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yoga exercise abstract

     Meditation, in all its various colors, has hit the mainstream.   It used to be just the hippies and alternative people who flocked to a room somewhere back in the 60s and 70s to learn transcendental meditation. I was one of them. My friend was one of the “alternatives” and invited me to a session that he was attending. Sounded interesting. I was given a mantra and taught how to relax my mind and silently repeat that mantra over and over again. When my mind wandered, gently bring it back to that nonsensical word and continue to silently and effortless repeat it. We were taught to practice that for 20 minutes twice a day. I did, and have been for years. Now it’s 30 minutes once a day about 5 times a week. During my college years I lapsed and had intermittent on/off periods during my high driving career years. But for a number of years now it’s been a regular practice, not “TM” but rather insight meditation has taken its place. That practice has made a major impact on my patience level, sense of peace and contentedness, clarity of thought and abiding sense of internal joy. Medical research now proves the physical and mental benefits of an ongoing meditation and mindfulness practice. Dozens of articles have been written about it and books extolling its benefits include its step-by-step process. But few have the emotional impact and first person case study that prominent neurosurgeon Dr. James R. Doty’s has in his memoir Into The Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Wow is the superlative that comes to mind.

     Dr. Doty is now a professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. But, as he tells it, it’s a fluke that he actually attended college at all, not to mention become a successful and prominent neurosurgeon. He doesn’t use the word fluke he calls it magic and weaves a compelling tale of being a young boy and meeting a woman in a magic shop who seduced him by promising the ultimate magic trick that would change his life. He was to spend his 12 weeks of summer vacation with her learning the trick. And if he practiced the trick, even at home, he could have anything he wants in life. That would be truly amazing since he came from a very poor family with a drunken father who couldn’t keep a job and bedridden, clinically depressed mother who had to continually pack up the family and move when they got evicted from apartment after apartment for not paying the rent.

     The trick, as Dr. Doty relays, was learning to meditate and then manifest his dreams. With regular practice and a deep, sincere desire for those goals to materialize along with visualization and the trust that they would – his life could change. Would change. This book tells that story of how his dreams came to pass. Along the way he shares the step-by-step process that this woman, Ruth, taught him. His abiding hope is that others will learn the way too.

It’s a profound read that is hard to put down.

 

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People are usually wowed by my revelation that I’m a hospice volunteer, more than likely following that reaction with “boy I could never do that.”   They ascribe all sorts of saintly attributes to me which is uncomfortable, because they’re not true (ask my husband).  What is true is the following list … in no particular order … at this time of lists.

I receive much more than I give.

Time and receptivity is all that’s required and in return I learn about life and what it means to be human.  There is no other time in a person’s life when the need for true connection is greater.  To be invited into someone’s ultimate personal journey is a gift not to be taken lightly.  It holds great responsibility for truthfulness and vulnerability with its attending need for confidentiality.  Life’s lessons can be transmitted in just a few final months and I’m awed by the opportunity.

Hospice care givers are selfless heroes.

After a certain point a person in hospice care can no longer go and do.  All that’s available is to Be.  It’s the caregiver who is their loved one’s wheels, hands, utensils, hygienist, eyes, ears and task accomplishers.  They become housebound, leaving only when someone’s there to sit vigilance in their stead.  Life can exist that way for months, depending on the nature of the illness.  And it’s they who experience the deterioration of the person they knew and loved who’s no longer the person they remember.  They give selflessly without complaint – the greatest gift of love.  They lead invisible lives until theirs can once again resume.

Live life the way you’d like to be remembered.

This lesson can be sobering for someone on a deathbed.  One of my patients was postponing her death as long as possible even though its extension caused her suffering to be prolonged.  When we learned that she was afraid to die because of her shame about the pain she had caused others in her life, and her subsequent fear of retribution after death,  we called in her pastor to pray with her, allowing her to ask for the forgiveness she believed she needed.  And that included a necessary plea to her husband.  The next day she died.  No-one wants to be haunted on their deathbed.

Two friends

Authentic relationships are the only kind to have.

Once I experienced a true human connection I realized that it’s the only type I want.  Life is so short, putting on airs and pretending to be someone you’re not is foolhardy and a waste of precious time.  Being invited to peer into someone’s soul can be profound.

Friendship

It’s gratifying and enriching to be of service.

My time, until now, has been paid for by a number of companies who determined the value I brought to their organizations.  Doing what I did had market value and its commensurate performance standards. So most of my waking hours were spent performing to expectations – theirs and mine, tying my definition of value to size of paycheck.  Today I know differently and it’s had a profound effect on my life.

