, such as sorrow and longing, suffering and death. Soul requires that we be authentic, revealing what lies behind the image we try to show the world, including our flaws and peculiarities. Soul doesn’t care at all about perfection or getting it right. It cares about participation. Soul is revealed in dreams and images, in our most intimate conversations, and in our desire to live a life of meaning and purpose.

McKee: You say we are “hard-wired” to want those primary satisfactions. Does that mean they are part of how we evolved?

Weller: Yes. Our biology and our psychology were shaped together over a long period of time to help us survive as a species. For the vast majority of human history we have lived in a tribal or village context. That’s where our primary satisfactions took shape. From the moment we are born, we expect to be a part of a tribe; to step out of our enclosure in the morning and see many pairs of eyes looking back at us; to find those people there to meet us and to affirm us; and to go and gather food with them and build a fire and perform the rituals the community needs. When that doesn’t happen, we feel a great emptiness, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. And then we blame ourselves for the emptiness, asking, What’s wrong with me?

I’ve spent time with West African healer Malidoma Somé in his village in Burkina Faso. When a child is born there, all the children gather around the house to sing a welcoming song. In the Native American Blackfoot tradition the welcoming ritual presents the newborn to the cosmos. The Okanagan people from British Columbia speak of relationships with a word that means “our one skin.” These practices help our psyche settle into this body, this life. There are many tribes today that have an active ritual life. Their members don’t have to deal with loss, suffering, illness, or death alone. Consider how different that is from going to see a private-practice therapist.

When I was in Malidoma’s village, every night at dusk the commons would swell with people, and they would laugh and share stories and millet beer and food, and the kids would play and then lie down on the ground and fall asleep, and the young children who were nursing could go to any mother for milk. Here we have “happy hour,” when we can go to the bar and have half-priced drinks; there they have an actual happy hour.

When modern people engage in grief rituals, they often say it feels familiar, as if they’ve done this before. Yes, we have, for more than two hundred thousand years. And then, within the past few hundred years, it practically disappeared. That’s a profound loss.

McKee: What does ritual do for us?

Weller: It takes us out of our familiar mode of functioning and into an altered state of consciousness. Getting there is not easy, however. Before I learned to conduct rituals to help people express their grief, I had to participate in many such rituals myself. It wasn’t until my third time that I shed my first tear. I carried an enormous amount of grief in my body from decades of shame, but because I was self-conscious, I worked hard to keep it under wraps. After all, I was a therapist. And letting go of it frightened me.

At the first two rituals, when I witnessed fifty people on their knees, side by side, weeping together, it triggered some ancestral memory, but I couldn’t find my tears. At the third I was still feeling stuck when a man came up to me and placed his hand on my shoulder, and that was it: I fell to my knees and cried for hours. The dam had broken.

The psychiatrist R.D. Laing said we arrive here as Stone Age children. In other words, we inherit at birth the entire lineage of our species. And yet now it’s “normal” to cry alone in our room—or not to cry at all.

During the grief ritual you go off by yourself to weep, and when you return, the group welcomes you back and thanks you for helping to empty the communal cup of sorrow. How many of us have ever been thanked for our grief before? We think of grief as a burden we lay on someone else. But what if it’s actually a gift?

Of course, the tears might not come. It’s hard to cry on demand. In a circle of thirty people, perhaps only a few of us might really grieve. But the others can support those individuals and thank them heartily—because they helped everyone. And the next time it might be you or me. We have to learn to think like a village. The ritual isn’t just about me doing my personal work; it’s about making it possible for others to do their work. We all need attention from the group; there’s nothing wrong with that. And we also need to grant attention, to bear witness.

You don’t need to wait for a grief ritual to work with your sorrows. Call some friends together to share stories and simply listen to one another—not to offer any advice but to make room for the unacknowledged pieces of our lives.

McKee: Are there any constructive ways to endure pain in private?

Weller: Inevitably we will be alone much of the time with our grief, and that solitude can be rich, as long as we know we are held somewhere, somehow, by others. Our friendships and our community enable us to go into that dark space alone.

The Irish philosopher John O’Donohue had a concept he called the “reverence of approach.” He said, “When we approach [things] with reverence, great things decide to approach us.” What if, instead of trying to outmaneuver grief, we came to it with reverence? Grief is not a passive state you’re “getting through.” You must find a way to engage it, to sit with it, to mull it over.

I think of grief as a visitation: something that comes to us. What if we treated it as worthy of our consideration and time?

