Stacked by my bedside are books I have read in the past few months, plus a Kindle. I kept putting them there to remind myself to write, and then I never did. I usually want to write about them right after turning the last page, or while I read. As I go through them, the words I read raise so many questions, issues, criticism, gratitude. They make me feel smart, enriched, connected, engaged. But that feeling ends once I put them down.
I didn’t use to like reading anything twice, gods forbid more than that. But here is something I did for the first time in 2015: I latched onto a book and read it over and over again. Four, maybe five times so far. The strange thing is that I can’t remember what it is about. Maybe that is because it is not really “about” anything in particular. It’s a book that makes me go through the day’s events and see whatever happened from a fresher perspective. It is a spiritual guide and a part of me never wants to put it down, because it helps me deal with loss, that tragic theme of 2015.
This spiritual loop book is Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It’s a philosophy, a lens, a filter, a reality check. Sometimes it makes me shudder, but mostly it calms me down. I read it over and over because every time I go through a chapter, what I learn has a different color and flavor than it did the last time. It teaches me something new every day. And lessons must be repeated until they are learned.
This past September, only six months pregnant, I unexpectedly went into labour and gave birth to a tiny baby girl. She died five days later. Her short life began and ended in a hospital, where kind and courageous people fought for her survival. But she was too small, too early. One after another, her organs broke down: heart, lungs, brain. Taken off life support, she died in our arms.
In the five days of my baby girl’s life, my heart broke open and I understood the meaning of bereavement. I have also experienced an icredible wave of love, as powerful as nothing I have felt before. It seemed like too much to bear, and it made everything else meaningless. Until then, I didn’t truly realize that love does not shield from pain, because there is nothing to be done in the face of death. That those you love are not yours to keep. That sometimes, babies die. Yes, my intellect knew these notions to be true, but to have that truth settle in my heart was nothing alike.
In those moments, I tried to recall whatever I could from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. About a year ago, I think, I pored over its mythical descriptions of the passage of the soul and the advice to those left alive. I remembered the souls floating through bardo, the false heavens and the nightmare realms. I imagined my baby girl’s tiny soul floating through clouds and muddy waters, sucked into a painfully distorted mouth of a daemon, like the ones I saw in Tibetan temples. Then I saw her slipping right back out, brushing against daemon fangs, bobbing along on her way, free of anger, sadness, longing.
As Tibetans would have it, I tried my best not to hold her back. I tried hard not to burden her with my despair. I assumed my grief and was there for her with a beaming heart and gratitude for every second we spent together. I didn’t want to let her go, but what I wanted didn’t really matter. There are no words.
I don’t always feel strong and I don’t have it all together. My life energy is very low. Caring about anything takes a big effort. Pema Chodron is a good companion for these wound-licking times. I remember getting home from the hospital and reading, tired and resigned:
Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together. We may still want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done.
And I knew it was true. I was not comforted, but there was relief in facing the truth. Anyway, no comfort is possible in such moments. Grief has a life of its own. I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t do anything about it but be kind. One of my friends, after hearing about baby’s passing, sternly admonished me to close this chapter of my life, march ahead, and never look back. Shut off the pain, stay strong, keep walking. But this is not the way I will have it. I will keep examining my own mind, and have faith in my own experience. There is nothing to shut off, throw out, forget. There is everything to embrace.
Yes, I got my share of suffering, but I do not feel like I have been wronged. I thought about it on my birthday, Christmas day, and New Year’s, when people who love me and wish me well expressed their hopes that better things were coming our way in 2016 and later on. That we would all live happily ever after. I agree, it would be nice not to lose anyone or anything dear to me anymore. But it will happen. Hopefully not too soon, because, at this point in time, I might just collapse, but eventually it will. I don’t want to fear it, though naturally I do. I want to say, ‘Just stop dying, you people, stop it, alright?’ – but that’s impossible. Pema has something to say on this, too:
The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.
Doesn’t it go against the grain of everything we were ever taught? I find it fascinating, the way I want to deny it.
Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
I used to read this passage in relation to self esteem, but when death enters the picture, it still makes profound sense. That feeling of lack is perhaps the driving force behind human actions. Accepting lack as inevitable dissolves it. If this is the way it must be, then there is nothing lacking.
Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time – that is the basic message.