Before He Melts Away (January 2014)
Shambhala Sun | January 2014
Before He Melts Away
His son has been cancer free for six years now, but for
JAMES HANMER the meaning of Frosty the Snowman has changed forever.
I am standing at the front of the classroom, leaning on the
podium as thirty-three high school students stare at me. Some eyes are alive
with interest, others were glazed with boredom when they entered the classroom
and have not changed. My tattered copy of Don Quixote flops in my left
hand. The mad knight has fought windmills, puissant Biscayans, troublesome
sheep, and now, with dreamy persistence, searches for the golden helmet of
Mambrino. The eyes stare. A hand from the back rises. “Who cares?” asks the
young inquisitor. “Why do we need to read this story?”
I pause, because this is the most important question of the
whole school year. If I fail this question, the whole year is easily lost. “We
tell stories to convince ourselves that our lives have meaning.”
Then there is a knock at the door, and the English
department secretary peeks in. “Mr. Hanmer, your wife is on the phone. She
needs to speak with you immediately. It’s urgent.”
This is not good. Stepping out of the classroom, I call her
and hear the unmistakable tenor of tears and worry in her voice. “Come to the
hospital as fast as you can,” she says. “Something is wrong with Avelino.”
Avelino, whom we usually call Nino, is our second son. He is
only twenty months old.
Entering the examination room, I see my wife delicately
holding our baby boy as a doctor shines a little flashlight into his eyes.
After a hushed introduction, I am silent.
The doctor leaves the room, saying he’s going to bring in a
colleague. I hug my wife and touch Nino’s cheek with the back of my hand. Two
doctors enter, then three. I have a sinking feeling in my chest and a
constricting sensation in my throat. There is the smell of hand soap and
hospital, the sound of squeaky shoes on pearl-white floors and machines quietly
whirring. One of the doctors finally speaks: “He has a tumor.”
Hours later, we leave the hospital, knowing only that our
child has retinoblastoma—malignant cancer of the eye. Fear comes in waves; deep
sorrow comes in torrents. For weeks my heart is flooded with both. In my
classroom I teach that journal writing can be a life-saving practice; late one
night I find my journal in my bedside drawer and, in an attempt to make sense
of what was happening to my little boy, to my family, to me, I put pen to
Nino has cancer. Seeing it written down hurts my stomach.
Over the last three weeks of hospital visits and wrenching fears, it has become
unreal. Nino has cancer. Now it is real again. I will never again read Nino’s
favorite book, Frosty the Snowman, in the same way.
Illustration by Sydney Smith
What Makes Us Free? (January 2014)
Shambhala Sun | January 2014
What Makes Us Free?
Insight. Loving-kindness. Cultivating what’s wholesome. And
making them real in our lives every day. These are what make us free, say
Insight Meditation teachers JACK KORNFIELD and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, in a
conversation at California’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, moderated by MICHELLE LATVALA.
Q: One of the big differences between Buddhism in the East
and Buddhism in the West is that the majority of meditators here are lay
practitioners, as opposed to monastics. Can you give us some ideas about how
Western householders, with busy lives at home and at work, can still have a
deep and effective meditation practice?
Jack Kornfield: Particularly in the West, practice
can easily activate a kind of striving and ambition and self-judgment. So it’s
critical to add a lot of loving-kindness and compassion practice. As people
begin to sit, there’s a layer of self-judgment and self-criticism that needs to
be addressed with compassion, rather than more striving. That allows dharma
practice to deepen, because it’s only when attention is married to
loving-kindness that things begin to open up. When the two are together, a kind
of freedom quite naturally starts to happen. Otherwise, we’re still struggling
and judging the way things are.
Joseph Goldstein: It is important to take some time
occasionally to reflect on what our highest aspirations are. It’s helpful to do
that because we come to the practice for many different reasons, and often
these change as we deepen our understanding.
If we have a clear understanding of what our highest
aspirations are, then it is clearer what we have to do to get there. If our
aspiration is just to calm down a little bit and have less stress in our lives,
that’s one thing, and we can do the appropriate practices. But if our
aspiration is to get enlightened, that’s another kettle of fish, and we need to
deeply consider what that means.
Assuming we aspire to get enlightened, there are a couple of
simple things that can keep us on the glide path of awakening. These are practical
things we can do amid the busyness and distractedness in our lives today. One
thing that’s so helpful is a daily sitting practice. We need some time each day
when we quiet down and actively train our mind in awareness and mindfulness. We
need to arrange our day around that, because it’s so easy for it to get
The other thing that can really transform the quality of
practice in our lives is understanding and practicing wise speech. We speak a
lot in our daily lives, but how many of us pay attention to the motivation for
our words before we speak? Probably not that many! We’re in conversation,
whether it’s at work or with friends and family, and the words just tumble out.
Sometimes they’re motivated by wholesome, loving qualities, and sometimes not.
My favorite Pali word is samphappalapa. It means
exactly what it sounds like—useless talk. I love the practice of watching my
mind about to samphappalapa, because the tendency is so strong to speak
for the sake of speaking. That has no value, no purpose. By seeing that “about
to,” you can then think, “No, I don’t have to do that.” It’s amazing how free
we feel in that moment of restraint.
Speech is such a huge part of our daily experience, and
often its motive is to cause divisiveness or harm to others. So to practice
right speech, we need to pay attention to our motives. That’s not easy. There
are very few of us—if any—who have perfectly pure motivation. So when we look
at our motivation, it takes a lot of clarity and honesty, sometimes even courage.
But if we are willing to be open and honest about the mix of motivations behind
our speech and our actions, then we can choose the motives which are most
wholesome and act from those, and let the others go.
