The Black Rabbit of Inle

The Black Rabbit of Inle visited my house last week. My rabbit, Molly, died on Thursday, October 24.

If you ever read Watership Down, you’ll remember the Black Rabbit of Inle visits Hazel, the hero of the story, in the final pages and invites him to join his Owsla (the rabbit police). Think of the Black Rabbit as the bunny version of the Grim Reaper. Hazel consents and leaves his body behind.

You may remember from a previous post that Molly had a parasite called e.cuniculi, which attacks the brain and nervous system. She had lost her sight and was gradually losing control over other functions in her body. A couple months ago we had to retire from our pet therapy visits because Molly couldn’t stand up anymore.

Last week she had declined to the point where I took her to the vet to see if anything else could be done. The vet didn’t think she would live through the night. I decided to take Molly home so that she could pass surrounded by her family.

I made a death bed out of couch cushions laid on the floor, set up a heating pad, and placed Molly on her side. I spooned her from behind, while my other rabbit, Gilligan, lay on the other side. Making a “love sandwich” was something we often did in the evenings, and Molly always insisted on being in the middle.

For two hours we lay together in the peace. My rabbits have Sanskrit nicknames, and Molly’s was “Shanti”, which means “peace”. (Gilligan’s is “Ananda–joy”.) I chanted Om Shanti, pausing at times to tell her it was okay to leave her body behind, that Gilly and I would take care of each other, that she was only changing form and her soul would continue on its journey. I told her how much I loved her, how beautiful she was, and thanked her for the amazing gifts she had brought into my life with her presence. Her breathing was quiet and slow.

Then suddenly her body spasmed and she tried to breathe through her mouth (normally rabbits only breathe through the nose). Then, everything went quiet. Her breathing and her heartbeat had stopped. I knew the Black Rabbit had come. I kept chanting Om Shanti even though I was crying.

Black_rabbit

The Black Rabbit of Inle comes for Hazel.

Gilly and I kept a vigil over her body for another couple of hours. I wanted him to see and smell her so he could process what had happened. I combed out Molly’s fur, kissed her one last time, and wrapped her in a shroud I had made from some bunny-print fabric. I put her body in the freezer until I could take her to the crematorium.

The next day I went for a long walk on the beach. The fresh air felt good, and the wind dried my salty tears against my cheeks. At my turnaround point I sat on a rock and looked out to sea. I watched the waves rising, cresting, falling, and then a moment of calm before another set of waves. It was a perfect reflection of my emotions.

I felt gratitude for my boss, who had the understanding and empathy to let me take a few days off to grieve a pet. I felt gratitude for my girlfriends, who had brought pizza and wine so I didn’t have to cook. I felt gratitude for the open sky, where seagulls were soaring on the updrafts, as I knew Molly’s soul was doing.

I thought back to when I lost my first rabbit 10 years ago. It happened suddenly and in the midst of a very difficult time in my life. I understood that expression to be “beside yourself”, as I couldn’t bear to be in my body and feel my pain. I was hysterical and hyperventilating. A friend had to give me some Valium to calm me down enough to talk. I deeply resisted what had happened, and so I suffered.

And here I was again, but sitting on the rock I felt deeply calm. Sadness rose up again and again, but now I had a container big enough for it. Through my mindfulness practice I had gained awareness of how all things rise and fall: joys and sorrows, nations, people, animals… All things must pass. With awareness came an acceptance, and with acceptance, peace. Then I knew that Molly, Shanti, would always be there.

Molly--Shanti

Molly–Shanti

An Eye Opening Meditation

I went to the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park recently to see an exhibit of over 300 quilts. I began exploring quilting a couple years ago and thought it would be fun and inspiring to see what others have done. Except that when I arrived the docent told me there had been an error on the web site–no quilts here. I was disappointed. “You should still check out the current exhibits. We have some interesting things to see here,” he said, consoling me.

