Sunday, March 31, 2013

The End of Grief

I could not sleep last night. Grief was compelling me to stay up and investigate. In the darkness, in between breaths, I was able to see grief as the hindrance that it is, an extreme manifestation of aversion to the nature of life itself. Mind wanted to keep on telling stories about my mother and how she used to be, and how I wish she would still be, and how I was not ready to face the final nature of our parting. I noticed how much I was getting lost in those thoughts, and I remembered what to do when faced with a hindrance. You focus on the hindrance itself, not the object. Stepping back one notch, away from thoughts about my mother, I turned my attention to the aversion and I asked myself, what is the thing that keeps it going? Beneath, I found clinging and magical thinking, a deeply seated delusion about life not ending, or only on my own terms. This is where contemplation is such a great companion practice for mindfulness. One needs to meditate over and over again, on the fourth remembrance:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

This, is the antidote to grief.

Later, during dinner with my daughter, I could feel the temptation of grief threatening to take over and spoil those precious moments with her. And  I realized the foolishness of indulging such mind state right then. The situation called for no less than appreciating the tenderness between us, and the joy of our good meal together. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Mother Who Used to Know Me

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and in her stead, sits a woman who stares at me
the same way she does with strangers.

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and shows irritation whenever I touch her
who are you to dare, she wants to say.

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and no longer tries to respond
whenever I look at her and tell her my love.

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and tries to understand why it is
that I of course smile at her so sweetly

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and my heart revolts against such cruel parting
that leaves me wanting so much.

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and I cry tears of sorrow
for her who still seems to exist, yet no longer is.

The mother who used to know me
has gone
and all the wisdom I thought I knew
no longer seems so relevant. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

What Grief Can Teach Us About Love

Grief is not all the pain it appears to be. Grief as I have come to know it, is also an extraordinary opportunity to experience and see close up the suffering from clinging in its most extreme form. This is my mother’s parting gift to me.

Yesterday, when I arrived, I found her sitting at her usual table in the back of the dining room. Remembering our intense connection from two weeks ago, I expected at least an acknowledgment, a gaze of recognition, a smile. I was met instead with a blank stare. I sat by her side and waited. “Bonjour Maman. C’ est Margot, ta fille.” She looked up, gave me a look, and closed her eyes again. Aides had laid out dinner in front of her, and I was to help her.  It took forty five minutes for her to get one serving of the French version of Ensure down. I followed the aides as they wheeled her back to her room, and I kept her company as she laid resting in bed. Giving her kisses, stroking her forehead, reaching out for her shriveled hand did not produce the usual joy in her. Rather, it became clear that she wanted to be left alone. She is withdrawing from the world, I thought, and she is letting me know.

My mother mostly wants to sleep, and sometimes drink a little, that’s all. No more music, no more engagement, no more closeness, no more food. This is in direct contrast to the mother I knew who loved singing so much, and eating well, and being hugged and cajoled. That version of her no longer exists, other than in my memories, thoughts about the past with no relevance to the present conditions. Turning inside, I get in touch with the pulling away and the hanging on from lingering grief. What we call love is first and foremost attachment. The more we feel love, the tighter the bond, and the more difficult it is to let go of the object of our love. My mother is letting me experience what I first learned in words from Ayya Khema. True love is purified from all attachment, and demands that we not burden the loved one with the imposition from our clinging. It also requires that we reconcile with the universal truth of impermanence, that all that is born must die. Last, we must accept the not-self nature of our existence. The only thing that matters at this moment is to give this person who I have been calling my mother, the space to die at her own pace. Anything short of that is due to cause suffering for both she and I.

We tend to make a big deal of death. Watching my mother gently fade away, I am struck by the simple physical nature of end of life, same way I felt when my daughters were born, only in reverse. We are born, we live, we die, that’s all, and with each transition, we are given to a bunch a physical processes, of entering, being in, and leaving the body. At some point, the body gets worn out and starts shutting down. In the case of Alzheimer’s as with my mom, the end phase stretches over many years, giving loved ones a chance to work with grief and clinging not just once, but numerous times. One thing I have learned from this process is the need to appreciate all that is given at any moment. It is so easy focusing on what no longer is, as opposed to what still is. Before my mother lost the ability to speak a month ago, I did not realize how much it mattered to me that she be able to talk and respond still, even within the limited range of her late stage Alzheimer's narrative.

Now, treasuring the times sitting at her side and feeling her spirit, still flickering, and her breath also. I know soon there will be no life left at all. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Being With Speechlessness (Aphasia)

On Monday, my mother was singing to me her favorite tune La Java Bleue over the phone. On Tuesday, she had been robbed of her ability to speak by a stroke. Aphasia, the medical term to describe what happened to my mother, comes from the ancient Greek term for 'speechlessness'. It is associated with different types of neurological disorders, and comes in several forms. My mother suffers from expressive (non fluent) aphasia, meaning she knows what she wants to say, but is unable to get the words out. Such a sudden loss is traumatic and I have had to rely on both my practice and field knowledge to be as supportive as I could for my mother. I have also had to deal with my own grief of the mother I knew who sang and spoke to me. Yet another loss down the path of Alzheimer's and very old age . . . 

