a metta wish for all

Bearbrook-dec2

 

The sun is warming the snow and ice that cakes the lane way and the pups are enjoying their version of a Formula 500 race around the house. It’s quiet. Well, quiet except for the music from Songza – a recent discovery I made that takes the anxiety out of choosing music for various activities in the day and evening. It also seems to render the CDs obsolete though I’m told to stash them away until I truly want to send them along to wherever CDs go when their time is up.

Speaking of which, in teaching about the first precept I’m fond of telling people that everyone has a “best before” date. (Frank often adds, “But better after!”) Embedded in the First True Reality (Peter Harvey’s term) is the painful truth that we are not meant to be around forever. When I work with individuals with a terminal disease such as cancer, I feel a bit of a hypocrite simply because in the face of what they now know, I am still blind to my own “stale date.” Death happens as it has for a number of family members and friends since I last wrote. And those of us here remain helplessly blind to our own biological last moment.

And yet. There is also life. Grandest Baby turned one year old. Born 20 minutes short of the celebrated date of the Buddha’s enlightenment, she has been a teisho on equanimity, patience, letting go and all the other goodies we’re meant to practice. Cultivating grandmother-mind – robai shin – is an interesting practice. May I live long enough to see some buds break through these hardened branches!

Such a desire for sight, seeing, sight consciousness. I’m aware of how much that plays into our interactions. “Can you see what I’m saying?” “I can’t see my way out of this.” “See?”  In a conversation with a colleague, she asked about my paternal grandmother. Did she know, my colleague asked, the impact she had on your spiritual path?

At the entrance of our home in Rangoon on one side of the door was a statue of St. Philomena, a Christian saint with a problematic relationship with the Holy See who bounced her off the liturgical calendars in 1961 but still allows devotions to continue à la St. Patrick and St. Christopher. But such news had not reached us and my aunt in particular remained spectacularly devoted to her. Well, to the statue anyway, as she walked into the house, stood in ecstatic  prayer before it and at the conclusion would touch the saint’s eyes then her own. She believed that St. Philomena would cure her encroaching blindness from cataracts and no amount to explaining that it wasn’t in Philomena’s job description would dissuade her. Blindness, especially one that offered a forewarning of things to come, was terrifying and warranted an appeal to all saints available.

My paternal grandmother would enter the house, first dousing her cheroot in an empty oyster can Dad would leave at the door for such purposes, and turn towards the window. She would sit on her haunches with hands in prayer and shi-ko three times. The prostrations were quick and efficient with no great devotional drama. My memory of her was of an ancient elder though she was likely only (only!) in her sixties. I asked her if she was doing that because she too wanted to prevent being blind. No, she said. She knew she was already blind.

Understandably it was perplexing then. Not so now.

We are already blind. Some times we remained resolutely blind. Some times we claw at the blindness hoping to peel away the cataracts. Some times we forget we are blind and assume the rest of the world is careening around, banging into us and generally making life difficult. If only they could see!

Funny isn’t it?

Frank and I and the monstrous pups wish you all a season of enlightening joy. Our metta wish for you is that you are blinded only by the light of your wisdom, that it sears off the cataracts and you lead the rest of us mundanely blinded folk with compassion and love.

qi and the fasting of the mind: video by Edward Slingerland

A terrific lecture on Zhuang Zi by Edward Slingerland (Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia) with a section by Evan Thompson (Professor of Philosophy at University of British Columbia) on cognitive science and meditation.

 

Posted with appreciation for permission by Dr. Slingerland.

writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK

Book Review & Giveaway: Meditation on Perception by Bhante Gunaratana

Book Giveaway: I won a softcover version of this book and much as I crave keeping it I will practice the essence of Meditation on Perception by offering it to a randomly chosen reader who leaves a comment on this post, Twitter, or Facebook. Giveaway closes October 17, 2014.

Meditation on Perception (Wisdom Publications) by Bhante Gunaratana is a gem of wisdom delivered in Bhante G.’s simple, clear style. Those of us who study the teachings of the Buddha have an almost facile response to the cause of suffering. It is craving, which is fed by perception; dukkha arises from the way in which we perceive the world and its events. True enough and this book unravels our misperceptions about perception.

(I)n its own nature perception is pure and clean. Yet it is also quite delicate and vulnerable to being distorted by the virus of concepts.

In my own practice, I’ve come to have an ambivalent relationship with my perceptions. A necessary evil in my mind, I engage them with narrow trust and a wide berth. Yet Bhante G.’s unwrapping of the process and mechanisms of perception reveal a subtle working of perception as the language between body and mind. This means a wider trust and more intimate relationship is called for if we are to be guided well by it.

As our mindfulness becomes more stable, we discover that the entire Dhamma is inscribed in our body and mind.

