At the Mindfulness Association, and as part of our mindfulness curriculum, we teach a session on Mindfulness Skills for Times of Difficulty. This session offers some invaluable advice for times when the practice can feel too much or for when we feel overwhelmed by bereavement, illness, redundancy, relationship endings or divorce, overwork and other life stresses.
As a mindfulness teacher, I have had my own favourite tips and suggestions for those who are struggling, or my ‘go to’ guidance. These have included the handy ‘compassion on the go’ self-compassion break, and Tonglen for self. These two practices have really helped me when I have found myself in situations where my suffering has felt acute, or when the anxiety, fear, aversion has hit me like steam train out of control.
However, two weeks ago my father passed away and the times of difficulty feel like brand new ground. In fact, it feels like I have stumbled into some enchanted forest that is equally horrifying and profound. And while the self- compassion break and Tonglen for self has helped for those moments of sudden overwhelm, it has been what Tara Brach calls the ‘scared pause’ that has helped me keep my balance.
When I flew home nearly a month ago to be at my father’s bedside and to help him pass away in peace, I had no idea what would be asked of me nor what to expect. In many ways, it was just like a birth. People tell you about what it is like to be with the dying, we were even given a manual- ‘What to Expect When Your Loved One is Dying’. However, the section on post death becomes a little bit ambiguous. Indeed, the ‘what to expect’ turns into a list of ‘help’ numbers.
Essentially, with my father in the palliative care program- and a wish to stay home as long as possible, my mother, aunt and I became his nurses for the last weeks of his life. My mother – for much longer. We turned him, toileted him, fed him and managed his pain, on our own for the most part. A palliative care nurse would visit us once every 3 days or so to answer any questions, order any needed provisions and to guide and support us through the process. We didn’t fully realize it at the time; however, the three of us (who in all actuality are teachers), had taken on the very important role of the nursing staff.
The visiting nurses kept commenting on how lucky my father was to have such strong family support. However, I really didn’t understand what they meant until after the fact, when it dawned on me that had he been in a hospital, he would have had a whole team doing the job that we were doing. Funny, I suppose we were his team.
There were many comical moments. There were many trying moments. There were moments of panic; moments of confusion; moments of calm; moments of quiet; moments of grief.
And then came the post death moment.
After I returned to Ireland, I felt zombie-like. When Dad was dying, we just rolled up our sleeves and did what was needed without thinking about it. Now came the thinking.
My mother rang me and asked me how I was feeling, I told her ‘shell shocked’. She quickly felt reassured as she was feeling the same way. We spoke of the feeling of surreal, the not sure of how to even begin to describe to people what had just happened. And we spoke of the slow realization that Dad is gone.
This realization comes when I glance at my mantle piece and see his printed obituary, or when I open my closet and find his old painting jeans that he had left here in Ireland, or for my mother, when she sees his glasses on the top of his dresser.
Shell shock becomes infused with pain, sadness and disbelief.
This is where my mindfulness skills come in. I haven’t been sitting too often. However, I don’t beat myself up about this. Instead, when sleep escapes me and my mind start to fixate, I have been gently acknowledging that all the images, memories, painful thoughts are just that- thoughts. Tonglen for self has helped me in these moments, too. This is the Buddhist practice of Taking and Sending or breathing in all the mental anguish, anxiety, pain and imagining it being transformed in my heart into a warm, soothing breath of compassion as I breathe out. We learn this practice in our Responding with Compassion training. It has been indispensable.
However, what has been most helpful in my daily moments is what Tara Brach calls the ‘sacred pause’. Whenever, I have felt my body fill with the searing pain of grief, I have paused with a breath or two of openhearted attending to. Or, when my mind starts to fixate, create imaginings, reinforce ideas of self-pity, I pause. And in this pause, I can actually see what is happening and rather than follow my story lines, I have been (for the most part) able to bring a kindness to myself, a care with the realization that I am whole and good. I am simply grieving.
There is a freedom in this pause. A resting. An opportunity to be kind and to recognize that I need to be moving slowly and to attend to myself with a gentleness.
Tara Brach quotes Ajahn Buddhadasa as calling the pause a ‘temporary nirvana’ ( Radical Acceptance p.69). She also cites the well- known pianist Arthur Rubinstein as saying ‘I handle notes no better than many others, but the pauses- ah! That is where the art resides’ (Ibid). And it has been in my pauses that my mindfulness skills have afforded me the true gift and beauty of grieving for someone who I love.
It has been a privilege to be a handmaid in my father’s passing. And together, with my mother and my aunt, I believe that we did an amazing job. Upon reflection, it confounds me. It makes me proud. And even though there is, at times, what seems to be an unbearable amount of grief, my mindfulness skills have helped me though this time of difficulty. Moreover, this ‘sacred pause’ has reminded me that what I truly need is to be kind to myself, to be with rather than run away, and that I have the tools to move through this moment with an open heart.
Last night was my first day back to work after my leave and in some ironic twist of fate, the session on Mindfulness Skills for Times of Difficulty for our Level 1: Being Present online course was on the cards. I was a bit worried that it might be too much. Instead, it felt wonderful to be able to share with others, my very acute experience of practicing in times of difficulty.
So, if you are struggling with your practice and/or going through a difficult time, make sure to reach out, get in contact. We have put together a Mindfulness Skills in Times of Difficulty handout with guided practices that I would love to share. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Also, I thought it would be helpful for all if this week’s challenge is to practice the ‘sacred pause’. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or involved in tasks at a ‘push- through’ rate, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and take a few breaths. Can you notice what is happening internally in the body within this pause? What are your thoughts? Emotions? Can you simply be with and meet whatever is presenting with an open- hearted attending to? In this pause.