Senior’s column: Creating mental space

Kelowna columnist Marjorie Horne talks about the aging process in her column

By Marjorie Horne

I am sure many of you realize that as I write these columns, I am reminding myself of something I need to remember. As I do, I hope that perhaps there are some of you reading that are needing the same reminder in your own life.

In November, my husband and I were faced with the reality that two of the major arteries in his heart were very close to being 100 per cent blocked. When you see the picture of that angiogram and hear the cardiologist explaining this, you are faced with the reality of death in that moment. We were lucky. My intuitive knowing told me something was wrong and we acted on it. But at the same time, it brings the reality of impermanence front and center into your life. We both talked about our feelings of fear and how it was affecting us emotionally, then we became busy dealing with the surgery and his recovery. It has been in the past few weeks that the recognition has come for me that I have gone back into an old pattern of thought that things are not safe.

When life presents scary situations, our mind wants to go into the future, believing there is some comfort in preparing, making plans should things go wrong, analyzing things from all angles so that we feel safer. Alas, the opposite happens. As I have noticed personally, we return to a state of worry and without conscious awareness, old dysfunctional patterns of behavior begin to take over. In a sense, we are trying to control the fear and the body reacts by going into a state of fight, flight or freeze. We each have our own habitual behaviors that go along with this desire to control. Mine are: I work incessantly; I stop calling my friends; I start projecting my anxiety on to others and I begin to feel disconnected, with myself and with those around me. In a nutshell, life loses its sense of aliveness and joy. ‘Whoa,’ I finally say to myself, “What’s going on?” Yes, I am afraid of my husband dying, of being alone, of what might happen as we move along this aging journey. A close call can do that to you and sometimes you don’t even realize the cumulative, layering effect that facing impermanence is having on you and also on those you love. You need to stop and find some breathing space. Come back to the present and be still.

A beautiful poem by Judy Brown speaks to this so eloquently. “What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space. Too much of a good thing, too many logs packed in too tight can douse the flames almost as surely as a pail of water would. So building fires requires attention to the spaces in between, as much as to the wood. When we are able to build open spaces in the same way we have learned to pile on the logs, then we can come to see how it is fuel, and absence of the fuel together, that make fire possible. We only need to lay a log lightly from time to time. A fire grows simply because the space is there, with openings in which the flame, that knows just how it wants to burn, can find its way.”

Two things that many people who are dying say they regret are 1) I wish I had had the courage to live true to myself and less to the expectations of others and 2) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. We are all distracted by the concept that “there is not enough time.” This thought activates our sympathetic nervous system and makes it difficult to be present and feel connected. Living fully in each moment is living on purpose. Being aware of what is going on around you but more importantly, being aware of what is going on within you, opens what in the Buddhist tradition is called the dharma doorways or the pathway to wisdom.

There is great insight into the three characteristics of reality that they describe. The first is called dukkha. It is a quality of unsatisfactoriness or wanting things different. We are not at ease or feel incomplete. Resting in awareness in the moment comes more easily when we stop being constantly on our way to something. Dukkha leads us towards resistance to the future and to getting stuck in worry. The second dharma doorway is annicha, which means that everything is impermanent, everything changes. If we open to the radical impermanence of all experience, including the truth of our own mortality, we discover the natural capacity to let go. Wisdom is awakened if we can develop a mind that clings to nothing. And as we are aging if we can acknowledge our own mortality more, the result can be an embracing of authentic spontaneity and a natural cherishing of life. The third doorway is anatta. It is described that when there is full presence, a presence not filtered by thoughts, this illusion dissolves, freeing us to realize our true nature. In this emptiness or non-attachment, we can find truth and this truth is liberating to our daily life as we realize that our impression of being “in control” does not lead us to feeling at peace.

Taking the time to create the “space between the logs” is worth every minute you give it. Take some time today to do it for your own well-being, and as you do, let this open space be filled with the energy of gratitude. You’ll be glad you did. I feel better already.

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