Meditation on Perception is exactly what it says: perception is the object of our meditation with the intention of fully understanding how the six senses (thoughts are one of them) feed us information from inner and outer sources. While the Girimananda Sutta, Buddha’s teachings on perception, forms the primary framework many other relevant suttas are tucked quietly into the chapters exposing us to a wide range of the Buddha’s teachings. Bhante points out that despite the initial purity of perception “concepts, ideas, opinions, beliefs, and many other categories of conditioning, have influenced our perception. In essence, our perception has become distorted. (ebook location 444)” We fall into the mirage of believing there is a fixed self, knotted by desire for permanence and suffering, and living through a preferential mind that leans into pleasurable experiences.

The good news is that perceptions can arise and cease because the causes and conditions that give rise to them also arise and cease. The tough news is that other perceptions take effort to bring into line. To borrow a phrase from neuropsychology, concepts that arise together, wire together. This unwiring takes effort, practice, and unrelenting diligence. Bhante offers several paths of healing distorted perceptions, all of which are applications of teachings from the Ānāpānasati and Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas. By cultivating awareness of breath and mindfulness, we begin to see how the distorted perception self-generate. When we understand that that tainted mind seeks validation from from inner and outer experiences to reinforce its perception, we can also understand the necessity for guarding the sense doors, developing presence to what is arising, and developing patience and loving-friendliness (metta) for our experience.

The ten healing perceptions, impermanence, nonself, unattractiveness, danger, abandoning, dispassion, cessation, nondelight in the entire world, impermanence in all conditioned phenomena, and mindfulness of breathing, are the path through this tangle of distorted perceptions. Meditations on these healing factors disentangle us from our preferences that world meet our needs in a precise, self-centered way. This profound attachment is the fundamental cause of our suffering and the Girimananda Sutta offers hope of release.

What I truly treasured in Bhante’s writings is the use of language that is natural and therefore accessible. Terms that tend to trigger argumentation in my head are rendered in ways that reveal their meaning without any esotericism. “Aimlessness,” one of the three gateways to liberation, is simply “wishlessness.” Disenchantment does not mean disappointed rejection; it is a stance of mature realization of what truly is. The five aggregates each “consists of three minor moments: the rising moment, the living moment, and the passing away moment.”

The living moment.

The delight in the book is also the opportunity to re-engage with the four foundations of mindfulness as well as a number of meditation instructions which place attention on perception, mind, impermanence, and liberation.

This is a welcome addition to Bhante’s prolific series of books that have brought the wisdom of the Buddha to our hearts.

bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.

 

Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump

 

 

 

The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.

 

 

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.

 

 

CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.

 

mother-daughter: mastering the art of losing each other

“Operator? Operator. Please put me through to my daughter.” Her voice is pleading to my voicemail message, her words say, “Time is collapsing into itself and I am lost and alone.”

“Operator, can you hear me? My daughter’s name is Lynette. Please tell her I called. I need to speak to her. Please.”

It’s 11 PM and I’ve just come home from a long day at work. I’m torn by an urgency to drive the 2 hours to her home or call my brother who is only 20 minutes from her. He answers his phone, groggy and disoriented. I explain the message and my concern, voice steady, knowing any rise in inflection will trigger some long-buried familial mine. He’s patiently explaining to me that there is nothing to worry about. Mum just has a problem with… his voice tails off. “I don’t know if you will understand this but it has to do with her mind.”

 

For as long as I can remember, my mind has been my worst enemy. It didn’t seem to play by any rules of engagement I understood. Or if it did, those rules changed so it was the only one who ever won a debate, discussion, or a challenge. When explaining mindfulness concepts of letting go negative thoughts, I was fond of telling my patients that there was no point getting into a debate with one’s mind; after all I had yet to win an argument with mine. It was highly skilled at the Art of War, used unconventional tactics, and I was always rendered defenseless in a matter of nanoseconds.

I like to think I come by these features honestly. My father worried incessantly about what people thought of him, of us, fearful that anything happening in our vicinity would be blamed on us. He lived in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. My mother approached everything with the assumption that she already knew the outcome would not be to her liking and manipulated its evolution. She lived in a perpetual state of conflict preparedness. Out of their stances to the world, I distilled a view that somehow we were not worthy of safety, generosity, or kindness. Somehow the world would conspire to take away what was precious. Somehow everything I achieved was only because it wasn’t a real contest, the best candidates had dropped out, or it was a joke. But it didn’t matter anyway because even achievements gained under such conditions would be stripped away.

My mind thrived on this fodder of shame, unworthiness, and dark secrets of who I “really” was. My father wrote in my book of quotes, “Trifles make perfection but perfection is no trifle.” I lived by this, focusing on details but in my fear all details were important. Lacking discernment, I drove family, friends, and research assistants to distraction. Mainly, I drove myself into despair, a progressively deepening dark crater that took up most of the area around my heart and closed off my throat. My coping skills amounted to living in over-drive and narrowing my world so my dirty secret that I was doomed to fail would not get out.

