Category Archives: coping

Loss & Friendship: Spread like wildfire

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Mt Tamalpais, veiled with smoke for days

A series of natural disasters and senseless tragedies over the past month culminated this week in a firestorm in the counties north and east of us here in Northern California. So intertwined are the lives of people in these counties, that most of us in Marin have relatives and friends who have either lost their homes or have been evacuated and waiting to hear.

We have friends from downtown Sonoma who fled the fire and have been staying with us, so the anxiety is not just something we see on the news but an ongoing palpable presence in our home. Also my closest longtime friend and her husband were evacuated from their home of forty years in Santa Rosa, and my anxiety about them has been ongoing as communication has been difficult.

Yesterday at the end of class, I could hear my friend leaving a message on the answering machine. I did something I have never done before: I excused myself and ran across the house — so urgently did I just need to hear her voice. She told me that their home is safe but currently uninhabitable.

Even if we didn’t know anyone personally affected, the smoke fills our skies, eyes, throats and lungs, keeping us all indoors as much as possible, closing our schools and cancelling flights at the airport.  You can see from the photo our view of usually crystal clear Mt. Tam. And the sun when it sets looks more like a full moon, bright solid tangerine amidst the dusky smoke. How can we not hold those in danger in our thoughts and prayers?

In class I led a metta practice woven throughout the sitting, sending messages of wellness, ease, peace and happiness out to all who are suffering. As always we begin with ourselves, and at times of great stress this is especially important. I have been noticing that my personal practice is improved when I begin with sending metta to myself — ‘May I be well’ etc. — It is very grounding, centering and clears the mass of thoughts that can cloud my mind like smoke.

If you are affected by any of these scary and challenging events, or have any kind of anxiety or stress in your life, try metta practice to find solace and strength to carry on.

A few weeks ago I wrote about equanimity, the ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious balanced embrace. This unparalleled firestorm has delivered stories that remind me how often life offers up joy and sorrow in equal measure. I heard that a member of my high school gang lost his home to the fire just a few days before he will be walking his daughter down the aisle. Such a joyous moment for any father paired with great loss. A reminder of what’s precious and how fragile life is.

One of the friends staying with us had just days before been excitedly sharing the news on Facebook of the birth of her first grandson. Then she and her husband woke to discover their lives and home in grave danger of fire carried on high winds, encircling their town.

I remember one woman years ago asking how it was possible to hold simultaneous joy and sorrow. And now, having these two new examples, I wonder if maybe that’s why we are given two hands — to hold all that arises, whatever life brings.

I want to end with a story that my old friend shared on that phone call I raced to answer. She said that for a long time she had been asking her husband to go through all the accumulated stuff in the garage and get rid of whatever he didn’t want. They were his things so it wasn’t something she could take on. He procrastinated and procrastinated. And then for some reason, last Sunday he decided the time was right to go through it all. They packed the car up to the gills and drove down to their local Salvation Army. But it was closed. Oh well. No problem. They would just take it in on Monday. Then in the wee hours of Monday morning, they woke to the smell of smoke, alerts on their phones and had to rush to evacuate. They were lucky they were given more advance warning than some of their fellow citizens of Santa Rosa. But like many others they were driving a car filled with household possessions.The difference was that their car was filled not with the things they most cherished but all the things they never wanted to see again.

I have been honored to witness with both sets of friends the wisdom, compassion, resilience and willingness to let go that they exemplified. I am so very grateful for their friendship.

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

Preferences II :: Seeing for ourselves

In the last blog post we looked at how we can be imprisoned by our preferences. I suggested we notice during the week any preferences arising and what effect they had. In class we had an interesting discussion about our various findings. I have heard from some readers that this was a valuable topic for them. Maybe for you as well?

Let me confess right up front that, despite my intentions, I didn’t give up any of my preferences, my little darlings. The very idea!

But I did pay attention. When a leaf blower started making its noise when I was reading outside one day, I noticed my habitual reactivity…irritation, muscle tightening, asking why now?, etc. Then I challenged myself to simply allow that sound to be a presence. This exercise did not make me pro-leaf-blowers, but it did let me see how allowing my preferences to dictate my happiness is my choice, that it is my reactivity that makes me suffer.