McKee: I had one of those visitations not long ago. My wife, our nine-year-old son, and I were creating an altar for deceased family and friends on the Day of the Dead. I felt sad for the people we’ve lost but also fortunate that my life had intersected with theirs, even if only for a short while. I went to bed feeling alive and full.

Weller: If we have both an adequate level of companionship in our sorrow and periods of solitude that aren’t about distraction or avoidance, then grief will transform itself into tender melancholy. This life we have is incredibly short, but we’ve been blessed with it. When we shut off our grief, we forget that. To let grief work its alchemy on you yields gravitas, by which I mean the ability to be present with the bittersweet reality of life, which always includes loss. There’s no way to be spared sorrow. I wouldn’t even wish that upon someone. But we shouldn’t get stuck in our grief; it’s not a permanent address but a companion that walks beside us. Everything I love, I will lose. That’s the harsh truth. You either have to shut down your heart—and miss the love that is around you—or wrestle with that truth and come out the other end. There is indeed such a thing as joyful sorrow.

The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.

And we must have compassion for ourselves, too. When I lead workshops on self-compassion, I begin by saying, “This is a weekend in non-self-improvement.” [Laughter.] We’re so driven to make ourselves “better” all the time, as if the better we became, the more people would like us. We are mercilessly hard on ourselves for our losses, our defeats, our wounds, our failures, the parts of us that don’t measure up.

McKee: My son attended five funerals by the time he was five: those of his grandfather, his great-grandfather, his aunt, our neighbor, and the newborn daughter of friends of ours. Some people found it odd that we brought him, but not to bring him seemed more peculiar to me. Do we shield children too much?

Weller: People frequently tell me they were not allowed to go to a relative’s funeral as a child, and they are still angry over it; they wanted to say goodbye. I’ve worked with cancer patients who are also young parents, and most try to keep a brave face in front of the children. I’ll often ask if they think it might confuse their son or daughter to see Mom smiling but know she isn’t OK. The child may start to doubt his or her own experience. I’m not saying the parent should weigh the child down with difficult emotions, but children need to know that what they’re sensing is real, that the sadness and concern they’re feeling is appropriate.

Funerals are meant to honor our loss and put it back into a communal context, where it belongs. Without a funeral, the child may carry the grief privately, as something shameful that does not belong. Of course, many funerals today don’t give mourners enough permission to weep and wail. We deny death so readily.

McKee: At the funeral for our friends’ newborn, there was a moment when their three-year-old daughter began to wail: such a tiny person with such huge grief. It makes me sad to remember the sound, but it was also beautiful.

Weller: There are few human expressions more genuine than a cry of grief. We don’t have to wonder what that person is experiencing. It is the soul revealing itself: Right now I am just broken by this loss. It’s also powerful because we almost never hear it in this country. Many cultures, but not ours, have keeners whose job it is to sound the note that opens the gate, so that we can all enter sorrow together.

McKee: Can you give an example of what we might gain by embracing grief?

Weller: I remember one man I worked with who struggled with depression and addiction. He was married and had children but felt separate from his family. He also carried a degree of shame that made it difficult for him to make friends or let his wife get close. He told me that his parents had divorced when he was young, and he had rarely seen his father after that. I could tell that the grief had made a hole in his heart, and he had no way to heal it, so feelings of unworthiness had rushed in to fill the empty space.

One day, as we were working, the man reflexively placed a hand on his chest, and I suggested that he pause and notice what was happening there. He said he felt a tightness. I asked him to listen to that tightness and see what it might be about. After a few moments he told me that he saw a young boy in the woods playing hide-and-seek, and no one had come to find him. He couldn’t remember if this was a real memory or not, but there was truth in it: no one had come to look for him in his time of sorrow, and he had been hiding ever since. He was able to tell the boy that he was there and that we had found him. And he was able to bring that experience home and share it with his wife. Now, that’s grief leading to intimacy.

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About the Author

Tim came to NAB in 2013 and is honored to serve as publisher. Born in New York City, McKee grew up in Los Angeles and received a BA from Princeton University and an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri. He has worked in the nonprofit sector for his entire career, including serving as the long-time managing editor of The Sun magazine, the grants director for a social-justice foundation in San Francisco, and as a writer for several community-based organizations in California. He has also taught college-level writing and journalism. His book No More Strangers Now: Young Voices from a New South Africa (Dorling Kindersley) was an Honor Book for the Jane Addams Book Award and a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He is happiest when bringing necessary stories to the page.