Addictions. This morning a loved one whose behavior worries me is on my mind. Practice reminds me that the behavior of others is not within my control. I can love, support, care for and about, but I do not make their decisions. Practice also reminds me that addiction, which has its beginnings in the reflexive patterns of habit, is a human tendency. When we do not examine our behaviors, take note of what we do and take note of the consequences of our behavior, then we may fall into patterns that are negative in impact...both for ourselves and others. And so I begin by examining my own addiction to worry.
Worry is like riding a stationery bike without even the benefit of burning calories or building stamina and strength. It's a stationary bike with no resistance. The wheels spin in an effortless way, and I sit in the seat pedalling without conscious effort, carried by the momentum of habit. I'm on autopilot and the wheels spin. What happens when I allow this to continue, when no effort is put toward mindfulness? I am carried into a place where worries compound, where my helplessness becomes a painful burden and where I may lash out in anger or despair, or collapse into indifference. Whether it's in response to the behavior of someone I love, or the actions of government, or the vagaries of the weather, worry does not positively impact change.
It is useless, however, to tell oneself, or another, not to worry. The only solution is for the worrier to see what is happening and where it's leading. If you've been riding this bike a long time, you have plenty of accumulated experience to examine. Did anything change for the better when you put in enough hours? Did the actions that anger or despair drove you to solve the issue? Did indifference help the situation?
Honestly acknowledging the consequences of this addiction allows the possibility of changing the pattern. But it's my pattern. I have to make the changes.
This is true too for the loved one I woke thinking of this morning. What positive things can I do to increase the possibility of more awareness on their part? How can I make them feel loved and supported? If they abandon the behavior even for a day, how can I contribute to a sense of goodness in that day, a goodness they will feel? What can I say at the right time, in the right place and in the right words and tone that might open their own awareness even a little, to the behavior that is harming them and negatively impacting their life? These are not easy questions to answer but awareness of them keeps me from behaving impulsively from the roots of my own addiction to worry.
This culture both fears and promotes addiction. To substances, to things, to stimulation and variety. We are taught to want more and to want different. Desire in itself is not some kind of evil. But when we believe the story our mind tells us about something else or something more being better, we're set up for addictive behavior. Drinking, over-eating, spending, hopscotching through relationships, and worrying that things won't go the way we want them to.
If my own desires were met, all these problems would go away and like the jokes that go around on Face Book, we'd be able to eat what we want without losing our health, drink what we want without being dangerous or foolish, spend what we want without going broke, and love who we want without censure or pain for ourselves or others. And worry would not arise. Yet, it does, and desires are endless. The best way of living with a heart that finds ease, in the world as it is, is to see this truth and to act from goodwill and strong awareness of what the mind is doing.
Stepping off my stationary bike for a moment here at least. Finding some space to reflect and abandon my own habitual patterns. Wishing this for my loved one and for all beings.
Among the various epithets that are traditionally applied to Christmas is “The Season of Giving”. It can be hard to remember this in the flood of advertising and rush of shopping and “getting” that the season seems to give rise to. But it is good to remember that the “getting” is primarily in the name of “giving”. Everyone is seeking to bring happiness and smiles in some way to those they will gift over the season. They may suffer stress and anxiety over this, worrying about the “right” thing to give, but somewhere in that soup of motivations is the foundational ingredient of generosity. Problem is, it may end up masked by the other stuff that gets thrown into the pot.
Cooking up a mindful Christmas season is tricky. Besides the gift shopping or perhaps gift making, there is the seasonal tsunami of good causes looking for financial contributions and labor; and, the kicker, our own high expectations of the season. As usual the ego stirs everything up with concerns to do things right, to please others, to keep up valued traditions, and so on. This is so universally regarded as a time of stress in our culture that recently the CBC gave an entire interview over to an expert on handling the worries we so often have about changing traditions, or not meeting the expectations of loved ones.
The work of mindfulness I do here living my own Christmas season is the same as it is for every other calendar day. To feel what I feel and to see where it's leading. To remind myself how my experience, my world, is shaped by my own thoughts, words and actions. To incline my mind to the positive as I take a little time to think about why I do what I do, before I do it; why I say what I say, before I say it. And to cultivate a loving heart both for myself and for all the others in this soup with me, from my family to the sales people, to the fundraisers and dedicated grinches.
Generosity and greed, joy and disappointment, energy and weariness are all on the table. I need to choose wisely and keep testing the flavor. I need to be honest with myself when there is too much of any one thing there. I work to be realistic about what I can afford in dollars, energy and time. And, most importantly, I need to acknowledge that the final product is what it is, whether I'm hungry for more or want to toss it aside. Christmas soup is best with a long slow simmering, the kind that comes with mindful attention and right intention.
I often miss Christmases past: the childhood gatherings of cousins and foolish games, the sharing of too much food and a good deal of laughter. And I miss the Christmases when my own kids were small and I often wished for a crew of elves to help with all there seemed to be to do. And one day I'll miss these Christmases as well: the smaller tree, the quieter house, just me, my husband and our baffled terrier, keeping a lid on the anticipation of an apex of joy when we all briefly gather round the tree or table after weeks of preparation and waiting. But mindfulness allows me to step back and survey this combination of nostalgia and desire. To see the suffering I'm setting up for, what I contribute to the moment that colors its mood.
Perhaps, like me, you also spend extra time in the kitchen over this season. If so, maybe this metaphor speaks to you. Maybe not. My wish is only to bring attention to another kind of cooking we're each doing all the time. Let's remember patience and appreciation for the cook. May you find the right ingredients for the pleasant flavors of joy and peace to come through.
Today the cat, being a cat, followed me into one of our sheds where I was digging out boxes of tree decorations. By the time I'd shifted and arranged and found the one I was looking for, he had leaped from box to shelf to open rafters and was exploring a variety of interesting items balanced there. His tail hung temptingly not too high for my reach. As I stood at the door, box in my arms, calling him, he answered in an urgent cat meow expressing clearly that he had no intention of coming down to join me yet. Well...
You'll be pleased, I hope, to hear that I did not pull that furry tail and change the tone of his talking. But the thought definitely crossed my mind. Along with the thought that one of the things I love about this little rascal is his very “catness” which makes him curious and daring and a bit of a nuisance so often. I also knew that he would never stay in the shed alone. He'd be much too curious about what I was up to next. However, he'd come out on his own clock, not mine, which meant a walk back across the yard to close up later would be required.
Not too much later, as it turned out. By the time I'd taken the box to the house and crossed the yard again, in another direction, on the way to another shed for the sand pail to deal with our icy drive, puss was out in the snow, complaining about my disappearance. I closed and locked up the first shed, noting that nothing had been knocked down during his rambling in the eaves, nor from an impulsive move on my part that would have sent him scrambling. A win-win on a gorgeous, sun-filled winter day. On we went together to get the sand.
Today has been blessed largely because this mind allowed it to be so. There has been a welcome sense of no timetable to hold the many things to do; blue skies; warm enough temperatures to spend happy time outdoors; and the pleasant task of setting up our new, smaller Christmas tree, lights included, as my husband contentedly watched from his spot at the kitchen table. There has been time to talk with my sister on the phone and time to walk the dog. Time to cook and to clean, to do a brief driving errand, and still to be there when I was needed. Whenever an urgent inner voice reminded me that I hadn't written a blog yet, there was an answering gentler inner voice who assured me that it would be fine and reminded me I create my own sense of urgency when I choose to listen to what has been conditioned.
It should be so obvious by now: the less there is of me working to be what I think I am, the more space there is to just be what the moment requires. What I've learned, at least for today, is not to reach for the dangling “tale” that would have me scrambling and squalling.
There are days I'm sure I'm done with this, this blog. Mostly because lately I'm often exhausted. Remembering the days when the boys were young and I would find myself standing in the aisles of the supermarket engaging in a fantasy of lying down where I stood and napping awhile. I was two decades younger then. I've been exploring this current exhaustion. How much of it is physical. How much of it is like the urge, once so familiar, to run away from conflict or anything unpleasant. Sleep, I know, might be desirable as an escape from consciousness and the mindful work of facing what is true here and now, moment to moment. Weariness can arise from gripping the steering wheel too hard. I'm looking at that.
As I drop various jobs and volunteer roles, my husband worries that I am giving up what I want to do in order to be more available for his needs, which are gradually growing. But this worry misses the point that I also want to be available for him, not in a rushed and scheduled way, but with patience and generous space for what takes time. Giving up what I want is not the problem. The problem is another kind of wanting. The one that looks backwards in time and wishes fruitlessly for what is no longer so. A time when the outside conditions of this life supported a pretty stable happiness. Now, I am thrown on inner resources more. Here I learn anew about the value of practice. I cannot say right now that “I love my life”. But I love living, I love writing, and I love Dhamma. Yet, even what you love can become wearying. Too much brightness in the blue sky and your eyes need a break. Too much good food and you feel too full and heavy. An excellent book that goes on too long, means you begin skimming perhaps too quickly over passages that should be savored.
My original intent for this blog stands. To share the journey. But for a year now, what I've shared has often been about the struggles. Others on this journey should know about the joys too. About the magical joy of sitting in silence when the house is quiet and the breath moves on its own, the mind riding in tandem, and everything else drops away. The lively joy of sitting in a circle of friends sharing our practice with laughter and goodwill and knowing we accept each other as imperfect and well-intentioned. The deep joy of being present to the warmth and pressure of my husband's hand in mine as we walk carefully across winter parking lots, this treacherous travel paralleling the life we're sharing right now, so aware of each step and of each other. The bodily joy of lying legs-up-the wall, with doggy breath in my ear and a silken muzzle pressed into my shoulder, knowing the gift of unconditional animal love, so that this mind spontaneously whispers gratitude to and love for all beings. The joy that bubbles up when I answer the phone and hear beloved voices from far away or when I pick up the mail and see familiar return addresses on cards from distant friends, reminders of being held in a net of metta. The simple, daily joy of chanting in the kitchen as I prepare food, and the calming joy of chanting in solitude as I drive icy or snowy roads and feel fear recede to a background thrum that is only a wholesome awareness of uncertainty.
Consistent practice means that each day contains moments that give rise to insight and acceptance. I have endless opportunities to forgive myself for moods or mistakes. And recently I have seen the fruition of an intention set a few weeks back to let the right choices unfold, rather than forcing changes, and contriving choices that feel stressful and urgent. When the thought arises to let something go, I bring it to the light of contemplation and hold it. I notice the impact on my body and I know when this is not yet the time, when I'd only be exchanging the self-inflicted pain of doing for the self-inflicted pain of not doing. A bad bargain. I do not doubt that when the right time arises my body will let me know. Am I done with this blog? Not yet. Though that day, no doubt, will come. All things are impermanent.
Find small spaces in your day for pauses, for silence, peace, the breath. This is what I often tell those who are beginners at meditation practice or working to develop mindfulness. This is not just a way to start, like walking before you run, but this habit develops patterns that are valuable in their own right. Now into my third decade of practice, I continue to find these spaces important. While formal daily sitting has become a healthy habit for me, like brushing my teeth, or remembering to drink water, these smaller and numerous “spaces”work to keep me connected to my intention, to build a practice that runs through my life and is not just a postscript, or a comment in parenthesis.
Some are daily, positive, reflexive mind habits, while others arise from the moment and what is happening around me, or what I'm doing at the time.
I use a gentle alarm bell, the same that rings to mark the end of meditation, and this means I am not startled awake. Usually I even hear the hand of the clock tick into place just prior to the bell. This is precious space to know my mind-weather before I interact with anyone else, even the fur baby who will begin to scuffle with excitement when my feet hit the floor.
I love yin in the morning. Slow stretches, long pauses, comfortable breathing, softening body as it wakens and loosens. Each movement, each breath, each still point is its own space, a meditation. If the unexpected delays formal sitting till later, this will be my most sustained morning mindfulness string, a moving meditation that lubricates the joints and expands heart and mind.
Feeding others is an act of generosity and bringing this to mind whenever I am preparing food for all the beings in my home keeps me more present to each action. Pausing to enjoy the aromas of even simple things like tea and toast brings me into the moment. If it's possible I will find a quiet place for breakfast, where there is less competition for my attention and so more pleasure in the meal itself. And where, as I do in my yin practice and my early solitary waking, I can more easily direct attention inside for awhile. Knowing how things are for me, my mood, how this body and mind feel, grounds the practice of patience and gives me more balance when I'm sad, tired, sick, stressed or fragile in some way.
