Monday, June 30, 2014

Today's Meditation

I woke up this morning and felt a heaviness like a big boulder sitting on my chest. It ws the weight of suffering in the world, the sadness of all the things that are affecting people I love, people who are not feeling good, people whom I don’t even know that are in situations worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.  I had a hard time even pouring myself a cup of coffee, feeling all that helplessness.

“May you be free from suffering”, I thought as I noticed the morning sunlight dappling the trees and the pasture.  That’s part of a tonglen meditation I learned years ago.  It’s a Buddhist practice that evokes maĆ®tri or lovingkindness.  Pema Chodron says, “ Maitri also has the meaning of trusting oneself – trusting that we have what it takes to know ourselves thoroughly and completely without feeling hopeless, without turning against ourselves because of what we see.”

The basic idea is that you breathe in the discomfort and the pain and breathe out the love, ease, and relief that you wish for. First, you offer it to yourself, saying something like , “May I live in safety. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease." Then, you think of someone that you want to help, and you repeat the  thoughts, substituting “May you live in safety…” Finally, you extend that to all beings in the world, “ May we all live in safety…” 

The words can be changed and adapted so that they feel right and personal for you.  “May I feel this completely so that I and all other beings may be free of pain.” “May I send out this contentment completely so that all beings may feel relaxed and at home with themselves and with the world.” “May both of us be able to feel feelings like this without it causing us to shut down to others.” Pema Chodron suggests that we open up the meditation to speak for ourselves in whatever words feel best for our own situation. “The isolation, personal burden, loneliness, and desperation of pain gets very strong. And you think you're the only one. I've had people actually say to me, "I think no one else in the world feels this kind of pain." And then I can say to them with tremendous confidence: "You're wrong."

“The most dramatic and probably most difficult step is to say: "Since I'm feeling this anyway, may I be feeling it so all others could be free of it." So tonglen meditation has three levels of courage. The first is to say, "Other people feel this." And that is enough. But if, in that particular moment of time, it feels genuine to say, "May this become a path for awakening the hearts of all of us," do so. And the one that takes you to the deepest level of courage is: "Since I'm feeling this anyway, may I feel it so that others could be free of it."  Wise words from a wise woman.

So I’m going to try to do this right now. Maybe you’d like to join me?



Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Tale of Two Hospitals

I’ve spent a lot of hours this week in hospitals, waiting and worrying.  My husband had out-patient surgery on Monday at a large, famous teaching hospital.  My mom had surgery on Wednesday at a small country hospital.  The contrast was striking. The big hospital lived up to its stellar reputation. Everyone there was caring to the max. The small hospital, not so much.

Part of me expected it to be the other way.  I really wanted the country hospital to be more personal and sensitive to the needs of patients and their families. Sadly, over the days that my mom spent there, I only spoke to the surgeon on the phone, and I never met or spoke to another doctor, not in the Emergency Room or on the floor where her room was. So, as I thought over the experience today, I realized that I actually never was face to face with a doctor the entire time that she was in the hospital. 

There were only about eight patients on the whole floor of the little hospital and lots of empty rooms. Nonetheless, the nurse assigned to my mom was too busy to return my phone calls and only came in once in all the times that I was there visiting her.  When my mom was allowed to eat, it took me over two hours to get a tray delivered to her room.  There she was, almost 100 years old, with needles and tubes in her hands, and no way to feed herself. It was a liquid diet, only a Styrofoam cup of hot water, a packet of powdered chicken broth and a small container of strawberry jello.  After I gave it to her very slowly using a small plastic spoon, the nurse finally showed up and thanked me for helping her since she was “so busy” that she didn’t have time to do it.

At the big teaching hospital, each person we encountered was fully engaged in trying to make sure that we were having all our needs met.  The waiting room for the families had little alcoves with sofas and comfy armchairs so that groups who were waiting could sit together in privacy.  Attendants came around with pillows and blankets for anyone who wanted to lie down and rest. They remembered our names and were cheerful and helpful. There was fresh coffee, yogurt and muffins.  Each family received one of those pagers that are used in restaurants while you wait for tables. When it buzzed and lit up, you went to the desk, and they gave you an update on the patient. There was a computer screen where you could check at any time on the status of the patient. After my husband was out of surgery, they came over every half hour to let me know how he was doing in recovery and when I would be able to see him.  It was all part of the routine, but the focus was on kindness and concern for the well-being of not just the patient, but the anxious people who waited for their loved ones.

