self-forgiveness

The Prodigal Son

By Mark LeMay I came late to parenting. I was 40 when Joe was born and 43 when Sammy arrived. They are now six and three years old, and I am still amazed at how they changed my life. I am especially struck by the sheer challenge of parenting. When Joe was an infant, his nighttime nickname was Buddha: he was always awake. Now it seems we have two live-in Zen masters. They are ingenious at disrupting the first sign of complacency in us.

During our six years as parents, we have moved closer to Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness. We strive to bring mindfulness to our family life and were very pleased to discover Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Everyday Blessings. We are committed to parenting as spiritual practice, and look for ways to gently introduce our children to the path. For example, they take turns as bellmaster before meals, and we recite a mealtime gatha together. We also encourage them to sound the bell when things get a little out of control. We all take three breaths and, with or without giggling from the boys, try to remember our commitment to family harmony.

We feel it is also important that our children know something of Christianity, the root tradition of both their parents. We have attended a fairly liberal Episcopal church where the boys went to Bible school. For a year or so, Joe thought of Jesus and Buddha as ancient superheroes, like Superman and Batman. This church, with its friendly priests and warm congregation, helped heal many of my old Catholic School wounds. In particular, I remember a visit from a retired bishop who talked about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). He focused on the story as a model of God's love for all his children, and of God's willingness to accept us back into the church, even when we have fallen away.

The Prodigal Son, like many Bible stories, has always been difficult for me to grasp, and even harder to live. But since I was studying and practicing mindfulness when the bishop came, I started to see the parable in a different light. It became particularly useful to see each of the three characters as parts of myself.

In the parable, the prodigal son convinced his father to divide his estate and give him his inheritance. He then journeyed "into a far country, and wasted his substance with riotous living." After he squandered his inheritance, a famine arose, "and he began to be in want." He went to work for a farmer, feeding his swine and eating the husks that the swine left. He suddenly realized that his father's hired hands lived better than he did. He decided to go home and ask his father to "make me as one of thy hired servants." But when he returned, the prodigal son was overcome with guilt, and said to his father, "I am no more worthy to be called thy son."

In relation to my practice, I am the prodigal son when I live in forgetfulness and self-centeredness. When I hurry my children through our morning routine or allow irritation to creep into my voice because I am attached to my agenda, I waste the precious gift of life in the present moment. When I come back to my breath, I seek the peace of mindfulness, but often I experience the guilt of the prodigal son for having strayed and causing others to suffer.

When the prodigal son returned, the father told the servants to bring his best robe for the son and to  kill the fatted calf: "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The father accepts his son with loving-kindness and rejoices at his return. He greets the prodigal son warmly and rejoices at his return. The father's response is a model for how I can treat myself when I stray from the path of mindfulness.

The third character, the elder son, remained faithful to his father while his younger brother squandered his inheritance. Upon hearing the celebration for his brother, he "was angry and would not go in. His father came out, and entreated him: 'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.'" The story does not explore the elder son's feelings, aside from his anger. I can easily imagine him also feeling resentful, wounded, and suspicious. These feelings are familiar, for I have held them toward others and towards myself. When I wake up to the suffering caused when I stray from mindfulness, I feel critical and suspicious of myself. When I have strayed from my goal of mindful parenting, I sometimes feel the sting of shame as I take a deep breath and re-attune to my children. I feel both the guilt of the prodigal son, and the angry suspicion of the elder brother toward myself.

Each time I catch myself living in forgetfulness  and feel the prodigal son and his brother in my heart, I try to remember the father. The father does not reject his younger son for having strayed, but rejoices  at his return. The father also does not rebuke the elder son for his anger and resentment, but invites him to join the celebration. I try not to cling to or repress my shame and anger. I notice these feelings and return to my breath. My feelings cannot be removed with aggression. I recognize them as part of the fold, and each time I return to the path, I say to myself (paraphrasing Thay),"I have arrived; welcome home."

Mark LeMay lives in Jefferson City, Tennessee, practices with the Thirty Good Leaves Sangha, and teaches parenting at a community mental health center, where he and his wife are psychologists.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002

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Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!

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I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.” – Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.

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Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”

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He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster mb63-ThereIs1

“The love of the Buddha is possible.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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