Posts Tagged ‘heartbreak’

“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement”

~Suzuki Roshi

This past weekend, I attended a meditation retreat at the New York Shambhala Center. The focus of the retreat was “The Art of Being Human” and getting in touch with the concept of basic goodness. One of the exercises we did involved recalling a moment of basic goodness, a moment that was remarkable for its detail and brilliance, a moment in which we were fully present. My moment occurred to me immediately. In fact, I’ve written about it here.

Just recalling my moment was viscerally calming. I was in a time of transition in my life. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear were very present. But I also had a sense of confidence or trust in myself that taking a risk was the right thing to do. I felt very aware of the past and the future, but not pulled in either direction. Instead, I was held by the present moment with a sort of buoyancy, like being suspended in midair without feeling precarious or in jeopardy, like I was hanging out in the most comfortable hammock.

In the exercise this weekend, we used our respective moments to connect with the sense of basic goodness, the fundamental heart of our existence. And as a result, my practice felt very soft, clear, aware, and heartfelt. But connecting with a moment of basic goodness when everything feels OK is one thing. Recalling it when I am sad or lonely or angry or restless, that’s another. When I fear I will be a failure or, worse, that no one will even notice, how can I begin to remember this foundational concept?

When I asked her this very question yesterday, my meditation instructor’s guidance was “to expand and include.” Since then I keep saying the words to myself. Expand and include. I understand them but at what point will I feel them?

In the recollection of my moment of basic goodness, I recognize my desire to be held. Often I try to simulate this feeling by grasping onto events in the past or by fantasizing about the future. I am seeking some ground on which to feel stable but it never seems to work. And never am I more vulnerable to doing this shimmy between the past and the future – never am I less present – than when dealing with strong emotions. My work, therefore, is to connect with that sense of being held, of trusting in the moment, when the going gets tough.

To do this, I will need to cultivate enough space and openness to allow “negative” emotional states to exist without letting them pull me under, similar to how I was aware of past and future in my moment of basic goodness but able to remain in the present. This will allow me to experience the pain that is very real, but also to remember that there is more than pain. That the pain isn’t the end of the story. Holding these two seemingly opposing views is what is so complex about life, where things are never black and white. The idea that in a moment of pain, I could feel as held by the present moment as I did in my moment of basic goodness, that I could feel as well placed, that I am exactly where I need to be, is something I can imagine. And from there, I can begin to practice.

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I have been on vacation in Sicily for the last week and, as always, I am struck by the stark contrast between the raw beauty and sensuality of the place and a sense of disconnectedness between the people and one another, the land, the public spaces, and the natural resources. Here, as where I live in New York City and anywhere else I have traveled, we seem to forget how we are connected to one another, how our actions and words have consequences, our inherent interdependence. This contrast is magnified by an awareness of current suffering – developments in Syria, the fall of Detroit, soaring obesity and diabetes and cancer rates, and any number of issues that raise my anxiety levels to the point of overwhelm, helplessness, and hopelessness.

Oftentimes, when I reach such a point of delusion, something happens to shift my awareness just slightly, and to cause my heart to open rather than to shut down. That something happened last night.

My boyfriend, his cousin, his cousin’s cousin, and I met for a late-night drink (a non-alcoholic bitter for me) in Messina. Afterwards, we went for a little stroll along the water to see the restaurant where my boyfriend’s cousin works as a chef. It was late and I was ready to go home but we continued to walk out on a little stretch of the dock that allowed access to the boat slips. On our way, we encountered a beautiful cat, whose name I learned was Romeo. At that point in the evening, about 2 am, when my Italian language skills had reached a point of fatigue, feline seemed the only language I could understand. But I hesitated to reach out to him because my boyfriend had commented just two days earlier on the fact that I was more interested in the stray cats in Syracusa’s archeological park than I was in the 2500+-year-old ruins.

As we came back from the boat slips, we were greeted again not only by Romeo, but also by about 10 other cats, including kittens as young as 4 and 8 weeks, the parents probably not more than a year old themselves. It has always been difficult for me to handle outdoor cats. I understand that felines gingerly walk the fine line between wild and domesticated, that they probably fulfill their cat-ness by surviving outdoors. Still I always want to take them in, to give them a home. And I can understand how people become animal hoarders, how they just want to save one more. We stayed with the kittens for a few minutes. In my head I was rationalizing how the mild temperature, abundance of fish, and mostly friendly caretakers contributed to a life worth living for these homeless creatures.

