A Begging Bowl of Tears
One end of the couch pointed west toward the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and the other east toward the Berkeley Hills and across the North American continent to the Atlantic. With breaks in both feet, I was prescribed three months in the wheelchair, three more on crutches. Mostly, I was marooned on this couch. I felt cut off from life. And it made me angry.
On this couch, I did exercises, hooking green Thera-Bands to the coffee table. I talked on the phone to my ninety-three-year-old mother, frail and scared 3000 miles east in New York City; I wrote; I meditated; I read; I edited; I napped; I ran Inquiring Mind meetings; I met with my writing group; I ate with my husband, Patrick; I visited with friends; I conducted Skype interviews; I tried to coax my border collie Roxie to scramble up next to me. In the evening, I snoozed off under a throw blanket, then wheeled myself into the bedroom to sleep. And most days I cried.
From Inquiring Mind, April 2014
For months, I lived on a crimson corduroy couch in the living room of our Victorian house in Berkeley, California. In a fall from a ten-foot ladder, I’d slammed into the floor and broken both of my heels. Save forays in a wheelchair, I was confined to this couch in our second-floor home, sixteen non-negotiable steps up from the street. Much as I tried, I couldn’t sustain focus on the ups and downs in the lives of friends or the wars and hungers around the globe. My thoughts and conversations devolved to the discomforts in my body, the revolts in my mind. My world shrank.
linoleum cut on Combat Paper by Caitlin O'Donnell, Barbara's daughter
From where I lay on the couch, I faced east. That meant I faced the door to my bedroom, and my gaze rose, up, up, up to the oh-so-high ceiling, to meet the alarm—that wretched smoke alarm I’d tried to silence when I climbed the ladder. There it loomed, neutral and unassuming but packing a silent wallop—like Carlos Castaneda’s specter of death over the left shoulder. And below it, I stared straight into the scary space through which I had shot with such force—crack—into the floor.
One morning I conjured up the ladder fall, framed it with my full attention. I reviewed the sequence of events.
The alarm blasts staccato. Bolting out of my study/zendo, I chase from room to room hunting the culprit. Of course, the smoke alarm. Not the first time that high-pitched clamor has driven me into a fever. I rush down the backstairs to the yard to fetch the ten-foot ladder, haul it upstairs and shove it below the offender. The blasting is unbearable.
Bat the sucker down! I’m a run-around-get-things-done kinda gal, just back from my daily hike with Roxie on the steepest trail in the Berkeley Hills. That’s me, conquer a hill, even in a rainstorm.
In a nanosecond, I’ll knock out the battery. I clamber up the ladder and reach towards the screaming alarm. Just as the tips of my fingers graze the battery case, the ladder wobbles, then tilts precariously. Panicked, I lurch to right my balance. I plunge down and smash into the wooden floor feet-first. A shock jolts through me. The battery plummets after. But the crazed noise persists, metallic bleats now inseparable from the throbbing of my feet.
Alerted by my crash, our tenants rush up the back stairs to the rescue, phone calls are made to family and doctors. In a pandemonium of tears—of pain and also laughter (I could move my arms and legs, I could see, I could hear, I could talk), I don’t know when the blaring stopped. But at some point I couldn’t hear it any more. In the bedroom, someone had located and replugged the true culprit—a wigged-out carbon monoxide alarm, somehow come out of the socket. All this to quell the wrong alarm.
As I remembered, shame bucked like a bull. How could I have done this? And beneath the shame, I felt nausea. I tried to decipher the feelings that had propelled me. Anger. Helplessness. Alarm.
That was it. No matter forty years of meditation practice, when driven by panic, I jump into the fray. Alarm and attack. It’s a way of life.
Painful to contemplate. As I looked around me, I confronted the damages I’d made when I first navigated the wheelchair—smudged and nicked walls I’d bashed, the scratched china cabinet, the doorsills I’d rammed into as I tried to get from room to room. Had I been using my wheelchair as a tank?
Another memory surfaced.
