Gratitude in Difficulty

Here’s another passage from Morning Pages–a practice that I fell out of with a recent work schedule shift, but I’m making every effort to get writing regularly again. I just finished one of my Morning Pages journals, and in the first pages of the new one, I dedicated the efforts to gratitude, as it was the day after Thanksgiving. While I do not want to limit my Morning Pages and their creative openness, I’m taking a meditation on gratitude as a general inspiration for this journal, and this is the second entry with that spirit.


 

Look! Two days in a row! I’ll get back into this. Well, as I look at these pages, I think on gratitude. Perhaps, a general intention for morning pages is wrong, but I won’t let it guide my writing beyond a general mindset.

It’s hard to feel gratitude sometimes. Your mind can be compressed to a few square inches of mental space where it walks the same grounds of complaints and anxiety again and again. The trick is not to get trapped here and think that those thoughts are the mind. Getting beyond the focus on these gets the mind loose into its true nature–openness.

For instance, this morning, I can’t find my keys–which is a serious annoyance for me. I also have a headache and body pains. I’m hungry. I’m tired. As I focus on these other grievances come out and multiply. A legion.

However, if I take a moment, breathe, and relax into just being here–writing in this particular now–the thoughts slip past.

Here is one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness–setting the mind see and not confusing it with the thoughts that come and go.

Such openness allows the spacious embrace of gratitude to come in every moment, even when you have a headache. 🙂

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Right after I finished writing this entry, I read this passage:

It doesn’t matter what comes up. You don’t have to analyze anything when you are meditating. You can simply maintain your dignified posture and pay attention to your breath. The technique is that you look at the thoughts as they arise and say to yourself, “thinking.” Whatever goes through your mind is purely thinking, not mystical experience. Label it thinking and come back to your breath.

So you are there. You are thinking.You don’t try to get away from your thoughts, but you don’t stick with them or encourage them either. Thought patterns are just ripples on the surface of the pond. They come and they go. They merge into each other, and you take the attitude that they are not a big deal.

Bodily aches and pains and physical irritations also come and go. They may seem more problematic than your thoughts. But in meditation practice you regard physical sensations as also thought patterns. Label them thinking. Aches, pains, pins and needles–all thinking. This keeps everything simple and straightforward, so that you can appreciate everything as port of one natural process.

–Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action, pp. 22-23.

May this inspire you to find gratitude even in difficult days. May you see that your thoughts are not your mind.

Gassho!

 

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 10: Echoes/Grief

Recent days have suddenly been emotionally difficult after relative equanimity for some time. It took some time to pin down precisely what has been bothering me, but eventually, I realized. It’s been a year. In a few weeks, it will have been a year since I got that cold, empty phone call after several days of emotionally distant standoffishness. It’s almost been a year since I was initially prepared for the death of partnership, family, and friendship (I don’t mean to be melodramatic with using the word “death”. That was the phrasing she used at the time–“This must die.”). This anniversary has particular weight not only because of the end of a relationship but also because of the unraveling of my life in general at that time. My job shifted dramatically around the same time, and I got notice that my landlady was also changing the terms of my lease–I got ousted in the process. Difficult changes and challenges have continued to mark the months and days since. It has been the hardest year of my life, even more so than the handful before which were no cakewalks.

It’s interesting looking back, as anxiety-provoking as it might be. It’s interesting because clearly time has passed. Much has happened. However, either due to some sort of experiential time warp or longing, it doesn’t feel that long. The events do not feel that separate from now. In fact, the last 2 or 3 months are the first time that they’ve felt separate at all. I think that’s why I can say it feels like a scar now in one of my recent writings.


Honestly, I started writing these words for this entry a few days ago and then put it aside. Some reading, writing, and meditation have brought me into this experience more–facing it rather than wriggling under the knife of emotional pain. Loving-kindness meditation has been extremely powerful in this brave, tender facing up to change. It involves wishing yourself, a close friend or loved one, a stranger, an enemy, and all sentient beings loving-kindness in gradual succession. This is the mantra to guide this visualization of loving-kindness (first said for yourself, than the friend, etc. while imagining pure positivity sent to each):

May I/you/all be happy
May I/you/all be healthy
May I/you/all be at peace
May I/you/all live with ease

I’ve found that offering such positive love out into the world, into everything, releases my focus from “me” and “my” pain. I can flow along with the world and the suffering of others, helping them find their own connection and loving-kindness as well.

I don’t say this to say that my feelings are unimportant or easily ignored. They’re there, and if I hadn’t been practicing hard for months now, I’m sure that I’d be utterly lost in them as I was for a few days about a week ago.

What are those feelings? I think that they’re my first real experience of grief. I lost an entire life in this transition–home, lover, family, and friends. My story had to be fundamentally altered, a process that I’m still working through.

What stands out to me as a symbol of this grief, nestled into the whole experience is the loss of my ex’s grandmother. She died only a few weeks after my ex dumped me. I saw her in person one last time. She was very ill. We talked for a while. She was clearly in a lot of pain and wasn’t fully in our conversation. As I got up to leave, she told me that I was “right up there” with her grandkids in terms of people in her life. She basically said that she cared about me almost as much as them. She died a few days later. Those were her last words to me.

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Grief

This might seem unimportant, but I have never had anyone I was really close to die before. My great-grandmothers died when I was in my youth, and a classmate died as a teen, but I wasn’t as close to any of them as I was to this woman. This was my first really personal experience of the loss of death other than a few pets dying while growing up. It’s a peculiar kind of loss, knowing that you cannot, will not, ever see this person again, a person who was a family member (as I was honorary grandson to her, I definitely considered her grandma as well). This kind of experience brings home the true depths of loss in the fullness of its meaning.

Alongside this was the loss of one of our cats too. He died in the same time period, and in many ways, he was the heart of our home. I still think of him and speak of him often…

So these echoes of grief, of loss, have a couple solid anchors in death. Not only was there the symbolic death of love, friendship, family, and home in breakup; there was the actual death of a couple key pieces of that structure.

Some might read my posts of the last several months and point at how much I have grown, but suffering, ultimately, cannot be rationalized or justified. We move to find some meaningful explanation of our troubles, to pin them down and make them “OK”. However, that’s the same drive that leads us to blame the victim–“They had it coming because…” All we can do is lay bare the root causes of our suffering or someone else’s and sit with those causes mindfully, accompanying them and that person through the mystery of being, rather than trying to explain it away.

With grief, I’ve had to face my attachment to the way I wish life were in the barest rawness of disappointment, despair, confusion, loneliness, and fear. It’s brought me into a deeper relationship with myself and Truth, but that does not mean it was justified or a “good” thing. Such experiences lie beyond any plan, rationalization, or telos. I would never wish such a thing on anyone or try to explain how it’s good for them. I will open my arms to accompany any I meet with grief and share loving-kindness with them in the abyss.


It seems like every return to this writing has changed it. It’s been an interesting process, and while the pain still resides, it doesn’t torture me as it did when I first was writing these words. It truly has been a hard year, but unlike the beginning of this post when I felt like I couldn’t survive another year like this, I’m now looking at this moment and the path that lies ahead with equanimity. In honor of the mix of feelings I’ve gone through and where this year really started, I’d like to add a song by Adele. For some time, I listened to her songs about heartbreak again and again, and I think that “Rolling in the Deep” will always remind me of this time. However, I’d like to share another one about moving on, burning the past, and heartbreak in all of its pain, confusion, longing, and forced violence to the attachments that were. It came up on the radio while at lunch the other day, and it immediately reminded me of all of this:

Here’s to setting fire to my own rain.


May this help those who endure heartbreak, grief, and the anniversaries of life-altering times feel accompanied and seen. May it help them find their own means to establishing equanimity within when it feels like the world is in turmoil.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 9: Scar

Several months ago, as the end of my relationship began to unfold, I wrote a poem about having a scab over my heart (read it here)–inspired by one of my last visits to my ex, in which she and I (and cute cat in tow) acted as a family, saving a little baby bird that our curious cat had found. In the process, I climbed up on a neighbor’s roof, scraping my knee and leaving a nasty scab. The emotional treatment I got during this time period left a scab on my heart too, hence the poem.