Over the years of working with people who deal with post-trauma reactions, I’ve come to understand that my family and I have struggled with the same symptoms. My parents survived World War II and the occupation of Burma (Myanmar) by the Japanese, Allied Forces, and later the military junta. The stories they told around the dinner table were literally “war stories” and this predated our understanding that hearing these stories would be a form of secondary trauma. I remember events and experiences that I now understand shaped my vulnerability and reaction to perceived control and isolation. We each carried these clusters of suffering in us which would work their way out over the years. For me, the depth of my own suffering revealed itself one morning, after several years of meditative practice. I realized I had woken up and not felt regret that I had not died in my sleep. The dark crater had emptied and there was a spaciousness I could enter without being engulfed by fear.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.[1]

Transcendental meditation classes were all the rage when I was an undergraduate Science student and I attended faithfully, more hold onto my boy friend than any interest in enlightenment. I lost the boy friend anyway but the practice stuck and over the years evolved into a practice of Buddhism. My father was thrilled by my explorations; his mother was a devout Buddhist. My mother was nonplussed; it didn’t seem productive to sit around and navel-gaze. To her it was just another data point in a vast database proving my inherently lazy, pointless, and selfish life. For me, it ranged from a great stress management tool to an excruciating half-hour of listening to my critical and obsessive mind tell me my mother was right.

By the time I allowed myself to try a lovingkindness meditation, I was desperate to find some distance from that unrelenting inner voice. I figured if I could at least out-shout it with kind mantras, I’d break its grip. One of my Buddhist teachers suggested it would be a bridge to compassion, transiting from befriending myself to being present to my pain without recriminations. I just wanted the noise to stop but what did I have to lose? For two years, I sat and practiced self-kindness[2]: May I be free from suffering. May I be at peace. May I see all my actions as arising from my limitations. May I see my limitations as simply human. Seeing and experiencing my failings as part of a common humanity loosened the grip of the inner critic. It also opened me to the realization that my demanding stance with others was rooted in my own fears. Somehow I believed that the only way to feel safe was to control the outer environment because certainly I felt no control over my inner environment. But the world was not creating my sense of danger; I was through an inner critic that was misguided in over-protecting me from failure. Before cultivating compassion for others, I had to learn to soften to myself. Self-compassion required me to cultivate a gentler way of relating with myself, to tolerate and calm the inner reactivity, and to take responsibility for having created my own experience[3].

This useful space opened up just in time. In 2002, my father died after an eight-year struggle with the travelling cancer cells that eventually lodged in his brain. I didn’t lose him. He let go and I too opened my hand. At his funeral service, I saw one of those early moments of my mother’s own letting go. I wanted to name it then, dementia, but it was hard to differentiate from the stress of losing a partner of 65 years. Over the next three years, however, it became clear that this was now an inexorable march to an unknowable endpoint. Other than death. Death is always a known variable.

By the time she was admitted to a hospital for a geriatric assessment, I had learned to surrender to helplessness at how it was unfolding. Her neighbors called to say she was sweeping the street in her nightgown. Her cardiologist insisted her memory was intact and old people just remember in funny ways.  She insisted the plastic flowers were flourishing from her constant watering and the fresh orchids had been grown in her friend’s backyard. After seeing her granddaughter’s graduation picture with cap and gown, she worried if it was too soon for “the child” to decide to ordain.

The geriatric assessment showed a long history of strokes that had rendered her brain a scarred mass of thick braids and knots. As we struggled to understand the consequences for her, she remained relentless in trying to escape the hospital. I opted for distraction and walked her to a dead-end corridor and we sat in the vinyl sofa shoved into a dark corner. She railed at me. I was useless, should never have been born, unable to do anything right, a waste of a life. “Like your father,” she whispered into my face, her own contorted with anger and bereft of hope. My heart ripped apart and yet was wide open. Not with love or kindness but with a profound recognition. Here I was in the seat beside me! My critical mind made real, embodied. This was not my mother in the true sense of the word. This was the propaganda of our family. Under threat, we resorted to motivating heroic acts through severe beatings, through a form of “show me differently!”

Feeling impotent and defensive, I retorted something early in her tirade and caught myself. This was not a way to staunch my suffering or hers. May you be free from suffering. May we meet this pain with steadiness. May I honor my practice and your motherhood. I sat, trying my hardest to be fully present yet knowing that I needed help as internally my practice eroded. A nurse, hearing the exchange, reassured me medication was on its way. It took three hours. A friend later said, “Three hours? And you feel you lost the battle to be compassionate by uttering one retort and thinking a million? You need to lose sooner than three hours!”

Losing and letting go. Elizabeth Bishop wrote piercingly of this in her poem, in One Art[4].

