It was another week of staying home (the eighth, to be precise). And yet, I went on an important journey: to the epicenter of my heart to connect with the aliveness that’s there beneath the sadness/grief/anger/blame. What is it, and what does it ask of me? What does it want me to know?
And I discovered a longing to know that I am making a positive difference in this world. That I’m loving well.
When people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, “How much is in my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
And from “Late Fragment”, Raymond Carver’s last published poem before dying of cancer:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Did I love well? Did my loving matter? Did I feel beloved? Connected?
These are universal yearnings.
One of the greatest realizations I’ve had since my mom passed away six years ago this month is that the seeds of love we plant on this earth are not done growing when our life here has come to an end. Chances are pretty good that you will not live to see them flower fully. Sometimes it’s your very absence that waters them until at last they bloom, and those left behind marvel at what your life has been and all the ways in which your loving has enriched their lives.
My relationship with my mother was complicated when she was alive, for we were so different (and alike) in some ways. I put up walls that wouldn’t let her get too close. She couldn’t have had any way of knowing that those walls were my own vulnerability and had nothing to do with her worth as a mother or human being. I didn’t even realize at the time what they were because I was too enmeshed. In our mother-daughter relationship, I didn’t feel seen, and I’m sure she didn’t, either. We just kept playing our roles. Doing our best but not giving each other what we wanted most. Which I think was the same thing.
Until the end, when those roles and walls dissolved, which was incredibly beautiful.
Although I did my best to help her feel loved and appreciated during the final months of her life, my love and appreciation for my mother didn’t truly blossom until after she took her final breath. She didn’t live to see it. And it probably couldn’t have been any other way.
As a result of my experience, I realize that sometimes you have to be content with planting seeds and have faith in the invisible seeds you sow in the world through the life you live. Through your very presence. Some seeds grow quickly. Others take more time. And we have to be patient. Many seeds won’t send shoots above ground until after we’re gone – from someone’s life or from this earth altogether.
Yes, the seeds of love continue to awaken and grow after we’re gone. When we come to the end of our life, may we understand that it’s not over. The seeds we sowed continue on and will bloom in time. We can’t take our last breath believing it’s the end. There’s so much more yet to come. So many gifts to be found and unwrapped.
When I was doing hospice work in my 20s, one of my patients expressed sadness for not being able to live long enough to see her flowers come up in the spring. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words remained with me, and I think I finally grasp both the literal and metaphorical meaning. Which is why there are tears streaming down my face as I write this.
After we leave this life, our love will continue to grow. Those we leave behind will discover artifacts of our lives and get to know us in new ways. They will find them inside boxes of our belongings and inside themself, as well.
Appreciation and love will deepen. They will feel our presence in so many ways, places, and situations. Our love is our gift to them that endures beyond our lifetime and even into new generations – like the mint plants I transplanted from my mother’s garden a few years ago that now thrive in my own garden (a metaphor in itself). And the lilac bush in my parents’ yard that still blooms even though someone else lives there now.
We interact with those who were friends of our loved ones and through the exchange of smiles and stories see them from different angles, like a flower being illuminated by just the right slant of sunlight.
And we allow ourselves to express the qualities we appreciated most about them, even if we didn’t fully appreciate them when they were alive, when we were trying to be different and set ourselves apart from them (as is often the case with mothers and daughters and with fathers and sons).
There are so many ways in which loving – our most essential nature – continues on.
So if you ever wonder or doubt whether your life and love is of value, know this: It’s not over yet. Even when you take your last breath, there is so much more of your life left to live. So many seeds yet to emerge from underground and be seen.
And the most wonderful thing I’ve learned is that relationships don’t end with death. I’ve never been closer to my mom. I see her sometimes in dreams and feel her presence in certain moments and places. Whenever I need her, she is never further away than my own heart. My heart and dreams are the portals that allow love to flow both ways. At this point, love is all that’s left, and it’s everything.
Yesterday, I went hiking with my husband and decided to stop to take some pictures, so he went on ahead. There was a period of several minutes when I walked alone through the woods. And the most bizarre thing happened: A bird landed on the path a few steps in front of me and walked with me the whole time. It was like walking a dog, but it was a bird. The bird stayed real close to me the whole time and made me giggle. It was a Snow White moment, for sure. But I also wondered if the bird was injured because it didn’t fly away.
