"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Oh, Good Grief!

"Nothing is more natural than grief, no emotion more common to our daily experience.  
It's an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent."
-- Stephen Levine, Unattended Sorrow

"The problem, therefore, lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it."
-- Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life

Five years ago, on January 17, 2016. poet, author, and Spiritual Teacher, Stephen Levine died at home after a long illness.  I was fortunate enough to attend a Conscious Living, Conscious Dying retreat with Stephen and his wife Ondrea years ago.  There,, I experienced, first-hand, his ability to create a Community of Healing over the course of 5 days.  
About three hundred of were gathered there at Mount Madonna Center.  About one third of those attending were terminally-ill.  Another third were their loved ones.  I was a member of the final third, people involved with the emerging hospice movement.
What I experienced during that retreat was astounding.  Levine's talent of crafting and delivering guided meditations and interactive experiences allowed me, and many other folks, to access the Open Heart of Awareness.  With Levine's passing, the world lost a Master Guide.

I wrote the following post two years before his passing.  It also highlights the work of another gifted Teacher, Joanna Macy that I had the privilege to practice with along this long and winding trail of Practice.  She, too, continues to be a guiding light for me.  I'm sure that Stephen won't mind sharing the limelight here.  In my experience his light, and hers, are inseparable from the Boundless Light!

*Originally Published, November 21, 2014. 

With the events of the past month, the emergence of grief in my life seems to be a reoccurring theme.  I awoke in tears from a lucid dream a few minutes ago.  As I transitioned from dreaming to the waking state, I felt my heart open through grief into the boundless spaciousness of the One Love.  I came fully awake feeling energized, grateful --  and at peace.  I was ready to face the day.

I'm no expert practitioner, but it seems that my renewed focus on Dream Yoga is working.  Extending Practice into the borderland of mind states that emerge in and out of dreams has been rewarding.  It's nice to be able to sleep on the job.

Although the recent dreams I've had of levitation and flying have been a lot more "fun", I'm deeply grateful to have had this dream emerge from the cradle of an afternoon nap.  At age 68, I've found Napping Practice to be quite wonderful.
The dream gave me an opportunity to further process the losses that have incurred in my life, and to move through personal grief to connect more deeply with the genuine heart of sadness that is part of our shared human condition. I've found that tears are often the key that unlocks the Gateless Gate to the One Love. A good cry can be the portal to boundless beauty, joy and gratitude.  As Jesus proclaimed long ago, "Blessed be those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

In the Dream State, I did -- and I was.

Grief is rarely that easy, but thankfully, it's become easier over the years. I've had lots of help.  I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to attend retreats with two contemporary American Buddhist masters of a "good cry":  Stephen Levine and Joanna Macy.  Although the focus of their work is different (Levine serves in the field of death and dying. Macy empowers ecological activists.), each of these gifted Teachers gets to the Heart of the Matter with incredible grace, insight and skill.  Through periods of silent meditation, guided mediations, talks, and experiential exercises, they each have the ability to skillfully guide their retreat participants toward an experience of the Open Heart of Awareness.  True spiritual elders (Macy is 85. Levine, 77), they each are able to bring the essence of the Teachings out of the Sutra books and to real, lived experiences.  Through their being and the gatherings they create, they each bring the limitless energy of love, compassion and forgiveness to Life.  
It is a high and holy magic.
Stephen Levine 
July 17, 1937 - January 17, 2016
Facing and embracing the pain and sorrow that is inherent in life is no mean feat. In contemporary caĆ„pitalist society, we're conditioned to avoid this aspect of existence like the plague.  Rather than opening our hearts to the reality of our interdependence with all of Life and Death, we are programmed to "get real" and race through our lives walled off as separate beings in pursuit of power, status, and material prosperity.

Conditioned to hold our own pain and the pain of the world at arm's length, encouraged to keep a stiff upper lip, we aren't able to turn towards Life and Death with a compassionate embrace and a loving kiss.  As a result, all too often, we just scurry through our lives with a closed heart until we encounter the loss of a loved one.  Then, as Stephen Levine points out, our grief may be overwhelming, compounded by the regret that our love was unexpressed.

He encourages us to begin the process of opening our hearts now -- before it's too late.

Joanna Macy
Similarly, moving from the personal to the global at a time when the survival of the web of life on this planet is threatened, Joanna Macy encourages us to move beyond apathy to realize that our world itself is a loved one in need of intensive care. The meditations and experiential exercises she has woven together guide and support us to turn toward one another to touch and express the grief felt about the environmental devastation of our times.  In   opening our hearts to the pain, we unleash the enormous energy of our deep caring.  Taking heart from the beauty and courage within and among us, we can then join with others to act -- hopefully, before it is too late.

An Engaged Buddhist, drawing on the Shambala Prophecy she learned from her Tibetan Buddhist teacher Choegyal Rinpoche, the body of work Joanna Macy presents empowers us to become active bodhisattvas,  using the non-violent weapons of insight and compassion to dispel the forces that fuel the human misery, warfare, and environmental devastation of our times.

To me, the Heart Work that each of these teachers have brought forth are among the most important Practices of our time.  At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I think that the future of the planet may very well hinge on our individual and collective ability to have a good cry.*

The simple act of sitting down quietly to focus on the sensations of our breath can begin the process.  When we take the time to gently and carefully explore our own experience in the reality of the present moment, things change.  With Practice, we move from our heads into our hearts.

With commitment, effort, and patience, the Practice continues to deepen over the years.  We come to then understand that it's a lifelong endeavor.  At certain points we will find the teachers and teachings that resonate with that stage of our journey and we are drawn to intensify our Practice by taking the time and space to join with others to practice in sanghas, retreats and workshops -- or, as I have found, on the streets and in soup kitchens.

People's Climate March, NYC 2014
I am deeply grateful that through the brilliance of teachers like Joanna Macy and Stephen Levine, the Teachings are increasingly accessible and continue to evolve.  Through their efforts, both the Mahayana and Theravada have been reincarnated in this age right in the belly of the beast.  There is a living Yankee Dharma, one that embraces the mystical heart of all the world's religions,  emerging in the heart of the most powerful, and possibly, the most destructive nation on earth.  This is a cause for hope -- and action.  (One of Joanna Macy's latest books is entitled Active Hope.)

Although I acknowledge the utter impossibility of saving all sentient beings each day as I recite the Bodhisattva Vows (beings are numberless, after all), like many others I've dedicated my life and practice to doing exactly that.

All our loved ones throughout time and space, all the  myriad plant and animal species that share this planet with us humanoids, and Mother Earth herself, are crying out to us at this precarious moment in the history of the planet.  I can't think of anything better to do.

How about you?

For more information:
The work of Joanna Macy:  
The work of Stephen Levine including the video 
of the Final Couch Talk he and Ondrea posted

* If you didn't recognize it, the phrase I used is from Che Guevara.   In 1965, he wrote "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love."
 I basically agree with Che's statement and respect his courage, integrity and sacrifice.  I just wonder if he would have lived in a different age and had a "good cry", if he may have chosen Gandhi's non-violent resistance instead to confront the injustice he saw.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

thanks for these posts. i now wish i could have gone to the stephen levine retreat you describe. i recently was told my heart was armored since a few deaths ago, and frankly, it's not that easy to melt. i am hoping to do so to celebrate my 50th, but i think i am at least ahead of the curve on nap meditations.... :)
all good things,