One Taste

In Buddhism there is a concept referred to as “one taste”, and it is something that can be used effectively by anyone, not just Buddhists.  One taste describes having the same level of emotional response to the bad as to the good events that happen in our lives.  That may sound impossible, but it isn’t.  

What one taste means is that our emotional equilibrium is not unbalanced by things that occur in our lives.  It is a way of living free from the giddy heights and dismal depths of extreme emotional reaction.  Things we appreciate become more precious when we recognize their ephemeral nature and know we must lose them.  We live in the moment knowing the moment is passing even as we live it.  Pain is passing as well, especially when we realize that its intensity varies with the attention we give it and the ownership we take of it.  Essentially, you have to remember that everything that happens to us, good and bad, passes away from us in time.  We might crave undying love, but the truth is that everyone and everything dies, including those we love and ourselves as well.

One taste does not mean laughing at our pain, it means knowing that sorrow and pain are inevitable and can be endured with equanimity because they are not permanent. What we learn to equalize is the emotional impact of  change.  The loss may be permanent, but the sorrow, at its present intensity, is not.  And that is true even when the loss is a result of a change in the relationship between oneself and the person or thing lost.  When a loved one dies or a divorce occurs or we lose a job, we feel a huge loss, even if the relationship was an unhappy one.  Our life patterns and habits must change in response to the new situation, and that too, is a loss to be endured.  Faced with a loss, we may feel like the universe has cheated us somehow.  Is my pain worse than your pain?  I might think so, but from your point of view I’m wrong.  As adults, we already know that life is not “fair” to anyone and it is only our myopic self-importance that makes us feel especially blessed or picked on.

In short, one taste means that stuff happens and we can deal with it if we stop resisting the change and focus on coping with it.



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Visualize, or Imagine?

I tripped over my mental dictionary this morning and I noticed a subtle difference in my internal response to two words: visualize and imagine.  Both of them mean to form a mental image, but my analytic brain struggles with the word visualize, possibly because it carries overtones of “seeing”.

Imagine, on the other hand, is much older and softer word that I find more comfortable.  I can sneak up on a mental image by imagining it; but when I attempt to visualize it, I try too hard.  Visualize is directive, while imagine is inviting.  Granted, this could be merely playing with my mind and its inner workings, but it applies to communications with others as well.  Going forward, I am much more likely to invite people to imagine a future where pain and grief have given way to peace, rather than directing them to visualize that peace.  What do you think–Visualize or Imagine?

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In The Beginning …

When I was eleven, my grandfather died. That was the first major loss of my life, and perhaps the most definitive. I was an only child, surrounded by adults. I spent my after-school hours with my grandparents while my parents worked, so my grandfather’s death shattered my foundations. After that, I felt like anyone important to me could just disappear at any time; and I could do nothing to stop it. My only peer in this was my younger cousin, like a little brother to me, who was far away in military school and unreachable. I had no one to cling to. My mother was distraught at her father’s death, and my father was fully occupied with comforting her. My uncles were absorbed with their own grief and with their wives, and I was the forgotten mourner. My local minister had picked me up from school and told me about the death, not someone I could hold onto and seek comfort from.

My grandmother was devastated, and the welter of emotions swirling through her house was overwhelming. My uncles began demanding that she dispose of my grandfather’s property and his business–raising and butchering rabbits for meat and hides–before the funeral arrangements had even been made. Finally, as my grandmother lay on the couch weeping and broken, I broke in a different way. I physically stood between my uncle and my grandmother and told him in clear words to leave her alone, that I would not permit him to keep doing this. Perhaps he realized his own bad behavior because he backed off and left us to comfort one another as best we could.

After that, my grandmother and I clung together like proverbial orphans in the storm. Her house was on the same acre of land as my parents’, so I started spending the night with her. I lay awake and listened for her breathing, terrified that it would stop and I would lose her too. I experienced night terrors and aching dreams of my grandfather riding away in a car without noticing me trying to catch up. I felt guilty about every imagined transgression: every time I had made him angry, and every time I argued with him. Without question, this was the most devastating grief I would ever experience to this day; and I was on my own.

Before the funeral, my mother impressed on my grandmother and me that we must not cry in public, that we must control our emotions. It made no sense to me at the time, and it never has. Grief is raw and bloody. A stiff upper lip might do for dealing with embarrassment, but hardly for life destroying pain. It was then that I first started to question basic assumptions about parental judgment, and particularly about caring what “other people” think. Anyone who disapproves of open grief as demonstrating a lack of self-control is welcome to his or her opinion. I now recognize it as part of the process of facing loss and beginning to move through it.

