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Loving the Living With the Love of the Dead

May 6, 2015

I have a wide open day ahead of me here in the San Francisco Bay Area and am eagerly anticipating a welcome return to the coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore and a meandering and rejuvenating drive up the coast through my childhood coastal stomping grounds. One stop along the way might be a brief visit to the seaside grave of my father-in-law, whom I have never met, but who rests in my heart because of what he meant to my beloved wife and the warmth and admiration that flows from her every time she speaks of him. I am the welcome and grateful recipient of his fatherhood in this way.

And so the thought floated up out of my waking moments: “What if we could be with the living breathing people in our lives, the way we are with the dead?” That may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment.

How are we when we stand there awkwardly looking down at whatever tangible marker might have been placed as a proxy to the vibrant existence of a family member or friend? We feel a certain presence of the deceased, but largely our attention is broad enough to include a kind of warm attentiveness to our own selves as we recall the person who once walked and talked and breathed with us.

We are quiet, respectful, patient, receptive and tender in our attention. We may feel the reverberations of grief and loss that the person’s passing brought to us, but it is a kind of nostalgia (the roots of that word referring to “the pain of remembering”) that bears the mellow sweetness of the time that cliché has told us heals all wounds. And we are finally free of the constricting web of a change agenda for the other. The “if only” and the conditional melt away with the reality of the absolute and the imperative of this very moment as it is, without holding or pushing away, even if we would like to do so.

We may also ride the harsher waves of hurts, resentments, wounds that never really healed, anger at abandonment, fear of life without this person who simply desired what we all desire: to have peace, satisfaction and joy in life, no matter how he or she went about seeking that. But we are finally and ultimately aware that absolutely nothing can be done but to meet this suffering within ourselves with some degree of kindness and gentleness, and perhaps the wisps of forgiveness. Forgiveness of this person who was ultimately and inevitably human, flawed and subject to failure, mistakes, desire and delusion, and vulnerable to the reality of mortality.

And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care. If we are to experience healing, change, improvement, relief and release, it will come from deep within us when we shift our relationship to the outer world and tend warmly and compassionately to what is within us.

How would it be if we had tea with a friend and sat with them as we sit with the dead: delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion. Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?

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Steven Hickman is a Clinical Psychologist, Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness and the Director of Professional Training for the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Steven will be co-leading 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion courses on June 1-6, 2015 in London; July 5-10, 2015 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York; and October 5-10, 2015 at Fara Sabina Clarisse Eremite Monastery in Rieti, Italy. For dates and locations of other MSC courses around the world, see the Center for MSC website.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2015 12:36 am

    “Broad attention” and the “imperative of the moment” and other evocative phrases really spoke to me. I thank you for sharing these beautiful and valuable thoughts. I read, and re-read, and will meditate on this in my day today

  2. May 8, 2015 8:28 pm

    Greetings from Sydney!
    Wonderful thought-provoking post Steve, and this part especially resonated for me:
    “And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care…”
    It seems I need to see and read this message often – it always brings me up short as I reflect on how much our ” healing, change, improvement, relief and release ” lies totally within our own hands and heart. And the negative painful self-judgment that arises as I assess in an instant how far I fall short in applying this knowledge. And with that, I find myself throwing the second dart of suffering ….and so it goes on….
    Peter Rendell, in his book Living Life with Love, has something to say on this theme of caring relationship to ourselves which I find helpful and use in my MBSR teaching. He calls it ‘Your Relationship with You!’.
    “You are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk or your life on a bus or in a car or at the computer or on the sports field or at the yoga studio… Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank accounts but also your soul. Your primary relationship is with yourself, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for your entire lifetime.
    One thing is for sure. You will be with you until the day you die. YOU are your only guaranteed ‘life partner’. So why not have a love affair with yourself. You can fully love others only after you discover how to compassionately love you.”
    Here’s to going forward and remembering your closing sentence Steve, “Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?”

  3. July 5, 2016 11:00 pm

    well said…”…delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion.”

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