Tag Archives: inspiration

Meditation and a viewfinder

viewfinderI cut out a rectangular shaped box in the middle of the piece of cardboard and look through my “viewfinder.” The angles of the table are now easier to sketch. When I look through the small box, I can perceive the smaller picture and the relationships of the table within the small opening. I’m less distracted from the images that the cardboard blots out. Now I can close one eye, and like a monocular, focus on a small part of the bigger whole.

I think meditation works like a viewfinder. They are both tools to enhance our lives. One allows me to draw more accurately, to hone my attention skills while sketching. The other allows me to concentrate and pay attention to the present moment. Both tools render clarity and focus. Both make things simple and transparent. Both eliminate clutter.

Since Christmas I have been lost in a number of nesting projects – clearing out old unfinished stuff that has cluttered up the corners of our bedroom, and projects that have tumbled about in my head. Nesting and resting. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the winter months so much, as I get a huge delight in disposing of the yellow sticky-notes (my to-do list) that line my computer screen: Shutterfly album for son, done. Old photos scanned and uploaded, done. Library wall of books dusted, done. New blind for the kitchen window, done. New sketching pen purchased, done. Watercolours purchased, done. How-to watercolour YouTube videos  watched incessantly,  done. Dining room table now a temporary art studio, done.

Writing, not done. EBook about meditation, mindfulness, dementia and me, not done.

Makeshift artist's studio

Makeshift artist’s studio

The irony doesn’t escape me: lost in projects, losing focus. (My viewfinder’s not working.)

Over the holidays I spent a few days writing about dementia and mindfulness, and because I had no plan (no organized thoughts about an eBook), I sat down and began in the middle. But disorganization unsettles me; I feel uneasy when I see disorder. It’s a trait that I have possessed since I was a child and I own it. Order, neatness and cleanliness are a good thing in my book.

Eventually my struggles with writing led me to abandon the eBook. The middle was too weird for me – I kept asking the Universe for a beginning. My intention had become: A plan! A plan (the middle isn’t working for me)!

As humans, we sure complicate things. Instead of perceiving life as it is, accepting the Now, our minds search for something greater. In my case, I went searching for answers – for a plan, one that had a beginning, middle and an end.

So for the past couple of weeks, in spite of meditating and sitting in silence, and instead of accepting the sacred in the present moment, I kept searching.

When we do it right, there is a simplicity in mindfulness: when we see the grace in each moment – in peace or unease – then we are practicing mindfulness, complete acceptance of what is. The simplicity is in the awareness.

But I ignored those moments, I chose to struggle and complicate them:

I would meet people and we would begin a discussion on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and mindfulness, and instead of acknowledging the signs and the synchronicity – the repetition and constancy –  I dismissed them. I would take long, solitary walks and soon my head would fill with memories of my father standing on the counter (how I had to find a ladder to help him down); how my father jumped out of a moving car one morning and I still ignored the signs of his illness; how my father refused to go outside (when it was he who taught us to appreciate a sunrise, while camping); and memories of my mother sobbing over the washroom sink because she couldn’t turn the taps off. All of these memories and more would continue to assault me when I found myself in stillness. Thoughts and narratives inundated me – all about dementia, mindfulness and me.

And yet, I still didn’t see the connections. Instead, I found myself wishing that the thoughts of dementia and memories would move over so that a plan of a new eBook could enter! The plan, the plan…I need a plan!

We complicate things.

The moment’s simplicity eluded me, and I continued on the quest for answers:

Why do these narratives of mindfulness and dementia keep intruding into my thoughts and meditations? Why can’t I organize my thoughts into a plan with a beginning? Why would I want to write another eBook about dementia? Why is meditation not working for me? Why am I so filled with thoughts when my meditation should be about letting go? Why can’t I let go?

Begin at the beginning. Hold the viewfinder up and see.

Immanuel Kant once said,  “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

When we struggle, life is a struggle. When we embrace life’s flow, life flows.

My meditations had been quite clear all along, transparent even.  The whispers were getting louder and more insistent, but always constant. It’s not monkey mind and clutter. Well, it is. But there’s a message within those thoughts – the thoughts are the message:  Write the thoughts down. That’s the plan.

I let go and finally sat still. And I listened to the silence behind the silence and that’s when I sensed that everything  – my writing, my lack of writing, my projects, my painting, my thoughts about dementia, mindfulness, meditation and me –  was interconnected, including my resistance. And that in spite of my intention to be in the flow – I had been swimming upstream.

