healing after grief, mind-body-heart


The shards of the broken heart

lay scattered

under the artist’s attentive eye.

He has repeated this process, again and again.

His calloused hands gathers

and pours them into the kiln

where first they soften,

then melt,

then flow molten.

Piercing and drawing it forth on his blowpipe,

he begins to breath,

and with each breath he shapes it

into what it has never been before;

something beautiful, once again.


The Dance of Letting Go

I did it. I just did it–something I’ve wondered if I’d ever have the courage to do. 

The other night I told a friend that I often think of beginning to dance in public places when I hear music that moves me, but I always stop myself at the thought. Because the next thought that rushes in is “what kind of fool dances in a public place to music only he hears in his soul?”

This evening I walked into the lobby of the Hilton Chicago and cascading down the grand staircase the lyrical sound of the piano flowed into my heart and filled me with a peace and beauty I yearned for in that moment. I removed my shoes, as if standing on hallowed ground and I began to dance. I flowed down the floor and back again, and around again, wherever my heart and feet led. And the piano player and I caught one another’s eyes for a moment and we understood, we understood that he played and I danced for the same reason. And, so he played on and did not stop. First a few people stopped to wonder who this crazy man was, then crowds, but I did not care who was there or who was watching or if anyone at all was watching because I was dancing for me, dancing to save myself, dancing to let go of anything that was not “just this moment.” No past, no future, just the moment. I danced until my legs could no longer hold me and as though the piano man knew I had released what I needed to release he faded the music to stillness. We looked at one another and we understood what had just taken place, that for those 20 minutes the grand entry of the Hilton Chicago had been transformed into a sanctuary of the heart. 

Ah, from whence courage comes, I do not know. There is but this moment, just this moment, and I choose to enter it. May we all have the courage, again and again. 

May you be well in this moment and the next. 


Training Our Brains for Happiness

A friend sent me a link to this TED Talk. It’s worth 12 minutes of time to watch and listen to. What does it have to do with mindfulness and healing? You’ll see. Enjoy . . . if nothing else, you’ll have some good laughs these next 12 minutes.

Be well in this moment.



I woke thinking of Tom today. I haven’t thought about him in so long. He’s been gone for nearly 18 years.

Tom and I were classmates and friends in college. He was vivacious on the outside, but struggled deeply on the inside. You’d never know it if you had met him. I remember the night he crawled on stage while I was performing with my band. He may have had a few drinks. “John,” he slurred, “I have to talk to you.” “Tom, this might not be the best time,” I convinced him.

After the show we sat on the steps and he balled like a baby. “John, I have to tell you something. I just want you to know something. I’m gay and I can’t keep living without it being known.” Well, it’s not like it was not apparent to all of us, so I was able to calmly say to him, “Tom, it’s okay. I know. It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t change the fact that we are friends.”

Only a few years later I found myself sitting in the brightly sunlit living room of his house in Minneapolis. His thin, drawn face, his wide glazed eyes strained to see me clearly. I came to see him in the hope that I could bring him comfort and compassion in the wake of the news. Yet, I found I could hardly speak. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

He sat calmly on the floral patterned couch; I sat with restless spirit upon the soft love seat across the room. He sat with an inner peace, resolve, comfort that I had not anticipated. I thought I would be the strong one. I thought I had come to bring peace, resolve, comfort to him. Instead, his peaceful presence brought peace to my broken heart, his resolve brought serenity to my restless spirit, his graciousness brought comfort to my unsettled soul.

There he sat, frail and vulnerable, struggling to come to grips with his diminishing body. There he sat broken yet healed, suffering yet comforted, forsaken yet consoled. And, there I sat unable to escape the profound and abiding awareness of the profound truth of the beatitudes unfolding and manifest in the frail shell of my friend. “blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are the meek . . . blessed are they who mourn . . . blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice . . . blessed are the merciful . . . blessed are the clean of heart . . . blessed are the peacemakers . . . blessed are those who suffer.”

Blessed, indeed, was my dear friend and blessed was I in his presence. In his brokenness the compassionate heart of the universe broke open; in his suffering, healing love flowed like the great Nile; in his mourning the hearts of all who mourn wept; in his mercifulness, mercy was gifted to me.

