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.

practice as a present participle

Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of teaching that practice has three elements: continuity, presence in this moment, and happiness.  In these times of continuous travel, it’s easy to become unmoored from my daily practice.  Hotel rooms and early starts are not all that conducive to zazen and intense days with late evenings don’t foster mindful consumption.  I like to think there is no “I” but this no-I is having trouble denying the feelings of fragmentation.  And yet, under the shards and slivers of consciousness runs a steady stream of awareness.  It seems knit together the fragments as a river seamlessly knits two shorelines. 

Today, we woke up to rain, snow pellets, and wild howling winds that curved the pine tree tops into sky hooks.  I gave myself a gift of an hour at the art table, playing with shapes and colours.  Then we packed suitcases – again – becoming more and more efficient about what we really need on this trip, and oh-so-reluctantly headed for the nursing home to visit my mother.

The day before was her 93rd birthday.  My brother and his daughter took her a savoury lunch; we were hosting a zazenkai – a day of mindfulness.  She was born in 1918 – the year that saw Daylight Savings Time initiated and when the Red Sox won the World Series.  The last Carolina parakeet died and the Royal Air Force was formed.  Wars began and ended; and, the Spanish flu killed over 30 million people.  A baby girl was born in Rangoon whose continuation leads to this moment when I am writing, you are reading, and even if the Red Sox don’t revive their successes, this moment of being woven together will be irrevocable.

Facing the large glass window with snow pellets pinging on it, I sat with my mother who is now confined to a wheelchair.  She was angry, railing at a universe I can’t access so empathy is just beyond my reach.  Slowly as the words spill out, shredded and disconnected, I decipher her anger is shame.  She can no longer control her bodily functions and, profound though the dementia may be, she knows, feels the humiliation.  As she cries, I try to hold her, awkwardly embracing over the edges of the wheelchair.

The days, minutes, seconds are easy moments to string together as practice.  Surviving time requires no effort.  What time carries along in its flow is the challenge.  The grief, helplessness, rage, and all those visitors from deep in our lives take a bit more effort to sew together.  At least that’s how it feels until I gain the water and feel that steady flow under the fragments and shards of feelings.  Then there is no effort required because it all falls together as segments of a larger experience.

Thank you for practising,


an expression of self

The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self,
or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.

Thich Nhat Hanh on Right Livelihood – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

OK.  I’ve written and deleted this post three times because life has been intervening and offering new perspectives on the practice of earning a living.  It started with an early morning phone call from the nursing home where my mother has lived for four and a half years.  Vascular dementia has painfully eroded her capacity to discern between threat and safety resulting in raging violence when her caregivers try to give her a bath or cut her nails.

The phone call was a variation on that theme with a twist.  Mum was having severe chest pains that had begun the evening before.  When I showed up she was in full rant, most of it unintelligible because of her aphasia.  But occasionally a word or exclamation would bellow out unmistakable in its intent both to frighten us off and to summon help.  “You’re killing me!”  “Whore!”  “Dirty woman!”  You have to understand that my mother is 4′ 11″, 93 years old, and not much heavier than a load of groceries – with a right hook to shame a heavyweight boxer.

We needed to change “everything,” the care givers told me.  Clothing, bed covers, blankets, everything. I was the drone: hold her down here, turn her over and HOLD!  Now turn the other way, flip, pull, tuck the sheets in.  The two women patiently explained every step to my mother.  She watched them intently as they stroked her cheek and said: Julia, we’re going to…  Now we have to…. Julia, I need to…  Then, as they proceeded to do what had to be done, she screamed words at them I don’t think any mother should know.  In the melee, one care giver took it in the temple (right on her bar bell piercing – that must have hurt like hell!).  The other caught a glancing blow on her cheek.  I think I escaped but there’s a soreness on my upper arm that wasn’t there before.  Working swiftly the three of us managed to undress, wash, and dress her; then we managed to change the bedding and the blankets.

When it was over, Mum stroked the cheek of one of the care givers, allowed herself to be tucked in and, Frank having tentatively returned to the room, took his hand in what he said was a bone crushing grip.  Drifting in and out of sleep, she turned and asked me, “How is your Mummy, dear?”

I started this post quoting paragraphs about the indeterminacy of Right Livelihood, about earning a living in ways that may be damaging to others, about doing what must be done even if it violates the precepts.  There are many words and analyses dissecting Buddhist principles, ethics, and skillful living.  I deleted them all in the end because I don’t think they capture the practice of Right Livelihood as powerfully as two women did that morning, doing what was clearly distressing to them and doing just what needed to be done.  They seem to embody Thich Nhat Hanh’s term “supporting” oneself which offers more than just the idea of an exchange of services with an eye out for bad karma.

Thank you for practising,


baking bread

Things have flown by in a blur over the last few days.  Kid and Cat moved in and my meticulous schedule of procrastination has been irreparably dented.  I think I’m back.  And that is the eternal problem, isn’t it?  I think.  And as for the “back” part, when will I learn that I was never anywhere but here so there’s no “back” to back into?  Other than these mental flappings of my cognitive wings, it’s been quite a lovely holiday… so far.