Most important is to acknowledge directly to the person, what has happened, and the likely emotions associated with the communication challenges that they are experiencing. When complicated with memory loss, the person may not understand what is happening to them, and may need to be reminded. With my mother, I have been telling her that she had a stroke, and is experiencing a temporary loss of speech. I want to keep her heart in a hopeful place, and there is indeed the possibility that she may respond to speech therapy.  I empathize with the extreme frustration she shows in her facial expressions whenever she is trying to talk, and I apologize for the times when I may not understand her. This is a step caregivers often forget in their communications with aphasic persons, particularly when the aphasia has been present for a long time. I also rely on the bank of previous spoken interactions with my mother, and all the topics I know she enjoyed then and is still likely to enjoy. Next time I visit, I may also try to see if I can encourage her to communicate through art, although that door may be closed given the state of her advanced dementia. For a person suffering from strict non fluent aphasia, and with limited to moderate or no dementia, writing and art making would be two logical outlets for self-expression. Last, is falling back on two most profound forms of communication, touch, and seeing. Gazing into my mother's eyes, I shared some of the most tender and loving moments we ever had together. It is quite something to realize that it took that much, for the two of us to get there. 

Many times during the past three weeks, I have rested on the foundation of my practice. Reading Ayya Khema, stopping often to connect with the breath, sitting every morning without fail, sharing in this blog with all my noble friends, and contemplating the teachings, particularly on suffering,  impermanence, not self, and the five remembrances. I have also been reflecting on my experiences of noble silence during retreats, and how such practice can help one prepare for the possibility of speechlessness both in oneself, and in others. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Short Poem

Heart broken
equals heart open
wide.

Clinging urge
threatens
until the mind sees.

The possibility
of love, purified
lies near.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Saying Goodbye

It is now clear that my mother is dying, and a new phase has started. The nurse said it could be a matter of days, weeks, or months. The good news is she is now back home, in the comfort of her room. She recognized me when I arrived today, and is now lying in bed with her eyes closed, her breathing irregular and labored. I am planning to return to the US the day after tomorrow. This may be the last time I see her.

I draw comfort from the love that flowed so freely between us during the last few days. I was able to receive her love, in all its purity, and I know she got the same from me. It has been like falling in love all over again, an experience that blew my heart open wide, and that I will cherish forever.

Now, comes my part in allowing her to let go. Not insisting that she eat or drink, not smothering her with touch that is now painful to her, not burdening her with mental clinging. Sitting by her side, I go to my body, and find the breath, moving through much heaviness. The grief in my heart is for me to have only, and not share with her. Sitting by her side, I pay close attention to her breathing, and I practice receiving it gently into my own breath. The same way she birthed me, now I am helping her slip away.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Not Her Keeper

These days spent at the hospital with my mother are so intense. Yesterday, I looked into her eyes, several times, and we locked in, and I smiled and I reminded her it was me, and she smiled back, to tell me her happiness. She liked it when I played her favorite tunes, songs she used to sing all the time before her stroke. And she surprised me when she reached out for a magazine. I found myself starting to hope. 

Then came the dinner tray, and she did not make it past the first spoonful of the green puree. Same with the yogurt, and the applesauce. I asked the nurse, and she could not give me any reassurance. Yes, it could mean the end is near, or not. 

Today, I arrived to find her lying in bed and hooked up to a monitor, eyes closed and seemingly in pain with a frozen frown on her face. I was told her heart had gone to 150 in the morning and she was under close watch again. She did not acknowledge my presence. Her roommate was screaming for her children to come and take her. I thought, how incredibly stressful this must be for my mother to be subjected to so much. And I realized there was nothing to do, other than sit by her side, hold her hand, and remind her often that I was there with her. 

Ayya Khema says this about love: 

My attachment and my fear can only have a negative influence on my love. My children do not belong to me; they belong to themselves. I'm not their keeper, any more than they are my keepers. We are linked to each other, but not bound to each other - that is a huge difference. 
~ from I Give You My Life

Ayya Khema is referring to her children, but the same goes with our parents. I have been watching grief take hold in my body, a very physical sensation akin to being torn apart, literally. The stronger the bond, the more painful the parting, and there is certainly no stronger tie than between mother and child. It goes both ways. I am grateful for the practice to point me in the right direction. I am to feel the grief, fully, and relax around it, giving it space, and guarding the mind from adding more. My mother needs me to be at peace, and free from the anxiety of anticipated loss.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Continuing With the Love Lesson

Today was another day spent at the bedside of my mother. She barely acknowledged me, and slept most of the time. 

I am continuing to wrestle with regret, remorse, sorrow, and self-forgiveness. And turning to Ayya Khema for much needed wisdom [relevant excerpts from her talk on Metta with my commentaries]:

If we start blaming ourselves or others for all the things that we do wrong, we'll never stop blaming. It's a totally useless activity, because for any negativity that we have and heap blame on top of, it means we've then got two negativities. What we would like is to get rid of negativity. So instead of blaming we look at it, accept it, and change it.

Yes, stopping right there, the regret, the remorse, the self-blame. With the understanding that the heart can only open as much as it is able, depending on causes and conditions, not least of all, the presence of mindfulness.