Bathroom or bust. I back up the wheelchair and zoom towards the threshold. Once, twice, three times, each attempt with a fiercer thrust. But with every attack, the wheels spin crazy and the chair jolts backwards. Slowly, I bend down and carefully line up the wheels so they face forward, then back up the chair again and with an intense push, jam into the sill. And again. In a fit of frustration, I wrench my body onto the floor, onto my knees, and crawl to the toilet. When I drag myself back and hoist myself into the chair, I charge backwards, smashing into our precious cherrywood desk inherited from my grandmother. I smack it off its delicate frame.
I surveyed the signatures of these many tantrums. Alarm and attack. I felt the residue through my aching limbs. This was war on a cellular level, as a way of relating to life. War against things as they are.
Dizzy with memory and regret, I flung myself back into the recesses of the couch and breathed. In the doorway to the kitchen, an apparition coalesced. In his ochre robe, he stood there smiling with his bald head, big ears and twinkling eyes. I knew him well, the forest monk Ajahn Amaro. In the crook of his arm, he held his begging bowl.
linoleum cut on Combat Paper by Caitlin O'Donnell, Barbara's daughter
Painting by Nancy Spriggs, Barbara's mother
I remembered lines of saffron-robed monks walking through Thailand’s country lanes on their alms rounds. The Pali word for alms round is pindapata, “a lump (or morsel) in the bowl.” The monk accepts what is freely dropped in the bowl and, according to ancient tradition, mixed together—curries, cake, mangoes, rice, fish, puddings, noodles—blended just as they would soon be in the stomach, without preference for one flavor over another. This principle is essential to his renunciation.
From the doorway, the Amaro mirage spoke, “Why not recast your restrictions as renunciation?” He made a broad gesture, taking in the wheelchair, the scuffed walls, me on the couch. “Could you agree to be content with all that gets dropped in your bowl?”
Unlikely. Wheelchair-bound confinement to the home was stern practice for a jump-up, run-around, hiking maven. My No-Escape Monastery was exquisitely designed—the smoke alarm, the nicked furniture and bashed walls—challenging me to see all that I could not control and how I protested that.
No dashing out to fetch groceries or a lemon from the garden. No skittering down the steps and hopping in the car to visit a friend, to go to a film or a talk. Not even sweeping the floor, making a meal, reaching for a book on a high shelf…
Take that bowl and dump it out, smash it on the floor or against the wall.
Or take a deep breath. This is my life as given. First step against entrenched habits, I had to learn to receive help, sometimes plead to be helped. Oh please could you bring my laundry downstairs to the washer? So contrary to how I wanted to be seen, how I wanted to see myself. Painful to witness the pride I had taken for so many years in being the consummate helper.
I’m the one who helps—my ninety-three-year-old mom, friends needing rides, my border collie pal demanding a walk, a meal or a scratch behind the ears. I’m the one who steps right up if my daughter Caitlin calls.
Now, as I sat on the couch and wheeled through my agitated mind, I smacked into other images of me—in which I hadn’t even known I’d taken pride.
I’m the one who gets a lot done in a short time—leaping up and down the stairs, scaling ladders, digging holes, planting trees. I’m the one who orchestrates intimate dinners and huge parties for many friends. I’m the one who hikes at the front, outdistancing the pack.
Ha! Can’t do it. Nope. Nope. Nope. Sitting on the crimson couch, I realized how much I counted on excelling at a whole bunch of things I now couldn’t do.
Could I uproot attachment to these beloved identities? I didn’t know.
The hardest to uproot was the image of myself as “giver.” Learn to receive, I told myself. I huddled into the couch, slithered down under a throw blanket and pulled it right up over my head. Through the loose weave of the blanket, I looked out toward the kitchen. There he was again, Ajahn Amaro, amicably holding out his bowl, inviting generosity.
I too had a begging bowl filled with gifts from friends and family. I thought of my friends bringing meals, driving me to doctor’s appointments, walking Roxie. And Patrick’s many midnight trips to pour out my chamber pot. Without complaint, even with good humor. I thought of Patrick, and Caitlin too, cooking, doing shopping, doing laundry, bringing me my glasses, my book, my shoes.
