This Thanksgiving, sadness overtook me. The kind of sadness where you sob and sob and sob. Perhaps it had started the day that my friend, mentor and great American Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, died on November 4th. He had a severe stroke a couple of years ago but was hanging in there. Sepsis is what took him in the end.
Bernie was an amazingly brilliant Zen teacher, a bodhisattva and compassionate mensch. In Hawaii we would have called him a man of strong compassionate aloha. He was the reason why my husband and I left Hawaii in 2001 to go and work for him and his Peacemaker Community in Santa Barbara.
It was compounded on Tuesday before Thanksgiving at my jail ministry. Every Tuesday I go to the Cook County Jail to teach the women on 2M tier mindfulness meditation. Usually I go with a partner, but this time I was alone. As I entered the correctional facility, sadness seemed to grow and hang on me. An officer came to escort me to the tier, and as we walked to the tier, the sadness grew stronger and stronger. I felt as if there were 50 pound weights in my clothes dragging me down to the floor by the time I reached the tier.
Thanksgiving is a time to be with family and here were some 40 women spending time with each other instead of their families. They were there because they didn’t have any lawyers or bail money.
They all seemed pretty distracted, but about 5 women sat with me on one of their rectangular metal tables. We got about 10 - 15 minutes of silent meditation in despite being in a pretty noisy situation.
On Thanksgiving Day, I found myself anguished at home - near tears a lot of times for no reason at all. But I did my cooking meditation which makes me happy. We had a nice small Thanksgiving lunch. A friend came early and together with my husband, we sat and spoke about what we were grateful for.
When it was my turn, I started to talk about my family in Hawaii and what it was like when my parents were alive. There would be a big gathering of my brothers and their families at their home in Kukaiau. Theyʻd bring all kinds of ono (delicious) food and weʻd feast, play games, and talk stories from noon to night. This past June, I had a wonderful homecoming with many of my blood ‘ohana (family), my hula ʻohana and my laʻau ʻohana. But yet again sadness and loneliness seemed to well up all at once.
I decided to let myself feel these feelings. I let the tears rise up from my heart, fill my eyes and drop. Sadness can be such a wretched feeling, but bearing witness to grief is important - especially when my own misery was coming up so strongly.
Bernie Glassman bore witness to his grief when his wife Sandra Jishu Holmes died. Bernie said bearing witness to grieving is bearing witness to life. He said thatʻs what Zen is about - really experiencing things. Zen is letting go of attachments to ideas or beliefs so we can see how things really are and not what we think they are or should be. So if Iʻm feeling sad, I need to bear witness to this sadness or I will miss an important part of my life.
My husband and my friend Henry bore witness to my sadness without doing anything except deeply listening to me. They didn’t try to "fix" me. Their listening was an act of loving kindness. I was able to feel the sadness without distraction and without grasping at the story. I let go of attachments to ideas like "itʻs silly to cry" or "you have to be strong and keep a stiff upper lip". This was all very healing for me and I gave thanks.
Malama pono (take good care of body, mind and heart),
June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
- Kumu Hula and Sensei
P.S. Another year of sweet memories that have come and gone. Hereʻs our Halau i Ka Pono slide show for 2018. Enjoy!
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