Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

By Any Means Necessary

As school vacation ended this past week, I was desperate for my children to go back to school.  When we have all been in the house for a little too long there is an itchy, restless feeling around the edges of everything they do.  In my body it manifests as massive fatigue. When they were all home it felt like a huge effort to do anything, the second they left I found myself energized and able to address my to-do list.  

I don’t like that itchy, cranky feeling, it feels like a lack of gratitude.  Sitting in my warm safe house with my three kids and my loving husband and feeling unsatisfied seems fundamentally wrong.  I know I only feel this way because I am desperate for us to return to the routine that comes with school and work.  Even knowing that, I search for an antidote, I remind myself how lucky I am, I sit for meditation, or go for a run.  Truly there is only one thing that really helps, and for me it is reflecting on the alternative.

Last New Year’s, Colin wasn’t feeling well.  He was tired, stressed and his back hurt.  In fairness, we are both tired and have been since Ben appeared in 2004, so when he complained of exhaustion, I ignored it.  When he talked about his back hurting I told him to stretch, put your legs up the wall and breathe deeply.  When he said he was going to see a doctor, I shrugged.  The doctor ran a million tests and they were all inconclusive. Colin’s face  was slowly turning gray but I couldn’t see it.  I was too busy thinking about the details of our life.  The kids’ schools, our leaky roof, our muddy driveway, my own aches, pains and frustrations.  I was so engaged in our day-to-day that I wasn’t able to see that my husband was fading away.  Or maybe I didn’t want to see it.

In February he had an angiogram, and they found and cleared a significant blockage, one they call the “widow-maker.” At the time I just focused on how lucky we were. I heaped praise on Colin for seeking out a second opinion. I talked about the miracles of medicine and joked that he had eaten his last cheeseburger.  We have a habit in our family of turning difficult realities into punchlines and this was no different.  He would joke that with his new “gear” as we referred to the stent that he was like a newborn; he could throw himself into bad habits with gusto.  I would feign horror, knowing that we would find some easy middle ground.

It wasn’t until the end of this year that I really thought about how differently the story could have ended.  There are many skilled practitioners of Buddhism who can find gratitude without thinking of what could have gone wrong.  I am not one of them.  As 2015 ended, I found myself thinking more and more about what could have happened, about my life without Colin.  Not just the practical financial aspects, which would be grim at best, but also the impossible loneliness I would feel in his absence.  When I find myself irritated by the hundreds of water glasses he manages to use and leave behind in a day, or the peanut butter with a knife sticking out left on the counter after lunch, or the fact he never quite remembers to close the fridge….  When I see those things and start to think to myself “what the ????” I think about the other ending we could have had to 2015, the ending where my husband got so gray that he disappeared altogether.  When I think about that I don’t even see the water glasses or the peanut butter.

One of my favorite phrases in Buddhism is “skillful means.”  It is used to describe the many different methods available to people as they search for truth.  The longer you practice, the more clear and efficient your means become.  It isn’t especially skillful to appreciate the life you have by imagining the worst case scenario.  But for now it’s what i am working with.  I cannot seem to learn the lesson enough times that the real treasures are hidden in the most ordinary days.

Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Parenting, Yoga

It’s all relative

photo (11)When a house is filled with young children it vibrates with movement.  Even when they are absent their clothes swirl in the dryer, their dog snores on the couch, their toys wait patiently on every available surface.  I have found that it is easy to get caught up in the movement, particularly if both parents are working.  There is always something to do:  a meeting to attend, a room that needs picking up, an appointment that needs scheduling, cupcakes that need to be made…..The days seem to gain speed until all of a sudden they are years.  I remember holding Benny once when he was small, it was two in the morning and he was on an elaborate sleep strike.  It felt personal, as if his 8 or 9 week old self was deeply committed to disrupting my sleep, potentially forever.  I was giving an internal finger to all those well meaning people who had looked at my newborn and said “enjoy it, it goes so fast…” Not at 2 in the morning it doesn’t…..

Of course, now I look at his long arms and legs, his eleven-year-old self, and it does seem to have gone by in a flash.  Those two a.m. meetings of ours feel like yesterday, and another life all at the same time.  A very wise friend said to me once after we had finished talking about how exhausted we were by our toddlers, “But this is the good stuff, when we put our children in bed at least we know where they are…” I hear that phrase so often in my head, “this is the good stuff.” she was right, this busy-ness, this intensity, this constant change, this is what a life is.  The catch is, that we have learn to pay attention to it, we have to learn to slow down within the movement and the busy-ness to be able to really appreciate it.

