A shift in my thinking comes sometime between walking meditation and Thây’s last talk



Calligraphy, Thich Nhat Hanh


I recently spent six days at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi with about 900 others in a mostly silent retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (Thây) and a monastic community. This is the fifth consecutive post in a series of six about my experience. Originally published October 2013.

Around the last day of the retreat, I decided to let go of the fact that I have incurable cancer.

What this means is that, after this post, I will not talk or write about it. I’m not even interested in thinking about it anymore. 

Thây helps me with this decision.

It isn’t a lightning bolt shift in perspective. The change feels more like a soft, gentle, soaking in rain.

I remember it like this:

Sometime between walking meditation and Thây’s last talk, there is a session where he invites questions.

Questions such as “How do I deal with my angry friend?”, “Is it possible for humankind to achieve world peace?”, “How do I let go of the fear of someone dying?”, and “Should communities organize in civil disobedience to reduce violence?” They grab my 100% be-here-now attention. I feel my mouth open in marvel at the profound simplicity of his responses.

I write each question and his response. I know, I’m supposed to let the words and ideas water my heart without pencil and paper, but I tried that for three days and feel my memory needs some loving support.

I sum up what settles into my heart and mind:

So you want to help?

Start with yourself. Heal yourself. Breathe. Smile. Practice kind, loving speech. Honor all life. Be generous. Make peace with your body, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, and if you know how to do that, you’ll inspire others to do the same. Consume peace. Be peace. Learn to listen deeply. Allow sharing. Don’t interrupt. Give time and space. Start anew. Write love letters (rather than protest letters). Give your time and energy to creating a happy family and community. Practice diligently.

I realize the retreat is designed to practice all of this. 

My fears about a peaceful world leave entirely after my first walking meditation

It is one of most beautiful experiences of my life.

Thây leads. Though it is 85 degrees, he wears his winter coat, scarf, and hat. I wonder if his need for heavy clothing is about how much energy he gives off.

Children hold his hands and 900 of us begin to walk together. In silence.

Ten minutes into the walk I feel an emotional rush. A rising tide of peace, as if I’m part of a larger walk. Others’ steps echo ours—people such as Susan B. Anthony, the Freedom Riders, Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandelathe Peace Pilgrim, and Malala Yousafzai. I feel like I’m part of a moving river of peace.

My question about whether there will be peace in the world disappears. Peace already is—its river is already moving. 

And then I feel a connection to the cloudiness of my personal wellness. That river of peace is not just about our world. It’s about my well-being (and yours).
  

The note said, “I hate you."


Disgruntled PrincessKate Hindley, illustrator. Find her cards, zines, prints.

I ring the bell for circle just before lunchtime. Catie stands in front of me, silent and with downcast eyes. She unfolds a narrow strip of paper. “I found this note in my folder.”

“What does it say?” I ask.

Choking back a sob, she reads, “Dear Catie, I hate you,” and hands the note to me.

I know the writer from the handwriting. I don’t think Catie knows though it is one of her best friends. I ask, “Would you like a hug?” She says, “Yes,” and I hold her until she lets go. “We’ll talk about this during circle time.”

(Each child has a folder where they place work to take home. It also holds friendship notes children write to each other. The friendship note activity was presented as a way to practice using caring words such as “I'm glad you are my friend, “ or “I like sitting next to you,” or "I like your smile." 

After writing the note, the edges are colorfully decorated and the note is folded and placed in the receiver’s folder. There is an agreement that all notes are addressed by name to the receiver and signed by the writer.)

The children put their work away, come to the circle, sit, and quickly quiet.

“I want to read this note that Catie found in her folder.” I read it, look at Catie and pause. I ask, “What are you feeling, Catie?”

Catie’s eyes are red from crying. “Sad,” she replies.

“Is there more?” I ask. Catie shakes her head no.

“Before we talk about the note, does anyone have anything to say to Catie?”

“I like you,” says Brenna.

“I’m sad too,” says Anna.

“You can sit next to me at lunch,” says Miranda.

“I’m sorry you got that note,” says Graham.

After the children finish sharing their thoughts and feelings, I say, “When I’m uncomfortable I know that there is a hidden lesson. I wonder what I can learn. So, let’s talk about what happened.” 

“Is there anything good about this note?” I ask. The children are quiet and I wait.

“It’s good to write notes,” says Tomas.

“Nothing,” says Graham.

“We can know our feelings,” says Ashlinn.

Ashlinn says that a good thing about the note is we can know our feelings. I agree. It helps to know what the writer is feeling.

I pause.

What’s not helpful about this note?” I ask.

“It’s mean,” says Will.

“What's mean?” I ask.

Max raises his hand, “No one signed it.”

Jake adds, “Catie doesn’t know who it’s from.”

“Why is that important, Jake?” 

“Then Catie doesn't know who to talk to,” he answers. “She can't say stop writing that.”

"That's helpful, Jake. If the note was signed, Catie would know who the writer is and how the writer feels and they could talk about it." I can tell the children are thinking about what Jake suggested. I continue, "Let’s talk about the feelings of the writer of the note. How do you think the writer might be feeling?”

“Mad at Catie,” says Miranda. I look at Miranda and nod that I hear her.

“Bad,” says Will.

Say more about that, Will, why might this person feel bad?

“Like she wrote a mistake.”

“What can the writer of the note do about writing a mistake?” I ask.

Sophia raises her hand, “Write her another note and be nice.”

Jake says, “The writer can write another note and say, 'I'm mad,'” and he adds, “The person has to sign it. Catie can ask the person about feeling mad."

(Dublin Montessori Academy, a circle conversation, about 2004)

NOTES - The kids never found out who wrote the note. Catie received many friendship notes later that day including one from the person who wrote the original note. I wrote a friendship message to the writer of that note that said, "I like you and I'm glad we learn together." We did not have another unsigned note that school year. First posted August 26, 2012.




End of school year: time for talk about transition and loss


Sad and happy birds wearing bows. Natalie, 5 years young

So let’s settle it right now: Life is tough. Hard lessons are part of our days and, I believe, life's invitation for inner growth.

I notice signs of unsettled children in classrooms and homes. I feel it myself. 

Change is in the air: the school year is ending, goodbyes to classmates are coming, a new summer routine is just around the corner.

It is a perfect time for a conversation about transition and loss.

Janice Mattina, founder and director of Center Montessori School, wisely raises awareness in her students that losses are part of life. She listens to them. 


A school year ends. 

Friends graduate and go to new schools. 

A parent takes a business or pleasure trip. 

Not getting a desired something. 

A pet dies. 

It's time to move to a new home or place. Even moving into a new bedroom at home is a chance to practice letting go.

A family member divorces. 

Grandmother passes. 

Janice moves the children from awareness to acceptance and understanding about change through conversations which require listening from the heart. Her intention is to help them embrace loss as a lifelong healing companion.


Loss as a learning and healing companion is an idea introduced to Janice and upper elementary and middle school-aged Center students by Karen Warren-Severson, MEd, NCC, a counselor and coach. Karen came into the classroom to teach a “Mending Hearts” workshop. 


Karen asks students questions such as “What do you believe about loss and grieving?
 And then, “If you accept loss as a lifelong companion, how will your grief change?” There's a pause between questions to give space and time to invite response from the kids. 

An honest, open discussion comes forth. Feelings such as relief, acceptance, and peace arise.

Karen leaves the students with heart-shaped pieces of cloth. The hearts have cuts in them, cuts that the children mend or sew closed as a metaphor for their healing process. After the activity, more cut hearts are placed on a shelf for later times. Wounds surface throughout our life. The activity is ready for whenever anyone is willing to reveal and heal.


It is not surprising that these children are able to more readily and openly talk about their losses after this workshop. 


After the workshop, when a child shares about loss, Janice listens and asks “Can you work with that?” And here is the miraculous wonder of children. The common reply is, “Yes I can work with that.

Willingness.

With willingness, it is possible to feel, share, mend, and let go. She listens. And then the heard student heads to the shelf to sew a heart.


A Wild Thing: when scared, instead of fleeing, I join the (feeling) rumpus


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator

(I wrote this post almost three years ago just before moving from Texas to Florida. I'm posting it again today, April 23, 2017. These past few weeks I've experienced a similar hurried and "too-busy-to-live-life" pace. When that happens, I know that I'm running from something. When I'm aware I'm in this hustle, I'm grateful I notice.) 

I have a problem.

It's hurrying.

Even though I changed my pace while at a retreat, I’m back to mindless quick-there’s-somewhere-to-go or something-to-do.

Gulping quickly chewed food. Walking fast. Getting “it” done. I even ran my grocery cart on the heels of a forgiving woman. After that, I took a breath. Ten minutes later I entered a line for check out, backed out, and then backed out again.

Where oh where is patient, do-one-thing-at-a-time, take-it-slow, me?

