Can ageing be worthwhile?

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend :-) Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?

Facing ageing with strength

Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.

Living happy

why we get grumpy

It seems to me that one major reason we get grumpy, irritated, depressed, or angry is if we feel that our happiness or freedom are under threat.

why we get grumpyIf we think that our happiness and freedom are bound up with external situations and other people, this means that we are going to get grumpy a lot, as we have so little control over these things. Sooner or later, the things that we were relying upon in life for happiness and freedom blaze out or else slowly fade away. And grumpiness of course is hardly the solution; it only makes things worse.

I was at a good friend’s 50th birthday party last month in Balham. My friend has the sensibilities of an English Woody Allen, and gave a wry, amusing speech, quite spontaneous, (and to the whole restaurant, not just his gathered friends), about how grateful he was for everyone coming to support him and commiserate at this time. The night before the party, I dreamt that he, me, and several other very old friends of mine were all turning 50 together and that our whole life was just the duration of a day… It was late afternoon already. In my dream I was considering how, even if we are thinking, “Ah, just a few more years left at work, then I can chill, relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, meditate, sit on a beach or whatever”, this is like looking forward to that sleepy couple of hours in front of the TV before you crash into bed. It all goes so fast. Now is not the time to defer gratification but to enjoy every moment and make it count. Our next life is breaths away. 50 birthday ageing and meditation

I asked one old friend at the party whether having his three teenage kids made him feel younger or older, and he replied ruefully: “Older, definitely! The taller they get, the more they look down on me!” My generation may be concerned about bags under their eyes, yellowing teeth, expanding girths, deteriorating fitness levels, and kids who now find us ancient and embarrassing. Not only are we no longer turning heads, but the quirky behavioural patterns that were charming and cute in our smooth-skinned twenties are now creepy and eccentric. Senior moments are beginning their stealthy creep up on us as we forget people’s names and where we put our new reading glasses. But what does that mean for our parents’ generation?! As Bette Davis famously said,

“Old age is no place for sissies.”

Signs of transition are all around me at the moment – indeed they always are, Mayan predictions or not, but sometimes we take more note of them. I stayed with my parents over Christmas as they were writing out their Christmas cards – every year the list grows shorter and they receive fewer cards. My grandfather, who lived to 100, once told me that he was the only person left in his address book. An increasing number of my parents’ friends are also experiencing ailments and disabilities — these seem to pile up on us as we age. It is not enough just to have to go through gruelling treatment for cancer, we also fall over and break our frail shoulder. It is not enough just to have high blood pressure, we also suffer from macular degeneration and feel our freedom curtailed as our driving license is taken away. It is not enough to be increasingly vague, we also suffer the loss of confidence as we struggle to do things we used to do without thinking, or to learn new things. And so on. On Christmas morning, I went with my sister-in-law’s family to visit her very lovable mother Christine in the nursing home she has been living in since her stroke – she is frail and no longer recognizes her own hand (sometimes, to the kids’ amusement, mistaking it for my brother’s). I felt humbled not only by the reserves of patience this is bringing out in my sister-in-law, but also the courage and dignity with which Christine’s husband John, aged 82, is facing the destroyed privacy of their 60-year old marriage, as he sat eating Christmas dinner with his wife surrounded by people lolling and dribbling.

The Buddhist teachings talk about the sufferings of old age and we may wonder why they need to point this out; surely it is just toooo depressing. But ask anyone who is there already, old age happens anyway, and surprisingly fast; and the key is to find a way to grow old gracefully, happily, and meaningfully. If we don’t die first, we’ll grow old too. We can do older people the courtesy of recognizing that they are us and we are them; there is only the slight difference of time. The more we understand that happiness and mental freedom come from within, the more control we retain over it, and the easier it is to grow older with equanimity. This has also been my observation with certain older people in my life, including my 81-year-old teacher, who is timelessly blissful, and my grandfather.

So, as mentioned, if our happiness and freedom are tied up entirely in externals and other people, we are sure to lose them sooner or later and so get sadder and quite possibly grumpier as we get older. But if our happiness and freedom are inside, depending on our own states of mind, this is not the case, as they cannot be threatened by change. This is why I think it is so valuable to learn how to meditate, and why it is never too late to learn.

And for you young things…

And for all of you under 40 reading this, time to get your act together! (as the Buddhist teachers of old would say.) If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over 40 how they got so old and they are at a loss: “I was 20 only yesterday! What happened?!” Don’t live up to the classic grumpy old man adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Happiness training

Happy Rd

I see meditation practice as “happiness training.” Old or young, there is never a time when we don’t want to be happy and free from suffering. Happiness and suffering are opposites, like light and dark. The happier we become, the less we suffer. Happiness is part of who we actually are, as well as a skill that we can cultivate.

According to Buddha’s teachings, happiness is a state of mind and therefore its real causes lie within the mind, not in external objects. Happiness is not some divine favor granted on whim to the chosen few. Nor does it depend on dumb luck (although, tellingly, the Scandanavian root of the Western word “happiness” means “luck,” implying we don’t have much say over it). We cannot buy happiness, nor indeed find it existing anywhere outside the mind. Yet each of us possesses the potential to be happy, and each of us can become happy and stay happy. How? By training our mind so that it is always peaceful and positive.

Meditation is the means for finding and keeping happiness in our mind; and if we’re happy in our mind, we’re happy everywhere. The Tibetan word for meditation is “gom,” which literally means “familiarize.” What are we trying to become familiar with? The positive states of mind that make us happy. According to this explanation, meditation is not something we just do on a cushion, but throughout the course of our lives. Like a doctor, Buddha identified the healthy, productive states of mind that make us peaceful, contented, happy, or blissful and the unhealthy, counterproductive states of mind (or delusions) that make us unpeaceful, discontented, unhappy and depressed. Examples of positive minds are love, compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom. Examples of delusions are “the three mental poisons” of anger, attachment, and ignorance.

violinIn fact, whenever our mind is free from the mud of delusions, it is naturally peaceful and clear. We’re often so tightly wound up in our self and our problems that we fail to see that our natural default experience is actually being happy. By learning to meditate, we pay attention to the seeds of happiness within us. In a cacophonous urban din we may hear the strains of a beautiful violin; and by paying attention to this it becomes louder to our ear. In the same way, by paying attention to the small moments of happiness that are already within us, gradually and without forcing it our experience of happiness grows stronger and louder.

Over to you: do you agree that it is possible to get happier as you grow old? Do you have any examples?

Mummies of the World

mummies story to be told

I found myself doing a rather odd thing yesterday, but there were hundreds of other ordinary tourists and families doing it with me – though, come to think of it, that makes it even odder!! contemplating impermanence

I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.

I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week  with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday mummies story to be toldmorning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.

Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.

A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.

One of my previous bodies?

She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies…  Lucky us. 

If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust.  (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further…  There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.

mummy of a cat mummies of the world

Or this one?

(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)

There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.

Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?

mummies of the world

Bit late for that?

I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.

A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:

“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”

At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

Lessons learnt from Thanksgiving 2011

thanksgiving old people

Hello dear reader, I hope you enjoyed giving thanks somewhere yesterday, officially or not…

I had three invitations in the end, so took up the first offer, which was a slap-up meal in the clubhouse at the old people’s mobile home park where my good friends Iben and Harlow live. I say “old”, but anyone who is over 55 can live here, and as I am creeping toward that venerable age myself I might have to revise my notion of it to a “mature (and wise) people’s mobile home park”. Iben has done a top-notch job doing up a second mobile house, previously home/storage to an interesting hoarder I wrote about here, where her son Morten and his girlfriend Julie are staying.

We three turned up a little late after a long bike ride, all mixed up about the time. But we were still welcomed to lots of food and smiles. We discovered that there are several very nice things to be thankful for when being entertained in a mature people’s clubhouse:

I felt so YOUNG! Like, the second youngest person in the whole place! One of only three people without white hair!! This doesn’t happen very often any more. I have a little game I make my same-aged friends play with me, which is to look around the subway carriage/restaurant/street and see how many people are older than us. Often it is no one! Morals from this tale: life goes by astonishingly fast (it feels like I was 30 just a week ago and yet I’ll be old enough to join them all in the twink of an eye!), and old age is relative. Even amongst the white-haired crowd, there was a large enough diversity if you looked carefully enough (I think I rarely do look at groups of old people carefully enough) – some were sitting very still on oxygen, some were charging around socializing, for example.

The food was GREAT and plentiful! Which is what you’d expect from fifty ladies of that generation, who still actually know how to cook. (The elderly gentlemen seemed to be mainly in charge of providing the wine, which added even more jollity and flushed cheeks to an already rather friendly occasion). The food was also FREE! Moral of the tale: kindness of strangers.

We had DESSERT followed by DESSERT! 90 percent of the dishes were sweet: sweet potato, sweet corn, marshmallows and yam, pineapple upside down bake, ten varieties of cranberry sauce … all followed by apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, rice pudding, ice cream, chocolate peppermint brownies, etc. I tried to label or impute “main meal” on my first course, but it wasn’t happening. Even the salad was sweet. So I decided that I’d happily go with dessert followed by more dessert as a special pre-diabetic-coma treat. Moral of the tale: “main course” and “dessert” are mere imputations of the mind with no existence in and of themselves.

from our bike ride

We got an amusing, in-your-face lesson on IMPERMANENCE AND EMPTINESS! Like I said, we were a little late, but we were still not expecting our meal to be cut short in quite the way it was. We were in full-on eating mode, tucking into copious amounts of food, with all the time in the world, when several ladies came to our table and started to hover right over us, leaning across the table to point out their crockery and cutlery. “That’s my plate, do you mind if I take it, you have finished haven’t you?” grabbing at the plate currently supporting Morten’s small mountain of food … Julie diplomatically transferred M’s food onto another side dish nearby, and off his plate was whisked, followed shortly thereafter by Julie’s…. Some more speedy negotiations and re-arrangements on that side of the table, and then they came for me… they wanted my fork mid-bite, so I transferred to another one, but someone else wanted that, so I transferred to a third, and then three rushed mouthfuls later someone else wanted that too, so I realized the game was up. I had clearly eaten enough apple pie for the time being. Meanwhile, Iben transferred her coffee into no fewer than three mugs, ending up with a paper cup to be on the safe side. The food, once spread splendidly all over the table, was now all squashed into an odd assortment of side plates and paper cups, with just a couple of plastic utensils to eat it with! Moral of the tale:We realized the impermanence of all good things, watching everything dissolve away into emptiness before our eyes… (though I’m still waiting for my big belly to dissolve away into emptiness …)

