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On Retreat at Home
Restlessness, Metta, and True Nature
There’s a restlessness inside me--
checking the phone, the weather
checking for missed emails, calls, texts.
Am I ok as I am?
Are others ok because of me?
When did the external funhouse
mirrors get so distorted?
When did abandonment
become the only story?
May I be patient with anxiety and restlessness,
and trust something precious beyond this.
A few Winecup clarkias stand out
amidst Pacific poison oak.
Beautiful growth is possible anywhere.
The trill of a red-winged blackbird
invites joyful sound meditation.
Magnetic Mama Earth guides footsteps
to avoid stepping on western
whiptails activated by amygdalas.
So I’m not the only one!
A summer breeze blows
the breath inside out.
Am I ok?
There is no one left to answer…
No Timeline for Love
I don’t need to fill my heart completely
before I can show you love.
I just need to see the thorn,
feel the sharp point against softness,
wrap the wound in tenderness
as scar tissue learns to love
in its own healing time.
These days of cutting okra and long
beans together will soon be over--
hearing knives slice through dark
green flesh at different rhythms,
watching the way your air pods
hang from your ears
as a slight smile crosses your lips,
wondering what you’re listening to
and if you’ll still like that song in college,
or who you will choose to love.
Or the way I turn to you
with partially cut vegetables
that you will chop into smaller pieces
the way your mother did back in India,
breaking down larger pieces of life,
seasoning with spices and cooking slowly
into food the family can easily digest
until arthritic hands can no longer chop
or vision fades into final darkness.
Soon all I will have are these words,
and memories of three generations
cutting okra and long beans
side by side by side.
What used to seem so mundane
now feels like sacred ground.
Please help me to be here!
Soon we will all be gone.
till she can let go
is a gift
by your perception
For years I've gone on retreat, escaping family and home to find freedom. Little did I realize that freedom can be found within my own home, that refuge in a Brahmavihara happens wherever, whenever the heart is willing to feel, and surround all experience in its embrace.
Deep gratitude to Brian Lesage and Sangha for this sacred, unique, configuration, to family and friends for being there with food, hugs, kisses, laughter, and conversation when needed, to colleagues for covering my time off from work, and patients for trusting this practice to widen/deepen my understanding of compassionate care.
For All My Relations by Judith Inglese
Suffering does not occur in a vacuum. It always occurs in relation. The patient who comes in with chest pain and high blood pressure because a beloved relative died of COVID complications in India and they cannot grieve or participate in last ritual rites with family. The patient who expresses grave concern for their son’s safety in returning to work during a pandemic, policing, and protests. The friend who practices medicine in a part of the United States where political division is threatening peace. The Earth still offering oxygen and sustenance despite continued abuse and neglect.
Healing also occurs in relation. It’s hard to heal if there is a sense of disconnection from ancestors, biological and spiritual family/teachers, the land, each other, and ourselves. How do we re-connect, re-awaken, re-member? While healing is a journey and there is no perfect answer, the following practices are offered as possible places to begin the contemplation.
Embodying Kuan Yin
Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion, the One who listens to the cries of the world. Embodying her feels like a tall order sometimes. How can I listen to others if I can’t hear what’s happening within? Life is overwhelming and overscheduled. How can I unplug from the endless to do and to be list?
I’m learning that Kuan Yin is not only the One who listens to the cries of the world, but also the One who stays till there is ease. There’s a sincere commitment to listening, to staying with the experience for the purpose of understanding. This does not mean that pain disappears, what’s broken is easily fixed, or questions have clear answers. The ease feels like a deep stillness beneath surface waves of experience, a stillness that patiently waits for the waves to dissipate for clarity. As I learn to stay with personally challenging experiences, there is more capacity to be with the suffering in others.
