I’m having memories from when my Mom was dying from cancer. I’m not sure how much I can trust these memories. After all, they are nearly 20 years old.
But then I think about water. Spring water starts off as rainwater. It seeps down into the rocks and earth and hangs out for years, hiding out among dark caves and moldy leaves. It changes while it is percolating in the earth. It gets filtered. It gets cleaner. The impurities of pollution are stripped out of it and then it comes forth from the earth as spring water or a mountain stream. I think memories are the same way. They need time to percolate and filter.
When my Mom was sick and dying, I found it strangely easy to be with her in her pain. She would have a problem that required a nurse, and they would often take a while. Perhaps they didn’t feel her problem was an emergency. Perhaps she was last on the list because she was on Tenncare. It didn’t matter. She was having a problem and the nurses weren’t coming and she was getting anxious. Her anxiety was causing a further problem. Her tension from her anxiety was causing more pain for her.
I realized something at that time. I wasn’t the one who was in pain, and she was modeling after me in those moments of uncertainty. When I was anxious along with her, she would become more anxious. She needed someone to show her what to do. So I was calm. I intentionally kept my expression calm. I used a soothing tone. And she calmed down. Freaking out wasn’t going to make the nurse come faster. By my actions she felt better, even though I couldn’t fix the leaking chest tube or figure out how to make the morphine drip work properly.
There was something in that moment where I intentionally chose to remain calm for her that was healing. It was healing for her and for me. It taught me that our reactions to events are often more problematic than the events themselves.
I once had a summer job where I worked at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I drove in every day from Centerville, Virginia. It was maybe 20 miles but because of DC traffic it was an hour and a half coming home.
One day I was sitting in my car on the way home, stuck in the usual traffic jam. I wasn’t tired or hungry, just bored. I made the mistake of looking at my watch. It told me that it was 6:30 pm. Suddenly I felt tired. Suddenly I felt hungry. I hadn’t felt that way just a moment before.
I realized something, and it is the same something that I’ve seen in Buddhism. Our minds trick us. It is better to be here, now, in the moment. The goal of Zen Buddhism is not to find enlightenment while peeling the potatoes. The goal is to peel the potatoes. I stopped wearing a watch from that day on. I have a clock. I pay attention to time so I’m not late. But the clock doesn’t tell me how to feel.
I catch myself all the time forgetting this secret. And then I remember and I pull myself back in. And somehow it seems to help others. I’m not caught up in the tornado of chaos with them. At least one person isn’t freaking out. And that sense of calm spreads, just like how it did with my Mom. You, just by being mindful, can be a healing force. Just by being fully present you can make the world better. It seems backwards – help yourself, and you help others, but it works.
Here are some of the ways I use to be mindful of the now and not get distracted. It helps to not watch TV. I’m only vaguely aware of popular culture. It isn’t real anyway, so I’m not missing anything. I read the news online so I can read what I want in the amount that I want, rather than having it force-fed to me via the evening news.
Regular exercise helps. Exercise isn’t a bad word, and it isn’t an extra. We have to move to prove that we aren’t plants. It burns out a lot of stress, and it makes us stronger and better able to handle life physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It doesn’t have to be bodybuilding at the gym – it can be walking every day and some yoga.
It is also essential to be careful about what we eat – as Michael Pollan said in his book Food Rules – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The book explains it better, and if you can get the edition that is illustrated by Maira Kalman, even better. (Her illustrations are beautiful and wise.) Greasy, fatty food weighs us down. And, being mindful of what we eat helps to bring us into the present. We are intentionally making ourselves better and healthier, bite by bite. Another thing I’ve learned recently is also from our Zen friends – chew your food thoroughly. We modern people tend to inhale our food. Chew your food at least 20 times and you’ll find out you are eating more slowly and better digesting your food. You’ll probably also find out that you feel full with less food. You’ll save money and lose weight.
You can make the world better through your choices. You can make the world better by making yourself healthier. It is win-win!
Now, I forget all these things all the time, and fall out of my routines. This is totally normal, so I suspect that you do the same. Just get back on when you remember and go on from there. We are all here to remind each other how to do this thing called “being human.” Sometimes I think I write these posts as reminders to myself on how to do it. I encourage you to be your best, and through that, know that you are bringing healing to the world.