I found it much easier to notice other people’s preferences rather than my own. Of course! (And that’s a perfectly valid place to start in any kind of inner investigation as long as we do it with kindness and the understanding that we have our foibles too.) I saw many examples of misery by preference:

crowsOne evening this week I was sitting on the deck of a friend’s house, savoring the lingering warmth of early autumn, surrounded by redwoods and enjoying the conversation of old friends. Then at the sound of a few crows cawing, the hostess, who is one of the most loving and thoughtful people I know, said she wished she had a gun! Goodness! She also has a sense of humor, but I wasn’t absolutely sure she wasn’t serious. Among the assembled there were those of us who loved crows and those who hated them. There seems no neutral ground when it comes to crows. I love them, especially the spectacle of them filling the vast sky at dusk. But I have many friends who are bothered by them, especially first thing in the morning when they can set up quite a cackle fest. I might feel differently about crows if they woke me out of a delicious dream. And I admit there’s a red squirrel who one summer totally decimated our Japanese maple. If that varmint shows up again, there’s no telling what my preferences might cause me to do!

I noticed how our own preferences can affect others. I was standing in line at the fabric store with my husband and little granddaughter, having her choices of gloriously tacky gold lame and pink with sparkly hearts fabrics cut so we could add a few more items to the dress up box. The employee was cheery, chatting with us as she cut. Then the woman behind us asked if they could get another cutter to come up. Not an unreasonable request. She was in a hurry, she had other things on her to do list. I could understand that. But at the same time, the air of happy collaboration on making a little girl’s imaginative play come true shifted to the employee feeling hurried and somehow failing in her job, even though she had been cutting right along; and my feeling we were somehow in this woman’s way with our few ribbons and fabrics. Even though it was indeed a reasonable request, it still sucked some of the air out of the room.

Living our lives as we do, most of us spend a lot of time in lines, and our preferences are easily apparent there. Some of us spend a lot of time online in order to avoid standing in line. But there’s such an opportunity for awareness practice in line. Can we be present? Can we take the opportunity to be kind, to send a little metta, to notice what is pleasant in this moment? Must everything have a driven quality of just wanting to get things done, so we can…what? What is it at the end of the day of errands and chores and whatever else that we are rushing to get to so we can be present?

If we’re not practicing being present in all situations, regardless of our preferences, we won’t be present at the moment we’ve been waiting for. Being present is an ongoing practice.

In class, one student said that she always tries to give herself more than enough time to get places so that she can relax and enjoy the ride. It was a preference that she noted. That’s a preference rooted in Wise Intention. We all have many preferences rooted in Wise Intention. Noticing our preferences helps us to distinguish between those and the ones that sabotage, undermine and deaden us to life.

Another student said that she found resistance to exploring her preferences during the week, and some confusion between preference and choice. I suggested that we have a choice in particular situations, but our preferences are underlying habituated patterns of thought that strongly influence what choices we make. So we might say, ‘I prefer seafood, so if there’s shrimp on the menu, I’ll choose that.’

One day this week I was walking out of an air-conditioned classroom with a fellow poetry student who said that she didn’t like heat. It felt pleasantly warm outside to me. She added that she was an autumn and winter person. That’s an example of suffering by preference. It illustrates how we take it to the next step of defining ourselves by our preferences. In her case, she was ‘dooming’ herself to feeling out of sorts half the year — so half of her life.

A friend who follows the blog said she particularly appreciated the post on preferences because it’s been something she has been thinking about a lot since she read about a woman who was traveling and stayed someplace with no hot water. She was avoiding bathing because she had a strong preference for hot water, as most of us do. But after a few days she noted how her preference was causing discomfort of another sort. So she took a cold shower and much to her surprise discovered it was refreshing.

We can surprise ourselves by challenging our preferences. It’s easier to do when traveling, when we are often confronted with new and different situations. I will be traveling in a few weeks and I will take this challenge up with renewed vigor then, especially that preference for sleeping in my own bed.

