Tuesday
Nov212006

My Best Friend

Everything changes—nothing remains the same, or turns out as we expected.

On October 2nd, my mother went to bed at her usual time. A little before 2 am, I heard her call me. When I saw her, it was clear that she had had a stroke. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital where the cause and severity of her stroke was discovered. On the 5th, my sister and I brought my mother home.

My mother’s stroke was major, and she had long ago indicated her final wishes to us. We told her why we had brought her home and she understood. She was at peace with our decision and trusted us to do what was best for her. From the time we brought her home, she did not complain but acted with dignity and grace, and even with flashes of her well-known humor.

Over her final few days, many of the good friends we had so recently made came to visit my mother. When awake, she would thank those who had come. She also joked with Louise and I, and with her visitors. Louise and I told her that we would be fine and thanked her for being such a wonderful mother.

On the 8th, a very kind monk I knew called me to see how she was. He gave me some very wise advice, which I considered and then I realized what might hold my mother back. I spoke with Louise and we then went to talk to our mother. We spoke to her for just a few minutes and then we both began to chant.

My mother was not a Buddhist and did not chant, but she had always been very happy with my decision to become a Buddhist nun. But after we spoke with her and began to quietly chant “Amituofo” for her, Louise and I both realized that Mom was moving her mouth. She was silently chanting with us!

Although her speech had been difficult to understand and her right side was immobilized, she was clearly chanting with us. Amazed, we looked back at her and watched as she chanted with us. Then, the next chant never came, and we realized she had quietly slipped away from us. And my best friend was gone.

May my mother, Evelyn Bolender,

be born into the Western Pure Land in her next rebirth

to forever leave suffering and confusion behind, and

to find lasting liberation and happiness.

Amituofo

Wednesday
Sep272006

Sometimes It Doesn't Matter

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In his book Opening The Door of Your Heart, Ajahn Bhram retells a wonderful story that was told by his teacher, Ajahn Chah.

"A newly married couple went for a walk together in a wood, one fine summer's evening after dinner. They were having such a wonderful time being together until they heard a sound in the distance: ‘Quack! Quack!’

‘Listen,’ said the wife, ‘That must be a chicken.’

‘No, no. That was a duck,’ said the husband.

‘No, I'm sure that was a chicken,’ she said.

‘Impossible. Chickens go “Cock-a-doodle-doo”, ducks go “Quack! Quack!” That’s a duck, darling,’ he said, with the first signs of irritation.

‘Quack! Quack!' it went again.

‘See! It's a duck,’ he said.

‘No dear. That's a chicken. I'm positive,’ she asserted, digging in her heels.

‘Listen wife! That ... is ... a ... duck. D-U-C-K, duck! Got it?’ he said angrily.

‘But it's a chicken,’ she protested.

‘It 's a blooming duck, you, you ...’

And it went ‘Quack! Quack!’ again before he said some­ thing he oughtn't.

The wife was almost in tears. ‘But it's a chicken.’

The husband saw the tears welling up in his wife's eyes and, at last, remembered why he had married her. His face softened and he said gently, ‘Sorry, darling. I think you must right. That is a chicken.’

‘Thank you, darling,’ she said and she squeezed his hand.

‘Quack! Quack!’ came the sound through the woods, as they continued their walk together in love."

It is so easy to get caught up in little discussions like this that we usually do not realize how inconsequential the discussion is. What does it really matter whether it is a chicken or a duck? But in the heat of a “discussion” we lose sight of this. We feel the need to set the other person straight. And we fail to notice that we are hurting the other person and destroying their happiness.

What joy is to be found in winning an argument when we have hurt a person we love, who we have promised to look after and to respect? What comfort is to be found in being right when we have contributed to another’s worry over making another mistake? When we have caused their fears to increase?

All this so we can be right. But how often in such situations have we been absolutely convinced without the slightest doubt that we were right only to learn later that we were mistaken! So the unhappiness we caused was pointless.

Sometimes, it is best not to tell others they are wrong.

Sometimes, it simply does not matter whether it is a duck or a chicken.

Sunday
Sep242006

D.A.N.C.E.

I have checked out a copy of When a Family Member Has Dementia by Susan M. McCurry from the amazingly well-stocked Elkhart Public Library. The library and the Daily Grind (great coffee and baked goods, and where we always run into friends) are my mother's and my favorite places here.

Dr. McMurry has a wonderful acronym for five core principles for caregiver's—DANCE.
Don't argue
Accept the disease
Nurture your physical and emotional health
use Creative problem solving
Enjoy the moment with your loved one

Very Buddhist! Don’t argue, accord with conditions, nurture both the body and the spirit, be flexible in resolving problems, and enjoy the moment.

