Thursday, December 3, 2009

Insomnia and tonglen

When I need it most, meditation seems impossible. So very far from me.

It isn't simply about quieting my brain, it is about quieting the cellular terror of silence and being alone. I fidget in a way that feels like physical pain. Since simply sitting has seemed absolutely impossible, I have been listening to Pema Chodron's Good Medicine, which is subtitled "How to Turn Pain into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation." It is amazing, truly, and yet last night, five minutes into the meditation, I couldn't do it. It overwhelmed me, and tears fell thinking about the my father and his suffering. About mothers who have lost their babies too.About illness and suffering. Fires and tragedy. About all that could go wrong this month. My guilt over my good life, my warm house, my health (ha!), my marriage, my beautiful, clever daughter...I grabbed my belly pillows and headed down to the couch to find something to divert my attention. Anything but thinking about the possibilities of what could be in our life right now. I turned on the television to Truth Be Told, which featured mothers of children with special needs. Not. At. All. Helpful.

Some nights, I wish I could open the roof of my house. I watch all our fears blow into the night, the cold rains of December baptizing our home, cleansing our dark sadness. A winter purgation.

I feel silenced right now, unable to talk about all that is going on in our home, because of loyalty. Because of fear that speaking my worst nightmare will make it true. Waiting for our amnio results are only one part of our stresses. That is enough. I miss finding solace in a place, in ceremony, in saying my fears and giving them to the Other to mind. I feel in touch with the divine through the profane act of respecting its place as separate from our lives, yet I miss the smell of incense. I miss the repetition of prayers and movements that allow my brain to go into auto-pilot as I feel the collective energy of hundreds of years of ritual.

One part of Good Medicine that stuck with me as I headed to the couch reminded me of touching that energy through cultivating tonglen thinking in one's life around both pleasure and pain. When things are painful and difficult, the quality of difficulty should remind us to have the thought, "Other people feel this." Isolation in our pain and the loneliness of our burden reminds us of our shared humanity. "This," Pema says, "is what heals the darkness and desperation we feel." Even if the sentiment of "Other people feel this" isn't a genuine feeling at first, it shakes up your complacency, she says. The tonglen thought can go further when you are ready. When you have the discomfort, just think the sentiment, "Other people feel this." And then furthering the thought, "May we all be free of this." And when that feels comfortable and you are ready to move even further still, "Since I am feeling this already, let me feel it for everyone, so that they may all feel free of this."

And as I listened to her lecture, I was strongly reminded of this community of grieving women who in their darkest moment visit other grieving mother's blogs and share their pain. Who say, "Abiding with you in this moment of darkness." Or who send emails that say, "I share that ugly thought you are having. I am sad too. I am jealous too. I feel isolated too. I feel like the only woman to experience this loss too."

Still, as I lay in the dark in awe of the beauty of this sentiment, embracing the truth of what she said, I turned off the lecture and avoided thinking about other people's pain. It was too overwhelming, too intimidating to think about taking on more suffering. To be honest, when I think of suffering, I think of my father. Though our little family has faced many hardships and much suffering this year, I still remain guilt-ridden, sad, and overwhelmed with thoughts of my father. It beats up all the other stresses, perhaps because it has resided in me longest, it is the strongest anxiety. A jealous possessive anxiety. I still have these haunting thoughts that I should be taking care of my father full-time, even though that would leave not five minutes of attention for my Beatrice. So, in the midst of all these big anxieties, my heart and brain still rests on the guilt of the last twenty years. Is it the devil that I know? It is so overwhelming that I literally cannot lie still. I would run if I were a runner. I would take drugs if I were a drug addict. I would knit a blanket to cover the house if I knitted. But I am a lazy ass, so I watch mindless television. And try to remind myself that it is one fucking step at a time. I cannot bend time to my will. I cannot fast forward through the discomfort. I must simply move through my grief and pain and anxiety, moment by moment, until it becomes bearable. And it will become bearable. Other people feel this too. Other people survive this too. Perhaps that is its own meditation.


  1. I was about to write a long comment, but shall send you an email instead.

    You are that person for me, the person who I can email and say 'here are my ugly thoughts'. Thank you. x

  2. I always thought it about in terms of plateaus; that is to say, I need to get through this and reach the next plateau and then I'll be ok (even if just for a while). It's the waiting to know where exactly your plateau will be that's excruciating, and maybe knowing people are feeling *that* particular stress (not the stress of bad news per se, but just), the stress of being in an endless purgatory can be comforting in and of itself.

    Or maybe not. That's why god created ESPN and the food network.

