A few years ago, when his wife’s Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where they could no longer be together, my Grandfather, who’d never been seriously ill in his life, began a spiral into depression and frailty. His tendency toward self-pity and mistrust only made things worse. He started falling down and deteriorated to the point of needing to leave his beloved home and move into an assisted living facility. Some days were better than others, but he continued to lose weight; and hope; and joy.
Visiting him was a challenge.
In August he developed severe stomach pain which turned out to be the result of a twisted mass in his colon. My uncle was out of town so it fell to me to take Granddad to the doctor, which turned into a trip to the ER, admission to the hospital, surgery and eventual death. I’m glad I got to be there for him; to lean on the rail of his bedside in the ER at 1am listening to exhausted prayers that his sons would get their inheritance; to say “I love you” before surgery; to provide some form of comfort as he tried to recover; to hold his cold hand as he shook, emaciated and ashen; to count the spaces between breaths as he lay peaceful in the warm hospice bed; to kiss his forehead; to return the next morning and place his wedding ring on his lifeless hand; to receive the flag draped over his coffin — I did not know they look you in the eyes.
They say compassion leads to Love; but to have compassion is to “suffer with.” How do pain and suffering possibly lead to an experience of Love? Pain and suffering create cracks in the planet. Pain and suffering break in, break down, breach the perimeter — the barriers we erect to protect ourselves from the very things we cannot guard against. The result of this breaking? A new landscape, raw and vulnerable. But this breaking, this breach of the perimeter doesn’t have to be a breaking down. It can be a breaking open.
Here I must pause and say that I did not invent the idea of “breaking open,” nor do I know who did. I heard it mentioned in a teacher training.
The experience of being with my Grandfather as he died broke me open in ways I am only beginning to navigate. Each time I would visit him, no matter how difficult it may have been, I was overwhelmed with compassion for this man in pain; the remembrance of which helped me move beyond frustration at his unpleasant behavior, at the annoyance of one more task to squeeze into my day and gave me the strength to return. I say remembrance because it was something I had to choose to bring to mind. It’s embarrassing how easy it is to forget, or worse, simply ignore the suffering of others because the suffering forces me, even for a moment, to move beyond self-centered ways of living. (Obviously there is a balance to strike here, we don’t want to dwell so much on the pain and suffering of others that we neglect ourselves.) Through compassion for his pain and his suffering the dutiful love I felt for my Grandfather transformed into a more mature Love born from the recognition of his Soul.
There are other openings.
Because there was a good bit of time when I didn’t want to live (or couldn’t because of illness), I’ve cultivated the capacity to delight in the little things in life: the pas de deux of the wind and the leaves, the smell of garlic and onions in the sauté pain, the deep innocent eyes of my dog; these small treasures were often the only things that kept me from checking out. They’d bring me back from the edge, remind me that there is more than my darkened mind could see. I might not have been able to live from that place of more but I knew it was there. Now, after his death, I find the sensuality and grace of the world heightened. My periphery catches smaller details that illuminate the Whole: the falling of a single leaf, the quick flight of a bird, the sound of water sliding down my throat, or creaks in the chair on which I sit. When I am too focused on my next task, this noticing shocks me — how could have missed that particular grove of Red Maple trees?
Most of the time I feel a little slushy, like the boundaries of my body and soul are kind of spilling around without any clear direction. When I was with my Grandfather in his final days I found myself standing taller, feeling stronger, more connected and together; not because I was doing anything heroic or adult, but because I was acting from my Heart, from a place of real Love. In general, I also feel this cohesion when I teach or meditate. But in the interactions with my Grandfather there was a certain gravitas to this standing tall. In teaching, it’s lighter, more playful.
Love breaks us open in so many ways and on so many levels: a slow permutation of the membranes, a quiet shift over time; a deep earthquake that shakes our very foundation or a moment of ecstasy that sends us into manic delight. Each breaking open reveals a whole new experience of Love which leaves Its vivid imprint on the Soul, changing us forever; if only we’ll have the courage to let It in.
~ For Granddad, with Love
Hello Gentle Reader,
Well, it’s been an interesting month on Lake Wobegone. “Life” kind of took over for awhile so I’m behind on adding new content. Also, I have started writing fiction (hooray!) so my writing time is now more divided. But, I am working on a few things and hope to add some new work in the coming week. In the meantime, here’s a little something I put together in the fall of 2009, when, after many years, I finally read “Walden” in its entirety.
The cool mornings that herald the onset of fall are once again inspiring the romantic in me to read Thoreau. I’ve read pieces and parts of “Walden” before but tend to space out and always end up going back to the “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” section made popular in Dead Poets Society. Today I read the entire chapter in which this quote appears (titled “Where I lived”) and was struck by the wisdom and poetry that precedes and follows this famous and beautiful passage.
In the middle of a discussion about the beauty and opportunity of the dawn, Thoreau offers this…
“Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering?… The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by the infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which we morally can do. To affect the quality of a day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. etc..”
He goes on to criticize the rising industrialization and commercialism of modern society and how they can pull us away from the contemplation of and connection with the ground of being. He ends the chapter with this
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars… I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”
May these words inspire you, as they have inspired me, to continually awaken to the eternal dawn, to the infinite deep of being where we can begin to mine the depths of the heart.
