A special message to all the dear people that have signed up to follow my blog, and wrote me kind messages:
I have been posting mainly health updates for the past two years on caringbridge.org, but you and my brother inspired me to come back to my blog. I may be rusty, but I will start again.
In “The Last Lecture” published by the Sun Magazine, my brother Mick wrote about me with such love and generosity. I have no words to respond. I cannot possibly write like him, but I can imagine that I am holding up a mirror, so he can see himself in those loving words.
I showed up at Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis over fifteen years ago, presumably to learn mindfulness meditation.
The real reason was—I needed help. I was living in constant fear of a breast cancer recurrence. I finished treatment for Stage Three triple negative breast cancer, but knew this type could recur within the first few years. I did not know how to stop worrying about dying and leaving my three young sons.
It is challenging for anyone to cope with dying, whether parents of young children or not. My mother and father were both dead from illnesses by the time I turned twenty-four and this loss shaped the rest of my life. This probably influenced my belief that if I died it would be a horrific trauma for my children. No matter how I analyzed this, it seemed far worse than my loss. They were still in primary school. They already lost their birth parents through adoption. The possibility that I could die soon was utterly unacceptable.
I tried everything I knew, but could not find a way through.
Common Ground showed me a path and to this day, I do my best to stay on it.
Last year I made a modest donation out of gratitude, to the co-founders of the meditation center. I was honored when one of them called to say that he planned to use the donation to have a bench made for their new rural retreat center. He commissioned an artist to create the bench, and asked me for my favorite quote. The artist would carve it onto the bench.
I was touched, and also nervous. I wanted to pick the perfect quote to be permanently etched into this remarkable hand-hewn bench.
My teacher did not know I collect quotes, and have for many years. Until this request, I had never gone back to read them from start to finish.
Reading those dozens of pages, noticing what caught my eye and my heart as the years went by, was educational. I saw a trend: I went from lovely, uplifting poetry, to quotes from people like Viktor Frankl and Pema Chödrön on living with illness, suffering and death. Trying to choose just one, I became stressed. I wanted this quote to be positive and inspirational, not scary or depressing.
I tried, but could not pick just one. So, I sent the top four that seemed to resonate with me and asked my teacher to choose one. I claimed I had “no preference” because I thought that is what a good Buddhist should say. (That turned out not to be true.)
These four quotes have made an indelible impact on my meditation practice, my work and personal life. When I turn to them in a time of need, they immediately change my life for the better.
I. “The mind’s nature is vivid as a flawless piece of crystal.
Intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive”
I heard this quote in a talk from one of the pioneers of mindfulness meditation in the United States, Joseph Goldstein. (Link to the talk: The mind’s nature is vivid as flawless crystal)
I always thought the concept of “empty mind” that Buddhists talk about seemed drab and uninviting. Boring, even. Devoid of life. I did not want an empty mind—I preferred poetry, music and dreams. Carl Jung, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver. I made a point to avoid the emptiness talks.
This talk and quote changed all that. I could now picture the mind as flawless crystal. Radiant and clear. A mind that can welcome whatever arises or happens or approaches. The way crystal takes a beam of light, and without fail, refracts it into beautiful prisms of color.
Later in this talk, Goldstein says, “Compassion and emptiness are not polarities– they are expressions of each other.”
To me this means that when we open our mind to life, and radiate welcoming without judgment, to whatever happens, then compassion arises almost effortlessly. Perhaps they are even one and the same. Now this is sounding like unconditional love. I was so wrong about empty mind!
I also realized from this quote, that when I entered AA and Common Ground I was personally welcomed with this kind of radiant openness. No judgment whatsoever. And both communities and practices have been “ceaselessly responsive” to my many needs.
Another reason I love this quote is because one day at court, after returning from my first bout with cancer, I received a package containing a beautiful full-sized crystal gavel. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It arrived about a year after I ruled on a woman’s case, and she sent it to show her appreciation. She wrote a note saying how grateful she was that I did not just rubber-stamp what previous judges had done for years. (I read ten years of files and saw grounds to re-open it.)
The judicial rules required me to immediately return any gift to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.” I kept it.
After I got the terminal diagnosis, I began to write the story about the crystal gavel and what it meant to me and why I could not return it. I thought I was dying soon, and wanted to get that story down.
I have not died, despite cancer in almost every bone and three tumors that went to the brain. Six years have passed since they said I was terminal. The Crystal Gavel story is now 200 pages.
II. “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
I was astounded when I read this quote on a calendar someone once gave me.
For years, I questioned my choice of law school instead of pursuing a life of art and creativity.
This quote affirmed that I had not thrown away my artistic side when I turned to resolving conflicts as a lawyer and in the courts. Thanks to this quote, I realized that spending most of my adult life trying to bring peace and reconciliation to serious conflict was artistic. It explained why I loved my work in most of the time.
Thich Nhat Hanh showed me that by bringing my whole self to that work—legal mind, artistic creativity, personal history—something “vital and artistic” happened.
I am deeply grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for affirming to all of us, the artistry of peacemaking.
III. Be kind whenever possible.
It is always possible.
The moment I saw this quote, I knew I had to bring it as a theme for an international symposium I co-designed on Love and the Law.
I also used this quote to end an article about bringing kindness into family court. It was published after the symposium, in the Collaborative Review, the journal for the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. The idea of “kindness in the courts” was controversial, and the article caused a stir at first, but now the idea is making its way into many hearts around the legal world. An excerpt of the article was published by the Fetzer Institute. I was deeply honored they chose this article, because their mission is: “We aim to inspire and serve a global movement grounded in connection that transforms the world into a more loving home for all.” Five Ways to Put a Heart into the Body of Family Law
Even more important than all that, is me trying to be kind every day, in ordinary life, no matter what. Even when I have a rude clerk on the phone, an insensitive nurse, a loved one who makes a hurtful comment. Even when I start hating myself for a mistake I made or something I said. Those are the times I have to say to myself, “It’s always possible.”
IV. “Can this be okay?”
—Mark Nunberg, Common Ground Meditation Center
When one of our sons was in middle school, he became more aggressive and out-of-control. This was before we had an autism diagnosis, nothing was helping, and we sometimes had to turn to calling 911 and have him taken to the hospital for emergency services. I was told by one psychologist he would need to go into an institution forever if this continued. I was crushed, but vowed to myself I would never let that happen.
He had a breakthrough after one particular hospitalization, and we were extremely hopeful. I was fairly new to Common Ground Meditation Center then, felt uplifted, and even thought that my meditation practice was helping him and our family find peace.
I assumed the worst was over.
The very next day after his discharge, he tried to jump out of the car while I was driving on the freeway. I stopped the car in time, but he went right back into the same emergency psych unit.
I lost all hope. I stood in the hallway of the psychiatric ER, feeling the weight of despair on my heart. I did not know what to think or where to turn.
For some reason I picked up a phone from an empty desk in the hall, and called Common Ground Meditation Center. I had called the number a few times before and always got the voice mail. I had no idea what message I would leave, but I still called.
Mark, the lead teacher, and co-founder of the center, answered.
I told him in a rush what happened, how all my hopes were dashed, and how devastated I was about our son’s future. He paused for a moment. Then he said, “Can this be okay?”
Standing there, hearing this, everything slowed down. I looked up and realized I could see my son. He was sitting on a bed, with a security guard at his side. Suddenly I knew—of course this is ok—it has already happened.
I needed to open my heart to this, unconditionally. It was up to me to change in that moment, not him or the circumstances. I felt my heart shift, I really did.
Over and over and over I have turned to that question in my life. Not just for that son, but for everything. (He is now living independently— in school, has friends, still has challenges, but don’t we all.)
I used to think “Oh no!” as my immediate reflex to whatever I considered to be unwanted, bad news.
Now I say, “Can this be okay?”
These are no longer just quotes to me, they are practices for living in this challenging world. I am so grateful for all these teachings that are shared so generously.
Right after I sent the four quotes with “no preference,” I sent a follow-up e-mail saying that my preference was for Mark’s quote to be carved on the bench.