So I began wandering around the museum. There was an exhibit on called “Take a Seat”, all about chairs and seating through the ages. I found myself doing what I usually do at museums and art galleries: shuffling along and letting my eyes pass over objects without really stopping to study them. I passed by elaborate carved wood chairs, plastic folding chairs, a jump seat from an airplane, old-fashioned school desk-chairs. I felt bored. Chairs weren’t quilts.

I just had to put some quilts in here! Here's one I made for my meditation room.

I just had to put a quilt in here! Here’s one I made for my meditation room.

Then I spotted a meditation cushion, part of the exhibit. It was a rectangular green zabuton with a square zafu to match. I smiled. I actually stopped to read the plaque: “Traditional Japanese meditation cushion.” It looked a lot like my own cushion at home. I began to think about my mindfulness practice and how I had been drifting through the museum rather mindlessly. Had I really seen anything?

I sat on a bench across from a chair. Immediately my mind began to analyze and label the chair. The color, the era, the materials, the shape. I made judgments about how I disliked it. I compared it to the chair next to it. Oh, how my mind wanted something to grasp!

Seeing, without looking, can be a form of meditation. When we slow down enough, and let the attention become soft and open, we begin to see things simply as they are, without trying to categorize and label everything. When we step back, we begin to notice simple concepts such as “color” or “curve”, without having to name it “orange” or “chair back”.

In this spaciousness you may begin to notice your body relaxing, your breath smooth and even. The object of your attention has not changed, but the readiness of the mind to receive it has transformed. You may become aware of details you never noticed before. Sometimes this eye-opening can be transcendent, reminding us of timeless truths or the Infinite itself.  You may perceive the wholeness and oneness of the object, inseparable from the viewer. Other times it can be an opening to what is immanent, to the physicality of sight and its object, to the exquisite sensuality of the real.

I invite you to try this meditation anywhere: go to a museum or a park, or even just look up at your ceiling as if you’ve never seen it before. Choose something to gaze at, let the initial thoughts rise and pass, and then settle into a state of quiet reception, and see what happens.

I may not have gotten to see my quilts, but the docent was right: there were some very interesting things to see in the museum.

Public Enemy Number One: Stress

Stress. It’s a killer. In fact, it’s the world’s #1 killer. And we all experience it at some point.

I came across this powerful graphic from the Heart Math Institute that says so much about the pervasive nature of stress:

infographic-stress-effects

Not a pretty picture, is it? To make matters worse, your body reacts to stress the same whether it’s a minor delay in traffic or being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. Each stress event sets off a cascade of chemicals and over 1400 physiological responses in the body. If we let that build up, we can age prematurely, lose cognitive functioning, and do serious damage to our health.

You may not even notice just how stressed you are. Even though your body is pumping out all those cortisols and stress hormones, you may not be mentally aware of it because you’ve become so used to it. Being stressed is your new normal. Yet the effects are still there, chipping away at your health, until it shows up one day in some bad news from your doctor.

So what’s a stress puppy to do? Well, there’s good news! You can rewire your brain and change the way you respond to stress before it builds into something harmful. The best way to deal with stress is to address it in the moment. Don’t wait until the weekend, your next yoga class or massage, or your next vacation to relax. Take just a few minutes to breathe deeply. Close your eyes, turn within, and listen to what’s going on inside you. Bring awareness to what’s happening with your thoughts, your emotions, and your physical sensations. You don’t have to consciously change anything at this point, just bringing awareness into the present moment will usually slow your breathing and help keep you from disassociating from stressful events.

Pull over on the side of the road if you need to. Sit in your car for a few minutes. Go hide in the office bathroom for five minutes. Even lay your head down on your desk and close your eyes. It only takes a few minutes to derail that stress reaction and come back to peace. Do it as if your life depends on it, because it just may well.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class Starts Soon

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be teaching my first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in San Diego beginning October 23.  More details and registration here, and see the flyer below.

So what is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR? It’s a structured 8-week course that develops the quality of present moment awareness through meditative disciplines such as sitting and walking meditation, mindful movement (gentle yoga stretches), and bringing awareness to daily activities such as eating and interacting with others.