Just as we were about to leave, I heard a cry. At first I wasn’t sure if it was human or animal. I walked to the limits of the dock, where a gate prevented me from going any further, and saw two of the older cats looking down into the water, where the concrete dropped off steeply. The cries grew louder and more desperate; it was clear they came from one of the kittens. I didn’t want to hear the cries. I didn’t want to feel what I felt when I realized a kitten had fallen into the water below, with no way to climb back to safety, that its mother was looking on helplessly, much the way I was, gripping the gate. Then the cries stopped.

A kitten just drowned, I said to the guys. They protested, especially my boyfriend who would rather protect me from any upsetting thoughts than allow me to think about an animal’s suffering. It just drowned, I said again, and I just stood here. For a moment, I felt a surprising sense of relief wash over me – relief at the idea that whatever suffering a small animal was experiencing had just ended abruptly. But then I heard it again and saw movement in the water. The kitten was swimming away from where it had fallen, further out into the water, but in the direction of the walkway we had access to.

As I realized what was happening, I turned around and expected to find the guys standing behind me motionless, exchanging impatient looks, as I was help rapt by the drama of an insignificant being unfolding before me. But instead, I found that one of them had stripped off his shirt, was prepared to dive, and was scaling the fence that separated us from the drowning kitten; another had gone in search of a net to draw it safely from the water; and my boyfriend preceded me down the walkway in the direction of the struggling kitten.

I got down on hands and knees and crawled out on the walkway, trying to call it toward me, seeing how it could barely keep its head above water, and that it was clearly torn between the terrors of the water about to swallow it whole and the giants clamoring to get at it. Something allowed it to come closer, though, perhaps the current or its own last efforts, and my boyfriend was able to extend himself to the point of toppling into the water, to catch a few hairs on the edge of the kitten’s foot and draw it in. He handed it to one of the others, who lifted it out and brought it to safety.

The kitten was limp and appeared to have already drowned. Some of the water it had swallowed was coming out of it’s mouth in a foam and it had defecated in that final way the body has of letting go. One of the guys held the motionless kitten with its head down so the rest of the water could come out. But it was gone. Dead, I thought, and again felt the relief of the end of its suffering. At least it didn’t get swept out to sea, I thought. At least we did what we could. At least we tried.

The dead kitten lay on its side, sodden, still, and not weighing more than a pound. I stroked its small body, and tried to imagine that there was some movement or warmth coming from it, when I heard a small cry, and saw a little movement of its head. By that point, one of the guys returned with some paper towel and we began to dry it, to massage it back to life, to clean up the mess of dying. As the little thing regained consciousness, it loudly protested the vigorous massage. The other cats came closer than they had earlier, perhaps no longer viewing us as a threat, to get a look at the commotion.

I watched as the other kittens played, tackling one another and rolling around by the edge. This happens every day, I thought. One of them falls into the water and drowns, or gets too close to the street, or crosses the path of someone who has forgotten his or her basic goodness. And life goes on. I felt helpless and thought, There are too many to save. There is too much suffering in this world. What is the point of trying to help when there is no way to succeed?

The kitten continued to be gently but firmly reinvigorated, this little thing that perhaps no one would have missed. We left him loosely wrapped in some paper towel, a safe distance from the edge of the dock, so that his mother could attend to him without onlookers. Maybe he survived the night. Or maybe the experience was too much for him and his small body gave out after we left. I don’t know for sure. The mixed emotions of knowing we had done what we could and recognizing that his little life was now back in the hands of a harsher reality weighed heavily on my heart.

Rather than a sense of relief at his rescue, I felt pulled to let go of hope for a happy ending and also a small sense of having done something important. I could have pretended not to hear the cries. The guys could have remained unmoved, emotionally and physically. But we all chose to make a difference in a small life by allowing ourselves to feel something. Holding these mixed feelings simultaneously is a tricky thing. In the end I was left with the confidence that it still matters to try, to make an effort, however small and seemingly insignificant. That many small efforts could lead to something greater. That we can always try to be the person who would save a drowning kitten in some small way every day.


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During the last week, a lot has happened. The bombings that seem so long ago occurred just 9 days back. The around-the-clock news coverage by the journalists that besieged Boston seemed to stretch out painful moments interminably. Like many people, I was glued to my television until the surreal news came through the scanners that this confused, 19-year-old man-child was wounded and captured alive.

Add to that my own confusion, stress, concern for those affected, (temporary and non-serious) illness, and several days away from my home, and it seems not so unlikely that I would fail to do one of the things that supports me through difficult times. As often happens to me during times of intense emotional stress, last week I stopped meditating.

My natural impulse is to berate myself for this illogical lapse or to force myself to sit for a long period to “make up” for lost time. But as I delve deeper into practicing imperfection, I’m exploring the effects of being gentle with myself.

