Minutes & lifetimes

Ten minutes. Ten minutes of sitting on the edge of a pool somewhere in a suburb of Jakarta, eyes closed, breathing steadily, legs dangling in the water as I tried to not let the occasional mosquito fly-by distract me. At the end of yet another harried day of passively commuting through Jakarta’s famed traffic, tortuously moving from government office to government office in my quest for a foreigner research permit, I found these ten minutes of quiet back at the guesthouse.

Ten minutes that set into motion a seismic shift in how I approached my complex, often fraught, relationship with my father – who, at the time, was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from me.

I had been struggling with depression for several months, though an extended research trip to Thailand and Indonesia helped keep me busy – distracted – and superficially fulfilled and somehow able to eat enough food to function (often a challenge for me when the mental doldrums settle in). To help with the ache of emptiness, confusion, and loneliness that still lingered densely in my stomach, I sought solace in a bookstore in Bangkok early in my trip. That’s how I first met the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, in the form of a modest little paperback that seemed to call to me from the shelves: the sun, my heart. It was the warm embrace my soul needed, as saccharine as that sounds.

By the time my work brought me to Indonesia, my reading brought me to a section of the book entitled “My Love, Who Are You?” :

Some day, if you need a topic for meditation, choose one that you care about… your “self,” or the “self” of the person you like the most, or the “self” of the person you hate the most can be the subject of your practice.

…You have to become that person. You have to be one with him or her, to worry about what he or she worries about, to suffer his or her suffering, to appreciate what he or she appreciates.

I decided to try it, hoping for some sort of illumination that might ease my melancholy feelings of disconnection, but also just happy to have something besides work to at least temporarily distract my mind from its own heaviness. I started with someone easy – someone who I had relatively uncomplicated feelings about: my mom. I set my phone timer for ten minutes, settled in, and began deep, calming breathing as my mind embraced the question suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh: “My love, who are you?”

For the first time in my life, it occurred to me: wow, my mom had – with my dad – packed up her life, her three small children, and left her home country to move across the world to a country where she knew nobody, where she would constantly be speaking in her second language, with a culture and lifestyle vastly different from the one she’d known her whole life. Wow.

I loved her, adored her, admired her, but had never taken the time to try to understand her experiences as a person – a realization that humbled my unquestioned assumption that I was a loving, kind daughter.

The next night, I tried a more… challenging… person. My dad. A loving, exuberant person whose joyful energy was tainted by a short temper, tendency toward petty bullying, explosive impatience, and a frustratingly limited ability to focus on the realities and logistics that his family needed. Over the years, these negative traits exacerbated the tough times our family went through, and we all suffered for them. I held great love for him, but also, great resentment.

Over my ten minutes spent meditating on him, I found unexpectedly deep reserves of compassion toward him. I realized that his life had not turned out according to his dreams – and brilliant potential – and that this was a source of suffering for him, a reason to not feel particularly good about himself. I realized that every reactive response I gave to his negative outbursts did nothing to help with the underlying disappointment he felt about himself. I saw that, even though my sharp words and censure might be “justified,” they added to his pain and really achieved nothing. And I saw what a remarkably optimistic, joyful person he was at his core, and how he was eager to show us his love for us, even if he didn’t quite know the best ways to do so.

Wow.

This poolside meditation on the other side of the world evolved into a huge turning point for how I interacted with him, and our relationship became more kind, more peaceful, for the years following. This transformation is all the more precious to me since his death three years ago. Those ten minutes helped me find a way to enjoy the all-too-limited time we had left to share. They’ve motivated me to try to keep such mindfulness alive in my life, to pause and reflect on the people I care about, so that our precious time together can be illuminated by genuine awareness and acceptance.

I’m by no means emotionally fluent in this practice. I won’t pretend that my actions toward others are purified of any misunderstandings, frustration, or lack of sensitivity – far from it. I have to actively remind myself to set some minutes aside, to temporarily shed ego, to open my sometimes vulnerable and aching heart to new realizations. And I have to learn more how to accept that this is not a practice driven by the notion of “fairness” – that the people in whom I invest time in trying to understand will not always return that kindness.