As I drove my car away from the curb in front of his house that day, there was one thing of which I was now certain: suffering is not us, but a doorway that can open our hearts to compassion or harden us like stone. There, in frailty and certainty of the watchman of death fast approaching, my dear friend passed through the doorway of compassion and taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  Compassion dwells in suffering, in brokeness. Compassion is that which allows us to look upon suffering, the suffering of others or our own, and to see it in ourselves and to know we are not alone–in the eyes of the abondoned child, in the swollen bellies of the starving of the world, in the shredded bodies of war torn neighborhoods and countries, in the grieving hearts of the abused and forgotten, in the loneliness of those who seek a place to rest each evening, in the groaning spirits of the rejected, the outcast and all who live in constant fear of stigmitization.

Thank you, Tom. Rest in peace, dear friend. I am grateful for your visit today. I’ll leave the porch light on for your return.

May we all be well in this moment.

Such a Simple Task Yet So Difficult

I have been reading a lovely novel of healing and redemption–The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis. 2007).

This evening I came to a most poignant couple of paragraphs. I want to sit with this and I invite you to the same. So much insight.

“When Ume’s daughter was born, she said she wanted to name her daughter after Shizuka, not for her strength, but for her ability to name her sorrow. Ume said such openness and honesty–something simple like being able to cry–was admirable. Such a simple task is difficult, … For her daughter, Ume had this simple wish: May this child gain the ability to cry.

Ume should have given her daughter a different name, wishing for her happiness instead of her ability to cry. But she would never have wished something unreachable. . . . Instead, I know Ume wanted her daughter to cry as loud as she could so that the world would know that she was alive.” (p. 118)

but for her ability to name her sorrow.”  I am thinking of something a dear friend asked me recently. She asked, “why are you refering to your daughter as “my daughter” rather than calling her by her name, Brianna?”  “Are you afraid of using her name?”  Her questions to me have been, in themselves, a tremendous gift of insight. Yes, to give something a name is to form an intimacy with it and such intimacy holds potentiality of both bliss and sorrow all at once. The ability to name my sorrow can be a frightening prospect, inviting into the heart a tremendous vulnerability. Can I name my sorrows? Can I welcome them as guests that have important lesson in store? Can I sit with my sorrows? Naming them, in itself, is an act of “sitting” with them, of being present to them at a deep and intimate level.

such a simple task is difficult.” Oh, and how. How fear of fear itself can make “simple tasks” so difficult.

cry as loud as she could so that the world would know that she was alive.”  Crying as loud as I can is really a pretty “simple task.” I find that it’s actually much harder to whimper. But, I whimper when I’m afraid to let myself and the world know that I’m alive. I whimper when I think that pretending to be strong is more admirable than letting myself know that I’m alive. Oh, to cry so loud that the world knows we are alive. What a gift it can be.

My heart is filled with gratitude for Yuko and my dear friend who have brought me such insights this day.

May we be well in this moment.

I’d Rather Live While I’m Dying

A dear colleague passed away on Friday. Lisa Marie was such an inspiration–in living and in dying.

I always liked Jimmy Buffet’s song lyric, “I’d rather die while I’m living than live when I’m dead,”  even though I’m not sure I’ve ever really figured out what it means.

But, I think Lisa Marie would have adapted it a bit. Something like, “I’d rather live while I’m dying than die while I live.” She lived the most dignified last few years of her life, each day so alive, so awake, so aware, while knowing without question that any day, any moment, might be her last.

I can’t help but share some of her little sayings from these last few years.

“Every month, I say, ‘I can’t imagine I’ll be here another month!’ and then everyone tells me, ‘You say that every month!’ and I respond, ‘Yes, but one of these months, I’m going to be right!'”

“I am 53 today. My dad died at age 53. Jim Henson also died at age 53 . . . I imagine I will as well . . . and I will be in excellent company!” (She was 53 when she died)

“When you know you are dying, it’s really just a new way of living.”

“No one gets out of this world alive,” she told Jim Stingl, columnist for the Journal Sentinel, early in her illness. “All things being said, this is not a terrible way to die. I have a committee of people working to help my dream come true. Like, who gets that? That’s an amazing blessing. How can I feel unlucky or cheated?”

