Bite-by-Bite, a Mindful Remembrance

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Each August, I remember the day—some four years ago, now–that my gnawing hunger and craving for connection closed the door on the way I lived.

Always, my memory of that pre-dawn, August 12th morning feels crystalline yet memory is the mind’s filter, a selective and often soft light on pain past. Still, the remembrance is sharp enough.

Then, my heart was as empty as my stomach. In all ways, I was perfectly hollow, mindless in my approach to decades of autoimmune disease and related health issues.

I had reached the point where no food satisfied my hunger and almost any food would trigger digestive issues. Thinking 0714My weight just continued to climb no matter what I ate or did not eat. Inflammation was systemic.

My doctors—I had a whole group by this time—increased the variety and type of medication for my stomach and thyroid as well as musculoskeletal pain, more tests for my kidneys, and always more blood work as if to make sure both lupus and Sjogren’s remained rampant.

Mindlessly, I lived, not present for any of it. Rather, I looked to the days when remission would return—as it always had for the thirty years previous—then, I would return to life as I knew it.

There was no remission but there was no organ failure, either. What did happen was a dramatic decrease in my systemic inflammation, my digestive issues are no more, and I have maintained a 68 pound weight loss for 30 of the last 48 months with only gentle yoga for exercise. Musculoskeletal issues, in particular mobility, remain a challenge.

Mine is a life few, if any, would want but it is mine—and I am mindful of it—something I never was in the way I once lived.

Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself—in your body, heart, and mind—and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism.

(Mindful Eating, Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., p. 2)

It was the hunger in my stomach that brought me to mindfulness. I had to learn what food my body needed, for each body is unique in its nutritional needs. No two are the same. I had to sort through the food that would satisfy my hunger and ultimately, open my heart.

Eating mindfully is a bite-by-bite experience. Not all foods are equal in nutrients but being mindful of each bite keeps my focus on whether or not the food is satisfying my hunger. I have found I am much more selective in what and how I eat. Why would I eat food that leaves me not only hungry but craving more?

A Gander 0514Am I eliminating my disease process? No, but I am assisting my body by eating nutrient-dense food rather than adding to its burden with empty calories. And yes, it has taken most of these last four years not only to realize the difference between the two but to find food I love to eat.

Grains, even gluten-free, are not something my body processes efficiently but infrequently, I partake. The same is true for any starch or yeast. Sugar brings on “brain fog” and increases my musculoskeletal pain. Dairy and soy I just avoid.

My being present in eating opened me to my life as it actually is, filled with infinite possibilities unique to me. Mindfulness helps me discover them and experience life in ways I never imagined. Every day is fresh, its own possibility.

In creating a physical, compassionate connection with my body, I opened my heart to life as it comes–I connected–this August 12th, I paused to remember. Thanks, regular readers, for walking with me down this memory lane yet another time.

The Life Cycle of a Moment

Initially, this post seemed to be about dying into the moment and that was its working title. Working titles are quite Zen, I think. They are as impermanent as are the moments of our lives and just as complete in their birth, life, and death.

So the title of the post is now, “The Life Cycle of a Moment.” In another week in a different venue the title will change again as will the post but its essence, its cycle, will not. Whether similar or seemingly new, each moment cycles.

Three at Waverly 0714

In Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence, dying into the moment is the doorway into the next:

“…dying now means coming to each moment fresh… Seeing every person, even your partner, as if you have never met before. Hearing the birds as if you have never heard a chirp in your life. Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you cannot live this moment until you die to the past one.”

(David Guy, p. 172)

Yet to consider death as integral to every moment was quite a shift for me, and as often happens in Zen, my view of the world turned inside out. For me, opening to the ending inherent in every moment makes the familiar fresh, a wave worthy of its own experience.

Some moments are like riding on the crest of a whitecap while in others it is as if I am becalmed and awaiting a wind until the wave washes upon the sand. All moments pass only to return as life anew.

So, how long is a moment? Consider this math: there are 6,400,099,980 moments in one day; one finger snap=65 moments; dividing 65 into 6,400,099,980=98,463,077 finger snaps per day (Ruth Ozeki, Appendix A, p. 407, The Tale of the Time Being).

That is a lot of living and dying at a rate I can barely wrap my mind around. Yet, a snap of fingers is such an immediate image of impermanence that it makes a wave upon the sand seem like an eternity. And yet, both are.

Wave upon the water 0514

“Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.”

(Ruth Ozeki, p. 408)

When awareness is the measure of the moment, any linear sense of time—such as a finger snap–fades into simply being, often enhanced by memory, flashes of moments similarly spent. Surely, the math of memory flashes is at least equal to, if not greater than, the number of moments in a finger snap.

And here we are near the end of another moment, perhaps measured more by awareness than by snaps of fingers or memory flashes. Well, that is what is true for me in this moment as it takes its place in the story that is me, maybe to return as a flash or maybe not.

We write (and read) stories to provide perspective on passing moments, recording the progress of our stories with working titles, changing with the measure of the moment.

When to Carry and When to Let Go

My previous post considered the constant connection we have with our world, one more immediate than ever before. There is a continuous buzz of busyness. It can overwhelm one to stillness, this blogger included, so I took a week off from publishing a post.

A break in routine is an opportunity to create a change in the way we live unless the break is just another form of busyness—same behavior just different surroundings or situations.

Taking a look 0714

A true break means we attend to basic requirements only and not carry the world with us so we may meet the mundane as if for the first time, eyes fresh and bright. It requires us to drop what we carry so that we hold only the moment we have.

There is a well-known story of two monks who come to a river where they meet a woman who needs assistance in crossing.

Without a word, one monk picks up the woman and carries her across. She thanks the monk and leaves. The two monks continue on their way, one troubled and one not.

Finally, the troubled monk can stand it no longer and asks, “Why did you carry that woman across the river when you know we are prohibited any contact with women?”

The untroubled monk responds, “I only carried her across the river. You are still carrying her.”

If it is a break we intend, then it is much like residing in the gap between thoughts. In no thought there is no mind just pure consciousness. In a break from our routine, we no longer carry the busyness of everyday. We put it down and rest. When we return to our river of routine we cross, carrying our load again.

For me, this short break from blogging was different than previous ones. It started with a stop. Simultaneously, I dealt with a colorful but significantly sprained toe on my left foot and an aggravated inflammation of my right knee.

I note that the injury to my toe is probably related to increasing lupus inflammation issues but the injury occurred after my trip to the library in search of Zen novels (I found two). In fact, it was after I put down my library load that I stubbed/sprained/jammed my toe.

Resting and reading Zen provided me another perspective on balance both physically and emotionally. Perhaps my knee was more troublesome that particular day as in addition to wandering around the library, I had stocked up on groceries for the week.

My usual routine is either the library or the grocery store but not both yet organic, freshly ground almond butter was on sale, and I had new recipes to try, in particular Zoe’s cookies.  I would have to wait most of the week to make them but they were worth every step to get the ingredients. EmmaRose thought so, too. EmmaRose meets Zoe Cookies 0814

When not reading, I put down other emotional baggage that tends to clutter my routine, remembering that people really are doing the best they can and there are always options–this is true for me, as well. Sometimes, my routine blinds me to what others face so I do not see what they are carrying.

Now, I return to the river of my routine. I know the moment is all I ever have and that it is more than enough. After all, I only need to carry it to the next moment.

A Small World It Is

Wondering 0614Having “virtual” access to one another–day and night–leaves little doubt how small the world really is. We are ever connected.

That may have always been an issue as even the 19th century romantic Wordsworth observed, the “world is too much with us late and soon.”

For all of our existence, thoughtful connection has been a human issue. We have always told stories to understand our relationship to life and our reverence for it but now, our stories seem out of sync with both.

Every minute of every hour we show each other who we are, and now that we have revealed ourselves to one another, thoughtful connection is even more of an issue.

Internet or no, to connect is to send and receive thoughtful messages, most often with language but sometimes with symbols or images that reveal more than words. Connecting is the light dawning, a window opening, an idea born.

In the 21st century, a virtual message is sent at speeds faster than we are able to think, making it not only easier to be thoughtless but at a speed beyond what we are able to physically experience.