I’ve spent a bit of time wandering over to various blogs. Over the last few months, there hasn’t been a spare moment to enjoy the amazing authors and their wisdom.  In fact, there’s been precious little time to develop my own writing – leaving me to even wonder if I can keep up the pace of a daily missive.  Of course, when I do read the H-core Zennies, I begin to wonder what the heck I’m doing trying to translate my practice into words.  Is this Zen?  Is this practice?  Is this worth the nanosecond keystroke?  But beyond the usual self-flagellation for low self-worth (a sure cure for poor self-esteem, I tell you, is to beat yourself up silly and then eat chocolate), my reflections on blogging are still positive.  It has to be.  It’s the only goal in my Initial Learning Plan for chaplaincy that is being met.  Goals 1-3 are trashed and that will be chaff for another grinding.

So.  What’s been happening?  For the soul, Santa Jizo dropped off a few books for me to chomp on over the holidays: The Work of the Chaplain (nice documentation but little soul), Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki (nice review over at NellaLou’s; looking forward to it), and Great Doubt (mentioned in passing here a few posts ago; so far a bit disappointing but it’s published by my OI dharma sister and brother so I’d better be nice).  The Kid gave me Everything is Broken by Emma Larkin – a tale of Burma’s tragedy and farce.  And she gave me something else that will take a bit of consideration before I post about it.

For the body, I got a gadget.  A new breadmaker that makes breads in traditional-shaped loaves.  If you’ve succumbed to the production of bread via Teflon blades and preheat cycles rather than the intense tactile kinesthetic process of muscling dough, you know the problem with most bread makers is the tall, impossible to slice or store shapes dictated by the form of the machine.  No longer!

Meet my sexy, sleek new love.  It’s got a zillion bake cycles and three memory storages for my favourite things.  Frank still out-performs it in the memory-for-my-favourite-things department but really, this baby puts out for Mamma.

Christmas lunch was planned to be simple because we were bringing my Mum over for the first time in a year.  We were anxious because getting her to cooperate with dressing for outings has been hit-and-miss for a long while.  Her dementia has progressed sufficiently that the usual “hooks” don’t work.  But I was going to take an optimistic approach and prepared veggie “meat” pie topped with mashed potatoes which were laced with cambozola cheese chunks and served with hot cornbread.

Having been experimenting with gluten-free recipes, I threw together a cornbread mix in the old bread maker.

There’s a very brave woodpecker out there who has my eternal love.  Failure only means you have to modify the recipe in a different direction.  But the lunch being the next day, I opted for a tactical retreat.  My tried-and-true gluten-and-fat-laden Southern cornbread!

There were no complaints except from the juncos and chickadees who felt Woody was hogging the hanging loaf.

The next day I took a test drive with my new buddy.  A Zojirushi bread machine with enough gearshifts to deal with the temperamental curves of GF baking.  Look at it!  Doesn’t it make you weep?  A Poppyseed loaf – it lasted a day or two.

For the spirit, I got this:

This is Mom.  I just missed a shot of her trying on the slippers as mitts.  Unlimited by form, a true practitioner.  Dementia does that, I suppose.  Cleaves off the complicated parts of our mind and leaves the barest minimum.  Although I would wish that some of the necessary pieces were still intact – like certain memories.  But then, maybe that’s not really necessary either:

It’s all a matter of getting the right ingredients, not letting the recipe rule, and finding the right combination of warmth, leavening, and letting go of what shape you want it in.

Thank you for practising,



I took a shower and went upstairs, hesitated a moment, knocked on Jake’s door.  He was sitting in bed reading, his little reading spectacles down on his nose.

“I went out and wandered aimlessly for a while, like a lunatic,” he said.  “Now I’m back.”

He was reading Shobogenzo, the great lifetime work of our Zen lineage’s founding teacher, from the thirteenth century.

“How’s the book?” I said.

“As you lose your mind, it almost makes sense.”

from Jake Fades: A novel of impermanence by David Guy

owning self

Our practice realization and neuroscience come together to show that the sense of a permanent and integral self is constructed but is also needed to function.

Notes from Zen Brain talk by Al Kaszniak.

Harkening back to John Dunne’s talk, in the five skandhas, we have a built-in systematic map of our lived experience out of which we create a sense of self.  Evan Thompson called this a process of “I-ing”, a continuous integration of external and internal perceptions that forms a feedback loop.  Under all the nuances and variations of developmental theories is an inescapable truth: without an Other, there is no I that can be created.  What is perhaps not so explicitly stated is that the creative process is one of discerning what is most useful to integrate and what is not required; in other words, it is a process of grasping and rejecting relational offerings.