Julie, a film-maker, took many superb pictures of Rousseau

(Careful what you wish for… I just this moment received a text message inviting my cat and me to a late Thanksgiving feast at another friend’s house tonight … not necessarily what I had in mind when I called the last article “Let Every Day be Thanksgiving”! My diet will have to wait…)

How to handle things falling apart …

subatomic particles

subatomic particles

Quantum mechanics and laws of physics alone show that nothing stays the same, from the smallest to the biggest thing. Subatomic particles are whizzing about in your body and even the seemingly solid walls around you. The blood never stops rushing through your veins. The earth never stops journeying. Our galaxy is flying away from other galaxies at an inconceivable speed. Mentally, no moment of mind has the power to linger. Buddha explained this very clearly in his teachings on subtle impermanence. Blink and it’s a new world. 

Everything is momentarily impermanent, infinitely complex and interdependent. We may feel permanent, solid and independent, but that is one hell of an illusion. Especially if we go on assuming that we are not going to die anytime soon, including today.

galaxy

Normally we try to hold tightly onto the infrastructure of our lives – our relationships, our money, our car, our pets, our children, our house, our job, our career, our status, our power, our control. Much of our current self-image is based on these very concrete, solid, pretty much permanent things that seem to define us. The stronger we grasp at this chunky restrictive sense of self, the more attachment we will need to generate for all these things in order to keep the illusion alive, and the more fear we will have of losing them. Like trying to hang onto the deck furniture on the Titanic, or a sandcastle by the rising tide, our desires and efforts are doomed to failure. Every small loss of, say, a turret on our castle is disillusioning for us because we wanted it to be permanent and fixed, and it ended up being the opposite. Then when the whole lot gets swept away at death…

Does the idea of change frighten you? Losing everything you know? How can we learn not to be frightened of the inevitable?

I find this the most helpful consideration: we can understand that the pain and fear is not actually coming from what we must lose but from our mind that holds on.

Can you remember a time long ago when you were so in love (or attachment) that the very thought of losing that person struck you with terror? But then the years passed and you both went your separate ways and now when you see that person they are middle-aged, like you, with a pot belly and no hair? And you wonder at the love (lust) you felt for them because it has now gone, all gone. But there is no pain in that. It doesn’t matter that it has all gone, because the attachment has also gone. It is only while we had attachment that we needed this person to try and fulfill attachment’s desires. There is, in fact, no loss at all. The mind is peaceful with respect to that person. The tension of holding on has all gone.

Meditation on death is like the elephant’s deepest footprint in terms of the impression it makes on our mind as we can finally see how futile it is to try and hold onto all this stuff that is right now, and constantly, slipping between our fingers. The other day in the shower I was trying to hold onto a bar of hard slippery soap, but it kept slipping through my fingers, and it  reminded me that the more tightly I hold onto stuff, the more quickly it seems to slip from my grasp. If we want to enjoy our life while we still have it, it makes sense to stop grasping with attachment and just go with the flow of reality, like gently letting the soap rest in our hands. Take it or leave it, it is all good.

The fact is, if we relinquish our attachment, it doesn’t mean we are going to suffer loss. The opposite is true. It is only if we keep our attachment that we will experience the pain of loss. And we don’t need it.

Getting rid of attachment is not the same as relinquishing desire. We need desires – to be authentically happy, to love others, to attain liberation and enlightenment, even to put on our socks, etc. We don’t become a detached automaton without attachment. In fact, attachment deadens and dulls us as it is always hankering after an idealized image of something that we feel we must have if we are to be happy, causing us to miss out on what is actually going on under our nose. Without attachment, quite the opposite of becoming detached or hopeless, we can become connected and fully alive to each present moment.

So we don’t need to fear or resist the meditation on impermanence and death because we have nothing to lose but our attachment, and it is attachment that has given rise to all the agony of loss we have experienced since beginningless time.

Do you agree?! Please share this article if you like it. And do like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you want to see interesting links and join in or start your own discussions about meditation in daily life.

Meaning of life ~ try this experiment

egg timer

Premise: If we don’t remember death each day, we are bound to neglect what is actually important in life, our perspective will be skewwhiff. True or false?

Please humor me by doing this experiment! :-) You’ll need 10 minutes or so. Get out a pen and piece of paper (or its hi-tech equivalent). Now please ask yourself the following questions, one by one, giving yourself time for each one to close your eyes and think carefully about it first, before moving onto the next question. Then write down your answers:

(1)   If I was never going to die, what would I do today?

(2)   If I was going to die in 50 years, what would I do today?

(3)   If I was going to die in 10 years, what would I do today?

(4)   If I was going to die in 1 year, what would I do today?

(5)   If I was going to die in 1 month, what would I do today?

(6)   If I was going to die in 1 week, what would I do today?

(7)   If I was going to die today, what would I do today?

***********************************************************************

Do the answers change? Which answer do you reckon is the most realistic or makes the most sense?

Can you work out from your answers what matters most in your own life? And what matters most to you today?

Looking forward to reading your feedback! Please comment below, and share this article if you like it.