Dad's Happiness (January 2014)
Shambhala Sun | January 2014
In her widowed father’s pale, hopeful face, ANN NICHOLS
saw that everything her mother had fallen for in a Cambridge apartment fifty
years earlier was still alive in him. Why should he be limited to a life
without the possibility of romance?
Ten years ago my
mother developed congestive heart failure and eventually required a kidney
transplant. Although she struggled to maintain their schedule of social events,
travel, and post-retirement wish fulfillment, she eventually gave in to a slow
invalid life that infuriated her on a daily basis. My father assumed the role
of caretaker, taking her to medical appointments and sleeping in hard plastic
hospital chairs. Through his own Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and radiation, he
sorted her pills and tried to cook things that would tempt her flagging
Last October, she
died. We were all there—my brother and I on either side of her and my father
stroking her thin, white hair. As her breaths grew slower, I practiced the
Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen, taking in her suffering and
sending her peace and love. I knew that as the waves of her pain receded, mine
were rushing in.
Although I’d never
worried about being the child of divorce, I had fretted since childhood about
losing my parents to death. And losing my mother was in every way as hard as I
feared it would be. It was, it seemed, an end to everything that had been my
Within a month of
my mother’s death, my father had a recurrence of cancer and a third surgery.
There were complications, and for three months he could neither speak nor
swallow. After ten days in the hospital, he was sent home with a tube in his
stomach through which he was to consume highly caloric, almond-scented liquid.
The tremors in his hands and his general weakness made it impossible for him to
feed himself. He could not pour the formula neatly into the 60cc syringe; he
could not grind up his medications and mix them with the formula. I moved back
to my childhood home and became his live-in nurse.
For those months we
existed in a gentle, routine-bound cocoon. Physical therapists, speech
therapists, nurses, and the occasional visitor came and went, but mostly it was
just the two of us. I missed my own house, my husband, my son, and my dogs, but
it was healing to be in that house as I tested the depths of my grief. Every four
hours I fed my father, and between feedings I cleaned out my mother’s closet,
her drawers, and her office. I wore her slippers, used her lip balm, and slept
in one of her sweaters. I meditated daily: observe the pain, let it be, let it
One night after the
11 p.m. feeding, my father noticed that I’d been crying. “Do you want to talk
about your mother?” he asked, as I coiled up the protruding plastic tubing and
cinched it with Velcro. “I’m afraid I haven’t been very good about that.”
I shook my head and
kissed his forehead. “No,” I said. “I talk to her all the time.”
He nodded, and I
left him to drift into Percocet sleep.
Sometime in the
final month of my nursing stint, my father mentioned a woman he’d met in the
Illustration (detail) by Tara Hardy
Poem of Silence (January 2014)
Shambhala Sun | January 2014
Poem of Silence
With just seventeen syllables, the essence of haiku is
what isn’t said. MARY ROSE O'REILLEY on reciting Basho to the Northern forest.
Last winter I lived on an island in Puget Sound. My bedroom
window faced one of those green, fecund forests of the Pacific Northwest from
which it seems anything can emerge: a mule deer, a dinosaur, an angel, an idea
about what one’s next step in life might be. I hoped for the latter.
Before I left for this retreat, my friends and I strategized
about staying in touch. We have so many ways to do this nowadays—clutching our
wee-pods and me-pods, over-stimulated and overloaded—that it’s easy to lose
someone forever. My friend Katherine didn’t want to telephone or write letters,
as she was struggling with a deep grief that resisted sentences.
“Let’s just send haiku postcards to each other now and
then,” she said. So we did. Carried away with enthusiasm, I decided to write a
haiku every morning, to mark the path of my life on the island.
Nothing in my apprenticeship to poetry had taught me how to
work in this disciplined Japanese form, which is good, because I would have
learned how to obsess over syllable counting or some pseudo-Zen effect. There
was, however, one poem by Basho, the seventeenth-century master of the form,
which I knew by heart in Japanese, because I’d memorized it long ago to greet a
guest from Kyoto:
furu ike ya
mizu no oto
My Japanese guest had responded to my effort with stunned
incomprehension before he doubled over laughing.
True Listening (January 2014)
Shambhala Sun | January 2014
The receptive state of listening is a kind of auditory
meditation, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. It is an important way to gain wisdom and insight. But it’s not easy.
It is said that when the Buddha first taught, two deer
approached, knelt down, and raised their ears. The two deer symbolize
the act of listening, a sublime way of being present in the moment. Their
perked-up ears represent keen attentiveness, their kneeling bodies relaxation
and respect. The receptive state of listening is an important way to gain
wisdom and insight. It is auditory meditation.
True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop.
In this era of technological expertise and emotional unavailability, all too
often there is more speaking than listening. We are not really conversing but
merely exchanging rhetoric.
For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must
both play leading roles. Conversation is a dance and play between two
interlocking human minds, which naturally creates harmony. Therefore, having a
good conversation is an art that benefits oneself and others.
In the art of conversation, two people are equal partners.
When one is speaking, one is more active; when one is listening, one is more
receptive. A conversation where someone is speaking but no one is listening
fosters disharmony—within the conversation and within the relationship. Thus,
in order for the conversation to be healthy and productive and to grow, both
participants need to take turns listening.
One reason we have conversations is that often we just need
someone to hear what we have to say. However, in a world where we are
constantly encouraged to indulge and gratify our own desires, it can be
difficult to find someone to listen, because that means focusing on the other
person rather than oneself. Unfortunately, we are creating a culture in which
everyone is expressing themselves but no one is listening.
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