It's human beings that we need to work with. All of us have that opportunity constantly, and there's no excuse not to do it, because this is actually what our life is all about. It's an adult education class. We've asked the question already: "What am I supposed to do with my life?" Well, it's very simple: this is an adult education class. That's all life is all about. Now, if we were going to school still, we would have exams, wouldn't we? In school they were usually kind enough to tell us when the exam would be, and they usually also told us what the exam topic was, so we could at least bone up on it and try to learn as much about it as possible. Well, we've got exams in daily life all the time, but nobody tells the date nor the topic, so we've got to be constantly ready. And just as in school, if we don't pass the exams, we going to be put back and have to do the class over again. Daily life is the same -- if we don't pass the exam, we get the whole thing over again. Next time it might be called Mary instead of Pauline, or John instead of Tom -- whatever it may be, but it's the same lesson over again. So instead of being unprepared when all these exams come about, the best thing to do is to use our daily lives as an adult education class and see what we can learn from each encounter.

Just learning to love, and accepting the limits of one's heart. I, we are all students in the matter of love.

At the same time, we also need to realize that we only have this one moment. The past is gone, irrevocably gone. We can learn from it. We can see some of the things that we might have done differently, and could do differently now, but that's all.

That's all. Not dwelling in ideas about the past, those fabrications of the mind that can hinder the possibilities of this present moment. The truth is, my heart has opened completely to receiving her love, and giving her love as well. No one else is asking since when. 

Many people find it difficult to love themselves -- sometimes because they know themselves too well. [laughter] Which means that they're judging. We don't have to judge ourselves, we can just love ourselves. Judging ourselves and loving ourselves do not have to be in the same breath. We can first love this manifestation of universal existence which we call "Me." And then, if we really want to make some changes, we can find out what needs to be changed, but we don't have to mix up those two, we don't have to mix up our bad qualities with our love for ourselves. They don't have anything to do with each other. 

Not making the mistake of placing a condition on self-love. I am not perfect, I made mistakes, I did not love her as I could have. That does not mean I cannot love myself.

Another important step is seeing, not only that we share everything, but also that our own difficulties need to be treated with compassion. Not with the idea, "I should have known better, I could do better, or somebody else has done it to me." Just compassion. Compassion is a very important entry into love. The two are very connected, and they're also interchangeable. The far enemy of compassion, of course, is cruelty, but the near enemy is pity. We're not sorry for ourselves or for others. We need to have empathy, not pity. "Com" is "with," "passion" = "feeling," with feeling. Empathy.

Holding myself with great tenderness, and understanding. I did not know better then. It's taken me all this time, and that's the way it is. 

We weren't brought here into this life to be engaged as judge and jury. Nobody gave us that job. It's self-appointed. [laughter] And this self-appointment is not even pleasurable -- doesn't pay anything in the first place -- and it only makes difficulty. But we can drop all this judge and jury business; at least try. In the beginning, one does it a little. It's much easier to love.

That last final point is enough.

Tell me about your own tales of learning to forgive yourself, and your journey to love.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Lesson in Love

Sitting by my mother’s bed at the hospital, my heart is filled with emotions. Mostly love, and deep grief from a new threshold passed over a few days ago. My mother‘s stroke has left her unable to speak. Monday morning, she and I had been singing together La Java Bleue over the phone. When I saw her yesterday for the first time since her stroke, she recognized me instantly and smiled, with one tear out of the corner of her right eye. It hit me right there, the immensity of her love, and of my love back to her. The nurse said it was the first time they had seen her open both eyes since she got admitted Tuesday night. There is no telling whether she will speak or move her right leg again. She makes grunting noises when I put the phone on her ear and my brother speaks to her.


Sitting by my mother’s bed, my mind takes me to hard places, mostly memories of when I rejected her   love, and I was not there for her. Of course, I thought had reasons every time. I dismissed her as too anxious, too dependent, and wanting to live her unlived life through me . . . I wished for her to be other than she could be, less depressed, happier, less demanding of my love and my brother’s love. I moved far away, five thousand miles, to live ‘my own life’. This is what the mind does whenever it is intent on closing the heart. There were also the times, more recent, during the beginning of her Alzheimer’s when the illness exacerbated those traits of hers, and I did not know then the real cause, and I reacted unkindly. There is no rewind button on life. Instead, one is left with the karmic consequences of past misdeeds and missed opportunities to love.

Sitting by my mother’s bed, listening to the monitor’s beeping sounds and the commotion in the hallway, I take refuge in practice, and decide to turn the guilt that besieges me, into a teacher of love. No need to keep adding more misery, this time self-directed. Guilt, rightly understood, is a call to move forward with the heart wide open, and with mindfulness. Using the sting of regret as a constant reminder to guard from the mind’s deceiving ways. Dwelling in love, at this moment, first for my mother, and also myself, I feel a shift, an immense gratitude for this one more gift from her. And I review all the gifts she bestowed on me starting with the gift of life itself.

May she be at peace, and at ease during this transition.
May I also be at peace, and at ease.

And may this serves to help you love better, more often.
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