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

We fear losing our capacity for kindness, for love, for respect. These don’t seem “filled with the intent to be lost” but they invariably are through the vagaries of our self-control. And, in the context of losing our parents and all they represent, it can seem like a disaster.

This is especially true if we hold to cultural myths of how to love our parents and be with them with compassion and equanimity. When we set those standards, we set ourselves up for failure each time we become impatient, snappy, sharp, critical, and confused. We roll out the red carpet for our inner critic when we hold to beliefs that we somehow transcend the hardwiring of our childhood experiences just because they grow old and we retain our cogency (insofar as we do).

Bishop entreats us to practice losing so we master it; it is after all a necessary art. But it’s not the keys, the books, or the favorite t-shirt that we learn to lose. True, those are the forms to which we become attached and many a Zen master will encourage the losing of that attachment as one’s practice. However, these attachments, tendrils that weave around us, form the shape of our identity, our way of knowing self, other, and the world. In my deepest hopelessness and rank fear, I saw myself as unable to know who I was in any moment and thereby rendered powerless to act on my own behalf. This, I feared losing.

The loss is the hardest practice. And it happened one day, a day I count as the happiest of my life. She had been a resident at this home for several years, moving among the other residents like a wind-up toy determined to be the social convener, the advocate, the soothing hand. The staff and residents (most anyway) loved her and explained away her outbursts of violence. This was a huge challenge for me, as I slowly had to let go of my need to speak the truth of her actions. “This is who she really is,” I wanted to scream when they excused her outbursts. “This is not the dementia!” But that only served my agenda and took me back down old pathways that lead to dark and dangerous neighborhoods. I had to lose that map, that knowing of myself as victim and her as abuser.

I came regularly each Sunday to take her for lunch. For the most part, she enjoyed the outing and tended to have greater self-control in public. On this fateful day, she turned to greet me when I walked into her room; never knowing her mood, I had developed a tentativeness about those initial moments. “Oh, there you are!” she sang out. “I thought it was my daughter.” She was excited that we were going out, happy that I came so often to care for her, and grateful for the new clothes I had brought earlier. “Not like my daughter who never brings me anything!” she sighed.

It was inevitable and irrevocable. I was gone from her mind. She had mastered the art of losing, it seemed, and in losing her daughter, she had set herself free of all the disappointments, regrets, and rancor of who I was to her. Simultaneously, she was gone from my mind. The mother of whom I had but one gentle, joyous memory. The woman who was insatiable in her need for approval and vicarious success. The one who was enshrined for super-heroic performance in saving the family from death and later destitution, leaving no room for anyone else who had pulled along with her. Gone. Mother-daughter. Gone.

When I’m asked if it was hard to watch my mother decline further and further into delusion, I respond that all that needed to be lost was lost and in that space I found the mother I always wanted and deserved. The mother who held my hand as we walked across the parking lot. The mother who loved the restaurant I picked and laughed about my preferences in food. The mother who asked how my children were doing (I only have one but it didn’t matter by then) and whether I was working too hard. The mother who looked at my husband and said to me, “Don’t let him go. He’s a good man.” The mother who held my face in her hands, leaned in to bump foreheads, and giggled like a child.

When she was dying, I sat by her bedside and spoke to her of our joys and love. I chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a thousand times. I sat in meditation on the floor at the foot of her bed, sensing into each part of my body and willing hers to let go. This prayer emerged from that moment:

These are my mother’s toes
which raised her up to reach for all that was needed,
a flower, a cup, a bag of cookies, a dream.

These are my mother’s feet
which strode through the house shaping everything to be beautiful,
which carried me as an infant, then a child, taking me across the tarmac
to meet my father returning from his journey.

This is my mother’s womb
which carried me before I was I,
which embraced me with warmth and nourishment,
which released me into the world with gentleness and grace.

This is my mother’s heart
which sent her life’s blood flowing into me,
filling my body with potential and passion.

These are my mother’s lungs
which purified the toxins from the air,
which gave me life.

This is my mother’s face
which conveyed her love and laughter,
which spoke her words and heard mine.

These are my mother’s hands
which held me firmly walking across the street,
which stirred the soups and stews, the curries and rice,
laying out the heritage of gathering at tables and in kitchens.

These are my mother’s shoulders
which bore the weight of loves and loss,
which never learned to shrug or cast off a burden,
carrying everything with equanimity and fearlessness.

This is my mother’s brain
which created the intricate relationships of her life,
weaving the net that holds us all.

=======================================

[1] Tao te Ching: Chapter Eleven, Lao Tsu, transl. by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, Vintage Books, NY 1997

[2] Self-compassion is defined by Kristen Neff as comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

[3] See the practice Soften-Soothe-Allow by Christopher Germer.

[4] One Art: Letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: NY, 1994