I can’t help but think that she knew all along that if she approached these last years of her life in such a way that she was going “live while she’s dying” that she would ease the suffering of those around her when her last day came–that they might be able “live when she’s dead.”  Metta, no question.

You  are an amazing being, Lisa-Marie. Rest in peace.

May we all be well in this moment.

Swimming Again

I started swimming again. It’s a big deal.

For those who know me, it’s not because I’ve finally been cleared by my surgeon to resume this type of activity. Although, I did decide to return to the pool as a means of regaining range of motion and strength in my shoulder.

No, it’s a big deal because I can once again enter the pool and find joy in it. I was an avid swimmer up until January 2006. I swam regularly with the local master’s swim club. I enjoyed it. I loved the body awareness required to swim well. I loved the feeling after a workout that drained all the energy out of my body, only to have it refilled and stronger the next time it entered the pool.

My 16-year-old daughter’s death (Brianna Grace Vitek) in January 2006 changed that. She was a swimmer. Shortly after her accident, out of compassion and desire to find their own resolution to their grief, her classmates and the school dedicated lane 4 of the high school pool to her memory. A plaque with her name and photo now hangs at the end of the pool.

A few weeks after the dedication I returned to the pool for master’s swim club. All of the outer lanes were already filled with earlier arriving swimmers. The only lane left open was lane 4. I slid into the water, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breath. I think I finally just sank under the water and cried my eyes out. I must have raised the water level in that pool by a half-inch by the time I was done. I quietly slipped back out of the water, went to the shower room and went home.

I tried several more times to return to the pool, but I just couldn’t. Every time I entered the pool, I felt as if I was crawling down into my daughter’s grave. I felt like I was being sucked down, down, down into a dark, bottomless hole. I’d panic, believing I’d never get out–that I was drowning.  I stopped going . . .until last week–almost 6 years later.

What has changed?

How is it that I can enter the pool today and it once again brings me joy?

What, in this journey of healing, has delivered me to this place?

No need to answer these questions, I suppose; just embrace them, welcome them, sit with them as a gift, without judgment.

I’m not sure what the insight is with this experience other than continuing insights that . . .

time has a way of healing, and

grace happens, and

cessation of suffering does indeed come from resting in the awareness of the present moment and welcoming whatever arises and whatever falls away.

There is one other insight I’ve gained and am seeing again through direct experience. Everything is impermanent. That is, six years ago I was convinced that I would never find joy in a pool again, that I would likely never swim again. I believed the sadness that I’d associate with the pool, the swimming, was permanent. Ah, but it seems not to be so. As one of my great teachers reminds me constantly, “John, everything arises, everything falls away.”

So, I’m swimming again. I’m finding joy in it, again.

It is a big deal.

May you be well in this moment.

Stand Firm in That Which You Are


Poem 1

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the

soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of

imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

Kindness Heals

Last night I had the fortune of observing a gentleman teach a religious education class to a group of 7th graders. At one point he asked them, “do you know how you can receive grace today?” A lot of blank faces followed. Then he continued, “by being kind to another person, that’s the best way.”

I was so struck by the profundity of what this man just did with these young kids. He could have sat there and downloaded doctrine on them, could have told them some pious act that a 7th grader would never even contemplate. Instead, “be kind to another person, that’s the best way.”

My wife has a saying written on the chalk board (seriously, old school house chalk board–for those of you who are digital natives, I can send a photo of what such a thing looks like) in our kitchen, it reads:

If you want happiness for an hour–take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day–go fishing.

If you want happiness for a year–inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime–help somebody

There it is again, “be kind to another person, that’s the best way.”

A dear friend and I were exchanging thoughts yesterday about the vulnerability and pain that accompanies growth and healing. She shared this, from Philo of Alexandria:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

When grief (sadness, sorrow or pain following loss) arises, kindness is often “the best way.” First, by simply being kind to ourselves, gentle with ourselves. How often, when grief arises, do we say something to ourselves, like, “oh, I shouldn’t be feeling this way?” or “I shouldn’t feel bad, others have it much worse than me.” or, “it’s been long enough, I should be over this by now.” Rather, when grief arises, can we allow our heart to say to mind and body, “ah, welcome grief. so here you are visiting me in this moment. have a seat on the porch and sit as long as you’d like. I’ll grab some tea.” (see my post on Caution: Thinking if you haven’t yet)

There is great paradox also in the truth we all discover on this road of life that in demonstrating kindness toward others, in turn, our own heart receives kindness, innate joy follows. Demonstrating kindness toward others actually heals us.

