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For a recent Year to Live class, we were asked to bring five objects that represent the most meaningful aspects of our lives.  The task was to place these 5 things on a small altar in the classroom, where we could then explain them to our classmates.  (There’s a powerful twist to this exercise, but I’ll get to that later.)

In the days before our class, I found myself going through all of my possessions, clutching photos of friends and places, wishing the teacher had asked for 10 things instead of 5.  But being the ever-dutiful student, here’s what I came up with:

  • A photograph of my family — including my children, my parents, an aunt who is like a second mother to me, and my nieces and nephews.  It had been a perfect evening by the bay.  Everyone was healthy, and we were almost giddy about being together.
  • A photograph taken by my father-in-law of a lone apple tree which stands on their windswept property in upstate NY.  I love this gnarled tree.  The trunk is absolutely hollow, yet it supports the most incredible foliage and fruit season after season.  The photo represents a profound appreciation of nature, as well as resilience and abundance.
  • A piece of drift wood taken from the enormous message Dave left for me on the beach one morning years ago in drift wood, sea shells and pine cones:  “Barbara, will you marry me?”
  • A small clay Buddha made by one of my sons while we were on a family retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.  It symbolizes the gifts of contemplation, compassion and community that I’ve found through studying mindfulness.
  • A necklace made by desert women in North Africa.  It was given to me by a human rights activist I worked with who became a true friend.  A year ago she nearly died on a hunger strike, and I learned much about what it means to take a stand for what you believe in.  The necklace represents my work, which is fulfilling and gratifying (most of the time!) because of people like her.

On the evening of our class, we set up our small altars side by side.  I was blown away by the power of what everyone brought:  photos, baby clothing, journals, sheets of music, cherished jewelry, an onion, a note from a lover before she died.  All of it symbolizing the significance of our lives and the broader web that links us with the people and places around us.

Then came the twist. . . we were going to do a walking meditation around all of the altars, and each time we walked around we were to take one of someone else’s objects and put it under a cloth on the adjacent table.

Wait – did I hear that right?  We were going to take one of these life treasures away from someone?  And others were going to take away mine?  Yes – that was the exercise.

I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.  The objects themselves I can live without.  But what they represent, I cannot.  If the very idea of the exercise was that painful to me, how could I inflict it on others by gathering up their things?

So we began the walking.  And the taking.  And the being taken from.  First the photograph of the apple tree vanished.  On the next rotation, the drift wood was gone, then the necklace, then the Buddha.  I also picked up objects from others and placed them as carefully as I could under the cloth.  I could hear some of my classmates quieting tears.  Mainly, I was focused on the photo of my family.  I nearly pleaded, “OK – I get the point.  Let’s just stop the whole thing here.”  In the next rotation, the picture of my family was gone.  Then the very cloth that represented the altar was gone.  I was gone.

There may be an element of  ‘you just had to be there’ to this.  But I can tell you that the experience felt like death itself.  It shook me to my core, revealed all of my attachments, and demonstrated viscerally the lesson of impermanence.  Up until that moment, I thought I was handling all of this study of death pretty well.  Now I see that I had been holding it at arm’s length, dealing with it intellectually and in words.

There’s been much for me to reflect on as a result of that class, and the lessons don’t come easily to conclusion.  But in the meditation that immediately followed the disappearance of our altars, I felt inexplicably hopeful and light.  It was as if a source of great worry had been lifted.   I wasn’t at all sure what it meant, but it seemed like a net good and I’m going to go with that.

I’d love to hear what 5 objects are most meaningful to you…

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240 days remain

There should be a rule against writing about meditation retreats immediately after they’re over.

In those first hours and days post-retreat, it’s as if I’m experiencing the world through a fresh set of eyes.  The cosmos have aligned.  Nothing could be a problem.  It also smacks of a certain smugness.

Take my first retreat.   Right after it was over, I went to the parking lot with the kindly woman who offered to drive me to Albany.  One of her tires was completely flat and her battery was dead.  It took a couple hours to work that out. Then, worried about her flimsy spare, she proceeded to drive 40 mph on the interstate for 4 hours.  After that, we went the wrong way and ended up yet another hour behind my designated rendezvous with Dave.  All the while we smiled knowingly.  “Life as it is, not as you want it to be,” we kept quoting our teacher.

Ever since I returned from my latest retreat, I’ve been keeping a list of  great things I wanted to tell you.  Like how I went for walks in the woods behind the retreat center each morning and discovered a forest full of pink Lady’s Slippers – wild orchids so vulnerable that I’d only ever seen one once before in my life.  I was going to draw parallels to life and tell you how wonderful it all is.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are so many beautiful things to say about the time I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge.  But one week post-retreat, the story looks different.

I’ve been reminded of the truly hard stuff over and over again in the past few days.   A 24 year old man who had once worked at Dave’s office was shot to death in the middle of the afternoon on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant.   Someone dear to me is struggling to control Lupus.  A young mom in the neighborhood has been diagnosed with an advanced stage breast cancer.  A photo of our 5th grade class posted on Facebook caused an avalanche of childhood friends writing with memories of our classmate who died of a brain aneurysm, and of the friend’s parents who were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

As if these things weren’t enough of a reminder of death, I used my date night with Dave on Friday to explore a new exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures”at one of my favorite places in NY, the Rubin Museum of Art.   We spent an hour looking at ancient ritual objects made out of human bones and haunting depictions of charnel grounds.  The only thing I could think at the end was, “My god, my husband is really a trooper for agreeing to this macabre idea of a night out.

I’m doing all I can this week to soak it all in and watch the ever-changing flow of accompanying emotions without following any one of them down a fantastical Rabbit Hole.

To do this, I’ve blocked out a chunk of time – 45 minutes or so – each day to sit down on a cushion and just watch.  It’s so much harder at home than it is on retreat.  But this is the heart of mindfulness, the “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” kind of stuff as Jack Kornfield so aptly calls it.  He wrote in his book of that name:

We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart’s release.

Ordinary cycles of opening and closing are necessary medicine for our heart’s integration. In some cases, though, there are not just cycles, there is a crash. As far as we ascend, so far can we fall. This too needs to be included in our maps of spiritual life, honored as one more part of the great cycle.

If it’s the one thing I gleaned from the past two weeks, I’d say it’s a decent start.

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