In loving memory of Connie Smith Siegel, amazing pastel artist, color theory teacher/author, dance partner, and partier extraordinaire.
The other day when I asked a friend how she was doing, she mentioned being occasionally depressed, and she seemed ashamed of it. Why? Given current causes and conditions, who would not be occasionally depressed? What kind of automaton would you have to be to feel completely happy when a seemingly unstoppable global pandemic has taken 700,000 lives worldwide, including over 160,000 in the US so far this year? When our dedicated healthcare workers are being put at constant risk due to inadequate protection? When people have had their health permanently compromised due to the virus, many more have been plunged into dire economic straits, all while some fellow citizens refuse to take it seriously, putting us all in further danger. And then there’s…
I know, I know, I don’t need to tell you about it! And you certainly don’t turn to me or any other meditation teacher for world news. You probably tune in for relief from it—a bit of an oasis, a soft place to land, an inner tropical getaway. I trust your inner wisdom to get you here with whatever lure you’ll respond to! So, bring on the inner beach umbrellas! Cue the ukuleles!
Relax! Take a breath. Release the tension accumulating in your brow, jaw, neck, shoulders, hands or stomach. Practice bringing your attention back again and again to your breath, noticing the nature of the arising and falling away of sensation, thought, and emotion — ahhhhhh!
Okay, good! Do that as often as you need to throughout the day.
Now let’s talk about how we can live in the world without feeling the need to escape. We talked about cutting back our exposure to news in a recent post. But even without knowing every latest detail, the world is always with us, isn’t it? Accepting that truth, recognizing we are an intrinsic part of this world, how do we develop a skillful relationship with it?
An ongoing daily assignment of every Buddhist is to notice the nature of being alive in this body. Underneath all our relentless judgments about wrinkles or flab, we recognize that it is the nature of every living thing to age, to be vulnerable to disease, and to die. Yet we live in a society that encourages the delusion that we can defy the natural rhythms of life, that through the wonders of modern science we will conquer the inherent impermanence of the body. We glorify youth and see age as a failure. We paw at our faces in the mirror, feeling betrayed. Who has betrayed us? Not life! No, just greed at work, snake oil hucksterism in modern guises, trying to cash in on our fears.
All matter is impermanent, without exception. This is a core contemplation of Buddhist meditation. In fact, the Buddha sent his monks to sit amidst corpses in the charnel grounds to contemplate the nature of impermanence. Yuck, you say. Yes, but we can find more readily accessible ways to raise our awareness: Contemplate a bone, a fallen leaf, a flower after its peak bloom, a piece of over-ripe or rotting fruit, everyday objects that hold grand insight for those paying attention. Notice aversion arising. Then look anew, again and again. Find the beauty in the cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and renewal.
When we lose a loved one, recognizing that loss as part of the natural arising and falling away of all matter helps us to rest with the simple grief, that tender ache in the chest, the readiness of tears to well up, the unruly rhythms of natural emotions. This is how it is, and then it shifts, and shifts again. Staying present and cultivating compassion for ourselves, we live on when not so long ago we could not imagine life without them. To the degree that we argue with nature, we become ensnared in greed, aversion and delusion, causing ourselves and possibly others misery beyond grief and missing.
News of the death of people we know can also activate fears about our own temporal nature. An existential dread may rise up like a tidal wave with a powerful undertow. Since this kind of news happens more often the older we are, it’s skillful to be aware of that connection. We have lost several friends this year, all artists whose deaths were expected and who were surrounded by their nearest and dearest. Good deaths. May we all be so fortunate.
But every death is a reminder of our own mortality. And these reminders are valuable because they can knock us out of our delusion that sabotages our ability to be fully alive in each moment of this precious and temporal life. If you feel so moved, take a moment to look into this photo of my friend Connie in front of one of her paintings. Isn’t she beautiful? Now think about this: The last time I saw her, at an opening for her artwork, she almost didn’t show up, so ashamed was she of how her body had been changed by time and illness. But her closest friends convinced her to attend, and how fortunate we all felt to have her there. She was glad to be surrounded by so many people who appreciate her, who clamored to have a word with her, to tell her how much she and her artwork meant to them. What she saw in the mirror that morning was so very different from what we all saw. And that’s important for all of us to remember.
Perhaps you too sometimes feel your body is betraying you, that there is something inherently not okay, and you are denying yourself the joys of engaging in life (to the degree we are able to during this pandemic). Be brave, be kind to yourself, and most of all, remember that this is the way of all life. There is no shame in aging.
Every morning when I look out at our beloved Mt. Tamalpais, I think of the line in a Li Po poem that says: “Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains.” This reminds me not only of the impermanence of this body and this life but of this current state of affairs. This too shall pass. (Yay!)
Part of our appreciation of mountains, oceans, and stars may be the sense of permanence they offer in an ever-changing world. But the mountain is also impermanent. It’s just on a longer timeline. The ocean is ever-changing. Even the stars! How many that we can see still exist, given the light years it takes for us to see them? Whoa!
Expanding into awareness of the impermanence of all matter can either plunge us into fear or expand our sense of peacefulness. What does it do for you at this moment? There is no right answer. There’s just noticing.
Noticing what arises in our experience, we don’t push away what makes us uncomfortable. We cultivate compassionate awareness to let it be noticed, not making an enemy of it. This friendly noticing is the core of our practice.
So, no beach umbrellas here, no ukeleles, but a deeper release. Instead of escaping, we learn how to hold it all in a loving embrace, without expectation of anything staying the same—not our bodies, not our loved ones, not our surroundings, not our world. We set the intention to be skillful, to take good care of ourselves, each other, and our planet. And we do so, not out of fear but through awareness and compassion. Our practice in quieting down and noticing allows us to have insights into the nature of being.
The fleeting nature of all matter reminds us to soften into an abiding affection, remembering our deep interconnection. We are stardust in ever-shifting patterns in this infinite dance of life.
(Dance on, dear Connie. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding!)