Now, so many months later, I feel that change has come, but it’s only one letter of change: from scab to scar. Of course, I don’t mean to say that this change just happened today or recently, for that matter. No, healing is a process, and many changes are processes (by that I mean longer term developments). However, I’ve encountered so many times, in both everyday conversations and even in my masters psychology courses, talk of healing as though it’s a return to fullness to the same state as the way things used to be. However, the word “healing” and the associated concept are related to “health”, and “health” is ultimately an idea/understanding of physical well-being. Why is this important? Anyone who has lived much past childhood can likely understand/agree with the proposition that some wounds do not “heal” to be what they once were. In fact, most wounds don’t once we get past the abundant vitality of youth (though it may take some time before we realize that things didn’t “heal” fully). For instance, I sprained my ankle badly once in my late teens. It’s never been the same since, but for the most part, it functions well enough to get by without issue. That’s what healing is: a return to general functionality–well-being. It is not a cure. Curing is a complete eradication of ailment, which would apply mostly to disease; with a contagion, viruses/bacteria can be completely killed off. Healing has to do with the fact that we are unfolding processes of change on biological, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. With healing, there is a recognition of the organic nature of these becomings: time marches on, all of these changes are impermanent (in the sense of not being a final change), and even a revitalization does not mean that everything can be or is reversed.

Scar tissue is a particular example of this irreversible healing. I have a four-inch long scar on my lower abdomen where my appendix was removed as a child. Despite the initial pain of a cut that had opened all the way to my internal organs, the pain receded within a couple weeks, and I could do most things normally afterward. However, for a year or so afterward, I remember being unable to do certain exercises like sit-ups without excruciating agony after a few repetitions, and even today there feels like a slight imbalance between my right and left sides. While it may be minor, and perhaps, the difference is in my head, it has affected my experience, and the scar has had a long-term impact on my life.

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Years ago, I had a cut much like this one after having my appendix removed. What do the wounds and scars of heartbreak look like?

Scar tissue can be sensitive for a long time, and the muscle may mend but not quite to the strength of what it once was. Internal scar tissue can even cause problems for organ functioning, as it is different than the normal tissue around it.

So how about the scar tissue of a broken heart? Honestly, I can’t readily say. Very few days go by where I don’t miss her in some way–usually minor but sometimes greater. It’s the scar’s tingling, unique sensitivity–that of nostalgia. In fact, I dreamt of her recently, and though the dream was odd and painful, it left the rest of my day an aching knot.

The one thing about the healing that seems more certain is that I don’t feel the same way about romantic love. I’m not seeking it, and I have little interest in it. It seems primarily tied up with stories of self and finding completion in another. That’s the whole game of samsaric conflicts that I don’t need.

Plus, I reached a deep-seated love of absolute gratitude for my ex, foibles and all–not that this meant that I didn’t see and support how she could grow past her painful patterns; acceptance is not enabling such patterns. This is a regular point of confusion for people. Acceptance is not collusion. Just because it isn’t some sort of domineering attempt to force a person to change does not mean that it is a stance that enables a person to remain hurtful to themselves and others; true acceptance is seeing a person’s beauty and pain and trying to help them get past their pain out of love for their well-being. A mother loves her children with her entire existence, but this does not mean that she lets them do selfish and maladaptive things. Instead, she tries to steer them to the best path and growth for them, although this requires some discipline at times. The problem is seeing what should be done for that end of helping and loving someone else and what is being done out of one’s own selfishness… I’m not sure that healing can take me back to a state of opening like that–intense gratitude–with another person. It’s difficult to describe the overwhelming joy and gratitude I had for her in the last few weeks I was with her. I feel like this experience may never return, no matter how much time is allotted for healing. Instead, the tingling pain of a scar remains. Instead of actively seeking this type of love again, I’m cultivating love and compassion for existence now.

I don’t know what the future will bring, and I don’t worry about it. If romantic love comes my way, fine. If not, fine. I don’t seek it or deny it. I don’t worry about it. No attachment. Whatever arises. Meanwhile, the wound heals in its own way.


May this help others find their own peace with their scars.

Gassho!

