Category Archives: Uncategorized

This too shall pass.

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Hell in a hand basket?

Despair is in the air this season, coming to the end of a year full of disasters, nuclear brinkmanship and sickening revelations. It’s enough to make a meditation teacher wonder what is the point of teaching how to find personal happiness. It seems equal parts selfishness and delusion.

But then I remember that Pollyanna happiness is not what I teach. Looking on the bright side and wearing blinders is not what I teach. I teach how to be present with whatever is happening with clarity and compassion for ourselves and all beings. That’s all I teach. And it’s always in season.

Last week I had a very bad cold, the first in many years. It wiped me out physically and mentally. I felt like all the color of life had been washed out of me. There was not one creative thought, not one ounce of curiosity. I was completely drained of everything except pain. One particular pain that went on for days was especially challenging: a sinus drip on a nerve ending in my temple. Every time it hit — erratically seconds and minutes apart — my whole body would clench up. No drugs alleviated it. And the only thing that helped was the reminder of the nature of impermanence: This too shall pass.

We can trust in impermanence when the world around us seems to be spinning off kilter. This too shall pass. Lord, I hope so! In class I opened the gates of despair and gave a big permission slip for students to express their feelings. And they did. And there were tears. And you know what? It was good.

Recently I was on a poetry retreat with Kim Stafford, and once we had all written a few poems, he encouraged us to go back and find the ‘B’ story in each poem. The ‘B’ story, he explained, is the hidden truth in what we write, the part that was trained out of us because it might not be nice glossy version our parents would approve.

So this week, after meditating and sending loving kindness to ourselves and out into the world that is so in need of it, we shared our deepest concerns, sorrows, longings and fears for ourselves and the world as honestly and openly as we could.

Part of the reason we resist such looking is the fear of seeing things we can’t cope with, can’t explain, can’t talk ourselves out of. We may worry that we will get lost there, get stuck in the murky mire, succumb to depression and never return.  But when we are looking with clarity and compassion, we can sit with fear. We can embrace uncertainty. The ongoing regular practice of meditation makes this possible.

I meditate every morning and am deeply grateful for my practice. But it is when we gather and meditate together that the real solace of the practice comes. There is something so rich and sacred in the shared silence. And out of that sacredness comes the antidote for despair.

First we discover we are not alone. The group gathers, each person feeling so isolated, stressed out and exhausted. And then, somehow, after ninety minutes together of sitting in silence and then exploring the dharma, we come away feeling refreshed, renewed and awakened.

Meditation lightens us to an awareness of the infinite nature of being. There is no way to explain what happens, but it feels to me like we relax into the flow of the ongoing dance of energy transforming into and out of matter. It’s a joyous dance of welcoming and letting go all that arises as we release into the continuum of being. Oh life! What a miracle! Wacky and wondrous and woeful, all at once.

With this expansive view, we see that, as bad as current times seem, history is full of parallel examples, that life is like this. We see through the lie of our nostalgia, that somehow we were all better, more noble, more exemplary in some long past day. In fact quite the reverse might be true in many cases, but we don’t need to compare. We can just remind ourselves that there is a tendency for the rear view mirror to be rose-colored.

Our tendency toward current events is to focus on negative news. The life we see is the result of the choices we make of what to pay attention to. We who are alive today have the capacity to be ultra-informed about every horror in every part of the world by an information industry playing on our inbred negativity bias ready and willing to scare us to death. If we are looking clearly we can also see that the distressing events are met by heroic and touching actions. We can see that horror, humor and honor all are represented. Yes, this awfulness exists. But so does this beauty, this communion of being, this sweetness, this enlightened awakening of deep appreciation of being here in this moment to experience whatever is arising.

It’s useful to remember that our ancestors had many challenges, hardships and losses, but they also had long periods of quiet and a deep interaction with the rest of nature. This is why meditation feels like a homecoming — it is a natural and necessary part of our experience.

Human evolution is not so quick as technological revolution, so here we are, ill-equipped to cope with all that confronts us moment to moment in our various devices. We are wise to give ourselves permission to turn them off, to step away, to reconnect with nature and with the natural eye-to-eye contact with our fellow beings. And even when we are using these devices, can we be sure to balance our exposure? Can we find a video of a flash mob Handel’s Messiah in a mall food court? And baby animals doing adorable things? This too is our world. Aw and awe!

