“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

Ursula Le Guin

Loving What Can’t Be Solved

I was recently talking to a woman whose husband’s mental faculties were in decline. They are both older. They’ve lived great lives, full of love and success. They’re capable and have overcome the majority of the problems that life has thrown at them. But Alzheimer’s is different. It can’t really be solved for, and worse still, it’s a sign that the end is near. The life expectancy of someone with it is about 9 years (usually between 3 and 20 years.)

We cherish our capacity to solve problems.

We can sit with her in the circle or one on one, but we can’t fix it. This is frustrating because we cherish our ability to solve problems. We’ve solved so many in the past. We’re smart and well educated. Just the fact that we can log onto a computer and read this article proves our brilliance. (not to mention that choosing to read this article betrays a certain wisdom ;)) We love that chemical cocktail our body produces when we solve and succeed. We might be addicted to it. It’s hard to face something as intense as a degenerative disease, and be able to do nothing. It’s heart-wrenching, it challenges (or reinforces) our beliefs about our selves. We might end up with a pit in our stomach, or tension in our head and neck. The experience of powerlessness is overwhelming and fraught. It seems like it’s happening at once, a tornado, a hurricane, a tsunami of experience. Our house is burning down.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The way I was taught it, there are basically four arenas for experience. Everything that happens to us pretty much falls into these four categories; body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and the outside world. At any given time, we’re having a variety of these four types of experience. And they tend to get all tangled together, knots of threads. What’s worse, they don’t stand still, they are constantly in flux. So it’s confusing. So when a loved one is in trouble (outside world) Our stomach hurts (physical), we’re scared (emotions), and we think that someone else would handle it better and we’re not good enough (thoughts). And then we just round this experience up to ‘freaking out’, or ‘i need a drink’. And that’s just one snapshot of one moment. the fear so easily flows into anger and then into guilt and then into shame, ad infinitum. It’s no wonder that the mystics related our emotional life to the water element. They also say that what we experience as ourselves is simply a constant flux of these experiences (perhaps oversimplifying) and that we don’t actually have any solid coherence. In moments like these, it’s easy to get a glimpse of this, we get so upset that we don’t know who we are anymore, we just know we’re hurting.

Physical Sensations

Thoughts

Emotions

The Outside World

Untangling

The practice, then, is to untangle the threads. We’ve been trained to justify our emotions. We’ve been trained to make meaning from life events that don’t inherently have any. In other words, we’re trained to tangle. Instead of trying to fix sad, or explain away sad, or justify day, let’s just see what sad is all about, all on its own. It’s interesting enough on its own, without having to add anything to it. Same for our thoughts. How fascinating are they, when given refuge from the objective world. Giving up the illusion of rationality only draws us into the actual functioning of our mind. The process is endlessly weird and defies all attempts at finding completion or resolution.

 

Sometimes, it takes two to untangle

Love is the only Resolution

We know this whirlwind all too well. It happens in stressful times, and it can even happen in our journey work. When we start to become intimate with any one of these four areas of experience, we see that it’s not all rainbows.  We’ve got some nice moments, for sure, but there is physical and emotional pain, negative thoughts, and sometimes it’s just too cold out. We start to notice that we’re in a constant battle, to try to only have good stuff happen.  We betray our values and bury our heads for just the slightest bit of relief from pain. But they keep coming back. Loneliness, unlovability, hopelessness. Financial stuff, health stuff, old age, death. It’s not the only thing that’s there, but it is pretty close to ever present. It can spiral us into madness at a moment’s notice, and if we think our way out of the problem, or brute force it away, we’ll find a way to distract ourselves. 

But if we actually want to heal it, only one thing makes sense. The only sensible action in the face of all this suffering is to generate love and care. Compassion is all we’ve got. When I talk to people about this, they often brush it off, saying, ‘yeah yeah, I know. Love, compassion, self care’.  But they don’t actually do do it.  We haven’t been taught to do it.  Even if we’ve been taught to meditate, often we’ve only been instructed to try to ‘quiet the mind’ or ‘still the thoughts’, or some other variation of a practice that often isn’t that helpful. Rarely does the instruction take the form of ‘sit and breathe and see how much love you can generate for yourself and everyone you know and the whole world.’  Can you imagine if that was the go-to meditation instruction?  I’m not sure why the ‘quiet the mind’ trope took off with such popularity.  I can only guess that trying to do this makes people feel miserable, and like they aren’t good enough, and that people are conditioned to be miserable and feel like they aren’t good enough, so it’s a match. Stop doing that! Instead of being a neurotic thought watching machine, become an overflowing love generation machine.  Become a source of love.

Compassion as a doorway

I’m aware that the instruction ‘become a source of love’ is a tad vague. How do we do that, especially in the face of such sorrow? Hopefully the sorrow is the inspiration. Compassion is the best response to suffering. We sit, and perhaps we gaze at a picture of something or someone we love. Perhaps we remember a time that we felt full of love, and remember how that felt, using all of our senses. We do what it takes to light that little fire inside of us, and then we nurture it. We commit to it. Author Ursula Le Guin reminds us, “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

The Inner Florence Nightengale Practice

I wrote a blog about self healing with meditation last year on my other website. I named the practice ‘The Inner Florence Nightengale. It’s got a step my step practice that is mighty clear. If you want, you can check it out. It works pretty well in getting us to find compassion for our wounded places.
The Inner Florence Nightengale Practice

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