Connecting with the Natural World
Here is poem written on retreat in relation with a seashell:
she picked you up from the wet sand
because you looked pretty,
her keepsake from the RV camping
trip off the Mendocino Coast
you were once the home
of a precious sea-being
just as her body is her home,
how she wouldn’t want
to be taken without consent,
how next time she can ask the water
or lift you up to her ear--
your mollusk spirit whispering
home is always sacred
no matter how small
or large you are
The Five Earth Touchings
Touching the Earth is a practice developed by Thich Nhat Hahn to fill your heart with remembrance of family, spiritual, and land lineage, so blessings of abundance can be offered to those you love, and the process of forgiving those who have hurt you may begin. It is practiced ‘to celebrate the positive and transform what needs to be transformed’.
This practice may precipitate unwelcome, unpleasant feelings, especially if you have experienced trauma or other feelings of disconnection. It is offered here as a healing modality to practice in a safe space with others, a trusted teacher or therapist. It is not meant to spiritually bypass what is true for you. Please honor your direct experience.
Questions for Inquiry
The following questions can be used for reflective journaling:
Deeply nourished by recent retreats, water is humbly offered to trees in the backyard. It’s a small gesture of gratitude compared to their teachings on grounding, rooting regardless of external or internal climate, on letting go with trust that what’s needed will grow in season.
(Deep bows to Erin Treat, Brian Lesage, Amma Thanasanti and Kaira Jewel Lingo for sharing these teachings, and to their teachers and respective lineages. Suffering does not occur in a vacuum. It always occurs in relation. Healing also occurs in relation.)
Relational Practice: The Three P's
With the pandemic forcing more families to stay at home, the lines between school, work, and home are blurred with unclear boundaries. I’ve talked with patients, extended family, and friends who are struggling to maintain decent communication in closed quarters where most of life is happening these days. The internal aversion is also exacerbated by unhealthy air quality from raging California fires, limiting outdoor activity and escape.
For the first few months of travel limitations and social distancing, I felt that I was doing OK, even celebrating the sweet connections to my family. After an RV trip where we are all in even tighter quarters than at home, rubbing up against each other with every movement, something inside me snapped. Was it perimenopausal mood fluctuations, past patterns finally catching up with me, other causes and conditions? Do the reasons even matter?
Opening to what’s happening in the relational field requires so much patience. I love my family dearly, but I’m not always going to like them, especially when we disagree. The nature of life is change. There is nothing new about this concept. We are not fixed beings, but processes doing our best to acclimate to external forces. And everyone has their own way of adjusting.
Pausing and taking a few deep breaths before speaking or acting can make a difference between clarifying connection or disastrous disconnection. I recently listened to a podcast outlining a four-step approach to communication designed to increase clarity, minimize miscommunication, honor each person’s individuality, and build a shared sense of trust and respect for long-term success. Remembering intentions for healthy relationships, I was grateful to implement the practice a few times in conversation.
Patience is not about getting my way or forcing a certain outcome. It’s gently engaging eye contact, using words as windows instead of weapons, and awareness of body language internally and externally.
Close relationships can often lead to perceived nuclear fallouts when monkey mind is active. It’s so easy to get triggered by past hurt with an overlay of old scenes coloring what’s actually happening. It’s also tempting to stay focused on thoughts like train schedules flashing in the mind, constantly rechecking details for the future in case I miss the train.
How can I trust the present moment as it’s playing out, especially when I’m conditioned to fight, flee or freeze when it’s uncomfortable based on the thoughts and feelings arising? Present moment awareness is all about dropping below the story line, below the cranium to feel the story as sensations in the body, connecting with whatever I am sitting, standing, walking, or lying down on as gravity reminds me to let go of everything but this moment. Beginner’s mind is all about a certain innocence and curiosity for the moment rather than prematurely predicting an ill-fated outcome.
So how do I transform monkey mind to beginner’s mind when conditioning is strong? I keep coming back to the practice of mindfulness or sati, returning again and again to the breath (or other meditation anchor) to remember. I could be lost for seconds, hours, days, even years, and presence is like a breath of benevolence. It doesn’t judge or ask why I left, why I don’t feel safe, why I feel the way I do. It simply opens the door, no questions asked, with an enthusiastic and heartfelt Welcome home! I’ve missed you.
