as she lay dying – meditation on my mother’s body

My mother is dying. After 94 years of standing up to a world that was at times brutal and at times incomprehensible to her, she lies here in her hospital bed between starched, warmed sheets, dying. Her awareness has receded into an inner world of visions and a landscape only she can navigate. Her consciousness which is the arising out of contact senses the sheets, the shifting air, the moist toweling of her body every hour. Earth has dissolved into water as her organs release their hold on function. Water has dissolved into fire as the fluids in her body diminish. Fire has dissolved into air as the vital forces dissipate into flowing wind. All that is left is the expansion of air into spaciousness, into that boundless realm of entire being.

We sit vigilantly each day, following her breath, recalling her life. Sati, recollecting, bringing together, re-membering the dispersed parts of her life as grandmother, mother, wife, friend, sister, cousin, daughter. Fearless and fearsome dragon lady who survived a World War, the British and Japanese Occupation of Burma, strode across oceans and cherished roses.

As part of my own process I have spent the mornings and evenings chanting the name of Avalokita, reading the Anathapindika Sutta, and sitting a vigil sesshin. I don’t know how it helps or if it does but that is why we practice – to move beyond the need for something to happen.

This was a meditation that emerged from one sitting as I brought my attention to my feet, intending to scan through to the top of my head and then to scan my mother’s body in turn. As I began, our bodies merged and this became the meditation. I offer it for the grace of her life.

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.

This is my mother’s body.
Sitting, standing, lying down.
This is my mother’s gift
even now.

digging out dukkha

DSC_0101It’s been a rough few days. My heart goes out to the families in Newtown CT and globally in places we never hear about who are going through what, to me, is unimaginable loss. I have no wise words, no salve, no offers of hope for ease and peace. Often, when such tragedies strike, I find myself watching it all unfold, mesmerized by the way online characters respond to words written on this posting or that. Often, when I read cruel and mean-spirited comments or just plain ignorant ones, I find myself turning to Frank and asking him to explain (yet again) the mentality I think is reflected in the words I’m reading. Together, we sit and he tries his very best to explain this aspect of his birth culture and I fail (yet again) to grasp the senselessness of the physical, verbal, and emotional violence so many witness and endure.

For so long I have deeply wished we could eradicate all the weaponry of emotional and physical hurt. I have this delusion that the suffering left will be manageable, witness-able, containable.  But I know that is not likely to be the end result.  So I’ve vowed to stop trying to make sense out of something that cannot make sense – not even in how we reference it because “senseless” violence is the oxymoron of oxymorons.  In fact, to call it that subtly opens a door to discussion for what constitutes “sensible” violence.  And caught in our deluded states of mind (often armed with statistics), there is no end to what we each believe is sensible in these circumstances.   However, nothing can ever justify violence or our reluctance to do what is necessary to prevent it.  But, couched in these discussions, there is a subtle “bait-and-switch” that leads us away from the real issue.  Because violence and death are often dramatically coupled, violent deaths become the salient aspect of an event and the focus of all our energies.  Caught in our passion, we miss that it is the finger pointing to the moon.

Embedded in these events is a deeper truth and it opens to the possibility of digging further into our practice.  In sangha, after we honoured the pain and suffering of all grieving families in the ten directions, we shared our thoughts about the events at Newtown and other occasions of profound suffering.  One sangha friend pointed out wisely that even if we managed to prevent these and other deaths, we are still left with the reality of suffering that is inherent in living.  This is the intimate truth of all living beings; being born is the most predictable cause of dying and it is  not preventable.  Furthermore, there is much suffering that arises in the process of getting from birth to death.  These many variants of suffering themselves become the roots of all forms of suffering – including but not exclusive to pre-mature death, sometimes from violence.  These are, in large part, preventable.

This First Truth of suffering is the touchstone to which we must return each and every time we are confronted with the inexplicable.  Only then can we begin to see the bigger picture of what is necessary and possible.  Only then can we embody our practice of compassionate action through our civic, spiritual, and personal paths as we take determined steps to dig out the roots of many forms of suffering.  If not, if we focus only on weapons or violence or drugs or whatever is salient in this moment, we are only cleaning out the compost bin and not the septic bed it sits atop that itself needs to be dug out.