August arrived, and with something like celestial clockwork the crickets began their nightly ritual, and the morning breezes sent a flurry of yellow leaves floating like delicate ornaments to rest on the grass. Now it’s September, and I have a friend who threatens to arm herself with a glue gun and paste each leaf back onto its tree. She’s not one to be rushed into change; nor am I. However, sometimes life and nature have their own course to take. Well, maybe more than sometimes.
When my mother passed away this past May spring rolled seamlessly into summer, but for me my mother’s passing eclipsed that of the seasons. I’m wondering how it’s possible that summer is ending when, in my experience, it has barely begun. But change is constant; everyone knows this to be true. Some changes are subtle and welcome. Others come wielding a pickaxe, striking a deep, gashing line in the sand. They taunt you and dare you to cross while you stand motionless, waiting for some hint of confidence to coax you past your grief or doubts (or both) into your next steps.
Transitions — the phase within change that marks the time that falls between when something has ended and when something new begins — are like the “between states” known to Buddhists as the bardos: the intermediate states between death and rebirth. From this perspective, death is viewed as the beginning of life. One life has ended and the bardos mark the beginning for what will follow. It is said that one’s experience in the bardos will depend greatly on the quality of the most habitually maintained states of mind held prior to death. Whether it’s anger, anxiety, jealousy, greed, joy, or compassion, it will actively appear in the bardo experience. So, using the concept of the bardo experience to help reflect on the transitory nature of life, we can see that essentially every moment and every breath is a bardo experience that leads from one moment or breath into the next. During the more dramatic lines-in-the-sand transitions, our habitually maintained states of mind are made obvious; they’ll dominate the way we move through the unavoidable period of uncertainty. If one’s habitual mental state is negative, such as that of anxiety or anger, it will lead to more negativity. You can’t flip a switch and simply decide not to feel anxious or angry; it’s only by getting “under” those negative mental states to understand their root cause that will help you to effectively defuse them. This defusing is one of the resulting benefits of mindfulness meditation, or the training of awareness. This short video (5:17) of Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking about mindfulness offers a good introduction to what mindfulness is about.
The experience of transition feels dark, unclear, uncertain and often lonely, but because of these attributes, it is also very fertile. Think about how you approach a creative endeavor: you might close your eyes, and entering darkness you direct your attention inward because you know instinctively that in this solitude you can access your inner muse. All of life is a creative experience and the opportunity each transition offers is to connect with that inner muse, to observe the materials at hand, evaluate what’s needed and what can be discarded, and to begin shaping the “what’s next.” I think we make a mistake when our focus is too heavily weighted on career and income because this unbalanced focus can cause our vision to myopically exclude the more subtle mechanisms that provide the actual breath — and breadth — to our lives.
So yes, something changed in my life when my mother died. However, at the age of ninety, she lived a very long life, and her passing was in perfect rhythm with the pulse of the seasons. No matter how much I wish summer were a little longer, or that my mom could still answer the phone if I called, I can’t stop the world’s turning, nor would I want to.
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