I am sure to grow old.
I cannot avoid aging.
I am sure to become sick.
I cannot avoid sickness.
I am sure to die.
I cannot avoid death.
All things dear and beloved to me
are subject to change and separation.
I am the owner of my actions;
I will become the heir of my actions.
- Anguttara Nikaya
Every now and then something happens that is pivotal in our lives by which we measure time, a marker event like 9/11, a marriage or divorce, a birth or death or a diagnosis such as cancer. I’ve divided time into pre-cancer and post-stem cell transplant for lymphoma. The time is marked not by age but by changes in my world. Pre-cancer mortality was a given intellectually but post diagnosis I knew it in my heart, head and gut.
Death became a part of my awareness and I could no longer delude myself into believing that illness and loss happened to others but not to me. These last few weeks, with the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leaks in Japan as well as war in Libya, I am reminded of the universality of suffering and its pain. I am inspired by the courage and cooperation of the Japanese people and horrified by the hatreds and violence of war. It feels like the whole world is trembling. I ask myself daily, how am I living my life? What are my priorities? How am I putting mindfulness into action and what is possible to help others?
A favorite cartoon of mine is of two mice on an exercise wheel. One of the mice is shown peddling frantically and spinning around and around while the other is resting comfortably on the rim of his wheel with his legs dangling over it. The caption under him reads, “I’ve had an epiphany.”
Years ago my meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg, talked about rolling over and over again and again in the mud. I never quite understood what he meant until I began to notice certain thought patterns that refused to quit. I didn’t think in terms of greed, hatred and delusion I only knew that certain thoughts made me unhappy and created feelings, sensations and actions that perpetuated misery, mine and others. I’ve been a psychotherapist since 1975. In working with my patients at a large HMO it seemed all too easy to slip into the morass of worry, fear and doubt. Identification with these states perpetuated misery by defining who we thought we were and what life held for us. This lead to immobility and more fear, anger and delusion.
Frustration and discouragement led me to the medical center and Jon’s (Kabat-Zinn) weekly yoga class and Larry’s (Rosenberg) meditation sessions. One short hour opened a window into possibilities. I would return to work energized and refreshed with greater clarity and patience to be with another. As my practice deepened compassion and understanding grew and real change became possible.
I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been teaching MBSR since the early 80‘s with the support of a community dedicated to mindfulness and the eradication of suffering. Community is essential. Overcoming suffering and understanding its causes is often a painful process. We need each other for support and inspiration. Discovering what helps and what harms takes effort, high ethical standards and steady attention. MBSR is not a technique or a smart career move. It’s goal is liberation and wise action. We are all inter-connected, the rebel in Libya and his antagonist, the tsunami victim and the rescue worker. We are all responsible for our actions. Just as aging, illness, death and loss is part of life so is compassion, understanding and growth. May our work together bring greater peace for ourselves and our world.