Practicing the Art of Doing Nothing
I woke up this morning with a burning desire to write. My mind is constantly processing. I have moments each day where I think, “I’ve got to write that down or I’m going to forget it.” Words seem inadequate though. Here’s why — I’m starting to feel joy again. From deep within my being. Real joy.
Since returning from the bereaved mothers retreat in Canada, I am sitting with myself in a new way. I am embracing the “art of doing nothing.” It is almost as if I am starting to “watch” what’s happening to me and from that objective perspective I can give myself more patience, compassion, and forgiveness.
I started reading a book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes in January but put it down when I returned to work in February. I picked it up again last week at just the right time. The concepts are resonating with me now in a way I couldn’t understand several months ago.
The author, William Bridges, provides strategies for coping with the difficult, painful and confusing times in life. More important than the strategies though, the book is helping me make peace with the “neutral zone” that I’m in. Bridges describes the “neutral zone” as the space between the end of something and before the beginning of something new. We might think of it as limbo or no man’s land. I’ve started to think about it as a space between dreams.
Bridges writes, “for many people, the experience of the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore.” He explains how our modern culture discourages people from staying in the neutral zone for any length of time and provides little guidance for those of us who are in it. However, he notes that “to deny [the neutral zone experience] is to lose the opportunity it provides for an expanded sense of reality and a deepened sense of purpose.”
I have been here in this emptiness for several months now and I’m beginning to see the value, the gift, of this experience. I am embracing the emptiness which once felt so lonely and isolating as a time where I can truly slow down, observe, and evaluate what actually matters to me in life.
On Wednesday I sat at my meditation table to practice mindfulness. I mentioned in an earlier post (Finding Grace in My Loss) that I’ve been meditating with Poppy in the mornings for a few months now. I use a timer and sit with intention for 5 minutes. It’s a modest start, but my teacher encourages a slow buildup over time. When the timer rings, I generally want more. And so I return each day with a renewed desire to practice.
I was feeling really open and calm after the 5 minutes and decided to do a “loving-kindness” meditation. This Buddhist practice is simple and profound and it always leaves me feeling peaceful. The experience is what I imagine many people think of as prayer. First, I think of someone I love and have great affinity to. This is generally Eli, my husband. These are the words I repeat silently to myself several times: may Eli be happy, may Eli be healthy, may Eli be free from suffering, may Eli live life with ease. The goal is to really sink into the intention of the words. Then, I think of someone to whom I feel neutral, an acquaintance or neighbor. I repeat those same sentences several times. May my neighbor be happy, healthy, free from suffering, live life with ease.
Next I focus on someone that I have some tension or trouble with. May that person be happy, be healthy, etc. At this point I’m generally feeling pretty emotional. It isn’t easy for me to send well-being to my adversary. I clam up. But if I continue opening my heart to the intention of the words, I find that I am softer on the other side.
I then turn the prayer towards myself. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free from suffering. May I live life with ease. Finally, in the tradition of the practice, I turn my focus to all sentient beings. May all beings everywhere be happy, be healthy, be free from suffering. May all beings everywhere live life with ease.
Quite honestly, praying for the well-being of all sentient beings is hard to wrap my head around. Can my thoughts for universal well-being really impact the world?
However, something is shifting in my understanding of my own innate power to effect the energy of the world. It struck me yesterday that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people around the world who are also practicing the same loving-kindness meditation. If they are praying for the happiness, health, and peace of “all sentient beings,” then I’m in that group. So are you!
Before this realization, resistance kept me from believing my meditation was actually making a difference. I knew I felt better afterwards, but I couldn’t imagine it actually helping anyone else. Somehow that resistance has vaporized. I touched into our global need and desire for healing and I am beginning to see that I am a part of that healing. My prayers matter. I am making a difference.
Something else I’m coming to terms with is that I have no immediate plan to go back to work. It’s been almost 2 months since I resigned from my job. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to let go of my identity as a lawyer (even if only temporarily) and as a worker (certainly not forever). But this was a choice. Leaving my job gave me the space I need to dive fully into my experience of grief and to heal this deep wound created by my daughter’s death.
I have also struggled with feelings of privilege, but I’m finally seeing that this time to heal is something I created through my own hard work and dedication. I certainly don’t need to feel guilty about it. Over the last 3 years I pulled myself out of credit card debt, started paying back personal loans, paid off more of my law school debt, and managed to save a decent chunk of money. And now, in this state of emergency, I actually have the resources I need to take time off to recover. I am just starting to embrace the reality that I don’t have to be so hard on myself. So here’s me declaring that I’m going soft. The more I love myself the more I’ll have to spread around.
Finally, I want to share with you something I wrote on April 15, 2016. This is the last entry on the last page of a small journal that I filled with letters to Poppy in the months after her death:
I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know the why. I still wonder how? What I am starting to do is accept. I’ve been through the shock, horror, and numbness of your death. I have known anger like I never imagined possible. I am letting it flow. Like a porous clay pot with a drainage hole in the bottom, I am filtering through this loss. I am a “vessel for experiences” I proclaimed during counseling on Tuesday. It felt profound to announce that.
I have big questions Poppy. Big enough that I’ll likely never get the answers. But I won’t stop asking and I won’t stop getting to know you. Your spirit is with me. I know this now — in the rainbows, in the wind, and in Wilson’s hiccups. We love you Poppyseed. You will always be my baby and so much more.
This letter to Poppy captures some of the emptiness I was feeling, even though I didn’t have the words for it then. As I slipped more and more into the darkness of grief, the isolation and loneliness, I wanted nothing more than to let go of the feelings. I needed them to pass through.
Fast forward a few months and I’m embracing the emptiness. Where there is emptiness there is less struggle. I’m not feeling as overwhelmed. And the beauty of being empty means that I get to be selective with what I put back into my vessel, what seeds I sow, and what I hope to harvest again someday.
This is very powerful imagery for me. I am beginning to feel empowered by Poppy’s death. As tragic as her loss is, I can see that her life is bringing more love into being. Some believe that we are, at our essence, love. Pure and simple. As I sit in this emptiness, I am closer to love than I’ve ever been before.
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