The intention was to start unpacking equanimity slowly, from the beginning, starting with today's Wake Up Call. However, that's not what happened. Instead, events overtook me and I ended up writing about what I learned from my mom about equanimity at the end of a life. It's a stretch to share but it's what I've got. And who knows? Maybe it'll end up being an interesting beginning to equanimity after all. Happy listening.
My mom wasn’t a words-of-wisdom kind of mom. She also wasn’t a hugs-and-snuggles kind of mom. She was more of a whirlwind. A force.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mom’s death. She chose the date: March 17, 2020. We’re Jewish, not Irish, so it didn’t have anything to do with Saint Patty’s Day. She had no way of knowing what 2020 would bring, so she wasn’t trying to avoid everything we’ve all been through.
She just knew she was done.
My mom’s name was Carole. She grew up in San Francisco. Her father, my grandfather, was a lawyer. He went to Berkeley Law, where I teach. I wonder what he would have thought of Mindfulness for the Legal Mind, my class. I imagine him with a Scotch and water, in his chair in the den with the news on, trying to understand what those words even mean.
My grandfather was not a particularly joyful man. Maybe it was because he took a job working for his father-in-law in retail and never got to practice law. Maybe it was because his mother died when he was 11. My grandmother was not a particularly joyful woman. Maybe it was being an only child. Maybe it was the depression.
My mom suffered from poor health from the time she was a baby. Her illnesses were serious, sometimes even debilitating. She was allergic to most foods, most fabrics, many environments. She had chronic, serious, asthma. For 40 years she carried around almost 80 pounds of extra weight, on a very small frame.
She considered her illnesses to be her adversaries, and she fought them like a 100-year war. She was a fighter in all ways, actually. And yet despite that, she was determined to do everything, learn everything, taste everything, visit every great city, see all the art, hear all the symphonies, leave no stone unturned. And she did.
When she was diagnosed with heart failure, it seemed like she had time. She continued to travel. She still went out for Thai or Indian or sushi most nights. She took care of my nephew. She was one of my daughter’s best friends.
In this practice of mindfulness, we all talk about the breath a lot. We practice with the breath. We do that because breath is always there, rhythmic, interesting, and therefore a good anchor. A good home base.
Because one of my mom’s lifelong adversaries had been asthma, and even though during the last few years of her life she practiced a little mindfulness, she had an adversarial relationship to her breath. She was so accustomed to struggling for air. It terrified her and she hated it, but at least she knew her enemy. She knew what to expect. With heart failure, the heart can’t pump enough oxygen and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get enough air. It’s different from an asthma attack, which ends (mostly, or hopefully). The struggle to breathe with heart failure only goes in one direction.
Slowly, my mom’s heart started to give out. Then about 13 months ago, she got her nails done and tried to go to her favorite shop, next door, afterwards. She couldn’t make it. She just didn’t have the breath to get from one doorway to the next.
She’d spent her whole life feeling betrayed by her body, and feeling angry about that. And feeling betrayed by the anger itself, which tended to dog her. And feeling angry about that.
Anger does this. The Dalai Lama says:
Anger chases all happiness away and makes even the most peaceful features turn livid and ugly. It upsets our physical equilibrium, disturbs our rest, destroys our appetite, and makes us age prematurely. Happiness, peace, and sleep evade us, and we can no longer appreciate people who have helped us and deserve our trust and gratitude. Under the influence of anger, someone of normally good character changes completely and can no longer be counted on. Anger leads both oneself and others to ruin. But anyone who puts their energy into destroying anger will be happy in this life and in lives to come.
A few weeks before her death, my mom took a turn. She’d decided to die – and she revealed something to me that I’d known, and my brother had known, but that neither of us had known she’d known. She told me, “I’ve been angry my whole life.” But then she added something more. She said, “…and I don’t want to die angry.”
For a while I’d dropped hints about lovingkindness, hoping my mom would shine a little love on herself. And about self-compassion, hoping she’d reach for a little of that. But in the end, lovingkindness, compassion, the third brahmavihara, sympathetic joy – those weren’t what showed up. In the end, my mom leapfrogged over all three and went straight to equanimity.
I said last week that equanimity is both “taking the long view,” which is a translation of one Pali word, uppekkha, and that it’s also “standing in the middle of things,” or, “standing in the fire of things,” which is a translation of another Pali word, tattramajhattata. When the day came that my mom couldn’t walk next door from the nail salon to the shop, she did both.
She looked out on the long view of her privileged life, as a white woman, well-educated for her generation, brought up in a beautiful city, surrounded by art and good food and family and friends. She saw the armies gathering on the battlefield. And she saw death at the end.
And although she had been so fierce and so angry for so long, she did what the great Thai meditation master Ajan Cha said to do: let go completely, for complete peace. She just dropped the anger. She took the longest of views, and decided she wasn’t taking her anger with her.
And then with barely enough breath to stand, she located herself in the present moment: her 81 years, and her literally broken heart. And as she stood in the middle of that, in the fire of that, she was done with anger there, too.
Then she said her goodbyes, and then she began to smile in a way none of us could really remember. And on the morning of March 17th, 2020, she let go completely, and from where I was lying, on the bed with her, it seemed a lot like complete peace.
That’s how I learned what equanimity can look like at the end of a life. That was my mom’s final teaching. It was more valuable to me than the pearl necklace and everything else she left me put together. Maybe you’ve been with someone who is dying, and at peace, and you’ve received this transmission, too. I hope so, or that you will, or that my story - my mom’s story - is somehow helpful.