For many of us, there comes a time when we realize, viscerally and profoundly, that living a spiritual practice is what really matters, but paradoxically, that moment comes from training.
For me, the epiphany came when my father passed away this past summer. Although his health had been fragile for some time, I hadn’t foreseen the unexpected illness that lead rapidly to his death. Like so many other people, I got “the call” and we drove all day to reach the emergency room where he’d been admitted. My husband and I stayed with him from then until the end, living out of suitcases, losing track of the hours because the pacing of hospital days subtly affects the perception of time.
As the structures of normal life receded, I had no space for formal mediation practice. Yet, somehow, I was able to practice informally, drawing on what I’d learned in the past so I could stay with what was happening now; there was no other place to go. Then I realized how practicing meditation in the past meant I could be there, then, in the present.
What a paradox: formal practice is preparation, but informal practice is a way of life. Training lets us pay attention to the mind and creates the conditions for spontaneous understanding. Discrete periods of formal practice build the capacity to extend the experience of meditation beyond designated training times. This is when practice becomes process and outcome, and we can sense it the same way we know those fleeting moments of perfect balance.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve felt that balance develop with the support of a formal practice, only to lose equilibrium as the practice takes disproportionate (and unhealthy) importance. I remember being impatient with my young children because I wanted to meditate in peace, only to have my teachers gently but firmly chide me, reminding me that patience was my practice. I’d somehow missed the point that sitting in silence was a luxury (a way to practice for “practice”) and a much lower priority than practicing patience moment by moment.
Then, when my kids were older, I found more time for formal practice and returned to the comforting reassurance of structure and regularity. It was nice to have the rhythm of easier days, marked by time for formal meditation and the normal fluctuations of life. Then, just when everything was fine, obstacles came: first, complacency, and next, hubris. After all, it’s so tempting to feel nice and relaxed and virtuous about having a formal practice (and equally, to slip into feeling somehow superior to those who don’t).
The problem is, becoming inured to the basics of training the mind is risky. Of course, there are times when wanting a new and more advanced meditation practice is precisely the right thing. But there are also times when the hunger for something different is a distraction and tantalizing justification for not submitting to day-in day-out discipline.
Before my dad got sick, I sometimes (frequently?) chafed against the tedium of a regular mediation practice, although somehow I mostly stuck with it. Then, when my dad got sick over the summer, I realized how my resilience was rooted in the time I’d spent practicing through the years. As his condition worsened, I noticed how I longed for the familiarity of normal life much the way I’d felt homesick as a child. When dad died, I understood that there was no return to how things had been—with him, or for me.
So what now? What can I share that might be relevant or useful to others, especially as it relates to practice and grief? Only just these few observations and encouragements:
- There is no preparation for acute grief in the sense that nothing we do mitigates for the loss. But there is much to do that can prepare us to handle the grief when it comes. Practice—in whatever tradition you choose—is essential. It is the foundation, and it’s very hard to feel the strength and solidity of that foundation until your world rocks and everything collapses. Then, and only then, are you likely to realize how much your essential balance has improved with mental training and how your ability to stay present is one of the very few things that really matter. Practice now, because doing so is a wonderful use of the present, but also understand that what you do now will influence how you function in the future.
- Compassion for yourself is the beginning of compassion for others. It might not come easy—and that’s actually fine—but let it come. We are alone in our experience, even if ultimately we are never alone and other people surround us. Try to observe your own suffering even as you experience it; neither banish it nor ignore it, but be gentle with yourself. Remember that emotions are ephemeral. They arise within us but do not define us. When they are too strong to manage, switch your focus to something neutral and let the passage of time help. This is a meditation practice; do not underestimate its value and power.
- Imagine you wear bifocals, and the lens of your observation allows you to focus on the minutiae of your immediate experience and also the long view of a lifetime. Every minute counts, but there’s no sense to overburdening any given minute. Just do what you can, here and now, while nurturing an inner orientation that allows you to move more easily through time. Are you present now? Right now? How do you know? What might help? Switch your focus from the short view to the far horizon, and then return. Recognize that you can stay present while looking out across the promise of a lifetime—if you are clear and aware of what you are doing.
- Go deeper through the basics of your practice to find the depth within yourself. This applies to meditation, and it applies to sitting with the dying. The instructions and actions feel frighteningly simple because we so desperately want complications to distract us from stark reality. The simplest mediation practices offer infinite experience. The limits of any given technique derive not from the practice itself, but from the mind; they are personal, self-imposed, and ultimately not real. Stay with your experience so you have the opportunity to transcend it. Be patient—the process can feel so slow.
- Share kindness and watch for the flickers of understanding in unexpected places. As my father lay dying, I found unexpected allies who embraced me with their loving-kindness and fearlessly witnessed my pain. I found that gratitude soothes others’ and our own raw pain. When I was imploding, the kindness of strangers pulled me back into the present. When my emotions threatened to explode, the compassion of my family and friends helped contain the force. We can receive kindness from others, and we can offer it too—even when we feel that we’ve lost everything.