By Carole Baker
The day I arrived in New Hamlet, I started to cry, and I didn't stop for two weeks. I'm a pretty stable person, no astronomical highs, no bottomless lows, and the last one in the room to panic. I had no idea why I was crying, as I didn't feel sad; and, after several days of waterworks, I became embarrassed by my behavior. But I couldn't stop the tears, so I let them flow. Sometimes I spoke through my tears, hoping the other people would bear my words.
I felt as if I were among family, as if l had been in New Hamlet all of my life. I felt comfortable, loved, and safe. I had never meditated before. Sitting on a cushion was new to me. So, when Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) described in his Dharma talks to the children how to do pebble meditation, I took their lesson for my own. During walking meditation, I gathered pebbles on the path and put them in a small cloth bag and used them to support the lessons he was teaching about compassion and solidity.
One day, Thay explained how to do what he called Stair Step Meditation. It was a way to practice transforming what he called habit energy. He said each of us inherits the habits of our ancestors. Our grandfather may have been lonely; our great-grandmother may have lived in pain; an ancestor may have lived a violent, hate-filled, embattled life. All of the actions, emotions, and conditions of each of our ancestors down through history are passed to each of us. It is our responsibility and our joy to conduct our lives in such a way as to relieve the negative aspects of our inherited habit energy and to enjoy and pass on to our children the positive aspects of their ancestors' character and experiences.
Thay described Stair Step Meditation as he teaches everything, clearly and simply. He said, if you want to cease the pain of your ancestors and reverse the effect of their negative actions, just find a staircase. Decide which ancestor you wish to connect with. Put one foot on the first step, as you breathe in say, "Father, I am here for you." (You can substitute the name of whichever ancestor you choose.) When you breathe out, lift the other foot and place it on the next step. Say, "Father, I am here for you." That's it. That's all you do. Breathe in, step; breathe out, step.
I thought about the people in my family who needed relief from pain and suffering. My folks were all working people, pioneers. My mother's side of the family came from the British Isles and settled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Ididn't know my grandparents. My people were woodsmen, lumberjacks. My mother was the first in her family to gain a high school education. There were hard times, hard work, little food, much suffering. People had to be tough to survive. I come from good stock, a long line of stoic fatalists. You take your lot in life, and you do the best you can with it. What's the use of crying?
I chose to walk the stairs with my mother, Martha Holland Baker. Mom had a difficult life and in retrospect, I don't think she was very happy, just dutiful. Mom and I never had any big conflicts, but we certainly were products of different eras. The first few days, because of the deep emotion of saying directly to my dead mother, "Mom, I'm here for you," every step up, and down, the eighteen steps to my second floor room, I bawled!
Each day when I walked the eighteen stairs, it was just Mom and me. I found some reassurance in the routine of it. Before I reached the stairs I stopped and took a few slow, soft breaths to get ready for Stair Step Meditation. Regardless of my emotions, I made a clear effort to devote those stairs to that special meditation.
Stair Step Meditation converged with Touching the Earth meditation, led by Sister Chan Khong. This day, as I walked slowly towards the meditation hall with a group of nuns, I said to Sister Eleni, "I really don't want to go to this meditation." She asked, "Why not?" I said, "I don't know." She said, "Well, just go ahead and try it." So, I entered the meditation hall, bowed, and placed my mats for the meditation. As Sister Chan Khong led us through total relaxation and Touching the Earth, at one point all of my emotion welled up in my chest. I was encouraged to let all of the suffering of my ancestors flow into the earth. I felt an enormous release as profound sorrow and pain really did seem to flow into the earth. I think I went to sleep.
Walking slowly from the meditation hall to the farmhouse, suddenly, my mother's voice stopped me. She said, "Hello, Carole. I am here for you. Thank you for walking with me and healing my pain." I stopped still on the gravel path, causing a number of people to adjust their walking meditation, stood and declared, "Oh, these are your tears!" My mom said, "Yes, it's me.”
After lunch, I approached the eighteen stairs with my usual preparatory stopping. My mother took my hand! And she said, "Come walk with me; this is why you are here." I walked the eighteen stairs with my mom beside me. Happiness overtook my initial nervousness. It was such a happy thing to be walking, hand in hand with my mother in complete spiritual communication, up and down those ordinary stairs. After a few days, my entire affect changed. My emotions began to settle and I began feeling the deep joy and satisfaction of helping my mother to heal her sorrows. My roommate, Kim Nguyen, said I blossomed and became a flower.
One day I felt lazy and thought I would skip Dharma discussion and have a nap. As I climbed the stairs to my room, in her own voice and phrasing, my mom said, "You'd better get to that Dharma discussion!" I laughed and mentally replied, "You can be a pain sometimes," but I obeyed as when she was alive. I turned around and went down to the discussion group. We laughed together then, and many times since. Now, I feel my mother is always with me, and she is happy.
Carole Baker; Healing Joy of the Heart, sits with her black kitty, M.B., curled up at her feet. His purring helps to keep her in the present moment.