— Joan Tollifson, Fall 1992 Inquiring Mind
As I began to write the Editors’ Notes for this issue on ethical dilemmas, the juxtaposition of birth and death in my life stung me into the present moment, or at least more into the moment than usual, and I got a brief inkling of the potential kindness of the awakened mind.
This small awakening occurred in one afternoon. Within hours I watched my friend’s new baby girl, hair wet with birth blood, surge from her dark netherworld into the hospital glare and received a phone call that my husband’s old friend Bob had been killed in a rafting accident. We owned our house with Bob (although he lived in New York), and he was dear to us. My elation turned to shock.
Perhaps because the birth came so fast, in a sweep of fluids and baby (“Everything inside me is coursing downwards,” said my friend Marie) and the death was sudden, in a spin of the current into the rapids, each seems to cycle into the other. I am left with a sense of being carried, of coming into life and dying, of the continuous flux.
Our minds have the capacity to connect, to rest, in the moment. How often do we seize the opportunity? One moment I taunted Marie’s husband before he turned off the football game on the birthing room TV; one moment Marie’s body shuddered, her husband’s hand gripped in hers, my palm pressed into her lower back; one moment baby Claire shot out from the unknown; one moment we laughed at dinner with Bob and his friends when he came for a visit West; one moment I dodged Bob’s phone call over a house tax form I’d lost; one moment we got the call that Bob was dead. There is only this moment and then it’s gone. All we have is the chance to meet it.
Through evasion, longing, anger, a tendency to dream, I so often dim my connection to what’s happening right here and now. In this recent crossing of birth with death, I have been reminded: if we were to fully recognize that all we have is this moment, there would be no alternative but attention, kindness and the capacity to let go. This is the foundation for ethics.
For a few weeks after Claire’s birth and Bob’s death, I noticed a subtle shift in our household interactions. Too often these are occasions for numbing, irritation and slip-shod judgments. But in this period both my husband Patrick and I attended to our myriad tiny exchanges with a bit more presence, more generosity, more patience.
There’s a moment when Patrick first arrives home on an evening when he’s worked late. He comes into the kitchen, suit and tie rumpled, briefcase swollen with papers. He gives a quick kiss to our four-year-old, Caitlin, already in her nightgown, leans over the tortillas, half-eaten, the beans, now cold, to give me my kiss and heads to the fridge for his beer. On a hard day, I hear myself slap out my words: “We had to eat without you again!” or “You know it’s too late to call your mother now!” or “Don’t you want to tuck Caitlin in?” How often have I escalated the attack, obliterating right speech, rupturing the delicate ethics of family life?
In the few weeks following the birth and death, Patrick did sometimes work late, yet as he entered the kitchen, I was able to rest in that moment. As he approached us, I could see the slump of his shoulders, feel the ache inside, the muted request in his side-glance for some softness, some silliness. I was moved, saddened, but also glad. Glad simply that Patrick, gentle, steady, subtly twinkling Patrick whom both Caitlin and I so love to snuggle into for a good nap, was finally home.
Yet how quickly this kind of attention can lapse. This morning, as often happens, I wanted to brush my teeth at the sink where Patrick was already installed to shave. I found myself, mouth full of peppermint foam, returning to my habitual shove, an invasion to claim territory. This time I caught myself mid-shove, elbow poised at Patrick’s ribs and tapped his shower-wet shoulder. “ ’Scuse me Babe, could I have a spit?” How many other shoves don’t get curbed and break family ethics?
Birth and death do not often converge so dramatically as they did for me last month to shock us into the moment. Nor do ordinary events of daily life necessarily awaken us to the here and now. Hence meditation! We practice paying attention. After a long “leave of absence” from formal meditation, last week I retrieved my zafu from the playroom, where for months it had done duty balancing a castle. At 6:00 a.m. every day, well before the breakfast chaos of tying shoes, packing lunch and Cheerios, I adjust my zafu and cross my legs. Not to alert Caitlin, I sit right up in bed. I focus my awareness and begin to follow my breath, training myself, at least in the early morning, to be present, to be kind.
Of course presence, kindness and its attending ethics may be expressed at any of the endless intersections in this web in which we live, whether on the meditation cushion, in the family dramas at the table and sink, or in the way we come to our decisions about eating meat, about fighting wars, about joining with others to effect social change. This is the theme of our current Inquiring Mind. We are looking at ethics in the light of Buddhist teachings.