An essential part of my personal and professional practice is in hospice. Since 1978 I have worked or volunteered with the seriously ill and dying, providing support to patients and families. Every hospice volunteer or worker knows that the real gift is not in the giving of service, but in the lessons and love received. I  recommend this book to everyone, because we all will face the end of our days, and the days of many we love.

Thanks to Judith Keyssar, RN director of a hospice program in SF, for this marvelous read. “Last Acts of Kindness” tells the stories and lessons from the bedside of hospice patients, and just won a national award (to be announced in January 2012). Comfort, love, and hope on every page.

Last Acts of Kindness
by Judith Redwing Keyssar

I took an actual vacate-tion this early autumn. Two weeks with no obligation to be productive. For fifteen hundred miles in a comfy rental car, no schedule or itinerary, I loafed and lingered, knowing I needed a decisive break from fixed routine. And yet, an odd sense of guilt, of not being productive or useful, haunted me. And that reminded me that guilt is rooted in fear, specifically the fear of being found unworthy, useless.

Knowing that guilt over relaxing would not serve the Greater Good, I persisted in my goal of escaping being over-responsible. (I am aware of the irony of making goallessness a goal.) I didn’t even write in my journal for much of the trip. Instead, I saw the trees change colors for the first time in my life, pulled over dozens of time to take pictures and sometimes left my camera, and simply cried at the beauty of it all. I discovered XM radio, where several classical, comedy, and NPR stations vied for my attention. And the silence crept in a little each day, until I would realize I hadn’t turned on the radio for half an hour or more. I didn’t want to hear the news, even music distracted me at times from simply seeing, and being at home within myself.

Beyond words and knowing, the antidote for pressure might sometimes be silence, a soft and sacred space.

I frequently find myself lost. I seldom have a complete  certainty of where I am on the planet. Whether in parking lots, department  stores, or most recently in Golden Gate Park by the museums, if it weren’t for people who know where I happen to be at that moment, and what direction might get me to where I want to go, I wouldn’t “be here now.” It has to be brain damage from… drugs? car accidents? brain surgery? I’ve had them all.

For the most part I have learned not to panic. Being clean and sober, finding myself in  totally foreign landscapes can be a sort of high, at least Twilight  Zone-esque.  I used to feel shame,  frustration, and self-deprecation in these circumstances. I’ve learned to surrender  during these misadventures, telling myself that the spiritual warrior learns to  “enjoy the journey.”

I fear the disorientation may be getting worse. My only hope is that I lean toward the style of  the absent-minded professor whom people find adorable. There is a terrific story about Albert Einstein. He was walking on the Princeton  campus when a student asked him to discuss a theorem. After a cheerful and engaging conversation, Albert said, “And now, if you wouldn’t mind helping  me? When you stopped me, was I walking toward or away from the Science  building?” When the student replied, “Toward, sir.” “Ah,  then I’ve already had my breakfast.”

I once  heard the term pronoid, defined as a  person who has the sneaky suspicion that everyone wants to help her. This is me, how I was raised. My family subscribed to Will Rogers’ philosophy that a  stranger is just a friend you haven’t met. This core orientation allows me to fearlessly ask for directions, and given that I tend to go in circles, often from the same person twice.

There is sufficient scientific evidence proving that assisting other people reduces stress, so perhaps I am doing a service to let  the helpful help me.

At times, I recognize this attitude may be irresponsible, being cavalier about a character defect that I could improve. I’ve avoided putting it on the long list of issues  that bother me much more; those having to do with kindness, acceptance of  things I cannot change and the like.

After hearing my story about being lost in Golden Gate Park, my friend Alice gave me a  portable GPS.  Perhaps my energy would best be spent in learning to program the thing. It’s wonderful also to depend on the kindness my friends.

Here is a sweet reminder from Pema Chondron


When the Buddha taught, he didn’t say that we were bad people or that there was some sin that we had committed—original or otherwise—that made us more ignorant than clear, more harsh than gentle, more closed than open. He taught that there is a kind of innocent misunderstanding that we all share, something that can be turned around, corrected, and seen through, as if we were in a dark room and someone showed us where the light switch was. It isn’t a sin that we are in a dark room. It’s just an innocent situation, but how fortunate that someone shows us where the light switch is. It brightens up our life considerably. We can start to read books, to see one another’s faces, to discover the colors of the walls, to enjoy the little animals that creep in and out of the room.

