Pema Chodron and her FEAR tool helps with complex feelings around the birth of my daughter's second son

Starbaby, Frank Asch, illustrator and author. From the book Starbaby. Found via Vintage Books My Kid Loves. His website. Find him on Facebook.

My daughter’s second born, a beautiful, healthy son, arrived this week.

When I first hold him, I whisper my love and then this in his ear, “Tell me about where you’ve come from.” He doesn’t say anything but his eyes flutter. I hold him close to my heart hoping the answer seeps in.

His birth brings forth a range of emotional memories and feelings.

I better remember the arrival of my children being part of the birth of my grandchildren.

This time especially.

My daughter gives birth to her second child, a son, the week of her birthday. Her birthday is also the day my son, my second child and her brother, passes on.

That was eight years ago.

Naturally feelings arise. Complex feelings: happiness that grandbaby is here and sadness that my son isn’t; delight that my grandbaby’s parents are solidly prepared for his arrival and guilt that I wasn’t; gratitude for all I’ve learned from my son’s passing and pain that he left so early; excited to be part of the delivery and sensitive to a desire to give my daughter and son-in-law privacy to bond with their children; relief that a doctor’s early doubts about a healthy baby are not true and anger for that unnecessary concern. With joyful anticipation, I even have contractions while my daughter is in labor.

Dual feelings like that. But not unique feelings. I know I’m like you—we all receive gifts of significant joy and suffering.

Things happen to all of us (my last post was about a young woman who leaves too soon) and feelings arise.

And feeling is hard work with a worthy result: I get a little wiser and stronger in order to ultimately be there for others and do some good.

So I attend to my feelings.

Which is a big deal because I have a history of making myself (and others) a little crazy with a habit of pretending like nothing’s wrong, which is most obvious to me when I say “I’m fine” and my husband says, “You might want to tell your face.”

Sometimes a feeling arises and I think, “Oh no, not you again” or “Haven’t I done this already?” Thoughts like that strengthen old patterns that only bring temporary relief.

Like what old patterns, you wonder?

Oh, just this week I ate without thinking, without waiting, fast, too much, and in front of the television watching a rerun of Pioneer Woman. As if watching a food prep meal makes food taste better. I can’t even remember what I ate.

My first impulse to get comfortable with feelings by eating a mindless meal with Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond keeps me stuck and asleep. My feelings temporarily numbed but did not go away. (Addictions are like this.)

But trying not to escape feeling is tough.

(That’s why I’m writing.)

I want to see more clearly so that my insight can empower and help me make better choices.

I make a better choice.

I slow down and decide I’ll be with whatever comes up. And whoa, feelings are a coming.

The day begins like this: I wake early, chip my coffee cup on the counter, stub my toe, and then sit to meditate. I choose the mantra “Shanti Hum” (I am peace) because peace is nowhere around. I manage some moments of settling. Afterward, I look out at my newly planted butterfly garden and see a very social Zebra Longwing joyfully flit from orange to red blossoms nibbling on pollen. My eyes well up with tears.

My partner watches and asks, “Can I hold you?”

He does, I talk, and he listens as if it’s fresh and more important than anything else. That’s just one of the things I love about him. (If you’re here honey, thank you.)

Later friends call who know of my grandson’s birth and remember it coincides with the date of my son’s passing. As if by osmosis they know that my feelings are a mixture of loveliness and shit, and have skills to listen.

That makes me cry again.

Because you know how it feels when you have friends who know all your states of mind and love you anyway. They listen without having any need to tell or teach, and say things like, “Ugh, I know. I hear you and understand.”

I feel a little more awake.

I listen to a Pema Chödrön teaching. It is a not a coincidence that a lucky grab at my collection of her writing is about feeling.

Do you know what is right there under my nose on a day when I’m trying not to feel and need to? This Pema gem: Feelings are the best reference points for nowness.

Yep. Feeling is a ticket to being present.

And then as if that isn’t enough encouragement, she offers a feeling tool. Pema has this endearing way of acknowledging people who ask her questions so I imagine her saying to me, “Hello dear, you want to feel? This FEAR practice is good medicine.”

Why yes it is.

I listen as she says that whenever any unwanted, embarrassed, bored, edgy—basically when any “you don’t-want-it” feeling arises, she suggests:

F – Find it in your body. (Be present. What do you feel, and where?)

E – Embrace it. (Very hard for me. Breathe. Breathe.)

A – Allow the thoughts about it to dissolve. (Like what we do in meditation: thoughts come up and we let them go.) Then just abide with the feeling.

R – Remember or recall all the other people in the world who are feeling what you’re feeling. (Loss, addictive craving, people enraged and losing it, people who feel like they blew it and bad about themselves.) Whatever it is you’re feeling not only becomes a reference for nowness but also a reference point for compassion.

And then she adds, “Try to do this with an attitude of kindness towards yourself. You know, no self-recrimination.

Of course it’s a lifetime of work.

Might as well get to it.

So I take myself and these feelings to the beach. White Avenue to be specific. It’s the marker of the Gulf of Mexico spot I call home.

I immediately feel a release as I walk towards the water. The sand is soft and cool. I slowly breathe in salt air. A bevy of beach birds gather.

Sanderlings perch on one leg. Least Sandpipers scurry chasing breakfast. A Willet pauses at a tide pool and I take its shadow’s picture.  

I wiggle my toes hello to the warm water.

I shuffle into the Gulf to give any buried stingrays time to undulate away. Stepping on one is not kind and has consequences.

A school of fish embraces me with friendly, gentle touches. Some leap and flip with the slightest splash. I smile and porpoise-dive underwater to join their shoal. They circle and swim off.

Surfacing, I roll onto my back. It takes a few minutes to relax my muscles. I don’t know why, but every time I swim, I remember the fact that a shark is likely within 500 feet. (The sea IS their habitat.) I remember that I’ve swum with sharks and know that I’m not that appetizing to them.

The muffled mass of underwater quiet captures and elongates my breath.

I allow the sea to support me. I lie on my back. Ears under water and eyes upward, I still. My body bobs up and down with the ebb and tide. I feel like I am the sea.

Gazing at the sky, I see sea’s mirror. Wispy clouds float by.

Thoughts come and go. Time passes.

I feel fresh and light. I breast stroke closer to shore, stand when the water is at my waist and take big steps that push the water forward. I’m shin deep when a rogue wave slaps me in the rear and pushes me down on one knee. Just one knee. I regain my footing and stand up. I laugh out loud accepting a now emphasis.

Heading for my towel, I notice a wave-worn whelk and its sand trail. Broken and with crumbled edges, I clearly see its spiral and my potential. The upward whorl is evident.