A few days before the Christmas of 1994 my family packed up our belongings and began our journey south to Alabama where my dad had been called to be the rector of an Episcopal Church. Ten miles out of town the odometer broke in our recently serviced van beginning a comedy of errors that saw the cat getting lost under a hotel bed in Connecticut; crossing the Seventeen-Mile Bridge in the wind, the rain, and the dark; Christmas in Raleigh with Granddad; and the van dying on I-85 in Greenville, SC where a nice man let us use the cell phone he’d received for Christmas the day before. A tow truck, the retrieval of our other car from Raleigh and an extra night on the road later, we pulled into the parking lot of Regions Bank on December 27th. There we opened new accounts and signed mortgage papers. We stayed the night at the home of a parishioner and moved into our new house the following day.*
We were pros at this, having moved at least seven times in my 14 years. Most had been utilitarian: better jobs, my father’s call to the ministry followed by a time in seminary and a period of internship. But of all our moves this was the strangest and not just because of the events that transpired during the actual relocation. The short version is that things just hadn’t worked out as expected and so it was that we, consummate Yankees, found ourselves driving down I-95 to begin our adventure in the Heart of Dixie. Moving to Alabama felt like an exile from the sweetness of New England but the excitement of a new beginning was palpable.
Everything was changing: Yankee Thrift to Southern Hospitality, Old Colonial home to new construction, 100 year old-stick-in-the-mud parish to one formed in the ‘70s out of a desire to assist the civil rights movement, and a transfer from an all-girls Catholic High School to a public one. With boys.
The one constant in all of this was our family. Things could always have gone another way but it was a combination of my parents love for us and each other and our collective need for something to stay the same that kept the four of us close. Houses, furniture, and people had shifted so often they sometimes felt like props and extras in a movie. But we always had each other. That, and the jar of roots given to us when we left Maine in the mid ‘80s. (And that still sits atop the refrigerator to this day.)
Now, sixteen years later, another move is underway. Things did not work out as expected. The yoga studio that I and so many others have called home for the last several years is closing its doors. The sadness is real, the possibilities vast. Our community of yogis is heartbroken. We are mourning the loss of a room of our own and fearing the loss of each other.
Yet we are not defined by lavender walls and bamboo flooring: we are a community knit together by the shared experience of the practice rooted in the power of Grace. Our collective love for one another will keep us close. Many of our classes will be held at another local studio and so we will still have a physical space to meet.** Together we accept the end of one cycle and embrace the beginning of a new one — one with unlimited potential to grow and welcome new friends.
In two weeks time we will gather to move furniture and props out of the studio. Maybe we’ll find a lost cat hiding behind the shelving. Hopefully no one’s car will break down and there will be no need to cross a long bridge in the wind and the rain and the dark. When everything is out we will say our goodbyes to the lavender walls and the bamboo floors, we will close the doors and we will leave, knowing that as we carry our roots with us, we carry our Love.
I admit it. When I see pictures and blogs about a wonderfully expansive yoga festival or workshop I get a little jealous and sort of persnickety. I sigh, humph, then remind myself that we all have different paths and I have chosen mine.
Back in college I read this book that essentially said we can have it all, just maybe not all at once. This is very comforting as I am the kind of person who wakes up and thinks I can clean the whole house, make phone calls, finish emails, nap, write a novel, learn a language, go climb a mountain or ford a stream and make dinner in a single day or weekend. While all of these things can be done and I intend to do them, they are certainly not all going to happen today, or this year, or possibly even this decade. Especially since it’s already past noon and my motivation to clean is waning. (Not to mention that I don’t live near any mountains or ford-worthy streams.)
A student once said, “One day I woke up and asked, when I am on my deathbed do I want to remember that I had an immaculate house or that I practiced yoga on the last friday in June twenty years ago.” I love this because at the heart of the question my friend is determining the true goals of her life.
In a weekend workshop a few years back John addressed this discernment process. The key, he said, to yogic decision making is to consider the four aims of life: Artha, Kama, Moksha, Dharma*. Lets take the example of deciding whether or not to attend a workshop.
Artha ~ Can I afford this? Will it place undo financial strain on myself or my family?
Kama ~ Will it give me pleasure? Will I enjoy this topic, group of people, geographic setting? Will I feel free to be my awesome creative self?
Moksha ~ Will attending this workshop help me contribute to the liberation of myself and others? Will it make me a better person?
Dharma ~ “Dharma always leads to harmony.”** Does this line up with my respond-abilities in life right now? Can I leave home for a few days without abandoning my family, job, obligations? Will my attending bring harmony or disharmony?
Answering each of these questions with thoroughness and honesty keeps me sane, grounded and able to move away from jealousy and into appreciation for the different journeys we all take. I did not attend the Anusara-Inspired Teacher’s Gathering at Wunderlust this year. It looked like fun, I would have enjoyed it. Kama- check. But I don’t have the financial resources at this time, nor am I willing to go into debt to get there. Also, my family goes on a vacation every year during the last week in July and I wanted to be with them. So I did. This time around family and finances took precedence over a week of rockin’ yoga in Tahoe.
It’s unlikely that I’ll attend any of John’s workshops this year, which seems a little weird for someone about to submit a certification video . But that’s the way it is. I attend regional events with other traveling teachers as well as teach and participate in my own local community. These are some of the ways that I am currently fulfilling the four aims of Artha, Kama, Moksha, Dharma. Next year I may travel more and that will be a dream, but for today, this is where I am. Today, my dharma is to be at home, and maybe clean.
* These questions don’t need to be asked in this order. Artha, Kama and Moksha all serve Dharma. For more info check out this blog from Anusara-Inspired Instructor Daniella Cotreau
**Another piece of wisdom from John Friend