Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

death & loss & grief & rites of passage ~

My cousin’s son died this past weekend. Killed instantly, with his best friend, in a tragic car accident. He was 25.

A funeral is no celebration of life when the dead are young. Their lives cut short by the snick snick snick of the third sister’s scissors — Atropos, the eldest sister Fate. I dread this one.

He was a beautiful baby, I remember. And grew into a handsome, bright-eyed, laughing man. And Wednesday (Wednesday’s child is full of woe) we will gather, at a building wreathed w/ plaster work, and try to make sense of his loss. There is so little sense to dead children.

A funeral is supposed to bring comfort, give closure. And allow for the grieving to come together to celebrate the passage of a life away from the living. Christians  — many of my family — will wrap themselves in a belief that they will see Daris again. Even my (nominally) Buddhist sister believes that the two boys — best friends in life, best friends together in their tragic deaths — are somewhere together. And that they know this. I take no such comfort.

Some Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Others believe in a kind of universalism, that we become part of divinity when we die. And some believe in nothing, that there is nothing after death. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I’d like to think that because spirit is energy, and energy never dies, Daris & Dex still laugh, somewhere.

On  Wednesday, however, I know that no one will be thinking of laughter. Only of our great grief at the loss of a son, brother, cousin, nephew, grandson. Friend. Only of how short this much-loved young man’s life was, and how unfair it seems.

What I do believe in is the power of breathing for those we love, when they hurt. Wednesday I’ll be doing just that. Breathing. Slowly. Trying to transform great grief into some kind of comfort…

Facebook and the (other) web ~

For Buddhists, the world is a web. Everything is connected, and everyone as well. Long before I knew there was a word for this — interconnectedness — I believed in it. What I did, I knew even as a child, had consequences. For me, certainly. But also for everyone and everything around me. Facebook is a good example of this. Even if you aren’t a Buddhist, if you’re on FB, you know that you’re connected. And that one Web is much like the other, in oddly parallel ways.

Today a former student sent me a message that said a book had made him think of me. He asked if I’d read it, because he thought I’d like it. So, because I like him, and I respect his taste, I downloaded a sample to my Kindle. And then I took my Kindle out to the deck and sat in the gold light of the afternoon.

It was a book on Jesus and his teachings, Love Wins,  not a book I’d usually read, I confess. But I began, wanting to be able to say truthfully that I’d tried it. And (of course) it was something I needed to hear. Right then. My students — all of them, each of them — are always giving me gifts, teaching me lessons. The book — a short read — argues what I recall of Christianity from my childhood: that Jesus is all about love, not exclusivity. A  doorway not to a members-only club, but an entry to a better, more loving life. The author, Rob Bell, is a universalist – meaning that he believes all people will, eventually, be ‘reconciled’ with God. That hell is what we make. That redemption is guaranteed. It will just take some of us longer than others. :) All of which I too believed, as a child, but lost sight of.

Buddhism doesn’t preclude a belief in Christian theology. Famous Christians have also been Buddhist; Thomas Merton comes to mind. Thích Nhất Hạnh did a wonderful book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that draws connections between the two belief systems. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that so much of this book spoke to me. That a message (basically) of infinite compassion should find in me an avid listener. But I was. :)

And once again, here I am, thinking (for the umpteenth time!) of what a magic web the world is. Of the interconnectedness that Buddhism teaches — non-separation. How this student from a few years back sent me a book I needed to read now, today. How it connected pieces of what sometimes feels like a fragmented life. And how grateful I am for the Web…

 

 

crabby days & family miracles (of the small, beginning kind) ~

I woke up cranky today. My feet hurt, my joints ache, I should eat healthier. Middle age sucks. (And yes, I know I should consider the alternative…)

I tried my usual remedies: a cup of tea, a sit on the deck. Watching the young downy woodpecker attack our seed cylinder. I even did battle w/ the blackberry & sticker vines in the rose garden.

All I got were deep thorn scratches. Great.

