Holding and Letting Go

IMG_0270

More often than not, it seems, death epitomizes life. This was the case with the passing of my grandmother. Our matriarch, she had held the family together with a balance of judgment and acceptance; eventually she supported my interest in meditation, but not at first.

Still in my teens, I had been living at a meditation center for about a year when I paid a visit to my grandparents in Philadelphia. “Have you ever wondered if they’re putting something in the food?” Grammy asked. No doubt, she and granddaddy had discussed this likelihood in private, but it was her job to raise the question.

“What would ‘they’ put in the food?” I asked. “And why?” Some discussion followed. Salt Peter, I think, was mentioned, its use suggesting challenges sometimes associated with religious training. The question “Why?” was different.

“To keep the people there,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if in training each day on our meditation cushion to let thoughts go, the inmates would, once we came to our senses, leave at the first opportunity. “I work in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure there is nothing added to the food,” I said, trying to reassure her.

When they were younger, as was common in that era, my handsome and modest grandparents sought community and salvation as members of a church. I once found a strongly worded pledge of fidelity to their Christian faith. The pastor’s counter signature was at the bottom of the card. The wording of this commitment, signed before their son and daughters were born, was evangelical.

Later in life, church going was no longer at the center of my grandparents’ existence. Was it a change of heart or simply a relocation that compelled them to let go of this association? Also, how would a conservative church square with the social success and worldly sophistication demonstrated by their successful son and elegant adult daughters? In any case, a growing family was their new community.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother changed. After a year of near reclusively and grief, she emerged open and light-hearted, engaging her world with a new clear-eyed acceptance. “Make friends with yourself and your world,” my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, encouraged his students at the time. Our world, he pointed out, began with our home, our family.

Grammy and I came to appreciate each other more. She even visited the once suspect meditation center. The solitary retreat cabins on the property meant something to her. “It shows who is in charge,” she said once, after I had let go of my schedule and spent a few weeks alone in one of these cabins.

Near the end of her life, a bible was never far from my grandmother’s bedside. Even so, with me, she was happy to read and discuss Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I had given her a copy of this slim volume, and it too was always nearby, complete with underscores, asterisks and question marks. Her remarks on the book reflected an inquisitive, questioning mind. As a mother and wife she was serious, some said severe. As a grandmother, she laughed more, often at herself.

Around the holidays, Grammy cherished (and compelled) family gatherings, especially if we were all there. On this, the last evening of a long life, most of us were there, gathered on chairs around the hospital bed. In a coma from a brain hemorrhage, Grammy’s final moments had lasted much longer than the doctors predicted. Her two weeks in the hospital had helped prepare us for her departure. We were also tired.

Earlier in the day, a nurse had said “soon.” Would my mom, on her way from the suburbs, make it in time? Suddenly, in a raincoat and stylish scarf, my mother appeared in the hospital room. As if on cue, within minutes, surrounded by her two daughters, son, son-in law, me, my wife, and my two younger cousins—Grammy breathed her last breath.

The room was quiet. Oddly, Grammy’s warm presence was felt even more strongly. It was as if now she was fully free to share the space with the family she loved so well. One of us let the hospital staff know that she had died and asked for time with the body. We all took our turn kissing her, stroking her forehead, saying our goodbyes.

Slim and stylish in a tweed sport coat, colorful shirt and matching tie, the last to pay respects was her son, my Uncle Ralph. As we all had done, he leaned over to give his mother’s body a final kiss and embrace. From that effort, involuntarily, my Uncle passed gas. Given the silence in the room, there was no mistaking the emission. It was a clear, soft, sustained utterance, with a distinct range of notes bridging musically together.

At that very moment, a thought possessed me. A thought that just stayed there, refusing to go, waiting for its import to be fully appreciated.  It was a pronouncement, a banner pulled by an airplane through the clear blue sky of my mind. The banner read:

“I know they talk about death as a letting go, but I think they had something else in mind.”

Transfixed, I didn’t dare examine how others were coping with the interruption. Perhaps everyone appreciated the gravity of the scene, remaining unaffected by this musical coda marking the end of Grammy’s life. I lowered my head, attempting to conceal a wild grin now playing uncontrollably on my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw my Uncle straighten, recover from the embrace and hesitate as he assessed the impropriety. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly, making his way back to his chair.

On my left, my cousin was shaking his head, which I now noticed was also lowered. “No, no,” he demurred solemnly, “It was a gift.”

