Grief | Growth | Learning Beyond the Past

I’ve written about my dad’s death on the blog before. It’s always a bit of a difficult topic, and I’m not sure how best to open it this time. So let’s just say this is a post to share an experience of learning and connecting with him even after his death, hoping that others can also find their own resonance with that as they go through life.

This summer, when I started struggling with the clarity that the relationship I hoped for, the love I could see sharply, was not only unlikely to work out but rather abysmally so, I went for a walk to see a local rookery for great blue herons. It’s the largest rookery in the state. At peak, there were 70ish nesting pairs in the trees there – when I visited there in late May. When I was there again in July, it was pretty sparse. The fleeting partnership of these birds for procreation was waning as they shifted to their solitary territories again. Nevertheless, the now nearly adult hatchlings were impressive, filling the trees with their graceful forms.

For some reason, as I walked back from this, I flashed on my dad, and I had a sudden urge to shoot a bow again. I had grown up shooting traditional archery, long bows and recurves, which was a lifelong passion of my dad’s alongside hunting (traditional bowhunting, of course). I had never taken to hunting much, but I always had enjoyed the Zen nature of shooting these strung wooden wonders. I felt like it would be a way of enjoying something long lost in my life and of reconnecting with my dad, so I went home and called my mom to talk to her about the best approach to getting a bow and arrows in hands and shooting somewhere nearby.

Ultimately, my mom sent me some of my dad’s old gear, including my longbow from high school, and I looked into archery ranges in the area. Now, it’s the beginning of winter, a few months later. I recently procured a year-long membership to one of the archery ranges nearby with the perk that I have round the clock access to the range.

So, as my life is pretty independent, and I would much rather go to shoot by myself and avoid traffic and crowds, I went for the first time a couple nights ago at around midnight. The only reason it was that late was because depression makes me lethargic and even more of a procrastinator than I usually am. I drove through dark almost desolate streets on a pilgrimage to this reinvigoration of the past, to a reconnection with my dad. I even put on “Zen in the Art of Archery” to listen to on the ride, something I’ve meant to read for years but never have. Even just the 20 minute drive with these elements felt somehow profound, like a journey to something impactful.

I need to back up a bit and discuss some various things to set the stage for what shooting was like. First, shooting a traditional bow is very much about using your shoulders to pull. I’ve honestly struggled with this throughout my life. A couple years ago, I started getting back in shape and did an obstacle course race – the Spartan Race. About halfway through, I hurt my shoulder on a pretty basic obstacle – the monkey bars. I was swinging from one to the next and suddenly, something felt like it snapped right below/behind my arm pit on my right arm, and I couldn’t readily use that arm for much anything. Unfortunately, that’s my dominant arm as well. I followed up by going to a sports doctor and a physical therapist. I had torn some muscle in my back, and the PT worked on training me to use my muscles better. Well, it turned out that my body didn’t know how to utilize the muscles in my mid-back right along my spine but only on that side. There was a circuit there that simply didn’t activate, so I had to do exercises to force myself to use it more. This has transformed pull-ups for me in the last couple years. I had previously been over-using my arms to do it all.

Second, I have gone through some healing regarding my relationship with my dad since his passing, with a key point being around the anniversary of his death this year. Throughout my adult life, I’ve felt like I’m a disappointment to him, a feeling I was never able or maybe, more aptly, courageous enough to talk to him about when he was still here. I have shifted past most of this, but in a full depressive moment on the night of the journey to the range, I just suddenly felt these deep feelings that I’ll never be as good as my dad was. On some level, he’ll always be a greater than life legend in my mind, and in myself, I see my struggles, failures, and shortcomings – always trying to be good and do better but struggling and realizing that that’s always a journey underway. This may have just been a moment of my current depression really pushing itself to the fore, but it was a strong sentiment at the beginning of the archery outing.

I got to the range, used my key code, and walked into a half-lit empty room. I positioned a bale and set up my target. I had to pull up some videos on my phone to understand how to use the bow stringer to string my longbow. I successfully strung the bow and excitedly got set up to shoot with arrows, armguard, and fingerguard.

I started to shoot. My longbow is pretty heavy – 64 pounds at full draw. So, I handled it as a mindful workout to get the form right and utilize the back muscles I’d always struggled with as a kid. It quickly became clear that all the advice about form my dad gave me as a kid didn’t connect because of a simple inability to feel and use my back. In thinking on how he would have guided me and trying time and again to do better, to try to feel and understand how to move differently, I felt a depth of understanding for him that I never had before. The whole activity became more profound, more intricate, and more beautiful. These feelings swelled with the post-rock poignancy playing through my head phones. I kept shooting, probably over a hundred shots, until I started to fall apart from fatigue, shots going wide, and the string dinging my arm a couple times. In the end, I felt closer to my dad than I had in a long time, maybe ever.

I took down my target, put the bale away, and unstrung the bow. I got all my gear in order and bundled up for the cold. I walked out with quiver on, carrying the bow, got in my car, and drove home. All in all, it was a beautiful night that I’m struggling to fully capture. I hope that this all serves as an anecdote about the opportunity to grow, learn, and continue to connect after loss and even in the long tail of process that is grief.

Giving Heart (Part 2)

Our worries may zoom around the state of the world. “What happens if the economy plummets? If the ozone layer keeps decreasing? If we have more anthrax attacks? If terrorists take over the country? If we lose our civil liberties fighting terrorism?” Here, our creative writing ability leads to fantastic scenarios that may or may not happen, but regardless, we manage to work ourselves into a state of unprecedented despair. This, in turn, often leads to raging anger at the powers that be or alternatively, to apathy, simply thinking that since everything is rotten, there’s no use doing anything. In either case, we’re so gloomy that we neglect to act constructively in ways that remedy difficulties and create goodness.

Thubten Chodron, Taming the Mind, page 129


In Giving Heart (Part 1), I wrote about the importance of taking up your political privilege to vote for the candidate who will protect life through fighting climate change, social injustice, and other inequities. I argued that this is important and an act of affirmation rather than one of cynicism. This is how to get beyond thinking in terms of lesser evils.

Today is election day in the US. If you’re reading this, go back to the first entry and think about it. Then, go vote. This is important. You’re extremely lucky to live in a time and society in which you have the privilege to vote. Go do so with the bigger picture in mind.

However, in this post, I’m transitioning to give heart from the perspective of the quote above as promised in the last post; this post will be about how to “create goodness” in the interactions of your life to move beyond hoping for abstract ideals and leaders to provide the world you want to live in. You can do your own part.

You are always here, already in a world with other people and other life. What can you do to be at harmony with them and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions? This is the question that should animate your interactions. However, it doesn’t mean being a pushover. Sometimes, the kindest possible thing is showing someone else how they are being selfish or harmful. Nor does it mean intellectually analyzing every choice you make; rather, respond to life holistically, trying to do so with openness and compassion. Try practicing that, and you’ll find your place in the unity that the poem points out: radiating wisdom and justice in your life rather than being lost in the deluded dreams of waiting for it to be realized in some system or political ideology.

As really analyzing this topic would take a lot more discussion, I’ll leave you with that question — “What can you do to be at harmony with the other people and other life you live with, with the universe, and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions?” —  to point you along your own way, and I’ll add a few quotes from various sources to inspire you in your engaged practice.

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From the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Red Pine)

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones

This excerpt from Verse 3 inspires me, always. Ancient commentators take the full stomach as sated desires – ruling people in such a way that they aren’t driven by yearning that leads them to steal, harm, and trample. There is definitely validity to this, but isn’t this so to a certain extent because the sage makes sure that others are fed and healthy? Isn’t the most simple compassion a taking care of others’ well-being in the most basic ways? Not that I’m exhorting you to sacrifice yourself, enable others, or only care about creature comforts, but there is a basic concern that could extend as wisdom through our engagement with others.

From the Dhammapada (Trans. Easwaran)

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time:
hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

There are those who forget that death will come to all.
For those who remember, quarrels come to an end. (Verses 5 and 6)

These lines come in the first chapter after twinned verses which explain that selfish thoughts and actions lead to suffering whereas selfless actions lead to joy. These lines both sum up the point and show that our time in life is short — there’s no time to lose in beginning to shape our selfless path of compassion right now.

Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas. (Verse 183)

This summation is cryptic in its advice but when remembered in line with cultivating the path of selflessness, it becomes succinct and practical.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Trans. Robin Hard)

8.27. We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

This is key to all of these perspectives, I believe. The Buddha’s story is not one where asceticism is the answer: rather he reaches enlightenment after realizing that eating and nourishing his body is important too. Lao Tzu points out how feeding the bodies of all is important for the ruler. Last, Marcus Aurelius points out that we have to take care of ourselves, recognize our place in the big picture of what is, and realize that there are other people with whom we coexist — another relationship that deserves our care. All three of these sources would reverberate with this last set of reminders, and we might even question, to go very Buddhist, where the differences in these relationships arise. There may just be the one relationship of taking care, plain and simple.


May this give you heart to bring compassionate engagement to yourself, others, and life/the Universe as a whole.

Gassho!

Heartbreak

I recently had a tarot reading to get insight into my life outside of the perspectives of friends and family, beyond the spheres of people who already know me. My reader, a middle-aged black woman with thick dreds, was an interesting voice to hear amid the many others in my life. She did several spreads to see where I am at and how to overcome my current difficulties. I initially was pretty quiet and vague, but as what she was saying touched on several layers that she didn’t know about/talk about, I opened up to her.

Her initial message, and it remained the most stressed throughout, was about my job and how to regain some personal autonomy in relationship to career. She said something about it that really struck me: I’m heartbroken about my job. She clarified that heartbreak can occur in more than just our romantic lives, and many never even think about heartbreak with a job.