Day Hospice

Love comes in many flavors…

and romantic love might be the most shallow.  Relying on a family member to perform hygiene needs can force the final release of dignity.  And yet it’s part of the dying process.  Attending to people during their greatest time of need requires true unconditional love.

Friendship, Göteborg, Sweden

Image via Wikipedia

Shedding a facade makes room for intimate connection.

There are no more airs during the dying process, only naked humanity.  When I walk through the doors of a patient’s home I leave my defensive walls behind and open my heart to anything that might transpire for the next few hours.  I was privileged to attend to one elderly patient during her active dying phase with her equally elderly husband by her side, over wrought with grief.  With fever raging and her husband helplessly watching, I applied cool, damp wash cloths to her head, chest and arms, speaking soothing words as her breathing changed.  I witnessed her husband’s tears and last words of love and kiss goodbye – an unparalleled moment of intimacy that I’ll never forget.  Even her children didn’t experience this exchange between their parents; by the time they arrived she’d lost consciousness.

Change is the only constant.

Spending time with the dying certainly drives this point home.  Photo albums, pictures on the walls, stories from family members – those are the only ties to who this person was – his likes, her dislikes, their careers, their passions. This new person only shares the same name.  Most of the time I’ve never met the person they describe.  Life represents one changing moment after the next.  Might as well embrace it and enjoy it.

Patient

Trust defines our human-ness.

When you’re dying all there is is trust.  Trust that those who are there will do what’s right and take no advantage.  The dying slowly lose all control over their lives, leaving it in the hands of those around them, trusting that their wishes will be honored.  It’s heartwarming to watch adult children assume the role of parents and caretakers.  And the process reveals the true character of people.

Original caption: Ne ties a friendship bracele...

Image via Wikipedia

Listening without judgement is vital.

My role as a hospice volunteer is to do whatever the patient needs at the time.  Some like to be read to, others enjoy playing games.  One patient just wanted to watch old movies.  And one gentleman waited until his wife left to break down and grieve that he wouldn’t be around to counsel his grandson into manhood.  This man’s son died the year before and now his son’s son wouldn’t have a grandfather.  It was more than he could bear and it took all his energy to stand strong in front of his family.  Many patients need the ears and hearts of people who come with no family baggage.  Holding hands and simply nodding provides comfort.

Hospice

Friends show their true colors in time of need.

And many walk away, never to be heard from again.  It’s easy to be friends when life is humming along; it requires much more mettle when there’s nothing to be gained in return.

Mother and Child watching each other

Image via Wikipedia

Recognizing mortality energizes living.

Working in hospice is not depressing.  It’s not morose.  It’s not morbid.  It ends in sadness but inspires vitality.  When we recognize that life will end – for all of us – then we’re compelled by an urgency to appreciate each day and be aware of it.  Awareness of the present is a Buddhist tenet and that lesson stands front and center in hospice.

Hospice

Hospice is a gift.

It offers the dying a chance to end their days in comfort.  Without pain.  Without tubes attached.  Outside the beeping noise of an ICU with its antiseptic smell and sterile walls.   And it teaches the greatest lesson to accept that which you can’t control.

Yes, hospice inspires living.  May be we all be so inspired.

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Be forewarned – this is a Christmas rant...

A silent minority I am no longer, at least on this blog.  Actually, in life I’ve never been accused of being demure, though living in the South has offered a fruitful exercise in patience and understanding.  If I don’t want to be ostracized during this season of joyful expression then I must accept the south’s assumption that everyone is Christian during December.

There are no Jews.  No Buddhists.  No celebrations of Kwanzaa.  No agnostic expressions of love and giving.  In fact there are no traditions worthy of recognition other than for those who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. You don’t get to play in December’s sandbox of love unless you share the belief in Jesus Christ the lord of lords.

Holiday get togethers I’ve attended start with a prayer in the name of “Jesus Christ our Lord” and, at times, end with an impromptu Bible study of relevant scripture.  That kind of agenda was not included on the invitation but, hey, that’s what this season’s about, isn’t it?

Frankly, I’m not bothered a lick that people believe in the divinity of Christ.  My feeling is that the spiritual path tends to lead to the same place regardless of the avenues taken.  And if it offers joy and peace for people to think Jesus is God, good for them.

It’s equally ok if you don’t.  

And I don’t.

My heritage is Judaism and my family celebrated Hanukkah – in December.  And it usually falls right around Christmas time.

As an adult I don’t identify as Jewish, certainly not as Christian either.  My spiritual tradition incorporates philosophies of Buddhism and Yoga flavored by a Native American appreciation for nature and all living things.  But it’s a personal practice that doesn’t include the assumption that you feel the same way.

