Standing in line at a Whole Foods in an upscale mall, I was accompanied by others who were also exercising their health wise, environmentally friendly, and economically privileged choices.
As I looked over the items in my basket — organic apples, conventional raspberries, peaches, arugula, lettuce, Portobello mushrooms, chicken thighs, salmon, rice milk, coffee flavored soy milk and my favorite fresh baked cookies — I wondered to what extent I fit into this population’s demographics. How many in this line were educated, well established and well paid professionals and how many were similar to myself, educated, underemployed, struggling with bills and yet committed to spiritual purpose and a sustainable lifestyle?
I was buying my food with U.S. guaranteed food stamps.
In a society that values goods over goodness, acquisition over appreciation, and individuality over interconnectedness, sharing this line was lonely but simultaneously intimate. While being just a step away from the bare, immediate presence of my companions, the pride or cheerfulness or sadness or fear that they might have been feeling right then was concealed from view.
I was compelled to use this social safety net of support to purchase food for myself due to the reality of impermanence and being present for what comes as life changes, both guiding principles of Buddhism. Though signs were present beforehand, I had recently experienced an unexpected and radical flow of changes in my life.
These changes demonstrated the truth that I and my life were not writ in impervious stone. Due to income downsizing and health challenges, I turned to government support to contribute to basic sustenance and the re-creation of a path forward.
While food stamps are accepted in Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the mega supermarkets around the country and even some small grocery stores, I wondered that if my companions knew my real status, would they regard me as an interloper, a failed human being? Although such a revelation might have been embarrassing, I was not standing in judgment of myself.
Contrary to conventional stereotypes of food stamp users as “down” and “out”, I was exercising this option with confidence and a sense of inter-connection. I felt basic goodness, my innate wholesomeness and dignity, radiating, untarnished by my present conditions.
I was embracing my failures as well as successes, my losses as well as wins. While positive social and economic conditions can support the blossoming of our intrinsic basic goodness, it can emerge and strengthen under dire, dreadful circumstances, trumping fear and self-centeredness, such as occurs routinely in the face of calamity.
For the year or more prior to this time, the structure of my life had been coming apart. The ground had begun to crack five years before when a relationship ended and my major means of self employment, private practice and teaching in a healing discipline I had named Embodiment Education, went fallow for the first time in over thirty years.
I had never been financially savvy nor received trustworthy guidance in preparing for living on my own. I was orphaned at a young age when my mom, a single parent, died with barely two days notice. As an adult, I had always lived relatively simply but without preparation for the future.
I had no inheritance coming and no financial resources to fall back on, as I had routinely used discretionary resources for dharma practice and study.
I had borrowed from friends and empathetic others in order to climb out of the deepening hole, but those infusions only ended up patching the deepening cracks. Various efforts to re-create livelihood, while they produced some beautiful blossoms, and gardens to be proud of, did not take solid root in the earth.
When the economy imploded, those fragile, new roots of livelihood were unable to weather the trauma. And to be honest, since being orphaned the emptiness of groundlessness and the quaking question of “what’s next” had become familiar experiences.
While the cracks in the ground of my life were spreading, I also received a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, a life threatening heart disease, confirming all that heart stress. And then a big whammy came — a uterine cancer diagnosis.
I registered it as a shock and a relief, a culmination in which those cracks were actually breaking apart my life’s structure. A relief, I could actually let go. Major surgery was the recommended course of action, with follow up treatment if needed. Despite many years of practice of a healthy life style, I decided to follow the mainstream recommendation after alternative medicine consultation and careful consideration.
I had already acknowledged the need and desire to downsize and planned that for the summertime. When I received the diagnosis, I realized it signaled a major change of course, not just downsizing.
At age 63, feeling my mortality encroaching, and now indeed looming, I had to extricate myself, to start afresh. I had to admit failure free of the label of wrong. I had to face my fears, free of the label of weak. And I had to be present now, holding steady in the uncertainty, mindfully listening, looking, sensing, feeling, free of strategies.
As my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, said, “Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world.”
Where did my courage come from? Early life loss first awakened it, increasing groundlessness deepened it. When the rug came out from under me, the courage arose from trusting in the vaster space beyond me, the space that gives birth to fresh starts, unexpected openings. While landing might hurt, I would land, the earth would catch and hold me. If I held steady, mindfully felt the present moment and trusted my basic goodness, I would be attuned to what came my way.
The decision to enter a new phase of life arose in me without pre-planning, rather than that I made the decision rationally. I recognized and felt that the established structures of my life were slipping away. I surrendered to rather than struggled against this flow of changing circumstances, this uncertain, new reality.
I felt clear, open space in which my mind and body were synchronized, my belly gave birth to truth and my heart said yes. Here I was, about to have a complete hysterectomy performed, in which all of my reproductive organs, which symbolize creative energy, would be removed. Yet when close friends asked how I felt about this, I honestly answered “there would be more space.” From groundlessness came certainty of mind. From surrendering to change came a willingness to move on.
Doubt was short lived and served to sharpen my focus on the choice’s motivations and ramifications. I no longer wanted nor could afford living in the expensive NY metropolitan area, and acknowledged that the speedy, consumer driven atmosphere continually distracted me.
I recognized that my limited resources meant a nomadic lifestyle for the time being. I heard my call for intensive quiet, to heal and to reflect. I realized that my desire to write, and to teach through writing required a simpler way of living. I committed to find a way to honor my desire to work with women overseas. And I acknowledged that long term I would be living in community and that the search for that needed to begin.
So I assessed my survival needs, desires and the practical situation with mindfulness and kindness. Time was needed to prepare for surgery, for possible continued treatment afterwards, for decision making and then the actual activity of moving after the official six week recovery period.
Since I would be unable to work for at least three months and already being deficient in resources, I applied to the Legal Aid Society to assist me in negotiating with my landlord.
One of their lawyers undertook the difficult task and successfully arranged a rent settlement after presenting my circumstances and payment offer. I obtained food stamps and Medicaid and filed for Social Security two years before full qualification.
Since these means of support were insufficient, I requested financial assistance from my spiritual community, and received generous donations, ranging from small to large, from those I had never met as well as those I had not had contact with for years. Needing near term housing, I received a welcoming offer to stay with friends for the six weeks post moving. I was accepted to staff two programs at a residential retreat center. And I began to research overseas opportunities, e.g., joining the Peace Corps, teaching English in Asia.
In order to move just six weeks after that official recovery period, could I manage to sort, pack, throw away and store? It felt like a cruel segue but delaying moving was crueler and financially unfeasible. Could I then endure a second go round of sorting and packing to prepare me to take to the road for three months, to another friend’s home, the program staffing and personal visiting? So I bit the bullet.
For all the simplifying already accomplished, and despite the moves I’d choicelessly survived or previously made, giving up home was a major loss. I initiated that process the day after the official six week recovery period ended. The intense exertion stretched the bounds of my healing. My mental capacities for prioritizing, organizing and decision making were maxed out, and the innumerable small and large losses continually broke my heart.
But the core of the chaos, and of the accompanying pain, was giving up having a place on the earth to retreat to, however temporary home actually is. I felt a dying of a major sort, taking me closer to final passing than moving from one home to another. During that time of extrication, I felt little anticipation of relative freedom, little excitement at exploring new terrain. Yet my dying felt right, felt liberating, I was being called home by groundlessness – to fully embody the home that exists within me.
Sorting and packing was complicated by needing accessibility to all items to be selected for traveling. It is one thing when you can discard rejections to drawers, shelves, or even the floor, to be picked up when you return. It is another when every item must be put into storage, in a closed, labelled suitcase, bag or carton and room found for that suitcase, bag or carton in the corner of your friend’s basement. I did not sleep that last night before departure. And I left for the airport in a state closer to bag lady than I wish ever to be in or feel again.
So how did I feel standing in that Whole Foods line?
I felt naked, raw and at the same time, dignified. I felt in my element but sensed the deep unknown beyond, as if I were a fish swimming at the edge of my school. I felt lonely, facing unfamiliar space, where no signposts, ground or structure are evident. I felt vulnerable, entering vast, unknown territory. But a big smile was dawning, a smile of compassion. As Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron had taught me, I can smile at fear, rather than cringe.
I also felt simpler with less need to own the symbols of material security, to call them “mine” so as to shore up my sense of self. I felt closer to simply being a human being, using government assistance to support my need for healthy sustenance, so that I could regain self sufficient living. So often, as Buddhism teaches, we use “our” things, our toaster, cashmere sweater or house, our job, our lover, to make us feel more secure, to counter underlying anxiety.
As I have been learning, material things do not prevent change, do not ward off challenge or calamity. Indeed, they deflect our attention from the uncertainty that breathes in each moment, that actually gives preciousness to each moment — how will the next moment arise, will it continue in the flow or will there be an unexpected branch dictating a change in the stream’s flow?
That ability to smile continues to strengthen, as I face ongoing challenges and the inevitable final challenge of giving up this life. Staying in touch with, celebrating but not dramatizing the unavoidable loneliness and vulnerability, supports the healing journey I am following.
I will continue to pay attention, listening, letting impressions and experiences reveal what is right. I am confident the path will continue to show itself.
Most powerfully, the truth of my interconnectedness with others has become a living reality. The wisdom and compassion of others is continually touching my body, awakening my mind and opening my heart. Then because it’s not about me, the world gives me countless opportunities to touch others, to awaken their minds and to be present for their hearts.
Edited by Hayley Samuelson.
Joan Whitacre has been walking the talk of Buddhism and embodied presence for forty years. A pioneer in the mind-body, healing, and movement fields, she offers private sessions, workshops, and trainings. Visit her website: www.embodythejourney.com.