The class was full of good noticing, and I hope if you have been following the blog, that you took on the challenge and had some aha moments about your preferences, or those of other people. I’d love to hear about them. Just click on ‘reply’ above this post and let me know. (If you’ve never commented before, there’s a one-time request to register. This is simply to avoid trolls and spam.)

Just as a reminder, these kinds of explorations are not done with instruments of torture or combat. They are done with respectful tenderness. If you find that you are being hypercritical of yourself for anything you’ve noticed, see if you can be kinder. Not indulgent, but kind, like a parent caring for their child. We parent ourselves in this way, and we grow in the process.

Coping with what life gives us

The tenth Paramita* is Equanimity, the ability to hold all that is going on in our lives in an easeful way. In the past I have used the analogy of being like the sky, holding fluffy white clouds, rainbows, storms and lightning bolts all at once.

Many years ago a woman in our sangha out at Spirit Rock asked how was it possible for her to attend her daughter’s wedding with true joyousness of spirit when her dearest friend was dying in the hospital. This question has always stayed with me as an example of what is asked of us in life, and how equanimity serves us. The answer to the question is to stay as present in the moment as we can and to be compassionate with ourselves when we find that our awareness of joy is shot through with a thread of sorrow. So we can be fully where we are (at the daughter’s wedding) and be fully who we are (a caring friend and mother). One does not negate the other.

In fact, these kinds of contrasts are often the richest moments in our lives. I remember at the memorial we gave for my father in his home on his birthday the week after he died. I remember the beauty of the cherry blossoms that completely surrounded his deck and how much he loved them, and how sorry he felt that his beloved wife was no longer there to enjoy them. And I remember how I came upon my son changing the diapers of his month-old daughter on my father’s bed where just the week before, Dad and I had watched Wheel of Fortune and I had begged him to let me spend the night on the couch, sensing the end was near. One week apart, two sets of fathers and daughters: one set at the end of life, the other set at the beginning. To be able to hold the beauty of that is a great gift of equanimity.

There are other ways to describe equanimity. One is to find your center of gravity, that way of being in your body and in your life that you are sufficiently grounded that nothing throws you. Recently I heard a zen teacher from Nova Scotia talking about equanimity. He shared how his teacher had demonstrated it. He stood up and held his body rigid and told two men to try to knock him over. It was easy. Then he changed his stance, relaxing, going limp, being rooted in place with the release of tension. And when the men tried to move him, they couldn’t do it.
oaks
My students, all female, did not feel very inspired by this image. Is the real goal in life to be unmoved?  But they responded with more enthusiasm when I suggested that trees are grounded in this way.

Here’s a poem I recently wrote that captures some of that feeling:

Oak Sisters

Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burl breasts.

I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,

while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.

I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,

sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance

of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being.

 

Of course, California live oaks are beautiful trees but not necessarily the best example to aspire to when we want to remain upright come what may. In a severe storm or even in the middle of a drought, an oak will occasionally crack and fall to the forest floor. We might choose instead a more supple tree for our role model! But you get the idea.

So now we have two ways of seeing equanimity:

  • Being spacious like the sky to hold whatever arises
  • Being like a supple tree, rooted and able to dance in the winds of life, resilient

Both of those views are helpful. Some others less so. For example, when we think of balancing, we might picture a tightrope walker on a highwire. Life might feel like that at times, but it’s a worldview that is bound to create fear and tension. If you find yourself in that position, let go! Discover that life will support you.

Another image that comes up is the art of balancing stones. Perhaps you’ve seen the results, or have watched in fascination as the artist gives his or her full attention to setting the stones, and perhaps you have even tried it yourself. At Spirit Rock on retreat I have walked up the hill to an area that was full of stones that were fun to stack. They weren’t the more challenging rounded stones the artists use, but the process still required my full attention. It’s a lovely meditative process.

That view of equanimity reminds us to be fully present, to sink into full awareness and a sense of connection with whatever we are doing. But the image could backfire if we are attached to the stones staying stacked! It could easily bring out perfectionist tendencies and the fear of things falling apart and personal failure.

In my ‘Oak Sisters’ poem there was a quality of dancing, and I am reminded of how for many years I did Nia, a dance exercise class that develops a supple grace in the body. I had no idea how stiff and ungraceful I was until I started that class! But over time I softened in my movements and gained greater balance. I felt centered and joyous. We worked from our core, just as you do in Pilates or yoga, and were trained to not overextend our limbs. What a good lesson for life that is! Where in life are you feeling overextended?

Part of the reason we overextend is that we are trying to please or impress someone else. So we are seeing ourselves from the outside, the way we think others see us. This is ‘object mode’. This is a good way to get way off balance! We need to be the subject of our own lives, the center of our own universe. This is not selfish. This is growing where we were planted. Remember that when we send metta (lovingkindness) we always begin with ourselves before sending it out to others and ultimately to all beings. Because we can’t give what we don’t have.

In meditation we find that when we go rigid we get easily distracted, and getting caught up in thinking and emotion will cause tension in the body. But when we relax our muscles and find a balanced posture, we are able to sustain a seated practice for quite sometime. And as our mind relaxes that spacious quality of sky is able to arise and fill the whole of our awareness.

And then when we go about our lives, perhaps we can develop a greater sense of ease and natural grace, able to carry whatever challenges life has given us. We may even find that what we have held as burdens will gently reveal their gifts.

May we be dancers on this earth, sensing into the music of life.

So these are all ways of looking at equanimity. What resonates with you? What questions does it bring up? What is your experience of equanimity? Please comment below.

*Paramita or parami is a state of quality of Buddha mind that we are cultivating. Equanimity (Upekkha) is the last of the ten paramitas we have been studying. See the rest in earlier posts. You can type ‘paramita’ in the search bar in the right-hand column.

Transitions, Loss and Discovery

We are in the few weeks between the ‘end of summer’ marked in the US by Labor Day and nature’s end of summer on the upcoming Autumnal Equinox. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s worthwhile to notice any feelings that arise out of this sense of an ending with the days growing shorter and the air cooling. Whenever we are in transition, it is particularly kind to give ourselves a little extra time and space to process our experience.

In Thursday’s class we had a discussion based on questions and comments within the sangha circle. At the end of class, I commended the circle for collectively creating a dharma discussion that was skillful in the ways I discussed previously in What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Though there’s no way to recapture all of what was shared, here are some of the areas we explored.

Noticing our Emotions
One student asked the difference between ‘noticing’ our emotions and ‘feeling’ our emotions. Although this could just be a matter of semantics and personal choice, for me the word ‘noticing’ — which is what I encourage my students to do — creates more spaciousness around the emotion to allow it to exist without our having to act upon it. We have the capacity to develop a spacious field of loving awareness where all manner of experiences arise and fall away. If we do get caught up the urgency of an emotion’s call to action, then some portion of our awareness is noticing this as well.

Our practice of noticing is not to develop a distant detached observer avoiding the experience of life. This is more likely to be a judgmental aspect of our personality rather than an access to Wise View (aka Right View, from of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.) We didn’t come into this life to sit on the sidelines and watch! In our practice we are developing the ability to be in the stream of life fully present and awake. There are many posts on this blog that address what being in the moment entails, and I encourage you to read in the archive of posts to find ones that have meaning for you and help to answer or at least explore what’s up for you at this time.

As an example of noticing an emotion, we explored anger a bit. We can ‘feel’ anger but then what? What is the next step? What are we to do with this feeling? With noticing, we look closer, activate curiosity, discover related physical sensation and associative images and memories. Noticing is an opportunity to use a strong emotion to learn something about ourselves, something that might have been hidden or ignored. It also allows us to see that emotions, thoughts and physical sensations are in a constant state of flux. This in turn helps us to see that they are not who we are. We can’t pin our identity on waves of activity that arise and fall away and are experienced by everyone, depending on the causes and conditions they experience.

This is an open-ended discussion and in no way discourages us from feeling our emotions!