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Untapped Reservoirs of Pain

No matter how many years you may stare yourself in the face, work through endless therapy sessions and so forth, you can always find an unknown, untapped reservoir of pain in your heart. When we find ourselves stuck and weeping and not knowing why, we have stumbled on one of those reservoirs. To heal now, we have to explore the burning lake and learn its landscape. We have to understand what lit the fire somewhere in our past and discover what current phenomenon reignited it. You can’t do this from a distance with a telescope. You have to brave the flames and get close enough to find answers.

Here’s the thing, our parents and caregivers did not intend to rob us or hurt us, so let go of that. They were living out their own problems and we happened to be there at the time. We may have done the same to our children and to others without realizing it. Yes, there are those who enjoy inflicting pain, but inevitably they were first the recipients of that kind of pain. Hell isn’t a destination, it’s a state of mind, and we have the power to eliminate that suffering in our own lives by discovering the source and stopping its flow.

Start by asking what the one thing was that you needed as a child and never got (or never got enough of). That’s a tough question because it requires revisiting the pains of our most vulnerable years instead of trying to avoid them. The need might be for kindness, or approval, or love, or parenting, or acceptance, or roots, or all of those things. Now look at what is blocking the view today, where the tears are coming from. At first there may appear to be no connection, so think of the situations in your life where you were happiest and most fulfilled: what did you have then that you do not have now?

As a child, I was considered so brilliant that I shouldn’t need anyone to help me succeed. I had instructors, but it was up to me to figure out how to implement those teachings. For a little while, I had a close cousin as a partner I could relate to; but that ended when I was eight. I needed mentors and partners in my childhood, but I had only role models. I realized the painful depths of that need recently when I also recognized that the two happiest and most productive times of my life were when I had a boss, who also happened to be my mentor. With those two, I could safely make mistakes, brainstorm, question, and be applauded as a partner in their efforts. I could commit to my objectives with joy, knowing someone had my back.

Does that mean I need someone to hold my hand through life? No, but it means I’m unsuited to working in an ivory tower vacuum. I need people contact, partnerships, a cheering section, agile minds to share ideas and common goals with. That knowledge allows me to change directions when needed, because I know what I’m looking for and what is not a suitable destination. My reservoir of pain led to new awareness and understanding of myself and the road map I need for growth. Now I can figure out what to pack for the next journey.

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The Heart of Grief

The heart of grief is pain. It may be the subtle pain of missing someone or the raw anguish of new bereavement, but it is the atomic particle of loss. It hurts when a piece of our life is ripped out. We struggle to rebuild our pattern with the central pieces missing. Sometimes the pain is overlaid with anger and that may seem to help keep us going, to give us energy. But sheltering our wounds behind anger merely puts off the inevitable. In that condition, we may become clinically depressed or lash out at others for their lack of understanding and support. We need to understand that the only way to get through the pain and come out the other side is to let go of our resistance to it. Although we may take comfort in the presence and consolation of others, the loss is something we have to deal with individually. There is no pill that will make the pain go away, and others cannot bear it for us. Their own pain is different because every relationship and every loss is unique and personal, as is the hurt that goes with it. Nobody can know our pain even if they have experienced the same kind of loss.

Our resistance is based on fear that the pain will be unbearable, which intensifies the anguish. We may live in a constant state of anxiety following a deep loss. The pain exists but, in our fear of confronting it, we magnify it into something terrifying. We forget that we are reacting automatically and generating our own fear. Living in the moment, even a painful moment, can free us from the fear and give us the confidence that we can survive. We have to let the pain come and recognize it as a measure of the loss. Pain isn’t constant even though it may seem to be. It comes in waves, and that means that if we ride the wave we come out in calm water.


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When Your Heart Breaks Open

We often speak of hearts being broken, meaning unbearable pain from some sort of loss. But there is a state beyond heartbreak, which I call broken open. It’s the state you reach when you accept your losses and make them an integral part of your being–when you learn the lessons of loss. Breaking open means just that: your heart is open to others, to their needs and their pain without holding back. The empty place in your center becomes filled with compassion. You see beyond surface appearances and to the tender humanity beneath.

When your heart breaks open, there is no reason to be put off by appearances or behaviors. You feel equal unconditional compassion and love for the guilty and for the innocent because you recognize the pain and suffering in both. It is the love and acceptance demonstrated by the Buddha and by Jesus, by Gandhi and by Mother Teresa. It goes beyond creeds, conditions, ethnicity and politics. It even goes beyond species. It is the hope of the future.