So what did I learn from these two experiences?  In the small hospital, there were lots of signs and slogans about how much they care, but not enough evidence of it. In the teaching hospital, caring was taken as a given. They felt no need to toot any horns about how great a job they were doing at caring. It was an inherent part of their culture.

 As I waited, I forced myself to consider the worst outcome -- how my life would be if my husband or my mother were gone.  I felt their love and contemplated how they both gave me so much  and made my existence better. I imagined myself in their situations and made a vow to stay acutely aware of how they were feeling and try to make things be as good as possible for them.  I’m learning when to be patient, give it a few more minutes, take a deep breath and when to make enough noise to get even the smallest problem taken care of before it becomes a big deal. There's really not much more that I can do for either of them.  For the person in the hospital bed, helpless, frustrated, scared or uncomfortable, having someone watching out for their best interests is the greatest gift they can get, and I will do everything in my power to give it to them.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Big Leap

“It would be terrible if my mom died just because she lost her teeth,” I told my husband. On Saturday, when we visited Nana, we learned that her dentures broke after over 20 years of good service.  What we didn’t realize was that the nursing home did not put her on a liquid and pureed diet, and she became dehydrated and was unable to swallow.  I was focused on getting a dentist to help us make a new set of teeth asap, but this crisis broadsided us.  Unfortunately, when you are approaching 100 years old, everything is very fragile, and once the spiral begins to spin down, it goes very quickly.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I was faced with making a scary choice about whether or not they should operate on my mom since there was a good chance that she might  not make it through if they gave her anesthesia. Over twenty years ago, when my dad was dying, I was the one who had to make the decision to turn off the respirator to end his suffering.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and even though I believe I made the right choice, it still haunts me. Now, I held my other parent’s life in my hands.  If the operation were a success, my mom would most likely be fine. If there were no operation, the outcome was more suffering and oceans of uncertainty.

I’m not a religious person, but I have a very strong faith in God.  When I find myself facing these life and death crossroads, I take a deep breath and go, “Okay, God, you drive.”  So, that’s what I did, only in this case, I was the one who was literally driving. It was an hour and a half from our house to the hospital. I told the doctor to start the surgery, and I leaped into the car and took off.

The night before, as I drove home from the hospital, wrestling with a whole line-up of tough emotions, I witnessed a strange thing.  On the scenic green country road, a deer ran across and hit the car in front of me. The poor thing flipped up on the roof and slid across on its back, flying off on the other side. Miraculously, it landed on its feet and leaped off into the bushes like a circus acrobat.  It was a message of resilience to me.  Now, as I drove up the same route, I was startled to see another deer lying at the edge of the pavement just the way my dog lies down and watches the world go by.  A car approached from the opposite direction, and the deer casually stood, shook itself off and wandered back into the woods.

What was that all about? I wondered as my cell phone rang.  I recognized the phone number was the surgeon calling me. I pulled over and stopped the car.  He was either going to tell me that my mom was okay or she was dead. It flashed through my mind that I wished my husband or daughter was with me, but I realized that this was a moment that I was meant to face alone. The doctor cheerfully announced that my mom had pulled through the operation like a champ.  “She’s a strong warrior,” I told him.

As I spoon-fed my mother some chicken broth a couple of hours later, I thought about how fortunate she is to have me and so many other people in the world who love her.  In the hospital and the nursing home, there are folks who are completely alone, with no one to notice the little problems that so easily mushroom into big ones and advocate for them.  We dodged a bullet, and my mom will return to her cozy room and her safe routine later today. She is one of the lucky ones.

Now, while I drank my coffee and felt blessed by this calm and uneventful morning,  I looked up what it means when a deer comes into your life. I learned that a deer’s senses are very acute. It sees and hears extremely well and is able to detect very subtle movement. When a deer shows up, it’s a warning to be gentle with yourself and others, to be less critical and forceful, to express gentle love that will open new doors to adventure for you. (“Animal-Speak” by Ted Andrews)

I thought about a quote that I saw while I was in the hospital yesterday: “Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark”(Tagore). I am a risk-taker. My mother raised me to be one. This time, I took another big leap while holding her hand, and thankfully, we both landed on our feet.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Second Chances

I was going to write about something totally different this morning, but as I was standing in Silk’s stall pulling some bits of shavings out of her mane, I heard a voice in my head say, “It’s Father’s Day, you know.” I’ve been fixated on planning a party this afternoon for my husband, but a memory of my own dad floated up as if Silk were reminding me of him.

