The awful of us

Photograph of a gargoyle by Terry Barrett

I sat in my chair reading about the concept of karma (or the golden rule). It’s not a new concept and I felt a bit of arrogance, sort of like I know this, but then I read:

“When you feel you are being harmed by someone, remember that the harm that person may be inflicting on you (or someone dear to you) is the direct result of you yourself having harmed others in the past (p. 156).”

I paused. I felt something shift inside of me.

For a long time I've understood the karmic concept. But when I read those words I personally felt its meaning. I suddenly saw—no, I felt—my deepest challenges as the hurt I’ve caused.

Like coming up for air after being under water to the point of drowning, I let out a wail. In my wail I thought, "I must have been a tiger who ate children." The feeling compounded later that day when I learned of the alligator that took a boy from the shore at nearby Disney World in Orlando while the parents watched.

I saw myself as the alligator.

Having once lost my boy swung like a pendulum to me hurting a child.

In the middle of the night, dread came again. I went to my cushion.

For hours I tonglen-breathed in the pain of those parents, the pain of physical harm to a young being, and my pain of awareness about the hurts I’ve caused. For each in-breath, I breathed out relief, then comfort. I breathed in pain and breathed out patience for all. I breathed in hurt and breathed out tenderness to the hurt and the hurters.

My drowning gulps softened into rhythmic breaths that carried and calmed me.

I remained sitting till a glimmer of dawn.

The horrid feelings melted and passed.

Do you know what was left?

This seems incredulous but I feel compassion for that alligator, which says something because I know the loss of my own child who died unexpectedly ten years ago, and having an incurable cancer I have more awareness about loss of my own life, so in a way I know some hurt of being consumed.

Now I better know the losses I've caused. 

I am hurt and I am a hurter. I believe all of us, yes—all of us are the alligator and the child and the parents of that child.

With gratitude for this breakthrough, I have more clarity about what it means to be patient and the commitment it takes to work towards being less reactive and not overcome by anger, hatred, and despair. Instead, I see a new way of being with awfulness, mine and others’. I open my mind and heart to kindness for all beings.


Even those who shoot, run over, bomb, and behead.

Pema Chödrön's book "When Things Fall Apart" changed how I see and live life

The inscription, When Things Fall ApartPema Chödrön.

When I was at Omega Institute recently for a silent retreat, I discovered that Pema Chödrön's book When Things Fall Apart is available in a 20th edition. 

That caught my attention.

A friend gave it to me the week my son passed unexpectedly. She said, “This book might help you.”  

On the day we memorialized my son, I had a profound experience. That morning I read the part in the book where Pema says, “Life is a good teacher and good friend” (p. 11). When I read those words, I was so distraught, I raised my arm to throw the book.

But I didn’t.

I kept reading a few more sentences where Pema encourages us to stay with our broken heart.

After the ceremony, we gathered in my sister’s home for lunch. I remember sitting in a chair in the far corner of her home, upstairs, listening to family and friends talking downstairs. I felt sad, bitter, and angry, and my heart hardening.

Miraculously, I remembered Pema’s words to stay with my broken heart. I stayed with my hurt. I sat still and let myself feel. I sobbed and softened. Later I stood up and went downstairs where I noticed that every person at the lunch had heartbreak.
And later as I studied more, I saw that every being has heartbreak.

It was that connection on that day that opened the door of my heart and mind enough to be with my hurt, and to use what I experience to connect with all others. I began my Tonglen practice

August marks ten years since that day and I am awed at the possibility of understanding life as a good teacher and good friend. I would never have imagined that my loss could partner, unfold, clarify, and become a transformed karmic seed. I am utterly awed. 

So, when I opened the newly printed When Things Fall Apart and saw the inscription quote Pema chose, I smiled until a tear dropped. It begins, “Life is a good teacher and good friend....”

I purchased two copies. One to take into my heart, the other to send or give to another. Sort of like Tonglen.

I first shared this story with Margie Rodgers who I met at Omega when I wandered into the cafe to explore the offerings of Pema's Foundation. Margie is vice-president of Pema's Foundation.

Today is July 7, 2016. Pema's 80th birthday is soon (July 14, 2016) and she asks us to join her in a day of practice. In a few hours, I'll participate in a live call with her and others to ask questions as part of an intensive study and contemplation of Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. How fortunate I am.

"How can you soften a mad-feeling face?" I ask. "Sing the chicken song," says Abby.

Hazel Terry
 Mom, artist, and faculty member at Adams Smith College, Scotland. 
Find her blog.

I remember the first time I really became aware of how I carry my troubles around with me. I was upset and my husband asked, “Are you mad?” The question startled me.

No,I replied, “No, I’m fine!” 

He looked at me and said, “Well, you might want to tell your face.” 

That experience is an example that encouraged me to teach emotion awareness and feeling vocabulary to the children in my class (3 to 6-year-olds). I realized how helpful it is to recognize feelings in ourselves as a first step to noticing these same feelings in others, which is a step towards understanding empathy and later, compassion.
During circle, I told the kids that when I was upset and having uncomfortable feelings, I happened to see my face in a mirror. I said, "My face looked hard like the sidewalk. My eyes were squinted, and there was a deep line on my forehead and between my eyes.  

I then asked a few questions about their experience with feelings. Children, how do you know when you're upset?

I start yelling or crying."

“My heart beats fast.”

“My hands are fists like fighting.”

“My stomach has a cramp.”

I'm like I stepped in dog poop.”

I kick a stone.

I bite my brother.

I complimented their personal awareness. Then I wondered out loud, What are some things we can do to calm the upset?"

"Count to ten."

“Run around your bedroom.”

“Think the opposite of mad.”

Tell the trouble doll why you're mad.”

“Get the clay and squeeze it hard.”

Breathe in and out.”

"Tell your mouth to laugh."

“Sing the Chicken Song.”

“Wiggle your nose.”

“Imagine ice cream for dessert.”

“Pretend a butterfly lands on you.”

“Say hello to Carly (the pet hamster).”

“Do big eyes.”

I paused and then said that it seemed like they knew a lot about taking care of their feelings instead of pretending the feelings are not inside of their bodies. I ended by saying that I notice that my feelings pass quicker if I let myself feel hurt if it comes, sad, frustrated, nervous, or angry.

Abby said, I like when mommy holds me and my feelings.

I learned more about softening my face in Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart. My son had just died and I was aware that my feelings were so painful that I could feel myself harden and begin to isolate from others. 

Chödrön says about softening, “It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently toward what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress…to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.” She explains that when we can do this, we connect to all others who share a similar experience.

Putting gaps in our emotional difficulty by looking up at the sky on a walk or with laughter or song are Chödrön's practical suggestions.  

Honest, open teens talk about negative experiences with drugs and alcohol

Michael Hazelroth, 1977 - 2006

A high school teacher invited me to have a conversation with her students about alcohol and drug addiction. Her invitation feels like a hug and a nudge from my son Michael who died of an accidental drug overdose. 
  When I meet the students, they say they want to write a book about drug awareness. (They eventually write and distribute zines in the school and to their families.)

The teacher introduces me as a teacher and someone she trusts and knows.

I begin with a question: 

“Have you or do you know someone (family member or friend) who has had a negative experience with drugs or alcohol?”

We take about fifteen minutes to write our response. I write, also. 

After we finish writing, I read what I wrote. 

There's a pause, and then I ask if anyone else wants to share what they've written. 

I wait for that first, brave student to share what they've written. A hand goes up.

Then another. Everyone shares.

The students write:

“When my dad was younger he was a heavy, heavy drinker and smoked a lot and is now in phase 2 of kidney failure and on a kidney transplant list. The amount he drank and the time period he did made his kidneys shut down to a 20% working level.”

“My brother when he drank beer almost drowned in a lake because he was drunk. We took him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped.”

“My friend lost her son to an overdose.”

“When I was in 4th grade I was in a bad wreck. I was with my friend and her mother and we were leaving the lake to go home. I thought everything was fine but my friend knew something was up. Her mom was drunk. I didn’t notice until the mom started yelling but we were already going too fast and there wasn’t enough time to brake. What scared me was that I couldn’t tell the difference. Also, I was told that if my friend didn’t make me sit in the back seat with her that I could have died. I have a scar to remember not to ever drink.”