Eventually, I saw the blue of my husband’s jacket in the distance, and the moment he came into view, the bird flew off into the woods. It seemed like it had wanted to keep me company as I walked alone – didn’t want me to be alone.
When I told my husband about my bird companion, he reminded me that it’s Mother’s Day weekend, and perhaps it was my mom saying hi. It felt like the bird wanted me to know that I wasn’t walking alone. And I think that if our departed loved ones could give us any message, especially now, it’s that.
They are still with us, and the love continues to bloom. And not only do we get to witness it, but we can dedicate the merits of our own awakening to them.
In the end, I understand
It was the ocean itself
That kept calling me back
And nothing less.
The ocean that held
Everything I brought to it
And made it seem
Until I stood at the edge
Of land and sea,
Vast and rhythmic
Breathing the breath
Of all life.
I bow down and release
All the worries and heartache
Into the ebb tide
That carries them
To the unseen place
Where they become formless,
And pick up a smooth stone
That catches my eye:
A token of the journey.
Back home, I hold
The stone to my heart
And feel the waves wash
Over it so tenderly
And find the ocean
Right there, always
Accessible no matter
How many miles
Or months or years
I am from the coast.
In time, I don’t even need
To touch the stone
For the ocean is in
My heart and perhaps
Is even what my heart
And in the end, I understand
That in response to all
The words and prayers
I wrote in the sand
And through all the waves
Of coming and going
And the great longing
To return, the ocean
Has taught me
To smooth the rough edges
And resource my life:
With kind awareness
To this breath, this moment,
To the life that is here,
Again and again
And to want this
Above all else.
I’ve been asking myself some important questions lately and wondering how others would answer them. For example:
What matters most to you?
And how do you connect with it?
What consistently matters most to me is: Presence, Connection, Compassion, and Gratitude.
I connect with these qualities on a daily basis by doing walking meditation in the labyrinth, which is my sanctuary. It’s the only reason why I leave the house and has become my favorite daily ritual. It’s a meditation practice from which insights arise, and it’s really supporting me during this time of staying home during the pandemic.
After more than a month of staying home, I’ve made a series of five “labyrinth time” videos, complete with lots of uplifting birdsong. Is it a meditation? Meditation instruction? A poem? All of the above? I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that it’s real and tender and honest. (So much so that sometimes I feel shy about sharing.) These are videos for quiet moments.
Here’s what’s going on: As I walk the labyrinth, I stop periodically to dictate insights into a Google doc on my phone. Then I put my phone back in my pocket, return to presence, and start walking again. At the end of my walking meditation, before leaving the labyrinth, I record myself reading the insights and reflections out loud, accompanied by all the natural sounds. I also take pictures either before or after walking the labyrinth. This video series is my own personal chronicle of where I draw strength from during this time of deep uncertainty.
What you’re hearing is an unfiltered narration of what arises in my mind when I’m immersed in moving meditation in nature and feeling present and connected. The themes center around being intimate with what is and shifting out of expectation, desire, and thought patterns and back into presence. Repeatedly. With compassion.
And you can see the changes the natural world goes through as the weeks pass. Even as our normal routines remain collectively altered, nature keeps doing what it always does at this time of year: renewing, growing, blooming. The natural world is a steadfast background and an anchor of presence we can return to again and again.
I’m taking a few moments to reach out from my working home retreat (a.k.a. sheltering in place) to write about a topic that has been at the forefront of my mind since all this went down:
At the beginning of the month, I stepped into a new role I’d been preparing for, for quite some time: teaching a mindfulness meditation course. The first class session took place in-person and was attended by 17 women. By the second class – a week later – things had begun to change rapidly, and we weren’t able to meet face-to-face. Already familiar with Zoom video conferencing, I moved the course to that platform without missing a beat, and it’s how we conducted our three remaining class sessions. This week, I began teaching a second mindfulness course. And now a third is in the works!
Needless to say, I’ve been busy…because it’s a really good time to begin/return to/deepen a meditation practice!