A forced pause at a red light or a train crossing means a space for breath or metta practice. A long lineup at the bank, in the grocery store or at the pharmacy is a space for breathing and attending to patience. A walk with the dog is an opportunity for touching the earth with deliberate and careful steps, for listening, breathing, seeing, and harnessing the mind to the body. In the winter, turning on the gas fire is a moment for the soft natural reflection the movement of the flame invites, and this is laced with gratitude. In the summer, the dying blossoms of my potted deck plants provide practice with the truth of impermanence and the peaceful act of lifting and looking and trimming, making discoveries of bees and beetles and new shoots along the way.
While I deliberately avoided social media for many years, I've been a participant on Facebook for a good stretch now, finding , as is the case with so many things, mindfulness transforms the activity. Even this can be practice. The names above photos posted by my friends remind me to send metta and to be grateful for the community, family, and global web that holds me. The posts that disturb me or bump up against my values, give me reason to reflect on my views and my prickly sense of self, a space to practice compassion and non-judgment. The texting style of Facebook, a bit removed from the easy and quick flow of oral conversation where Right Speech can be so challenging, is a place to practice control of reactivity. I lift my hands from the keyboard for a moment when I am aware of a mind that wants to comment and convince.
Making space, when it is suggested as an early mindfulness practice, may seem like a list of tricks and techniques. Over time it becomes the habit of mind that is mindfulness as action, not just an idea.
If you cast your mind back, if you try to remember, can you find a time in the past when you believed some day you would be wise? For me, as a child, I imagined this magical quality was inevitably developed by everyone. Somehow, adults were wise and though I couldn't put my finger on how they achieved this, I was convinced that it happened. They were wise, they were certain, and they were courageous. I didn't come to doubt this all at once. What I first doubted was “me”. That I'd missed the boat or the door or the turn in the path or the secret instructions. When I grew a little older, I began to see the bafflement in everyone's eyes. That's when I caught on. Wisdom is different than that. Certainty isn't attainable. And courage means something different than I first thought.
I'm hopeful again about the possibility of accessing my own “wisdom”, and while I'm more sparing in terms of who I describe as wise, I still have faith in this quality. Instead of something to be reached or achieved, I see it now as something we're born with, but might never discover. It's like a birthmark hidden by the hair on your head, or the hard to scratch itch between your shoulder blades, or being able to count the points of a snowflake that lands on our warm palm before it melts away. We never see it, or we can't quite touch it, or we don't think it's possible so we don't try, or we never think of trying in the first place. I thought wisdom was part and parcel of knowledge once. So knowledge gave birth to certainty and made courage possible. But now I know this is a mistake.
We need the “wanna” to see through to our own wisdom, and we need tremendous courage and persistence. We might need a mirror or outside help. We need to pay attention. And we have to let go of doubt. Wisdom might be a fleeting thing, like a rainbow, that we catch glimpses of when conditions are right or, in time, it might be like a new sense door opening. A view on the world we couldn't imagine before. But I believe it is worth pursuing, because I believe that wisdom is either the key to the heart or the heart the key to wisdom. Maybe they are like the yin and yang symbol, halves of a whole, each incomplete without the other. We love incompletely without wisdom. Our wisdom is frail and temporary without love.
What has me thinking of all this? My own practice, as always. The ongoing commitment to clear seeing, to kindness and harmlessness, to living in peace and harmony. And the deeper and deeper conviction that this comes down to letting go of what I mistakenly have believed is real for as long as my memory goes back: me. In every instance when a negative emotion arises, whether it's anger or sadness or fear, I find “me” at the center. Protecting what and who I think I am and what is mine. Wisdom flickers like a guttering candle each time I see this, but keeping it burning is more difficult.
Around me I look at the other “adults” who are running the world. I've wondered outloud how the world could be such a dangerous and divided place. But then I look at the divisions and the dangers in my own heart. We act and we speak without wisdom because we are confused. And we can't or we don't take time out to sort the confusion because we are caught in the momentum of action and speech that began long before “we” did.
