By Adele Macy Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Thay's words seem so simple. At times, reading such simple words, I find myself searching for some extraordinary revelation. This intellectual hunger usually crops up when I feel overwhelmed by life's responsibilities and emotional demands. Then, I enjoy retreating to my room to ponder the riddles of the masters or read a good novel. I find great value in studying the Dharma, not being content with the comfortable grooves in my mind that think the ordinary is nothing extraordinary. Times of quiet study are like an in-breath before the out-breath of busy activity. These days, I have no books or poetry to protect me from the reality of having my critically-ill brother living with me. Charlie is suffering from every kind of lung disease imaginable plus several other serious and very painful ailments. I have had to put away my books and my "best laid plans," and practice deep listening and compassion for a person whose every shallow breath is a challenge. Charlie has been pumped full of steroids for years just to stay alive. He is now at a stage where he is ready to let go, but doesn't quite know how.
Charlie enjoys simple things, like watching me cook my exotic dishes and especially eating them. He laughs, watching out the window as our very determined basset hound pulls me down the street on our daily walk. He loves laughter and has a beautiful laugh that's rich and wholesome. Many days, Charlie forces himself to laugh; he knows it's better than any medicine. He grieves the loss of his 14-year companion, Lena, who recently died of lung cancer and the quick passage of their short journey together, spent hard and fast.
Recently, I took Charlie up the Blue Ridge Parkway-a glorious stretch of road winding through the North Carolina mountains. Charlie could not enjoy it, though he tried. His vision is going, and he couldn't see the beautiful fall colors covering the mountains. Everything is a blur to him. On the way home, he broke down sobbing and told me that he felt like a mountain was sitting on top of him. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. I can do the first part, but when I'm with Charlie, sometimes the smiling is difficult. I can breathe deeply, aware of the transforming effect, the peaceful joy of this body that lives, this blood that courses with the rhythm of all things. Why must my brother be deprived of this essential gift? How can he find this peace?
A couple of weeks ago I went on my monthly retreat in the mountains. I woke at 6:30, not wanting to waste a moment of this precious time. I had only one day before returning home to Charlie, who can't walk five feet without having to sit down and rest. I kept busy all morning, building my fire, preparing breakfast, and straightening up. I reminded myself to stop and smell and listen and watch, but only for a minute because things weren't quite right for zazen.
My Christian background led me once to a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monastery cook. At times when the bell rang for prayers and chanting in the chapel, Brother Lawrence continued working in the kitchen. When asked why he didn't attend the sacred rituals, Brother Lawrence replied, "It makes no difference whether I am here cooking or in the chapel. God is present in all things at all times." That book was my first lesson in mindfulness. Thay, like Brother Lawrence, reminds me that awareness is a moment-by-moment process that nurtures deep joy and compassion. I remind myself that there is no preparation required for deep listening. Preparing my breakfast is deep listening.
If I put my ear to the ground, I can hear the earth's heart beating. The spaces between all things are breaths. The spaces between words, the coursing of the river, the whispering leaves moving to the great breath of the wind. All is air and movement and cells multiplying between breaths. Even the imaginary line I draw between myself and others is a breath.
My brother cannot breathe with ease, hike in the woods, or bend to the ground to listen to the earth's heart beating. If I breathe mindfully when I'm with him, maybe I'll hear the river moving in his labored lungs. Maybe if we both listen, old Grandfather Tree, our childhood friend, will remind us that even the slow-running sap of the old, tired tree nourishes the leaves that feed the soil that catches the rain that fills the liver that rests in a pool where a child drinks. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Such profound wisdom in those simple words.
Adele Macy, Liberation of the Source, works with elderly people and practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina.