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Category Archives: grieving

caregiver’s curiosity

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I hosted a jizo ceremony for members of our mediation group yesterday — an occasion to reflect on personal losses, sew little garment, and place them on statues in our meditation garden. All done in silence, except for a couple of chants and poems; solemn, some tears. Afterwards two people wrote to say that “it was more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. We both noticed a sense of lightness ….”

While I guided the proceedings, I also visited my own grief. Once everyone had left, I marvelled at this wonderful practice. How did I get to be so fortunate (blessed?) to have the tools and opportunity to be of service? I felt drained and took to bed; woke up an hour later, refreshed and still.

Many friends are caregivers: nurses, counsellors, health care providers, volunteers, companions, teachers, parents. How do you do it, day in and day out?

What motivates a caregiver’s actions?
Why are we willing to be with another’s pain?
Who can say?
We want to help,
but that’s not the whole story.
We feel obliged,
but that’s not it either.

Beneath the many motives of the conditioned mind
rests the mysterious Tao,
which is the true source of all caring.
We can’t see it or understand it.
We can only trust that it
is the origin of what we do
and the power that helps us see it through.

source: Martin, W. & M. (2011). The caregiver’s Tao te Ching. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 24. The Tao te Ching is a 2600-year old Chinese text. The term tao can be translated as “way” to mean course of life and its relation to eternal truth. 


forgiveness — easier said than done!

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Ever so often a person’s name comes up … someone I worked for and who rejected me. At least that’s how I remember the situation: he didn’t value my contribution and eventually nudged me out the door. It’s been two years and still there’s this sting in my heart. In Buddhist parlance we talk about two daggers: one that pierces our soft belly when something bad happens and another we insert ourselves to keep the wound from healing. First injury, then suffering.

It occurs to me this morning that one way I might get over the continuing hurt is by practice forgiveness. Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who I often turn to when it comes to tackling difficult emotions, writes that “forgiveness is about loosening our hold on the one thing we most want to hold onto — the suffering of resentment.”

In forgiveness practice, we work to see through our own emotional reactions. We practice noticing what stands in the way of real forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness entails experiencing our own pain and then the pain of the person to be forgiven.

His pain!? What about mine, which he caused?! And there I am, stuck in resentment and righteousness, unable to let go, however much I want to. “Letting go is not the real practice,” Bayda suggests, “it’s a fantasy practice based on an ideal of how we’d like things to be.”

Instead, he writes, we need to simply acknowledge our unwillingness to forgive and our holding on to the ideal that I shouldn’t be resentful in the first place. That’s radical (“going to the root”), to admit that I’m holding on to pain and — there goes there’s that second dagger — that I’m a flawed person in feeling resentful. As I pay attention to the physical experience of all this, I notice stiffness across my shoulders, into my neck, and forward around my upper chest like strips of iron encircling a wooden barrel. I feel confined and compressed. Breathing near the edges of the tension, and gently into it, I notice restrictions around throat and lower jaw. Widening my breath, slowly and gradually, the load softens, leaving traces of the iron bands.

We can’t move on to the [next] stages of forgiveness until we’ve entered into and experienced–in your bodies and minds–the depth of our unwillingness to forgive.

May this story be of benefit to you.

source: Bayda, E. (2003). At home in muddy waters: a guide to finding peace within everyday chaos. Boston: Shambhala, p. 92. image:

face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.  

there are days …

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… when nothing much happens, nothing spectacular anyway. just one thing after another, as on other days. It’s then that the little things grab me by the nose (or ear, as my stepmom used to) and say, “Listen!”

And so it is today. Someone wrote to say “thank you for all you do” and another asked for advice on “where should I go from here.” Then a note from the monastery about “scattering Alex’s ashes,” that lovely man, painter and dad to two sweet kids, who died from some degenerative brain thing. And a friend sending a picture of her love bird named Bean (“because he looked like a green bean when we first got him”) who fell off his perch, twitched a bit, and didn’t survive another seizure. “We wrapped him in tissue paper and buried him in the garden under a flower-pot — after the dog had given him one last sniff.”

Just another day, eh?! There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground, Rumi says. I’m grateful to be disturbed in my slumber.

the courage to grieve [no more]

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There’s one row on my bookshelf that I haven’t touched for some time. It sits prominently at eye level, affording easy access to any one of 60-or-so titles. Time has come to move them all a little lower. My interest has shifted.

“Grief is preoccupying and depleting,” writes Judy Tatelbaum,

Emotionally, grief is a mixture of raw feelings such as sorrow, anguish, anger, regret, longing, fear, and deprivation. Grief may be experienced physically as exhaustion, emptiness, tension, sleeplessness, or loss of appetite.

Grief sat at the top of my existence for several years, intense and multifaceted, affecting my emotions, my body, my entire life. It does so no more! Its place has been taken by quiet joy as I awake each morning.

Grief is the wound that needs attention in order to heal. … It takes courage to grieve. It takes courage to feel our pain and to face the unfamiliar. It also takes courage to grieve in a society that mistakenly values restraint, where we risk the rejection of others by being open or different.

I didn’t feel all that courageous when I sat out to grieve. Six or seven years ago, I was drawn to volunteer in the palliative care at a small hospital. A tumultuous love affair ripped open a life-time of unhealed wounds. Travelling back and forth to San Francisco I trained in end-of-life care and wept through most of the classes.

Teaching a workshop on “mindfulness at the bedside” led to paid hospice work. Dying, death, loss, anguish, and tears became my daily sustenance. After work I’d come home exhausted, collapsing into restoring sleep. Back the next day, I’d relish the ever-present pain — the comfort of being with people who thought grief was normal. We’d weep together, laugh, hug, and carry on. I thought I’d come to the top of my hill, that it didn’t get any better. Eighteen months later, that job ended. Shoved out the door, abandoned once more. A pain-filled year ensued, what HM The Queen would call an annus horibilis: selling home after 21 years, giving away books and furniture, bicycle-meets-Volvo accident with soft-tissue trauma, broken bones, neuropathic pain, walking stick, pain meds, more tears, touching bottom.

All that’s come and gone. The heart grows stronger and love returns. Love for self, for another, for this morning of pale spring sunshine. The plum-tree is in bloom, the neighbour’s pugs are barking at a truck a thousand times their size, and it’s time to go for breakfast.

source: Tatelbaum, J. (1980). The courage to grieve. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 7-8

practicing with everyday distress

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Zen teacher Hogen Bays — along with Chozen Bays — has been my spiritual guide and co-abott of Great Vow Zen Monastery for ten years. He writes: 

“There is so much in the news that reminds me of the first noble observation of Buddhism: that there are problems, serious problems everywhere. From the giant catastrophes such as the earthquake in Japan, the violence in Libya and the 450,000 people displaced by civil war in the Ivory Coast to one family’s struggles with illness and joblessness. Everywhere we turn we are reminded that no one is safe from difficulty and distress. It is almost impossible not to become anxious when we look honestly at the possible disruptions and challenges that we are facing and may have to face. What hope do we have? How can we live? What can we rely upon?

One thing is certain, that when confronted with life’s very real challenges, knowing theories about timeless wisdom is no help. When we are laying in bed at night and overwhelming anxiety wells up in our hearts, knowing how we ‘should’ respond does not help. When we are hungry even world class photos of food are not filling. Rocked by trauma, how we are ‘supposed’ to feel, what we ‘should’ understand, what we ‘think’ we know, is of little support. A real catastrophe washes away all our hopes, dreams, shoulds and oughts.

For me, this is when spiritual practice becomes extremely compelling. Usually, our spiritual and psychological lives revolve around how to be more happy, effective or successful. But when we know death is coming (and a lot sooner than we hoped) there are more urgent questions: “What is it that is alive right here?” “Where can I turn for help?” “What is real right now?” “Who is the one who is suffering?” “What is the truth that is always present?” When we are compelled to ask these questions no one else’s answers are of any use. What we have read, believe or been told will not do!  We must know for ourselves!

Of course, writing about this matter requires words and so it seems that these questions are intellectual and require thinking. These questions are like the finger pointing at the moon. The words only direct our attention to what is more intimate than words. What is more intimate than words is our direct experience. It is not a particular experience. We naturally meet crises with an intense aliveness, a compelling demand from deep inside us to look at what is real. It may present as anxiety, or numbness, anger, deep depression, or curiosity, but whatever our experience our attention is caught. It is our deepest life saying, “pay attention!”

This is what we can always take refuge in – the compelling experience of being alive. This experience is the essence of all seeing, hearing and feeling. It permeates all body, emotions and thought. In fact everything that comes forward whether we regard it as magnificent or dreadful comes from the same source. No matter what comes towards us or from within us, this is our ultimate refuge.

This attention to the source of life is a refuge available at all times, in every place. But we must practice and recognize it. Initially we have to learn to turn our attention away from our thoughts and conceptual mind. We let the churning of our minds still, like allowing the mud to settle so we can see the water. But, then we turn our awareness to seeing both mud and water, to seeing thought and the space in which it is held. We experience life and creation, death and destruction and the space in which they are held. We see ourselves respond completely to each changing condition. And whether our responses are skillful or unskillful they are all held in the dreamlike nature of our own life. This is the essence of practice. This is refuge.”

everything’s guaranteed (to die)

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Someone’s father died recently and another’s dear friend ended her life unexpectedly. Talking with them both reminded me of my own experiences with loss. With a simple flip of the coin, life becomes death. The moment we enter the world the clock starts counting down the hours until we die. It’s a fact.

We celebrate the cyclical comings and goings all around us — first day of spring, midsummer, and autumn; first day of school, mid-term, graduation; birthdays, weddings, and retirement parties. Each marks a milestone along the path from birth to death. We celebrate the “happy” events, but avoid the “sad” ones. We don’t much talk about the latter and so they come as a shock, leaving us to cope alone as others awkwardly step aside, lest they be infected.

“The cup’s already broken” goes that old Zen saying. Everything we know and cherish comes with a built-in guarantee of impermanence. Nothing lasts. Why then are we, educated and intelligent beings that we are, so surprised when death comes knocking?