Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Buddhism and Grief, or Why I Write

A couple of months ago I was giving a workshop based on my first book, Grieving Mindfully. The book is based on the practice of mindfulness and draws heavily from Buddhist teachings and approaches to suffering. It's by no means a "Buddhist" book, and I've come to learn over the years that atheists and churches have all used it with benefit.

One of the participants at this particular workshop shared a story. They were at a teaching being given by a Buddhist lama in the Tibetan tradition. A distraught attendee had recently lost a spouse and asked the lama how they should manage their grief. The response they received in this moment of pain was something to the effect of "your spouse is dead, there's no sense thinking about them. Move on."


Two thoughts came to my mind. The first was a story I recount in the book of a woman whose baby dies. She goes to see the Buddha to ask him to bring the baby back to life and thereby end her grief. The Buddha agrees, on the condition that she brings him a mustard seed from a house death has never visited. She goes all over town, unable to find such a house. With the realization of the universal nature of grief, she takes comfort in meditation, takes refuge with the Buddha and ultimately (according to legend) becomes fully enlightened. This is a very different approach than what this lama said. The Buddha has this woman meet the entire city at their common pressure point-- loss. She must have heard hundreds of stories of loss, been given comfort by others feeling her pain, and comforted others suffering her same pain. Quite different from being told there's no sense in thinking about her baby anymore, or to just get over it.

The second thought I had was a reminder, it's generally a good idea not to ask lamas for advice on relationships, especially marital advice or issues related to grief. They don't participate in family life. The comment the lama made was a reminder of this. It would have been more helpful for the lama to say "look, I have no idea what that kind of pain is like. It sounds absolutely awful. You should ask someone who is trained in this. I can teach you to meditate, maybe that will help."

Thankfully the participant who shared this story was commenting that a mindfulness-based approach to grief, one that trains people to endure the ups and downs of emotional pain, seems much more compassionate than the advice the lama gave. This isn't meant to put down the lama at all, but to point out how diverse Buddhism is and what a wide range of approaches all belief systems have to grief. I've heard variations of the lama story many times over the years. I am glad to contribute a small piece to counter-balance what I think of as an unhelpful attitude towards grief, be it from Buddhism or popular culture-- you suffer for a little while, but then you'd better dust yourself off and move on. It's the same unrealistic and simplistic advice many of my cancer patients get-- think positive and you're as good as cured.

I wish!

The truth is much, much more complicated. The science tells us that roughly one third of us do seem to dust ourselves off and "move on", whatever that means. The rest of us have a very different experience. For another third of people who experience grief, some very intense emotions show up for a very long time. It's for this population that I write, and this population that needs all the tools they can get. It's not a sign of any weakness or deficiency to suffer for a long time after loss. And not everyone agrees on what "too long" is. I think grief carries a potential that can be harnessed, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. Like the grieving mother who goes to the Buddha, grief can carry us forward into some very, very dark places, but also-- often unexpectedly--become a catalyst for growth.

My new book comes out in a couple of days. I hope it helps steer readers towards that kind of growth.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lessons From Last Week

No one I know died last week.

That's a relief. A week like that hasn't happened since April 2012. For the past 18 months, I've known two or three people every week who've died of cancer. I had known some of them for months, even years. Some I met just before they died.

All of them have touched me deeply. I can only hope that my presence was beneficial to them and their loved ones.

This is part of what I do for a living. I'm a clinical psychologist. My specialty is in working with people who have cancer and their caregivers. Make no mistake, the vast majority of people who have cancer-- an increasing percentage of the population every year-- do very well, and live on for years without the disease. I get to see many of these people put their lives back together or build on the already strong foundations they have spent a lifetime constructing.

I've been doing this for 15 years. I know I've helped a lot of people at some awful times in their lives. Frequently it's been at the worst time of their lives, and we mutually look forward to the day it becomes a distant memory. All too often, we navigate the mystery space between the known and the unknown, as Roshi Joan Halifax so eloquently puts it, the slippery transition between living and dying.  This means illuminating the bureaucratic and spiritual paths that carry all of us away from this life. 

I would be remiss though in saying I haven't benefited from the experience myself. It's not completely accurate to think of this as a job or a career, although it certainly is that. I think of it more as service.

I can't say I recommend this line of work for everyone. Most people react sanely when they find out what I do. Typically, there's an awkward pause. Then, "wow, isn't that depressing?".

You know what? It's really not. I get to see resilience. I get to see grace. I get to fight for dignity. I get to reduce suffering without the naïve assumption that any of us are exempt from our own mortality. I also get forced into a hyper-acute awareness of how important self-care is for any caregiver, professional or personal. I often get inspiration from reading about warrior cultures past and present, the punishing training regimens that Spartans would embark on, feats of agility and endurance practiced by Mongols and Comanches, or tales of superhuman resolve during more recent combat missions.

In order to serve the ill and dying, I find I do a better job if I'm in perpetual training mode in every way I can. I try to train in the way of our ancient warrior ancestors-- I run in sandals as they did, work out with kettle bells and a mace as they did in the ancient gladiator training camps, meditate twice a day. I eat a lot of plants. Very few jobs raise the stakes so high. Too many of us wait until we realize how high the stakes are to take care of ourselves.

Once in a while, when a week like the one that just passed rolls along, I get to pause and take stock. My work requires training, focus and intention. So does living. So does dying.

Life is constant training for the unknown. Don't wait till the bell rings to announce the next round to get in shape. Don't pack your bags at the airport.

Train now for the unexpected.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts on Mindfulness

You hear more and more about mindfulness meditation.

The word "mindfulness" is getting very over-used. It makes writing a blog about mindfulness kind of awkward to do, much less write books about. Mindfulness is very, very old, but it seems that it's gone through some predictable and repetitive cycles in its spread across cultures and time. A couple of nights ago I was reading Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" when I came across this quote: "The field of martial arts is particularly rife with flamboyant showmanship, with commercial popularization and profiteering on the part of those who teach the science and those who study it. The result of this must be, as someone said, that amateuristic martial arts are a source of serious wounds."

That was written back in 1643. The same can be said of meditation in general and mindfulness in particular. The word is over-used. It's become something of a status symbol among the spiritual elite. Surely you must have trained with so-and-so, done this-and-that, etc. What winds up happening is that too many people feel like they can't anywhere in the practice without the proper "credentials". But there is no substitute for a daily practice. Plenty of people have spent hours of one-on-one time with some very famous and gifted teachers and walked away without any change in their meditation practice- or lack of.

You don't have to go to India or some exotic location. It all starts with your breath wherever you are.

What happens when "unconditional, present-centered awareness", as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, becomes commodified? I recently came across a headline that said something like "mindfulness can make you more money". In the words of Tony Montana, "is that what it's all about?" Is that what the Buddha taught? A marketing tool? A researcher has recently sparked controversy by assembling a study of mindfulness among military personnel. While this heal their pain or make them more efficient, focused killers?

The truth is, our culture and our time are not new to these sorts of questions. The context of mindfulness has not always been the pristine monastery in a tranquil countryside. Even in the Buddha's own time, brutal war and genocidal conflicts raged all around him. So did charlatans, con artists and frauds. During his many frequent travels, he often returned to a place he had been before and found the local populace practicing a degenerated form of his teachings under the spell of a charismatic teacher.

This has all happened before, and I believe the antidote stays the same. The goal of any mindfulness practice must be compassion towards self and other and service towards those less fortunate and suffering. This comes about by being simply present. Don't bother with showmanship-- learn the instructions, then just practice, practice, and practice. There will always be someone who has practiced longer than you, with more famous people, in more exotic locations. There will always be those whose altars and meditation areas are just perfect, those who have really spiffy meditation accessories, and those whose libraries are more interesting.

None of this matters.

These are all distractions. Mindfulness is not meant for pristine conditions. The Buddha practiced in clothes other people had discarded alongside dusty roads under frankly miserable conditions. Pabonka Rinpoche once told a story about an old lady who learned the mantra "Om mani padme hum" wrong. Yet she repeated it unceasingly, meditating on compassion. She was enlightened even though she got the words wrong due to her motivation, intention and practice.

So never mind the hype. Practice, practice, and practice some more. Just breathe.