This is a new wrinkle in our history and it is yet to be shown whether or not we will smooth it out. In the ancient traditions, the thoughtful life is living in the moment that one has rather than wandering to moments already lived or imagining days that do not yet show a sunrise.

A thoughtful connection is not without its weight or burden for a thoughtful connection is considerate, perhaps even painful but not unkind. It is the compassionate connection that allows us to know pain without being consumed by it.

We know what to say, because we have experienced closing down,

shutting off, being angry, hurt, rebellious, and so forth,

and have made a relationship with those things in ourselves. 

(Pema Chodron)

In the Beginning 0614

We have to heal the relationship we have with ourselves if the world that we are so passionate about in our rhetoric has any chance. Relationship on our planet is at a tipping point as thousands of species become extinct or face extinction.

We are the one species that can make a thoughtful difference. Indeed, we are the one species that has had more impact on this planet than any other.

`There are people who are past being hurt, beyond being hurt. You should know this is true. You should try to become one of those people, to make an understanding with yourself that you are not your body, you are something bigger. That is your work on this earth, do you see? Every experience here is to teach you to do that. Living, dying, every experience.’

 (Volya Rinpoche to Otto Ringling, Breakfast with the Buddha P. 275)

As humans, we have to get beyond our reactions. If it seems impossible to be kind, it does not follow that the only response is to return hurt. Silence is ever a thoughtful connection for it reveals a reverence for life, for getting beyond hurt. It reveals that we are something bigger.

 

(Note: Regular posts will resume August 3, 2014.)

 

 

On Not Becoming a Buddha

Above all, don’t wish to become a future Buddha;

Your only concern should be,

As thought follows thought,

To avoid clinging to any of them.

~Dogen~

Hawk looking down 0614I do not think I have ever wanted to be a Buddha. I do not remember that thought at all. I do focus on trying not to cling to my thoughts but my lifelong practice of hairsplitting has been a sanctuary as well as a war.

My fondness for making excessive distinctions in reasoning allows me to dress up old behavior as new. I may not have expressed a wish to become a Buddha, but I have desired acquiring inner peace for the rest of my life.

Quite often it feels as if I am stomping through myriad thoughts, trying to shake off first one and then the other. I am amazed at the substance I give to a thought–I walk around in it–giving it a life it does not have.

Usually, it is a thought I know well but until I have examined it thoroughly, I am not able to let it go. I like to think that hairsplitting serves me here, much like Ajahn Chah’s distinction between holding and clinging:

We pick up [a flashlight], look at it and see, `Oh, it’s a flashlight,’ then we put it down. This is called holding but not clinging, we let go. We know and then we let go. To put it simply we say just this, `Know, then let go.’

~Ajahn Chah~

For me, knowing to let go requires trust, and when I do, the named thought floats by, a mere reminder of what is. However, knowing an object, a thing, is easier than meeting a familiar emotion.  Yet, the practice is the same.Hawk looking up 0614

In fact, the practice of looking and letting go is what the mind learns to trust; Chah says that in “constancy of mind, wisdom arises.”

That constancy of mind is what I need most when emotion pulls at me, when I face patterns of a lifetime. Hairsplitting allows me to breathe between thoughts but it also makes for interesting detours.

As I began my regimen of healthy eating, meditation and yoga, I defined and redefined my practice of each as well as the union and intersection of all three. That is neither bad nor good but my initial focus was on results and now, it is to live.

In the beginning we practise with some desire in mind; we practise on and on, but we don’t attain our desire. So we practise until we reach a point where we’re practising for no return, we’re practising in order to let go.”

~Ajahn Chah~

“Practicing for no return” would not have been what I needed to know as I began my practice. I would not have trusted it. My wishing to become a Buddha was disguised as various emotional and physical health goals. In order to change my physical and emotional being, I had to let go of trying to become a future Buddha.

There’s Still Time to Make Art

natural art 0514Perhaps each life is a painting, an infinitesimal rectangle or even the equanimity of a square. Beginning with a blank canvas, an entire life swirls with the colors of choice, shifting scenes until ultimately blending into the tapestry of existence.

Existence is endless art, it seems, as delicate and precise as a sand painting—a mandala—once a life is complete, the sand shifts and returns to its state before shape. Always, there is another shape to come.

There is an art to life, I suspect, no matter how minute one’s tile in the mosaic of existence may seem. It is not the size or shape of a life that looms but rather the choice of options from the palette provided.

The colors of choice vary as does the brushstroke that reveals them. Some moments the stroke is as subtle as moonlight and just as changing. During the dense, life-changing events–dark moments that mark a life for its duration–the swath of the brush is broad and opaque.

Yet each life has an array of choices—a palette of options—to absorb change as it colors a life, ultimately illuminating, much like light of the moon.

At night, I open the window

and asked the moon to come

and press its face against mine.

Breathe into me.

Close the language-door

and open the love-window.

The moon won’t use the door,

only the window.

~Rumi~*

We might want to look to the moon when facing the doors it ignores. Sometimes, the broad brushstroke Art 0514wrinkles the canvas in a determined color of choice. Other times, the subtle stroke turns opacity into transparency, rather like darkness leaving for light.

The tapestry of existence is in constant flux, swirling with infinite possibilities as we work through daily decisions, choosing our colors. Some are doors and some are windows but both eventually open, either by the light of the moon or by the love of life.

Our living canvas is not yet a still life nor is our sand mandala complete. There is still time to make art.

*This lovely Rumi quote comes from a favorite blog of mine, ZenFlash.  Thank you.

 

The Light in Our Stars

Single movin' 0614It is the second day of summer in the northern hemisphere, June 22nd, the first day when the amount of sunlight no longer increases for the longest day of 2014, the summer solstice, has passed.   

In what will seem no time at all—just a jumble of days and nights—it will be the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, followed by December 22, the first day the amount of daylight no longer decreases.

The seasons cycle as does all life on the physical plane. Some pass away and others remain longer. It is love that sustains the coming and going of life.   

I made the above notes in my journal while I was at Waverly the afternoon of June 22nd. This is the first summer my dear friend, Maurya, is not here, having died this past winter. It is a lifelong habit, this marking of seasons and remembering love given and received.

It is my way of accepting that all pass away, as will I someday, and remembering that love is beyond time, form, or condition. One need only look to the light in the stars or to the shimmering light of the sun on a pond to see love expressed over and over as life.

And on this June 22nd there was something else occurring, a gathering of cyclists and walkers at 2 p.m. on the Charles River in Massachusetts. The event was Movin’ for Maurya, another celebration of her life and a fundraiser for endometrial cancer research.

Those unable to be in Massachusetts went to places they walked or cycled with Maurya or to places she knew only through pictures or conversation. Wherever we gathered, the memories of Maurya were many and rich in the equanimity and compassion that flowed so gently, so easily from her.

Goslings 0614

Each friendship was unique to her, treasured and nurtured. To have known such love in a lifetime is to feel invincible, awash in waves of unconditional love. On many occasions it has nearly brought me to my knees for the sheer wonder of it.

And for me, not surprisingly, it is at Waverly that Maurya seems so near, although she knew Waverly only through the pictures and posts on this blog. But then, Waverly is like stepping out of time and into the endless energy of existence.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
~Thich Nhat Hanh~

The oneness of existence is beyond this body, this I that experiences life on the physical plane, one of seamless sensations, boundless as the breeze upon my face. On this physical plane love announces itself as sight and sound, as touch and taste, a heady aroma this experience of existence.

movin' for Maurya blog 0614

It is just after 2 p.m. when the goslings and their parents slip into the waters of Waverly as I look to the northeast and to the Charles River. Endless existence washes over me in waves of gratitude that is no less than the light in the stars.

On some nights, it seems the stars wink in recognition. Perhaps they do for one day I, too, will be among the energy of existence as are those who I loved and who loved me during our shared experience on the physical plane.

Occasionally, I have thought our time together too brief but then I remember that I am not separate but one with existence beyond form, dimension or condition. I look to the light in the stars and sometimes, I wink back.