Sunday, May 26, 2013

Grieve, And Don't Grieve

The mindfulness-based injunction to not grieve can be misunderstood. As I am waddling through my own grief, it is becoming more clear that one is not to indulge in the proliferation of grief related thoughts. AND, at the same time, one is not to ignore the waves of grief-related emotions that keep on surging from the heart.

'Do not grieve' is an impossible goal for the ordinary humans that we are. Hindrances in the unenlightened or partially enlightened mind make it such that clinging is present still, which leads us to experience great suffering when our love one leaves us permanently. This non negotiable goodbye brings our grasping tendencies to the forefront of our consciousness, and we get to feel the painful consequence from our binding and impure love.

If we try to hasten the 'not grieving' process, we run the risk of repressing the grief. Not a good thing, as I learned many years ago when I could not face up to the reality of my emotions when my father died. The dis-owned grief came back to crush me a year later, in the form of a disabling breakdown. We are to recognize the emotions that rise up, all of them, without judgment. We feel them, we give them space to be, and we move on with the next moment.

Conversely, we do not want to overindulge grieving thoughts. Such over thinking is only an expression of the mind-created self running wild. It is easy letting the mind create stories about the dead person, and ourselves in relation to the person. Wishful stories, guilt ridden thoughts, embellished tales . . . are all fabrications that keep us stuck in the suffering from unnecessary clinging. To let go of the urge to think such thoughts, I have found it helpful to contemplate Ayya Khema's talk on Metta, especially this:

The near enemy of love is attachment. [...] The whole problem lies in the fact that because it is attachment, we've got to *keep* those one, two, or three in order to experience any kind of love. We are afraid to lose them: to lose them through death, through change of mind, to leaving home, to whatever change happens. And that fear discolors our love to the point where it can no longer be pure, because it is hanging on. Now fear is always connected to hate. It doesn't mean that we hate those people, those one, two, or three, or four, or five, or how many there happen to be in the house, it means that we hate the idea that we could be losing them. So there's never that kind of open-hearted giving, without any demand behind it that a certain person is also there to receive it. Therefore it's always dependent, and as long as we are dependent, we're not free. This kind of love is doomed from the beginning and we all know that. We can change that kind of attachment to something else, but most people do not have that ability. Some people do, they manage; but it's a rare case. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Do Not Hang On

My mother died earlier this morning.

My friend Christine shared this gift with me, and I want to share it with you:

This is the note left by Joan Baez's mother who died Saturday April 20th, just a few days short of her 100th birthday:

"Friends who want to celebrate my new adventure, please gather round. Don't grieve, for it's only a worn body that's leaving and the memory of any sad times goes with it. The good memories are in my spirit and my spirit is with you today. I'm in your midst, for there's nothing more valuable to me than to be with you my beloved family and my gracious friends.
Take a moment for silence and wish me well. I'll hear you. Then make the bottles pop. You know I love champagne almost as much as I love you!
Big Joan"

I may not be in the mood for champagne, but I do agree with the 'don't grieve' part. My mother was so clear in what she expected of me during those last few months. Let me go, do not hang on, this is what needs to be done now . . . 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Following the Breath

How we are with the breath can make a huge difference in our mindfulness practice. And it helps knowing that the breath takes place all by itself, independent of our will.

The breath is always there, we just need to find it wherever it is most noticeable. Belly rising or falling, chest expanding or contracting, air back and forth in the throat, or more subtle flow in and out of the nostrils? We each have a place where the breath manifests itself most. 

Then it is just a matter of following the breath. Not in our head, but through sensing of the moment-to-moment experience of the breath in the body. Nothing to do, only sit back and watch. Of course, not that easy, as the mind always wants to interfere. 

Like the curtain is moved by the wind, so we are moved inside by our breathing, without doing anything for it. If you gently give up doing it, you will experience that it comes all by itself. We should not be the educators of breathing. Breathing should teach us how it wants to be - without our admonishing it. ~ Charlotte Selver ~

The practice is twofold. First is to sit with the warm determination to simply follow the breath, and to bring back our awareness onto it whenever the mind wanders. Second, is to mine those unwanted thoughts for insight. What are the mind's tendencies? What happens in the body when the hindrances arise? Are there any knots or tensions? What am 'I' clinging to? 

