On This Too
Last weekend I took my husband to a day-long meditation retreat in New York City. This was ostensibly a birthday gift for him. He is not a someone who meditates, but – like eating fresh vegetables or going to bed early – he’s usually glad he did. It was a selfish gift, in a way. The day was being led by one of my favorite western Buddhist teachers and this was a rare opportunity to do nothing for eight hours but train our hearts and minds on matters such as kindness, peacefulness, forgiveness, equanimity. We filed into the great hall at Ethical Culture, which quickly filled with six, seven hundred people who had all bought tickets and made room in their lives for a day dedicated to the psychology of Buddhist meditation. Some had overnight bags with them, and appeared to have come straight from the airport or the train station.
As the day progressed, I sat next to my husband and felt my heart soften and expand. If it’s possible to feel the hearts and minds of others soften and expand, the whole room felt full of pulsing, aching, tender hearts, all yearning, all longing, all so very human. Jack Kornfield sat alone in the center of a vast stage, papers and books arranged all around him and wove references ranging from Diane Ackerman to the Dalai Lama into a tapestry that seemed to hold the whole room together.
In the early afternoon – while in the midst of a teaching on equanimity – my phone began to vibrate in my bag. I ignored it, but it kept vibrating, so finally, I glanced at it. It was my sixteen year old son calling. He had just tried me twice. I slipped out of the great hall and into a corridor to return his call. When he picked up, he was sobbing. My breath caught in my throat. What? I spoke softly into the phone. What happened?
A beloved young teacher at his school had been driving down a country road earlier in the day with his two small children strapped into the back of his car. He’d been in a head-on collision. He didn’t make it, my son said through his tears. Information wasn’t yet known about the children. It seemed that one of them was seriously injured. The wife and mother – my son’s former English teacher at the same school – had been teaching classes and was not in the car.
I sank to a stair in the hallway and felt tears streaming down my own cheeks. I’m so sorry, I kept saying to Jacob. I’m so sorry. Inside the great hall, six hundred people had closed their eyes and were meditating. The delicate fabric of the world unraveled and revealed itself in all its fragility, in its invisible pattern. In its beauty and its terror. My heart broke for the family. For the whole school community. My heart broke for my boy, who had experienced loss, but not this kind — not the kind that comes like a claw from behind the curtain and grabs you and shakes you until there seems to be nothing left. He hadn’t known about the suddenness, the revelation of randomness and chaos. He hadn’t yet seen up close the shattering loss of a life cut short on a sunny Saturday morning on a country road. He was so young, my son said, his voice shaking.
I made my way back into the great hall and slid next to my husband. I whispered the terrible news in his ear and we both sat there, shaken to the core. How do we hold all of life in our hearts without our hearts breaking? How do we love, knowing that love will lead to such unbearable loss? How do we soften – rather than harden – our hearts to the irrefutable truth that life is suffering? This too, Jack had said earlier in the day. This too, this too. I am familiar with the claw that comes from behind the curtain. On some days, I have made my peace with it. On other days – like this one, a flag flying at half-mast on the safe and cozy campus of a small, heartbroken New England school – I shake my fist against it. But regardless, if I keep my heart soft I will let in the pain, and also the light and love. This too.