Meditation itself simply refers to the activity of paying attention on purpose. In this practice it is possible to develop the capacity to see things as they really are in a non-judgmental, open-hearted way, allowing for the capacity to live more fully, less on “auto-pilot”, and with greater clarity and insight.  This in turn reduces physical and psychological stress.

MBSR was originally developed in the 1980s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  Since then, a large body of evidence has developed to demonstrate the benefits of attention practice in the health care setting.  These concepts will be explored, experienced, and expanded in the basic 8-week course.

This fall’s class will be very intimate, limited to just six people, so sign up early to guarantee your spot.

MBSR-1MBSR-2

Help! There’s a Monkey in my Mind!

I was chatting with a handyman while he installed an air conditioner at my house. “So what do you do?” he asked over the noise of his drill. “I teach meditation,” I said, noticing bits of drywall falling onto my zabuton. “Oh, meditation…I tried that once. Couldn’t do it. Too many thoughts in my head.” I smiled at the familiar refrain and said, “Yes, the monkey mind. I know just what you mean.”

“Whaddaya mean, monkey?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Well, think about the way a monkey swings from tree to tree, going from fear to desire and thought to thought. That’s what our minds do without a focus,” I said. He laughed at the image. “Meditation is simply paying attention on purpose,” I continued, “and it can help interrupt that cycle and bring you peace.” “Huh,” he got quiet and continued drilling.

“So I guess you’ve tamed your monkey, since you’re a teacher and all,” he said as he worked. I burst out laughing. “No way, dude! I wrestle with mine every day. I’ve just learned a few techniques to help keep him in check. It’s something that comes with practice.”

He looked encouraged and began to tell me about his experience with recovery from drugs and alcohol. “I’m doing so much better these days but I still have so much stress,” he said, shaking his head. “I just think there’s got to be a better way, you know?” “There is,” I said, and handed him my card.

monkey mind

Ah, the monkey mind. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, even for just one minute, you’ve met your monkey. He’s the one who leads you over past hurts, drags you into future planning, and gets you started on a grocery list when you’re trying to focus on your breath. He’s insidious and distracting and incredibly frustrating. And the bad news is, he never goes away.

But the good news is, you CAN tame the monkey. The human mind has over 100,000 thoughts per day. That’s what our minds do: they make patterns and analyze and invent ideas. Our minds are incredibly creative tools. You can use that brilliant brain of yours to make friends with your monkey and find more focus, and therefore more peace. Here are a few tips:

When I lived in the UK they had an expression: ‘Slowly, slowly, catch a monkey.’ In other words, don’t get angry and wave your arms and threaten the monkey because he’ll only run away. Instead use kindness and sweetness. I like to use humor and imagine that I’m working with a child or a cute little animal. “Hey, little monkey! Aw, you’re so cute. Want a juicy banana? Come and sit quietly next to me while I meditate.” When I realize my attention has wondered off yet again, I laugh inwardly and say, “Ah, it’s happened again. That’s so funny. Come on back now.” Self-criticism won’t get you anywhere. Be compassionate towards yourself.

Give the monkey something to chew on. Use a mantra or repeat a phrase over and over (such as ‘I am at peace’ or ‘Breathing in, breathing out.’). Even if the monkey is shrieking and flying all over the place in the background, keep focusing. Eventually the monkey will get bored because you’re not giving him any attention and will quiet down.

Open your eyes slightly and keep a soft focus. Find a point on the floor to gaze at, or a candle flame or symbol, and use the visual as an anchor. I use a Buddha statue in my meditation space. When I get distracted I open my eyes and look at the Buddha. “Huh, he seems to be doing okay. I’ll try again.”

Practice, practice, practice. Practice some more. And then practice some more. Focus in meditation comes with practice. Every time you find you’ve wandered off, just bring your attention back again. And do that over and over and over. You will still have distractions but you’ll learn to recognize them for what they are. You’ll become more adept at ignoring them and keeping your concentration. And then one day you just might be surprised to find that little monkey asleep in your lap.

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