Missing You | Mary Licanin Photography

On Suffering and Impermanence

Missing You | Mary Licanin PhotographyThe month after my mother died, because my husband and I had been trying really hard for a really long while to have a child, I secretly wished for that miraculous pregnancy.  A final and ultimate mother’s kiss, granting me the wish I wished for so long. In a corner of my heart where Christianity didn’t live, there was also a hope for her reincarnation through me. Poetic justice, I thought, I was arguably a torment to my parents in my teenage years. I’d be honored to pay that forward.

My wish wasn’t granted.  I really struggled with that (but that’s another post).

Today marks 7 years since my mother’s passing. While our endeavor to have a child nestled it’s way into our rearview mirror, the sadness of my mother’s passing weighs on me heavily every year, and in between on random days.

I struggled through the day today, to get my work done, more often than not through tearful eyes. I struggled to convince myself that my belief in buddhist philosophy was stronger than the little girl inside who felt like bawling until her eyes ran dry because she wanted her mommy back. I struggled not to feel sorry for myself, for having lost both parents before I was 40.  I struggled.

This feeling of struggle – suffering – is something I pushed away all day, out of, what I decided, was necessity. Now, I’ve closed my work files and I’m sitting quietly. I’m letting the sadness come and I’m having coffee with it. I’m not really sure what to do with it, though. We’re just kind of sitting awkwardly together in the silence.

What is this ache, this suffering I’m feeling? I must be doing something wrong, I think to myself. Maybe I just don’t get the whole buddhism thing. I feel like I’m not supposed to be sad, like that indicates I don’t get it. I’m not really sure how to get it. I just feel all kinds of wishy-washy in my head and nothing seems clear.

In my need to understand what I’m supposed to do with this feeling, I do what any resourceful student would do — I ask “the Google”.

It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.

 – Pema Chodron

Hrmm. Okay. So wait a minute.
Pema is saying that it’s not my mother’s passing but rather my self-talk that’s actually what’s making me feel this profound sadness?

Here, enter the ‘take what you want and leave the rest’ that I love about Buddhism. Let me mull this over and see if it fits. I open my mind to new perspectives like I’m in a furniture store. I go through and sit on every chair and see how it feels under me. And so I sit on this chair of ‘what I’m saying to myself about my mom’s passing is what’s making me suffer’ and geez it feels uncomfortable. I feel frustrated with the thought, angry at the suggestion.

I sit with the uncomfortableness to figure out why it’s uncomfortable.

My mother was my first true friend. We had our differences – whoosh, we had differences – but if there was anyone on this earth that knew me inside out and still loved me, it was her.  When my mom died, I lost my best friend. 

When life got heavy, I could always call her to talk. She’d always understand. She always knew just what to say. She understood me like nobody else. When my mom died, I lost the one person in the world that understood me like only she could.

I had a really bumpy life until I hit my late 30s. It seems that mom would miss me at my finest hour (because I certainly hadn’t had that before she passed away). When my mom died, I lost the chance to show her just how okay I was going to be someday.

“You never wanted to be alone,” she’d say. She’d tell me the story of how I’d sit on a pillow in one of the windows in our front room when I was little and watch the kids outside play and I’d say, “I wish I had a friend.”  I was 3. I did always hate being alone – I eventually realized it was because I was afraid of being alone. Being alone still makes me feel uneasy.  I don’t have much family around me or a big social circle. When my mother died, I lost the first person in my life who made me feel like I’d always have someone there.

These are just a few things that popped in my head that I used to test this teaching Pema is trying to sell me, and yeah, based on what I’m learning about my own thought process, I am buying it.

Then I think about the teachings on impermanence. Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent.  Perhaps, part of my heartache is caused by the recognition of the undeniable existence of this impermanence. My mother’s impermanence was the most intense example of the impermanence of everyone and everything I know.

Order makes us feel good, at least, temporarily. When someone dies, it’s the ultimate example of impermanence, and our lack of control. Death is inevitable. Pema speaks of “groundlessness”, which is the feeling of of having no control over things around us. Groundlessness is upsetting to me, who can’t walk by the row of paintings in the living room (that often get skewed from one of our many earthquakes) without straightening them. Impermanence, in my mind, looks like me standing alone in a room without walls, that grows darker with each second, with everything in sight falling away, ultimately leaving only me and nothingness. I think this makes everyone uncomfortable, and yet this is life.

I feel like I found some answers through this writing meditation, though I still wonder if I’m supposed to train with a goal to reach a state wherein I welcome and embrace suffering and impermanence. If I am, I’m not sure how to get there, because after all this, the little girl inside still wants her mommy.