the practical buddhist : essentials

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In a post from 2016 I wrote about how our lives can, do, and will continue to fall apart.

In that post I wrote the following:

In our lives, things fall apart: We lose jobs, we lose housing, we lose people we love. In those times, we feel lost as well. We feel tossed here and there and long for a soft place to land. We are but blades of grass blowing in the wind.

Almost two months ago my father died due to complications of pulmonary fibrosis (PF). PF is a disease of whereby the lungs, normally elastic and compliant, become increasingly fibrous and non-compliant making gas exchange in the small air sacs (alveoli) minimal and results in excessive fatigue and shortness of breath..more like a continual panting.

For nearly six months my dad failed to meet the criteria for supplemental oxygen therapy and when he finally did, it was nearly too late. He lasted four additional months with his oxygen tanks following him around when we left the house and a long tube connected to a concentrator while at home.

As he faltered, I became more angry

I’d unthethered from anger as a general behavior in the past, but when my dad’s mental abilities started to rapidly fail due to his secondary diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Dementia, it tested my ability to feel compassion and translate it into kindness.

There were days when I was more compassionate than others and I often would regret becoming angry at something he had no control over whatsoever.

The backdrop to this was that I was his caretaker for his final two years of life. I’d moved into my parents’ home to cook, clean (debatable), and provide transportation as well as hopefully increase their quality of life, as both were in their mid-eighties and incapable of doing much other than watch television and shuffle around.

My dad enjoyed walking their miniature poodle around the neighborhood twice a day for years prior to his decline, but in the last two years was increasingly disabled. Everything fell to me to do around the house which left me little time for writing between doctor appointments, pharmacy and grocery runs, cooking three meals each day, and spend any time at all with my youngest son who lived on his own in Santa Cruz.

My social life was largely nonexistent. A relationship that seemed promising failed. My career as a consultant was continually interrupted by the inability to travel on demand. As a single, middle-aged man nearing 60, I often wondered WTF was my life becoming?

I certainly didn’t plan for this kind of life when I envisioned closing out my sixth decade. And that -right there- was the problem.

This was the real root of the anger I felt and, like a human, I took it out on those around me.

In his final months, the anger was displaced

In the final five or six months of his life, I could see that he was failing rapidly. He was increasingly concerned with my mother’s well-being after he was gone. He’d largely accepted his approaching death and would often speak to me in frank terms about his life, his accomplishments, and his concern about my mother in the early morning hours we shared together over coffee.

More than once he wanted me to make him a promise; that I would live with in the house with my mother and take care of her until she died. In fairness, I couldn’t make hime a promise I didn’t know if I could keep. I told him that I would always make the best decisions possible for her. It was the best I could do and I still feel it was the best way to handle that question.

I could feel my anger dissipating while being replaced with compassion, knowing that he was nearing the end. In his last month of life, I had come to the end of my own ability to care for him and persuaded my two sisters to visit and stay with them while I took some time for personal respite. I spent two weeks in England and France, writing, sleeping, and preparing myself for the coming days.

I arrived home on January 29th and he slipped away on February 4th, just six days after I’d returned. I am convinced that he waiting for me to return and resume taking care of my mother before he let go.

I felt like my entire life fell apart

As a former physician, I was intellectually prepared for his death and more emotionally prepared than my siblings for caretaker duty. I could interact with his physicians and nurses in a manner that most family members of terminally ill patients couldn’t.

About a week after his funeral I felt a growing sense of grief and emptiness bubbling up from my center. I wrote to my friend Susan that “grief had ripped something open deep within and all kinds of foul-smelling things were seeping out.”

For three weeks, in the early hours of morning when the house was quiet, I was overcome with grief, sadness, and cried like a brokenhearted little boy. The visual images that pervaded my thoughts in this time of overwhelming sadness and grief was focused on my dad’s physical struggle during his last month. I knew that if I could get past those images of physical suffering and mental deterioration I would most likely come back to some sort of normalcy.

