Weekly Challenge

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. (membership@mindfulnessassociation.net)

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.

-Jane

10 Comments

  1. Reading your article, Jane took me back to my Mum’s passing. It was a privilege to be with her, holding her in my arms. I remember spending many days afterwards just sitting looking out to the trees, watching life on the moor where we lived at the time. Exhausted of course, shell shocked certainly but with periods of serenity I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t long after that I started my journey on mindfulness. So I’m sending this with much love and appreciation for taking me back to that remembering and xxx

  2. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and insightful post Jane. Your writing resonated with my own experience of attempting to move through the death of a loved one with an open heart without being consumed by sorrow. The ‘sacred pause’ is a powerful refuge during the times that you describe. Sending you and your family love. Gillx

  3. Hello Jane,
    Reading you’re words are very beautiful & been with you’re Dad Mum & Aunt so touching. Many lovely blessings for you & you’re family. Metta
    Sheena ?

  4. Hello again, its been sometime since I wrote or connected with ‘myself’ since my mam died over 2 months ago. Having experienced ‘nirvana’ 4 years ago my life was blissful with a peace of mind one could only dream of. However 3 years ago difficult situations caused my life to take some sharp and painful turns that sadly detached my heart through over thinking and fear which activated my amygdala and slowly brought me back down to samsara ‘earth’. The last 3 years have been painful, my father died, I found myself in a relationship with an insecure person, I was made redundant from a job I loved, with little money I created my own coaching business with no experience of running a business and am still trying to earn an income. Now together with the sadness of my mam dying I find my relationship has broken down and I now live in a shared house as it’s all I can afford. Fear creeps in from time to time as does sadness of loss, but one thing I have discovered through practicing meditation is that even though so much has changed and so many doors and chapters have closed there is a belief within me that new doors will open again as I fully embrace and accept how things are right now. Reminding myself of what I still have to be thankful for opens the doors of bringing new ways of being. It’s very different from what was and my mind is still confused by it all but with practice of meditation I feel sure my heart will rise up again and fill me with the love, kindness, compassion and joy I know is within me.

  5. Dear Jane, I am currently in South West France at the end of a holiday – where Ironically I have thought a lot about the loss of my own parents,. This month was the fifth anniversary of my Dad’s passing and I was in Canada when that happened in Scotland and I still feel the guilt of not being there – and the sixteenth anniversary for my mother and all memories still remain vibrant. The Mindfulness self-compassion practices you taught me are invaluable support for when difficult emotions arise. Thank you for mentioning Tara’s ‘pause’ it too helps restore self-compassion, equanimity and perspective towards our shared common humanity. Jane sending you love and kindness wishes and thank you for writing so beautifully on a very personal experience that we can all relate to. Linda X

  6. Thank you so much for the kind words, Linda! It’s lovely to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and I love it that we can take solace in the common humanity and shared experience of loss. Enjoy your holiday- I hope that you get a replenishing break! Janex

  7. Hi Laura,

    Thank you so much for sharing your own personal experience and for sharing your renewed sense if hope! It helps all of us to hear that we are not alone in our grief. I love it that you are so brave and wise in knowing that your heart will rise up again and fill you with the love, kindness, compassion and joy that is within you- as it is in all of us. Thanks so much for this very important reminder!

    Jane

  8. Thank you so much for your kind words, Gill! It makes me happy that we can all speak about our shared experiences- it help soften all of the sorrow.
    Janex

  9. Beautiful, Anne! Yes- bring on those periods of serenity! They are what strengthen us. Thank you so much for your kind words! xx

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