Stand up the real Steve Jobs! 1955-2011

steve jobs empire

On Sunday I dropped my iPhone 3 down the toilet. Not deliberately, of course, but my bathroom is small, the toilet crammed next to the basin, and the phone slipped from my loose pocket as I was brushing my teeth.

My iPhone 3, deceased

Along with my iPhone it felt like I’d flushed my whole life – photos, contacts, passwords, videos, apps, etc. I managed to stay calm, thinking: “Okay, good time to practice patience, non-attachment, mindfulness of impermanence etc etc!” But it was a little wake-up call, and not just reminding me to back up my data in future ;-) (Why do we always have these good ideas only AFTER disaster has struck?!) Even after three days submerged in rice, the phone is dead. All that is left from its data is what I can remember. It is a bit like dying and only taking my mind with me to my next life.

A hair pulled from butter

The Tibetans have a saying about death, that it is like a hair pulled from butter. They like yak butter tea, (or yuck butter tea as I can’t help thinking of it), and the butter arrives wrapped in a yak skin. Some yak hairs inevitably get into the butter and have to be pulled out. They come out smoothly, leaving all the butter behind – in the death analogy, this would be our body, possessions, home, career, people, gross minds and personality. All that continues to our next life is our subtle mental continuum and our karmic imprints, from which a whole new world is going to arise like another dream.

Can you find Steve Jobs within his parts?

Steve Jobs, co-creator of Apple, probable genius and Buddhist, died yesterday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, apparently peacefully. Like a hair pulled from a ton of butter, he has left the entire empire he built behind. What has gone with him? Of course there are varying opinions about whether what he did was brilliant or exploitative, generous or self-seeking… It is impossible for us to judge what karma he has created — that depends entirely on his intentions for doing what he did, which only he could have known. But I think it’s fair to assume that he created very strong karma in that he influenced much of the world and provided insanely cool gadgets used (or abused) by millions of people. My teacher Geshe Kelsang once said that modern technology is rather like “modern miracle powers”, and its true – imagine showing someone born in the 19th century your iPad?! Even when I demonstrated my iPhone offline to some children in a Brazilian rainforest (who’d didn’t have running water or electricity, let alone any space-age gadgets), they got very excited! Tom the Talking Cat, anyone?!

 Stand up the real Steve Jobs!

Many people are feeling affected one way or another by Steve Jobs’s death. But stand up the real Steve Jobs! Who were you? Comments on Kadampa Life’s Facebook wall include: Joan Boccafola: “I was on the plane back to NY when I heard he died. Tears streamed down my face. He was such a genius, a visionary. He has touched my life with his creativity. I write this on my Mac.” Robert Thomas: “Sad news, I pray that he takes a fortunate rebirth where he can complete his inner training (assuming he hadn’t already). He certainly touched everyone profoundly and so much good has arisen through his life, like how so many of us stay connected via iPhones and even share a little Dharma too.” But Adam Head reminds us there are other perspectives: “Hmmm…is it appropriate to mention another side of things? – mega-wealthy business-man with multiple sweat-shops in the “third world” – on top of the capitalist food chain!” And Tamara Cartwright says: “While it is sad that one man has died, we are all celebrating extreme commercialism … he taught people to crave the next thing and buy it while their previous thing was still valid and functioning.” Gee Gibson suggests: “As a Buddhist, then Steve Jobs would understand that his physical wealth was worthless. It was the wisdom in his heart and mind that he would have valued. We should not be judging anyone other than ourselves. I’m sure he left more of a positive mark than a negative. Maybe we should take a few minutes to show some compassion and send positive energy to him.” 

Whatever his motivation and effects on other people, Steve Jobs did make my own life a little easier when I was living out of suitcases for a while and didn’t have a computer or any other gadgets to stay in touch with family and friends. His invention enabled me to take photos of the wonderful places and people I visited, gave me the ability to maintain this blog, helped me navigate new streets, and entertained me. Sure, my entertaining iPhone could distract me too (a lot), and I’m not celebrating my admitted attachment to technology, but I’m not going to blame Steve Jobs for that – I’m a big girl now and can take responsibility for controlling my own time and mind. For me, overall, he was kind.

Trying to live your best life

Steve Jobs clearly thought a lot about life and death, and he said some pertinent things that I want to share here. For whether he succeeded or failed at it, at least it seems he tried to live his best life:

“Life is brief, and then you die, you know?”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Stand up the real Amanda Knox!

Another big story that touched hearts poignantly or painfully this week was the acquittal of Amanda Knox. Was she guilty or not? We may never know for sure. (I always thought she was innocent, but that’s just my opinion.) In any event, she has suffered a great deal these past four years and if she is guilty of murder her karma will catch up with her – so I’m glad she has the chance to go home at least for now. Did you see her face while she was waiting for the 3:30pm ruling on Monday? The tension was extraordinary. How did that feel? We’ll find out ourselves soon enough, within a few hundred months at most, when we are a hair pulled from butter … will the karma we have created condemn us to a dank lonely cell or send us home to freedom?

In the press conference in Seattle after her release, Amanda Knox said:

“I’m really overwhelmed right now,” she said. “I was looking down from the airplane and it seemed like everything wasn’t real.”

She’s right, it isn’t. Every now and then, usually when things are changing too fast for us to get a fixed handle or label on them, we have a natural glimpse into the ever-moving dream-like nature of our lives.