So I did a spate of FB, and then remembered: today is my mother’s birthday. It’s also the birthday of my older son. I flashed back (so easy to do once you’re a certain age!) and remembered my mother insisting I not ‘ruin her birthday surprise’ by telling her what her ‘early’ birthday present was the night before. Typical conversation w/ my mother:

Me: “I have an early bday present for you, Mother!” (My water had just broken.)
Mother: “Don’t spoil the surprise! I don’t want it yet.”
I said again — “I have an early bday surprise for you, Mommy.”
And she responded: “NO! I don’t want it yet!”
At which point, a MONTH past-due, I blew up and said: “When a pregnant woman ONE MONTH past due calls her mother and said she has a surprise, YOU WANT IT, Mother!”

And then I remembered the long day — a full 24 hours+ – that brought my son into the world. How weeks later I would sit on the sofa and hold him, the exact length of my thigh, cradled on my lap. Today he’s 6′ tall, married, and teaching. But for me, he carries with him a lengthy chain of mental pictures, some captured on film, others not. One of my favourites, that seems to me almost prescient, was taken when he was 4, sitting in silent meditation before his belt test in Tae Kwan Do.

What is it about memory? How it can rescue a day from crankiness? What is it about family memories, sometimes painful at the moment, that they bring us such joy when we revisit them years later? I have no idea what shifted, but even my arthritic bones feel better :).

This is what I think beginner’s heart is: a kind of return to balance as we’re buffeted by life. A remembering that there is something else, a home space to inhabit. Buddha nature, possibly, but definitely ‘breathing space.’

Happy Birthday, Nathan. Happy Birthday, Mother. Thank you both ~ yet again — for giving me the miracle of everyday happiness.

mother love, schadenfreude, & beginner’s heart ~

It’s no secret that I love my students.  And even now, when not one of them sits in circle in a classroom w/ me, they remain ‘my students.’ A kind of extended family — almost like nieces & nephews, if not quite as dear. But still very dear. :)

So when they hurt, I hurt. When life treats them badly, I grieve too. And I wonder how people can find gladness in the unhappiness or misfortune of others…? What is it that allows one human being to find pleasure — far beyond mere schadenfreude — in the bad fortune of another?

Politics today is rife with this unholy joy. We have (and I include myself here, much to my honest chagrin) little mercy w/ mis-speaks, mistakes (even in the distant past), or fluffy rumours. It’s easy to disregard the linking web of humanity, and make of someone with whom we disagree, someone disagreeable. And then gloat when s/he meets w/ bad luck.

Contrast this w/ a lovely Buddhist concept: mudita. Explained as ‘sympathetic or vicarious’ joy, it’s the bubbling rise of happiness when my son tells me he’s been re-hired in his school district, one of only 110 teachers so blessed. It’s the gladdening of heart for a friend’s wedding, late in life and doubly welcome. It’s the quiet delight for a colleague’s year-long sabbatical. The contemplative practice of mudita is less spontaneous, however. While it’s easy to be happy at my son’s good fortune, or glad for a friend’s wedding, it’s far more difficult to be glad for the good fortune of someone I dislike (and yes, sad to say: I am NOT above disliking people…).

So that’s where I usually stall out. Not when good things happen to good people, but more when people I don’t like go scot-free after wounding/ bullying/ fleecing/ etc. good people. Or even worse, are REWARDED. Politicians who tell stories w/ no basis in reality. Education administrators who don’t have students’ best interests at heart. I  have to breathe. Deeply. Several times. Just to stop from yelling.

This was my practice today, when a dear former student wrote me of her tattered life. Shared how she is trying, painfully, to stitch its raveled edges together, following deaths, illnesses, shifts in job & relationships & home. How she is bewildered by the exclusion at her new job, the difficulties w/ a dying relationship. How people blame her for her own sadness, turn from her (despite being her ‘friends’). I don’t know how to help her, other than listen. I can make of my sadness for her a gift of tonglen, breathing out comfort. And I can go to tea w/ her, being my funniest and most comforting self. But it’s not enough & I know it. Still, it’s what I have. And that’s how we grow a beginner’s heart — offering what we have. Even when it’s not enough…

But I would so much rather rejoice in her happiness. I would rather — always — be glad for the good fortune of those I love than angry at the good fortune of those I find dismaying. But it’s a very hard task. I guess that’s why I’m still only a beginner’s heart…

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