The good: I noticed.

Others noticed too.

I recently paid $280 for doing two things at once. I was talking on a handheld cell phone while driving by my neighborhood elementary school.

(Fortunately I was only going 14 mph, or I might have had to take out a loan to pay my citation.) Multitasking, I was totally oblivious to obeying the law.

That was a few weeks ago.

Yesterday in a slowed-by-yoga saunter back to my car I had an insight about my hurriedness.

First, let me back up.

I’m moving from Texas to Florida. I’m heading to a place I call home and eagerly look forward to new experiences with my husband, and time with my daughter, son-in-law, their children, and family and friends. I also long for the water, sun, sugar-fine white sand, crystal light, and birding joy such as watching the scare tactic of “wing flinging” by wood storks in the back yard (it’s how they catch fish). 

If I measure my delight about this move with a pendulum, give it a mighty and vigorous swing, and then watch that pendulum swing equally in the opposite direction to then have a measure of my feelings about letting go of all I like about being in Denton.

Though I live life as an adventure and view my home as wherever I place my head at night, I’m uncomfortable. Five years in Denton is long enough to fall in love with new friends.

So what does this have to do with hurry?

I realized I’m rushing to make time pass quickly and to slow other time down. Get it all done, stay busy. Or, hurry to make more time.   

Silly me. What illusion of control.

Hurrying doesn’t release the discomfort of being in between here and there.

Moving is in the realm of loss, positive though it is.  And experiences of loss hold hands with other losses. That means that when I feel what comes up about leaving Denton, bits of past losses come up. Death claims a child. Letting go of a terrific job, a home, a conservation group, a business. A marriage is over. A pet passes. A joyful experience ends. Health fails.

A wise teacher once told me that if a feeling is more than two on a scale of one-to-ten, then the feeling holds more than the current event that triggers it.

Sometimes it’s not easy to feel. My long-held habits centered on a need to control to push away discomfort. My patterns are stoically hardening, moping, complaining, woefully explaining or justifying. However, each time I allow myself to feel, these patterns lessen.

My hurrying is a disguise. 

I see a sign from the reliable guide of awareness. Hallelujah.

My less-than-best-self thinks there isn’t time for this grief stuff. Grabbing for denial, I think: “Hey, Susan—you intellectually know what’s going on my mind chatters, so get on with packing or doing this or that. Feel good now that you thought it.”

Thinking and feeling are different.

Being emotionally open and free means letting go of thoughts like:

“I’m not that kind of person who feels like that.”

“I should be over it.”

“No one wants to hear about these feelings.”

“I don’t have a right to feel hurt; it isn’t fair to everyone else.”

“I’ll only open old wounds.”

“The past is the past” (Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets, p. 57).

Those thoughts deflect, suppress, and repress.

Emotional freedom is when one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things (Where the Wild Things Are) shows up to scare me, to scare me out of feeling. And instead of fleeing in fear, I inwardly declare I'm not afraid and realize I am the rumpus.

I don’t need Max’s crown. I need to slow down, call on some ordinary courage, and feel.

My blog, WONDERMENTS, has a second home...


Hello Friends,

I have news—my blog WONDERMENTS has a second home at Wonder Anew
I'll continue to post wonderments here, too. So, keep visiting me here with my artist friends. And find me at Wonder Anew.

What is Wonder Anew? The short answer—it's a place for you to process difficulty using eight open-ended questions. I think of it as a place to do what I have done on this blog: work with personal experiences with curiosity, awe, and wonder to uncover your own wonderments. See you there.

xo Susan



Ten years ago Michael left, and love grew.

Clouds eyes. Terry and I walk the beach (8/21/16).
I took this picture at the place we put Michael in the sea.

Today is a special day. Ten years ago Michael passed on.

This morning when I woke, I smiled. No tears. I feel grateful.

My first thought was for someone I love.

My second thought was for someone I love.

And then, as if I created my own gratitude feast, I remembered so many others who were there for me this day ten years ago, and since. Because I’m aware that I’m not alone in my life experiences, that all others experience loss and joy, I understand that you likely know people like this in your own life.

So…

Is there someone in your life who no matter how many times you ask to be held and listened to is there every single one of a zillion times as if it’s the first time and most important moment, and that you know he’ll be there for the next zillion?

Have you ever found yourself looking at your daughter, and all at once see her as a child, sibling, spouse, mom, aunt, cousin, sister, friend, and teacher? You know—for a moment you get a glimpse into what it looks like for a human being to have unfathomable love, willingness to learn, strength to persevere, humility, and an ability to accept life in all its marvel and messiness. Have you ever seen your own child like this?

Have you ever paused for a moment when you do something of merit and think of someone you really care about, someone who married and loves your daughter and their sons, and remember with gratitude and joy to dedicate that merit to him?

Sometimes do you stop whatever you’re doing because you remember that there is someone who was there for you on the hardest day, which was probably her hardest day, too, and somehow she took the lead? You know, like looking up at geese in formation flying a rigorous route north and she sees a need to take the apex of the arrow despite wind shear. And then she holds the apex for a long, long time, even letting a tired bird fly on her back. Do you know someone like this?

Do you know someone who would respond to an unexpected death of a loved nephew in his home and then, unable to reach the parents, attend to what needs to be done as if that nephew is his own child?

Is there someone in your family who has a blend of tenderness and strength, someone able to hug and hug and hug and love no matter how much of a shit a cousin can be, and feels he is her guardian angel?

Have you ever had a moment when you remember calling a friend asking her to drive you to the airport and that friend is at your door five minutes later, silently holding your unbearable sadness with grace and a comfort that carries over year to year?

Do you know someone who has the ability to sit quietly with loss? Like a friend who sits with you the day after your son dies and a few days before your son’s funeral saying nothing except when you say, “I don’t know if I can go to his funeral,” and she replies, “You’ve lived your hardest day. Every day from here is easier. You can do this.”

Is there someone in your blended family who during an unexpected event steps forward and says, I can help, and she does the work of organizing a funeral?

Do you ever look at your children, and even though you’re not married to their dad anymore, feel so much gratitude for that relationship because of those precious children?

Do you sometimes experience overflowing best-thing-everness when you hear stories about what others love and see in the people you most love? Or you're at a memorial like my son's and through their eyes you hear the kind, silly, fun, loving things he said or did and feel so grateful for their stories?

Are there listeners and teachers in your lives who know when to hug, when to offer another perspective, when to show up, when to let you wrestle with angst, and when to send messages that they love you to bits and are there for you?

Have you ever realized that you probably didn’t adequately thank the people you work with when something happens that meant they needed to step-up and into doing their job and a little bit of yours for as long as is needed?

Have you ever had a remembrance long after someone took responsibility to do a task you couldn’t do, like make and pay for a flight, and then realize that you forgot to thank that nephew?

Have you ever received a book that holds teachings that reach out from the pages and somehow help your heart soften when you feel yourself growing bitter and angry and years later begin studying with that teacher?

Do you ever think how fortunate you are to have siblings who have shared your childhood and understand in a way no others do?

And then, do you think about the gift your sibling's children are to your children and how working with these family relationships is practice for relating to families everywhere?

Is there a person who when you feel horrible, finds and says while hugging you, "You're doing great," and because it's her and you feel her love, you wear that mirrored message with a bit more bravery?

Are there people in your life who when life dips dangerously deep, write cards and messages to you, and then you realize that for over 57 days straight, someone wrote to say "I see you"? Have you had this experience?

How about this, I wonder, do you have people who on the anniversary of an event are there to creatively say, "I'm here," or "I remember"? 

Do you know people who, because you decided to show yourself in all its muddiness, ask you to be with them because they know you'll listen and hold, not fix, their hurt? Has that happened to you?

Have you ever been part of caring groups who know how to hold the good and the awful, and listen, and be, and listen again, and again, and again, and sometimes call you sweetie, love, dearheart, honeybun, or Sue?

Have you had the experience of finding a friend who in some inexplicable way becomes a conduit of connection and opens you to wonder about the energy of love, and then somehow you feel like you hear the wind talking or something like that?

Have you experienced the death of a child only to discover that he lives on? And then to discover that as he lives on and grows inside of your heart, his love also grows inside every being he ever touched and every being that person ever touches, and yes, on and on? That legacy is so much bigger than passing on a family heirloom? 

Do you think about death as an awareness of life, and like me, begin to realize the preciousness of knowing that your legacy is love?

And then this, do you think about things you learn from relationships?

I do. 

Here’s one.

I’ve learned that when a relationship (people, places, things) ends there is an opportunity to use my pain and all the difficult feelings to deepen my relationship with life—to be with whatever life brings

It might appear that my practice living with this thought has improved my life. Maybe it has, though I no longer face and feel pain or joy to better myself. It works for me to think of my life experiences this way:

“A difficulty visits? Use it to be awake to life itself.”

And live.