Instead of flogging, I forgave. And instead of harsh self-discipline, I tried to remember the reasons I do this practice. I sat for just 5 minutes one day as a form of re-entry; the next day I sat for a longer period of time and listened to full meditation instruction. Tonight I will try to sit again, with a sense of gentleness and loving-kindness.

At times like these, being gentle with ourselves and one another may be the most important thing we can do.

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Like a lot of people, I am having a hard time making sense of what happened yesterday. Though I grew up in New York, I was living in Boston at the time of the 9/11 attacks. I sat in my office looking out the window at the planes leaving Logan airport, until they stopped. Boston was my home for 14 years, specifically the Back Bay area, where the marathon comes to a finish.

Now that I’m living in New York again, it’s difficult to comprehend the terror and melee that occurred yesterday in my former home town. It’s difficult to understand what was going on in the minds of the people who likely started planning this atrocity at about the same time thousands of others started establishing training goals, buying new sneakers, and setting their sites on April 15, 2013.

I know this happens every day and has been seemingly forever. I know that beautiful, innocent 8-year-olds like Martin Richard of Dorchester, who was with his mom and two siblings watching his father finish the race, are lost every day. I am saddened by my own inability to feel the loss that happens in faraway locations as deeply and those closer to me. Not unlike a conservative senator who can only support marriage equality when he makes the connection with his own gay son, sometimes this is what is necessary to open our eyes:

I’m finding some comfort in the following and thought you might too:

A response from the Dalai Lama:

I’m not yet ready to comment on the tragedy of this day.

I think there will be many comments, perhaps too many…the ‘How could this happen’s’ and ‘What kind of monster could do just this’s”—though that dialogue may become an integral part of our healing, I pray that as these hours unfold, we will all move forward towards a true and compassionate understanding.

But for now, I—and I believe I speak for everyone else here at elephant journal—send out all of our collective love, and best energy…to heal the hearts of those who need it most.

And, may these hearts not ever lose hope.

To all the beautiful souls needing love tonight—you have mine…and most unconditionally.


This Facebook status update from a friend:

My response to evil, tragedy & wrongdoing, as it has always been, is to go out into the world & spread even more happiness & compassion than the day before.

And the growing number of stories of the helpers, the people who ran toward the wreckage instead of away, the people who offered homes, help, and kindness.

I send my love and compassion to the Richard family and all of those affected by yesterday’s tragedy. As I try to make sense of this all, I will continually try to open rather than shut down.

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“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


It’s been two months since my job ended. Since then I have tried to bring the structure of my working life into the vast abyss of my unemployment. Somehow I fill my days with errands and small tasks that must have gone uncompleted when I was working. That and I watch a lot of bad TV. I’ve become mildly obsessed with doing everything right – working out 5 times a week, cooking a variety of nutritious meals, using up all the produce in the fridge before it goes bad, getting the best price on bananas. At the end of the day I’m often not sure what happened. But I feel exhausted.

By filling in the time, I haven’t really been dealing with the fact that I’m confused and uncertain and scared. I guess I have felt this way for much of my life. Like a lot of people, I want to understand the meaning of life, the meaning of my life. To find a way to live that makes me relatively happy and also makes the world a little better when I leave it. I have tried on different personas to see how they fit. One of those personas involved drinking – the wine-savvy dietitian, the friend who was always ready for a cocktail. Before I quit drinking more than 5 years ago, it seemed that alcohol had become so intertwined with my very personality, I wasn’t sure what would remain in its absence. As it turned out, that wasn’t who I was at all.

Since then, and especially since I began to practice meditation, the question of who I am has become all the more poignant, scary, and unclear. As I unraveled the layers of behaviors and habits, there seemed to be less and less there. And yet I have felt more and more myself.

The other day I was standing on the corner of 60th and Lex waiting to go down into the subway. It was raining and I was on the phone with my meditation instructor, who was telling me not to be afraid of my confusion and lack of ground. As often happens when I hear something that feels purely true, I had tears in my eyes.

During the next few days, I realized that the things I’ve done in my life that have felt the most important – falling in love, working on myself in therapy, rebuilding a once-shaky relationship with my parents, quitting drinking, even writing this blog – I’ve done from a place of utter vulnerability. In each instance, I felt I had bottomed out, in a good way. That I was out of rationalizations, that I could only listen to my heart, take a risk, drop expectations, and see what came of it. I never knew how these things would turn out. It’s only in retrospect that each feels momentous.

So perhaps my confusion now is not something to shake or beat into submission. Perhaps, if I allow myself to feel its full weight, its bottomless-seeming depth, it will allow me to see what I need to see.



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