As she spoke, and more so after the reading, I realized how heartbroken I am right now. I have heartbreak related to love, job, home, family, and friends. Everything seems to float without stability, path forward, or clarity for the greater flow of my life. So many things I love have been cut out of my existence, have been dramatically altered, or have consistently done me ill while claiming to do me well. How do you move forward through such miasma? I have by the only way I know how: nurturing myself. Hence, I have been writing so much, meditating, and exercising. I have been talking things out with friends, and I’ve even been developing my intuition more by using the I Ching and tarot as oracles to broaden my perspectives about my life. Finally, beyond my usual self-care in times of difficulty, I’ve tried to improve my situation. If I’m heartbroken, particularly about my job, let me remedy that.

A few weeks ago, I did a meditation. Although not intended, it too was about heartbreak. I sat on the floor and breathed deeply with my hands over my heart in the shape of a triangle. I felt the energy pulse out of these three sides, throbbing out and reaching into the world around me. After some time, I put my hands down and asked myself: “If my heart were planted, what would it grow into?” I saw a vibrant blue flower open up, both beautiful and melancholy, filling my chest. When it opened, a personal object (I’m not willing to share this detail here) was dark and lifeless in the flower’s center. It felt like the culmination of a sad message, emphasizing my separation and loss of love, indicating the death of a deep connection. Then, the object shattered and bright, spiky, red petals burst forth, making the flower vibrant and hopeful. However, this did not seem like an erasure of the old, rather a rebirth from/of it. Like the phoenix, the new grows from the ashes of the old. The object shattered and reformed a few times, telling me that the break offers the possibility of growing into something more beautiful, powerful, healthy, and alive.

As for all of you, I’ll let you make what you will of such a meditation, but to me, it says one thing about heartbreak: even when things are very painful and it all feels meaningless, the possibility for change, growth, and rebirth lies hidden within that experience. It may be hard to see it, and it may be even harder to continue onward towards that, but it’s there, somewhere, just waiting for the moment to burst forth.

symptoms-of-a-broken-heart

Something new could pour forth from that hole…

This reminds me… I recently read a friend’s linked article about how we should court heartbreak to grow; we should break up and leave relationships behind when they become difficult because we’ll grow towards something better, and we’re doing ourselves a service. What I’m saying here does not support that at all. One thing that’s become clear to me in the last few months is how deeply we get caught up in our stories about ourselves. Some of my other posts touch on this. Leaving relationships, courting heartbreak, for personal growth, for pursuing your own narrative can be quite a confused and lost approach. Perhaps there could be value in this, but it is something that should not be taken lightly and certainly should not be presented as a hard and fast rule. It should be something that is examined through work with a therapist, someone who can challenge and disentangle the bad faith of the stories we tell ourselves, the things we refuse to see about ourselves, and the difficulties for personal growth in our relationships that we are unwilling to show up to and face for our own improvement. The problem with the stance in that article is not recognizing the opportunity in the difficulty of interpersonal dynamics to grow and change for the better. Breaking away is not what presents the room for growth; it’s the challenge of facing change that presents it. You can either own up to your place in a relationship and ask your partner to do so with you, working together for growth, or you can throw that all behind for “my growth”, “my story”, “my truth”. I’m not saying that the second option is always confused and self-involved, hardly, but I think there is a much greater likelihood of that being the case than that path being an authentic, examined, and clear engagement with all of the issues I’m presenting here. The point: heartbreak, when it comes, can be an opportunity for growth, but you shouldn’t seek to break your own heart in order to grow towards something “more authentic to you”. There is already authenticity in your connections; otherwise, it wouldn’t break your heart to leave them (not that I’m saying it isn’t hard to leave relationships that are bad for you; of course it is, but there is at least something good in the ones that really break your heart down to the foundations–real heartbreak, not just loss), and if your connections are that meaningful, there’s something to be gained from them if you are willing to dance with your partner and they are too.

This post has become a much longer meditation on heartbreak than originally envisioned. Let’s summarize what I would like to share about heartbreak. 1) you can be heartbroken about many more things in your life than just romantic relationships. 2) if you are going through heartbreak, do what you can for yourself to survive and eventually thrive. If you can work toward changing your situation, do it. Be your own healer, and remedy yourself. 3) heartbreak does not mean the end. There is possibility for new growth in the death of the old. 4) don’t throw things away from a willingness to break your own heart out of some simple idea of it being your story. Really think about relationships and how to grow in them. They hold potential if you are willing to dance with your partner and love together.

A great and famous writer recently told me to experience heartbreak in order to improve my writing. He said that going through heartbreak would offer the opportunity to process things and write better. Whether that’s true or not, I’m definitely doing that now, and I thank you all for sharing in that process. I hope that this post gives you your own insight and inspiration, especially if you have your own pained heart to heal.

I know… The heart chakra isn’t directly about what I’m discussing here, but maybe your growth lies in this aspect of your relationship with All coming into a healthier alignment. Maybe your heart needs healing in more ways than one…

Gassho