Coping With Loss
One student shared the relatively recent loss of a loved one. We are a group of women of a certain age, and there is not one among us who has not lost someone we love. But even though loss is universal, all our experiences of loss are not the same, and that’s important for us all to remember.
In our mindfulness practice, we focus not on the experiences themselves, telling the story of the event again and again, but on how we in the present moment are reacting, responding or relating to them. Are we being present with the pain we notice, or are we compounding this pain with more suffering by grasping, clinging, pushing away or denying the experience? Can we create a spacious field of loving awareness in which to experience whatever arises? Can we hold it all in an open loving embrace, making room for the ebb and flow of our experience?

I shared an analogy that students have told me has been most helpful with loss or a traumatic event:

Imagine a mountain lake, beautiful and pristine. Then imagine out of the blue a large rock, maybe even a boulder, maybe even a meteor falling into the middle of the lake. This is the traumatic event — the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, the loss of a career, health or an ability, for example.

When the boulder falls, the point of entering the lake is chaos. The water is churned up, huge splashes, bubbles, waves — all is thrown out of balance. Everything is upside down and out of control. If we are practiced at being aware and noticing, what we notice is this sense of being overwhelmed by huge emotions. We may be too overwhelmed to notice. We may rage against the very practices that have supported us because they are insufficient to protect us from this sense of being overwhelmed. I remember in the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ when Ram Dass suffered a stroke and was being wheeled into the hospital, he wondered what was the point of all his meditative practice if at this moment it wasn’t there to make everything okay. (I’m paraphrasing.) He who had a strong spiritual practice all his life lost it in that moment of great loss and anguish. In that moment of incredible pain and turmoil, there feels as if there is nothing to hold onto. So we let go. We experience the pain of it. We do the best we can. Maybe we get lost, but just as we come back to the present moment and our breath in meditation after our mind has wandered, we come back to that which supports us. For meditators, it is our practice, our access to a sense of spacious oneness.

To continue our analogy: In the following days, weeks, months and years after the event, what we notice is periods where life goes on relatively normally, and then periods where we feel thrust ‘back’ into the churning emotions. For many of us, especially after a good deal of time has passed, we may see this as ‘losing ground,’ as if we are supposed to be making some kind of linear progress away from being affected by this event.

But remember the lake, the boulder falling, and what is the naturally arising result? There are ripples. Long after the boulder has settled at the bottom of the lake, the water radiates from the point of impact outward in widening circles. So too with a traumatic event. The calm spaces between the ripples grow wider, and the ripples grow smaller, but they still exist, quite naturally.

Just so, it is quite natural for us to wake up one day and feel quite strongly the emotional ramifications of that event, however long ago it was. Yesterday we were fine and today perhaps our heart aches, as if the boulder is sitting on our chest. At these times it is most skillful to acknowledge that this is natural, no matter what anyone says, and to give ourselves whatever kindness we can, not to make the feelings disappear, but just to create enough spaciousness in our awareness to experience them, to allow for them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, whether the loss is our own or someone else’s. We can remember this image when a friend seems to be ‘slipping back’ into grief or depression. These feelings are amplified by misinterpreting them as failings to keep up the time-lined task of healing. At these times a true friend doesn’t say, ‘It’s been x amount of time. Get over it already!’ or words that sound like that to the person addressed, even when put in a nicer way. This brings us back to remembering that even though loss is universal, we each experience it in our own way, and no one else can tell us how we should be feeling.

Mindfulness Practices We Might Already Have
We also discussed if one doesn’t have a daily meditation practice and doesn’t feel there is time in the day to create one, how to take an existing activity and make it a mindfulness practice. Being more mindful — in the moment — as we walk, for example, instead of using it as a time to make a to do list or put buds in our ears to listen to someone elses words. Swimming also is a natural for mindfulness practice, so full of sensations to draw our attention. So that is something to consider if life just feels too full to add a meditation practice. I work with people one on one to help them develop space for daily practice in whatever form it takes. Contact me if that is something you would like to explore. But let me still put in a plug for at least some sitting practice!!

So that’s some of what we explored in our sangha discussion. If you weren’t there, I hope I’ve given you at least of taste of what you missed!