When I do find my way back to this practice, these beautifully unfolding minutes, I find greater peace in my life, no matter what others choose to do with their own minutes.

One of my last interactions with my dad would strike most observers as fairly bland. I have chronic pain in my left upper back – near my shoulder – from an old muscle injury, and it had been flaring up during a visit home from Myanmar, where I was living and working at the time. On my last evening there, he walked up a bit shyly to the desk where I was feverishly toiling away on last-minute travel logistics and work tasks that needed to be done before I boarded my flight. He gently tossed a small package toward me. A shoulder brace.

“Hi honey… I saw this on the TV and thought it might help with your shoulder, so I found it online and ordered it.”

My knee-jerk reaction in the past would have been irritation. Yes, I know, that sounds remarkably unappreciative and bratty, but – without getting too much into our family history – he had a long-running habit of wasting money on overhyped informercial products, even when there wasn’t money to spare. The purchased goods mainly ended up taking space in the chaotic, tangled mess of a garage. The often pointless products baffled me, and his gullibility as a consumer and his disregard for the realities of our financial situation had frustrated me countless times over the years.

A faint tremor of that irritation flared up, but I was moved by the kindness of the gesture. I looked at the diagram on the packaging: a set of straps to help keep the shoulder stable.

“I think it has magnets or something which might help with the pain,” he offered.

Further examination showed no magnets or any other pain-relieving features.

Striving to express the kindness and appreciation I felt, I softly said, “Oh, thank you, Papa… that’s so nice… but I don’t think this will help. My pain isn’t quite in the shoulder joint, and I think this is just meant to keep the shoulder stable. Are you able to return it?”

He was downcast, but he tried to cover it up: “Oh! Oh, I see. Yes, it was confusing to order with them. I saw an ad for something with a magnet in it that might help with the pain, but it was for the wrist or something, so I tried to find one for the shoulder and back area, but it was so confusing…”

“Yeah, that can happen… Thank you, though – it was so thoughtful!”

I could sense he was still disappointed, but I found myself immediately sucked back into the world on my computer screen, and he slowly walked out of the room.

My heart kept tugging at my mind’s hem, refusing to let me focus on work. I tried, impatiently, to shoo it away – “What? It was a nice idea for a gift, but it’s useless, so I thanked him and just nicely suggested he return it to get his money back. He’ll be fine!”

After some minutes of this, I paused. I closed my eyes. I looked inward to where my love and empathy for him dwelled.

Yes, I had been gentle, but he was still disheartened that his gesture of love had not been as helpful as planned. And, though I could rationalize that this situation was “no big deal,” his feelings still existed, and they mattered to me.

I scurried out to the living room, where he sat in his armchair, his TV-front refuge. I kneeled down next to him and put my hand on his arm.

“Papa… I’m sorry that it wasn’t what you wanted to order. I really appreciate you trying to help me. It’s so sweet. I just didn’t want you to lose money on something that wasn’t going to be used. I’m so sorry. It was such a kind idea!”

His dismay evaporated, his usual chirpy energy quickly rushing in – just a small bit of reassurance and extra kindness was all he’d needed to buoy his spirits. “Well, sorry honey, I really hoped it would help you. These companies need to make it easier to know what you’re ordering!” And so commenced some perky chatter on the logistics of online shopping.

That was my last evening of normalcy with my dad. The next time I came home, just over a month later, he was in a hospital bed, on a ventilator, unable to speak. He died a couple of weeks after that.

One of the memories that I clung to in the days, weeks, months following his death was that evening’s exchange. That decision to take just a handful of minutes to pause, to reflect, to show my love to him when he needed it, even if in such a seemingly trivial way – that decision and the feeling of connection, of peace that it brought both of us.

I still, from time to time, search out that memory and turn it over and examine it and gaze upon it with gratitude.

Originally published in Leo in Bloom Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance