Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Charnel Grounds

I'm in the charnel grounds tonight.  Three months ago yesterday, I said hello and goodbye to my boy.  

Yesterday came and went with an abundance of joy in my heart.  I've been directing my attention at back-to-school, re-establishing my yoga practice, eating mindfully, and connecting with my girl.  We lit candles for Julien yesterday, spoke of him freely, and felt a lightheartedness about the house.  

This morning, I woke up with a sick feeling in my gut.  All day, the thought of food has turned my stomach.  More than once, I've felt my heart racing forward and my shallow breath sticking in my chest.  I'm reminded of the days just after Julien's birth when the sum of what had happened would hit me all at once and trigger a pounding in my heart.  I also felt this way right after my dad passed away last year.  I couldn't eat meat for days.

This is dark stuff.  This is what no one wants to talk about.  This is that feeling that arises when we come face to face with our own mortality... when, for just a flashing moment we consider the complete annihilation of the self we perceive ourselves to be -- or when we get a fleeting glimpse of what it would feel like to stand, with all of our profanity, in the face of the divine.

Some would call this the dissolution of ego.  A theologian named Rudolf Otto called it, "mysterium tremendum."  A woman I know, a dear friend and confidant, calls it, "walking with god."  Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, calls it the charnel ground.  If you've come to my blog by way of your own loss, the following description may not be for you.  In When Things Fall Apart, Pema explains:

"In Tibet the charnel grounds were what we call graveyards, but they weren't quite as pretty as our graveyards. The bodies were not under a nice smooth lawn with little white stones carved with angels and pretty words. In Tibet the ground was frozen, so the bodies were chopped up after people died and taken to the charnel grounds, where the vultures would eat them. I'm sure the charnel grounds didn't smell very good and were alarming to see. There were eyeballs and hair and bones and other body parts all over the place. In a book about Tibet, I saw a photograph in which people were bringing a body to the charnel ground. There was a circle of vultures that looked to be about the size of two-year-old children—all just sitting there waiting for this body to arrive."

The charnel grounds are the manifestation of awakened energy.  They are the ability to be present with whatever we are feeling.  They are the humble awareness that human existence isn't always pretty... or as Pema puts it, "is grounded in some honesty about how the human realm functions. It smells, it bleeds, it is full of unpredictability, but at the same time, it is self-radiant wisdom, good food, that which nourishes us, that which is beneficial and pure."

Two of my grandmothers passed away this summer.  The first died the day after our boy.  This is something that - even now - I have not fully wrapped my mind and heart around.  The mortuary kept their bodies together until each was returned to the earth.  It was several weeks before the grandchildren gathered together at her house.  This gave my immediate family some time for grieving our boy.  By the day we gathered to sort my grandmother's belongings, I was beginning to learn how to compose myself, get dressed, and get through the day.  Spending that time at her house with my extended family brought me right back to day one of my grief -- right back to the charnel grounds.

I'm here again tonight.  

As I posted the day before yesterday, a woman with whom I share a close friendship is in the long process of losing her mother right now.  She's in that raw and aching place where I dare not say another word for fear it might feel like salt in her broken heart.  Another woman, a radiant and creative soul, shared with me today that, years ago, she lost her baby.  Even now, she grieves.  Also, on this night, a woman in Argentina - someone I've never met - is giving birth to her stillborn baby just a few weeks shy of her due date.  Their losses takes me back to mine.  Our suffering connects us in ways we never consider.

I've written too much tonight and can't summarize my thoughts.  My heart is just too heavy right now... but my mind keeps turning back to Pema's words -- so I'll share those here now:

"Chaos is part of our home ground. Instead of looking for something higher or purer, work with it just as it is.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Death Gifts

I know a women who is so sweet and genuine that just hearing her name warms my heart.  Her mother is in the long process of dying right now and my heart aches for her. 

My dad died of cancer last year.  

Not one but two of my cousins lost their sons last year.

Not one but two of my grandmothers died this summer.

We lost our baby boy just three months ago.

Not one but two of my dearest women-friends both lost their mothers when they were just little girls.  Another woman with whom I share a close friendship also lost her dad last year.  And I'm sure I'm forgetting many more.  

Death touches us all.  Yet, as the Tibetan yogi Milarepa so eloquently stated, "Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death, until it arrives like thunder?"

Oddly enough, I did.  I grew up around death -- around the grieving.  My dad was a funeral director.  This was his family's business.  He loved his work.  He loved helping people.  His work created plenty of opportunity for me to think about death.  Still, I wonder -- does thinking about death actually help prepare us for the loss of a loved one?  Maybe... but only if we choose our thoughts wisely.  Ruminating on it won't help.  Getting close to our feelings about it will.  When we get close enough, we can see the preciousness of it -- we can see the gifts death brings.

As my dad was dying, I noticed how free I felt to love him.  Every little crappy thing I was holding onto melted away... and I realized that in the light of death, we are free to love.  Somehow that is helping me now.

Earlier today, I posted a Buddhist parable called, Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed.  This is one of Buddhism's more popular stories.  Knowing our spiritual beliefs, the officiant at our son's service selected this story and read it aloud graveside.  (Of course, we all wept.)  As the story goes, after Kisa Gotami's baby boy dies, she is overcome by her grief and carries her boy's body around the town in search of someone who can help him.  In the end, she realizes that death touches us all and finally lays her boy's body, and her grief down.  

In my grief, I'm seeing that each day is a choice.  I can let my grief overcome me.  Or, I can chose to let my son's death inform my life with sweetness -- with real knowledge of the preciousness of each day.  In this way, death gives birth to life and (once again) I see that they are not two simple happenings -- but one.