I turned to Pema Chödrön for advice

In her landmark book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she realigned my thinking when she wrote:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved.

They come together and they fall apart. They come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.

The healing comes from letting there be room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

My dad is always going to be missed

He is gone from my sight forever. I have no evidence to believe that I will see him again. If I’m wrong and I do, so much the better. But I don’t cling to old beliefs any longer for they are a false comfort.

I saw through Pema’s words that the normalcy I was craving was unrealistic; that what was better was acceptance – that this is but one loss. Though the most significant in my life thus far, the loss of my dad and its resulting patterns of grief is an example of how things fall apart.

How I respond is where the comfort is found

I can see now that, as Pema writes…”staying with a broken heart, a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness” and loss is where I need to be. The spiritual journey is always found in the midst of trouble and turmoil, not in a divinely delivered outcome.

The true path of a spiritual warrior is in remaining open because…

The off-center, in-between state is the ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit.

It’s a very tender, non-aggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

Things have fallen apart. But I can see now that they will continue to do so over and over again.

For now, my response to remain open, to allow room for the sadness, for the misery and for the joy.

That is where the spiritual path begins.

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Yes, you’re a drama queen

But don’t take it personally or even negatively. I’m also a drama queen. The truth is, we’re all drama queens in some respect.

Some of us just take it new levels of existence

We whine about the weather or about how our iPhone isn’t as fast as it used to be.  We wonder about why the family next door really needs five cars when only two of the four are licensed drivers. And that dog that keeps barking at 2 a.m., what kind of owners must the poor thing belong to? Honestly…

You see, I can list a bunch of whiny examples just like that. I actually list it as a special skill on my resume.

Yes, we can make whining about trivial aspects of life rise to the level of fine art.

But that doesn’t help us

In fact, it hinders our progress in almost every way. If your goal is to awaken and view life and reality for what they are, your inner drama queen is a major hindrance. That’s because all that inner drama we’re addicted to occupies our mind and keeps it too busy to actually see.

Seeing is what the Buddha taught his students to pursue. He gave them (and us via the teachings handed down over the centuries) three practices to use to further their goal of awakening.

These practices were simple and straightforward and include meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate-kindness, the triad of Practical Buddhist practice.

What does help us is practice

Buddhism teaches that every sentient being possesses Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is our potential to awaken. You have it and so do I and so does the owner of the dog that keeps you up in the middle of the night.

You, me, and the noisy dog owner also have an inner drama queen that is directly opposed to waking up. She wants to keep us occupied with various attachments to desires, cravings, and false needs. She wants to hog the limelight as it were.

But the three practices of Practical Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate-kindness have the power to silence our inner drama addict.

Quieting the queen

Quieting the queen occurs over time, with practice. As you engage in a daily meditation practice, your inner drama queen will still make herself known but she will quiet down quicker when faced with your calm, resolute, gentle practice of awareness and breathing.

When you first start meditating, I promise you that your inner drama queen will rage against the machine. She will do anything she can to distract you from just simply sitting and observing. She wants you, bad. 😉

She (actually your mind) will try to convince you that someone is calling your name, that you suddenly need to pee and distract you with all types of thoughts and ideas.

At first, you will follow the thoughts because that’s how our mind has always worked. So, for a while you’ll follow and then you’ll realize it. When you do realize it, don’t chastise yourself for failing…because it isn’t a failure.

Simply observe out loud, “hmmm. thinking…” and return your focus to your breath.

This will happen over and over again no matter how long you meditate. It still happens to me and I’m certain it happens to Zen Masters as well. I’m sure that even the Thich Nhan Hanh has his own inner drama queen, however tame she may be after so many years of practice. 🙂

Does the queen ever leave altogether? 

I’m asked this often and my response is aways…”thus far in my experience, no.” But that’s why we practice; to engage in the present moment and not in our mind’s needless inner drama.

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