Lately, for the record, I've been describing my attempts at Stillness as a "bad trip to the Badlands." (Many of the photos on this website were taken at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, when J and I were there last spring.) This is an improvement, actually, in that at least I can sit for a 20 minute practice without wanting to set my hair on fire. But still. I know that whatever is lodged in my consciousness will bubble to the surface during my practice, and while this is all good and necessary, and temporary, it's also hard.
Lots to sift through, I've discovered. We've had a busy few weeks. A little more than one month ago, in front of a roaring fire, loads of candles, and $65.00 worth of grocery store flowers, Jimmy and I were married in our living room. It was a tiny wedding as weddings go (four of us total), and precisely what we wanted; simple, personal, and our own unique opportunity to make a commitment to each other, our families, and the wider issue of marriage equality. It was a grand, if humble, celebration, full of promise and new beginnings.
Two days later, I was in the hospital room as my sister’s sweet mother-in-law took her last, gasping breath before leaving this world.
It is no small thing, watching someone die. For weeks afterwards I feel ... heavy. I am struck, and not for the first time, by the sheer brutality of the death experience in some instances. There is simply no getting around the fact that death is not always peaceful, and that many of us will struggle against it until the very end. Especially, perhaps, when the lead up includes the sudden, shocking reality of any critical care unit. On the day itself, I arrive to see this wonderful, vibrant woman being breathed by a machine, and attached to so much equipment I feel I've walked in on a mad science experiment. Upon entering such a scene, one wishes immediately for a round of morphine for every one – beloved son and daughter in law, granddaughter, shocked and adoring friends; but the nurses are unwilling to offer such assistance, and we bear witness to this final battle with nothing to numb the sorrow.
The scene lingers. It has worked its way into my cells, seemingly, and bubbles up not only when I meditate, but at other times too. When I try to sleep, for instance. Or when I go to the dentist and have a bad experience with laughing gas. (Yes, this is possible.) In the dentist chair, with a mask on my face, strange equipment in my mouth, and gas making me feel like I’m disappearing down a long, dark tunnel, I have my first experience with panic. It’s mild, but still. Is this what Trish felt like I wonder? Before the Light came?
This singular experience inevitably turns into a much more broad, existential crisis. I am hyper aware, just now, of the particular ways in which the “brutal furnace of this world,” to quote Jack Gilbert, can reduce us to ashes in an instant. People hurt and die. Sometimes people hurt A LOT and die ALONE. Obviously, none of this is new information, but there comes a time in one’s life that one must embody this truth once and for all, as opposed to simply understanding it intellectually. A bitter pill to swallow.
This has happened before. When I was young and getting involved in the anti-death penalty movement, I had to find a way to work heinous and atrocious crimes, on the one hand, and unfathomable grief and loss, on the other, into my spiritual understanding of the world. In order to join this particular fight, I had to not just understand such things from a distance, I had to embody them. I cried for weeks, during the process, but eventually I got to the other side, where things were different. I was different. (I remember thinking a lot of people made this painful leap after 9/11.)
This time, I’m not to the other side yet. When I get STILL, these days, I often experience a mild feeling of terror. To be clear, even a mild feeling of terror is quite a lot to deal with. This time, however, I know more about what’s happening, and can be glad for this experience of being lit up, hammered, and forged into a deeper understanding - of life and death and suffering. I welcome the discomfort while remembering that it’s temporary and that, when it’s over, things will be different. I will be different. And very, very importantly, the next time I have the privilege of seeing someone make the transition from this world to the next, even if there is considerable fear involved for the person making the journey, I will be infinitely better able to help.