Category Archives: grief

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?

under-tree.jpg

My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

Moment by moment

Papermill-creek-2

Papermill Creek II, watercolor by Will Noble

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.

Self-Blame
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.

If only…
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!

How to Sit with an Elephant in the Room

 

elephantSometimes in life we are faced with great challenges and difficulties that, when we sit down to meditate, simply refuse to be dismissed. Even though this is obviously a time when meditation would be most helpful, it would be easy to say ‘I don’t have time for this’ or ‘This won’t help because I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on in my life right now.’

I am sitting this morning with a mind that is processing new and devastating news about the health of a close loved one. It fills my mind to capacity. It’s like a huge elephant taking up all the space. So what can I do? Give up? No, of course not. It is times like these that I need my practice the most!

In this tradition we stay present with what is, cultivating spaciousness and compassion. So I do that now, staying present with a mind that is reeling and a heart that is breaking. I have practiced meditation in order to be in the moment, no matter what the moment brings, and especially when it brings something that seems too difficult to bear.

Even in a moment when I’d like to run and hide, I know that awareness is more helpful than hiding. By not putting the pillow over my head, turning away from the experience, trying to drown out the experience with distractions, pushing the experience away, I am infinitely more well-equipped to find solace. I am not making an enemy of anything that arises in my experience. In this way I don’t have to get defensive, don’t have to do battle, don’t have to build up a fortress. I cultivate compassion, and in this way I take care of myself. Then, by extension, I am better able to be of use to others, in this case my loved one and our family and friends who are also affected.

There is this erroneous idea that meditation is a practice of perfecting certain states that lead to nirvana. With that in mind a situation like this — where the elephant is filling all the space in my mind — would be deemed a failure. I am not in nirvana here. I am just this side of a blubbering mess. But, I am very aware of what is arising, and I am holding myself in a tender way.

I can come into friendly relationship with the elephant — not developing an attachment by getting caught up in the story of the causes and conditions of my current state, making a special pet of the elephant — but simply allowing it to be present, just as it is, for as long as it stays.

I am noticing how when I close my eyes to meditate, when I follow the breath, that my chest is heavy. I notice that the sensations in my body are different than usual, and hard to describe. While it’s skillful to notice and even describe it to ourselves, in this case If I get too caught up in finding the right words to share with you, it takes me out of the body and into my writer’s brain. So I return to simply noticing, sensing in, sensing in, sensing in.

Being present with these sensations, however they present themselves, is enough. I am not trying to change anything. If I find tension, I might relax and release it to whatever degree I’m able, but again, I’m not making tension an enemy.

At times the mind is racing, planning, trying to solve the problem, and yes, at times it becomes so entangled that I can’t quite hold it all in awareness. I am caught up in it. But then just enough awareness comes in that I can reset my intention to hold it all with spaciousness and compassion. I am shining loving light on all of it, and with that a certain lightness and softening occurs.

And then things shift and change again. And that too is the nature of mind.

This is also an especially good time for metta practice, first for myself, because I can’t share what I don’t have; and then to my loved one, envisioning healing light, and then out into the community of all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

In class after practicing together, and after giving this talk, I invited anyone who wanted to do so to share a little from their own lives in the realm of meditation and coping with overwhelming emotion. As you might imagine it was a rich class, with everyone having something to offer.

Then we did walking meditation in the garden on a beautiful spring day, noticing everything in a deep way with great gratitude for life and for taking the time to be present.

What does this bring up for you?

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!