Ta si imithe ar sli na bhFirinne (Gaelic) – She's gone on the way of Truth.
My mother, Esther Bar-Kama, left her body one month ago at the ripe age of 90. She was healthy, lucid and full of vitality. She was busy reading, playing Free Cell on the computer, arranging and rearranging her drawers and closets, and of course – enjoying her grandson and granddaughter. One evening she didn’t feel well. She spent the night in the hospital, and the following morning, while fully conscious, simply stopped breathing.
Over the years she gave me many gifts, other than the gift of life itself. In her way of life and personality she embodied the values upon which she raised my brother and me. She was exceptionally nonjudgmental. She gave us total freedom to live our lives the way we saw fit, and encouraged us to seek and find our own personal path, not to simply follow the road paved by others. She never complained, never nagged, and never tried to guilt trip us. She had a fantastic sense of humor. The last gift she gave me was the precious long time of sitting beside her, after she had stopped breathing. Sitting there next to the body that was once hers, with tears and joy. The opportunity to embrace her with so much love and appreciation, and to release her on her way.
A few years ago I had a regular column on Maariv’s NRG website, and the following post was published there. I am posting it here once again and dedicating it, once again, to the wonderful, wise, loving and beloved woman who in this lifetime was my mother.
Living in Peace with Life
My mother is not one to complain. Unlike the familiar image of the Jewish mother, and in stark contrast to her husband, she meets life’s events with stoic serenity, accompanied by a nearly religious philosophy: “In life one must accept the good and the bad.” This sentence is etched within me as one of her typical life-affirming statements, alongside “everything in moderation” which she would repeat every time my brother or I took upon ourselves some kind of new and extreme (in her view) spiritual practice, such as abstaining from dairy, abstaining from coffee or abstaining from sex.
I wonder if she ever knew that the second phrase written over the gateway to the temple of Delphi was Nothing in excess (the first, of course, was Know thyself, which my brother and I took very seriously).
My mother was recently hospitalized at the age of 84 for a few days, where she underwent a series of very unpleasant tests, some quite awful. “What to do,” she said with a sigh of acceptance after one particularly gruesome test, perhaps trying to console me as it was hard for me to see her in pain. “What to do, life is sometimes hard.”
My mother’s spirituality is not expressed through turning to alternative healing methods: no acupuncture or theta healing, no tarot cards or Chinese herbs. Not even meditation. My mother does not consider herself a spiritual person, but for me she is one of the most spiritual people I know, for she lives in peace with life in the deepest way, even in the midst of what is perhaps the most trying times: when the body is suffering.
Our identification with our body usually causes us to take it for granted (or more accurately – not to relate to it at all), as long as it faithfully serves us. However, when the body is stricken with illness or when we feel bad or when we experience loss of control over “our” body – then we suddenly remember that life is not only from the shoulders up.
For many of us the notion that we are not our bodies is not only a philosophical idea but a deep and authentic intuitive experience. Some of us have even had actual experiences of this separation, as happened to me once during an intensive vipassana retreat, when after a long hour of almost unbearable pain in my knees – I suddenly found myself hovering on the ceiling watching my body sitting below, completely free of all mental and physical pain. And still, despite the insights and experiences that testify to the complete opposite – most of us most of the time are firmly identified with our bodies, and any harm to our body is taken as a personal assault.
Stephen Levine writes in his book Who Dies? that people who live in a material society that offers an abundance of luxuries and significantly reduces our struggle for survival, a society that measures self-esteem based on wealth – perhaps particularly tend to identify with their body. Our culture encourages us to spend thousands on cosmetics, weight loss, hair color, face lifts and cosmetic implants, and from early on we are raised with the message that our body image has a crucial impact on how others see us and as a result – how we see ourselves.
This identification is further projected onto our possessions, and we may even find ourselves saying “somebody crashed into me” when in fact someone crashed in my car. Metaphorically, we can express our understanding that we are not our body by saying “my body is sick” rather than “I am sick.” A few days ago, while walking nonchalantly down the street, I sprained my ankle on a crooked sidewalk. Friends and acquaintances that saw me with a bandaged ankle said empathically: what a bummer. It was hard for me to explain that I wasn’t bummed at all; I felt good and in an excellent mood – it was simply my leg that hurt.
Last week we celebrated my friend Aharon’s 50th birthday. He is a close friend and a quite happy fellow. For the occasion, one of his friends wrote and sang him a song with the following lines: “Mother, I’m fifty years old – I’m soft and life is hard…” (It rhymes in Hebrew…). I sat there and wondered if he meant that he has a soft heart, if life taught him to soften at the edges and become more sensitive, or perhaps he was referring to his body, particularly to certain places. Is life really difficult? Does the difficulty lie in the situations and events or in how we relate to them?
My guru, Yogi Amrit Desai, used to say that reality is neither easy nor difficult; it all depends on how we place ourselves in relation to it. We cannot control the events life presents to us; according to the Buddha, all living beings are inevitably subject to ageing, sickness, pain and death, and that is apparently our fate as well. However, we do have the ability to influence how we meet and respond to those very events, how we relate to them. Do we meet these life events with a still, relaxed, balanced, open, and accepting mind? Or do we resist them with a frantic, contracted and automatically reactive mind? The source of our suffering is our resistance to life, to how life is presenting itself to us, to how it unfolds moment by moment. We cannot foresee what the next moment will bring; we can only train our awareness to meet this moment with serenity, openness and acceptance.
Living in peace with life means understanding there is nothing inherently wrong with the events in life, even the most painful and difficult ones. In other words, the problem is not inherent in any particular event, and our suffering does not dwell within external circumstances or events. Our suffering stems from how we perceive these circumstances and events and our response to them. Again and again I hear the dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss repeatedly saying: “Take the problems out of life.” Life in and of itself is not problematic. An ontological perspective sees only facts: this or that event occurred – I sprained my ankle, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, I lost a great love, my bank account is overdrawn – but when we release our fears and the catastrophic narratives and scripts running in our minds – then these facts become merely facts, devoid of any positive or negative weight; they are part of “What Is” and we can live with them in peace.
The monk Ajahn Sucitto claims the purpose of the spiritual path is to fully grasp that the main problem in life is not the circumstances – difficult as they may be (not enough money, wanting a relationship, wanting out of a relationship, hunger and violence in the world, the 40-year-long occupation…) – but rather the sense in our reflective mind of being bound by these circumstances.
My mother’s tests showed everything to be fine. She enthusiastically resumed her usual activities: tending the garden, reading books, solving crossword puzzles, playing computer games and taking the train to visit her grandchild. Even when the train is packed and, at the age of 84, she ends up sitting on the stairs cramped in between bags, suitcases and soldiers, she doesn’t pass up the opportunity to visit her grandchild. When I said to her, All credit to you! she replied: “What credit? I simply missed him.”