In writing about the first principle of not arguing, McMurray provides tools to help the reader let go of the compulsion to argue. I have often spoken about how we argue because we believe we are right and the other person is clearly wrong. But so often in life, it is actually we who are wrong. We just don’t know it.

With dementia, the sad reality is that we as caregivers most likely are right. But in this situation, it is even more futile to argue, and even worse, it causes the other person pain. Either they realize they are wrong once again, or they are frustrated or saddened over a situation they cannot fully grasp.

To help people not feel compelled to argue, McMurray proposes what she calls caring detachment. “The first secret to being able to give up arguing is detachment. Detachment is not emotional indifference or pretense that nothing is the matter…Rather it is a very loving action of genuinely accepting the other person as he is, not as you want him to be.”

As Buddhists, we strive to let go of attachments—to care with detachment. We are not unconcerned or uncaring, rather, we accept others as they are and do not burden them with having to live up to our expectations.

Everything changes—relationships, abilities, situations—everything. If we expect that those we love will always remain the caring, wonderful people we know so well, that they will always be there for us, we are setting ourselves up for much suffering. If instead, we can let go of our frustration and sadness over things changing, let go of the fears of what will happen tomorrow, of our fear that we will prove inadequate to the task, we will be able to move out of ourselves and to focus on the other person. To listen to the other person. And to care for the other person, for who they have become, and for the memory of who they once were.

Amituofo

 
Sunday
Sep102006

path to peace

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"A momentary flash of anger may seem inconsequential, but it carries with it the potential for a lifetime of suffering." 

It seems reasonable for us to think the outcomes of what we say and do will be in direct relationship to those words and actions. Surely a moment of being angry will result in just a moment of suffering. But the outcome of our words and behavior have the potential to last not merely for a moment. They have the potential to last for a lifetime.

Fortunately, our caring words and actions born of understanding what another person is undergoing can, in the same way, bring us a lifetime of happiness. By understanding the potential results of our thoughts and behavior, we will gradually learn to be more careful in what we say and in how we act.

Saturday
Sep092006

An Opportunity

The morning verse becomes more meaningful with each day I say it. No attachment or ego. Compassion and wisdom. Patience and joy. The words were refined over time as reality became apparent. My mother has dementia. Odds are it is Alzheimer's disease, AD. My father, who died twelve years ago had AD, so both my mother and I know what lies in the future.

A few days ago, when she said she knew something was wrong and what it was, (she regularly has this realization, and suffers with it anew each time) she also said that Dad was fortunate because he did not know what was happening or what lay in the future. She does.

And so do I, the caregiver. To me, right now, this is my most important work—caring for the person who gave me the opportunity to have my life—to learn Buddhism and to practice it while teaching it to others.

The first year I was in Elkhart, I did not give any talks because there were no invitations to do so. As conditions changed and invitations were made I accorded with those conditions. When not lecturing, I had been content. When invitations came and I gave talks, I was also content. This is something Buddhists try to achieve. We strive to accord with conditions and not force things to happen. It's a difficult practice to master, and some days I am much better at it than others!

In writing an email this morning, I realized that another condition had matured. There are excellent books for caregivers, several of which I have just obtained. But my perspective is slightly different. It is that of a Buddhist caregiver with a loved-one entering dementia. My Buddhist practice should enable me to excel at caring for others. Selflessness is what it's all about. After all, the six perfections that bodhisattvas strive to perfect are giving, morality, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. The four immeasurable minds are those of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. So I should be able to do this—I should be an exemplary caregiver.

But the reality for most of us is that when we practice, we often do so with strangers or with people we casually encounter. It's not that difficult being nice to strangers or casual acquaintances because there is no emotional baggage here. Whatever connections we have with them is from another lifetime, and the circumstances are now forgotten.

Others we regularly interact with are co-workers or friends. But our time spent with them is relatively short. We leave work at the end of the day. After a get-together, we separate. We only need to be patient and caring for so long, and then we can go home and emotionally "put our feet up."

With family members, the involvement usually becomes deeper. But while the connection is close here, we have times apart from those we are related or married to. We leave to go to work. We have separate interests. We have breaks from one another.

And yet in all these situations, how often are we able to react perfectly or with the four minds?

What I have here is an opportunity. An opportunity to repay my unrepayable debt of kindness to my mother. But I also have another opportunity. I have a responsibility to pass on the teachings of the Buddhas. Actually, it is much more than a responsibility for it is a joy and a privilege to be able to teach the way to end suffering and attain happiness. But the possibilities to do this are currently limited. It is difficult to leave for more than a few hours at a time and those times are limited in number. What I do have a great deal of is time, time spent in my mother's home—time at my computer.

And so I write, hoping to deepen my practice and to be of help.

Amituofo