August 24, 2017

How Death can Push our Spiritual Awakening into Overdrive.

Buddha statues, bowls of aromatic pho noodle soup, and incense wafting into the air.

These were the sights and smells of my mindful childhood.

I grew up with a Vietnamese Buddhist mother and an American psychologist father. My hybrid Buddhist/Christian upbringing was one rich with acceptance and altruism—lessons that propelled me onto the path of becoming a mindfulness-based psychotherapist.

The experience of witnessing my mother meditating at our ancestral shrine daily, the hypnotic chanting of Buddhist monks at her temple in Arlington, Virginia, and the love-driven sermons at my father’s Presbyterian church made up the spiritual fabric of my childhood.

But I had no idea that during the first year of graduate school, my spiritual awakening would be thrust into overdrive.

That call that I dreaded finally came.

I was just coming back to St. Simons Island from the famous Georgia versus Florida football game when the phone rang. My beautiful, vibrant, 57-year-old mother suffered a sudden and fatal stroke.

My life transformed in an instant.

When we’re young and we think about the existence of our parents, we often possess an unconscious belief that nothing will ever happen to them. Ever. This news, the undeniable refuting of this belief, shook the foundation of my being.

In the days and months of shock following her death, it was as if the world had slowed. I remember the fall foliage being more vibrant than ever…as if the trees were on fire, swirling with red, yellow, and orange. My experience of emotional presence had unfolded more intensely than ever before. The present-moment sadness awakened my heart to new sensations within the heart chakra—a cascading pain of human loss.

As my mind tried to make sense of this sudden tragedy, I felt the insatiable drive to journey inward. It felt like the only path to travel, the sole option. About a month after her death, I came to the yoga mat, a place where I’d learn to return home to myself over and over. It was as if the spiritual seeds of meditation and mindfulness that my mom had planted throughout my life were being watered through the tears of my suffering as I mourned her physical death.

My Vietnamese mother gave me countless gifts. Each step I take upon this earth, she takes too, embodied within me. Her courage to journey to the U.S. solo in 1975, her teachings of Buddhism and meditation, her tiger-esque determination to manifest abundance, the unwavering compassion she held for all beings. These were the heart-centered energies I came home to on the mat while I journeyed through each yoga and meditation session—often staining my mat with tears.

In these tearful moments, I began to embrace the sadness as an honoring, but, more profoundly, as an awakening to the richness of human existence.

It was on the mat when I remembered the wisdom from the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism: Because we’re humans living on this earth, we suffer.

Indeed, none of us are exempt from this profound human suffering. Perhaps your family has been touched by cancer, or you’ve lost a child, or you’ve had a life-threatening health scare, or a precious person in your life has died. These are the stories and circumstances that touch us all as humans.

But if we’re awake to our lives, we can begin to see the truth—that our strength stems from the source of our suffering.

Author and activist Parker Palmer writes, “In order to be whole, we must be able to say we are both made of darkness and light.” Instead of turning away from the grief, I practiced the art of turning toward it through yoga and meditation. Here, as I explored my inner landscape, I sensed that I was made of more than my grief and loss, and that the most vibrant inner light radiated from the depths of my darkness.

It’s been over eight years since my mother’s spirit left her body. Since then, I’ve awakened to the spiritual teachings of physical death, of mindfulness, and of a realm beyond the material world. My precious mother continues to be my spiritual guide, as our relationship is uncomplicated by human conditioning.

Our karmic bond exists as one of the greatest gifts of my life.

My message to you is this:

We are all here connected through the heart of humanity. One of the few truths of existence is that all things are constantly breaking up, coming together, and transforming. Embrace suffering as an opportunity for transformation and alchemical spiritual awakening. Our tears are shed to honor the love in our hearts.

These human bodies that house our souls will only exist for a finite amount of time on this earth, so how do you wish to live? Now is the time to create a life you soulfully desire. So inward, onward, and outward we go into the lives that can only be traveled by this body, this heart, this mind.

Commit to the courage to turn inward, for to journey inward is our highest calling.

In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Thank you, mom, for this boundless spiritual blossoming.


Author: Lena Franklin
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Emily Bartran
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
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Lena Franklin