The first time I really “got” meditation, I was standing at my kitchen sink washing dishes.
My father was dying. Cancer.
Hospice bed in the living room-style cancer.
I’d flown back to Nebraska to see him one last time, to hold his hand, say goodbye.
Now, the haunting question of when.
I was 26, living in a 100-year-old flat in San Francisco, bartending my way through grad school, subsisting on coffee and cocktails. Standing there at the sink, I could hear the young couple upstairs vacuuming, the Chinese family across the alley clattering pans, and the cable car clanging one block over on California Street.
My mind was obsessively circling the drain.
When would Dad die? Where would I be? Walking out of class? Trudging up Nob Hill? Shaking a martini? Tomorrow? Next week? I should buy a black suit. I should book a flight. I should cover my shifts. But no. That’s so morbid. He’s still here. But when? How am I supposed to prepare for this? How am I supposed to think about anything else?
My heart lurched every time the phone rang. I was jumpy and anxious, a wreckage of nerves and nightmares.
An academic by day and a bartender by night, I was deep into a graduate program studying Marxist feminist theology. I’d taken a seminar on Buddhism in America, though I hadn’t really found much to connect with yet.
Meditation had always seemed like something other people did. Old, boring, middle-aged women-type people. Hippie flute music and incense and drapey outfits and the like. Not my scene.
My life looked like beer and nachos on Thursday nights in Berkeley and sushi and jazz at Yoshi’s the next. Saturdays meant happy hour gin and tonics in the Financial District followed by a tipsy cab ride to dinner in the Mission.
But I was doing some yoga regularly and I’d gotten a little bit into yogic philosophy. So I’d wake up hungover, throw on my ratty sweatpants, and stumble down Polk Street to class.
A few tidbits of Zen Buddhist philosophy had stuck with me from that first seminar. There’s a down-to-earth sensibility to Zen that encourages you to find meditation in your daily mundanities. The pedestrian, unsexy stuff: cleaning the toilet, scrubbing the floor, walking the dog.
Washing the dishes.
So I stood there at the sink, throttled with anxiety, hands dripping, and said to myself: Wash. Scrub. Take a breath. Feel the wet of the water on your hands. Rinse. Pick up the towel. Dry the plate. Swirl. Place it in the drainer. Take a breath. Pick up the next one. Slow down. Wash. Rinse. Dry. Again.
My shallow breath deepened. My fluttering heart stopped racing. My chattering mind cleared.
And for the first time in months, I felt still.
As Buddhist teacher Michael Stone says, “Your life doesn’t need you to think about it all the time.” Worrying about when my father was going to die wasn’t going to make the eventual reality any easier. Obsessing about the details wasn’t going to give me any more control over the inevitable loss.
In the weeks that followed, waiting, my life became a practice of finding places where I could meditate. I’d slip into Grace Cathedral, close my eyes, and inhale. Dad had been a Lutheran pastor, so churches had always felt like a place of refuge, even though my own faith had broadened from the Christianity of my upbringing. There was a contemplative heart to the tradition that had always spoken to me—“the peace that passes all understanding”— tasted in a moment or two of stillness.
Everything became an opportunity to watch my breath: baking, running, listening to music, walking to the bus stop. These simple meditations pulled me out of my grief, gave me purpose, kept me going.
On the most melancholy days, I’d sit on the bus and practice metta meditation, sending lovingkindness and peace to the guy with elephantiasis, the bus driver, the homeless grandmother sleeping on the seat across from me. Wishing them peace and freedom from suffering got me out of my head and into my heart and gave me someone else to care about.
Dad died three weeks after that moment at the kitchen sink. My roommates and I had a huge cocktail party planned for the next day. I’d come home with grocery bags full of expensive cheese and Napa Cabs and Russian River Pinots, arms blooming with peonies and gladiolas.
I knew that morning, somehow, riding the cable car home from the Ferry Building, we wouldn’t be having a party. My mother called later that night. I emailed the attendees that the party was off.
And so it was.
I packed my black suit, wept with friends, and got on a plane. We mourned. We ached.
Death had moved into my bones. It had breathed itself into my cellular memory, made a permanent home amongst the scars and the wrinkles and the roughening skin. I now knew death was inevitable; both my father’s, and mine. That deep knowing was at once a great liberation and a sobering admonition.
Worrying obsessively about it wouldn’t have made any difference.
But the stolen moments of quiet? They did.
This was already 11 years ago. I am now a yoga and meditation teacher, and the practice is my life. It guided me through the grief of losing my father, it nurtured my private passion into a thriving career, it introduced me to my husband, and it coached me through giving birth and becoming a parent myself.
I think of that moment now and then, that April twilight washing dishes, fighting to keep my mind from running anxiously to Dad’s last breath.
And I give great thanks for the power of a practice that will guide me through to my own.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters