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.

Heartbreak | Sitting in Turbulence

I feel oddly inspired today to thread together a few different experiences and ideas with a couple quotes. May this share my inspiration precisely as the etymology of that word implies: others breathing in the animating spirit of the ideas here for their own benefit.


I’ll start with some morning pages from today. I’ll cut a bit for brevity, but I was surprised at the vulnerability and feelings of mistrust that spilled out. I know that I have these feelings, but generally, they aren’t this intense. The sudden burst surprised me, but it’s an interesting change in the death I’ve described in recent posts and leaves me wondering about my future and whether focusing on compassion is the better direction for a fuller life, rather than the egoic hurt of identity and love. I’ll expand on that in the second section after morning pages.

Second, but it came up first emotionally and in order of events, I just saw one of my poems to [the person] briefly as I flipped this open. So many things like that come back to mind now and make me feel like a complete idiot.

I mean, it just emphasizes the feeling of unfairness, of not being seen, of not being valued. She told me that the poem was “the sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me”. Yet, now, it’s buried in some corner, forgotten, just like I am. Does intense effort even matter in the end? I honestly don’t even know, and I ultimately don’t know that I can ever really trust anyone to value me back. I keep thinking: “I need a spiritual friend,” and my mind replies with – “My friends! There are no friends!” I’ll keep meditating and building gratitude, like in this moment.

Myself – Morning Pages Journal

I know this feeling is there. I told a friend a while ago: “What do you do when you tell a person your heart beats for them, and they basically react with: “That’s nice. Whatevs.”? How do you trust love at all after that?” That’s part of where I’m at, beyond the feelings that it’s unlikely that I will find someone who is highly compatible with me. How do you trust? The vulnerability of putting your heart out there to care, to give, to love is intense. I think I’ve felt unseen one too many times, and this time, it just feels too fundamental for me to really trust the process of others. I’ve always operated from a hermeneutics of trust when it comes to love. I don’t know if I can do that anymore.

As a counterpoint, I want to return to a beautiful moment from last night and cap it off with a couple quotes. This experience is the reference in the final line above of “keep meditating and building gratitude”.

Last night, I went down to the sea and pumped up my inflatable paddleboard to enjoy perhaps the last really warm evening before the rains of fall. It was right before sunset. I put in my headphones, went down to the water, and paddled out into the cool breeze. I paddled north – my destination about a mile down the shore, a set of pillars where I had spent some of my favorite moments from this year with the person. She introduced me to paddleboarding and to my destination. The water rippled with every stroke, gliding along with my arms’ strength. The movement felt peaceful and empowering as post-rock accompanied the changing colors, graceful flows of birds in the sky and waves beneath me alongside the misty mountains in the distance like something out of Tolkien.

When I reached my spot, I stopped and stretched my legs. I’m still no good at standing up, so I tend to kneel and paddle. It makes my legs stiff after a bit. I looked at the mountains, and my board slowly turned with the waves and faced the beach. I saw many people there, catching the final gasps of summer just like me. I switched to sit cross-legged and set the paddle across my lap. I realized that this could be a great way to meditate, as my heart struggled with the mix of the beautiful scenery with my myriad associations of love and loss. I put my hands in a zen meditation mudra, with the paddle on my lap, after changing the music to a fittingly deep song for the moment (will cross-post to a post on that song soon!). I breathed in, feeling the rocking of the waves, letting my eyes gently unfocus, seeing the beach and people there with me. My mind shifted to a version of the equanimity meditation I had been doing a few months ago – thinking of all their own lives, stories, motivations, and struggles. I repeated the mantra: “All beings are heirs to their karma,” and felt my heart gently open to the sensation of life rocking up and down, being moved by things beyond our full control, the life-waves pushing us about, just as the waves bobbed my board up and down. My resolve grew to sit in this and open my heart with equanimity.

I had to stop a couple times to avoid the waves of boats or reposition to not bob too far out or in, but I spent several minutes like this, and my heart felt much more open to the world around me and the pains of others, including my own. The thought occurred to me and did again this morning: “What’s my own karma right now, and how can I be more accepting of it and myself in it?” I don’t have an answer yet, but my heartmind is trying to sit with that.

Here are two quotes from two recently discovered books that I read after writing morning pages this morning. I feel they expand on these ideas in even grander and more inspirational directions and depths than anything I have written (or could write here):

It’s clear, in this peaceful desert, that peace is not the opposite of violence. Peace is in violence. It can only be seen by the open eyes of awareness. Peace is itself. The experience of peace I’m discovering in the desert had always been with me in the city. I hadn’t let it in.

The peace being expressed in these writings doesn’t come from the mind, the lips, or from gentle actions. It doesn’t come from legislation made by governments or peacemaking movements. It’s a peace that appears without effort. Like the desert filling up my eyes. It appears like snow, wind, or rain. Peace arrives on its own if I don’t resist it.

During years of chanting and meditation, the habit of fighting against what was in front of me rose and dissolved like waves in an ocean. There were times when I asked questions, critiqued, and took action. And there were times when confusion took over, the mind doubled down on itself. The only thing to do during those times was to breathe and be still. The body knows when to do this. Stillness is inherent. After suffering and resistance, the only thing left is contemplation of life and after contemplation, stillness, and after stillness, peace.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel – The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness, pp. 12-13.

More than any other aspect of embodied spirituality, I have found that living more fully from our hearts is the single most powerful step for many of us. The shift from thinking of the heart abstractly to actually feeling physical heartbeats can transform us in the moment. Try it when you are already in a fairly present state and let it deepen. Then try it when you are emotionally stuck and see what happens.

Susan Aposhyan – Heart Open, Body Awake: Four Steps to Embodied Spirituality, p. 15.

May this inspire others to sit and open their hearts, even in the pain of loss, in the trauma that breaks trust, and in the stillness underneath the ever moving turbulence of movement and violence.

Gassho!