It’s the suddenness of the breeze that takes my breath away. Environmentally, I awaken, grasping that my dance of life is not separate from the dance of life occurring all around me – in the mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, oceans and fields – full and fallow. In this sense, there is no such thing as practicing for life – there is only living. Being willing to engage with life is what wakes me up to life. It took many years for that to sink in and become real, and one very important moment that crystallized it for me, one moment in which I truly woke up…
The briny spray hit our faces, sunshine glancing golden off the sea at our feet. Seagulls swooped and dived, crashing shells to shore. The surf kept rhythm with our heartbeats; the rocks cool beneath our seats. Running my hand along the rough edge of a barnacle, I felt the smooth, cold contrast of water swooshing along the rock’s edge. My mother sat above me on a large seat of stone. She was too thin, but looked radiant. Without squinting, I could see a sort of light emanating from her. I had never seen anything like it, not with her. In that moment, my mother was regal, poised upon the stone as if it were a throne. I was a child again seated below her, even though I was almost twenty-five. I don’t think I’d ever felt such respect, such awe before in my mother’s presence.
After gazing out to sea, she glanced at me, her eyes shining with love. It was then that my mom told me she was dying.
My mother appeared to have made peace with her death in a way she had not with her life. She showed no fear in that moment, only sadness and love, and unwittingly, she guided me towards fearlessness. We sat on our stones together, crying and laughing. Joy in our connection sprouted the gush of tears. For the first time in my life we saw each other fully as human beings. Somehow, it took my mother’s dying for me to see her and for her to see me.
This was about a month before my mom died of pancreatic cancer. I had never loved her more than in that moment. I had also never felt so alive or awake, and it is only now, seven years later, that I feel I can write about it.
Spiraling back in time, a snapshot of our relationship reveals a very different scene. It was only in my early twenties through practicing mindfulness meditation that I learned how to forgive my mother. Don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful childhood. But as I grew older, my mother was torn apart by circumstance and often lashed out in sharp, ripping anger. I was burned many times by that searing rage, learning to either fight back or shrink away. Sometimes I felt strong and could hold sway in an argument, but other times, I crumbled, depressed, deflated. The pinnacle was when, at eighteen, my mother kicked me out of the house and took away the keys.
At nineteen and twenty, I launched into meditation practice on a regular basis. As I learned how to follow my breath on the cushion, I began to recognize if not understand, the rough and sometimes raw patterns of my mind. Identifying the webs that I wove for myself, I began to see that my mother too was in pain. In other words: when I began to recognize my own pain, I could see hers. My strands of confusion and assumptions were based on hers – how could I know peace within myself if she couldn’t with herself?
It was through peeling away the layers of my own onion mind, one breath at a time, that I began to see her concentric layers, began to see her as a person with a sad story of pain. And it was right around this time that she got sick.
This is where the rubber hit the road for me with mindfulness practice – it wasn’t about just working with my mind on the cushion, mindfulness had to extend beyond the cushion. There was no “practice for living” anymore, there was just living. In being present with my mother’s dying, I began to learn how to be alive for the first time, tasting the thread that connects and binds us together as human beings. Strong and unbreakable, this thread links us regardless of the pain we might be in, the struggles we might encounter, or the things that might scare us about each other. The thread that connects is always there, weaving into the tapestry of our lives. In my practice lineage, this is called basic goodness. At the root, we are all decent and kind human beings with the full capacity to wake up and be present in our lives.
It was terrifying for me, watching my mother slowly die. But it was also exquisite bearing witness to her slow relaxation into herself, probably for the first time. As I learned to trust myself, even on a physical level, recognizing that I wasn’t dying just because my mother was, I reveled in my mother’s beauty and was awed by the grace with which she accepted her death. Together, we rejoiced in her life.
I can see now that it takes courage to be willing to engage: to be willing to step into fear and move through it. I felt charged to really be with my mother, to engage with her and her death in a full way. This willingness came from the strength of my practice on the cushion – I knew how to stay on the cushion through even the stormiest thoughts, not jumping up to get a mug of tea instead. Somehow, I realized that this was my only chance with her: both my first and last chance to show up and be present with my own mother. And everything transformed: feeling the pain in my body, feeling the grief wrack through me, the sobs endlessly rolling in, I was able to open to inordinate amounts of love, respect and joy. Tearing open my heart like this through a willingness to engage allowed strength, love and clarity to blossom and flower, healing the rifts that had divided us.
This willingness to engage has to do with not shying away from the yuck. Being willing to face our own manure is what allows us to recognize our inherent richness, allows us to till the manure deep into the soil so that spring’s flowers will blossom. Gaining this ability through meditation is what has allowed me to see that when someone else is struggling and reacting, it isn’t a personal attack on me – it’s their own muck covering their eyes and blinding them to the brilliance of things as they truly are. We all have muck that blinds us to the way things actually are – at least, I know I do – but for me, meditation reinforces my currency with true vision.
Each moment is like a small life, a small death. The truth is that our lives embody the cycles of nature. As a koan a dear friend gave me elucidates, “dying – being reborn, dying – being reborn, and then you find your essence.” There’s a point at which we wear out our ancient habits of struggle and a point at which we realize who we really are. Then there is a sense of victory over fear, a sense of being alive, waking up in the face of this very moment, present with whatever is coming at us. Even if it is death.
Each time we step up, open, and let go is a victory over the patterns that confuse us, and we are one step closer to recognizing our true essence, our basic decency. I frequently forget this, but meditation practice is what reminds me again and again. I can trust my own nature, even when I’m too busy worrying. I can tust the strength of my very being and know that I can face any situation that might arise: over and over, over and over. This is why they call it path.
As a young woman making my way in my life, now without my mother, I feel the strength of her life flowing in my veins. Because of the grace with which she approached her death and the freedom that she found in herself, I too have learned to relax and know that I can rely on the tapestry of my life to guide me through. Thanks to this journey, I have begun to taste my strong, quiet, inner, outrageous essence.
Anything is possible and by my relaxing with that, it might make it possible for you, too.
…the only thing in the sky now is a wheeling hawk. The deep blueness of the blue, the vast openness of the sky allows the sun to penetrate and warm these aging bones even on this chilly autumn day. But I am young, yet, and my path is wide open. Now, whenever I hear the wind through the trees, smell the scent of salt on the air, caress the rough-smooth-soft-hard texture of rock, I know that I’m alive, and that my mother is in my heart.
Sarah Lipton is the editor of The Shambhala Times. Currently, she lives at Karme Choling in Barnet, Vermont.