From under my blanket, I consider the circle of the alms rounds, giving and receiving indistinguishable. The monks are dependent on the villagers for food and the villagers dependent on the monks for spiritual sustenance. Every day monks provide villagers a precious opportunity to be generous. Monks and villagers sustain each other. I identify with both. I can learn from Ajahn Amaro’s graciousness—and receive my community’s gifts with grace. But, what can I offer?
On the couch with the blanket up over my head, I wept.
Crying has often come when I’ve least expected it, from grief, from frustration, from laughter, from gratitude. Mostly I’ve cried in the midst of doing my most resisted exercises. Not from physical pain. Something else.
Even after months of healing, having graduated from the wheelchair and regained some attention for the lives of friends and news of the world, I still fought doing these exercises. One morning, I took on the most challenging stretch, against my own vehement rebellion. I sat up tall on the couch, and spread out both my arms. I stretched them as far as possible and breathed as long as I could into the stretch. I relaxed for a few moments, allowing the muscles to loosen, and then spread my arms wide again. Stretch, breathe, allow. Again and then again. Opening my back, opening my chest, loosening what was hurting. With each stretch came a cataract of tears.
Briny salt tears slid down my cheeks, into my mouth, along my chin, trickling down my neck, pooling inside my collarbones. And with the tears came a tumble of thoughts, disappointments and regrets. Life won’t necessarily work for me the way I’ve wanted it. In fact, it necessarily won’t. In a few years I will be seventy. No longer middle-aged. So much unfinished, so little time to fix mistakes, to offer back. It’s less and less likely that I’ll write a book that’s read and loved and stays in print… that my fragile mom who I’ve relied on for her vitality will revive her old strength… that I’ll mend rifts with friends from long ago, as I’ve wanted to do these many years…
A lot of hopes to let go.
Slowly, a sober space opened in my mind—free of jostles and protests, allowing whatever came. It might not be what I’ve thought I’ve wanted. But I could bear it.
Right then on the couch, I adjusted the cushions around me, straightened my spine and began to follow my breath in meditation. The ticking of the clock over my grandmother’s desk became very loud, the hoot of a train, louder louder louder, then gone. A twinge in my back, a throb in my right foot. Gradually my breathing slowed down. Stillness.
An image came to me: a begging bowl of tears. Lucent and alive.
Over these many months, I had filled a begging bowl with my tears. I also could receive those tears. Both giver and receiver, I bathed myself in this cool balm of kindness.
As I rested on the crimson couch, something mysterious happened. The begging bowl seemed to expand, the tears to flow out, salt tang and limpid, spilling east, over the Berkeley Hills, and across California’s Central Valley to the Sierras and beyond, rinsing the continent all the way to my mom in New York, my East Coast family and once-friends, then out across the Atlantic. The salt sea of tears surged through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Mediterranean where rickety boats heading for Sicily carried mothers in head scarves, clutching their children, a little boy in a life jacket, and a man waving a torn white flag—Syrian refugees fleeing war.
From where I sat on the couch, the tears also spilled west to the San Francisco Bay, through the Golden Gate and out across the Pacific to the South China Sea and into the Bay of Bengal, to skiffs of refugees headed towards Bangladesh, a man in crocheted cap, an aged woman wrapped in her shawl, a bony child with dark luminous eyes—Muslim Rohingya from Burma, fleeing sectarian violence.
Tears flooded southwest across the Pacific towards Australia, through the Coral Sea and the Torres Strait to the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Timor Sea out into the Indian Ocean where a boat of Hazaras, Shiite and Persian-speaking people, huddled together, arms protecting their faces from frigid spume, as the boat rolled, wracked by storm. These too were asylum seekers headed for Christmas Island, fleeing persecution and the war in Afghanistan.
May the merit of this practice serve all. Opening to peoples yearning for peace and fleeing violence in our turning world, I am full with grief, and also love. From a crimson corduroy couch in a living room in Berkeley, California, I receive and offer this begging bowl of tears.
I invite you to watch this video my friend Mary Quagliata created at the time I wrote "Begging Bowl of Tears"