I don't have the answer for others or for the world. But here, in this heart, I know the answer is to be a little stiller, a little quieter about my views, a little more willing to take the time to look for and nurture both the wisdom and the love that is there. And sometimes when I'm successful, there are lovely moments of opening doors and clear vistas. Sometimes wisdom's candle lightens the dark, so that courage is possible even without certainty and I can see the next step clearly, if not beyond. That's the one I'm living, after all...now and then now.
Sad moods, bad moods. Sometimes they are lurking like a cat, fully in your face as you wake up and waiting to be fed. Too often, that's what we do. And so they follow us into the day, sharpening claws on everything, leaving the day in shreds.
Just a few days ago, sleeping too late with a minor sinus cold, I was aware of the purring presence of just such a mood before I even opened my eyes. Grateful for the slow waking, everyone else still asleep, I kept my eyes closed a moment more, silently resolving to use practical practice right now where it was needed.
A deep breath then. Another. Right here. Right now. What does this moment hold? Everything outside of me is held in this mind. This is where it lives. The bathroom mirror is a first place for practice. Squinting into that sleep swollen, familiar, scrunchy face, and sending love to the sore and clenched heart that woke cranky and hurting. Everyone has times like this, moods like this. They pass unless we pull them close and nurse them. I think of the faces of my children when I'd wake them early for school. The way my heart would swell with love and how I'd hate to urge and nudge them. Poor babies. Suffering as they resisted waking into the day. This makes me smile into my own face now. Poor baby, resisting the day.
To the kitchen in the morning dark. Walking mindfully and turning up the heat. Whispering gratitude for this cozy home, this instant comfort in the cold of a late fall morning. Nuzzling the dog and inhaling with each breath his warm, familiar, not wholly pleasant, doggy smell, leaning into his morning kisses. Water available at the turn of a tap. Kettle set to boil at the flick of a switch. So many are the blessings that sustain my comfortable and very ordinary life.
Minutes later, bundled in a poofy jacket, with my bare feet stuck in rubber boots, I go out into the world to feed the cat. More nuzzles, silky cool fur sliding along my bent cheek, as he comes out of his own warm house to greet me. And turning then I raise my eyes: the clouds are broken pillows feathering in rosy pink across the sky. This scrunchy face has been opening to smiles with breath and animal love, this scrunchy heart opens in a sudden burst now with the beauty of this world. How lucky to live at a latitude where I haven't missed the sunrise even three hours past my usual waking time.
Hot tea, warm buns and sweet fruit are animal pleasures. As are warmth and safety and the comfort of other bodies close by. This is an animal body I practice within. So that is where I begin. Acknowledging its needs. Distinguishing, as I am able, between what it needs and what it merely wants. For caught in “wanting”, I shiver in the dark, pull blankets close for comfort, and risk missing the sunrise, the gifts, the love.
What I discover, again and again, is that the more open my heart and mind, the softer the claims of the body. When I am as big as the ocean, the hard little nugget of salt that is the imagined me, dissolves into everything that is. Morning mood. Practical practice.
Last night I dreamt that my husband handed me a broken bird. The bird's body was weighty and soft , and its lolling head fell off as he dropped it into my hands. I woke myself in tears. In the aftermath I noticed the way in which my mind reflexively began to interpret this dream...to give the bird symbolic meanings...broken dreams maybe... to find a story to explain the image. And then, I remembered my teacher's voice, the voice of wisdom. Bring this runaway mind into the body.
I was hot and uncomfortable. My shoulders ached some. My head felt full and heavy. My breath was still jagged with the crying that woke me. What is this? Anxiety. Fear maybe. Regret and lamentation. This is how it feels in this body. Because of years of meditation on the breath, I begin here. Notice the breath and how it changes. Count the in-breaths, the out-breaths. I notice how in just a few moments, the breath smooths out, my shoulders soften. Whatever it was that had me by the throat has given way.
Teachers use different metaphors for the reactive chain that happens so quickly in the human mind. A train at a station is one. The train is passing through...this is the thought that arises. If we reach for the hand rail by the door we begin to grasp, a foot on the step takes us further, boarding is when we're pulled into the story, and as the train begins to move, the momentum of the story and the physical and emotional responses take over, carrying us away. We can abort the journey at any stage, but the further we are in the process the more difficult it is. A hand touching the rail and pulling back. That is to notice the thought and move away. A foot on the step and we're more committed; it's harder perhaps to pull back. Once on board, we may not even notice as the train begins to move. Disembarking then is painful and difficult.
