The Rhythm of Change
This story appeared in Catalyst and New York Spirit magazines in 2004.
A half-gallon of curdled milk, a partially eaten veggie wrap, a petrified
orange, a plastic bag filled with dark green cucumber slime. These are the
relics of a previous life I cleared out of my mother’s refrigerator
last Memorial Day weekend. Under normal circumstances, my practical and
frugal Depression-era mother would never leave edible food to fester in
her fridge. In mid-March everything changed. On a fragrant, Alabama spring
day while watering her beloved pansies, she lost balance, fell and fractured
her pelvis. She has not yet returned to her home.
A consistent walker for most of her life, my mother can no longer
negotiate the fifteen precipitous steps leading to her front door. Four
stacks of unopened mail—minus important bills which my sister has
culled from the piles-—cover her dining room table. A pencil sketch
rests on her easel, awaiting her watercolor brush to bring it to life. A
grocery list sits on her kitchen counter. In a single instant a daily routine
honed through years of living vanished.
In the wake of her accident, my mother is gradually defining a
new model for her day-to-day life. Recasting a life that shifted so abruptly
is not easy for an 85-year-old person. In my mother I now see a stubborn
resistance to the change her circumstances have wrought. During my visit
I heard wistful, wry reminiscences of her former vitality. I heard frustrated
speeches against aging. An unspoken uncertainty colored our conversations.
She did not speak about what her life might look like in a month or a year,
but I knew she was wondering.
When we experience a loss, whether it be the loss of a friend or
family member, a loss of a job, a change in our health, or the end of a
way of life, it is natural to mourn. It is nearly impossible not to wonder
how much easier or better our lives might be had our circumstances continued
as usual. But the reality of living is that our lives change constantly.
Without loss it would be impossible to grow. It is letting go of the old,
that which is no longer needed, that makes room in our lives for whatever
is to come.
Since the 1920s my mother has let go of a lot. A lifelong artist,
my mother began her career before entering grade school, copying renderings
of caricatures she found in books. During grade school she drew paper dolls
for herself and her friends. In high school and college she gave up paper
dolls for figure drawing. Later on, this art form would evolve into a career
as a fashion artist for an upscale Cincinnati department store. Still later,
she would give up her career in commercial art to return to drawing paper
dolls for her three daughters, and to design and paint sets and costumes
for school plays. Finally, as she released us into the world, her art would
blossom, evolving from tightly representational oil paintings to fluidly
rendered, award-winning watercolor studies of shadow and light. She can
no more easily return to copying caricatures than she can return to her
Our very lives are a continuum of receiving, releasing, receiving
and releasing. Thousands of times each day our bodies naturally draw in
and release the breath. When we inhale we receive the vital oxygen that
enlivens all the cells of our bodies. When we exhale we expel toxic waste
in the form of carbon dioxide. What would happen to our bodies if we only
inhaled? What if we chose only to accumulate and never to let go?
When Chogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and
Dying, spoke in Salt Lake several years ago, he made a statement that has
stayed with me. He said, “Freedom does not come from acquisition.
It comes from letting go.” In the same way the long since perished
vegetables in our refrigerator occupy space that could be filled with fresh,
vital foods, the habits we grasp onto for security stultify us. We can not
move forward in our lives when we cling to the past. When we set our habits,
our beliefs and our ways of living in concrete, we become trapped by them.
Letting go of what is no longer appropriate in our lives releases us to
No matter how affectionately we might recall our youth, would we
really want to go back? Early in my yoga study, I practiced intensely and
attained the strength, flexibility and technique required to accomplish
many of the most advanced yogasanas. Twenty years later, even though I might
fondly remember those times of physical accomplishment, would I really want
to return? What I have let go in terms of extreme practice has made room
for a more mature, more satisfying awareness of the subtle energies that
govern my body’s essential vitality. As a result my practice has gained
integrity, and my body has become stronger and more balanced.
As we live and grow, our understanding becomes more refined. Out
of the process of continual drawing in and letting go, compassion and wisdom
grow. Compassion grows as we experience the sadness that often accompanies
letting go. As we come to peace with the reality and rhythm of constant
change, wisdom grows. Each forward step on our life ’s path requires
us to let go of what is past. The process of living rests in the delicate
balance between letting go and starting anew.
Recently as I looked at an ancient black-and-white photo of my
mother at age five, I saw that while she is still the same person, she is
also different. The same body that animated her spirit as a child carries
that spirit today. But in many ways it is not the same body. In the past
80 years that five-year-old frame has grown to adulthood and borne three
daughters. Her black hair has turned white, her skin has loosened, her gait
has slowed. But I have seen the wise and determined visage of the child
in that photograph a thousand times, throughout my mother’s life.
The spirit that lives in that completely remodeled body remains intact.
When the young prince, Siddhartha, first ventured out of his gilded
palace as a youth, he was faced with what are called the Four Heavenly Messengers.
These messengers-—old age, sickness, death and a wandering monk seeking
awakening-—called the future Buddha to his destiny as an enlightened
teacher. In him the question arose, if our bodies are all subject to old
age, sickness and death, where is happiness to be found? In his six years
of searching, the Buddha found that happiness was available to everyone,
when we let go of searching for it in those things that are not permanent,
which is everything in our conditioned experience. When we rely on our bodies,
our careers, our friends and family to make us happy, we set ourselves up
to suffer. Ultimately all must be released.
In 1993, during a period of my life when I had let go of what seemed
like the very foundations of my being, I asked my teacher, Pujari, “If
there is nothing for me to hang on to, if everything I love will one day
leave, what reason is there to stick around?” He answered: “To
live your life fully and completely. To follow your path with loving care
and mindful awareness, to learn the freedom of letting go. To develop wisdom
and compassion in the process.”
This we can do no matter what the condition of our bodies. The
same wise spirit that peered out of my mother’s five-year-old body
dwells in her at 85. This spirit, her innate awareness, can guide her and
help her to find the joy in this current phase of her life. There is no
one that does not have the ability to live in joyful awareness. It resides
within and without. It becomes available to us when we choose to live our
lives mindfully, when we pay careful attention to our lives as they unfold,
rather than dwelling in thoughts of how much better our lives used to be,
or how much better our lives would be if only we were richer, more attractive,
had a better job or relationship, a nicer car or house. The list of ways
we find to put off living joyfully right now is infinite.
My hope for my mother, and for all of us playing out our lives
in this time, is that we can learn to dance harmoniously with the rhythm
of life, the rhythm of drawing in and letting go. It is helpful to reflect
on your own life, recalling the things you once enjoyed that have disappeared
from your life. When you released worn-out habits or beliefs, what became
available to you? How did you grow from your many experiences of letting
go? These reflections can help you to meet the multitude of let-go experiences
still to come with wisdom and perhaps even a sense of joy and adventure.
Happiness comes from enjoying your life right now. Pay attention.
When we live mindfully, even the most mundane tasks of our daily routine
can be joyful. When we give our complete attention to the present realities
of our lives there is no residue left to cling to when it is time to let
go and move on. Being fully present with our daily process of receiving
and releasing brings the equanimity that allows us to flow with the cycles
of constant change.