I don’t need Jesus to save my soul, in fact, my soul doesn’t need saving.  My conscience is clear, my heart is full, my principles and values are in tact AND I celebrate the season of giving and love during December.  I don’t give thanks for all the grace in my life in the name of Jesus Christ.

If you’re Christian, enjoy the holiness of the season.

If you’re not –

Happy Holidays to you and yours in the name of your own traditions.  May we all absorb the warmth of this time of year and offer it out to the universe.

Namaste.

Carry on …

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During meditation this morning I started to focus on what it feels like to meditate.  How the process starts, progresses up to that point where I’ve quieted down enough to lessen my loss of focus and just be there.  Then, where is there?

As I start the process of slowing down I notice my mind racing with a million images and thoughts that accompany them, as though I’m in the middle of a collage as it’s being constructed.  It takes effort to focus on the breath – starting with my nose and then migrating to the abdomen where I can feel breathing in and breathing out.  Immediately, an image catches my attention and steals focus until I’m aware of gently re-guiding awareness back to the breath.  Then to hearing.  Then to breath and hearing as those two senses start to dominate.

Notice the blood coursing through my hands and now my feet.  Listen to my heartbeat while I become comfortable residing inside the body and not out.

Outside starts to drift away while the world inside looms large, growing more peaceful with each breath.  I notice a slight smile on my face while my tongue hugs the roof of my mouth.  Distraction comes and goes, more going than coming.  Peace settles within and my body rests contentedly.

And then I’m there.  Here.  Aware of the quiet.  Aware of sounds.  Aware of breath.  Aware of spaciousness.  Inside.  Not at all outside.

And your meditation experience?

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It’s Thanksgiving and we’re visiting my father-in-law and the rest of the clan on his side of the family.  The yearly tradition brings between 16 – 20 of us together to catch up on the year’s events and see how old the kids are getting – now that many of them are starting to have children of their own.

My father-in-law spends the day beaming as he visits each of us.  He loves watching his brood grow and he takes his place at the head of the assorted tables cobbled together to make one long dining space that stretches from dining room to living room.

For him it’s bittersweet.  It’s the one time of year we all come to visit and feast together.  And in years past he would catch the eye of his wife seated at the far end of the table and blow her a kiss.  This is the second year that chair will be empty.

Dean was married to Susie for 63 years before she died, leaving him alone and unprepared to continue life without her.  For some reason he was blindsided by her passing, even though his kids had been expecting it for years.  He assumed she’d  come home from the most recent hospitalization just like every other time.  This time, though, she didn’t.

He’s been grieving for more than two years now, still heartbroken over losing his one great love. He tells us he talks to her every night to tell her of the day’s events.  He says he apologizes to her for not doing enough for her all those years they were together.

Myrtle Beach, SC Spring Break 2007

Image via Wikipedia

That confession astounds me.  I can’t imagine him doing anything more for that incredibly fortunate woman.  He created and maintained a beautiful garden in their backyard so she could see it through her kitchen window.  Bought a condo in Myrtle Beach to winter there because she loved being near the ocean.  Bought the house she loved in Pennsylvania because she loved it.  To me, their marriage was what fairy tales are made of, built on love and mutual respect.  And now – he bemoans what he thinks he didn’t do.

What he didn’t do is say goodbye to his wife of 63 years.  For him, she suddenly died.  While she was living he never said…

Thank you for a wonderful life together.  Thank you for our four wonderful, productive, achieved kids.  Thank you for working and supporting our household while I was earning a Ph.D in metallurgy.  Thank you for moving where my jobs took me.  And thank you for your never-ending support, friendship and love over the years.

Had he realized she was on a dying path for the last three years of her life, perhaps he might have taken the time to say to her then what he says to her every night now.

The lesson my father-in-law is teaching?  Don’t ever wait to say thanks to the people you love.  And tell them that you love them.  Today, tomorrow and future tomorrows.

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This weekend finds us tending family fires, both the cozy and the more crackling kind.  After all there are few families who resemble the Waltons, all warm and fuzzy with never any cross words between them.  My family is more like the Bickersons, actually, we all have much to say and if it gets a bit heated at times, ah well, that’s life.  Yet beneath the prickly surface we are bound to each other deeply and unconditionally.

My husband and I don’t see our respective families often; we live hundreds of miles from them, and have since we left our homes for college.  On Thanksgiving we all make the effort to reunite – first with his family then with mine.  It’s the one holiday that is sacrosanct and I love the tradition.  Parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, nieces, nephews, and now their spouses and children, all pilgrimage to a family house to squeeze around a growing assortment of tables and feast the day away.

