These two talks look at how we relate to change – especially the notable changes involving loss of relationships and our own body and mind. We examine our strategies for avoiding uncertainty and fear; the consequences of resisting reality; our refuges of presence and compassion in the face of grief; and the gifts of opening fully to the river of change.
“What is it that allows us to open our hearts to every moment of our life? It’s the remembrance that it’s passing and it’s precious.”
Our true refuge is reality – only by opening to “things as they are” do we find true peace and freedom. This talk explores impermanence – a key feature of reality. We look at our habits of resisting change – including loss and death, the practices that awaken and open us, and the gifts of letting go into the ever-changing river of experience.
To live our lives fully, we need to embrace the natural unfolding of birthing and dying. Yet we are deeply conditioned to resist loss, to pull away from fear and grief. Through a powerful Inuit story, Skeleton Woman, shared by Clarissa Estes, this talk explores how our practices of presence can open us to what we avoid, and free us to love without holding back.
– A talk given on 2016-12-29 at the IMCW New Year’s silent retreat in Reisterstown, MD.
We are sometimes described as “human doings” versus “human beings.” In this short presentation we look at how our drive to keep busy and to over-achieve is a way of avoiding facing the inevitability of loss.
CC ~ Our capacity to live and love fully is entirely related to how we open to the truth of impermanence. This talk examines how our ways of trying to control life solidify our perception of being separate and threatened. We then look at the wings of mindful presence and compassion that open us to loss and grief, and reveal the loving awareness that is beyond birth and death.
The way that we relate to impermanence and loss shapes our capacity to live and love fully. This talk, drawing on Mary Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods,” explores three elements in our response to this fleeting, precious life that are integral to our healing and freedom.
We all encounter the great losses of our own health and life, and of cherished others. We are conditioned to resist opening to the rawness and grief that comes with loss. This talk describes the refuge of presence in the face of loss, and the gift of timeless love that arises as we make peace with the reality of this living, dying world.
Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta writes, “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses over it.” Sometimes the abyss of fear and isolation is so wide that we hold back, unable to enter the sanctuary of presence, frozen in our pain. At such times, we need a taste of love from somewhere in order to begin the thaw.
This was true for a member of our sangha, Julia, as she received treatment for cancer. She was uncomplaining about her fatigue and pain, but as one of her friends, Anna, commented, “It feels like she’s barely there.”
Despite her determination to “just handle it myself,”Julia was increasingly dependent. Her friends organized themselves to bring her food, and one evening when Anna came with some soup, she found Julia curled up in bed, facing the wall. Julia thanked Anna weakly, told her she felt queasy, and asked her to leave the soup on the stove. She heard the door click, and drifted off for a while.
When she woke, Julia felt the familiar utter aloneness, the sense that she was locked in a dying body. She began crying softly, and then to her surprise felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Anna had shut the door, but rather than leaving had been sitting quietly by her side. Now the crying turned into deep sobs. “Go ahead, dear, just let it happen … it’s okay,” Anna whispered. Over and over, she told her, “It’s okay, we’re here together” as Julia gave in to the agony of held-back fear and grief.
After about twenty minutes, with interludes for tissues and water, Julia quieted. She was still a bit nauseated and felt weak from crying. But for the first time in as long as she could remember, she was profoundly at ease.
“Some shield I had put up between me and the world dissolved,” Julia told me the following week. “Even after Anna left, I could feel her care. The aloneness was gone.” But then, she went on, several days later the shield hardened again. She had an appointment with her oncologist, and he told her that the cancer had spread. “I guess I feel most isolated when I get scared.”
“Is the shield up now?” I asked. “Do you feel scared and isolated?” She nodded, “It’s not too intense because we’re together. But there’s a place inside that feels so afraid …”
“You might take some moments and pay attention to that place.” Julia sat back on the couch and closed her eyes. “Can you sense what that place in you most needs?”
Julia was quiet for what felt to be a long time. “It wants love. Not just my love, though … it wants others to care. It’s saying ‘Please love me.’”
“Julia, see if you can let that wanting, that longing for love, be as big as it wants to be. Just give it permission, and feel it from the inside out.” She nodded and sat quietly, eyebrows drawn, intent.
“Sense who you most want to feel love from . . . and when someone comes to mind, visualize that person right here and ask … say the words, ‘Please love me.’ You might then imagine what it would be like to receive love, just the way you want it.”
Julia nodded again and was very still. After a minute or two she whispered a barely audible, “Please love me,” and then again a little louder. Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. I encouraged her to keep going for as long as she wanted—visualizing anyone who came to mind as a possible source of love, saying “Please love me.”
I also suggested she imagine opening and allowing herself to receive the love. She continued, and soon was weeping as she said the words. Gradually her crying subsided, and she was just whispering. Then there were deep spaces of silence between her words. Her face had softened and flushed slightly, and she had a slight smile.
When she opened her eyes, they were shining. “I feel blessed,” she told me. “My life is entirely held in love.”