As the participants in my courses report, mindfulness meditation provides real, practical benefits for navigating our lives as we adjust to new, constantly changing information and circumstances. It’s gratifying to be able to offer skills that help people to be more resilient and emotionally healthy during these challenging times when we’re experiencing so much anxiety, grief, and other strong emotions.
In today’s class, we discussed ways in which we can integrate mindfulness practice into daily life. Not just formal meditation “on the cushion” but ways we can pause for presence throughout the day. The possibilities are endless.
For example, any moments of waiting are invitations to mindfulness:
waiting in traffic/at red lights/in line (if you still go out)
waiting for websites to load
waiting for food to heat up
waiting on hold to talk to someone
waiting for your gas tank to fill
waiting for a video conference to begin.
Virtually any activity can be an opportunity to take a mindful pause and awaken a more spacious quality of presence. My new favorite is:
Hand-Washing to Awaken Awareness
In the 20 or so seconds you spend washing your hands, you can shift out of your head and whatever story is going on inside it and into presence. You can become aware of what is happening here and now: the sensation of soap lathering, the stream of warm water on your skin, the fragrance of the soap. It’s actually quite a lovely experience when you direct your attention to it.
At times, I’ve noticed myself feeling impatient and wanting the 20 seconds to be over so I can get on with what’s next. This was especially true on days when my workload was heavier. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I’ve trained myself to allow hand-washing to cue presence. As a result, hand-washing breaks have become much more pleasant. They bring me back to what is actually happening in the moment. It might be the sensations described above, the movements of the breath, or simply being aware of the energy in the feet or body as a whole while standing at the sink.
Hand-washing can ground you in the moment and in your body. And what’s wonderful about that is: It gets you out of your head and whatever trance you were in. It liberates you from the prison and tunnel-vision of thought. It’s like waking up from a dream.
Hand-Washing to Awaken the Heart
In my classes, I teach about the two wings of mindfulness that work together like the two wings of a bird: awareness and compassion. Awareness is a clear seeing of what is present here and now. Feeling the sensations of the soap and water and the energy/aliveness in your body (feet, hands, etc.) are examples of awareness. The other wing, compassion, is bringing a loving care to the moment.
Hand-washing also can be a cue for practicing lovingkindness, and here’s how: As you wash your hands, you can be aware of the greater intention behind hand-washing. By this, I mean something beyond any sense of fear that might be present. Caring for your own well-being and the well-being of others. You might send yourself caring wishes by thinking silently (or even singing out loud) phrases such as:
May I be well and healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and at ease.
You can bring to mind someone you care about and send them well wishes, too (which is sometimes easier than sending them to yourself):
May you be well and healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and at ease.
You could even expand your lovingkindness to the whole planet:
May all beings be well and healthy. May all beings be safe and protected. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
So as you wash your hands, you remember your wish for yourself and others to be well. This awakens the heart and generates a sense of connection, even when we can’t be with those we care about. Many people have been expressing grief over not being able to hug their parents or children, and this practice offers a different, more spacious kind of hug. You can imagine your dear one’s face smiling as you send them well-wishes while washing your hands.
Mindful Moments Matter
A new study by researchers from Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth shows that short moments of mindfulness can have profound effects on regulating emotional intensity. In other words, practicing mindfulness throughout the day counts. It’s not just about taking time out of your day to practice formal, seated meditation for months on end (though I highly recommend it if you can do it, as it deepens your practice). You can reap benefits of mindfulness practice much sooner than that, in the moment, when you switch to that channel.
Each time you wash your hands, you can consider whether an awareness or compassion practice feels most right at the moment. It gives more meaning to this activity we do so many times a day. It also liberates you from your active mind that’s so often either focused on the past (regret, grief, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, etc.) and so rarely inhabits the present moment – which is the only moment we ever have and where all our power resides.
Returning to the present moment several times a day is an empowering practice that adds up through the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. Each time you bring yourself back from the trance of thought is like doing one rep that strengthens the muscles of awareness or compassion and deepens those neural pathways back “home”. It allows you to wake up from the dream and rest in a quality of consciousness that can hold everything that arises, like the ocean holds all the waves.