Similar to Heather, sometimes I write my blog about joyful events or everyday life stuff and reflections on how I use my mindfulness practice.
Sometimes I write about difficult things where I have been challenged to the extreme and how my mindfulness and compassion practice has supported me. Such events are difficult to share but I am inspired to do so because I know it will resonate with others. This is one of those difficult blogs – so here goes.
A very dear friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. I had only known him for about a year. But you know when you just flow with someone, are inspired by them and it fills you with a deep concern and love? This was one of those such people.
He was 92 when I first met him. It didn’t take me very long to realise that he was a very mindful man. He had never been taught mindfulness and yet he was one of the most mindful individuals I had ever met.
After his wife died a year ago his health and life deteriorated. First his sight started failing so he stopped driving. He accepted this fact graciously and pragmatically and took to a mobility scooter instead.
When his eyesight diminished even more, he decided he was no longer safe to drive his scooter so gave up and took taxis everywhere instead. He didn’t moan once. He accepted it as it was and just got on with his life as best he could.
I spent quite a bit of time chatting to him. I even shared some mindfulness and compassion practices with him, and he embraced them. I took him out on a ‘valentine date’ early last year and we walked to the end of the pier at his seaside home. He told me about his life, his wife and children and I realised he was just full of love and also, I could see that he felt deep gratitude for his life and everything in it.
After the diagnosis his health deteriorated quite rapidly, and yet he managed to stay at home independently until just 3 weeks ago, when a couple of falls in quick succession landed him in hospital.
I went to see him in hospital the day after Boxing Day. We had the chance to share with each other how much we had grown to care about one another before he began to lose consciousness and was no longer able to converse.
A couple of years ago I was inspired to train to sit with people facing the end of their lives, having kept a vigil for a dear Aunt who died in a very busy, noisy ward in a London hospital. The training was called ‘Soul Midwifery’ and it taught how to notice stages and signs during the end of life process as the body shuts down. It also provided guidance on how to assist the friend who was dying in those final stages.
Keeping vigil with someone who is dying is a very mindful practice. Very soon after starting to accompany my friend on his end of life journey, I realised how time slows down.
Every second became mindful. With my mindfulness and compassion training I noticed how I was sitting peacefully, grounded, aware of everything I was feeling in all my senses, my body, in my emotions and thoughts. I also became very aware of noticing every movement and every breath in my friend. I noticed the slightest change in rhythm or depth of his breath, any movement he made or how his body seemed. I had never felt so present, in the moment, for such a sustained period of time.
Sitting with him became a mindfulness practice – for hours at a time. I noticed how I felt when I was hungry or sleep deprived. I became aware of shifts in different sensations of energy. Sometimes I felt very heavy in my body and tired. Sometimes I felt deeply sad and other times I felt strong. Increasingly I felt a deep sense of compassion. Foremost for my friend, but even more so for his family, who were becoming progressively distressed and heartbroken.
I was very well aware that this brave man wanted to die. He had accepted his condition a long time ago. He was grateful for his life. He felt he had done his job and lived to a good age.
I noticed how he just let go and yielded, without resistance, to the natural processes that were now taking place. There was no fuss, no anger, no stress – and with a little help from a great medical team, no pain – just calm.
As New Year came and went, I was aware of how meaningless partying or celebrating had become. Christmas had long faded outside what seemed like a bubble in which we were all suspended in time, in some sort of limbo land. It seemed dream like.
As my friend’s breathing shallowed and slowed to a final end, a halcyon presence filled the room. There was silence. A strange stillness surrounded me in which I was aware of my own breathing and heartbeat in the lack of his.
For a moment if felt like time had stopped still. Then, in what seemed like slow motion, sudden feelings of grief arose in my body. It felt like my heart had been squeezed hard. I watched my friend’s loved ones sob with grief and my heart was filled with so much love and compassion for them that I thought it would burst. Then my own tears came, for my own personal grief over the loss of my friend.
In all this I noticed what was happening while it was happening. It was mindfulness practice to the extreme. It was compassion practice to the extreme. I became very grateful for all my training and practice. To be able to fully live and feel my whole experience made me feel very alive. A new joy filled my heart and being. It somehow seemed out of place, but suddenly becoming acutely aware of all my senses and experience made me appreciate my life, now in this moment. The next moment filled me with renewed motivation and intention to be in the moment and fully live my experience of being human.
As I left the hospital, I heard a bird singing in the dead of night. A songbird. A song thrush. In the darkness and the strange surreal moment, a joy filled the very still, dark night air as he sang. It was very poignant and very alive. I recalled the poem The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy and posted it on the Mindfulness Association website.
The words of my mindfulness meditation teacher came to mind. He had told me to live with joy even in difficult times. To allow joy to sit side by side with sadness. I had never before mastered this skill, and yet here in this moment, I did. I felt immense joy sitting in the same space as immense sadness. The space seemed vast, holding everything.
And for the first time, that was ok.
This blog is dedicated to Robert – 1926-2020.
This week’s challenge is quite simple. As another year has turned in the midst of Winter, I invite you to take a moment to find a joy in your life, no matter what else is going on. Are you able to allow this joy to sit side by side with everything else?
I welcome your thoughts and comments, so please leave me a message after this post or email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warmest wishes to you all for joy and peace in the coming year and your lives.
Jacky will be co-teaching Level 1 – Being Present with Alan Hughes at Samye Ling 13 – 15 March 2020 and on the Level 2 – Responding with Compassion with Heather Regan-Addis at Samye Ling Summer 2020.
We’d love to see you there.
Jacky has contributed a chapter to the Mindful Heroes Book entitled “Turning Empathic Distress into Compassion – A Hero’s Journey for Family Carers”. You can hear an extract from the chapter where she talks about the results of her MSc Studies in Mindfulness on Compassion & Family Carers. You can download a free sample of Jacky’s chapter here.