In waking life, often (some days I might even say “most of the time”) I am able to touch the rail and let go, at most to set a hesitant foot on the step before sati/mindfulness/remembering kicks in because of persistent training. Yet, sleeping, I've discovered, is a different territory.
One of the benefits, the Buddha said, of metta or loving-kindness meditation is that one sleeps well. Over years of practice I found that the nightmares that plagued me in childhood, and went on to make intermittent visits in adulthood, abated...were almost non-existent. The treatment is unconditional loving-kindness, not just outwardly directed but looping back here, to this very heart and mind. Why are these painful dreams nudging the door open again now? Well, currently it is more difficult for me to send love and comfort to myself, to not believe my self-judging mind. My teacher calls this 3:00 a.m. mind: revisiting every mistake in your life while you count the hours of the dark. Where you shame and blame yourself for all the wrong turnings you've taken. In my dreams especially, I have trouble loving myself these days. In my dreams, I step on the train that holds memories of mistakes and difficulties. One car in this train wonders what I might have done differently, another mourns the pain I've caused others through ordinary irritation and lack of patience, another acknowledges intentional acts and words of anger. Yet another wishes so much of a good life had not been wasted in the self-induced pain of unskillful living.But that's in my dreams.
Thoughts arise. The way sight and sound and smells, taste and tactile sensations arise when the sense doors open. Conscious, I am able to intervene and reroute them. Sleeping, the guardian at the gate is dismissed. When we are learning to meditate, the Buddha reminds us, virtue is important. Without regret and shame, anger and greed, the mind settles naturally. What is happening in my sleep these days is a painful kind of remembering. And it has no beneficial consequent. It's serving time for what has passed. Calling out, I wake, jump from the dream train back to this sleeping body. It hurts for awhile. But I cultivate remembering to be here. Filling each breath with acceptance and love, I move from tears and pain into calm and peace.
I think of myself as an introvert. Someone who goes inward, goes solitary, to re-energize. This does not mean I do not seek out, need in my life, appreciate and love people. Nor that I do not like to be in crowds or groups, though I admit to an habitual preference for one on one and small groups, or to an arrangement where solitude within the crowd is unremarkable...a retreat, a lecture, a quiet gallery or library, as opposed to a party, a dance, a concert or a reunion. But at the same time, no label fits exactly. Introverts are no more all of a kind than are all horses or all apples or all days. These are only words for ideas, after all.
In practice, for most of us, the support of others, whether in person or from afar, is essential. It is also true that everyone is responsible for his/her own practice, which may seem contradictory. Still, in too much isolation, it is so very easy to see oneself as special: the only being in the world who struggles, who faces adversity, who feels things deeply, who makes mistakes, who gets confused, who loses heart, who has to begin again and again. It's easy to make these mistakes because of the nature of experience. The way it is easy to think of the sun going down and coming up, rather than the world turning towards and away. That's the way it feels in our experience, after all. Collected data, a sharing of experience, gives us a wider lens.
Mindfulness and the process of being present in the moment is an individual activity. But reading about it, talking about it, sharing the experiences of others, allows individuals to see where there is commonality in experience. Yours is not the only mind that wanders, not the only mind that resists ongoing efforts to bring it here, not the only mind with strange and even embarrassing or frightening thoughts over which you feel you have no control, and which you certainly don't remember choosing. Your mind is a human mind, and it shares characteristics with other human minds. When you engage in practices that interrupt its undisciplined flow, it responds in ways that are similar to the way other human minds respond under these circumstances.
This is one good reason to cultivate community with others on this journey. Another is that, introverts included, we are members of a social species. Company on the journey is uplifting and motivating.
