Tag Archives: loss

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!

The Practice Put to the Test

In recent weeks my meditation practice was put to the test. Together with my husband and five visiting family members, I hosted my brother’s hospice care in our home.

While I won’t go into detail about our experience, I do want to share the ways in which the regular practice of meditation supported me throughout that time and continues to support me now in my mourning of my beloved brother.

Understanding Impermanence
My gratitude for the practice started long before this intensive time in my life. I have been meditating for many years, and for many years I have been aware of how precious and finite our time together on this earth truly is. I bring this awareness into every relationship, and it deepens my appreciation and compassion.

At a recent poetry reading, while my brother was in the hospital, I read a poem I had written many years ago about our relationship.

Humming

We used to hum ourselves to sleep, my brother and I,
in the back of our old black ’54 Ford station wagon
where our father had fashioned us bunks upon the luggage,
or when we were lucky, in a real bed in a motor court,
or in a heavy green canvas tent by the bank of a stream where we,
with the industry of beavers, had built an unneeded dam.

Humming began low on the scale, each breath carrying us up a note,
until we reached the dizzying heights of our range
and plunged to the bottom again, that deep bass rumbling in our chests.

Humming was voodoo, ritual magic, a place where the day’s teasing died,
where small dark spaces relaxed into the boundless arms of the soft summer night,
and we were lured into dreaming by our own hypnotic drone.

Humming we greet each other now, tender huggy hums of delight,
hums that pour into our embrace all the precious frayed treasures
of that fragile someday-to-be-forgotten world of our beginnings.

– Stephanie Noble 2003

Written twenty-five years ago, that poem contained the seed of this moment, the understanding of the fleeting nature of life. I am grateful that I have always treasured every moment we’ve spent together in person and talking on the phone over the years of our adult life.

Dependent Co-Arising
Recently I taught about the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, and during this hospice experience it helped me immeasurably to recognize that ‘this is like this because that was like that’. It seems so simple, so obvious, but how often in life do we get caught up in hurt feelings and blame because we are in the habit of not seeing or acknowledging all the causes and conditions that created the actions, words and current state of being of those around us?

In his last days, in pain, confusion and delusion, my brother sometimes lashed out with his words at times. It hurt, and is painful still when I think of it, I won’t lie. But I was also able to see how he was reverting to a childhood pattern we shared, one that we had grown out of (with help from his first wife who took us each aside and said ‘You know your (sister/brother) loves you, don’t you?’ We apparently didn’t! We had been so caught in a pattern of teasing and scolding and hurt feelings.) But here it was again, that old pattern arising. He would say my name in the same stern way he did when he was my twelve year old big brother: ‘Stephanie, sit down!’ I began to fear those words, to tremble the way I did as a child. I felt vulnerable because of my deep love, my anticipated loss and my exhaustion as all of us stretched ourselves to the limit of our capacity to learn how to be medical providers on the fly.

At times I cried and was comforted by the team, I could feel their upset on my behalf. What an ungrateful bastard my brother was when I was providing him with the best damn sendoff anyone could ask for. Yeah! I appreciated that support, believe me. At times it felt like we were in a British aristocratic soap opera, with the cranky lord making all kinds of unreasonable demands and harsh judgments, and we, the underlings huddled together around the kitchen table to regroup. Then whoever was on call would descend once more into the fray.

But much of the time he was the loving, funny person he had always been. This experience gave me a deeper understanding and cultivated greater compassion for everyone in relationship with difficult people. If this were not a limited period of time situation, I would not have continued to subject myself to such behavior. After he died, each day those painful moments have softened and have begun to find their very small place in the greater context of seven decades of love. They diminish and may even dissolve. (Not quite yet, perhaps, but in time.)

Practice First and Foremost
As we embarked on this hospice care adventure together, I claimed my regular daily meditation time and quiet private space throughout the experience. This was crucial for maintaining my own stability and endurance. In this way I gave everyone on our team of seven family members encouragement and permission to claim their own time and space for self-care, in whatever form that took for them — runs, yoga classes, an evening out. We made the schedule work as well as possible, taking into consideration everyone’s needs. There was no telling whether we were doing a sprint or a marathon, so we had to take care of ourselves to sustain a marathon.

Especially as women, it is so easy to give up self-care when the needs of others arise, forgetting that when we claim what we need we are always better able to meet the demands of life. So it is a kindness to all to put our meditation practice first. It is the seed that grows the support we will need to balance all that arises. This is no time for skimping!

No Need to Proselytize
Buddhism, at least as we practice it in Insight Meditation, is not full of dogma. It’s full of living wisdom (dharma) that arises from our own practice and experience. Every experience, when met in the moment, contributes to our understanding of the nature of being. And we are so grateful for the teachings, the practice and the community of practitioners. If anyone were to ask us, we would happily share our understanding, and encourage them to take the time to learn to meditate, to develop a practice and to see for themselves.

But if no one asks us, we don’t push our views. We don’t knock on doors to spread the good news. For some this might seem selfish, but if someone is ready, they find a teacher and find a community. And nowadays meditation is on offer everywhere in one form or another. It’s in the air!
A distant ex-relative of my brother’s very much wanted to visit with him ‘to see if he was going to heaven or hell’, and I assume to set him on the straight course. This was done out of deep belief and caring, but it was not anything he was open to, to put it mildly. It was not part of his belief system. It was probably very painful for that distant ex-relative to deal with, and I send her great compassion. How I would have loved to meditate with my brother, to help him handle the physical pain he was in, perhaps even to share some dharma that might have helped. But even knowing I am a Buddhist meditation teacher, he never once asked me to help him in that way. So I didn’t.

On my own I quietly sent him metta, infinite loving-kindness. This is something we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for difficult people in our lives or the world, always ending with sending it out to all beings everywhere. This is non-invasive. It helps us. And it helps relationships.

Resting in the ‘I don’t know’ mind
My brother did at times ask me questions. When I would take my turn after dinner sitting alone with him, several times he asked me ‘So what’s next?’ I wasn’t sure if he was asking, whether he was in a lucid state of understanding he was dying, or in his delusional state where he would tell friends on the phone that he was on the mend.

My answer to both questions would be the same: ‘I don’t know.’
But even though I had to say ‘I don’t know’, I was also able to tell him the truth of the present moment: ‘I don’t know what will happen next, but whatever happens we are all here together. You are surrounded by family and friends, and we are filled with love. And we will take care of you.’ That seemed to put his mind at rest. In the moment.

The not knowing was not just an answer to give my brother, but something we all had to grapple with. No one could tell us exactly how long this hospice care would go on. We had all put our normal lives on hold to whatever degree we are able. Living with not knowing, embracing uncertainty, is an important part of Buddhist practice. For after all, none of us knows the hour of our own death. None of us can read the future. Situations arise that we could never have imagined. Although there is value in planning, it is always with the understanding that we have no idea what will come.

Planning with impermanence in mind
Sitting in my brother’s world temporarily replicated in a room in our home, with the television news on 24/7, I spent a few minutes pondering what my own final days and hours might be, if I am given the choice, as he was. I know I will want peaceful and beautiful surroundings. I imagine quiet conversations, hand holding and deep gazes and hugs, and simply sitting together in silence. Perhaps this is a fantasy. But it’s also a possibility.
All of us who were caring for him dearly wanted to know what his wishes might be, but we were left guessing for much of it. He hadn’t done any planning. He didn’t like talking about death. He intended to live forever, or some reasonable facsimile, in spite of having been a smoker since the age of thirteen. He didn’t have one document and barely one forced conversation with an old friend who said, so just on the off chance you ever die what do you want to have happen with your remains? In a moment of lucidity he gave his answer, one that we would have guessed, but without his own stamp of approval, how could we know we were fulfilling his wishes?

Wise Speech
My brother’s words were sometimes so hurtful that I wanted to put up a sign in his room reading ‘The words you use now will be emblazoned on the hearts of your loved ones forever, so choose wisely, kindly and with love.’ But I didn’t do that because it would have been unkind.
But in my own life I aspire to remember that, not just in the moments we know are the last we have together, but in every moment, because it could be the last, to use wise speech and speak from love not from fear, anguish and pain. That is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a core teaching.

Gratitude
There is a value in recognizing the opportunity to practice being fully present with all the arising emotions of difficult times. Though we certainly wouldn’t wish for them, when they arise, we can recognize that we now have something significant to practice with. We can grow substantially in our understanding at these times. Or we can forget to practice, forget all we learned, and plunge into mindlessness. If we do, may it only be a temporary plunge, rising into greater awareness of the gift of this moment, whatever it brings.

buddha-deathMy brother sank into a deep sleep where he no longer needed to have his suction machine running or the television on. In this unusual quiet and calm, I did my meditation at his bedside, watching him breathe a slow ragged breath. I could see that every ten minutes or so he would grimace with pain. By taking that time, not distracting myself with a book or email, but just sitting watching, sending metta, following my own breath, I was able to see that he needed more medication. It felt like a gift of the training to simply sit and notice all that is arising in the moment, to be able to give him comfort by calling Hospice and getting a nurse to come out and up the morphine drip.

The next afternoon he died, surrounded by his oldest friends and closest family. I sat again with his cooling body as we waited for the mortuary van came, sometimes alone, sometimes with my niece, husband and other brother.

Sitting with death is an important part of Buddhist practice, but even though I had been a caregiver at the end of both my parents’ lives, I had not experienced this before. The only dead bodies I have seen have been embalmed and presented in a box at a funeral. They didn’t look like the relatives I loved. My brother looked exactly like himself, just at complete peace. My grief found a natural home by his side.
I am so grateful for all the well-wishing from friends and extended family. Everyone who knew him loved my brother, and were appreciative of the efforts our team had made on his behalf. I too was grateful that we had the opportunity to give him as loving and beautiful a goodbye as possible. Throughout, as difficult as it was, I was so grateful that he was in safe harbor, here in our home, not on his own in some distant place, struggling to hide his condition from those who love him.

Meditation is not Immunity
In some of the well-wishing messages, there seemed to be an assumption that because I meditate, this experience must be, if not a breeze, then at least far easier.

Although our practice does help us to stay present and to hold whatever experience that arises with more spaciousness and compassion, meditation does not make us immune to pain. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief.

No one gets through life unscathed by pain. It is a built in feature of earthly existence. But it is how we are in relationship to it that makes all the difference.  My practice has kept me present with my emotions and made it possible to hold them tenderly. The grief is there, and I am able to see it take various forms as the days pass. Even amidst all the practical matters to deal with after his passing, I stayed present. And that is a gift. Now that those responsibilities have been taken care of, my feelings, twelve days out, shift again and again, and I notice them as they arise and fall away.

I also recognize that my grief is not all that is arising. In every moment there is also great beauty, simple pleasures, deep joy, and potential for laughter. They do not erase the grief. They co-exist in the space of my awareness.

I see the nature of my thoughts, too. I see how, like a tongue rubbing against the empty space of a lost tooth, I circle round again and again to that volatile time of caring for my brother at the end of his life — sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with regret at things said or left unsaid, done or not done. This is a natural course for the mind to take. But I gently encourage myself to also stay present in this moment, not pushing anything away, but opening again and again to all that is arising.

I hope these findings are of value to you, and remind you of the value of the practice.

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?