Brain-Picking Becky #15: The Best, the Worst, Here.

Do You Ever Think.jpg

I’ve always held myself to impossibly high standards, standards that I don’t expect from other people. In fact, if someone else makes a mistake, I’m often the first to empathize and offer my support. But when it comes to me, well, I’m supposed to be perfect. Don’t my family, my friends, my students, the world, deserve the best from me?

In the first few months after my mom left her body, when I was so consumed by grief that everything else ceased to matter, I had a major revelation that “the best” doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct we’ve created that keeps us disconnected from our present reality. During this period of intense grief, I would sometimes think the best choice was to go out with my friends, but then the moment I arrived at the bar, it felt all wrong. Other times it seemed best to stay at home and read, but then I’d cry and feel lonely and wish I’d gone out. Then there were times when whatever I’d chosen, whether it had felt right or wrong in the moment of choosing it, was exactly what I’d needed.

Because “the best” had become so nebulous and easily changeable in my mind, it started to seem not only unreal but also silly. Besides, the grief I was constantly grappling with overpowered everything else and made the process of analyzing if I should have gone out or stayed home feel unimportant, a waste of time.

Humans, or Americans at least, seem to despise discomfort. Even a little bit of it. We’re constantly complaining about how cold or hot the air is, how hungry or full our bellies are. We can’t seem to find that perfect situation. But instead of seeing that it doesn’t exist, we get lost in searching for it and then feel angry or sad that we continually can’t find it.

Now, four and a half years after my mother’s passing, I feel stronger, tougher, and wiser, but I’ve also fallen back into old habits of expecting “the best” then feeling guilty when I don’t achieve it. In a weird way, I miss those few months right after she died. I don’t miss the pain, but I miss the clarity it gave me, how it temporarily freed me from these constructs that I – we – have created.

But I don’t need all-encompassing grief in order to free myself again from these thought patterns. All I have to do is breathe.


Amazing comic by Gemma Correll.

Human Waves

On this fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am struck by how often I find her in my day-to-day, by how alive she still is in so many ways. Yet I am also struck by how badly I wish she could have met my son. He has met her, through photographs, recipes, lullabies, records, but she never got to see his face, much less hold his precious little body, and this is the one big thing I still grieve.

But when we lose someone we love, there will always be that one big thing. As I meditate by this glorious ocean, two waves crash into one another directly in front of me, their waters flowing through each other until it’s impossible to tell where either one begins or ends. Seconds later they reverse direction and glide away, disappearing into the vastness of the great water behind them. I think of how my mom and my son are like two waves splashing together inside of me, their waters flowing through each other through me, how really all of us are like waves in the same great glorious human ocean, crashing and gliding and flowing through one another.

I Know This Is a Wonderful Moment

tnhI first came to Buddhism as a twenty-year-old when I lost everything I owned in a house fire (including my cat). A professor and mentor of mine introduced me to the book Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (pictured), and through reading, studying with my mentor, and developing my own meditative practice, I not only discovered ways to explore and grow from my pain and loss, but I also discovered that my anxiety and eating disorders were becoming manageable for the first time ever, even in the midst of this trauma.

I practiced regularly for a few years after that then trailed off as my work and academic life picked up. Every now and then I would sit to meditate and was surprised by how positive the effects were despite my inconsistency, but it was still difficult to find a routine. But then when my mom died, absolutely everything about my life was upended. It was like I’d suddenly and shockingly been teleported to another world, a sad, scary, dangerous world that seemed completely incongruous with the one I was physically living in. I had no idea what to do, but good ol’ Thich Nhat Hanh was there waiting for me.

Three years later, when I checked the news on my phone at 4 am on the morning of November 9th, 2016, I once again felt like I’d been teleported to a scary, dark, dangerous place that just didn’t match up with reality, a place in which women are not in charge of their own bodies and instead are told they exist to please men, a place in which good honest people who happen to have been born in the Middle East are threatened with violence, a place in which children can’t go to the doctor because their employed parents are too poor, a place in which the politicians in charge say that they and their rich friends can have anything they want, and can take more of it, while the rest of us must give and give and not have. But this time, I knew what to do: breathe.

peaceiseverystepIn the years since my mother passed away, I’ve embraced myself as a Buddhist and have regularly practiced meditation and mindfulness. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist or experienced in meditation in any way to utilize the gift of breathing. So, for those of you who can relate to the feelings I described above, I want to share a passage that I believe will help you stay centered, calm and focused, because we cannot resist if we give into fear and hatred. Stay strong, my friends, and breathe.

From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!

‘Breathing in, I calm my body.’ Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind. ‘Breathing out, I smile.’ You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself. ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am. ‘I know this is a wonderful moment.’ It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy— tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, ‘Calming, smiling, present moment, wonderful moment.'”