What I’ve learnt from this week’s news

Steve Jobs had an empire and is receiving glowing eulogies from all quarters, including the President, none of which he can hear. Amanda Knox’s life changed from a pleasant dream to a nightmare and back to a pleasant dream in a few dramatic years – which is like our moving between good dreams and nightmares over the course of many lifetimes, until we cut the cycle of suffering once and for all by realizing the dream-like nature of our reality. As Vide Kadampa said: “You never know what is around the corner – karma can give you quite a ride :-)” So, I’m deciding once again to make the most of the dream-like time I have left, keep my nose clean, love others as much as possible, and pack for the future. If I die today, where will I be tomorrow? As Venerable Atisha says in his Advice

Since you will definitely have to depart without the wealth you have accumulated, do not accumulate negativity for the sake of wealth.

And:

Since future lives last for a very long time, gather up riches to provide for the future.

Fiona Layton puts it this way! “Death is great! If I am feeling guilty about the past or anxious about the future death stops me in my tracks and helps me to BE HERE RIGHT NOW! Then I can relax with a beautiful mind that has let go of all the shit of this life and I am free then to enjoy all the magic instead!!! Death Rocks!”

Kelsang Dechen also reminds us that everyone has to die and indeed many did die yesterday, let’s pray for them too: “With a mind of equanimity, let us remember all sentient beings – our kind mothers – who died yesterday. OM MANI PÄME HUM.”

Postscript

At the risk of sounding like I did in fact drop my iPhone 3 down the toilet deliberately, I discovered I was just out of contract with AT & T and so had to/was obliged to/had no choice but to upgrade to an iPhone 4 ;-) (I wasn’t going to, I promise, I’m not that addicted to possessing all the latest new gadgets… ?!)

I pray that our next life is also an upgrade.

Please leave your comments on the blog, and share this article if you like it.

Happiness/Freedom ~ Andrea, the real deal

Andrea joy

“How do you tell everyone you love how important they were to you when you were alive?”  Andrea Walker, August 20, 2011

Last week, August 21st, I found this blog: Happiness/Freedom.

I had in fact come across it a few months ago but didn’t have time that day to read it at any length, and although it moved me I did not notice that it was actually written by an old friend of mine. As soon as I realized this, I tried to get in touch with her. But she had written her last words. On Friday August 26, at 2.32pm, Andrea died.

Andrea’s writing was already poignant, and now with her death it has become to my mind like a masterpiece of reflections on impermanence and love. I keep wanting to go back to it. She is unflinchingly honest. Her style is light and devoid of self-pity — despite her tremendous pain she found humor and also life in every situation, and was touchingly grateful for the smallest happinesses. And she remembered and applied Buddha’s teachings in her own inimitable style throughout all her ghastly treatments, inability to breathe, unbearable discomfort and final passing.

Although it was frightening and unknown, Andrea still faced her sickness and death head on, with the adventurous spirit that had served her so well in her life. Andrea, I wanted to say as I was reading her blog, you are so brave, and everyone who knows you must be so proud of you. We can learn so much from you. So I’m going to share your blog. As your friend Eva said: “Beautiful to think that she will have such an impact on so many lives. She would love that.”

In a series of writings that are eminently quotable, I will quote randomly a few of the things Andrea said to give you a glimpse in case you don’t have a chance to visit her blog itself today, and in the hope that you will remember this beautiful young woman in your prayers.

Ramblings of a shocked woman

When Andrea first received her diagnosis in February:

“I’m Andrea the adventurer, “a.walker not a runner”, the jumper, the athlete
I’m Andrea the fit, the strong, the tough
I’m Andrea the happy, the smiling, the laughing
I’m Andrea the INVINCIBLE!!!!!”

A mother’s love

“My mom is so worried — so every cough, every groan, every itch she jumps to make sure nothing is wrong or that she can’t help… I feel so bad for that…. if my mom had her way I’d be sleeping on her lap or curled up in bed beside her. It’s sweet, but too much for me.”

Kindness

Today Mrs. Ellison, my neighbor, came over in tears. My sister told her on Saturday that I had puffler’s. Mrs. Ellison is 80 something years old and crying said “This should be happening to me, not you – you have so much more life to live.”

Taking and giving

Today I meditated on taking. Just imagine if every cough I have, every fear I feel, every discomfort or painful experience I have from this disease is taking away the pain of other living beings. Imagine the dolphins in Japan being killed less and less; the incidence of AIDS decreases in Tanzania as I experience more pain; courage rises up in those being oppressed as I go through a bout of fear that paralyzes me. I must keep thinking that, because that’s what a Buddha is able to do and that’s what I need to imagine I’m doing with every ounce of my being — it’s the only thing that will make the pain OK. Now I can feel the joy of knowing that less children are being abused, less people are getting irritated, people are becoming peaceful and truly free.

Feel that joy?

Faith

Yesterday I thought ‘Gosh, I am just really dying. Fast.’ I’m OK with dying because Geshe-la says he’ll be there – just like during festivals and he says ‘If you cannot do it, don’t worry. I’ll do it for you’. But it hurts to think that my friends and extended family won’t know how much they mean to me.

I hope you find a chance to read more.

In memoriam

Andrea was a giving and loving person who never made a big deal out of anything. Her close friend Cindi just wrote me: “There are so many words I think of to try and describe Andrea was but they all seem to fall short of truly capturing the beauty, the essence, and the love that was Andrea. I think we all understand how much of a gift we had in our friendships with her. As you are aware from her blog, Andrea found great strength in her spiritual beliefs and they provided her much comfort and solace at a time in her life when very little else could ease her pain.” Eva also just wrote: “When I was Admin Director at Saraha Center, Andrea was always happy to give generously at every opportunity. She helped sponsor people, she volunteered at animal shelters. Any chance to benefit others, she was there. She was the real deal. And she loved salsa dancing.”  Lori just wrote: “She was such a beautiful person. She had a wonderful laugh. Such an incredible blog. The world has lost a sweet soul.” Sarah said: “You blessed everyone who was in your presence with a beautiful smile and a loving, warm heart.” From Victoria, who never met her: “Her words really touched my heart.” I have a feeling this is just the beginning: Andrea’s family and friends will be hearing a lot more testimonies like this.

Please pray for the permanent happiness and freedom of Andrea, her beloved mother and family, her many good friends, and all suffering beings who were never far from Andrea’s mind even as she was preparing for her death.

Ralph’s story

Ralph 003

Ralph on my lap when I started writing his story

I never thought poop could make me so happy. It was just a small piece the size of a dime, but it was enough for me to hope that Ralph could eliminate the four days of build-up inside him. Because of what it represented, I wasn’t even disgusted when I picked it up to feel its consistency; to me it was almost beautiful! I have never wanted someone to poop more. When Ralph finally let it all come out at the vets’ office the next day, it was high-fives all around, and he felt our approval and purred even more loudly than usual.

That teaching on emptiness, (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!), has been just one of many I’ve had this roller coaster week while caring for Ralph, who entered our lives out of nowhere on Sunday, promptly stole our hearts, then left us again last night. This six-week-old kitten had paralysis in his back legs and walked by dragging himself along with his front legs. He was left outside my house. He was a combination of utter sweetness and utter helplessness, and as a result loved by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, including me, his lucky adoptive mom.

I want to tell Ralph’s story, as he may have been one tiny unique being but he came to represent for me these past four days, well, a lot! All suffering beings, and the truth of Dharma. I want to share him and I also want this story to remember him by. I’m not saying this story is unusual. It is not. Ralph’s story is like all our stories, but for some reason I learnt so much from him that I could fill a book. The intensity of our experiences can make four days seem like four months – showing the emptiness of time. There is also life before Ralph and life after him, and they do not feel the same at all. It has been a roller coaster, as I said, but I do not regret a single moment.

Sunday

It was Sunday when F found him dirty, abandoned, and dragging his legs outside our house — he could have been dying for all we knew, and only the Emergency vet was open, so I took him there on the way back from dropping F and J at the airport.

They are clearly practiced in the art of showing no emotion as they see one tragedy after another roll in through their sliding doors. When I arrived, the steely receptionist called out “Good Sam”, and they came to collect him and asked me to sign some papers. This is when I discovered I had two rather unpleasant alternatives: (A) Hand him over to them (hence the Good Samaritan finding a stray) and risk never seeing him again even though I said I wanted to adopt him later, especially as it was quite clear they thought he should be euthanized; (B) Spend lots of money — $100 just for the first exam and then whatever was needed after that in a particularly expensive and sterile vet place where I’d still have to leave him on his own. I mulled over option A for about 2 seconds, enough time to see a couple of big eyes looking reproachfully at me through the cat carrier. Then I decided on a whole ‘nother option (C), and took him home to take his chances overnight.

How Ralph got around.

Monday

Worrying in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital, Largo

(I will keep this in the present tense as this is how I wrote it waiting at the family vet.)

His admission papers show him with the same last name as mine, he is now officially my son and I his mom! But I’m a hopeless mom and trainee Bodhisattva, I’m just preoccupied with worry right now. I’m waiting for results from his blood tests and x-rays. I know the “pros” are already thinking it’s kinder to euthanize him because of his paralysis and will try and persuade me of same. But that’s no way good enough of a reason.

Ralph just after F scooped him up

His distended belly is full of poop, his bladder is huge, and he drags himself along with his little kitten paws, but he loves any touch, even being bathed, even being prodded, even having his bladder squirted, even having his paws clamped to test for pain. He loves being placed in his cat carrier. In fact he loves anything that involves anyone paying him any attention at all. He purrs so loudly that no vet has yet managed to hear his heartbeat. He is very much liking being alive and I intend to keep him that way as long as I can.

But I’m leaving for England in one week and what are we to do with him long-term? He needs his bladder expressing regularly and goodness knows what else with his stools. His inability to walk seems the least of his problems right now. J, bless her heart, will not let this little guy die, and has been spending hours on the internet figuring out his future care and calling everyone she knows for a home for him. If she can’t find one, and if he is not infectious to her other cats, I suspect she will have him herself as she can’t help her kind heart. She is also fund-raising and bank-rolling the not inconsiderable costs of these vet visits, which is just as well as he has cost more than my monthly income already.

What an emotional roller coaster it is to look after a sick animal. I’ve been anxious about him despite all my best training! Why is his stomach so distended? Will he survive the night? Is his breathing too shallow and fast? Is he breathing at all? (waking up the poor little guy to check!) Why is he shivering? And, scariest of all, will I ever learn to express his bladder so as actually to get enough pee out of him?! So far I haven’t managed it. I am too scared to squeeze too hard in case I bruise his bladder. The vets tell me I’ll get the hang of it but I wish I had the hang of it already!

How I stopped worrying in the waiting room

In fact, two things are going on:

(1) I think all my problems will be solved if only I can get the pee out of him/he controls his own bowel movements/he eats and drinks properly/he can put some weight on his back legs. Of course, even if all that happened, there will still be plenty more things to worry about!

(2) When I see any other cats at the moment (a) they appear enormous, like giants and (b) I think they are so lucky to have four functioning legs even if they don’t seem to know it.

Isn’t it like that with all our problems?! (1) Whatever difficulty we encounter with relationships, jobs, money, sickness, helpless dependents, etcetera etcetera, it can fill our mind and we think that if only this was out of the way we could be sooo happy. And (2) when we see someone else without that problem, we think they are so lucky, although they are oblivious to their good fortune!

Samsara is impossible, really. So many intractable problems in just one 2lb sentient being despite the best efforts of J, F, me, the vets, the nurses, and a growing number of well-wishers. Geshe Kelsang often says that temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. Samsara is the cycle of impure life projected by our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The seven sufferings of samsara are like waves on an ocean; they’ll never stop rolling in on their own. We need to recognize this so that we can stop worrying about one problem at a time ( = literally endless worry) and turn our attention to removing the causes of all our own and others’ suffering. That is the spiritual path. So, for example, while I do the very best I can for Ralph, worrying about it at the same time is missing the point.

Easier said than done, but it is something trainee Bodhisattvas train in – helping others practically to the best of our ability but also remembering to put a lot of energy into generating renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom, using these very karmic appearances that arise as fuel.

For example, I admit I never saw myself squirting a cat! But that is the appearance to my mind, so I accept it. While I’m doing that I can with one part of my mind attend completely to Ralph’s need to empty his bladder, and with another part I can think about how wonderful it would be to squeeze the samsara out of everyone. Same physical action, hugely more meaning and hope. There are, after all, a gazillion Ralphs not getting the attention they need right now.

You can hear him purring if you listen.

Medicine Buddha

When I feel particularly worried about him, faith helps hugely. We can mentally hand things over to the enlightened beings when they seem too much for us. Ralph and I did Medicine Buddha puja out loud earlier and loved it, everything seemed okay, everything was okay.

I also did Medicine Buddha puja dedicated to the even more helpless creatures who have sadly had to die in the saving of Ralph, namely his fleas, possibly his worms if he has any. What a horrible dilemma, there is no way in samsara to avoid killing completely despite our very best intentions. But Venerable Geshe Kelsang said 25 years ago at Madhyamaka Centre that we could do Medicine Buddha puja every month with strong faith in Medicine Guru and strong compassion for all the animals and insects whom we have inadvertently killed, and Medicine Guru would be able to take them to his Pure Land.

Tuesday

Ralph again slept overnight like a baby — which he is — high on the chest of drawers in my room with an unobstructed view of the Buddhas on the shrine and of me on my bed.

Korska

(Meanwhile the young feral hissy cat outside, Korska, has developed a slight limp – what to do about him?! Keep feeding him and let him take his chances? Catch him earlier than I was going to (in August) and take him to animal services for the full treatment? Difficult, as I’m going away soon and don’t want him to be convalescing on his own, and I don’t him to run away as I have plans to slowly tame him (well, I can try!). Next to little Ralph, his problems don’t seem as great as they did; but I will have to get to him later. I really admire people who take responsibility for many feral animals).

Ralph had fun at the vets today. He even managed to crawl down a nurse’s buxom cleavage when we were momentarily distracted so that just his little orange back legs were sticking out. Everyone at the vet’s has gone gaga over him. In fact, he has now managed to win over, by my calculations, F and J who found him and where he is going next week, me, six neighbors who now knock on my door to visit him, two vets, four nurses, the man in the bank, and basically everyone else who has crossed his path. All kittens are cute, and yes of course I am biased, but he is a fuzzy ball of concentrated cuteness. Maybe he needs to be extra-friendly and open as he knows his life depends on people loving him. He also has a lot of merit, or good karma, as people have offered to help pay for him, and he is not going to go homeless even though he is always going to need care. He has a bevy of supporters watching the videos I send of him from my iPhone; he could have a You Tube channel of his own. He seems to bring out the best in everyone.

He has had another very happy day. Tuesday was also another day of many teachings from my little emanation. I will save these for other articles so I can finish his story.

Ralph in his favorite spot.

Wednesday

4pm: I prayed to Tara in the car just now coming home from the vet as Ralph was lethargic, breathing faster, and, most ominously, not purring when I reached over to touch him, which was a first. We’ll do Medicine Buddha together out loud. Dissolve our worries away in the bliss and emptiness of Buddha’s mind. He loves doing pujas, which is just as well.

Worrying in the waiting room at Emergency Services

6:30pm: When I came into the Emergency vet just now, they yelled out “Triage! Respiratory distress! Front desk!” and off Ralph was whisked into ICU, with no time for goodbyes. I feel helpless again. His rapid breathing in the car was not the heat because it progressively got worse through the afternoon and it looks like he must have pneumonia or FIP. Will I have to take him home and help him die? F***, you have to be brave. Right now I don’t feel cut out for this. Why am I such a wimp? Of course I can and will do it, but I’m feeling some despair right now. All I can see is his big limpid trusting eyes. He thinks I am his mommy, he trusts me. Why can’t I protect him? How can I not feel that I am totally letting him down? I’d be a frigging hopeless vet. How on earth are people so brave?

There is a picture here in the waiting room next to the picture of Golda the Retriever (deceased), with the words:

“Even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”

I really get that right now even though I’m a Buddhist and know the holy beings are not doing this. But it is a situation of forced self-improvement.

Right now I don’t know what will happen. The uncertainty is awful. And one of the six sufferings of samsara so why expect anything else, but I don’t like it.

Just now the receptionist was taking J’s credit card details and I was willing her to hurry up as they were not going to give Ralph his x-rays until they had them. Right in the middle someone phoned for directions and it seemed to take an age: “Turn left down…, no, left, yes, past the blah blah blah… and then half a mile… yes half a mile…blah blah blah”. I was impatiently thinking, “For goodness sake, hurry up, don’t you know Ralph is waiting?” when I heard the receptionist say, “And how many were hit by the car?”

That jerked me back into perspective.

His last morning. I can see in retrospect that he is beginning to breathe faster, and is more agitated than before; though I didn’t notice it at the time.

How I stopped worrying in the waiting room (part two)

Compassion and emptiness: It is not unkind to dissolve people away into emptiness. When I saw Ralph’s chest rising and falling so fast, and J (on the phone from NJ) and I timed it to discover he was breathing at a rate of 91 breaths per minute instead of the normal 30, we knew I had to get going fast to the ER. I felt sick to the stomach, but J calmed me with three magic words: “Don’t freak out.”

The best way not to freak out at times of crisis is to remember emptiness, if you can. All this scary stuff is mistaken appearance, it is like a dream (or nightmare), it is not really happening. But if our wisdom is not strong yet, we might think that this is callous – dissolving away Ralph and his suffering when in fact he is still really suffering, how can that work?! Perhaps we prefer to seize on method practices at this time, but I can see in my experience that we need both, because while my compassion was for a real inherently existent kitten experiencing real pain and distress, this mind had no solution in it, and so it caused more pain for me and less ability to stay present and positive for him. Remembering emptiness in no way diminishes the compassion. There is no contradiction between compassion and emptiness; in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Within the mind of compassion, we need the solution, and this is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of persons and phenomena. We need to dissolve our loved ones into emptiness for them to be able to arise in a pure, blissful form. Otherwise they remain stuck and our hearts remain uselessly broken.

Now he really wants to escape samsara and get to the Pure Land: “Let me out!”

Watching someone you love gasping for breath is not high up on anyone’s wish list. Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

This is the union of method (renunciation and compassion) and wisdom.

The power of prayer: I did not like leaving Ralph alone with the brisk uniformed people at the Emergency Hospital for even an hour, yet I knew I was about to leave him alone forever as he couldn’t stay. All that I could do was pray. But luckily prayers are very powerful when our compassion and faith are strong, which is often the case at times of crises, especially if we’ve been training in refuge.

Ralph’s death

Ralph’s little body was filling up fast with more and more fluid, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I kept stroking him and speaking loving encouraging thoughts of his future to him, breathed in his suffering as if there was no tomorrow, and blew mantras into his ears. He purred a lot and kneaded my face with his paws, whilst at the same time opening and shutting his little pink mouth trying hard to breathe and meowing at me for help. He could hold a gaze better than any other cat I’ve known. Sometimes in the past few days I’d do something else for a while, but when I looked back at him he was still staring at me. He died in my arms, looking at me with those beautiful eyes that then gently drooped shut. He died very peacefully and his last thoughts, I pray, were ones of love and trust. I touched him firmly on the head with Medicine Buddha sadhana, his favorite, to help his subtle consciousness leave his body through his crown.

I’ll never forget the feel of his tiny body in my hands as his eyes closed for the last time and then as I held him doing prayers and meditation for the next couple of hours. It looked like Ralph had just fallen asleep in my arms, but his consciousness was wending its way through the bardo to his next life, and he was no longer there. Death is so natural and so weird at the same time. People in India and Tibet meditated in the charnel grounds… and  I discovered there is nothing quite like meditating on impermanence while holding a body in your hands.

JP told me a few days ago that when she was with her husband just after he was killed, she wanted to hold every part of his body. Her friend was sitting with her and said quietly: “That arm is not J. That leg is not J….” It was an intense, she said, but timely teaching.

Conclusion

An hour before Ralph died he pooped again all on his own, and looked at me for approval. It did feel like an offering, but this time it also made me sad. Although all I had wanted two days earlier was for him to be free of his chronic constipation and be able to poop on his own, having control over his own bowels was now no longer enough. And he didn’t even know this. The waves of samsara keep rolling in.

It is 2.15 right now, and Ralph had a vet’s appointment at this exact time for the free daily laser therapy they were generously offering him to bring back his legs. But my tiny dancer doesn’t have that body any more. I pray and imagine that he is dancing with the Dakinis instead, a beautiful, smiling Daka with red hair and luminous green-blue eyes.

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