“Drugs and alcohol at our school are a very popular thing. I don’t do it because of how I was raised, but one kid got caught. He was pulled over and had beer and marijuana. Other older kids supposedly go somewhere and have massive parties with all of this happening. I watch TV and know the regrets, losses, and pains people are going through when someone important in your life is hurting.”

“My sister got hit by a drunk driver and it screwed up her back.”

A lot of kids in my school go to parties over the weekend with alcohol and use weed to smoke. I’ve never heard of really anything bad happening to them, besides getting high or drunk. I’ve actually been invited to one of these parties, but I refused to go because I was too scared that I would get caught by my parents. I have friends that smoke and drink, but I honestly don’t care anymore, because it doesn’t affect me.

“I heard about a guy who was engaged, in college, and living a very successful life. He started doing drugs because he thought it was cool. When people found out about it, his fiancé broke up with him, and his whole life went downhill.”

“Many of my friends from my camp in Arkansas have been through rough addictions to drugs and alcohol. The camp is a church camp and has strong uplifting counselors and work members. So it is an amazing place to recuperate and rehabilitate. Most have done minor drug and alcohol such as weed, cigarettes, beer, margaritas, and mixed drinks, but there are the few that have done cocaine, rum, and others. They all have been beat down inside.”

“My cousin almost died of a drug overdose.”

“I can honestly say no to my family or I doing any kind of drugs. I have seen the after effects of what drugs can do by looking at Lindsay Lohan.”

“My friend gave into peer pressure and did weed and now they think it’s okay to do it and it’s not.”

“My biological dad is an addict and my grandfather has drinking problems. Both of my parents were doing drugs when I was conceived, but only my dad when I was born.”

“I’ve heard, seen and read things about drug and/or alcohol that end up bad. I know a lot of kids partake in them in this school, even some of the kids in this room. I’ve read that the victims get overwhelmed, I guess I can say, and can’t stop. There could be peer pressure involved with the whole thing as well. I’ve read things that say once you’ve done it even just once, it is very hard to stop. With kids becoming smarter in today’s world, more and more teens and under-aged kids are not falling into this habit.”

“Me. I’ve tried it. At the time I didn’t think much of it. Now, I feel bad about it. Call it an experimental thing, but it’s not good to associate with marijuana users.”

“My cousin got caught with drugs and alcohol. Her parents sent her to a place in Oklahoma City to get her help. She is much better now. I know a lot of kids here at school do drugs, but I don’t really see a point in it, especially with how dangerous it is.”

“My best-friend’s brother was in a car accident and almost killed himself and his friend. This happened because they were both drunk and made a bad decision. My friend’s brother had to get rods put in his leg and his friend lost his kneecaps. They are both alive and doing well but they never drink that much anymore.”

“My uncle died of an overdose on speed. Once he realized it was bad and tried to stop, it was already too late.”

“A distant uncle of mine had an alcoholic problem since he was twelve years old. Our family is pretty clean about all that stuff, but he was the black sheep. He never got married, and I believe it was because of his addiction to alcohol. When he was just in this early 40s, about 25 years ago, he was drinking and driving. He got in a wreck and it severely injured the others involved, and killed him.”

“My mother had a boyfriend when she was young who died after he dropped her off late at night. He was drunk and my mom, who wasn’t drunk, told him she would drive him home but he refused to let her.”

“My dad’s side of the family drinks a lot. My uncle smoked and he died of a heart attack. My dad dips and I’m worried for his health.”

“My aunt is an alcoholic. She has 5 kids and drank a lot with two of them when she was pregnant.”

“I have heard on television that drugs are bad for you and that they can ruin your life. Also, I have uncles and cousins who use drugs and I see how horrible their lives are. That makes me realize that I don’t want to live like they do because I want to do something with my life. I think if I try it then I’m probably going to like it and keep doing drugs. So I really don’t want to take those chances."

“My biological mother is a drug addict. Because of that she is not allowed in my life. She has a crappy life of her own. My grandma had a prescription drug addiction that drove everyone away. My mom was in a coma because of a mix of Tylenol and drinking and I’ve had some bad experiences myself.”

“My friend is a regular drug abuser. A few weeks ago she was at a party and used drugs and alcohol. On her way home she was in a terrible accident that she should not have survived but did. I’m very thankful she did survive but things could have been a lot worse than they were. Her life could of ended just cause she wanted to have fun.”

“My best friend’s dad used to be addicted to both drugs and alcohol. It was mostly before I knew her but the thought has always scared me. She told me stories about how he used to be and it’s not pleasant. They worst episode she can remember was one summer night when they hadn’t heard from him in 2 weeks. He showed up to their (her and her mom’s) ‘hiding’ place and beat down the door. Although he could barely function, he mustered up the strength to stumble through the door. My friend was hiding but she remembers all the horrible things he said to her.”

“Once my friends invited me to a party. They said they were going to get wasted so I said no. I have more important things to do. Like school and my athletic career. The End.”

“My dad always tells me to avoid alcohol and drugs. They are bad things and they will get you nowhere in life. Bad things can happen when you let these things into your life. One time we had a speaker come talk to us about drugs. He told us that when you do drugs the consequences are out of your hands. That one decision can ruin your whole entire life.”

“My best friend was at a fight club and he got drunk and when he gets drunk he gets angry very easily, and some guy threatened him and they took it to the ring and my friend got stabbed in the stomach. He called me shortly after and he was totally calm, and I only knew he was drunk because he was slurring his words. He told me he had just taken an adrenalin shot and some type of weed to kill the pain while his friends stitched his abdomen up and took him to the hospital. He called me a week later and I started talking to him about that again and he said that, and I quote: “Jo, because of you, I am going to stop using drugs and alcohol because I couldn’t live without you and just the thought of never being able to see or talk to you again just kills me inside.”

“My cousin was a drug addict. She overdosed and died a little while back after going to rehab. The people most affected by it were her parents and my sister because they were really good friends when they were little.”

We end the hour by creating questions to dig deep into their curiosities related to addiction. 

Questions the students raise. They use these questions to write their zines:

What is going on in the life of an addict?

Do family members or friends of drug and alcohol users have regrets?

What are signs that someone is using drugs?

It’s hard to say no sometimes. [What are some ways to say "no" when there is pressure?]

Do you think that bonding as a family and becoming closer would have stopped the addictions?

Why don’t addicts ask for help?

What was your son’s reasoning for trying drugs?

What do you think you could have done better that might have saved Michael? Could he have been saved?

Why do you think your son or an addict feels that he cannot talk to parents?

What are the effects of drug abuse on other family members?

Can an alcoholic get better?

If your son had never started on marijuana, do you think he would have traveled this road?

Everything you said about co-dependency explains my mother. Could what has helped you possibly help my mom?

Why does someone keep doing something that is bad for him?

What is going on in the life of someone who is abusing drugs?

How do you overcome grief from loss like this?

Was your son influenced by friends who were drug users?

If you could, what would you like to tell your son before his death?

Do you think drinking grandparents enable kids?

What do you do when you catch kids using drugs?

Do you think a person abusing alcohol or drugs can stop by himself?

Can you make someone stop using drugs?

What do I learn?

·      Addiction knows no demographic boundaries and touches all sectors of society.

·      Just as reported, alcohol and drug addiction is prevalent in teens and their families. Every teen wrote. Most have personal, negative experience with drug, alcohol, and codependent-relating behaviors.

·      Peer pressure is a serious issue. Along with stress overload. Their comments include drug prevention suggestions: teach us how to say no and reduce stress.

·      Parents play an extremely powerful role in drug and alcohol awareness. 

·      Sharing stories provide ripe, teachable moments.

·      Treatment works best as a family affair. (I went to Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania in the early 90s for codependency recovery. Caron provides programs to help families and patients understand the emotional consequences of addiction, the dynamics of addiction, the recovery process, the impact of addiction on the family, and how families get well.)

I have respect for this extraordinary teacher and her skills in creating a safe atmosphere for difficult conversations and talks about challenging topics.

And what terrific timing for this discussion. Prom and graduation happen soon, and these fun events can be some of the most dangerous times in a teen's life.