Her college-age daughter had died unexpectedly in an accident. In a state of shock and controlled focus, she and her husband had reached out to friends and family, made funeral arrangements, housed out-of-town family members, carried on conversations. Now the house was empty; guests were gone, her husband had returned to work, a neighbor would look in later that afternoon.
She went into her daughter’s room. It was exactly as her daughter had left it – the bed neatly made, a favorite teddy bear propped against the pillow. She circled the room closely, running soft fingers over her daughter’s jewelry, notebooks, scarves, posters. She stood by the bed and could feel a tsunami of held-in grief begin to overtake her. She allowed the tears to spill out then, convulsed in loud sobbing, she eased her body onto the bed and put her head on the pillow. She reached for the teddy bear and held it to her chest with both arms. She cried and cried until she fell asleep.
She awoke several hours later still clutching the teddy bear. She got up, took the teddy bear to the living room and placed it on the sofa. In following years, that teddy bear would move about the house providing comfort on numerous occasions. The woman’s advice: You are never too old for a teddy bear.
That story made an impression on me when I read it in a women’s magazine more than 45 years ago. I got the message; and I got a teddy bear, several in fact. To this day (I’m 73), teddy bears occupy visible spaces in my home. And yes, I, too, hold them close when life hurts just a bit too much.
Hurt is part of being human; there is no way to avoid it. We can be knocked off our feet by a traumatic event that suddenly overwhelms us, or find we are experiencing a chronic sense of something amiss, an unease that floats just below the conscious mind.
We tend to blame the times we live in, nostalgically longing for the “good old days” though, in reality, such times never existed. In the late 16th century, Shakespeare had his character Hamlet speak of “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
True, those “heartaches and natural shocks” may be coming at us faster and more frequently thanks to technology and 24-hour “breaking news alerts.” If we’re not paying attention, we can get so caught up in it that we don’t notice we are clenching our jaws, tightening our muscles and not breathing well.
While most of that happens unconsciously, it requires conscious awareness to alleviate it. Suggestions for how to do that are plentiful: stay in the present moment; practice mindfulness; go to heart center; be a fearless warrior; learn to love yourself. But what do these terms mean? If you’ve been practicing yoga or meditation or spiritual centering, they are self-explanatory. The rest of us might ask, How do you do that? It’s a fair question.
Meditation and yoga have proven effective for several thousand years. They allow the mind and body to become quiet and still, to shut out external noise and chaos in order to allow the internal self to renew, heal and grow. There are many types of meditation and yoga, no one more right than another. A new practitioner should be prepared to try several teaches and methods to find the right fit. Even then, these disciplines are not for everyone.
On any path of self-awareness or self-care, the important thing to note is this: It’s your journey; no one else can walk it for you. Teachers, mentors and guides can show you various paths; but, in the end, you must do the walking.
So if we’re not going to carve out blocks of time for yoga or meditation, what else is there? As it turns out, plenty! Let’s go back to the teddy bears for a moment. As already noted, they aren’t just for children. They’ve endeared themselves into our culture and captured hearts of all ages.
Corporal Radar O’Reilly, the very capable and efficient company clerk in the TV series M*A*S*H, went to sleep every night on his army cot in the midst of the insanity and chaos of war, cradling his teddy bear. Magellan T. Bear went into space in 1995 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. In 2009 a British teddy bear named Raymondo traveled over 395,000 miles with airline crews. In 1956, Michael Bond, a British writer and BBC cameraman, bought a small teddy bear off a London store shelf on Christmas Eve because he “felt sorry for it.” He then proceeded to write the Paddington Bear books that have sold more than 35 million copies.
Finally, we have A.A. Milne’s 1926 creation Winnie-the-Pooh. True, he’s not a teddy bear, as such, but he embodies all the characteristics. And he speaks! So do his fellow creatures in Hundred Acre Wood. Their child-like wisdom inspired a book, The Tao of Pooh, in which author Benjamin Hoff correlates Pooh-isms with ancient Chinese principles of Taoism. Pooh characters cope with everyday life in a profoundly simple way.
“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.
“There, there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
In today’s ramped up culture, we would all be well advised to take time for tea and honey. Oh, yes, and to sit down with a teddy bear. Our all-grown-up self might scoff and try to convince us this is all just too simple and quite silly. Perhaps. And maybe that’s the point: It is exactly what’s needed.
Pema Chodron, in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving- Kindness, writes: “Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how previous things are. We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the dining room table.”
Minnesotan Matthew Sanford, author of WAKING: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, has been paralyzed from the waist down since a 1978 car accident when he was just 13. He teaches yoga. Yes, you read that correctly: he teaches yoga and workshops to “transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body.”
In a recent Twin Cities Public Television discussion with Kathy Wurzer and Krista Tippett, Matthew spoke of the importance of self-care, that having compassion for yourself is a prerequisite for having compassion for others. “We need to feel more,” he says, by simple awareness of ordinary sensations: sunlight on your skin; hot water on your body in the shower; a drink of water inside your dry mouth. He says, “I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.”
Compassion, toward ourselves and others, is what saves us. So awareness moves us toward that compassion and we now know what those earlier terms mean. When you notice the flowers on the table, feel the warmth and radiance of sunlight on your skin – in those simple moments, you are in the present moment; you are practicing mindfulness; you’ve gone to heart center; your warrior isn’t afraid to be soft and vulnerable; and you are loving yourself. Now expand on that. Do it some more.
Choose moments of quiet in your home. Question why the TV needs to be on constantly. There’s no such thing as “Oh, I don’t even hear it.” Your central nervous system hears it and there you go: stress! If you are actually watching the TV, the throbbing, pulsating commercials can be sensory overload. Your remote has a “mute” button; use it.
Read some P. G. Wodehouse or Ogden Nash – any writing that makes you chuckle out loud. Collect pleasant, uplifting images into a scrapbook; look at them often. Sip coffee in silence: be aware of the taste, the smell, the warmth. If you’re walking along the beach, be on the beach; leave the iPod and ear buds at home. If a child on the train is looking at you, put away the phone and play peek-a-boo.
Talk to yourself. Hearing what you really sound like might cause a change in tone. Or talk to the dog, the cat, your teddy bear. You are getting one, aren’t you? After all, who else will always be around and ready for tea and honey?
It really is that simple. The difficulty is breaking old habits and no longer listening to the hype. Yes, climbing the Himalayas or meditating in a cave surely bring about self-awareness that helps us take care of ourselves in the face of whatever the world throws at us. But we don’t need to go nearly that far.
Appreciating sacredness, says Chogyam Trungpa, begins very simply by taking an interest in all the details of your life. It truly is the simple things, always the simple things. And they are all right here under our nose.