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“Recovery” From Grief

A recent study says that the majority of bereaved individuals recover from bereavement within two years without any counseling, therapy, or coaching.  I have several issues with that conclusion, the primary one being that bereavement is not a disease that can be recovered from.  Rather,  it is the result of a loss that affects the rest of your life.

I have never “recovered” from my losses, which implies getting over them.  I have adapted to them and integrated them into my life.  After nine years, I can still be moved to tears by memories of my son’s life and death.  And I can still recall and reconnect to the agonies I suffered as a lonely child after my grandfather’s fatal heart attack over half a century ago.

The conclusion of the study is that the majority of people rebound from loss without any professional help within a relatively short period.  That is not entirely surprising since grief is like any other pain in that once we have reached the other side, memory diminishes the agony so that we do not have to keep reliving it.  I have scars to prove that people survive other injuries without help too, but the process can be shortened and softened with professional aid.
The two-year timeframe may appear short to someone studying grief, but it can be an eternity to the bereaved.  Anything that provides support, assistance, and comfort to those making that journey through hell is completely justified.  We don’t cure grief, we live it.
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The Price of Admission

I was reading Stephen Levine’s book, Unattended Sorrow, when I was struck by a statement he made:

We are learning to live with the consequences of love.  So we must bear loss as deeply as we cared.

There it is, pure and simple:  We all know somewhere deep inside that grief is the admission price for loving.   It’s why some people never risk making those connections, because they fear the consequences and their own ability to pay the price.  Others cling tightly to their loved ones and try to prove the pain won’t happen to them if they just work hard enough at loving.

The reality is that we, as humans, need the emotional nourishment of loving connections with others.  We may not realize as children that love carries a sting in its tail, but living soon teaches us that lesson.  The fairytale of a charmed life might appeal, but when the clock strikes midnight and the spell vanishes, we have to face what is left.  To be fully alive, we must develop our strength in the face of adversity and pain.  More than that, we must be willing to put ourselves at risk by loving.  We establish roots and create homes.   We make friends and have families.   Each moment of joy is made more precious by its passing, and we suffer more when we hold tight trying to prevent that passing because we can’t fully savor the moment while we’re in it.  If we cling too hard, we may be left only with regret instead of joyous memories and balance.

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What is it that makes you feel generous?  Do you give a dollar to a panhandler and assume it will go for drink or drugs?  Do you put a dollar in the collection plate because it’s expected?  Those may look like generous actions, but the motivation that would make the act genuine is lacking.  Generosity is one of the 6 “perfections” that Buddhists aspire to practice, and the following is the most beautiful instruction I have ever found on what makes an act one of generosity.  It was written by Geshe Tashe Tsering and is quoted from his book, The Awakening Mind.

To friends, give with nonattachment.  To enemies, give with love.  To strangers, give with closeness.  To those with good qualities, give with aspiration.  To those with faults, give with compassion.  To those who are inferior, give without arrogance.  To those who are equal, give without competition.  To those who are superior, give without jealousy.  To those who are rich and happy, give without resentment.  And to those who are miserable and destitute, give with deep compassion.

The point is to give what is needed in a genuine gift.  If there are any strings attached, or any aversion or negative emotions to the recipient of the act, we aren’t really being generous, we’re just pretending.  That doesn’t mean we have to hug the homeless person on the corner or to be indiscriminate in what we give:  It means we need to remember that the individual is alive and has needs, just as we do.  We have to care about helping in some small way and not regret giving or puff ourselves up at a demonstration of our self-worth.  We have to let go of the gift with grace and stop investing ourselves in what the recipient does with it.  That makes it truly generous.

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Tolerance and Acceptance

I recently had an interesting discussion on tolerance, prompted by a remark of mine that my partner and I have entirely different religious views.  “How can you like someone whose ideas are so radically different,”  I was asked.  This brought me to consider what tolerance and acceptance mean to me.  We’re hardwired to notice differences between ourselves and strangers.  Survival instincts tell us that someone who resembles ourselves in terms of skin color, appearance, clothing, language, and behavior is less likely to be a threat than someone who is different.  However, as socialized human beings, we can’t go around acting on instinct without creating even more danger to ourselves.  We have to do reality checks!

Multiple realities exist simultaneously.  If you don’t believe it, consider that someone who is walking away from me in your direction is walking toward you at the same time.  Those are both true realities but only from a given viewpoint.  Why would anyone expect to do nothing but share the same opinions throughout a relationship?  That would make it impossible to learn new things, gain new insights, or just hone our wits against someone else’s.  Recognizing that you share values and emotional needs with another, even if you differ on how to express those values or needs, is critical in acceptance of other points of view.  And acceptance is what we all need.

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