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.

Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed

Have you time, friend? I've a story I'd like to share.

There was once a woman from the city of Savatthi by the name of Kisa Gotami, known for her wisdom and kindness. Her many uncountable merits earned her, as a husband, the son of a nobleman, and she bore him a single child. In the dark of a storm, in a flash of lightning, with animals baying just outside her window, Kisa Gotami realized that her baby was not crying. Death had claimed the child in his sleep.

Kisa Gotami pleaded with God and the spirits, and with every devil by name, but none of them would answer her prayers. Thus, her dead babe in arm, she went out into the morning marketplace to find a medicine that could cure death.

"Please," she would plead to the merchants. "My son needs medicine. He's ill."

"Kisa, your son is dead."

But she would not hear their words. Thus she wandered the market, asking everyone if they knew a medicine for death. The woman the whole city once looked to for advice was now the center of everyone's pity.

"Gone mad, she has," some said. "She'll come to her wits," said others. "It may be kinder to kill her," said others still. Every single body in the city was moved by Kisa Gotami's sorrow.

She arrived with her dead baby to a certain apothecary and, once again, begged for a medicine with which to cure death. The apothecary, having been given warning of Kisa Gotami's coming, pretended to consider her question long and hard. Finally, he told her, "No. No, I don't have anything to cure death. But if anyone does, it would be the ascetic Gautama. He was a brilliant doctor before he retired, you know."

"Where can I find this man?" Gotami screamed, clutching her dead child.

"He is staying in the Jeta Grove, where they're building the monastery."

Gotami fled the medicine shop without another word. That same day, she rushed into the Jeta Grove, where the Buddha was lecturing a large assembly, many of whom knew of Kisa Gotami's plight.

Crying, reeking of death, and stained by the city, Gotami threw herself at the Buddha's feet, disturbing the lecture and laying her dead son flat on his back.

"Remove her," someone grumbled.

"Stay your tongue," came a reply. "That is Kisa Gotami. She can't be held accountable for what she does."

"Please," Kisa Gotami said, ignoring the murmurs about her. "I've been told that you once practiced medicine, and that you knew a cure for death. I beg you, sir, bring my son back to life. Please! My husband is amongst the city's wealthiest-I can pay you any fee."

A silence of pity spread through the crowd, and the Buddha looked on the distraught mother in silence.

"Please!" She cried.

Still the Buddha was silent.

"Do you know the cure or not? I beg you!"

"Yes," the Buddha said. "I know the cure for death."

A collective gasp went through the crowd, and the Buddha's closest disciples gave him a suspicious look.

"Any price," Gotami said, weeping. "Anything!"

"Very well," the Buddha said. "I require but a mustard seed-the other reagents I have. But it cannot be any common mustard seed. It must come from a family that has never known death. If you bring me such a seed, I will be able to prepare your cure."

"Oh, most generous doctor! Enlightened sage! Thank you! Thank you!"

"Ah-Leave the child," the Buddha said, as Gotami stood. "I can prepare the rest of the cure while you search."

For the first time in two days, Kisa Gotami traveled without the presence of her son's corpse.

When she was finally out of sight, the Buddha cast his gaze at the child's body, rotted, riddled with maggots and broken.

"Come, Ananda. We must cremate Kisa Gotami's son."


Kisa Gotami searched Savatthi with impeccable order, going from home to home, and asking everyone the same question. "Can you spare a mustard seed?"

"I don't see why not."

"Thank you! But-has your family ever known death?"

"Yes, Gotami. Only four months ago, my father passed. You were there, remember?"


"Yes, Gotami. My parents and their parents, and the brothers of them all are all dead and gone. I am alone in the world."


"Yes, Gotami. My son was slain in battle."


"...killed by wolves."


"...drowned herself..."

"...fell from a partition..."

"...died from a cold..."

"I am the only one left of my family, Kisa Gotami." Kisa Gotami, battered and coated in filth, knelt in the mud of a long-due rainstorm and said to herself, "My son is dead."

Pellets of water battered her forehead and streaked the dirt down her face.

"My son is dead."


Kisa Gotami returned to the Jeta Grove and found the Buddha, sweeping wood-dust from the construction site.

"Kisa Gotami," the Buddha said in greeting.

"Blessed Sage," Kisa replied.

She was smeared over with the grime of the road, and old tears had carved paths through the dirt on her cheek. Despite this, the Buddha said, "Your wandering has done you well."

"Oh, Gautama, how selfish was my grief. I went from family to family, and pretended for two long days that there might exist some clan of immortals. Those wives alive in Savatthi who haven't already lost a son are bound to lose one someday. And if they never lose a son, then a son is bound to lose a mother. And how many parents lay buried beneath our feet!"

"Your observation is accurate in every way, Kisa Gotami. Neither those wise nor those foolish are immune to death. However great a father roars, he can never waken a dead daughter. However much a mother begs the gods, a dead son will never cry again. One by one, Gotami, we each die. This is but a greater disappointment among a thousand lesser ones, and just as a Sage does not mourn a broken pot, a Sage does not mourn death.

"Your tears painted trails down your face, once, Gotami, but those trails did not lead you to peace of mind. For four days, you suffered the elements as if you wandered a jungle instead of the heart of a great city. But your sorrow accomplished nothing for your son. Be prepared, Gotami, for you will suffer many other deaths in your time, and some day, your own. Destroy the attachment that causes your grief, and you will lead a better life."

Thus Kisa Gotami took her first step down the path of wisdom. And the Buddha finished sweeping the floor.

*Sutta translation by

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One or Two Things

Don't bother me
I've just
been born.

The butterfly's loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes

for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze of the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things; I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now
he said, and now,

and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning --- some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
an idea.

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
"Don't love your life
too much," it said,

and vanished
into the world.

- Mary Oliver

I heard this poem last year during a Monday night class with Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  Those last few lines have been lodged in my mind ever since.  "Don't love your life too much," says the butterfly.  This is the stinging message I feel like sharing with everyone since losing my boy. 

For me, the butterfly is a symbol of our impermanence.  With both its short life cycle and its metamorphosis, it represents a deep truth about the nature of reality -- that one thing always changes into another.  The butterfly is telling us not to grow too attached to things as they are because everything, even our suffering, is temporary.  In my grief, I also hear the butterfly shouting out a reminder not to let our lives pass us by.  This is the "idea" we need to "lift the hoof."  When we are touched by death, we see the preciousness of life.

When I look back on all of the stress, anxiety, and depression I've had in the past (and there was a lot of it), it all feels like dress rehearsal for what my family is experiencing now.  It all seems like small stuff.  While I wish I would have seen the preciousness of life back then (and skipped all of the years I struggled) I also think that going through all of that gave me some tools for navigating these waters now.  All of our experiences are our teacher.  

The "one or two things" seem to be hinting at the non-dual nature of reality.  Life and death, pleasure and pain -- these are inseparable and this knowledge gives life meaning... but this alone doesn't end our suffering.

The "sharp iron hoof" must be our human suffering -- the nagging feeling that something is wrong with our lives.  It's my understanding of the Buddhist teaching that we experience this dissatisfaction, or dukkha, when we deny the transient nature of reality -- when we grasp too tightly to things as they are -- and when we desire for things to be different. 

Maybe this poem is saying that by accepting the impermanent nature of reality, the sharp iron hoof at the center of our mind is lifted... that our suffering ends when we see that each fleeting moment is beautiful just as it is... and that we would be wise to realize this, to listen to the god of dirt saying, "now," before it's too late.

Where the light enters you...

Trust your wound to a teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don't turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged wound. That's where
the light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself.


Long before we lost Julien, I loved this poem by Rumi.  "Keep looking at the bandaged wound. That's where the light enters you," he says.  I've discussed this poem many times but now that my bandaged places are bleeding through, I feel challenged to look again. 

In the days following Julien's birth, I remember telling myself, "just be present," again and again.  No matter what I was feeling (panic, nausea, hysteria) I knew I had to just stay with it -- to ride it like a horrible, inescapable roller-coaster.  I also kept reminding myself (and our daughter) that the most intense feelings would soon pass.

My dad had just died last year and those memories were all too fresh in my mind.  When Julien passed, I recalled everything I felt with my dad and knew just to hold on to the present moment for dear life.  With a white-knuckle grip, I told myself again and again that each day would get easier -- and it did.

This was a HUGE exercise in both trust and in acceptance.  By letting every emotion wash over me like a river, I think the pain became less intense.  I'm not saying that it doesn't still hurt.  It is to this day the most grueling thing I've ever felt... and turning into the pain sometimes seems like self-immolation.  Still, for me, just being here for all of it feels better than running away from it.

I think Rumi is suggesting that our suffering is our salvation.  Our capacity to feel deep sorrow and profound joy is what defines this human experience... and the two are inseparable.  But is all suffering salvific?  Perhaps.  

Without it, how would we discover grace?


with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is
-  W. S. Merwin 

The Unbroken

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness out of which blooms
the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy;
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength...
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness
We are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

- Rashani Réa