Chanting and Breathing

I’ve haven’t felt a lot of light these past several days. Consequentially I haven’t felt like writing, working on any art I have in mind, knitting, or doing much of anything. My energy feels pretty low this week and I feel like I’m reached the overload point of things to work with in my life.

Last Sunday after teaching yoga at Dishman I went out to Corbett, out into the thick of the windstorm to my Mom’s. They had no power and a tree and lines were down on the road to them, forcing a detour around the back. I saw a tree down over a house and other trees down all around, even one nearly on the road I was driving. The wind was howling at gusts between 60-70 mph. It would have been easy to imagine Dorothy flying past a window. It didn’t occur to me until later, when someone exclaimed at my going out there in the middle of a windstorm, that I’d done anything that unusual.

When I got there I saw that Mom looked pale, scared and tired. I just listened to her for a while as we drank tea made with water heated on a kettle a top the wood stove. I opened the Christmas present she’d got for me. The whole time I felt tight inside, aware of all the muscles around my heart locking up, the coldness in my chest.

Finally I got Mom to settle in a chair and taught her some Pranayama. I could tell she was breathing in the top of her lungs only out of pain and fear. I coaxed her to take breaths that were as deep as possible, to learn to feel how the body moves when the breath moves into the whole lungs, just feeling the breath breathe the body.

I told her as far as any meditation goes, just to keep coming back to what the body felt like breathing. That’s all she needed to try to do, that and to scan the body, finding the places that do not hurt as much. Like Hogen told me as a technique for sesshin, when my chronic pain gets really bad. What hurts is obvious, the noise of the hurt is so loud in the body & mind, find what doesn’t hurt and take refuge there for a while. Feel the breath in the parts of the body that do not hurt. I told her to try this even it was only the top of her right ear that didn’t hurt!

I taught Mom the most simple form of Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), just a breath on each side. I was pleased to see doing this left her looking a little more clear in the eyes. Although I have great faith in Nadi Sodhana to restore calm and balance, some part of me was tensing against my Mom not really trying it, dismissing it as silly. She nearly did stop, not liking the feeling of breathing through one nostril that was a little congested. Much to my surprise she kept going for a while and said she did feel a little better afterward. I’m going to record this for her, I think she’ll be more apt to practice if it is guided.

It was hard watching her. It felt like being a kid again, sitting waiting for her to be finished with chemo treatments. Feeling anxious and scared myself, watching all the other faces taut with fear around me. Trying to immerse myself into a book while I waited and waited, through so many appointments, until she would come out ill & frightened and we’d go home. At least I had something to do this time, teaching her to breathe and be still in her body, that is more than I’ve ever had when she’s been sick.

This latest scare feels somehow larger and more frightening than ever before. I’m terribly aware of the ill-health Mom’s experienced over the past year, how she isn’t as strong. I’m trying not to actually call it cancer yet. Neither has been diagnosed, just suspicions… more tests are needed, results are inconclusive. I’m trying to hold onto that, to not react in fear to what is not yet certain. I’m finding it difficult not to tighten around the fear, to keep opening to what arises in the present.

Since last Sunday I’ve felt drained all week. It has felt dark to me and the momentary joy of Tuesday morning’s inauguration has felt tarnished by the disappointment in Mayor Sam Adams for lying. Even worse than feeling disheartened by the lies I’ve felt great irritation with the media for whipping the whole thing into a frenzy that’s a distraction from the real problems facing Portland. Work has been extremely frustrating all week. It just felt extra hard to generate much light at all, even for my own small corner. I’ve been sustained by the light others shining around me, for which I’m truly grateful.

Just this afternoon something, someone just reminded me about the light I offer. Just by my being open and receptive to the suffering of others, to being present to it. Just by offering to chant a persons name.

I maintain the list of names we chant during service with the Portland Sangha of the Zen Community of Oregon sits zazen together. Service contains a part called the Transfer of Merit. We recognize that we generate energy when we practice together and dedicate that merit to people who are ill, in distress, or who have recently died.

Most weeks I get names from people. Emails, people chatting with me at the Dharma Center. Whispers of Stage IV cancers, old age, failed business… Sometimes nothing other than a name, which list it belongs on (in distress or died). I set the list out on the table before and after zazen on Thursdays, so at times I merely see new names appear, handwritten on the page I bring each week.

This week, this afternoon in particular I’ve been able to tell people that I’d add a name to the Merit List. Even after performing this service for the Sangha for a year now I remain a little surprised at how so small a gesture means to people. A friend said to me she was so touched just by my offer of support for her fear for her father’s health, just that I came forward at all. Another sent me a message to let me know how much it means to her and her friend to add a name to the list. A complete stranger, brought to me by way of to me by way of the Internet (friend of a friend of a friend…) emailed to ask me to chant for his brother who just died, how it was of comfort to him. It is merely my open offer to acknowledge the suffering of others that generates light.

Some days it doesn’t feel like much, I think I forget how much this small thing can mean to someone suffering in grief, anxiety. It is merely the act of being open to the suffering of another person, not wishing it would go away fast and not getting too caught up in my own fears of potential, inevitable loss, just being present for their suffering and offering to formally acknowledge it.

Once a week I chant all of these names, there are other people who chant them during the rest of the week. I recite each name carefully and clearly into the silence of the zendo. Giving time to each name so everyone there can all hold the names of each person in mind. It is this small thing I can do, even when my own light feels very dim, just show up each week and say the names, even when it is tremendous effort to do so. Using my voice to make the container for the grief and worry we all carry with us.

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