  3. other people feel this. other people feel this. other people feel this.

    I think the inability to accept and understand that as true is what has finally made me seek some counsel. I've been more and more aware of the cross I am carrying on my back for all to see lately - and I cannot stand that. Other People Feel This. This is the thing I have to remember and acknowledge and use to create a little more compassion in my soul for all non-DBMs.

    Pema Chodron is now awaiting me at the library. Again, thank you Angie.

    I wish you could peel off your roof and push away your heaviness too. The rain is warm today. It might be a good day.

    I am so sorry these days are so heavy and so long (and so windy!)

    Wishing time would move just a little faster towards good resolutions for all of your thoughts.



  4. The best comfort for me is that God Himself felt this. He lost a Son, too.

  5. Just thinking of you and wishing with you that all your fears could vanish into the December night.

  6. Oh Angie... I can relate to what you say and feel so much. We do feel it. We share your pain. We listen. We love and support you.


  7. all the suffering is so overwhelming...and my mind is so busy and loud as well when i try to meditate. and i too become a lazy ass. desperate housewives my new drug. at sunset the other night, i saw a man about to set up to sleep outside where i walk at the marina and i just felt so sad and cold for him. so much suffering in the world. we need each other. we are here for each other. feeling the same feelings and suffering side by side. i think i should listen to pema chodron's teachings too.

    sending love to you and your little family and your dad too

  8. I wish that the rain could purge all the fear from your house Angie.

    It is difficult for me to keep that thought in the forefront of my mind, in my line of sight. Other people feel this too. They have. They do. They will.

    Thinking of you. xo

  9. I love Pema Chodron. I love the tonglen meditation. Keep doing it, keep it up! I can't meditate when I am anxious, when you are anxious, I would try to just focus on breath. Whenever a thought comes up label it, and go back your breath. That has helped me in the past. I also wanted to thank you for looking at my blog. I really did not think anyone would, but it was very kind of you. Wishing and hoping for a healthy pregnancy and delivery for your new little one. remember that pain and suffering has touched all of us and that we must breathe out love and compassion. Kristin Buchanan

  10. I have also felt completely overwhelmed at the pain and suffering of others recently. People I don't know, people in the news, random tragedies, they've all had me weeping. It would be so much fucking easier if my dwelling on those tragedies would take away someone else's pain, but that seems impossible to me. I'm sorry to hear that things are so very tough at home. You're in my thoughts every day. Hang in there.

  11. Did you ever read "Like Water For Chocolate"? There's a part where Tita, the main character, can't get rid of the cold inside her so she knits and knits until she has made a blanket to cover her and her whole house. I wish I could knit one for you, Sam, Bea,Lucy, and this new little one.

    I get so much of what you're feeling now- and I would hold every last bit of it for you if I could. Love you, Ang.

  12. How I wish I could tear the roof off and watch the fears blow away. Wishing you peace and calm in this difficult month. xo

  13. I can so relate to the pain, the anxiety, the guilt. I was just telling my husband this evening that I'd love to take something to knock me out for a couple of days. Maybe I'll try some Chodron instead.

  14. Most people have the occasional night of disturbed sleep. Insomnia is a feeling of not being able to get enough sleep. It’s usually related to finding it hard to get to sleep, waking up without having had enough sleep or not feeling refreshed after sleep. One in four people are thought to suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep longs enough to get a proper night’s sleep. This can make you feel permanently tired.

  15. True, other people feel this, too. Good Mantra. You are not alone - Hang in there. Feeling for you and sending all my best wishes! xoxo

  16. Looking for those mile markers, making your way past one and then the next, getting so close to reaching it and having those feelings of accomplishment and then passing it by and knowing you have to start all over to get to the next one, you sometimes forget how far you have come, how many miles you have traveled and instead become overwhelmed by the sheer endlessness of it. I know that was how I felt, especially when having to wait to hear news.
    Just know, as you obviously do, that we are here, always walking with you, always cheering for you and if need be, ready to lift you up and carry you for a spell.

  17. hi angie. thank you for sharing about the tonglen meditation. i have been chewing on that for a few days.

    regarding your meditations, i wanted to say: please don't be too tough on yourself. meditating on the death of your child, on your fears for the life your child... that is totally black belt level meditation. even great masters crack under that pressure. no wonder you turned on the tv.

    and i think crappy tv can be helpful. also brownies. i think whatever feels reasonably good and caring and can pull you through the few weeks and months is good. thinking of you very much and hoping some peace finds its way to your house these days. xo


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