Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Dharma of Caring

I've brought this post over from my old gardening blog; I think it belongs here as well.

photo credit

This post isn't really about gardening, except in the sense of life, death, renewal, loss, that sort of thing.

This month, an essay I wrote is appearing in a small Buddhist journal called The Mindfulness Bell. This publication is put out by the Order of Interbeing, which practices in the tradition of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. This is the tradition which I practice in. The essay is about my experience of caring for a friend who was dying from brain cancer.

Some definitions for those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism:

sangha -- a community of practitioners who meditate together and support each other

dharma -- the teachings of the Buddha; truths about the nature of life, reality, and our consciousness

dharma sharing -- the practice of speaking from your heart about the joys and trials of your practice, and of listening deeply as others speak; the period of time set aside for this sharing during each sangha gathering, which is all but unique to this tradition

tea ceremony -- in this tradition, the special format of certain sangha gatherings, during which we share tea and food (nuts, orange slices) mindfully together, and then share songs, stories, paintings, poems, etc., in order to "water seeds of joy."

boddhisatva -- a being who commits him- or herself to relieving the suffering of all other beings, through deep understanding and compassion


Sangha as Refuge: The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

by Lauren Thompson

I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by the facts of her family situation. She was living alone at that time. Her parents had both died years earlier. She had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, spending hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition would worsen, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger. What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.”

“I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore – it carried Alison, and it carries me still. This is the dharma of caring for our sangha sister, Alison.

Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

Alison on her 42nd birthday

Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir on her experiences with Alison K.

Copyright (c) 2009 Lauren Thompson

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What to Do if You Meet a Thought

This is something I shared with a few folks in the sangha some years ago. It bears repeating, I think. (There is a pun in there, which will become clear as you read on.)


There are no definite rules about what to do if you meet a thought. Thought attacks are rare compared to the number of close encounters. However, if you do meet a thought before it has time to leave the area, here are some suggestions. Remember: Every situation is different with respect to the thought, the terrain, the people, and their activity.

STAY CALM: If you see a thought and it hasn’t seen you, calmly leave the area.

STOP: Back away slowly while facing the thought. Give the thought plenty of room to escape. Wild thoughts rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.

SPEAK SOFTLY: This may reassure the thought that no harm is meant it.

If a thought stands upright or moves closer it may be trying to detect smells in the air. This isn’t a sign of aggression. Once a thought identifies you, it may leave the area or it may try to intimidate you by charging within a few feet before it withdraws.

Don't run or make any sudden movements. Running is likely to prompt the thought to give chase and you can’t outrun a thought.

Contributed by Kim Boykin, substituting "thought" for "bear" in the Colorado Division of Wildlife's "What to Do if You Meet a Bear" pamphlet

Source: Bay Area Young Adult Sangha

P.S. You can purchase this Meditating Bear Garden Statue if you wish. Who would have thought that googling "meditating bear" would bring up anything?

Wisconsin Winter Drive

Driving up from Milwaukee to Algoma, to my sister-in-law's farm in Kewaunee County. Along the way, views of Lake Michigan.

A world away from Brooklyn.

Click to discover The Be Good Tanyas, one of my favorite groups.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Perfectionism, Foiled Again

Yesterday I decided to try, for the first time, to wet-mount a few of my paintings, with home-cooked wheat paste. I'd seen my teacher do it, and I'd read about it in two books, and also watched a video on YouTube. I felt prepared, very prepared. And excited.

The first attempt went well. I really enjoyed stirring up the paste, and spraying the painting (image side down) and the backing paper, and smoothing on the paste with a wide brush. Just as Mr. Choey had done, I was able to lay the wet backing paper over the wet painting, then pull both up together and, holding up the wet, newly-fused work like a freshly-processed photo, draped it against a vertical board so that it could dry. Very satisfying.

So I thought I'd move on to the painting that really mattered to me, a painting of two fish. I have been planning to send this as a gift to a friend for many weeks now, as soon as I had mounted it.

Everything went well once again. The whole activity was absorbing and very enjoyable. I was taking risks, learning, exploring. Smiling a lot. The experience, and the work, were, dare I say, perfect.

It wasn't until this morning, when I checked whether the two paintings had dried, that I noticed the problem. Somehow, I had managed to paste the fish image-side down against the backing paper. When everything was wet, the paper was translucent and it was hard to tell which side was which. (Though the backwards calligraphy should have been a clue.) Now that it was dry, it was clear that everything had gone oh, so wrong.

Well, only one thing had gone wrong, but it was a very important thing. So much for perfection. Now I was looking at loss. A lost painting, a lost gift.

But not yet. I wasn't giving up on it yet.

I couldn't find anything in my books or on-line about how to remove a wrongly-applied backing from the front of a painting. Just the note from one of my books:

Take care not to paste the rice paper on the painted side! Mounting a painting back to front is a common mistake made even by professionals.

