In October, 2004, my mother nearly died. All her organs were failing and it seemed unlikely that she would last more than a few days in the hospital where she had been for several weeks. I remembered a friend of mine was a volunteer at a wonderful hospice, Jacob Perlow Hospice at Beth Israel Hospital, and I called my friend to ask how to get my mother admitted for hospice care. It seemed crazy to think about moving her at that point, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that normal hospital procedures were torturing her. If my mother was to die, I wanted her to die in peace.
The doctor who came to the hospital to examine her called me afterward and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more in need of hospice care. She is going to be transferred immediately.”
She went in on a Friday afternoon and the doctor on call told me, “I doubt she will last the weekend.” Their recommendation was to forego a feeding tube, take her off all of the meds she was on, and to simply keep her comfortable.
I sat near my mother’s bed, grateful to see her without all the equipment and in such a peaceful environment. There was another woman in the room
— older, like my mother, but she was on a feeding tube. I could hear them both breathing — it was shallow breathing and it was comforting. I was terrified of the thought of death, having never seen death up close before. After about an hour, I realized that only one woman was breathing — and it was my mother. The other woman was gone. I ran to the nurse’s station to tell them and I felt so sad as they told her husband, who had been sitting in the waiting room.
My mother miraculously survived that weekend and after a few weeks, my sister came to New York to visit her. But my sister had a cold when she arrived and wasn’t allowed inside the hospice, so she went Christmas shopping instead. And she got hit by a car. She was thrown 15 feet in the air and broke her leg in numerous places. And she nearly died, too.
So now my mother was in hospice care and my sister was in a hospital an hour away, undergoing numerous surgeries to save her leg. They both survived — my sister was able to walk again, although my mother couldn’t anymore — which meant the quality of her life was greatly compromised.
During this time my husband was quite depressed about not having enough work and my daughter was also going through a difficult adolescent period and it seemed that if there was a God, he or she was definitely testing me. And I was failing. I felt like Job. Why me, God? Why me?
I felt hopeless. And then I got sick, too, with a bad flu. As I lay in my bed, I wrote some emails to a few close friends asking for help. I think the subject line was something like: “Life sucks so why live?” or “Why is my life feeling like a really bad soap opera?” Which is ironic because I had written a number of soap operas over the years: The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives and Guiding Light among them. They, at least, were pretty sexy, even with all the soap opera problems — but my life didn’t feel at all sexy. It just felt hard. I needed Victor Newman to sweep me off my feet and take me away in his private jet, but he was no where to be found.
Instead of Victor, it turned out to be a Buddhist nun who rescued me. And not in a private jet, but on a meditation mat.
One of my dear friends, Jacqui, wrote an answer to my whiny email that said, “Do you have any of Pema Chodron’s books?” I remembered that many years before, a writing teacher of ours had given me one as a gift and I’d read a few sentences, put it on my bookshelf never to look at it again. But somehow when I got Jacqui’s email I knew enough to take her advice. I practically crawled out of the bed with my 103 degree fever and looked through all my books until I found The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.
I started reading it and felt that this woman was speaking directly to me, telling me that everything was perfect, just the way it was. That even though my life felt hard, it was all exactly the way it was supposed to be. Because everyone’s life is hard. According to Chodron:
When people start to meditate and work or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘If I could only get a nicer house, I’ll be a better person.’ ‘If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.’ Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, ‘If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.’ ‘If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I don’t get along, my job would be great.’ And ‘If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.’
But loving-kindness, or maîtri, toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years.
I can still be crazy? And it’s okay?! Really? And angry, too?!
We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.
We can still be crazy and angry and timid or jealous of full of feelings of unworthiness? Seriously? Wow. Okay. I kept reading:
There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.
A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.
Yes! I like this! And then this…
Perfection is like death.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or protection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, or somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride. To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.
I read The Wisdom of No Escape that day, cover to cover. I saw objectively, that my life, although a bit of a mess, was perfect. I saw that my anger and my pettiness and all my emotions were perfectly acceptable, in fact, desirable. I somehow felt that nothing was wrong — everything was perfect. Even though it was really quite shitty, it was perfect.
I started meditating, imperfectly. I kept reading Pema’s books and listening to her talks. I found a voice that saved my life. I found a way of life that has given me so much awareness and love. Life is messy and life is beautiful.
My mother lived another four years after that hospice stay, and even survived another hospice stay. My sister’s leg healed after five surgeries and a great deal of physical therapy. My daughter grew up and my husband and I got divorced. As bad as my life was in 2005, it was practically a walk in the park compared to 2009 and 2010. Divorce, death, job loss, moving, it was a monumentally, ridiculously traumatic time. And that was when I really leaned into Pema Chodron’s work — When Things Fall Apart — and meditation — and got as much support and love as I could find. Life is bitter and life is sweet. It’s painful and it’s scary — and it’s the only way to know that we can fly.