My resistance had created diversions and distractions to prevent me from writing.  My resistance had shown up as nesting. Nesting was comfortable and safe. My projects were my attempts to clear out the clutter; or more accurately, to stop the narratives. Because I am afraid of the narratives. I am resistant to writing another eBook about dementia.  The truth is I have already written an eBook about that subject and I do not want to do it again. My resistance is actually fear: My fear of having nothing new or fresh to say; my fear that because there is no order in the book, that the book is not worth writing.

But here’s where the magic lies in recognizing the interconnections: Instead of writing, I have been painting, and as a beginner – learning a new craft – I am learning to let go of the need for perfection.  As a beginner, I have a beginner’s mind. I have become open, curious, and willing to experiment and make mistakes. In a state of beginner’s mind,  I am learning to let go…of a plan. I am content with imperfection.

“Meditation doesn’t solve anything, but it helps everything.”   Ethan Nichtern, Buddhist teacher

I’m humbled when these thoughts arise because they remind me that I had the answers and the wisdom within all along.

The viewfinder has changed my perspective. I need to be aware and recognize when I am nesting, and not lost in avoidance or distractions.

Lastly, in allowing myself more creativity in my life, I allowed myself to return to beginner’s mind – a state that I want to transfer to my writing, and other parts of my life.

Through this process I’ve learned to trust myself. The answers are all within. Everything I need flows to me: Nesting, creativity, wisdom, insights. And, yes, resistance. Our greatest lessons come in the disguise of resistance.

Challenges are here to awaken you and even if you’re awakening, life continually gives you challenges and then the awakening accelerates and deepens.             E. Tolle

It’s time to get back to writing an Ebook, in spite of my fears. My fears are no longer hidden under distractions and diversions; my fears are transparent. I will trust that I am to begin…in the middle, and not at the beginning which would feel more comfortable. I will need to trust the process. And I will need to trust myself.

I want to fall into  beginner’s mind when I write.

But first, I need to go for a walk and see the sky. And I don’t need a viewfinder for that.

 

 

 

 

Naked, November trees are great teachers

The maples and sycamores, and the birches and oaks are almost naked; a cluster of withered, yellow leaves still cling to the hardier specimens.

It’s the season of transition. Impermanence.

Most think November is dreary, dull and dead. I do not. I think the month is one of great beauty.

Bare trees reveal their secrets. The birds have lost their hiding spots; the squirrels run hither and thither, scrambling along the branches and limbs like they are possessed. Their frantic motions are a harbinger of winter – of change.

In spring and summer foliage and flowers can distract us from the woody trunk – the true foundation of the tree. I believe that is where all the magic lies. The trunk is the soul of the tree. Everything else is just lipstick.

Trees have always fascinated me, and I am always under their spell. And even though I appreciate their greenery, it is the trunk and the shape of a tree that I find truly beautiful. The gnarled and twisted intricacies of an old oak or willow, the contorted beech trees, the aged maple that has not one, but multiple trunks that formed perfect perching spots for us when we were small.

And don’t get me started about the tree roots which form another world beneath. I have photographed roots that rise from the earth that look like alien planets. In fact, when I develop those photos, I am confused whether I am looking at the top or the bottom of the tree: I turn the photo this way and that, looking for signs of up or down. I frame them anyways, lean them against the living room wall, and when I go by, I reach out and rotate the pictures – upside down or upright, still an intriguing wonder to me.

When we walk along the river, I want to stop and gaze on each of the deciduous trees – often their limbs contort around another, like the yoga pose, the Twist. I am compelled to brush my hand over the trunks – some smooth, some so rough; some peeling, some filled with hideous burls. Hideous burls are worth sketching, are they not?

Bare tree trunks resemble torsos, their limbs reach out, cupped in prayer. And sometimes the torso has multiple arms like Guan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva, Goddess of Compassion, Mercy, and Kindness, that I saw in most temples in last year’s visit to China. We could do with more trees like Guan Yin. Better yet, we could do with more reminders of compassion, mercy, and kindness.

Guan Yin?