If we wait long enough, as is the case during long retreats, the mind becomes more quiet, and there comes a time, when it is just awareness and breath . . . , the absence of stress.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Cause of Stress

Sitting still, I get to see the stress within.
A tight throat, a knot in the stomach,
a clenched jaw, worried thoughts,
agitation in the heart, pain in the neck,
it's all the same . . .
The mind's decided it does not like
what's happening
Whether passing of a dear thing
or  present unpleasantness,
it does not take long.
The mind hangs on to its dislike
and the body manifests.
The mind can't wrap itself around 
the difficult truth. 'I' keeps on wanting 
the impossible, all fun and no pain.
There lies the stress, the tension
between what is, and what is wished for.
Each moment of mindful attention, a nano step 
closer to the necessary renunciation.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dementia, Grief, Mindfulness, and Not-Self

Contacts with my mother have been sparse lately. It's been hard catching her on the phone during the rare times when she is awake. And the nine hour time difference does not help either. Yesterday, I was able to hear her breathe once as I whispered words of love to her. The aide confirmed that she had seen a response in her face.

Friends, coworkers have been asking about my mom. Each time, I have felt a twinge of annoyance. Grief shows itself in sometimes subtle ways . . .The truth is I have been a bit too adamant to claim closure with my mom. "I have said goodbye. I am at peace."  This last chapter is taking longer than I thought, and I feel as if lost in a twilight zone, with hardly anything to hang on to. No physical contact, no voice, just one breath in several weeks, that's all that's left. 

I have been haunted by the image of her lying in bed, pulling away from my touch, and holding on tight to her sheet instead. Breath coming and going, light as a feather. And no hindrance in the body, anymore. This struck me as remarkable, coming from my mother, who had been such a chronic worrier. She had let go finally, and I had to let go also. Carrying this last image of my mom has been most helpful now that I am thousands of miles away from her. It has also enabled me to understand more deeply the reason for practice. Mindfulness, particularly when focused on the breath, is the surest method for experiencing the relief from ordinary mind-made suffering.

From my mother, I have learned most during those last ten years when dementia stripped her brain bit by bit, of its ability to fabricate thoughts about past, future, and self. Being with her  forced upon me the direct experience of not-self, and for that I am incredibly grateful. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preventing Burnout With True Compassion

@mihaela_V on Twitter asked 'Any tips re: compassion w/o taking on others' suffering?' That's a great question, and one I can answer based on my limited experience as both a mental health professional, and a practitioner of mindfulness. 

Early on in my career, when I worked as a psychiatric social worker, I remember coming home every day from the hospital feeling drained and with little left to give to myself and my family members. The explanation was simple. I was taking on the suffering of those I was meant to help. And the remedy, as suggested by my supervisor, was clear. I needed to strengthen boundaries between me and the patients. Whenever faced with difficult material, I learned to summon images of door being shut, and fences going up. It helped some, but not really. 

The reason is, I did not know what true compassion was.

Fast forward thirty years, and my experience is so different now . . . Mindfulness has enabled me to   bring compassion first to myself, and second to others in my care. And in the process, I have discovered the joy of serving without feeling burdened by it.

UC Berkeley Center for Greater Good has one of the best definitions of compassion:

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

To Leigh Brasington, I owe this clear articulation of what compassion is, and what it is not, and what happens when it is not practiced correctly. Here are my notes from last year retreat with Leigh:

The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. Its near enemy is pity. We risk burnout when we get attached to results, and we insist on relieving the other person's suffering.

Practically, this has meant approaching the other person's suffering like this:

I meet you and I sit with you. I allow myself to feel all of the suffering in this moment, yours and mine. I discern what is yours and what is mine, and what are my reactions to yours and my suffering. And I pay particular attention to any tightness in my mind or body, for it is always a sign unnecessary clinging, which we know is the real troublemaker. What am I wanting that is not possible? What am I pushing away that cannot be done away with? Sitting with her who is sharing her great mental suffering with me, can I let myself feel her anguish, her depression, her hopelessness? Can I stay with the extreme unpleasantness of it all? No need to do anything, other than 'seeing' the whole package, and finding the ebbs and flows of breath in between. Same way I would deal with my own suffering. In the joining and the shared acknowledgment of the suffering lies the possibility of healing. And without the rub from ego-induced clinging, the other's suffering does not stick but leaves instead joy in its trail. Joy from heart open fully, not defended. 

May this be helpful to you whose heart wants to open, and bring relief to the other who is hurting.