A couple of years ago, over a decade after my father had passed away, I received an email from a high school friend of mine.  He lived down the street from us, and our parents had been friends too. He reconnected with me to tell me that he would always remember how my dad had done something for him that had been a pivotal moment in his life, and that he wanted me to know how much he admired and appreciated my father.

When we were seniors in high school, this guy had gone to a graduation party with his girlfriend. All his friends dared him to chug as much beer as he could, and he was embarrassed to not be cool in front of this girl that he liked so much.  He got drunk, and as he drove her home, the cops pulled him over and arrested him. This kid was a really good student who never had been in trouble.  His parents were furious. His dad refused to bail him out so he spent the night in jail. He was so ashamed and his folks were so angry that he was afraid to even talk to them.

I remembered that Saturday a million years ago, when in the middle of the night, my dad, who was a lawyer,  got a phone call from the boy’s freaked out parents.  I had known about the party and decided not to go because I thought there was a good chance the police would bust everyone.  I was very scornful about it, as my dad got up early Sunday morning and went to the police station to bail out the kid.  He drove the boy back home, talked to the parents and eventually, went to court with them and convinced the judge to give the young man some community service as punishment. 

“Your dad was the only one who listened to me, “ the man wrote in his email, forty years later. “He gave me the courage to tell my folks that I was sorry, and he believed in me when no one else, not even my own parents, would stand by me.” I had forgotten the whole incident until I received his note.  Then, I recalled the conversation at the dinner table that I had with my father after he came back from court. I was annoyed that the judge had not thrown the book at the kid. I thought he was stupid to have been so worried about impressing his girlfriend that he almost lost the opportunity to go to college.  I was full of all the righteous indignation of the young and ambitious.

My dad let me go on and on while he ate his dinner. “Why did you have to go and save his ass?” I demanded.  He looked at me and said, “Some day, honey, you’ll realize that everyone deserves a second chance.”

Happy Father’s Day!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Change Inside

Now that the gnats, the heat and the humidity have kicked in around here, Silk likes to spend her afternoons standing in front of the fan in her daughter’s stall.  Normally, when I appear with the green dinner buckets, she quickly ducks back over to her side of the barn to wait eagerly for the grain sprinkled with a chopped up carrot. So I was concerned that Silk might be sick a few nights ago when she flatly refused to move even as I shook the bucket and cajoled her to go back where she belonged.

I was frustrated at first.  I tried to get behind her and push her butt to encourage her to move. She just looked over her shoulder and gave me a look like “Really? You’ve got to be kidding.” Determined to have my own way, I grabbed a halter and lead rope, put them on her and led Silk back to her stall.  She followed me willingly, but after she ate, she stood there sadly and swished her tail and shook her head as the tiny no-see-ums nibbled her ears.  I realized that my horse just didn’t understand why I forced her to leave the cool air stirred by the fan to return to the land of gnats where no breeze was blowing, It occurred to me that it didn’t really matter if she stayed in her stall. I was only insisting on it because it was my idea and I wanted her to be obedient. She could go back and stand in front of the fan all night if that made her feel better.  So, I opened the door and let the horses choose where they wanted to sleep that sticky, hot night. And I asked myself,  how often do I do things just because I want my own way and don’t want anyone else to get the upper hand?

Walking back to the house, I considered how much more insistent people have become about getting their own way. There’s been a cultural shift over the years since I was a kid that “giving in” implies weakness. Entitlement is no longer a dirty word.  Not being “stepped on” often takes priority over consideration. 

It made me think about something that Mark Rashid, one of my favorite horse trainers, recently wrote about his efforts to communicate with horses on a level that is as subtle as they communicate with each other/ A communication so almost invisible that most people do not even see it.  He thinks that “to change the outside, you must change the inside first”.   We are taught to watch or feel for external changes in the horses we work with, but pay little attention to the internal changes. Even when we do look for internal changes in the horse, we often are paying little attention to what is going on inside of us.” Rashid wrote, “One of the things I also noticed as my own internal awareness began to improve is that my ability to see and feel internal changes in horses has not only improved, but it has gotten more accurate as well. Whereas in the past I might have had to wait for some tiny external change to occur before I would pick up on what the horse might be thinking or feeling, now I could sort of “feel” what was going to happen before the external change in the horse would actually show up.”

It’s no wonder that most of us aren’t able to easily attain that level of awareness with our animals or with other humans. We are often so intent on getting our own way that we miss much of what is actually going on around us. If we lose that relentless, often unconscious but controlling urge that rises up  on the inside of ourselves, imagine how much easier it would be to deal with everyone else on the outside.