When you spend as many hours as I do watching the birds, bare trees are a gift. Just this morning I watched a family of black-headed chickadees flit from limb to limb, then fly to my wall of green (the ivy-covered fence) and then perch on the roof of our shed. Eventually they flew off to another barren yonder. In the summer, I can recognize their sounds “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” but often only glimpse a snatch of white and black. Today I drank a full cup of coffee while I spied on their movements. (You can hop, but you cannot hide.)

Last week, a Downy woodpecker (Downy-s are dinky; Hairy-s are huge.) was attempting to eat supper in his hidey-hole. I can see you, I call out. He ignores me. Supper is tasty. Last month his familiar rat-a-tat could be heard throughout the neighbourhood, but I spent too many minutes searching the leafy branches for his black and white presence. Eventually I gave up. His song was enough.

In my own backyard I tend to two small trees that are dead. Well, I have been informed by a number of people (some are gardeners, some are not) that the trees are dead. By their definition, I should remove them. They see rot and decay; I see life. Dead trees are apartment dwellings for sparrows, finches and chickadees. Dead trees are ornamental and sculptural when covered in snow or hoar frost. Dead trees are the perfect launching pads for squirrels and birds. And fights between the two species. Sketches of dead trees fill my sketch book. Dead trees house ready-made hooks for bird feeders and wind chimes. Oh, did I mention that during the Christmas season we decorate our dead trees?

P1030198

Remove them? What kind of gardener do you think I am? I haven’t met a dead tree that I didn’t fall in love with, yet.

Bare trees form dark silhouettes against the grey autumn and winter skies that resemble looming shapes of plaques and tangles – like a brain with Alzheimer’s disease. That image is forever imprinted in my brain.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia s are tragic reminders of impermanence. Of transition.

We are not what we seem; we are more than we seem. That lesson I learned while caring for parents with Alzheimer’s.

In Neale Donald Walsch’s, Communion with God, Walsch writes about impermanence and change:

Which snowflake is the most magnificent? Is it possible that they are all magnificent – and that, celebrating their magnificence together, they create an awesome display? Then they melt into each other, and into the Oneness. Yet they never go away. They never disappear. They never cease to be. Simply, they change form.

And not just once, but several times: from solid to liquid, from liquid to vapour, from the seen to the unseen, to rise again, and then again to return in new displays of breathtaking beauty and wonder. This is Life, nourishing Life.

When I cared for parents with Alzheimer’s, I was constantly in stress and my body (and spirit) became broken. I lived in a world of grief (for the past) and worry (about the future).

But throughout that challenging time, I learned to go back to two things that I had practised as a young woman and throughout my life. I began to take them more seriously, with attention and awareness. Meditation and yoga (and eventually Tai Chi) saved me.

More accurately, the steady and constant practice of both yoga and meditation on a daily basis transformed me. Slowly I began to heal my spirit. My mind and body followed. Stillness and silence are great healers. (Qualities that we attribute to the majesty of trees.)

Today I believe that mindfulness (staying present in the Moment throughout the day) and recognizing my emotions and feelings and not trying to divert, distract, or dull them, has opened me to a richer life – one filled with acceptance, non-judgment, creativity, and wisdom. Compassion, love and mercy are part of the whole package.

Meditation has taught me that “I am the sky; my thoughts are just clouds – that come and go.” (All the great meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual thinkers subscribe to that thought; most notedly, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh.) We are impermanent. Every minute 300 million cells die within our body. Our bodies are in constant flux, as are our daily lives. As are our thoughts.

We are reminded in meditation to breathe through the nose – breath in, breath out – and yet if we stay focused on the breath, we will begin to notice that each and every breath is different. Sometimes I breathe in 8 seconds and hold, and sometimes I breathe in 10 seconds, and exhale without holding. Sometimes I feel the coolness along the tips of my nostrils, and in the next breath, I notice an itch. Sometimes my belly expands, and sometimes I notice not as much expansion. Each breath is different.

If a fundamental thing such as breathing is different each time, then we begin to recognize that all things are changing. All the time.

The trees teach me about impermanence. They are a daily reminder. They are my cheat sheets. I need cheat sheets – they keep me grounded. (Pun, not intended.)

When I remind myself that my moods are temporary, that a particular challenging issue has me stumped and filled with worry, that a friend is suffering, I turn to the universal truth of impermanence: All things are transient. This, too, shall pass. Today the trees are nude, tomorrow they will be wearing their green dresses. My dark mood will lift. In time the challenging issue will either resolve itself, or I will gain wisdom to see it differently. My friend who is suffering will find relief.

As humans, we will adapt better to living a full and happy life when we let go of the fear of change. We will breathe easier when we learn that within the changes that take place, lies ephemeral beauty. That a decayed and rotting tree will soon nourish the earth. And another tree will be born.

When we perceive change as not right, not wrong, just is…we will teach ourselves to adjust to change, and eventually, to accept change. Acceptance leads us to a happier life. Happier? No. Wrong word. A balanced life. That’s what I strive for. Happiness is fleeting. I desire balance or equanimity.

Naked, November trees remind me of transition: from a rich and verdant existence to one of bare essentials. Like us. Whether we accept it or not, we are all aging. At this very moment. Yes, all of us. By the time you get to the end of this blog, you and I will have lost a billion cells.

Naked, November trees remind me of essential truths: we are all going to die. Everything is impermanent. Many things are inherently beautiful – even the gnarly roots that surround an old, decaying tree.  Awareness and attention are transformative. We are meant to be whole, not perfect.

As my son’s last text reminded me of the importance of “not right, not wrong; just is,” those powerful words inspire me. Acceptance. Reality. Truth.

Besides, I need not worry. Everything will change. In a few seconds, or a day, or weeks. Or years.

I think my trees are teaching me a lesson: Don’t worry. Be happy. Better yet, be balanced.

 

 

 

 

 

Sketching, mindfulness, and meaning

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.   Thomas Merton

This past year I have been learning to draw. It started out as a way of exercising my brain – learning something new and challenging – and has morphed into a daily ritual that balances me.

I had no inkling that a dollar store sketch book and a box of pencils would open and expand my creativity, and in the process open and expand my spiritual awareness. My brain gets a work out (after a few perspective lessons, I am exhausted), my mind lets go of disparate thoughts and rests, and my whole body relaxes. Time stands still until I stop drawing and I re-enter the exterior world.

Sometimes I flick through my filled sketch books just to understand where I am going and where I have been. My sketches tell a story.

In the beginning my go-to book was a dog-eared, how-to-draw book that I found in my deceased father’s library (box of old books). Along with all of the volumes of Winston Churchill’s tomes and books about health and ABC’s of nutrition, I found a solitary art book.

I remember my Dad’s “art” period. I was young, married with children, and kinda in awe of my father’s zest for learning. In his late sixties he took up painting, learning to ice skate, learning to build an ice rink for my active boys, and learning to play the accordion (which he within a few lessons promptly pawned off as a birthday gift to my mother which only added fuel to my mother’s long-time assertion: Your father gives the worst gifts).  Too busy with raising young children, I have no recollection of when he began or ended his art phase. But at family gatherings we noticed new artwork springing up – one day a large landscape (forests and mountains) over the living room couch; another day a large rural scene (with farm animals) in the hallway. Neither was particularly engaging (to our limited eye), but I remember the lesson that came to me: even when our creative efforts are not perfect or do not conform to others’ tastes, display it anyways and own it.  (Sad (and ashamed) to reveal that when we had to disperse of my parents’ worldly goods, no one wanted the large landscape paintings.)

Following in my father’s footsteps, I am teaching myself to draw and discovering that the more that I draw, the more my sense of awareness of all things is heightened. One day I am drawing a leaf on a twig and the next I am discovering the interconnectedness of all things. The twig, the leaf and me – we breathe the same air; rain and sunlight nourish us.

My completed sketch books (much like my collection of writing journals) reveal many lessons: some of them reflect the things I do well – because apparently we all have leanings to what we draw and like to draw (birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers and leaves) – and some of them are graphic reminders of what I need more help with (perspective, birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers, and leaves). I enjoy drawing birds, but I do not like drawing animals or cartoons. Although strangely, I once drew the cover of Marley and Me (I was reading the book to my peeps at the long-term care facility) and the completed sketch of Marley looked pretty good. I left that drawing out for days, I was so impressed with myself. (Dad, I owned it!)

sketch of the day

Drawing blue herons is a favourite.

With urging from the You Tube teachers and art books that I devour, I draw objects that I find around my house, and I often draw the views from the window in the back room where I sit each morning, drinking coffee and green smoothies. I draw the same view over and over; I draw the window frames and the shutters. Sometimes the shutters are closed and sometimes they are open. Same view, different frame outlining the view.

In Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, the protagonist’s father is a renowned painter who we learn has Alzheimer’s disease. A prolific painter, his father paints only the Swedish landscape; but in a heartbreaking, evocative scene, Wallander finds numerous paintings and realizes that each of the paintings depicts the same landscape – one view, painted over and over again.

Now that I have taken up drawing, I had this bizarre moment where I thought that I, too, was drawing the same view from my window, over and over again.

Perhaps, like Wallander’s father, I am attempting to perfect the scene and get it right. Or, perhaps, like me, Wallander’s father paints that particular landscape because it is just there.  (Most likely, the Alzheimer’s disease has prevented his father from remembering that he has already painted this view.)

I have learned that to draw, one needs to let go or surrender to the process. Just let go of the fear of messing up; let go of the need to be perfect; let go of the need to control (because believe me, the end result is not often as planned). I once drew the porch that I was sitting on while looking down and sideways (confused? me, too) – I was attempting a perspective and proportion lesson. Needless to say, you will have noticed that particular sketch is not included in my post. Even my kind and supportive husband looked at it with horror, what the hell is that?

My peeps (or the residents) at the long-term care home where I volunteer inspire me: They draw well; exceptionally well. So I begin to wonder if dementia allows them to let go of the rigid thinking and presumptions that are barriers to drawing perceptively? Does our right-brain thinking expand and, therefore, free us when we have a dementia? Do we surrender to the process of drawing because the left-brain thinking that restricts us is now diminished?

Because of their dementia, do they just surrender to the it is what it is of the moment. The ism of the moment or the is-ness, or whatever. Because to draw, I have learned just to be present. Just be. Allow my mind’s assumptions and presumptions to take a rest. And, like my father, to be happy and accept my progress, or lack.

Because to draw or sketch with ease one needs to be mindful. To pay attention to the details – the micro and the macro. To pay attention to the lines and the white space on the page and not worry about the finished picture. To pay attention to the simplicity of the object or scene – to allow the mundane to expand and become profound.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite.  William Blake

And I have learned that the greatest lesson (or gift) when drawing, is that I can see more deeply and completely. I can see the inherent beauty in the simple and in the ordinary.  And when I sit in mindfulness, I begin to realize the interconnectedness in all things and in all of us. I feel the Sacred.

I can find joy and delight in just staring at my climbing hydrangeas; in the many tones of bronze and browns of the Diablo Ninebark’s leaf (chartreuse in the sunlight); in the various dark and light shades of rocks, stones and pebbles; at the American Goldfinches who visit my cobalt blue bird bath every day. The yellow and the blue. Bliss. And I confess that it is in those moments, I do not draw. I just sit.

Song Sparrow Nuthatch

While staring up and wondering how one would capture the blue sky behind the cloud formations, my senses are heightened: I can smell the viburnum, the earthiness of the soil and the mulch; I can hear the rustling of the frequent winged visitors in their new home within the euonymus that grows on our fence. I notice tiny, white feathers drifting down from the clouds – not feathers, but white seed fluffs from the trees that grow in the north part of the city then fill our skies here in another part of the city each early summer. I tell myself that when I learn to paint with watercolours, I will paint white feathers, not fluff pods. Although fluff balls or seed pods are intricately beautiful, too.

I take pleasure in everything:  A stained and broken jug that sits in the garden shed – new life as a still-life. When closed, the outdoor umbrella is a lesson in “folds.” I like drawing folds and drape-y fabrics. I like drawing shawls draped over a couch, pillows, and blankets.

I drew my foot once. And my hands. When I completed the sketch, I was struck how old my hands looked. But beautiful. Worn, but worthy. (I had never noticed that before.)

Suddenly I have realized that I have spheres throughout my house – not rectangles or squares. My preference or leaning for soft, rounded edges is clear. I think that explains why I find angles and perspectives more difficult. Now I inform my husband that I am not a straight angled kinda gal. What does that mean? he asks. I meander, I reply.

Since I am a beginner, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a drawing and feel overwhelmed – too many uneven objects (and my shading and tones are too naive), too crammed (and I have run out of page space), too many angles…ah! perspectives.

I am recognizing that a busy streetscape might be too ambitious for a beginner. So I am learning another important lesson: discernment and patience. So my eye has become a telescope – scrutinizing the macro, adjusting my lens to capture the micro: an ornate doorway, arches supported by columns, moldings, cornices, and decorative motifs. I must sacrifice drawing the building (or streetscape) and focus my attention to the smaller details.

Discernment – how to judge well. That’s a lesson worth learning, along with draw with looser movements (don’t be so uptight), visualize your completed creation (before you begin); be carefree, not careful; do-overs are a good thing (and so are erasers); and do not tear out pages of spoiled or disappointing sketches. Own them.

When I close my sketch book for another day, I feel expansive, creative, and fulfilled. I feel restful.

The little things. The little moments. They are not so little…Jon Kabat-Zinn

It is the little things that matter and enrich our lives. A simple Diablo Ninebark leaf. It’s not so little. Learning how to draw. It’s not so little.

 

 

 

 

You are amazing!

You are amazing!

When I open the card, it reads You are amazing!

My husband and I just celebrated another anniversary and we exchanged cards. And even though it’s been a few days since I received his card, I am still enjoying the afterglow. Ha!

Because a funny thing has happened since he gave me the card – I feel really amazing!

When he enjoyed the simple tomato sauce on his pasta that I had made last evening, I tell him well, I am amazing!

When I screwed something up during the day, and then fix it later, he says well, you are amazing. We laugh over the screw-up.

When I discover a box of half-eaten ice cream in the freezer, we both exclaim hey, I am amazing!

So while I am walking along the river this morning, trying not to leave rivers of sweat on the sidewalk (because it is so humid today), I remind myself well, sweat or not, I am amazing!

Hmmm. Apparently compliments – in writing – have a lasting effect. But only if we pay attention and give the words awareness. Because it is in the reflection of the words, I realize that we are all amazing beings.

I think I am onto something here. I think we should begin to tell other people how amazing they are. Maybe we could distribute little cards – business cards – that just say, “You are amazing!”

We all know amazing people – my hairdresser who juggles a job and four children (whenever I see her she is smiling) – she is amazing! She has the funniest stories to tell about her children; I sit in her chair and belly laugh throughout the whole visit.

The woman who owns the tailor shop where I take my pants to be hemmed – we always have a nice chat. She is from Scotland and has interesting stories. We share a love of birds and birdsong – she reminds me to Google warblers and nightingales. I think she is amazing!

My neighbours on either side of our house – one is blind in one eye, and always tells me interesting facts about the weather, birds, squirrels and raccoons. He grew up on a farm where he watched the changing sky and birds come and go;  his weather predictions are so spot on – I have no need to turn to the weather forecast on television.  So is the family on the other side of our house – they are raising two children; their daughter has special needs. They are all amazing!

When I watch the personal support workers at the residence where I volunteer, I know they are amazing…their acts of kindness go above and beyond their daily routines. I once sat in a room with a resident and heard a personal support worker singing You Are My Sunshine to a resident who has Alzheimer’s. When I went into the hallway to see who was singing (and who the lucky resident was) I found them walking arm in arm. She is amazing (as is the resident)!

And I think my husband is pretty amazing – after all, he gave me the card. Ha.

No kidding…it takes attention and awareness to see the beauty within each of us. We have to begin to look beneath the superficial, to listen to the words and intonations, to become more insightful and understanding of others. In short, we have to stop and spend some time with people, instead of rushing by them without a glance. When we begin to spend our time enjoying people and their stories, that’s when we begin to live in the moment. And we’ll surely begin to see how each of us matters, how we are all interconnected, and that we are all  awesome.

In Neale Donald Walsch’s Communion With God he writes:

“Which snowflake is the most magnificent? Is it possible that they are all magnificent – and that, celebrating their magnificence together they create an awesome display?  They melt into each other, and in the Oneness. Yet they never go away. They never disappear. They never cease to be. Simply they change form. And not just once, but several times: from solid to liquid, from liquid to vapour, from the seen to the unseen, to rise again, and then again to return in new displays of breathtaking beauty and wonder. This is Life, nourishing Life.”

Let’s begin to appreciate one another for the simple pleasures and the simple gifts that we all hold. Whether we are loving parents or grandparents, creative artists, kind neighbours, inspiring teachers, helpful volunteers, cheerful postal workers, supportive counsellors… oh, the list is just endless…we all are unique, beautiful and amazing in what we do and who we are.

Let’s shout it out: You are amazing!

 

 

 

 

Music, tours, and a mother’s pride

My morning rituals – tai chi, meditation, yoga, walk along the river – were interrupted. A phone call from our son who has alerted us that he and his brother will be on the Internet – radio wfmu.org-  at 8 am.

