I spent last week on meditation retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ve been on retreat a lot this year and I’ve noticed that my life seems to wiggle a bit more while I’m away. As if in order to clear up any confusion about retreat being outside everyday life, the universe stirs things up, releasing thoughts and emotions that crawl around excavating truths and forcing me to open my heart, even as I sit with eyes closed. This retreat was no different: an old friend at a medical crossroads, a friend of a friend dead in a plane crash with his young children aboard, a cancer diagnosis for another friend’s dad, the eighth anniversary of my mom’s death.
I remember when my mom received her cancer diagnosis. The doctors gave her six months to live, which she did, nearly to the day. It all seemed so cut and dried. My mom wasn’t interested in fighting too much. I don’t think she believed that was her role. So we spent that time gathered as a family. We went on vacation to Mexico and took trips to the nursery looking at roses and ferns for my yard. One day, gathered in my living room, my daughter Nataly offered my mom a movie about the power of a plant-based diet in treating cancer. My mom smiled gently and politely declined, “I love you Nataly. But you have to let me do this my way.”
I knew my mom was going to die even before she refused to continue with chemo and settled in to spend her final months at home with her wife. She’d spent her life caring for others and wasn’t going to allow the tumor in her stomach to change that. It was sad, but it was somehow okay too. In her last days and nights I’d drink a bottle of wine, crawl into bed and stroke her hair with my fingertips and cry. Then I’d get up in the morning and get back to work … it’s all I had back then. I didn’t know how to help her, which made it easier in a way.
I’ve learned a bit since then, and developed some new tools. I started by watching that movie my daughter tried to give my mom. Then I watched more. Many more. I read books. I went to health conferences. I befriended the experts … I even married one. I became a vegan. I went to the Shaolin Temple. I’ve spent countless days on retreat, meditating, watching my mind. I get lost on summer afternoons amongst the redwoods looking for mushrooms and herbs for medicinal teas. I’ve built a practice around health, wellness, and spirituality that I share with my family and friends.
And people I love still get sick … and sometimes they die. And that’s hard, especially when I think I can help.
Prior to this retreat I spoke with a friend. We were reviewing something I’d written — the first draft of what became this piece. “It’s okay that our friends die, Jason,” he said. “It has to be.” That stuck with me as I sat this past week and received news of sick friends and funerals. I knew this already, of course, that my friends are allowed to have a life of their own. I know there’s no use arguing with reality. But I don’t like it much some days. I rather enjoy my friends and I’d prefer they live long healthy lives and not go away. When they do it hurts. I miss them like I miss my mom.
I’ve wondered this week, while meandering in the hidden corners of my mind, if perhaps all this learning I’ve done was part of a secret agenda I wasn’t sharing even with myself. A plan to save my friends — and myself — from all the suffering of life. As if, having watched my mom die, the little boy in me had a plan to stop the suffering of the world by getting really healthy and sharing what I learned. And maybe by doing so, somehow I’d save my mom, too. There’s a sweetness in that naiveté. It makes me smile because it reminds me of my mom, who was always looking to help. It’s a piece of her in me, a little insecurity, wanting you to know I love you, and wanting to know you love me too … sure if I help you’ll see just how good I’m not sure I really am.
I notice though as I think about saving the world, it all gets really small. As if the world were squished down and squeezed into my head, right between my eyes, burning a hole in my forehead as I try to out-scheme life, and death. I also notice when I sit openly with the way things are, when I turn towards my fear and look at my pain, the world opens up. When I think of my friends’ health and say “I’m afraid” I can feel in my heart how we’re connected. When I say, “I miss my mom” it feels more intimate than when I say I wish she didn’t die. When I think I have to have all the answers, my loved ones feel far away. And when I say “I don’t know” I notice how we all get to play together.
Another way of saying this is that it’s okay to live. Not just to be alive, but to actually live this life we have. In some ways that’s been the biggest lesson —that my life is worth fully living, worthy of investing the same time and attention I invested in my career. It was scary when I realized I was on the road to end up like my mom: dead at 58, my kids missing their dad. I knew I had to stop, but I was afraid. I didn’t know how. Who would I be? What would my life look like without all the stuff I’d masqueraded as an authentic expression of myself? Or as I said to my therapist at the time, “I’m afraid if I stop and look honestly at my life I’m going to realize I can’t do this any more. And that scares me.” I was right. When I looked honestly I didn’t like my life much. I realized I couldn’t do it any more. So I stopped. Or life stopped me. And that was terrifying. But I didn’t turn away. I knew deep down I had to keep looking. And I’m still looking today.
The more I practice the kinder my gaze becomes. My practice, once motivated by fear, is based now more in love — for myself, for life, for you. I understand that caring for my body is a worthwhile endeavor and that motivates my food choices, so I eat plant-based foods and supplement them with Chinese herbs. I know that my body works when energy and nutrition flow to my organs, so I stretch, take walks, and long, deep breaths. I’ve learned that watching my mind helps me understand and accept life; that’s why I meditate. I’ve experienced that sharing gives meaning to it all, so I write and connect with those in need.
On retreat I’ve been reminded of the okayness of life. It’s okay for our friends to die. It’s okay for my mom to be gone. It’s okay that all this sometimes seems too big for my tiny human heart. It’s okay that I’m afraid. It’s okay I sit and cry with the weight of it all. It’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay to wish I did. It’s okay even in all the darkness of the world to see the light. It’s okay to allow pain to be a portal. It’s okay to turn around. It’s okay to find a better way. It’s okay to live. It’s okay… it just is, this life, the one we have, yours and mine … it may not be fair, or even pretty, but it’s okay.
A few notes on okayness:
1) Okayness has a quality of self-compassion, holding our own hand in the dark. When life turns upside down this means accepting what’s hurting while lightening the load by supporting the parts of your life left standing upright. This might look like drinking extra green juice and taking long walks while in the midst of a divorce. Or going on meditation retreat after a cancer diagnosis. Or having a tea with someone you love after getting fired from your job. 2) Being okay doesn’t mean inviting struggle. There’s no inherent value in that. The value comes from finding our way in the dark when struggles present themselves — being okay with what we find in life. 3) Sometimes being okay means accepting that we’re not okay with what’s going on. It means meeting ourselves where we actually are. When facing uncertain health it may be too much to ask to be okay with a pending diagnosis, but we may be able to admit to being afraid and be okay with that. Sitting at a friend’s funeral we might find that we’re not ready to be okay with death, but can meet ourselves in our grief and be okay that this is one of life’s tough moments. Okayness isn’t fake or forced but a genuine place we discover we can face life and feel okay about it. 4) Okayness in the body is sometimes available even when mental or emotional okayness isn’t. Cellular joy comes in the form of deep breaths, superfood smoothies, nutrient-dense meals, a shot of wheatgrass as we hold our nose. This runs contrary to the conventional practice of numbing our pain with a beer or a pint of Haagen-Dazs. But caring for our bodies in the midst of mental or emotional anguish can send a message from the cells up that we’re safe, healthy, and okay. 5) In meditation okayness often comes from seeing that our problems aren’t quite as solid or solidly ours as we once thought. While sitting and observing we might notice thoughts of our problems arising and then disappearing on their own. We might see that things we once thought to be ours to solve aren’t really in our control — our son’s new girlfriend, a war on the other side of the world, my wife’s concern about a sick friend. In meditation we see these issues and face them, while also becoming aware of their slippery and transparent nature.
Here we are together. And it’s okay.
Big hugs of love,