Impermanence

I have been thinking a lot about impermanence, sparked by a conversation with members of my meditation community. The concept of impermanence makes sense intellectually, but the experience is so hard to just be with. As Thich Nath Hanh writes: “Concentration means you keep the insight alive for a long time. It’s not just a flash; that’s not enough to liberate you. So in your daily life, you keep that insight of nonself, of emptiness, of impermanence alive. When you see a person, a bird, a tree, or a rock, you see its nature of emptiness. Then it becomes an insight that will liberate you. It’s very different from speculating about the meaning of emptiness. You have to really see the nature of emptiness in yourself and others. Once that insight is there, you’re no longer afraid, no longer bound, no longer a victim of separation and discrimination, because you’ve seen the nature of interbeing” (Fear – Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm).

The past couple of weeks, I have noticed it over and over: from death to illness, broken bowls to cancelled plans to interrupted sleep and burnt toast. I got a call that a friend of my mother’s found out her 55 year old son died in his sleep. Not only the shock of this unexpected death but the ripple effects of imagining other possible deaths ricocheted across the phone lines. A couple weeks ago I found out that a friend, very close to my age, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I have not seen her for two or three years, and I had imagined that she had chosen to stop being in touch. This belief brought pain, confusion, and sadness, even as I tried to find acceptance and equanimity. Turns out she may not even have remembered we were friends.  I contemplate that on some level, even if she does not remember, that we are still lovingly connected – interbeings at one with each other.

I woke up this morning to find my very favorite bowl had been accidentally broken. Off and on, over the next two hours, I looked again and again at the cracked pieces. I practiced just noticing how I felt – the sadness at this loss, feelings of connection to my sister, who gave me the bowl for my birthday, desire – that the bowl not be broken or that a replacement should be purchased, disappointment – that the nightly ritual of sharing bowls of home-cooked food with my family will now be in a different bowl.

It sounds odd to put so much attention on a cracked bowl. But the process of noticing all these feelings helped me to name the process once again: that the unexpected pushes us up against the wall of our desire for things to stay the same, to be what we expect, to not disappoint. In my experience, I do not leap from the concept of impermanence to a graceful, enlightened experience of emptiness/impermanence. Rather, I stumble through the wanting, the grasping, the not wanting to feel the pain. And I commit, over and over, to notice the discomfort of the feelings – the wishing it weren’t so, the pushing away of the facts, the feelings of sadness or anger or unsettledness. It is in this sitting with, observing with neutral curiosity, the coming back to awareness of NOT WANTING THIS that there is, eventually, some sliver of peace, a moment of breath.

This can be a  painstaking, often excruciating process, and it is a process for which I am grateful. As the noticing continues, there is a feeling like water or sand settling down, clearing the mind, being with what is true – that the broken bowl was both already broken and still whole, that my friend’s mind is shining and absent, that my mother’s friend’s son is eternal and has left this world…and that the burnt toast can either be eaten as is or composted.

This glimpse of another way of being is both comforting and challenging. Each time I choose not to complain or not to bemoan or not to exult but simply to be with what is true, I can feel the roots of peace going a tiny bit deeper. Wishing ease to each of us as we continue to practice.

 

 

“Warrior” Parent

The Balance of Humility and Fortitude

Whether or not you have ever held the “Warrior Pose´ Virabhadrasana, imagine the feeling of having to make a decision for and with your child that is unclear. “Should” you push him to sleep in his own bed? Is it time to stop using a bottle? Is that tic a sign of stress or a deeper anxiety disorder – does she need a therapist? Is there a better way to “discipline” than timeouts? Is this or that behavior outside of the norm? Can your child stay home alone for a half hour? Have a cell phone? Go to sleep-away camp? How can you support them when they are afraid?

In my opinion, these questions have no right answer. Each parent, each family constellation, has to walk the bumpy road of decision-making in their own unique way. At the same time, there is an underlying thread in this process that does connect us and that we can support in each other.

How does the image of the “Warrior” capture this thread? In the steadfast gaze that is able to discern the next step. The flexible back that can hold many realities at once. The humble bowing that surrenders to the unknown and the feeling of doubt. The formidable stance that both protects the child from others’ judgment and believes in the child’s ability to manage the next level of development.

Whether or not you do yoga, I offer these images to encourage you to pause the next time you have to make a difficult decision. Let go of finding the “right” answer, and let yourself touch into your strength and your doubt. Sit with the indecision and know that you are not alone – we all have sat there and will sit there again.

Experiment with literally standing in different positions – upright, bent over, arms raised in supplication, eyes shut, eyes open, holding still, swaying back and forth. Notice your breath. See if new information arises about the decision you are trying to make or about your child or yourself. Breathe deeply. Trust that your inner wisdom can rise and that you can be both steadfast and humble as you move forward, able to recalibrate if the decision ends up leading to more imbalance.

New Year’s Reflections

New Year’s Reflection: Being in the Moment during Transitions  

Back to school. Different wake-up time. New job. More homework. Teething. Tantrums. Learner’s permit. Being laid off. Ill parent. Moving. New school. Accidents.

Big or small, transitions happen all the time. Expected or unexpected, change comes tiptoeing or barreling in on us, our partners, our children, our extended family, and/or our community. How can we stay in the moment as things shift? How do we manage any semblance of equanimity when the ground is always giving way?

Right now as you read this, I encourage you to pause. If you have a clock or watch with a second hand, take a look at it and just breathe deeply three times. (If you don’t have one, just count while you breathe.) How long did that take?

Imagine the next time something changes – you get good or bad news, your child suddenly refuses to eat her up-until-now favorite breakfast item, you find out you are getting a promotion, the blood test comes back negative or positive, your child wakes up with a fever on a day you have an important meeting, – take the few seconds to breathe three times. Remember that no matter what is happening, this moment is precious as we are alive in it. Feeling – sad, angry, scared, and happy – is an incredible gift, even though often feeling is challenging.

There is a lojong saying (a Tibetan Buddhist mind training tradition): Two activities: one at the beginning, one at the end that comes to mind. The encouragement here is at the beginning of the day to breathe and set your intention. It may be a tiny, tinier than a baby step intention – that you will remember to breathe deeply once, that you will walk away instead of engaging in conflict with your two-year-old, that you will smile instead of gritting your teeth-once! At the end of the day review your day and notice what triggered you and where you were able to be skillful. Bring as much compassion and non-judgment to yourself as you can during this process. Notice your physical and emotional reactions as you review. See if you can just name things, for example, “I was so tired today that I snapped three times at my kids. My jaw and stomach hurt,” without judgment. Until you can have compassion for yourself, it is hard to change behaviors.

A minor but illustrative example: this week I was cooking many things at once and inadvertently left the granola in the oven too long. It burnt. Once I realized, I got so angry at myself, felt my fists clench and my face scowl. Fortunately, just as I was about to go into a full scale rant against myself, I breathed. I calmed myself down. I reminded myself that although I felt very tight on time, I would have enough time to remake the granola and I could either do it cheerfully or with a scowl on my face. This small moment was a victory over a habitual clenching around getting things done, being super-efficient, judging myself for imperfection, etc. Starting over whenever possible is a gift to yourself and to those around you. p.s. for bigger issues than burnt granola, I suggest a “Lion’s breath,” where you take a deep breath in, let it out with a forceful exhale, including sticking your tongue out and making a loud sigh/growl as you do so!