Be gentle with yourself. Blessings, Cynthia

Some people who might otherwise be artists, or merely more productive, turn their creative talents elsewhere because they cannot tolerate being alone for extended periods. Anna Held Audette

Is it ever honorable to avoid creating, practicing, playing at your chosen craft or tackle a hard task? Of course. There are a thousand times when you can righteously say “no” to the work. But there are as many times when you must righteously say “yes.” Between the two there is no time left ever to say “maybe.”
When you do say “yes,” where will you be? Completely alone. In order to start, an artist must invite in and be able to tolerate active aloneness. We can all tolerate passive aloneness reasonably well: in that dull state we can nap, watch TV, read, play computer games, think of people to call. But active aloneness is a cat of another stripe.
To be actively alone means to be belligerent, alive, ecstatic, afraid, on your feet, wired, doubtful, upset, fired up, and all the rest. It means that mistakes are about to happen. It means that contradictory ideas will engulf you, and confrontation will occur. As the painter Agnes Martin explains it:
               The solitary life is full of terrors. If … you go walking down a country lane in the dark, it is an entirely different thing than walking with someone else. If you were not completely distracted you would surely feel “the fear” part of the time, the pervasive fear that is always with us. In solitude this fear is lived and finally understood.

Is it too weird that three days before my computer crashed I had written in my journal “The computer is eating my brain!” ? I was reflecting how I had spent too many unproductive hours before the brainbox. I hourly checked and instantly responded to email (false urgency is the mainstay of the internet), with much time wasted in struggling to redesign my website.  When I finally admitted defeat, in about 90 minutes the extraordinarily talented Zida Borcich of Studio-Z.com sat with me and built an elegant site. (Soon to be revealed.)

My journal entry expressed the frustration caused by obsessed, rather than creative, attention, an absence of engaged focus. And then my computer’s motherboard gave a warning, and died. I unplugged it and put it in my car for the night, ready to go to the “vet” and be fixed, now to be replaced. Suddenly, it was rather quiet, like when the power goes out and you notice the absence of the fridge, etc.

I felt no real panic, more stunned. I had backed up,  mostly, but recalled how I had been thinking of subscribing to Carbonite (on-line file). Operative word “thinking” will be changed to “subscribing” in two weeks when my new computer arrives. I wish I had done it before…. 

And this brings me back to the topic of wishes–conscious and subconscious–which may be explored in further detail on a future blog.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. But no worries, so is tomorrow.

Why didn’t we think of this before! My busy-beyond-belief girlfriend and I live in the same small town, but are mostly limited to an e-mail relationship. Threats of a Sunday afternoon Scrabble game, or an afternoon walk are never realized–always interference from work, family, social activities.

Then, in the midst of the late winter storms, a tiny break in the weather prompted her to invite me for a walk at dark o’clock on a workday. 42 degrees, we bundled up with every bit of clothing in my car (including gloves, which this Virgo actually keeps in her glove box). The ocean came to life with the promise of sun to the east. By the time we hit the 1.5 mile turn around, we squinted at the first bit of light twinkling through the cypress trees. Then home to her house, smelling of freshly made bread.

We did a Glamglow facial mask (ask me about it), talked about kids, homoeopathy, ate fresh eggs and toast, and wondered if we could get a quick game of Scrabble in. No, it was enough. Back home, showered and dressed like a normal person and ready for workaday world.

A whole, complete, fabulous date, like a secret tryst. It was the best stress relief imaginable.

And we are planning on playing Scrabble at 7AM sometime soon. Why not?

“Our deepest stress is that we are at war with ourselves,” Tara Brach

We spend a lot of our days being driven by a vague existential clutch that something is wrong, something needs doing right now. And so we speed up. It’s not in our basic design to remember we can simply pause, breathe, notice the beauty around us. There is risk in relaxing. Our ancestral survivors lived because they were hyper-vigilant. Our DNA tells us that only the tense will survive, and this creates a driven joyless demand on ourselves and others to be perfect, which equals safety.

Tension is the body’s way of not allowing life as it is, guarding against wrongness, especially our own imperfection. We feel called to action, to change, and then inevitably to regret what we’ve done to try to fix the problem. As we awaken to our busy-ness, we recognize in horror that we are overreacting yet again, and do not like ourselves very much. When we meditate, breathe, sit with a teacher, even flop down on the couch between chores without distraction of TV, we might feel the freedom from this unnecessary tension for just a moment. And so we make the error of thinking, “Now this is the right way to be, more perfect, calm, kind, able to love life as it is.”

Then the phone rings, or we see the dust rhinoceros under the bookcase, and are back grasping and gasping, feeling the drive to multi-task and accomplish and correct and judge. “Oh, no, I’m doing it again,” and up comes self-loathing for not being able to change, to seek peace.

To be free is to be without anxiety about imperfection. This means not being triggered by the messiness of being human, to be forgiving of the obsessions or reactivity that everyone has, including ourselves.This is the unnecessary suffering that the Buddha spoke of when he said we all must suffer, but needn’t heap pain on ourselves because we are not perfect.

It is inevitable that we will be imperfect. We will make poor choices and eat too much and do too much and gossip and watch TV and not get up early to meditate. We slip into directing and correcting those we love, insanely expecting them to appreciate our loving attention. As we helplessly watch ourselves doing the same thing over and over, despite our desire to live in peace and harmony with what is, we have the opportunity to stop blaming ourselves for being stuck, to stop repeating “Something is wrong with me, I’m not okay.” But we are deeply organized to be afraid to accept ourselves: “If I accept my controlling, judging, messy imperfection, I’ll only get worse.” And so we increase the stress by waging war with our imperfectness.

Tara Brach describes a simple way out, a truce, by exercising “the sacred pause,” three deep, sweet breaths that bring the mind and body back to the present. With the first you can release some of the physical tension. With the second, loosen mental tightness by observing the thought that says you are bad for not being a better person. The magical third breath opens the door to loving-kindness, and often the desire for another breath or two. This is the start of making friends with life and yourself as you are, right now.

A relaxed attention is the deepest form of love. It notices and allows. All you need is already within you, if you can approach yourself with the patience you would show a beloved child.

Thank you, Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher, for so many of these concepts elegantly explained. www.tarabrach.com

A good friend is facing her first real surgery. She works hard to achieve excellent health and vitality, so when all opinions converged that surgery was absolutely, no doubt about it, a must, she was disappointed. It’s been marvelous to watch her float above that perspective and find the possible positives. “I’m not ‘jumping with joy’ about having surgery, but will be quite glad to have the cyst removed as it pushes against my stomach and causes discomfort. AND I’ve decided that I will program in my mind and body that with its removal, all anxiety will also be taken away. I won’t need all the herbs I take which will save me time and money. I will have more money to spend on pleasurable things and my body weight will be good for my size along with having muscle strength. The list goes on and on. Such a large amount of stuff I’m laying on this surgery.”

I loved this idea, of clumping wishes into little “mind pockets” and one change in behavior or environment will bring them all to fruition. I imagined one pocket holding the hope for less drudgery, more time to ask what is really important. Another pocket would be full of creative inspiration: at my beading bench, loveliness noticed, and my website redone with lightness and beauty. A little “change” pocket would be open to new experiences, encouraging me to abandon over-responsibility and crave surprise.

And it all came true last Friday. I found myself with four unplanned hours in San Francisco while waiting for my husband to have a medical procedure. No expectations, no companion to please. In truth, I was flummoxed for the first hour, balancing the standard questions: Go to a restaurant or a museum? Maybe a café in the museum? Then something rather wonderful happened. While wondering “what to do” I walked along Union Street, stores just opening. My breath was taken away by the modern Afghani rug colors, and the merchant said I was free to take photos with my phone, an idea that would never occur to me. And so I clicked away down Union Street, my pockets of beauty and inspiration and important goals and surprise emptied out along the way. Wandering into a rug store, a Tibetan jewelry shop, flower stalls, I found myself attracted to colors and patterns. Turquoise and white, subtle brocade patterns with bold images, popped out. Later, I sat in the sunshine, eating a salad from the hospital’s cafeteria, reading a magazine, and feeling inspired and refreshed and my pockets with new hopes and dreams, awaiting the next surprising change.