Thanksgiving isn’t one of those hallmark card holidays, you know the ones whose only purpose is to lighten our wallets.  Hey, it’s very good these days to boost the economy, but in our family Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ & Fathers’ Days pass us by without fanfare.  Thanksgiving is different.  It offers a genuine opportunity to take inventory of our lives and devote a day, or even a weekend, to reflect on our personal good fortunes.

I’m among those who hold an optimistic perspective about life and tend to view the proverbial cup as half full.  The way I see it – each individual is on this planet for a finite period and what happens after that is up to personal interpretation.  I’ve been around long enough to know that a few problems will give way to better days and there will be gorgeous sunrises and sunsets that bookend each one regardless of the content between.

Research shows that an attitude of appreciation helps boost the immune system, which keeps all kinds of nasty stress causing ailments at bay.  And while money may help lower stress, studies also find it is not the panacea some people like to think.  Generally speaking, altruistic acts foster personal well-being.  As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says,

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

I spend time as a hospice companion and it’s a great teacher for the practice of “count your blessings.”  Offering friendship to people facing the end of life is proving to be a priceless gift to myself where I’m privileged to witness profound, yet simple examples of genuine appreciation.

One patient’s caregiver is grateful for each morning he’s able to maneuver his wife’s increasingly rigid limbs to dress her for the day.

Another patient eagerly waits for my visits so I can read the day’s news events because her eyes no longer cooperate with her habit of voracious reading.

And although taking care of her mother until that final breath keeps this caregiver virtually housebound, she is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to share such an intimate journey with her hero.

IMAGINE BEING THANKFUL FOR SUCH HARDSHIPS IN LIFE.  

The late Steve Jobs said,

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.  

To me that means live your dreams, have no regrets and be thankful for the opportunity – all the opportunities, in fact.

I move that each day be designated personal thanks day.  All those in favor …?

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Last week’s exercises in my non-fiction creative writing class were interesting ones.  We were asked to list obsessions and strong memories, then expound on them.  A collective sigh came from the four of us until the juices started flowing inspiring each of us to become absorbed in our unique internal lives.

Early on it became clear that this assignment would offer each other glimpses into who we are.  We met as strangers from different parts of the area and today we’d share intimacies – because of a writing exercise.

A single woman in her early 30s struggles with a driving desire to find herself, to one-day have the courage to leave her job of 12 years and follow her dream.  Trouble is, she can’t identify that dream.  Maybe this writing class will coax that passion to the surface.  Or maybe writing will help her understand why each new relationship ends up falling apart as she wonders on paper whether this current beau will stand the test of time.  She’s plagued by the need to compare herself to peers with husbands and children which feeds a certain panic in her soul.  Now we understand her a bit better.

The woman to my right obsesses about her weight and writing and, hopefully, earning money from her prose.  She used to be a teacher and grew very frustrated with the politics of education and students’ lack of interest.  She yearns for the day when the solitary hours spent putting thoughts on paper will be validated with a check in the mail.  She and her husband are retired and she struggles with the balance of taking care of him and the urge to spill herself into her fingers on a keyboard.

Then there’s the woman whose childhood trauma sparked a love for poetry.  Pouring her tortured heart onto paper somehow eased the pain of losing her mother when she was nine years old.  A drunk driver slammed head on into the family car while her mother was at the wheel.  While this girl waited outside the car for an ambulance to arrive she remembers hearing her mother gurgling, still trapped behind the steering wheel.  Those injuries proved fatal.  The father spent days in the ICU recovering from his physical injuries, though his heart never healed.  So that nine-year old girl and her siblings were shipped out to be cared for by others. Today this now grown woman has a deep story to tell and skimmed the shallow surface with us.

As for me, I wouldn’t say I have obsessions, per se, what I have are driving passions, one of them is horses.  Though I’ve never owned a horse, I usually find a way to be around them; lately it’s volunteering at a horse rescue where we rehabilitate neglected and abused horses.  This past week I also attended horse camp where we brushed up on our riding skills mounted on Paso Finos and Tennessee Walking Horses.  Their strides are smooth as velvet and much easier on the legs and back.

Eye of a Horse (Andalusian)

Image via Wikipedia

They say that horses are windows into your soul and maybe that’s why I’m filled with emotion when grooming them.  Watching their powerful, graceful bodies prance around a pasture fills me with awe.

There are a lot more stories inside us waiting to be coaxed to the surface.  We humans are fascinating creatures – each with a unique story to tell to the right listener who extends a sincere invitation.

What are some of your stories?

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