In Buddhism it is an accepted principle that there are two realities or two truths.  There is relative truth, which is what we think we see, the whirlwind of the every day, and there is absolute truth which is what exists underneath all of that.   it is the reality that we and everyone we love are just temporary, existing for a short time in the same place.  For me parenting was the first time I really thought about absolute truth.  My own mortality and that of my children weighed on me.  The thought of something bad happening to them makes me close my eyes and hold up my hands, just the thought of it inspires deep physical reactions.  As the mother of a child who will probably never be able to live independently, my own mortality became even more of an obstacle.  On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, I have to figure out how to live as long as she does so I can take care of her, she is 8 and I am 40….it’s unlikely I will live to 120.

The relative truth of parenting, the small successes and failures, “he sleeps through the night, and eats green vegetables,” give way to “he reads, and has friends.”  He complains mercilessly about homework, doesn’t make a team, has his heart broken, each moment feels enormous and real, and defining while it’s happening. They should.  This is the good stuff.  The absolute truth as I experience it is within the relative truth: it is allowing each of those moments to really sink in. It is not trying either to hold on to them or to ignore them, but to be fully present with them.  The absolute truth of my life exists in all of the relative details, in the way I make my bed, or the dinners we eat.   The amount of attention and care that we bring to the ordinary is what makes it come alive. 

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting

Listen, this is important…

photo (11)As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak.  As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention.  I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been.  If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time.  It is not for lack of interest.  I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.

 

Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move.  They have heard me…but they aren’t listening.  Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team.  Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary.  Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.”  These are practices that one develops through meditation.  By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people.  We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds.  It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.


Skillful listening is something we can all develop.  At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening.  These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention.  When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment.  Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Yoga

Where you belong…

Ev and Me 1979There is almost nothing more pretentious than quoting the Bhagavad Gita, except for maybe referring to it as “the Gita,” which assumes a level of familiarity I can’t imagine having with an ancient text.  There is however a quote from the Bhagavad Gita that I keep scrawled on a piece of paper in my wallet and pinned by the side of my desk. It serves as a constant reminder not to stray from where you belong.

“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.  Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma.”

One of my favorite things about seeing someone you love and have loved for a long time is that when they stand in front of you there is a split second flip book that happens, where you see them as all the people they have ever been. This week, my very talented brother published a book called Age of Ambition.  It is about China and is being very well received. When I spotted him last night right before he went on stage to give a talk to a packed auditorium, I saw him as every version of himself. On his face, as he spoke and answered questions from the moderator and the audience, I saw his teenage self, and in his body language, shades of both our parents.  The thing that I saw most of all was a person who is on the right path.  My brother is smart, and charming and would have found success in lots of different fields.  But success and being on the right path are different.  You can be successful and unfulfilled; your success won’t last but the emptiness will.  There is no greater joy than knowing that someone you love is on the right path for themselves.  As proud as I am of his enormous intelligence and the discipline that allowed for this book to exist, I am even more proud that he has found his path and in his wife, the right partner to walk it with him.

People come to me all the time for yoga and meditation.  Sometimes they do want simply to inhabit their body better or to learn to be still.  But more often they are feeling unmoored; their life has moved away from its center.  They have had children, or a partner whose own trajectory doesn’t leave room for anything else. They are feeling ill at ease but they aren’t sure how to get back to themselves.  I can see it in their faces and bodies. I don’t really know how to guide someone back to their center.  I only know what works for me.  I can stay rooted in myself if I am honest about who I am and I do it with kindness.  As soon as I start comparing my mothering skills to someone else, or the state of my house and children, I am lost.  The first moment, I envy how a friend is aging, or feel like my classes should be larger, I am lost.

Every day I sit for meditation, for twenty minutes. I do not collude, placate, engage or respond.  For a brief period every day, I am not an active participant in anyone’s life but my own. This keeps me rooted exactly where I belong.  Right in the center of my own messy, imperfect but perfect for me path.

My greatest hope for my nearest and dearest is that they find their path, and that it includes room for those they love most. I have taken the jacket off my brother’s book and pinned it next to the wall beside my desk as well.  Every day I will look at it and be reminded that the joy is not just in living your own truth but also in knowing that those you love are doing the same.