by Jillian Pransky
February 14, 2011, was the most heart opening Valentine’s Day to date… As the sun rose my father passed on. And forever now, Valentines Day will be truly a day that takes me deep into the heart.
Amazingly, if you asked me a few years before what it would be like for me to go through this loss, and through the three months of his illness, my answer would have included words like “anxious, scared, frozen, tight, angry, etc…” But it was nothing like that.
While it was difficult on so many levels, and sad beyond words, it was also a transformational experience. And, unexpectedly, I discovered that I was actually often grounded, open, and present throughout this period. I did not panic or freeze up as I witnessed him in pain, coming to terms with life, and letting go of his body. Instead, I felt more connected to him, my family, and life than any other time I can remember. In fact, it felt more like the process of ‘falling in love’ rather than ‘losing love’; more expanding than contracting. I reiterate, this was a total surprise! And I credit my yoga practice for the grace I was able to receive.
I’ve been doing yoga regularly for almost 20 years at this point, and historically when I need it most is when I do it least. With so many time and energy constraints during this period, it would have been easy to skip my daily practice. But I didn’t. I rolled out my mat every morning, whether it was for 5 or 75 minutes. I am astounded and grateful for the support that my practice gave me. It rejuvenated my energy, and opened my mind, my breath, and most importantly my heart. This enabled me to unite with my dad on a level I never before experienced. Let me explain…
For most of my life I was closed down, frustrated, or angered around my father. I could have listed countless ways in which ‘he’ needed to change in order to be a ‘better father/person’ (We all have our “stories”.) However, over the past 14 years he and I enjoyed a truly loving relationship and fulfilling bond (more on that below). And in his last three months, humbled by his cancer, I could describe my dad for the first time as being open hearted. Had I not been present, I would have missed this final opportunity to connect with him. But I didn’t! And I am so grateful to feel at peace with my father, his death, and our life together.
As yogis, we lay down our mats to practice this type of moment-by-moment commitment. We explore poses, meditation and breathing to learn to be both grounded and open to whatever comes our way. Aspiring to complete presence. I can attest, that with intention and dedication we can develop these skills on the mat, and then draw upon them during our daily life and especially at times when we need them most.
Ultimately, our yoga practice prepares us to stay open through the difficult experience. Then the experience itself becomes the greatest of spiritual teachers, offering us the opportunity to expand beyond our habitual way of being. As Pema Chodron explains, “You continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
From this viewpoint, our challenges, the “winters” of our life, all the little and big deaths we face each day are the ultimate opportunities to cultivate more compassion, strength, and openness.
METTA TRANSFORMED MY RELATIONSHIP TO MY FATHER
As I mentioned above, my relationship with my dad was not always rosy. Throughout his life, my dad faced 14 life-threatening surgeries, so I wrote several mental eulogies for him since I was a little girl. Each time I contemplated his life I longed to memorialize our relationship with sweet loving words, but instead I’d think of all the ways I was angry with him. Without giving you all the gory details, until I was about 28 years old I prided myself on the ability to convince any jury that I deserved ‘better’. But frankly, for most of my life, I just wanted to find peace with him.
Thankfully, there is truth to the theory that life will bring you what you most desire and focus on.
In 1996 I began Metta meditation through my work with Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg and without even knowing it at the time, I began transforming my relationship to my father. Through the practice of Metta, instead of focusing on the ways I felt I wasn’t being loved or cared for by him, I began to have empathy and compassion for the ways he wasn’t loved or cared for as a child. I organically began to wish for him more capacity to experience unconditional love within his own body, mind and heart. And somehow, somewhere along the way, I just stopped tightening up around him. I relaxed and opened to him just as he was, without anger. And amazingly, as my mother can testify, my dad actually became more loving and available to me!
By the time of his death, I can honestly say, that I am completely at peace and even deeply fulfilled by our relationship. I love him sweetly and celebrate him, exactly as he was! And so today, in his passing, I can embrace Dr. Seuss’s wisdom:
”Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
WHAT IS METTA
‘Metta’ (aka Maître) is commonly translated in English as ‘loving-kindness.’ It’s a form of meditation used to cultivate an enduring sense of compassion, friendliness and unconditional love for the self and others; a “boundless warm-hearted feeling” often likened to one’s love for one’s child. Metta practice consists of repeating phrases designed to expand one’s generosity and kindness to all beings (sort of like a western practice of positive affirmation, but not entirely). As one practices regularly, self-imposed limitations of love begin to melt away. Ultimately, one finds true happiness in another person’s happiness, no matter who the individual is.
GREAT RESOURCES ON METTA
Super Article on Metta http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/facets_of_metta.php
Simple Instruction on Metta: http://info.med.yale.edu/psych/3s/metta.html
Pema Chodron on Metta http://www.tricycle.com/-practice/unlimited-friendliness?offer=dharma