Category Archives: Spirituality

We’re All Mortal Here

Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

is what I’m reading right now. It’s a fabulous, humane book that looks at what the medical field is missing when all it focuses on is extending our lives. I highly recommend it if you happen to be mortal. Hmm. Any takers?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll no doubt have already figured out that I have a fairly intense interest in the subject of death. Usually this shows up in the grief arena, but it’s not just the “after-effects” of death that I’m concerned with. I’m sure my nearest and dearest have wondered often enough why I seem to be wired this way. But really, why is it that something that every single human being has in common with each other is so taboo? Nothing comes close to the level of shunning that death gets as a cocktail party conversation. Like most of my colleagues in hospice, bereavement, and other death-focused professions, I’ve often received comments like, “wow, you must be really wonderful to do that kind of work, bless you!”  It’s as if dealing with death and grief is somehow reserved for saints and the exceptional, rather than being as common and un-exceptional as – well, dust – to which we all return. This comment often comes right before the person’s eyes slide off of mine and start to look for the wine table. For some reason it’s not a very lively conversation opener.

Despite the fact that we’re ALL going to die, very few of us live as though that is true, and very few of us spend much time at all talking about it. Yet I don’t believe for a minute that no one is interested. Given a quiet room, some privacy, and a listening ear, I find that most people will engage in the conversation, and even eagerly, when they realize that I’m not going to turn the other way.

Let’s talk about being mortal for a minute

You’d think that the awareness of our inevitable death would create some kind of urgency in us to do something meaningful with our lives. And on an individual basis, sometimes it does. You probably know people in your own life, or not very far outside your circle of family and friends, who don’t need the added incentive of a terminal diagnosis or a serious accident to get them to focus on what’s important. But on a day-to-day basis, really, we let an awful lot get in the way of living our lives fully. It takes letters like the one Holly Butcher wrote  before she died at 27, to give most of us a kick in the motivational muscles to think about or talk about how we want to live our mortal lives, or how we want to approach our deaths.

As I age, stepping ever closer to my own death, and watching friends and colleagues care for their aging relatives, I find that I’m less frightened of having these conversations. Or maybe I’m just less patient with the fear that I do have! In what turned out to be one of the sweeter moments in my relationship with my parents, I invited them a few weeks ago to talk with me about what they thought would be important to them at the time of their death. We talked about what did and didn’t frighten them, and what kinds of support they’d want to have, and what felt unnecessary. I hope the conversation continues. It’s not a one-talk kind of subject in any case, and I need to tell them of my own thoughts and wishes – there are no guarantees that we will die “in order,” after all.

Despite that conversation, and all the others I have with clients, I occasionally appall myself with the realization that I still let the fear of death, or of the injuries and accidents that remind me someone I love is mortal, control me. Just yesterday, after our thin-skinned greyhound bounced Tigger-ishly into a sharp corner of our wooden banister, I held my hand over what I was certain was a deep gash in my dog’s side, afraid to move it in case seeing it would mean that he needed stitches. Seriously. I watched myself think this ridiculous thought, feeling the reluctance to move, even while I knew that I was being completely irrational.

My fear of what might be stopped me choosing to be aware of reality.

If it had been a more serious injury, my delay would not have been helpful. Luckily, the skin held, barely. That episode humbled and reminded me that it’s not all that long ago that I was avoiding conversations around do-not-resuscitate orders and medically assisted dying. I’m no stranger to the “If I don’t talk about it, it’s not real” phenomenon. Along with our uniquely human consciousness of our own death, we seem to be blessed and cursed with an almost limitless capacity, in our fear, to deny it.

Certainly we have more fun on the zip-line rides and bungy-jumps of life when we indulge in a little reasonable denial. And awareness, without acceptance and taken to an extreme, can invite terror and anxiety. But is denial what we want for ourselves, or for the ones we love, when it comes to knowing what we really want out of our lives and how we want to meet our deaths?

Here is what I wish for myself. In all mystical traditions across the globe, there seems to be an understanding that becoming more fully aware of and accepting of one’s own death enriches one’s participation in life. I want to commit myself to this practice of open awareness once again. I don’t want to keep my hand over the wound, to blind myself to what is necessary.

Life and death are of supreme importance.     

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.    

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.

 –Zen night chant as quoted in Being With Dying, by Joan Halifax

 

Mindfulness: Reflections on an Emerging Practice

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has emerged over the past couple of years as a major buzzword in both mental health and spirituality. Various forms of meditation have existed for centuries as a vital element in just about every form of spiritual and religious life across all cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn was probably the first westerner to introduce us to the physical and mental health benefits of attuning our attention to the present moment, without judgment. In his words:

 Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments — not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skillful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.  (From this website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/faq)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken a greater and greater place in my life as I have matured. I first encountered meditation in my studies of world religions in university in the 80’s. I embraced it at the time as a way to reduce some of the stress of my perfectionism. It didn’t hurt that many of the guided meditations I participated in were also meant to evoke pleasant visions and experiences of spiritual connectedness.

My mindfulness practice began with curiosity.

Through the years I continued to explore. I have practiced the body-centered mindfulness of yoga, the centering prayer of the ancient Christian tradition, and attempted to empty my mind according to some branches of Buddhism. I was searching for a way to feel whole, free, and deeply connected.