Made even by professionals. Cold comfort.

I decided to try to separate the backing from the painting by brushing water over the whole thing, hoping the paste would dissolve and release the paper before it all turned into one soggy rice-papery mess.

After about twenty minutes, I found that I could begin to peel away the backing. But bits of the painting, onion-skin fine, stuck to the backing paper. Gently I held up the backing with one hand and eased the painting layer back in place with a knife. I would say "scraped," but the effort was to approach the notion of "scrape" without truly meeting it.

The suspension of paper, the suspension of breath; the suspension of fear, lest fear pierce the onion-skin boundary between not-lost and lost.

Here is the painting, face-up, after I had removed the backing. A bit torn and ragged, but mostly whole.

After a few hours, it was dry again. I cooked up more paste, rewetted the painting and a new piece for backing, stroked on the paste, and made certain -- certain -- that I was applying the backing to the back of the painting.

Here it is, re-mounted and drying on a vertical board.

The painting is bruised and scarred, but nobly so, I hope. I think that it wasn't perfectionism, in the end, that drove me to transform back-to-front to back-to-backing. For through all this anxious, meticulous effort there was a lot of joy. I think this was Right Effort, Right Diligence. For if someone were to ask me why I was doing this, I would say, "Because I like it -- it is bringing me joy."

This fish has been through the wars, so to speak, but it still embodies joy to me, and I hope to others.

The calligraphy means "Friend." Jacqueline, this painting will soon (I hope) be on its way to you.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I have been too busy to post, busy making our holiday cards. This year the theme is birds.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry Friday: Dear Writer,

This week, an old poem of mine.

Dear Writer,

Thank you for sending
your story
for our consideration
After careful review
we regret to say

we do all want most of all
to escape the
mere eventfulness
of our lives
the familiar ambiguity
of elevator doors opening
and day following night
of saved receipts
and national news updates
and the trace of a gull's flight
past the gray horizon

Thank you for casting your dread
upon the waters of these pages
We return them to you
mostly unread

The Editors

-- Lauren Thompson

I have a folder of rejection letters, some no more than an eighth of a sheet of typing paper, stating in a sentence or two, Thanks but no thanks.  I never did have a short story accepted. Eventually I had a total of three poems published; that is, before I started crafting them as children's books. I just needed to find the right format for my words.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Refuge: In Memory of John Daido Loori

I've learned that John Daido Loori, founder and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, passed away on October 9, 2009. I never met him in person, but I've gained a lot from his writing about creativity and other themes.

Water Seeing Water, John Daido Loori

I often think about one of his commentaries of the idea of "refuge," which I read in the Winter 2007 issue of Tricycle magazine. In that piece, which was excerpted from one of his books, Loori looks deeply into the idea of "refuge." He begins by reminding us that in Zen training, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures by chanting, "Being one with the Buddha, being one with the Dharma, being one with the Sangha." So "refuge" means "being one with."  But what does it mean to "be one with"?

     The word we translate as “refuge” is taken from the Japanese term kie-ei. Kie-ei consists of two characters. Kie means “to unreservedly throw oneself into,” no holding back, no way out, no safety net, harness, or rope. That is the way a parent rescues a child who is in danger.... The second character, ei, literally means “to rely upon,” in the way that a child leaps into a parent’s arms, trusting unequivocally.
     I remember when my children were young. They were able to stand by themselves but couldn’t yet walk, and I would stand them up on the dresser and say, “Jump!” They would throw themselves into space, knowing I would be there. They had a complete sense of trust. It was total doing. “Unreservedly throwing oneself into and relying upon” differs from “a shelter or protection from danger or distress”—the more common definition of the word refuge.

Toward the end of this excerpt, he asks us to search ourselves:

Why do we practice? What is it that we seek? What is it that we want? What is it that we are prepared to do to get what we want? Are we willing to practice the edge, take a risk, unreservedly throw ourselves into practice?

I find a noble challenge in the contrast between refuge as "shelter from distress" and refuge as "throwing oneself into." Does the practice of taking refuge -- of taking refuge in practice -- play out as seeking shelter, playing it safe -- or just going for it? I mean in my life, in my everyday living. Unreservedly throwing myself into practice: to me, that means unreservedly being present to those around me. Unreservedly being present to myself. Unreservedly being present to what is, right now.

Every moment there is the choice: Jump! Or, wait and see. (Or, not now, I'm too busy.)

It comes back again to No Fear. Fearlessness, having no more fear. Just jump!

Like I said, this is a noble challenge for me. I'm not big on jumping. I'm used to fear; with fear I feel secure.

But I love that image of John Daido Loori's children jumping off the dresser into his arms. How wonderful that must have felt for them! Can I be next?

When I was little, my mother tells me, I loved to jump in my crib. I jumped so energetically that the crib would travel from one side of the room to the other. Here I am, jumping and smiling. Yes, it feels good.