Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
It is the morning of the first full day of my Centering Prayer retreat, and Cynthia, our instructor, begins with this simple monotonic chant. The sound builds as the rest of us chime in; harmonies begin to resonate, and the last single note is followed by the chime of a Tibetan bowl; together the sounds echo softly in the room as we settle down to begin our week of silence.
As is usual on these retreats (this is my fifth or sixth, I think) I began the week wrestling with the twin demons of resistance and self-loathing. My mind comes up with all kinds of excuses to stay at the surface -- there's no coffee, I have a headache, the room is too hot, this seat is lumpy, now I can't get that stupid chant out of my head -- and my inner witness lists critical observations on those thoughts, my reactions to my surroundings, and my interactions with these fellow retreatants with the running commentary of a sportscaster.
It's all a familiar part of the settling in period -- it's almost as if I have to sift through all that mud to get to the gold beneath -- and I was looking forward to the deeper riches that would inevitably emerge as the week wore on.
Unfortunately it didn't play out that way. One of our cats has been losing weight, so I took her in the Friday before I left to see if she had some sort of intestinal bug. And when I called home Monday at the mid-day break to see if the results had arrived from the testing, it was to discover that her kidneys were shutting down and she might not last out the week. She's only 5 years old, so they suspect this was a congenital defect that's been building for some time (she's always been thin), but it did come as a shock.
By Tuesday afternoon it became apparent that my husband would be forced to make a superhuman effort to keep her alive until my return, and that such efforts would take a considerable toll on both him and the cat, so yesterday afternoon I drove home in time to meet him at the vet's office and bring the cat home after a day of artificial hydration.
I spent the evening watching TV with Pippa curled on my chest, and awakened, restless, from a cat dream this morning at 4 am, so went to snuggle again with her in the bathroom that has become her temporary home. So it's not surprising that my meditation period (which I initially tried to do with her on my lap, but she headed back to her little nest in the bathroom) was pretty unfocused.
Only this time the distracting music in my head was a song from the play I'm rehearsing for these days. The play is Once Upon a Mattress (I play a kitchen wench, a very tiny non-speaking role, but I do a lot of singing). The song is "The Swamps of Home," and the line that keeps passing through my head is this:
The swamps of home
Are lovely to behold --
From far away
(from far away).
The connection seems pretty obvious: while in Canada I couldn't wait to get back. I had this lovely image of holding Pippa on my chest (one of her favorite places these last few weeks), taking her to bed with me and snuggling her through the night. But now that I'm home, the reality is pretty overwhelming.
She's really not comfortable snuggling, or even moving, and she can't bear to be far from the water bowl or the litter box. I lay on the floor beside her for a while, stroking her and hearing her purr (now very faint) but that was too uncomfortable a position to maintain for long.
And when I close my eyes, I'm swamped with thoughts: how much pain is she in? How long do I let her suffer? What decision will my daughter make -- will she take the train home to say goodbye to the cat? Should I let the dog play with Pippa (they were always close) or is he too rough? Would the other cats be a comfort or just an irritation? Did I do the right thing? Should we just have let the vet put her down yesterday afternoon instead of bringing her home?
And how can I hope to give her some peace with this if I can't get peace with it?
But I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, this morning. And I had come to a section labeled Generosity. It seemed an appropriate subject, as we had been discussing giving, receiving, and abundance before I left the retreat. And he writes:
"You might experiment with using the cultivation of generosity as a vehicle for deep self-observation and inquiry as well as an exercise in giving. A good place to start is with yourself. See if you can give yourself gifts that may be true blessings, such as self-acceptance, or some time each day with no purpose. Practice feeling deserving enough to accept these gifts without obligation -- to simply receive from yourself, and from the universe."
So that's my job today, here, as I sit wallowing in the swamps of home: to accept that this will not be easy; to do my best to stay mindful -- aware of and tender with my own sadness while remaining attuned to my husband, daughter, and Pippa; and to trust that together we will be doing the right thing, whatever that might be.
Acceptance, and trust: huge gifts; the gold that lies beneath all those muddy thoughts. I know it's there, I just need the patience to sit with the mud and keep sifting.