Recently our sons took time off their day jobs and visited the east coast in the States where they ‘hooked up’ with some new friends (from Kevin’s website) to connect and make music. My son’s wife is an integral part of his music; they often collaborate.  My other son calls them “a formidable team.” But on this adventure, it is just the two brothers.

As we tuned in, we agreed with the host of the show, our sons’ acoustic guitars made some “beautiful stuff.”

As the notes of their music lingered and rested in our living room, my mind drifted to a time when our sons were in grade eight (a lifetime ago), their taste in music above and beyond our understanding or reach. Later in university, the two of them volunteered on the Uni’s radio station and put in many hours until they were rewarded with their own radio show – late, late night shift (or early morning hours). As a mother, I was puzzled by their acceptance and excitement of the ungodly hour – I saw it as a punishment; they – as the highest reward. The two of them relished the time slot: “Mom, that’s when the true music aficionados listen and appreciate music.”

Their old band, The Riderless,  took to the roads after graduation – they left tracks in the east and in the west of Canada. The five of them improvising both music and gigs as they toured the country.

As parents, we sent unconditional love and pride – they would have preferred cash. They grew tired of sleeping on couches and floors and ordering eggs (the cheapest on the menu) each meal.

Their music isn’t mainstream by intention, they tell me, although I often meditate to it; it’s evocative and its sound fills a space elegantly.

My husband listened to this morning’s offering with an open heart and an open mind, a true music lover. I listened to it as a mother with deep satisfaction and love, recognizing that my sons’ musical life reflects a creativity, a deeply enriched right side of the brain – the side of the brain that many of us want to expand through meditation and mindfulness.

When we can explore and experiment within our art, that is, grab opportunities and push our limits of self, we expand on our gifts and we become more integrated as a whole. I believe that is how we begin to live the life that we were meant to have.

So as I listen to the guitar notes (their gifts) this fine Thursday morning, I am deeply gratified.

Music is soul-satisfying, as my husband often repeats.

Yes. A gift.

https://wfmu.org

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Compassion is the beginning.

Sun set on Lake Huron

“Compassion begins at home, and it is not how much we do but how much love we put in that action. Do not think that love has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” Mother Theresa

Every week my sister drives one and a half hours to visit her meditation teacher who now lives in a long-term care facility. One and a half hours that my sister, Sue, does not begrudge because as Sue remarks to me, she is my meditation teacher, mentor, friend, spiritual guide and second mother.

Whenever Sue visits, she leaves with gifts – words of wisdom, inspirational quotes, encouragement and love.

Sue explains that her friend is coming to terms with the last stage of her life – her failing health and the losses that surround this stage.  But she tells Sue that the loss of independence is the deepest cut because it can lead to the loss of self.

My sister’s meditation teacher has no dementia. Now 86 years young, her body no longer obeys her commands; her aging body has begun to betray her, not her mind.  She needs support in many facets of her life now, including a wheel-chair and bed lift – all physical. Spiritually, she is still intact.

In spite of feeling frustration that her voice is not heard, and her suggestions for improvement within the facility are ignored, Sue’s friend is optimistic that she can facilitate change. Once a city councillor, yoga teacher, and meditation teacher (who trained other yoga teachers and meditation teachers), she is a woman of substance – a woman at the young age of 86 (her words, not mine) who feels that she can still contribute and make a worthy difference to other residents’ lives. So she continues to push her ideas for change. Her suggestions are mostly simple ones, but significant to those who live in the facility. One of the changes she thinks would make a difference is a slight tweaking of the mechanical lift that transfers a patient from a bed to a wheelchair or vice versa (and is used to transfer a resident from chair to bathtub). Apparently when Sue’s friend is transferred from the bed, the position of her body becomes quite uncomfortable and causes some pain. When her friend tells the staff about this problem, she is ignored because there is nothing we can do about it and well, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.

Now you and I know that these kinds of answers are patronizing at best and shouldn’t be tolerated. But think about this: You are at the last stage of your life, you own an imperfect body that is not working, and you are totally dependent on the staff for all your basic needs to be met. If the staff do not hear you, what then? Her daughters are now talking to management about the issue, but that is what irks Sue’s friend the most: I should be seen and heard, not my daughters. I live here. Not them. She’s astute enough to recognize that she is experiencing a loss that many of us are not even cognizant of – the loss of not being seen and heard – the loss of self.

