Recorded at Steiner House in Ann Arbor Michigan in March 2018 during the Spring Vipassana Retreat.
Video and Transcript, the video is also closed captioned.
March 10, 2018 Saturday, Steiner Retreat, Ann Arbor
Part 1: Being Present with Pain, Fear, and Grief in Our Lives
Barbara: Good morning to you all. For those who have not met me, I’m Barbara Brodsky, the guiding teacher of Deep Spring Center. It’s wonderful to be here with you. D and I were to be leading the retreat, and then, as you may have heard, my husband had a major stroke 2 weeks ago. I got up in the morning. It was a beautiful day, like today. We had planned a wonderful day. We were getting an early start, going to the gym and then out for breakfast, to do some errands, go for a walk in the park. Come home for dinner and see a movie. Such a lovely day. I walked into the kitchen to see if he wanted to get ready to go, and he was unconscious on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood and vomit.
I called 911. An ambulance came. A little funny piece of this. I came in before I dressed, asking, “Hal, are you getting dressed? Are you getting ready to go?” I was naked! I ran to my phone and called 911; they said, “Stay on the line.” “But, but…!” I had my bathing suit there because we were going to the gym., so I pulled it on.
He was moved yesterday from the ICU at UM to an acute care, longer term rehab facility that’s housed in St. Joe’s. We have no idea what the future will hold.
Obviously, this is a major trauma in his life, in my life, in my sons’ lives. My 3 sons all came in that day, exactly two weeks ago yesterday, and they’ve been with me, putting their lives, their families, their work on hold. I could not have done it without them. But still, this is my husband and my life. We’ve been married 50 years; how am I going to live my life without him?
There’s a lot of fear, grief, and confusion. There is financial uncertainty: if he needs long-term nursing care, it’s pretty much going to eat up all of our savings. Eventually he’ll get on Medicaid, but not until I’m literally poor; this is how they do it. So, he has to use up all of our savings before he can go on Medicaid. Then what do I live on? So, fear. Fear about the future, fear about a lot of things.
For those who may be watching this as a video, the reason I’m pausing and turning my head sometimes is that we have a student here who is completely deaf, just as I am, and someone is signing to him. I’m going too fast! I need to remember to slow down. Mindfulness. I’m speaking here to whoever will be watching this on the video.
I’m talking about this mostly to share the fruits of practice. Why are you here to learn vipassana? In what way can it support you through this kind of major change and trauma in your lives? These things will happen to us.
Everything changes in a second. A friend wrote me an email two days ago— when it was snowing. She was getting off the freeway exit to her home, skidded on a patch of black ice, and her car spun around in front of the next lane of traffic. A car swerved around her, and she continued to spin and went off the side of the road. It didn’t turn over, fortunately; just slipped off into a ditch. She said that 15 seconds seemed like an eternity. Each second slowed down; she was not hurt but she could have been killed or badly injured. Everything changes in a moment.
Our practice is not to stop emotions, or pain, or fear; that’s simply denial. It’s not living; it’s shutting down, armoring. Of course, even at our best we’re going to armor ourselves when things are very painful. But, when the stories come up— not just, “What will happen?” but noting the anxiety, fear, “They’ll take all my money! I’m going to have to set up a tent somewhere and live there”. Then, “Well, I have a minus-zero sleeping bag, I’ll be okay!” Where does it stop? So many stories.
Letting go of the stories doesn’t mean I cut off the story, with, “No, I won’t allow this story!” but that I note that movement into the story before it starts to roll too far. So first, I’m breathing and I’m peaceful. Or I’m lying in bed at 4am and the thought comes up: what will happen to Hal? What will happen to me? Mind clenches into that question. One of the things that mind does, next, is to run into stories, such as trying to picture myself safe, living in my tent. “Poor me! Well I’d rather live in a tent than a really ugly, horrible dorm room with 3 other women in some cheap old age home….” Can you feel the stories and the energy and the negativity?
As an aside from the video, I am reviewing this transcript at 3AM; I woke after an hour’s sleep, intense grief and fear entering my dreams. I sat up and meditated for a while, but mind would not settle down at all. So, I came into my office to review the transcript. Sometimes we just have to allow ourselves an escape if the emotion is too strong. When I finish this, I’ll go out to my hot tub and soak a while, meditate there, and then go back to bed.
At this point, with stories wanting to pour out, we note “fear, fear”, or just “contraction”. I may not even be aware that I’m afraid. Contracting, contracting. Breathing in, I am aware of the contraction. Breathing out, I hold space for the contraction. When I open to whatever has come up and is causing so much discomfort, there’s space for it. We have enormous capacity for the fear, grief, pain, anger, if we will allow ourselves to experience these. I’ve been visualizing the grief or the fear as a small, compact ball, fiery hot, and holding it in a large, cool space, maybe with water pouring through. But mostly we don’t want to experience such painful objects. If we don’t allow ourselves to experience them then we shut ourselves off.
Probably 25 years ago, I was on a long retreat in Canada. It was cold, snow up to my thighs. II woke in the middle of the night and could feel the contraction in myself, that there was something I had been avoiding and needed to let myself see. My teacher, Aaron, said, “Go out and walk in the snow.” It was 2AM. “Go out and walk in the snow.” So, I dressed warmly, went out and walked in the snow with my walking sticks for balance. Along with my deafness, my middle ear semicircular canal is non-functional, so I don’t have normal ear balance. Aaron said, “Now let go of the walking sticks.” “But I’ll fall!” “Yes!”
I put the walking sticks aside, stood, and fell. Of course, the snow was deep. It wasn’t a painful fall; it was like landing in a soft cloud. I was warmly dressed. I got up. “Do it again: stand, fall.” I must have fallen over 15 times, sitting on the ground for a minute or two after each fall. The landing wasn’t hard. Letting myself fall was hard.
I began to see how I lived my life trying to be upright. I lost my hearing just after my first son was born 45 years ago. It was traumatic, and I was determined, “I will survive this. There’s nothing I will not do but hear.” Can you feel the tension in that statement? “I will do it!” It did take courage to learn to live deaf and without balance, but instead of opening with love to that part of me that was strong and courageous, and moving from there, I pushed away fear and pain and became armored and stoic. I WILL do it! I didn’t honor my strength but was determined to push away any weakness. I could see how I’d been living my life all that time trying to be upright, the strong one who could handle everything. It allowed a major shift for me, 20 years into being deaf.
Well, I felt I had long passed that old pattern, that I had learned what I needed to. Yesterday during a bodywork session, lying on the table, I could feel how hard and painful my back was, and how much energy I was holding in the clenched back,. Lying on a table, I was meditating, and as I felt that clenching in my back and brought kind attention to it, and the practitioner saw the hardness too and touched my back gently, there was a feeling almost like someone like someone had opened a valve in my back and tons of garbage and sludge were pouring out, all the accumulation of these two weeks, and probably of a lifetime!.
So it was very powerful to feel how I had been locking that energy in. Obviously, this has been immensely traumatic. I love my husband dearly. We were— are to celebrate— I will not use the past tense, our 50th anniversary in May. I could feel how I was storing this grief, the fear, in my body and especially in my back.
So, we do what is skillful. Here is an example. We have a practice called clear comprehension of purpose. I asked myself, as I was lying there, what is my highest purpose? Is it to armor myself in that way and push the feelings away? Or is it to allow myself to open, to be present with the pain? Because only when I’m present with pain can I be fully present with love. Is what I am doing in this moment consistent with my highest purpose? If not, what options do I have that I have not yet considered?
We’re here to live our lives fully. Trauma is going to happen to every one of you in some way or another. You may fall off your bike and break your wrist. A loved one may die. You may get sick or in a car accident. You may lose your job. A tree may be struck by lightning and fall on your house. This is life; we can’t escape this. In order to live our lives with joy and love, we need to be willing to be present with the pain, the fear, the grief. We begin to understand, this has arisen out of conditions and it does not have to rule the rest of my life.
There is another part. Right here with fear is that which is not afraid. Right here with grief is the one who is joyful. It doesn’t mean I shut out the grief, or the fear, or the anger, but rather, I learn how to hold both anger and the one who is not angry.
Last night, sitting in my husband’s room meditating, maybe because of my experience of opening earlier in the day, I was finally able to allow myself to feel how angry I was at him. Now, how can you be angry at someone who’s had a stroke? It’s not his fault. Basically, he took good care of himself. We went to the gym every day. He was in good physical shape. But the anger is there. “Look what you did to our lives! How could you have a stroke?” And the resentment. I depended on him, because he was a financial analyst in his working days, to take care of all the paperwork. “Why didn’t you set it up somehow, so we would have money for this?” Well, this is not his fault. This is the system we live in, and it’s a bad system. Nursing home insurance is exorbitantly expensive, and we made a conscious decision, years ago, not to buy it. This is the result of our decision. But, anger came up. So, I sat there, first allowing myself to feel the anger. Breathing in, I am aware of the anger. Just breathing and holding space for the anger. Aware of the intermingling of anger and fear.
I began to do a compassion meditation. First, starting with myself and offering compassion to myself. Can I truly love myself and the pain I am feeling? Hold myself in my heart and not condemn myself for being angry, for feeling fear, resentment, confusion? And then, turning to Hal, just: I love you unconditionally. I love you. And there’s still anger and fear. That doesn’t negate the love. So, this is part of what I mean when I say, “that which is aware of angry is not angry.” We can find the one who genuinely loves, is openhearted and tender, is not angry, right there with the anger.
I needed to find a way to hold space for our entire experience, pain and love. I could not have lived these last two weeks without my meditation practice. I would have been totally overwhelmed. I would have spent my days curled up in a fetal ball, sobbing. I couldn’t have done it. The practice allowed me to know the experience of the moment, and, just as important, to know how I was relating to that experience. Obviously I was not able to do this completely or I wouldn’t have been storing all the tension in my back. So, it took me 2 weeks to get in touch with the tension, but that’s better than 2 months or 2 years. It’s really pretty much released now. I’m slumping, I no longer have to be tall! I don’t have to be upright. I give myself permission to cry and be afraid.
With some time alone in the room with Hal, I did something I didn’t think I could do. I was standing next to his bed, and I bent over and put my head on his chest. I’ve done this a couple of times the past 2 days. He can move his left arm and hand. His right side is completely paralyzed. I took his left hand and put it on my face. It felt good to feel his hand touching me. And I just let myself cry there, with my head on his chest. He’s beginning to become a little more responsive. He’s opening his eyes and looking at people, but I had no idea if he recognized it’s me.
But last night as I was there, not sobbing but crying softly, I felt his fingers begin to move in my hair. That little bit of comfort, little bit of contact, saying, “I am here. Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.” And what okay means… (pausing for a tissue)— some things are hard to talk about without crying… Current events are always harder than the past ones…
I felt myself melt into his being for about 10 minutes. He could die tomorrow, or today. Who knows. They told us the first week there’s only a 5% chance he’ll survive the first week. They told us the second week there’s only a 5% chance he’ll ever get off the ventilator. But he’s alive and off the ventilator. They told us when he left the ICU there’s only a 10%, 20% chance he’s going to survive the rest of the month. He will, or he won’t; I can’t hold onto him. But I can be present with my fear with kindness for myself and for him, can allow myself that connection with him. It may be the last really human connection I’ll ever have with him. In a sense I was saying goodbye to him last night, and also hello to him. Hello to the new Hal, however he is, and the promise, “I love you. I’ll stick with you and we’ll see what happens.” And I think he could feel that from me, too, at some level. My tears were for both of us.
We don’t know how much he can understand. The stroke destroyed the neural channels that allow the brain to send messages to the speech center, and to the right side of body. But the brain intelligence is intact. There’s no way of knowing whether he understands speech. Several times it seems that he has. Several times we’ve said, “Can you raise your hand?” and he’s raised his hand. So, it may be that he’s understanding. The brain can form new channels and is doing so.
Coming back to my talk. Can you see how important it is to allow ourselves to be present with things as they are and not shut ourselves down? This is the only way we can live our lives fully and with love. And I assume that’s what we all want to do, or you all wouldn’t be here. For each of you it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, to find the places where you habitually shut down and to recognize: maybe I don’t have to do that anymore. Maybe I can open my heart and just be present in this moment with the grief, fear, pain, anger, or confusion of this moment. This is how the practice really changes us.