We met for the last time three weeks before Julia’s death. Anna had taken her to a park early that morning before anyone was around. They put down a blanket to meditate on, and Julia was able to make herself comfortable, leaning against a tree. “I don’t know how much more time I’ll have,” she told me, “so while we were quiet I did an inner ritual. I felt this precious life that I love and that I’m leaving—my friends, the whole meditation community, you … swing dancing, singing, the ocean … oh so much beauty, the trees …”
Tears welled up and Julia paused, feeling the grief as she spoke. Then she went on: “I could feel the solidness of the big oak that was supporting me, and sense its presence. I started praying … I said ‘Please love me.’ Immediately love was here. It flooded me, this knowing of being related, of being the same aliveness, the same one consciousness. Then the grasses and bushes, the birds, the earth and clouds … Anna, anyone I thought of … each being was loving me and we were united in that consciousness. I was love, I was a part of everything.”
Julia was quiet for a while. Then she said slowly, “Do you know what I’m finding, Tara? When you accept that you are dying … and you turn toward love, it’s not hard to feel one with God.”
We sat silently, savoring each other’s company. Then our conversation meandered; we talked about dogs (she loved my poodle and insisted she be with us when we met) and wigs and wigs on dogs getting chemo and an upcoming retreat. We were lighthearted and deeply comfortable. We hugged several times before she left. Julia’s realization of oneness was embodied as a generous, deeply sweet love. In sharing her wisdom and in expressing that love, she gave me her parting gift.
Whether grieving the loss of our own life, or another’s, we each have the capacity to see past the veils of separation. If our hearts are willing, grieving becomes the gateway to loving awareness, the entry into our own awakened nature.
At the end of a daylong meditation workshop, Pam, a woman in her late sixties, drew me aside. Her husband, Jerry, was near death after three years of suffering from lymphoma. “I wanted so much to save him,” she told me. “I looked into ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, every alternative treatment I could find, tracked every test result . . . We were going to beat this thing.” She sat back wearily in her chair, shoulders slumped. “And now I’m keeping in touch with everyone, giving updates, coordinating hospice care. If he’s not napping I try to make him comfortable, read to him . . .”
I responded gently, “It sounds like you’ve been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry . . . and it’s been very busy.” At these words, she gave me a smile of recognition. “Hmm, busy. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” She paused. “As far back as I can remember I’ve really been busy. But now . . . well, I just can’t sit back and let him go without a fight.”
Pam was silent for a few moments, then looked at me anxiously. “He could die any day now, Tara. Isn’t there some Buddhist practice or ritual that I should learn? Is there something I should be reading? How can I help him with this . . . with dying?”
“Pam,” I said, “you’ve already done so much . . . but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don’t have to make anything happen, you don’t need to do anything.” I waited a moment and then added, “Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence.”
At this difficult time I was calling on a simple teaching that is central to my work with my meditation students and therapy clients: It is through realizing loving presence as our very essence, through being that presence, that we discover true freedom. In the face of inevitable loss, this timeless presence brings healing and peace to our own hearts and to the hearts of others.
“In those most difficult moments,” I suggested, “you might pause and recognize what you are feeling—the fear or anger or grief—and then inwardly whisper the phrase ‘I consent.’” I’d recently heard this phrase from Father Thomas Keating, and thought that as a Catholic, Pam might find it particularly valuable. Saying “I consent,” or as I more frequently teach, “yes,” relaxes our armoring against the present moment and allows us to meet life’s challenges with a more open heart.
Pam was nodding, but she had an intent, worried look. “I want to do this, Tara, but when I’m most upset, my mind speeds up. I start talking to myself . . . I talk to him . . . How will I remember to pause?”
“You probably will forget, at least some of the time,” I said, “and that’s totally natural. All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and ‘let be.’” Pam’s face softened with understanding. “That I can do. I can intend, with all my heart, to be there for Jerry.”
A month after my conversation with Pam, she called to tell me what had happened after the workshop. She acknowledged that, even in those final weeks of her husband’s life, she had struggled with the urge to be busy, to find ways to feel useful. She shared that, one afternoon, Jerry began talking about having only a short time left, and about not being afraid of death. She bent over, gave him a kiss, and said quickly, “Oh dear, today’s been a good day, you seemed to have more energy. Let me make you some herbal tea.”
He fell silent, and the quietness shook her. “It became so clear to me in those moments that anything other than listening to what was really going on—anything other than being fully present—actually separated us … I avoided reality by suggesting a cup of tea. But my attempt to steer away from the truth took me away from him, and that was heartbreaking.”
While Pam boiled water for tea, she prayed, asking that her heart be fully present with Jerry. This prayer guided her in the days that followed. During those last few weeks, Pam said she had to keep letting go of all of her ideas about how her husband’s dying should be and what else she should be doing, and just remind herself to say “I consent.”
At first she was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days she felt as if her heart actually started consenting. When her gut tightened with clutches of fear and feelings of helplessness, she’d stay with those feelings, consenting to the depth of her vulnerability. When the restless urge to “do something” arose, she’d notice that and be still, letting it come and go. And as the great waves of grief rolled through, she’d again say, “I consent,” opening to the huge aching weight of loss.
This intimate presence with her inner experience allowed Pam to fully attend to Jerry. As she put it, “When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch . . . how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him.”
Before she ended the call, Pam shared with me what she considered to be the gift of her last days with Jerry, the answer to her prayers: “In the silence, I could see past a sense of ‘him’ and ‘me.’ It became clear that we were a field of loving—total openness, warmth, light. He’s gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home . . . truly I came home to love.”
Pam’s willingness to be present with her inner life, no matter how painful, made it possible for her to connect with the vastness of love. Her growing capacity for staying with the truth of her moment-to-moment experience, for embracing the true refuge of presence, enabled her to find her way home, even in the midst of great loss.