When we give ourselves this permission, we find more balance in our lives. It is not turning a blind eye to suffering, just acknowledging the truth of our situation as one of 7.6 billion people in the world and it’s not all up to us in every minute so solve every problem. If we give ourselves the gift of clarity and compassion through regular meditation practice, and especially gathering to practice together, we are rendered more alive, more ready to spread the joy of the season, all year long.

Gratitude is Timeless!

I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving, however you spent it, whatever you are grateful for. I am grateful for you, long time readers and those who have just come upon this site. Also for the opportunity to be of use with my teaching and writing.

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Our walking meditation garden in November

 

Yesterday I had a fun conversation with my great-niece, a high school math teacher, and now we are working together to formulate a suitable mini-meditation at the beginning of her classes to help her students focus and overcome math anxiety. The more meditation is accepted in our culture, the more it benefits everyone. I am grateful to be a part of the process of sharing this simple rich practice.

At Thanksgiving dinner I was talking with my daughter-in-law’s aunt who when asked what she’s been up to told me she was being lazy, just having fun with friends. And I said that’s not lazy! Research is showing that socializing is high up in importance for overall health. And anyway, one of her weekly social activities is hiking. Lazy indeed! How hard we can be on ourselves with these labels. What labels do you have for yourself that you might look at anew, question and liberate?

There are many posts on gratitude on this site. If you are interested, search ‘gratitude’ in the field in the right-hand column and see all that comes up. I did, and here’s a link to one from 2008 that is just as true today as it was nine years ago. Check it out!

 

Trying to capture an experience is not the experience itself

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.

Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.

But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.

This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place

What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.

Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.

Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.

For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.

Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.

Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ —  for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.

Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.

So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.

Monster Mash :: What are you waiting for?

delayed.jpgLast week we took a trip to the East Coast, a whirlwind week of new sights, old friends, extended family and autumn foliage. Pretty much ‘perfect’ in every way. Until we arrived at the airport for our flight home and were informed it was delayed four hours.

We made the best of the situation and chose a good restaurant to have a leisurely lunch. But eventually we felt the pull of our departure gate, the only place to get real information. Once there we discovered that it wasn’t just our flight to San Francisco that was delayed, but flights to Seattle and L.A. as well. Conflicting explanations as to the cause of the delay were bandied about, leaving our idle minds to go wild with wondering. Had Kim Jong-un pushed the nuclear button and boom? Had there been a seismic event of epic proportions? Were the wildfires still burning creating too much smoke to land? Or was there a Midwest waltz of tornadoes we wouldn’t be able to fly through?

How much easier it would have been to settle in if we knew early on that our intended plane had a problem and had to be replaced with a different one. Of course if there was anything wrong with the plane, we would prefer a new one, thank you very much. It wasn’t until seven hours later, right after we finally boarded, that the pilot shared that helpful information.

So there we all were: passengers for three flights crammed into this relatively small wing of gates at the airport. But we fortunately found seats and set in to wait.

What is waiting anyway?
So often in our lives we are in this state of waiting: In traffic, in the grocery store line, and at the airport. As I sat there I realized that this body of mine has to be somewhere, why not here? I am not in pain or danger. My stomach is satisfied, my bladder is empty. Nothing is actively causing me suffering. Why not simply be present with this experience? After all, even if the plane was on time, I would still be sitting there for a certain amount of time.

The knowledge that I would be there quite a bit longer than anticipated changed everything. Instead of planned passivity I was awash in a flow of impatient emotions, each of which I met with that same statement: ‘The body has to be somewhere. Why not here?’

Over the years I have talked about waiting as an opportunity for practice. I have cited the grocery store line as a place of awakening, if we are present and open to the experience. I have said that I teach a style of meditation I call ‘a portable practice’, that can be done ‘in an airport waiting area.’ Well isn’t this just karmic comeuppance, Miss Meditation Teacher! Let’s see how you deal with what turned out to be a seven hour wait at the gate!

First let’s look at this word ‘waiting’. By waiting we are saying that this moment doesn’t count compared to some future moment we are anticipating. What an opportunity to practice being present with whatever arises.

Waiting is also wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting is a kind of poison that we binge on. Whether we want more of what we have and hate to let go of the experience when things change, or we want things to be different than they are, wanting is the cause of suffering.

This truth is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. And it’s a great place to start any exploration of our relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience.

As I was sitting in Gate 42C at Logan Airport, I had a lot of time to ponder this, to ask myself ‘How am I in relation to my current experience?’ This is not to find fault, to shame myself into looking at the bright side, or to try to change anything. It’s just a way to be present and see the truth of what’s going on.

