My father died suddenly this week. There's nothing like a heart-wrenching change in our personal universe to test our practice. The next morning, I had made a dozen calls by 9:00 a.m. I spent almost an hour on hold with various agencies. Kinda hard to muster up loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and (especially) patience while those utterly annoying hold tunes are repeating for the umpteenth time, loudly. (I'll never understand why the funeral home's hold music was heavy metal.)
But at the end of each hold, the person who took my call was, without exception, kind, compassionate, sympathetic (sans joy, of course) and patient. And in their practice, I found my own. They were generous - the foremost perfection (paramita) - in the way that is most helpful: they gave me courage not to soldier on, but to feel what I was feeling. They met me there, every one of them.
The Catholic priest who happened to be the only chaplain on duty at the hospital when I arrived, fresh off the plane with my luggage still in tow, looked me in the eyes not as we normally do in conversation, but in a way that reached all the way to my heart. I told him I was a Zen priest. He responded just above a whisper, "Then you know how to do this."
Ours is an all-the-time practice. Not just for when things are hard, or easy. Not just for those times when we can find our breath. I've forgotten how to breathe many times in the past few days, mostly because my heart can't stand to have anything going on around it right now. I'm not capable of zazen at the moment. But that's OK. I don't have to do the practice, because I've discovered that the practice is doing me. It's right here. It doesn't leave. It doesn't judge. It doesn't fix. It just holds me. And if I've learned nothing else in 20 years of practice, I now know that I've learned to surrender fully to that embrace, and therein find the generosity to look death in the face and see it for what it is.