As a young counsellor, I found myself teaching my clients meditation as a way to lessen their anxiety or stress. When I became a parent, mindfulness showed up in my preparations for childbirth and guided meditation became a part of bedtime rituals for my young children when they had a hard time falling asleep. I wasn’t disciplined in a daily way, but it was always there in the background.

 And then, somewhere along the way, my eclectic practice dried up completely. I can’t place exactly when it happened. I just find, looking back over the tapestry of my history, that there is a hole in the weave, a place where the mindfulness thread broke.

Suffering brought mindfulness back to me.

For a number of years my family went through a period of deep disconnection – from our own selves and from each other. Our marriage broke down. We, and our children, suffered the confusion, despair, and anxiety that such a rupture can create. In our individual and family healing work, each of their stories is their own. The story that is mine to tell is that my healing came largely from observing my son as he took on a dedicated practice of compassionate mindfulness.

 I sometimes say mindfulness saved his life.

While that over-simplifies the story, on a feeling-level, for me, it is absolutely true. I watched him gradually transform from someone I no longer recognized to a more peaceful, loving, and happy person as he went from learning the basics to studying the deeper philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That process reawakened my own desire to engage in the practice again, and in the process, brought me back to my life too.

 My longing for a deeper wholeness and connection to the true Self that lies behind and beyond my habits of personality has returned more strongly than ever. I am assured that this is an entirely “age-appropriate” development! In our second half of life we look beyond the concerns that preoccupied us during our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Meaning eclipses success in our hierarchy of needs. And where else can we find meaning, joy, life, and connection other than in the present moment? Our past is gone and unchangeable. The future is not yet, and is far, far less controllable than we thought when we were younger.

 While I’ll probably never give up my eclectic tendency to explore the many avenues and traditions of mindfulness, I have seen first-hand how powerful a regular practice is, and this knowledge supports me in setting down roots in a morning routine of sitting meditation. Not to mention, it gives me lots to talk about with my kids!

 This winter I invite you to join me in an exploration of several mindfulness paths that intersect with the world of art. You never know, one of them might just fit you perfectly! On Saturday February 3rd I am offering Slow Threads, a workshop on meditative stitching. And on Monday, February 26th there will be an evening workshop on making and using prayer beads from several traditions: To Hold A Prayer In My Hand. See the Workshops page for information on all Open Hearth Studio group offerings. I hope also to have an online Basics of Mindfulness course up and running by the fall!

The Geology of My Spirit

Have you ever felt like certain landscapes nourished your spirit?

Sixteen years ago I took a road trip all by myself for about six weeks. Sometimes it still feels like yesterday. During that trip I spent about two weeks exploring a string of National Parks in Southern Utah from Arches near Moab through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and some of the surrounding country. I was immersed in a landscape of otherworldly rock formations and a warm red colour palette completely foreign to the “50 shades of green” of the Pacific Northwest that I was accustomed to.

Somewhere in my spirit there was a desert rat just waiting to run free.                                                                                         

I listened with awe to Park Ranger lectures on desert plants, animals, and the history of the original human inhabitants of those lands. I went on that trip during a time of personal distress, when I felt worn out, lost and not at home in my own life. My spirit felt as dry as sandstone. I hoped to find myself again by getting a little lost out in the world. Coyotes, lizards, eagles, ravens, and a surprisingly beautiful tarantula let me see what belonging looks like to them. The tang of juniper and the burnt caramel scent of Ponderosa pines, and the prickling dry heat of the sun drying my skin after swimming in a cold river brought my spirit back home to my own body and senses.

Who knew my biggest learning would be from a Ranger talking about rocks?

I don’t honestly remember which park I was at for that lecture – but the impact has remained. The words themselves, “sedimentation, lithification, uplift, erosion,” still echo in my spirit like a drum, a poem, a call. The cyclical process of growing and forming, then being undone in some way, to reform in a new shape, is so universal that even rocks go through it. You could think of this as just psychology, but for me it touches on something essential enough that I choose to call it spirituality.

These incredible canyons, cliffs, and stone arches were formed when mud, sand, stone, and gravel were eroded from other mountains, swept downstream, and deposited in new layers (sedimentation.) Over time, with the pressure of its own weight, and with the help of minerals in the water, those materials became stone again (lithification.) More time passed, and forces from deep within the earth forced the layers upward (uplift.) And the cycle begins again as wind and water cut through the rock, eroding it and exposing the layers to view (erosion.)

All at once I could see myself at every place in that picture.

At that time I felt scraped thin, with all my layers, good and bad, exposed. I think that’s how it is for most of us at one time or another. Wherever we land in life, we build up layers of what works: thoughts, beliefs, habits – all the stuff that we end up thinking is “us.” We can turn into a kind of stone: brittle, unbending.

 Sooner or later though, a bigger force comes along, like a change or a loss, or even just the passing of time. But it acts on us like an earthquake, to shake us up. Maybe it lifts us up, maybe cracks us open. Then all those layers of habits and old beliefs, all the things good and bad that make us tick, are out there for everyone to see. We’ve been trying to bring the skills and the story of who we were before, along with us as we grow up or change circumstances, and it just doesn’t work. Hopefully seeing leads to learning, maybe a little loosening, but for sure it leads to change.

 And so we’re swept down another river again, until we can settle again into stillness and a new shape, until that no longer serves us, and we get to ride the whole process again.

Want to see the actual geology? Check out this site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/geology.htm