Without this discernment, we can be overwhelmed by our perceptual experiences or take inappropriate ownership of things that are in proximity to us.  There’s fascinating phenomenon called the Rubber Hand Illusion – a disruption of the sense of body ownership in which we can feel as though a disembodied hand is actually ours:

Growing up is not that different.  We develop a belief of ownership by proximity to the object of our perception and the simultaneous stimulation that is called relationship.  That’s not all bad.  Love works that way.  So does caring, empathy, compassion, and the feeling of community.  It only causes suffering when reification and inflexibility set in.  When we are deluded in the belief that things not connected to us define us or are defined by us, we create the conditions of suffering.

At the Q&A of the Zen Brain talks, I asked about research that explored neurological changes related to the relational aspects of our experience.  I was surprised by the way I constructed my question.  Prefacing it briefly with the facts of my mother’s dementia, I noted that as I was watching her deconstruct herself, I was also deconstructing myself.  We were rapidly becoming no-mother and no-daughter, falling to signlessness.  In as much as the trajectory of the relationship for her was a natural course of neural deterioration, it was also crucial, in my mind, that I met it as a process of practice realization. I had to let go of the belief I owned the Rubber Hand of our developmental relationship.

When she and I were able to meet as two beings whose shared history could not longer be acted out, something shifted.  There were no past stories to live out, guard against, or correct.  There is only the moment of sitting, eating, holding, feeling.  Don’t get me wrong.  I also feel sadness – but not for the woman she was who would have been devastated to see herself now.  There is sadness that this is way in which she attains liberation.  For me anyway.  Perhaps you see it differently.

Thank you for practicing,


disowning self

We have a commonsense notion of self.  Self is thought of as a given, unique, agentic, independent, integrated, cohesive source that is permanent, underlying the flow of our conscious experience.  We experience self as the independent cause of voluntary action.

Al Kaszniak, Neuropsychologist

from Notes on Zen Brain: Contributions to an understanding of self-awareness from the study of neurological illness

Al’s research examines how the constructions of self are dismantled through a disease process that we call Dementia which means “deprived of mind.”  Alzheimer’s disease is the most common one we identify as a Dementia and is the major cause of Dementia.  Memory loss, changes in behaviour, transposed timelines and relationships, and reduced intellectual function create a flowing parody of the Three Doors of Liberation: selflessness, signlessness and aimlessness.  Age is not protective, nor are accomplishments, intellectual prowess, wealth, fame, or any of the legacies of our actions.  And in its initial stages, it’s hard to discern the development of the disease from the assertion of personality.

The most read post on this blog is losing and letting go, an exploration of my relationship with my mother who was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago.  I can only think that the popularity of the entry is because so many of us are trying to cope with the transformations this disease brings not just to the self of the person afflicted but to our own identification with the Other.  In our commonsense understanding of Self, we hold to the belief that under the expression of wild words and bizarre behaviours there is a solidity that will re-assert itself – given time, rational discourse, and a good night’s sleep.

It was easy for friends and family to lionize my mother.  She was certainly larger than most lives, passionate, fierce, and dominantly generous.  Her independence was legendary and there were few who returned for forgiveness after encountering her cold rage.  She and my father walked from Rangoon to Mandalay, a distance of some 400 miles, to escape the occupation of Japanese forces.  There are stories told from that period that cast her as an avenging protector, a trait that did not serve her well when transplanted to the West twenty years later.  In an environment that conceptualized relationships differently, she entrenched, refusing to reconstruct herself.  Or perhaps, there were no pathways, never had been any, that allowed a perception of experience as relational.

As she lost the world she understood, she had little choice but to disavow the world she had.  Having watched this from childhood to adulthood, I wonder why I pushed back against her unravelling self when the dementia began to flourish.  In the first few visits with medical personnel, I took great pains to explain that “this” was who she was: the rage, the lack of tolerance for not getting what she wanted immediately, the blaming, and the shaming.  They tried to explain that “this” was involuntary, a dismembering of neural networks that left her blameless and a candidate for equanimity and compassion.  I watched her put together the fragments of her identity, like a kaleidoscope, creating new combinations yet only ever arriving at the same place of desiring, rejecting, and confusion.  All observers agreed on the impact of her behaviours.  Yet I went home each night from the hospital where she lived for three months feeling like I had been transported into a strange universe where I knew everyone was finally seeing what I saw but were not bearing witness to it.

As she became disconnected from the concepts and ideas about her I had built for decades, she said as much about me in that way she had of highlighting my deficiency in making the world easier for her to cope with.  We were responding involuntarily to who we were to each other but remained unaware of it.  It reminded me of a phenomenon called Alien Limb in which the person afflicted claims their limb (an arm usually) is not their own.  The arm acts in various ways that are often embarrassing or oppositional to the person’s wishes or intentions yet the person will insist it was not their actions.  Combine this with a phenomenon called anosgnosia (an unawareness of having a deficit) and we had a pithy metaphoric recapitulation of what our mother-daughter relationship had become.

There is Dharma in this if we can get past the drama.  It raises for me the question of how to drop under the surface of losing identities and see, feel, realize the selflessness, the interbeing, the interconnectedness that is the mystery of relationship.  There is nothing lost.  There is only an observation of what is letting go.

Thank you for practicing,