Our society and our culture worships at the altar of youth and beauty – we have no time for people who are aging and past their prime (whatever that is). Oh sure, if someone is past retirement and yet still working, owns their own business, is a creative force in the art or literary world (think musicians that are older and still performing to sell-out crowds) – those lucky individuals are still worthy and deemed valuable to society. But once someone goes to a long-term care facility (or a retirement home), the perceptions of value begin to change.

So when Sue asked her friend what would she change in the facility if she had the power to alter her circumstances, her teacher simply replied:  I would only hire staff on the basis of compassion and loving kindness.

Sue asked her if she would make any other changes…perhaps the size of the room, the beds, the daily routine, the food, the activities?

Her friend shook her head. No, Sue. Just loving kindness and compassion. Loving acts and deeds of kindness are transformative because it is in the care and consideration that is shown that makes the true difference. She expanded further: Unless we have compassion, our encounters only fulfill the basic needs; as humans we need more.

The two of them spent their visit imagining a dream home for residents. They laughed aloud at how wonderful the homes would become: daily schedules would cater to the residents (not the efficiency of the system) – staff members would be allowed to spend long periods of time just talking and sitting with their residents, instead of a tight schedule that does not allow for companionship (facilities rely on family and volunteers for that); staff members would sense when a resident needed a good cry, a massage, a hug, or a good cuddle. Oh, the dream! The dream!

When Sue told me this story, I stared at her and said that according to the mission statements of most long-term care facilities (what can I say, Googling is a hobby), they are already resident-centered or resident-focused.  The intent is clear. But what about the delivery?

In long-term care residences, you will find most of the staff members who are caring individuals. In the residence where my mother lived (and where I now volunteer) nearly all of the staff are kind and compassionate. Yes, some personal support workers are not as nice as others; but on the whole, many are loving, beautiful human beings. Unfortunately, the ratio of carers to residents is usually too high and carers or staff are run ragged. That hurry-up energy begins to wear on the carer (I know because I lived it) and breaks down their resolve to be kind. Once frustration or burn-out occurs, a hardening of the heart begins to affect the carer. And we begin (as carers and staff) to only see and feel our own frustrations which blinds us to others.

When we do not understand what someone is experiencing or what they are going through, we do not understand their suffering. If we do not understand a person’s pain, we cannot experience and feel compassion for them. Yes, we can empathize; but compassion can only arise in us when we feel for them or we see them and we are moved to alleviate their suffering. Compassion moves us to want to make a difference.

“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

I once walked into a resident’s room and I found the resident and the personal support worker sitting on the bed, the personal support worker’s arms wrapped around the resident. She was rocking her back and forth, whispering words of comfort to her. I was moved to tears and slowly, silently retreated from the room. I stood in the hallway and honoured the moment. I, myself, have experienced those kinds of moments with my own mother when she was upset and I learned valuable lessons when those moments occurred. When my mother was brave enough to show me her vulnerability (she wept in my arms), my heart broke open – and we connected so strongly that it is difficult to even describe it. I can only write…Grace surrounded us and comforted us both.

It is the spark of recognition that we see our self in another human being that connects us, the recognition that we are all One. I think it is this spark (this Divine spark) that moves us to action.

And it is this spark that needs to be in every encounter for our compassion to arise. When a staff member takes a resident to the bathroom, does she hurry and make the resident feel that she doesn’t matter. Does she understand that the resident does not want to need help? When we ask a resident a question, and their dementia does not allow for a quick answer – do we answer for them, instead of pausing? Worse, do we ignore them? Or, when a resident is hurting, and we are on a tight schedule, do we completely miss all her signs of distress? Palliative nurses are trained in recognizing a patient’s signs of discomfort and pain. Is the person grimacing? Is her brow furrowed? Is she behaving differently? Has she lost an ability or skill and is now compensating for that loss? Palliative staff are trained to see! They understand that any change in behaviour may reflect pain. And more importantly, that pain can be seen – it’s reflected on their face.

“It matters not what you look at But what you see.”  Henry David Thoreau

When we begin to really see someone, we begin to notice their suffering. And this awareness allows for an opening or a softening of our hearts.

Compassion enters.

My sister’s meditation teacher is right: Loving kindness and compassion is the answer. At the very least, it’s the beginning.