By all means, keep private journals if that feels appropriate. Sit in quiet and solitude. Read and listen on your own to teachers, to guided meditations, to techniques and suggestions and stories of those on spiritual journeys. But share your ongoing journey too. Into my third decade of practice now, I can confirm that the meditation group that gathers weekly here, the bookclub that meets monthly, the various online groups of practitioners I belong to and the others who gather at the retreats I attend, all provide me with a framework and a source of energy in my own practice. I encourage each person as you seek to shape a way of living that is mindful, kind, harmless, peaceful and happy, to stay alert to the role others play in your own journey. All day long in our lives in the world, we are bombarded with other messages and priorities. Pulling away from those may feel uncomfortable. Balance can be found in a circle of companions who share your world view. Listening to your own inner wisdom is essential, yes. But notice where you hear that wisdom echoed in the world. Move closer. As you find support in sharing your practice, others will draw support from you. Imagine one leaning pole and you see something precarious, but if you picture a circle of such poles leaning toward one another, you have the basis of a shelter: a home, stable and strong.
A reader comments that my book is meditative and funny. I am stopped for a breath, wondering, how long has it been since I had humor in my approach to the Dhamma? It has been a rough year. A year since the few weeks of confusion and struggle and worry before my spouse would agree to go to the doctor...a shuffle of tests and trips and waiting rooms and then the diagnosis and the surgery and a deep dive into the world of cancer.
In the kitchen beyond my office door, as I write, my husband listens in a repeating cycle to a talk by my teacher, Ajahn Sona. Having been some 35 years in the robes, Ajahn has come to a place where the new title of Luang Por applies. It is taking his students awhile to become familiar with this, as it has taken us awhile, my husband and myself, to become familiar with a new mode of living. Reverting to “what was” happens over and over until “what is” replaces it, even as a shadow over memory.
The talk my husband listens to is about cancer. Passing through the kitchen a number of times today, I feel the words in my ears, on my skin, each time. I am not swimming in the flow of the talk but only passing through the mist of some particular phrase. Yet, it permeates my consciousness, droplets on sand, until a few moments ago I felt something shift. Almost tangible. Like what happens when you have a pill stuck in your throat, powdery, chalky, lumpy and uncomfortable and then with a wash of water it clears. Leaving a shadow sensation in your throat, but no more obstruction. We are living with this. Both of us. Not dying of this. We are living with an idea. The idea that his death is imminent. And like the pill in your throat, it is uncomfortable and even frightening. But Ajahn's words are like the water that washes away the obstruction the idea has become, his words are like the droplets on the sand. “It is not your cancer”, he says. “It is not your body.” Neither is something you own or control. Instead, cancer has arisen. It's like the snow that manifests from certain climatic conditions. The indigestion that arises after too much Thanksgiving dinner. The dark that manifests as the earth turns away from the sun. Given particular conditions, a baby is born, an accident happens, an illness manifests, a relationship begins, a job is attained. It is all an unfolding of processes.
So my throat clears, a shift happens and I realize that a good deal of my suffering for months has been somehow closing this diagnosis around me, around us, as a cloak. Calling this our life. But our life is not only this diagnosis. It is also a flow of patterns arising in the calendar year, the coming and going of the days and all they hold.
I think of the new shower stool in the bathroom, the walker folded by the front door. Implements that come into our life, but do not define us. Like our big oak table, our little jeep, the new laptop and a long- handled shoe horn hanging near the boot trays. These items are tools that have further significance only in so far as I give it to them.
Suddenly I am able to imagine us tossing the walker into the jeep beside our dog in his crate and going off to walk some snowy path, and the imagining is not laced with a sense of loss. We're living a new way, not just entangled in dying. Not that death won't come. His or mine. Both are inevitable. But certain causes and conditions have come together today: a reminder that practice also contains laughter and lightness; the gentle tapping of the voice of my teacher until a crack in an armor of stoicism appears, revealing not just light but Micky Mouse underwear maybe. Something silly and surprising and inessential. Life holds this too.
Literary tragedies are often laced with comedic elements. And life, even in dark days, contains laughter. Just last week our kitchen rang with more laughter than it it has held in months, as five of us gathered around the table playing a foolish and inconsequential game. For a time, whether healthy or ill, young or old, tired or energized, we were just family, just living ordinary moments. Even as we do in the doctor's waiting room, or reviewing wills and personal directives and crying together. All of these moments are ordinary. I'd like to say I found my smile again today, but that's too dramatic. It was just a moment when a truth was strongly felt: this diagnosis, this disabling illness, is only a piece of the life we live, no less or more defining than any other.