Here my memory falters. The next thing I knew we were, all of us, laughing loudly, tears in our eyes, bent over, holding our sides. We couldn’t seem to stop. In the small room with a single bed, the sounds of hilarity echoed off the walls, no doubt audible at the nurses’ station just outside the open door. What must the nurses be thinking? How could this situation ever be explained? Questions that only provoked more convulsions.

These were the last moments shared with my grandmother. Nothing more was said. What was there to say? Eventually, each of us recovered our composure and the laughter subsided. Quietly, even meekly, we filed out of the hospital and into a mild fall evening. A soft rain gave the streetlights a wet intensity. It was a sad day and a happy one too. We had joined the one who held us together for final celebration, and in that moment, we had let her go.

Editor’s Note: What more is there to say?

Practice Makes Perfect

Garden and Mukpo shots 007

Not too long ago, the New Yorker magazine reported on a study of successful start-up companies. What makes some new ventures take off, they asked, while others never seem to get anywhere? We could ask the same question of spiritual practitioners. Like entrepreneurs looking for a market, seekers seek to understand what the world is asking of them, and how by uncovering their own potential, they can offer something of themselves. Something that will meet a real need in their community, in their world.

Karmê Chöling is a residential retreat center just down the road from Samadhi Cushions. Last month, on a mostly sunny afternoon, Acharya John Rockwell presided over a humble graduation ceremony for Mukpo Institute. (Mukpo is Sakyong Mipham’s family name.) As part of this program, four students had joined the residential community for 3 months of intensive meditation practice and contemplative study. Their coursework included a month of sitting and walking meditation, much of it in silence. There were also classes in Qigong, Dharma Arts, the Way of Shambhala and more.

As part of the ceremony, graduates were asked to share their experience of the past three months. While the tone was often lighthearted, there was no doubt that these students, who bonded deeply as a result of practicing together, had done something meaningful. Their remarks, surprisingly articulate, were also heartfelt.

One student explained how in his 20’s, he had read a lot of books on meditation. During this period of study—over 10 years—he never actually sat on a meditation cushion. Without the discipline of facing himself in meditation, he said laughing, old habits prevailed, nothing changed in his life.  As a collector of many ideas, rather than a practitioner of one, the personal journey of meditation he read about remained a concept. In this retreat, concept had become reality. As a next step, he was planning to undertake a training that would enable him to introduce others to basics of meditation practice.

Another student made a similar observation. In the years leading up to this retreat, she had practiced on weekends and occasionally during the week. This introduction to meditation was a very important time, but it was only the beginning. In her view, the difference in the past three months (a difference that brought a profound sense of healing) was the commitment needed to meet the challenges of daily and often extended periods of meditation.

“Actually doing” mindfulness practice, she said—not just talking or thinking about it—was the basis for a new sense of wholeness and confidence. In the course of the three months, there had been a real shift in how this student experienced herself. She now felt ready to move into the next phase of her life: returning to a hometown and family left behind many years before.

In embarking on a journey of transformation, these students had taken a step beyond habitual patterns, concepts and comfort zones. As it turns out, according to the New Yorker piece, they also did something successful entrepreneurs do: having established some confidence in the legitimacy of their idea, they moved on to the next step—prototyping, trying out, testing what they thought they knew.

And the entrepreneurs who got nowhere? They remained stuck in the conceptual phase. In short, without actually trying it, they did something they had already done, reviewing and perfecting their idea. According to the experience of the Mukpo Institute Students, when spiritual seekers don’t embody what they hope to be through a contemplative discipline, there is very little real opportunity for success (or for that matter failure, which may be just as or even more important.) Nothing ventured, as they say, nothing gained.

Experienced and new meditators face the same challenges when it comes to “actually doing” meditation. But experienced practitioners know something that new meditators don’t: there is no perfect time and there is no perfect way to begin the practice of meditation. And, if you want to see what it is you have to offer the world (and what the world is offering you), a contemplative discipline that exposes you to yourself and the world, is essential for success.

In sitting meditation – learning to be, appreciating our experience as it is – we prototype, we imitate an enlightened person. But an awakened heart with a deep appreciation of others and ourselves is our nature, is who we are. (This insight begins too as an idea, an inkling.) By mimicking who we already are, we venture with real potential for success. Congratulations to the graduates of Mukpo Institute!

Editor’s Note: If you are looking for the right way to begin your practice, good luck. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa (uttered long before a shoe company co-opted them): Just do it.