The wanting things to be different flavors everything in an experience, doesn’t it? If we can set aside that wanting even briefly, we can find all kinds of things to engage us in this moment. Certainly a room packed with travelers is full of entertainment potential. There are children whose antics are amusing, and their weary parents whose situation makes mine feel infinitely less onerous. Great compassion to them. There are friendly people to talk to as well as those trying to carry on their work lives. One man conducted a whole webinar as we all sat around, forced to listen to him expound on contractual marketing in the hospital sector. Huh?

The body has to be somewhere. Why not here? This has so many applications. When we’re stuck in the sick bed or the hospital, or stuck inside due to inclement weather, or stuck in traffic. We can ask ourselves what else is here in this moment besides the idea that ‘I don’t want to be here’?

A little boy expresses joy at seeing an airplane out the window. Can I have such a beginner’s mind as that in regard to all that is arising in my experience? All the simple pleasures?

Instead, so often the mind begins a circular pattern of regret and recrimination: What could I have done differently? In this case, I could have gotten the airline app that would have told me earlier that there would be a delay, and we could have perhaps spent the day sightseeing instead of sitting here. If stuck in traffic, we might think what a difference it would have made to take a different route. At the store, what if we had stood in a different line? And is it statistically possible for us all to be the person that always chooses the wrong line? Or does it just seem that way because we don’t notice all the times we breeze through and things go easily. That’s our natural negativity bias that neuroscientists talk about kicking in. Did I even once say to myself ‘Gosh, of all the flights I’ve taken over the years, this is the first time I’ve had such a delay.’ No. Even though that is true, it didn’t cross my mind.

After almost seven hours hanging out together in this compact space, the carefully crafted formalities between us dissolve. The other two flights to LA and Seattle have gone. We are now a fleeting family with a shared experience. The airline representatives break out Halloween songs and do a little dance to Monster Mash. Reluctantly we are lured into enjoying ourselves. Things fall apart, but in a good way. And I recognize how the magic of shared human experience happens in the places where things don’t run smoothly. But you’d never discover it if the plane ran on time.mon-oj.jpg

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.

Compassion is life loving itself

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Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion

Part of mindfulness practice is cultivating compassion for ourselves. For example, when we are meditating and we get lost in thought, our habituated reaction may be to give ourselves a hard time. This just throws us into another tangle of thoughts and emotions about past ‘failures’ and/or future hopelessness. But if we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we gently shift back to here and now.

Having cultivated compassion for ourselves, we are better able to cultivate compassion for others. But it’s important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. When we encounter someone who is struggling, we may feel empathy, especially if what they are going through is similar to our own experience now or in the past. We literally feel their pain as if it is our own. Because it is painful, we may turn away as a form of self-protection. Or we may be drawn in because it is so familiar. In either case, it doesn’t help the other person, does it? And it doesn’t help us, because we either feel guilty for turning away or we feel like we’re drowning in someone else’s misery.

Compassion is recognizing suffering and responding in a way that is useful. If I see an insect stuck on the inside of a screen door, compassion sparks me to open the door to let it out. If I was just feeling empathy, I might stand there and say ‘Oh, you poor little bug! Look how you struggle. Me too! Boo hoo!’ And if I had no empathy and no compassion, I’d grab the fly swatter, seeing the bug as a potential danger or at least an annoyance, threatening my own happiness and peace of mind.

Compassion respects all life. It isn’t limited to beings we find ‘relatable’, whose experience mirrors our own. Compassion recognizes suffering but expands to hold it in an open and loving way rather than succumbing to it.

Compassion is action. When we see someone in distress and we help them in whatever way is skillful, that is compassion. Many instances of compassion we might recognize as simply being human, being neighborly or ‘doing the right thing’. Compassion comes naturally to most of us, at least in certain situations.

I am sure you have performed many acts of compassion this week. Maybe you let a car merge in front of you. Maybe in the grocery store you helped someone get something off a high shelf beyond their reach. Maybe you gave a respectful nod to someone sitting on the sidewalk. Maybe you saw or heard about a community in distress from flooding or earthquake or other disaster, and you sent a donation. Compassion is action, but it comes in all shapes and sizes: From a nod of respect to giving a majority of your waking hours to a cause you care about or a person in need. As citizens in a democracy, we cultivate compassion when we vote and make our voices heard for the benefit of our community, our nation, all beings and the earth itself.