2020 is certainly a year of much distress and heartache for many. And I need to remember that this suffering is not new. Our ancestors have faced such trials and tribulations, and so will our children. There is no escape from sickness, aging, and death, or the dissatisfaction that arises in response to it. While grief is a guarantee to all who live, so is gratitude. If everything is in a state of flux, then I must bring a sense of blessing to that change through heart practices like the Brahmaviharas.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to practice metta with Ayya Anandabodhi. I’ve learned metta as a traditional Burmese practice of silently and systematically repeating phrases of goodwill towards myself, a benefactor, dear friend, neutral person, and difficult person. Ayya Anandabodhi led a guided metta meditation that revealed the radiant, unconditional, boundless qualities of metta. I began by visualizing and lighting a diya inside the heart, breathing into it to fuel the flame of love. With each outbreath, I was invited to send that sacred flame of metta above me, below me, around and everywhere, allowing it to spread in all directions. If specific beings arose as natural recipients, that was fine. If not, that was fine, too. There were no ‘shoulds’, no comparing to past practices, no predictions for the future, just one woman’s heart feeling more expansive and free from conceptualization than ever before. I remembered my own goodness and the capacity to hold distress in loving arms.
When I don’t resonate with a family member, can I also remember their goodness? It helps to reflect on the times when I have felt connected, and all the things I appreciate about them. Relationships are not easy. They are complex and rather messy. They can also be exquisitely tender and redeeming, growing the heart to hold beauty and terror in the same loving space.
Writing this does not guarantee safe passage for future encounters. It does provide a template for embodied understanding and growth. I am still learning…
When I Can't See Your Face
(Inspired by “Small Kindness” by Danusha Laméris)
It’s relatively quiet on the hike-
minimal sounds of birds chirping,
lizards scurrying across the path,
footsteps against dry leaves and dirt.
The few hikers I meet have
facial expressions masked.
I can’t tell if they are smiling,
frowning, or the lips are flat-lined.
Out of nowhere comes this silent scream.
When will this all end?
When can I see your face again?
Like a mother holding the frustrations
of an impatient child,
I try and open to what’s here-
uncertainty, the wish for things to be different.
All I can do is thank a hiker
for stepping aside so I can pass,
wave to another hiker,
Enjoy your hike.
When I can’t see your face,
words and hand gestures
will have to be enough.
I still miss the smiles.
I’m surprised by the negative polarization against police officers after the death of George Floyd, and so many others. Don’t get me wrong. There are many overwhelming emotions moving though this heart-mind as they may be for you (anger bordering on rage, unspeakable fear, deep disappointment and hurt to name a few). Unnecessary violence masked in innocence, fueled by ignorance and implicit bias is never a good thing.
I can’t just point my finger at all the cases of police brutality. This may sound crazy, but the folks I find myself practicing Tonglen for first are police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and other officers, as well as George Floyd and others meeting death in savage, inhumane ways. How on earth did these officers think that what they were doing was OK, “equally” protecting the lives of all citizens? How are we as a society (you and I) contributing to macro and micro acts of violence on a smaller scale in the places we hold power?
I want to remember that not all police officers are like those who are getting the greatest publicity right now, that there are those who have deep respect and reverence for African American lives. And, this is also a wake-up call for more training and awareness, not just for the “guilty” officers, but for us all. As you are moved to demonstrate the yang of fierce compassion in whatever way you feel is right, please be a contemplative warrior for meaningful change looking at the 3 fingers pointing back at you when it’s so easy to place blame elsewhere.
Here is one way you might consider growing in awareness, making an intentional shift from racial innocence and distress to racial literacy and harmony within community.
Yoga from the Neck Down
not caring if I injure myself
or look like an expert yogini to others.
Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral
like relatives knocking on the door.
Let me in or I’ll blow your house down!
Tensing against or bowing,
allowing in each asana,
opening the door to the heart
knowing I can always say
no thank you
when it doesn’t feel safe,
when metta for the one who is breathing
is yet to be known and named.
In yoga class we welcomed parts of ourselves that felt separate, unwanted, like an orphan abandoned by disturbed parents. I embraced Sadness, a child left behind by circumstances and raised with the South Asian conditioning of honoring family over the individual. Add on a chatty Buddhist inner critic, and I was sure to blame myself when things went ‘wrong’ with others.
In Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods, Ajahn Sucitto asks, “Does your energy come from interest and aspiration, from willingness of heart? Or is it caught up with trying to climb the wrong mountain?” When thoughts and feelings are directing an unpleasant interaction, it’s tempting to believe the story movie mind is projecting. I can’t tell you how often I’ve replayed scenarios, wasting precious energy and time trying to create Leave It to Beaver, Brady Bunch, Family Ties episodes or Facebook videos to replace the ones that are actually happening. How can this being (who is a mindfulness ‘expert’) fail so royally at fixing things. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.
I decided to try something different in class today, to practice yoga from the neck down. If unpleasant sensations arose, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that an irreparable injury was imminent. When feeling strong and grounded in a pose, I didn’t assume the pose was perfect and everlasting. If nothing was calling for immediate attention, then a river of breath became the object of awareness as it meandered though the body and surrounding landscape.
These sensations felt like relatives, sometimes perceived as The Big Bad Wolf, physically and energetically knocking on the door to this body and heart. My tendency has been one of two extremes: barricading the door with everything I’ve got or opening wide and completely losing balance. What would it mean to fully appreciate the tensing against or bowing and allowing in each asana (pose)?
Sucitto writes, “We can never arrive at the imagined perception, but we always experience the results of our intentions. So the important thing is to examine, clarify and stay in touch with our intentions — not our imagined goals.” I can now make space for Sadness in my life, showering her with loving presence and the promise that I will never abandon her. She is key to understanding life’s sinusoidal pattern, that the distance between peak and trough is shorter when intentions are known and implemented.
May I be patient and kind.
May I listen to understand.
I have the right to retreat from unpleasant conversation when I don’t feel safe.
At first glance, these intentions may sound like they are for others. But when I read them again and listen internally, I can sense what is needed externally, knowing I can always say, “No thank you” when it doesn’t feel safe, when metta for the one who is breathing is yet to be known and named.
This isn’t Leave It to Beaver, Brady Bunch, Family Ties episodes or Facebook videos. It’s Real Life, and I want to participate fully, asking, investigating. What happens when I try to control things? What happens when I let go?
What happens when the energy of wise intention and discernment is implemented?
My Wedding Ring
My wedding ring is the perfect metaphor for marriage-
a little weathered and less sparkly than when we first started.
With the peppered beard you wear without shame,
and the white hairs I hide under black dye,
we balance honesty and vulnerability
precariously at kitchen table conversations.
And I wouldn’t change your razor sharp precision with language,
or my gentle sensitivities to create
safe sacred space for others,
the ring reminding me that a circle
is not a completion of love,
but sharing our incompleteness
with each other.
She asks if I’ll come on a Stanford dish hike with her and Papa. “C’mon Mom! If I have to do it, you can, too."
The next morning, we drive out to the Stanford dish later than I would prefer. The sun’s already out to test hikers’ endurance. It doesn’t take long for aversive mind to set in.
Thought clouds pop up left and right. Too bad they aren’t precipitating any moisture or helpful cover against the sun.
“I shouldn’t have come.”
“We should have left earlier.”
“I hope my SI joint and gluteal muscles can do this.”
“My daughter should have worn shorts like her parents. What was she thinking hiking in jeans? She didn’t even sunblock her arms!”
Thank goodness for awareness. There is clear recognition that none of these thoughts are helping me cool down physically or emotionally.
As we walk to the dish and begin the hike, I change thought channels to things I am grateful for. The family hiking together. The choice to change thoughts. Dressing appropriately for the weather. Bringing a water bottle along. Sunglasses, sunhat, sunblocking the skin. A body that can walk.
“I can do this! We can do this!”
It doesn’t take long for my teen to complain as we trudge up the first steep hill.
“(Groan) How long is this hike anyway? Why did I ever agree to this?”
Papa is further up the hill walking backwards as if he is our guide.
“Welcome to the Stanford Dish. As you can see, shade on this hike is sparse. It’s 3.5 miles. Keep up or be boiled alive!”
I glance over at our daughter’s expression. She isn’t exactly smiling at this motivational pep talk. Recognizing the aversion and allowing it to be just as it is, I try a different approach as we reach the top of the hill.
“Wow! We made it. Sure is hot out here. How are you doing in those jeans? Do you need any water?”
Throughout the hike, I try to mirror her groans with my own, the two of us swearing and laughing at how good it feels to express discontent. She seems to appreciate the fantasy of us walking in a different season altogether or having our favorite flavored popsicles and snow cones to cool us down.
I realize that this is only a partial drizzle of “RAIN”. I am not helping her to investigate the discomfort in her body or to not identify with the experience as “me” or “mine”, to nourish with self-compassion.
Is it enough?
Trusting the recognition and allowing parts of RAIN, we stay with the imaginary drizzle. Granted it’s more guided imagery than straightforward mindfulness, maternal instinct tells me she isn’t ready for the investigation and non-identification/nourishing parts. She isn’t ready to open to the deluge of what’s inside her.
Most adults aren’t ready, either.
Guiding her too far, too fast would be a subtle form of spiritual bypass. It’s tempting to get to the end of the hike, the metaphorical end of suffering as quickly as possible. I should know. I’ve done it plenty of times in the delusional name of healing.
We eventually reach the end of the hike. No actual rain, but a partial drizzle with “RA” was good enough. An understanding of “IN” may come with time.
Take all the time you need, Dear One. The emotional intelligence I see in you surprises me, surpasses where I was at your age.
May you meet the ups and downs of life with emotional, spiritual tools that make sense to you.
Her name on the patient schedule makes me cringe with dread and doubt. Her medical conditions are complex. She has every textbook complication of uncontrolled diabetes: legally blind, on dialysis, a finger amputation, a foot ulcer, heart disease, and blood pressure. What can I possibly offer this woman recently discharged from the ER with low back pain and leg numbness?
Wearing a name badge and stethoscope without a white coat, I take in a deep breath, exhale, and step into the exam room. Maybe I should have worn the white coat to help me look more official and less flustered.
Obsidian glints of merriment shine from her eyes as she stands to shake my hand. I’m surprised by the smile on her face despite the list of medical diagnoses and complications on her chart. Who is this woman? What does she want from me?
As we talk about her recent ER visit and she shares what has been happening with her physical health, I’m struck by her determined presence, her calm demeanor, a fighting spirit that refuses to be trapped in diseases, locked in misunderstanding by the medical profession.
She doesn’t want me to find the perfect medication or right therapy for her back pain and leg numbness. She’s asking to be seen, to be reflected as a valid human being experiencing change and loss as we all do. She’s asking me to acknowledge a resilient spirit that refuses to be limited by this medical story.
And suddenly she has my full attention and respect. Dread and doubt are now surrounded by compassionate connection, by awe. We explore possible resources for her care that weren’t apparent before, fears that she hasn’t expressed elsewhere, a lineage of strong ancestors guiding her.
At the end of our time together, we embrace in a shared wish for her wellbeing, for what is still possible despite the biological odds against her. I take this experience home with me and sit in meditation.
Settling into the body and breath with a steady rhythm, I receive oxygen from the trees outside and release carbon dioxide pressures from the day. Guided by Tonglen practice, I take in her suffering and send ease, breathe in her celebration of life and release it to all beings in need of inspiration.
May we listen to our patients’ stories with a willingness to be surprised. May we recognize that our healing journeys are not so different than their own.
Kaveri Patel, a woman who is always searching for the wisdom in waves.
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