Grasping at Sand – The Pursuit of Happiness

We pursue happiness,
grasping onto desires–
Justifying this as wisdom, as nature, as fact–
Fulfillment + gratification = happiness!!!
Yet we don’t see…

The heart grasping onto desires
Is like a hand grasping
Onto grains of the finest sand.
No matter how hard we
Try to hold on,
It slips out,
And what remains
Tickles and scratches,
Holding onto the hand
Even if the hand lets go.
Yet we don’t see…

Sand flits out of the hand’s grasp
Blowing away in the wind
Lost, gone, vanished
Like a dream
As though the grains were never there
Just like this
Desires arise and disappear
Ephemeral phantoms taken as solid
Yet we don’t see…
Is there a better way to be?

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Without desire, without distress
we keep to our empty heart.
The beauty of the Way is that there is no
“way”.

No self
No this, no that

Everything, everything is simply emptiness.
– Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Tao, §10)

Desire that has no desire is the Way
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind

Travelers know that steep cliffs mean a long, hard
climb.
Just so with Tao:
No smooth roads without first a few ups and downs.
-Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Enlightenment, §1)

May this help you balance your wanting and not-wanting mind, finding the desire that has no desire. May this help you slowly open the heart that grasps onto desire, one that seeks happiness in selfish fulfillment. May you instead find your way onto the selfless path that brings true happiness: an open heart of bodhicitta (have a look at my discussion of the first chapter of the Dhammapada for more on the selfish and selfless paths, and have a look at this one for more discussion of bodhicitta).

Gassho!

Open, Bare Gratitude

Gratitude for all–whatever arises. It’s beautiful yet nearly impossible to cultivate. It takes a radical acceptance, an embrace of the world as it is. We’re far more likely to get caught up in our minds–in our interpretations, in how we think things should be.

Near the end of my shift yesterday, I went for a walk during a break. The afternoon sunshine shone brilliantly as I did laps around the building. Cars whizzed past excitedly as people left to return home for the day. I went around one corner of the building and nearly gasped aloud as I looked up at the sky. The clouds were so crisp, their edges so intricate and nuanced with definition and color. I continued my walk in an ongoing meditation–open to each moment without grasping onto it. The birds chirping as they fly overhead… The bee buzzing by me to gather pollen… The wispy, white cotton from the trees in bloom floating on the wind… The people at the bus stop chatting as they wait for the bus… My feet thudding softly on the asphalt, feeling every shift of bone and muscle in the dynamic change that is a step forward…

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Being open and aware like this, even for a few minutes, is no small feat. Indeed, the discursive mind waits at the fringes, looking for a moment to jump in and comment–grasping at further analysis, and I have a particularly long-winded discursive mind! However, we mistake this analyzer for the depths of thought, for the mind itself, yet underneath its myriad words, there is the open, bare gratitude of being present. Before the reactions of dis/liking, commenting, and analyzing, there is just letting be. This ground is always open, waiting for us to slow down and embrace it with gratitude and wonder.


May this post help you find that open, bare gratitude.

Gassho!

Just Be

This moment
Arises & Disappears
Like a soap bubble
Blown by a playful child,
Shimmering with rainbows,
Floating gracefully
Or awkwardly,
Popping suddenly,
With only the trace
Of memory

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Each moment,
No matter the agony
Or ecstasy,
Is just like this.
With each,
Let it just be.
Trying to hold onto the bubble
Pops it sooner
Trying to pop it,
Leaves soapy hands.

Just be in every moment
Those bubbles come and go
Shining luminously
Then disappearing
Just as in a dream


See also:

Water’s Flux
Tao a Day: Verse 16 – Emptiness
The Practice
The Waking Dream
Suffering and Sweetness

Stopping to Look – The Invitation of Every Moment

[After journaling at length about a frustrating morning.]

I stopped just now and focused on my coffee cup. The swirls of oil film across the surface, moving slowly, dreamily. The steam wafts off the top, lazily unfurling into swirling waves, loops, and whorls. I touch the handle, looking at my single finger lining up with the edges of the curve. I focus on the sense of touch–the smoothness of the glaze, the comfort of the solid pottery bearing the weight of my finger. I feel my touch extend to the table bearing the weight of the cup, the table’s rest on the floor, and the floor extending to the entire room of people around me and the whole world outside the window just beyond them.

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It’s so easy to get involved in our own pain to the point of overlooking the entire universe outside our heads, but it’s all there–just a breath away. All it takes is only a second to stop and look. The best part? Every moment is an invitation to do just that.

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