There is a specific meditation practice that can aid us in developing the habit of kindness. Metta or loving-kindness. Here’s a link to a free resource site that teaches loving-kindness practice.

May you be free of suffering.

May you be at ease.

May you be well in this moment, and the next.

Caution: Thinking

The human mind has the amazing, generative capacity to think. So much good in the world has come about because of it. There’s creative thinking, critical thinking, analytical thinking, imaginitive thinking; and they allow us to do amazing things, such as memorize information, understand and interpret meaning, apply knowledge to solve problems, differentiate and discriminate, choose, judge, assess value, invent, organize, perform, on and on. How incredible and great is this capacity? Perhaps, because we recognize and value this so much and see it as one of the distinguishing characteristics of this thing we call “being human,” it’s why we become so empathetic  when the thinking capacity of a loved one or of ourselves is diminished by age, or condition.

So, hooray for thinking!

But, now the “bad news” about thinking. We can’t think our way out of grief (sadness, sorrow or pain following loss). In fact, trying to think our way through or out of sadness, sorrow or pain actually has the complete opposite affect of what we desire.

In other words, thinking is the perfect mind-tool for the “doing mode” of life, but the worst enemy mind-tool for the “being mode” of life. When sadness, sorrow or pain arise in the body, the mind, the heart, it’s time to enter “being mode” not “doing mode.”

Engaging the thinking of “doing mode” ends up looking something like this pattern: A first thought emerges, “I feel so sad today.” A second thought follows, “in fact, I don’t think I’ve been this sad in a long time.” A third thought, “I’ve never been this sad in my life.” A fourth, “I don’t think I’ll ever not feel sad again.” Down, down, down we go.  It’s a downward spiral. It doesn’t take much to go from an initial ordinary feeling of being sad in this moment to convincing ourselves that we may never feel joy again. Wow, what the “doing mode” of thinking can do in our emotional life. If you’ve ever recognized a pattern like this in your life, raise your hand.

Okay, now put your hand down, because the good news is that we can engage another way of relating to sadness, sorrow, pain–“being mode” cultivated by awareness of thought, yet not attaching to the thoughts and assigning tags to them, such as “well, I have this thought that I am sad so it must be true.” In being mode, we cultivate the mind-tools that allow us to let thoughts arise in our awareness and let them fall away–as they will do all on their own–unless, of course our “doing mode” kicks in and we grab onto and attach to the thought and try to fix it.

In “being mode” we develop the capacity to see thoughts as an uninvited visitor that arrives at the door of our house. Before the age of the Internet there were people who sold products and services going door-to-door. They made cold calls, which means they would just show up on your doorstep unannounced, ring the bell, and as soon as you cracked that door they would dive in with their pitch. They were masters at getting you to listen a little longer than you wanted to, and some were so masterful that they got you to actually let them inside the house, and then they knew they had you, hook-line-and sinker. Thoughts are like that and try to do the same thing.

So, “being mode”–becoming aware of thoughts as they arise, but not attaching to them–treats thoughts the way most of us wanted to treat the door-to-door salesperson. The bell rings, you open the door, acknowledge their presence, thank them for visiting before they begin to make the pitch, then gently, compassionately close the door. One meditation teacher says it like this; allow the thoughts to come onto the porch of the mind, but not into the house. This is the point Rumi is making too in The Guest-House. In fact, after reading this post, you may wish to reread The Guest-House.

I can’t describe how powerful the affect was on my life, especially in the ongoing healing of grief, to come to understand and cultivate the practice of “being mode.” It takes practice to cultivate this mode of life consistently. The practice of mindful awareness–coming to rest in awareness itself, resting in whatever is present in this moment, just this moment, without attaching judgment or clinging to the thoughts that arise; simply recognizing whatever arise, whatever falls away–moment, to moment, to moment. Just this.

Note: I am extremely grateful to the work of Drs. Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn for their work in articulating and showing the path of  “being mode” available as an alternate to “doing mode” when it comes to dealing with the emotional life.

May you be well in this moment, and the next, and the next.

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