With the regular practice of meditation there is a subtle but profound shift of mind state into a spacious sense of infinite ease and compassionate awareness. Thoughts and emotions still arise, but we are better able to see them as objects of awareness passing through. When our attention wavers and the mind slips back to buying into thoughts and emotions as the whole of our experience, we become entangled for a period. But then, when we remember ‘Oh yeah, I’m meditating’, the practice allows us to come back to awareness without self-recrimination. We don’t make an enemy of anything. We are grounded in a growing ability to hold all life experience in an open embrace.
If you read my last post, you know that I credit my meditation practice for getting me through a very challenging time as a caregiver for my brother in his last days of life. Now in mourning, I continue my practice. I stay present with what arises in my experience and take care of myself. I haven’t rushed back into life’s demands, but allow myself extra time to simply sit, walk and be. My natural inclination is to indulge myself in treats I think I deserve because I’ve lost someone so precious to me. But no amount of ice cream will change my situation. So instead, to whatever degree I am able, I give myself moments to appreciate life. Just now a little songbird caught my attention and I gave myself over to his funny little hopping about on the deck outside my window. Although we didn’t plan for any summer vacation, not knowing what our schedule would be with the care of my brother, my husband Will and I now we find ourselves taking little day trips and walking with all our senses more alert, noticing and appreciating this gift of life. We trim our to do list down to a manageable size. We live as fully in the moment as we can.
Thanks to the practice of meditation, I am able to notice the new set of post-loss thoughts that are arising. Now that I am not as exhausted as I was, not as caught up in an emotional tsunami, I can see the nature of these new thoughts. Any of you who have lost a family member will most likely recognize some of these avenues of thought that tend to arise.
What might I have done that would have made a difference? In this case, I had a few regrets, but none of my actions affected the final outcome, but it is not at all unusual to believe we could have saved our loved one. I am reminded of a conversation my parents had just a couple months before my mother died. They were talking about the death of my grandfather over forty years before. Dad said that it was because he didn’t give his father a ride home on a cold day when he dropped his car off to be serviced that he had the stroke that caused his death. My mother, married to this man for almost fifty years, could not believe what she was hearing. ‘That’s ridiculous! What a thing to think! You had absolutely nothing to do with it.’ And he seemed to accept with great relief her take on that part of their personal history. Had she not been there, he would have continued to believe that he killed his father.
Believing that at the time of his father’s death that he could have saved him gave Dad some sense of control over a difficult situation. That this ‘control’ was self-condemning may have felt easier to bear at the time than pure grief which demands a surrender to tears and a sense of helplessness that few men of his day felt comfortable with. He then went on to live his busy life without ever revisiting that assumption, and he was still holding that guilt. Fortunately, my mother was around to set him straight. But what if she hadn’t been? Had my father been a meditator, especially in the Insight Meditation tradition, he may have been able to do some skillful inquiry when that line of thinking arose in his awareness. We all have the opportunity to revisit erroneous assumptions as part of our post-meditation practice. Of any thought we can ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’
Who am I without…
The kinds of thoughts that have been coming up for me are also ones that are helped by Buddhist exploration. For example, the quest for identity. Who am I without my brother? From a Buddhist standpoint, this quest is fruitless, based in the erroneous assumption that we are separate, isolated individuals whose identity needs to be shored up and put on display for others to admire or love. The people around us are like mirrors telling us who we are. What happens when yet one more mirror — in this case the final mirror for the earliest part of my life — is gone?
To be honest my brother wasn’t much use as a holder of memories of me as a child. I once asked him ‘What was I like as a little girl?’ and he told me ‘You were a very nice girl.’ Oh, brother!
This is just one small aspect of a greater loss, and seeing it clearly as a craving for identity has helped me to release that thread of thought. This is not making an enemy of the thought. The process is done with great compassion and respect. The forlorn little sister inside me gets heard, and at the same time she gets the parenting from my wiser self that she deserves. Nothing’s being whisked away or swept under the rug — at least as far as I can tell.
Even if my brother wasn’t the most useful mirror, he certainly was the holder of many shared memories. It seems after every loss, I wonder why I wasn’t asking more questions, why I wasn’t demanding more stories. He was five years older and could fill in some gaps in my own memory. But again, from a Buddhist point of view, getting lost in memory pulls us out of the present moment, the only moment that actually exists. All else is just a tangle of thoughts.
Looking for a label
I also notice a desire to name this experience of loss, to define myself by it. There are words for children who lose their parents and people who lose their spouses – orphan, widow, widower — but why is there no label for this I can attach to myself? Is a word useful? Or painful? A protective shell that would limit me even more than it would shield me? Yet I sense that desire there. By noticing it, I feel freed from its lure. Noticing, not judging, is key.
Now is the time to notice
All these thoughts are fresh. They haven’t laid down a solid track for my mind to follow in a habitual way, but are feelers exploring a new space. What an amazing opportunity I have here to observe and inquire, to hold these thoughts lightly as they sketch themselves in pencil in my mind rather than letting them become indelible tattoos upon my psyche.
No bad days
As the days and weeks pass, I notice that some moments are more challenging than others. I guess grief is like a river that way, with the rapids and the placid lulls. Some moments of grief just arise, seemingly out of nowhere, but others are the result of dealing with what follows a loved one’s death. Yesterday I received my brother’s ashes in the morning and spent several hours in the afternoon helping in the final edit of his memorial video that my other brother has beautifully put together. Noticing and making room for the pain, allowing it to be present, is important. But allowing the moments to pass without exaggerating them is also important. There is a tendency many of us have to label day, a week or even a year ‘bad’ (on January 3rd, no less!). Acknowledging our unhappiness in the moment is skillful. Throwing any larger time period away because of it is unskillful. So I haven’t had bad days, but there have certainly been some very challenging moments that seemed to go on forever. And some very wondrous ones as well. Life is like this.
Shock and awe
The loss of a family member in his seventies, while heartbreaking, is well within the range of statistically normal life experience. It doesn’t make it easy, but it is certainly not shocking. In our family, as in most extended families, there have been more challenging losses because they felt very out of order. A young person dies, for example. That sets up a whole different set of thought patterns. But once we have recovered from the shock itself, we still have this ability, thanks to our practice, to see those patterns, to hold them with compassion, to gently question our own assumptions. In this way we make it possible to be resilient in life. We are not immune to the pain, but we are not keeping the suffering going endlessly by creating ruts of painful thinking for our minds to get stuck in. And we can see how the pain itself carves a larger space in our hearts to hold even more love and a capacity to see beauty everywhere.
My own mortality
Because this death takes place in my own generation, it naturally brings up thoughts of my own mortality. Thanks to the practice over so many years of noting the nature of impermanence, this particular thought strain is not as charged for me as it might be. Or maybe I’m saving it up for later. Who knows? The ‘I don’t know’ mind continues to keep me feeling buoyed by the wondrous mystery that is life. Que sera, sera, sang Doris Day, and my mother, and now me. Whatever will be will be.
Joy there for the noticing
The future’s not ours to see, but we often have a rather dim view of it. Neuroscientist and author Rick Hanson, for whom I guest teach, points out how our brains have a negativity bias built in for our survival. We pay attention first to what threatens our existence, figuring there’s plenty of time to appreciate what’s pleasant. This strong bias can become like an overworked muscle, so that we may focus exclusively on all that is wrong in our lives and not even notice what is positive, uplifting and pleasant in this moment. This can make us pessimistic about the future as well. Since it ultimately ends in death, and likely includes issues of aging and illness, how optimistic can we be?
So it is challenging to be present with our own experience, to notice the wondrous, the sweet, the pleasant experiences — not pursuing them to solve anything but noticing them as they arise.
Whatever you are going through in your life right now, stay present with your experience, may you allow for the sweetness of life to express itself in all its variations, without making an enemy of other emotions. Even when you are being jostled in a crowd, instead of focusing on the noise, the irritation and the hassle, open to the wondrous aliveness of it all. What a precious fleeting gift is life!