Compassion doesn’t register within us as an identity — “I am a compassionate person” — trying to be seen as a hero, taking credit for actions, or being concerned about how we are perceived by others. Shoring up a personal identity just knocks us into seeing ourselves as separate, rather than a part of the celebration of the oneness of all being that sparks true compassion, life loving and taking care of itself.

There are many among us whose whole lives are devoted to compassionate action. And for them especially it is important to discern between compassion and empathy. Over the years I have had a number of insight meditation students who are psychologists, counselors and therapists. Some have complained about the weight of carrying their patient/clients problems into their own lives after the appointment is over. I suggest, for the benefit of their clients and for themselves, that they think of the client’s sharing as being laid out in the space between them for both to examine in a spacious way. Trying this out, my students found that they could bring all their practice and wisdom to the challenge without taking it on as their own. For their clients it helped to see their sharing as a story passing through their experience rather than an aspect of their identity. It makes sense that people who choose professions in the field of psychology are empathetic and want to be of help to those that suffer. But the empathy can become a source of misery.

It’s important to acknowledge that this misery is not just experienced by the empathetic person. When when you share your grief and your friend cries, you are unlikely to feel you can share freely. It is painful to cause suffering in another. Sharing our suffering with a person who has cultivated compassion feels safer. They receive it with loving-kindness, respect and full attention, but they don’t make it their own.

An experiment conducted by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki comparing empathy and compassion showed that empathy training activated motion in different parts of the brain than compassion training. The outcome was that the empathy-trained group found empathy ‘uncomfortable and troublesome’ while the compassion group felt kinder and more eager to help others.

This makes sense. Taking on the suffering of others as if it is our own is not very comfortable, is it? Being so empathetic we become drained when we spend time around others, because we are taking on their suffering. We may need to get away just to allow ourselves to reconnect with our own experience. While I encourage everyone to take time for themselves, having to be alone a lot can certainly be challenging in maintaining satisfying relationships. If this is your experience, you might notice whether being overly empathetic is at play, and whether cultivating active compassion might help to channel it more skillfully.

But whether we lack empathy or are inundated in it, how do we cultivate compassion? Again, cultivating compassion begins with ourselves: compassion for our own suffering and grief, but also for our ignorance, blundering and foolishness. We do this, in part, to soften the rigid pattern of harsh self-judgment and the resulting suffering that becomes toxic and contagious. This doesn’t mean we ‘let ourselves off the hook’ when we have done something unskillful. A part of our mindfulness practice is cultivating ethical behavior, speech and livelihood (See Noble Eightfold Path). But if we enforce our behavior with cruel words or punitive actions, then we are compounding our unethical behavior.

Instead we do what we can to right any wrong, make amends, apologize, and investigate what went wrong in order to learn from our experience and not repeat the unskillful behavior. But this is only possible if we also actively cultivate compassion, because without compassion we beat ourselves up or avoid dealing with it through all manner of addictive and distracting behaviors.

Once we have cultivated more compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend compassion to others. We see the suffering at the root of the unskillfulness of those around us. For example, driving around we may be quick to judge someone who drives too closely, too fast, changes lanes erratically, etc. At that moment we might recognize their suffering, and feel compassion. Who among us has not at times driven mindlessly? Who among us has not been lost in our own suffering, or been lost in a hormonal high that makes us feel immortal. That last one is most often the realm of the young who haven’t quite connected with the reality of the two ton metal weapon they are wildly wielding on the road. But knowing that they are not immune to suffering in this life, we can have compassion for them as well, even if at this very moment it is challenging to do so. The compassionate action that arises within us is to not react or retaliate as we drive, but to maintain mindful safe driving and actively send lovingkindness. ‘May you be well. May you be safe.’

For most of us it is easy to feel compassion for someone in a temporarily difficult situation that we can relate to. We tend to have a harder time cultivating compassion for someone who seems to have made poor life choices and is now living with the consequences. It helps to recognize that our harsh judgments function as a bypass to avoid feeling other people’s pain or recognizing our own poor choices in life. Perhaps our poor choices did not have substantial adverse effects on our lives. Do we take that good fortune as a credit to ourselves? None of us is perfect. And none of us is immune to suffering, no matter how fortunate.

Compassion does not command us to be saviors. It offers us the opportunity to live fully in the joy of being alive, and to recognize all life as deserving of respect and kindness, and a little help from a fellow being now and then.

 

Moment by moment

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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!