Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta writes, “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses over it.”
Sometimes, the abyss of fear and isolation is so wide that we hold back, unable to enter the sanctuary of presence, frozen in our pain. At such times, we need a taste of love from somewhere in order to begin the thaw.
This was true for a member of our sangha, Julia, as she received treatment for cancer. She was uncomplaining about her fatigue and pain, but as one of her friends, Anna, commented, “It feels like she’s barely there.”
Despite her determination to “just handle it myself,”Julia was increasingly dependent. Her friends organized themselves to bring her food, and one evening when Anna came with some soup, she found Julia curled up in bed, facing the wall. Julia thanked Anna weakly, told her she felt queasy, and asked her to leave the soup on the stove. She heard the door click, and drifted off for a while.
When she woke, Julia felt the familiar utter aloneness, the sense that she was locked in a dying body. She began crying softly and then to her surprise felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Anna had shut the door, but rather than leaving had been sitting quietly by her side. Now the crying turned into deep sobs. “Go ahead, dear, just let it happen…it’s okay,” Anna whispered. Over and over, she told her, “It’s okay, we’re here together,” as Julia gave in to the agony of held-back fear and grief.
After about 20 minutes, with interludes for tissues and water, Julia quieted. She was still a bit nauseated and felt weak from crying, but for the first time in as long as she could remember, she was profoundly at ease.
“Some shield I had put up between me and the world dissolved,” Julia told me the following week. “Even after Anna left, I could feel her care. The aloneness was gone.” But then, she went on, several days later the shield hardened again. She had an appointment with her oncologist, and he told her that the cancer had spread. “I guess I feel most isolated when I get scared.”
“Is the shield up now?” I asked. “Do you feel scared and isolated?” She nodded, “It’s not too intense because we’re together. But there’s a place inside that feels so afraid…”
“You might take some moments and pay attention to that place.” Julia sat back on the couch and closed her eyes. “Can you sense what that place in you most needs?”
Julia was quiet for what felt to be a long time. “It wants love. Not just my love, though…it wants others to care. It’s saying ‘Please love me.’”
“Julia, see if you can let that wanting, that longing for love, be as big as it wants to be. Just give it permission, and feel it from the inside out.” She nodded and sat quietly, eyebrows drawn, intent.
“Sense who you most want to feel love from…and when someone comes to mind, visualize that person right here and ask…say the words, ‘Please love me.’ You might then imagine what it would be like to receive love, just the way you want it.”
Julia nodded again and was very still. After a minute or two she whispered a barely audible, “Please love me,” and then again a little louder. Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. I encouraged her to keep going for as long as she wanted—visualizing anyone who came to mind as a possible source of love, saying “Please love me.”
I also suggested she imagine opening and allowing herself to receive the love. She continued, and soon was weeping as she said the words. Gradually her crying subsided, and she was just whispering. Then there were deep spaces of silence between her words. Her face had softened and flushed slightly, and she had a slight smile.
When she opened her eyes, they were shining. “I feel blessed,” she told me. “My life is entirely held in love.”
We met for the last time three weeks before Julia’s death; Anna had taken her to a park early that morning before anyone was around. They put down a blanket to meditate on, and Julia was able to make herself comfortable, leaning against a tree. “I don’t know how much more time I’ll have,” she told me, “so while we were quiet I did an inner ritual. I felt this precious life that I love and that I’m leaving—my friends, the whole meditation community, you…swing dancing, singing, the ocean…oh so much beauty, the trees…”
Tears welled up and Julia paused, feeling the grief as she spoke. Then she went on: “I could feel the solidness of the big oak that was supporting me, and sense its presence. I started praying…I said ‘Please love me.’ Immediately, love was here. It flooded me, this knowing of being related, of being the same aliveness, the same one consciousness. Then the grasses and bushes, the birds, the earth and clouds…Anna, anyone I thought of…each being was loving me and we were united in that consciousness. I was love, I was a part of everything.”
Julia was quiet for a while. Then she said slowly, “Do you know what I’m finding, Tara? When you accept that you are dying…and you turn toward love, it’s not hard to feel one with God.”
We sat silently, savoring each other’s company. Then our conversation meandered; we talked about dogs (she loved my poodle and insisted she be with us when we met) and wigs and wigs on dogs, getting chemo and an upcoming retreat. We were lighthearted and deeply comfortable. We hugged several times before she left. Julia’s realization of oneness was embodied as a generous, deeply sweet love.
In sharing her wisdom and in expressing that love, she gave me her parting gift.
Whether grieving the loss of our own life, or another’s, we each have the capacity to see past the veils of separation. If our hearts are willing, grieving becomes the gateway to loving awareness, the entry into our own awakened nature.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise