Continuing on with Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Standing at the Edge,” the lesson I learned in Chapter 5 was powerful. That we are all constantly in free fall. That no one will ever find the moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.
It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life and trying to learn to become stable in flight. And supporting others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored…
One of my favorite shows is “This Is Us.” You’re almost guaranteed to shed a tear each and every episode. A recent episode involved going over the life story of a character that sort of got short shrift over1 the years – Miguel.
There’s a scene in which a middle age Miguel is receiving good advice from his mom. She offers this great one-liner: “Love is giving your heart without expectation.” Followed by another line that essentially boils down to “stop and smell the roses.” Meaning “enjoy the small things in the sea of life that contains a whole lot of suffering.”
It’s hard to remember to stop and smell the roses. One trick I’ve found is to take a mundane activity that I do daily – mine is raising my window shades in the morning – as a trigger to think about something small from the prior day that I really enjoyed. Training myself to find something small to appreciate after-the-fact with the hopes that I fully appreciate it in the moment when I’m experiencing it…
– “Not-Knowing” is the practice of letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe. When encountering someone suffering, ask “how can I keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions or actions?” and “why do I really want to be of service in this situation?” “Do I have what it takes in this situation to truly serve?”
– “Bearing Witness” is the practice of being present for the suffering and the joy of this world. Bearing Witness is not about being a bystander; it’s about being in a relationship and it’s about courage to face the whole catastrophe. Practice helps here to be aware of your own responses in the face of another’s suffering and having the equannimity and compassion required. Returning again and again to being grounded.
– “Compassionate Action” is action that arises from Not-Knowing or Bearing Witness and that fosters the healing of ourselves and the world as a path of practice. Grounding really helps here to discern which action might best serve the situation – including whether doing nothing is the most compassionate response.
Another lesson I learned is the difference between helping, fixing and serving. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. A teaching by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen…
Recently, I’ve been reading Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Standing at the Edge.” The premise being that when we recognize the Edge States in our lives, we can stand on the threshold of change and see a landscape abundant with wisdom, tenderness and basic human kindness – but at the same time, seeing a desolate terrain of violence, failure and futility.
The Edge States are: altruism; empathy; integrity; respect; and engagement. You can lose your footing with any of these and go over the edge. The destructive side of the Edge States. But as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “no mud, no lotus.” You sometimes have to take the risk of going over the edge in order to achieve psychological transformation. Our suffering can feed our understanding and be one of the great resources of our wisdom and compassion.
I love Roshi Joan’s analogy of the Edge States to a red-rock mesa. It’s top is solid and gives us a vast view, but at the rim is a sheer drop-off. The edge is an exposed place where a lapse in concentration can cause us to loose our footing. We have to work the edge, expand its boundaries and find the gift of balance. It’s at the edge where we can discover courage and freedom. The Edge States are all about how we see things, a fresh way of viewing and interpreting our experiences of those States – and their shadow sides. To help us better understand when we are standing on the edge – and when we are in danger of going over…
A long way back, I blogged about how I wasn’t sleeping well. Since the start of the pandemic, my sleeping schedule has dramatically changed. I go to bed much earlier than I used to – and I’m often up by 4:30 am. On the whole, it’s worked for me – but it can be challenging because I can’t seem to break the cycle when I need to stay up for an activity that lasts beyond 9 pm.
Most people would say they are someone who gets insufficient sleep – either in duration or that they have an abnormal pattern. I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life that way myself. It’s a bummer.
Recently, I read the wonderful book by a neuroscientist, Matthew Walker, entitled “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” My wife had been handing out copies to friends for over a year – and I finally caved to see what the hubbub was about. Subconsciously, I think I was avoiding reading it because it illuminates just how important sleep is.
The book is chock full of fascinating revelations. Here’s the description of it from the Amazon page selling the book:
“Sleep is one of the most important but least understood aspects of our life, wellness, and longevity. Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why we suffer such devastating health consequences when we don’t sleep. Compared to the other basic drives in life—eating, drinking, and reproducing—the purpose of sleep remained elusive.
An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.
Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses.”
I just loved this two-part Brene Brown podcast with Susan Cain about how bittersweetness can be so wonderful. Susan is the author of “Quiet,” which informed us all about the power of introverts. Now she has penned “Bittersweet” – and how longing and sorrow can make us whole.
The essence of the concept is that we are creatures who can transform pain into beauty. From the podcasts, it seems like there are oodles of quotes in the book that you might be hanging on the wall above your desk. Like “Creativity has the power to look pain in the eye and turn it into something better.”
Note that Susan is not advocating for depression. That’s not a good thing. Whereas melancholy and bittersweetness are not all that different, depression clearly is different and something to be concerned about…
This video from a long time ago brought real joy to my heart. A woman experiences pure ecstasy in the presence of Papaji. It’s so rare that we have one of those head-back laughs, it’s a thrill to watch someone have one:
Whether it be Krishna Das or Girish – or any number of kirtan singers that are easily available on Spotify or YouTube – it can be such a relaxing pleasure to listen to kirtan. And even more beneficial to participate in the chanting of kirtan itself, as this article notes. Here’s an excerpt:
While Kirtan has been around for thousands of years, modern researchers have only recently begun to study its health benefits. A team at the University of West Virginia interested in examining the effects of Kirtan on cognitive impairment found that doing a Kirtan mantra for 12 minutes a day for 12 weeks altered plasma blood levels involved in cellular aging which were associated with improvements in cognitive function, sleep, mood, and quality of life.
Another team at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the effects of Kirtan on patients with memory loss, found that after eight weeks of Kirtan the brain scans of participants in the study showed significantly increased cerebral blood flow in several areas. Most importantly, their performance on neuropsychological testing showed improved visuospatial memory, increased connectivity, and improved verbal memory. Others researchers have found that Kirtan can reduce symptoms of depression and improve chronic pain.
From an emotional perspective, Kirtan is beneficial because you are engaged in an activity that distracts you from thinking. This is particularly beneficial if you are caught up in a spiral of negative thinking and would like to use meditation to alleviate the ruminative process. When you stop flooding your brain with fear and worry about the future or resentments from the past, this has a profoundly positive effect of resetting your emotional state to calm and peaceful. Some people who practice Kirtan also report a spiritual benefit, with some saying they feel a sense of bliss, more emotionally open and connected to others.
Following up on my reading of Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying,” Chapter 18 digs into the topic of caring for the body of a dying person after death. Since our society “protects” us from seeing dead bodies, most of us have very little experience in this area. Here are a few of the things I learned:
1. Familiarize yourself with the faith and beliefs of the dying, ask specifically what they want you to do with the body after death
2. Ask “what guides and supports you in your life? what do you have faith in? what really matters to you?”
3. Many traditions believe that the spirit or consciousness remains present for a time; so you need to show respect after death
4. Immediately after death, try to keep the atmosphere around the body simple and quiet. If possible, don’t disturb or touch the body.
5. Since rigor mortis doesn’t set in for about two hours, you have plenty of time to bathe and dress the body
6. When you do bathe the body, plain water might not work well as the dying person often will defecate, urinate, vomit or sweat. You may need to gently bathe with a small amount of alcohol to close the pores and some mild aromatic tea
7. If the body will be viewed at home, you may want to brush teeth, place a condom or cotton to close holes in case their is leakage
8. You might want to close the eyes and tape them shut. And use a scarf around the head to close the mouth. Once rigor mortis sets in, you can remove the tape and scarf.
9. Choose light-fitting clothing and don’t cover the body. Open windows to get air circulating. But there is nothing inherently dangerous about a dead body for a short while.
10. It is usually easiest to attend to the body before contacting a doctor to administer a death certificate. The same with contacting a burial home – they will often come right away and you’ll loose your opportunity to do something with your beloved that might feel like a vital connection to the life cycle.
Following up on my reading of Roshi Joan Halifax’s “Being with Dying,” I learned that it was important to let the dying take the lead in their own death. Try to ascertain what is best, but don’t medicate someone who is dying if they don’t want it. Don’t medicate them just because you’re uncomfortable with their level of anger. Ofr grief. Or any one of a multitude of emotions that they may need to process as a way towards feeling fulfilled. Our mental faculties tend to unbind before the body releases itself.
Letting these emotional experiences happen are part of accepting death as the ultimate moment in life. The low-tide experiences, the chaos, may be necessary as part of the process…