A few things stick out in my mind when I think of my Mom. Her excellent taste (she instinctually knew what was good), her natural beauty, her sharp mind, her intense dissatisfaction with her life, and by extension, me.
As an adult I’ve been able to go back and parse out what the criticism I was subjected to was really about. Of course, understanding is one thing, it’s a whole other challenge to re-wire my thinking. Both to stop the internal dialog I continued after she was gone, and carrying that innate dissatisfaction forward in my own life.
This is where I hope meditation will help. As I navigate this next chapter of my health I want to train my mind towards calm. I need this calm to ward off despair, and make certain decisions. I’d like to emerge from this chapter with a new skill, fully present in whatever time remains to me.
I’ve begun reading Buddhist philosophy to help me cope with this latest setback. One of the most helpful ideas has been the notion that suffering is a natural part of being alive. In western culture we tend to view it as the end-product of our bad choices, making the suffering more difficult with the inclusion of shame. That suffering can and will happen takes the sting out of it. We are free to feel the pain, and then allow it to pass without reproach. Suffering is not a reason to judge oneself harshly, nor to view it as an endpoint.
“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 is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Day to day living can be dissatisfying. Work is boring, our spouses and friends sometimes disappoint (as do we), our health fails. We have a vague understanding of our capabilities as human beings, but little instruction to get there. This is what art and literature are intended to address. The expansion of our consciousness to buffer against life’s difficulties. It’s an immense challenge to cultivate our capacity for joy and tenderness. Especially in the face of a world that doesn’t seem to handle us with care.
Much of our early life looks outward for satisfaction. Owning nice things, an ideal spouse, career success, athletic prowess. One of the reasons mid-life is particularly challenging is because we are faced with the creeping realization that none of those things is enough to keep dissatisfaction and it’s cousin, unhappiness at bay. We are our own bottomless pit. There is never enough money, travel, or adoration to fill the void.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
― Pema Chödrön
Our choices must be the culprit. If only we had done it all differently we would be happy now. The work is to turn back to ourselves and sit quietly with our dissatisfaction. Resist any attempt to soothe or fix it. Feel it fully, allow it to pass, and reevaluate the offending portions of our lives with a calm mind.
Years later my youngest brother mentioned dissatisfaction as part of a larger conversation about our Mother. That she had nurtured hers and his purposeful decision to stay put in his own life choices. Settle down and see things through. It struck me as wise. The willingness to keep still and push through our yearnings can yield the knowledge that satisfaction begins internally.
Yearning has an evolutionary purpose as well. It’s a by-product of imagining what our lives could be, propelling us to take a risk, open our hearts. It’s when our psyches are immersed in yearning that it robs us of our ability to enjoy our lives as they are.
I’ve listened to my yearnings to both good and bad effect. Moving cities, and leaving my spouse were the right call. My life did improve. Neither was ultimately a fix for a persistent dissatisfaction I too am afflicted with. I have made headway in the last few years, I no longer ascribe failure to setbacks but there is plenty of work left to do.
Breast cancer continues to be a challenge to my happiness and a guiding force. It strikes to the heart of the matter. Did you savor this life? Did you love and were you loved in return? Did you cultivate peace and compassion? Did you relish in this physical body gifted to you?