Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lost Joys Shared

Earlier this week, I went down to the shore of Lake Ontario and sat at the water’s edge. I sat on the sand breathing in the sunlight shining on the water, the gentle lapping of the waves, the feel of the warm breeze on my cheek. And I was flooded with memories: of camping trips every summer with my parents when my brother and I were children; of floating on air mattresses on northern lakes and flipping each other into the cool clear water in mock battles; of cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire and sleeping close to the ground surrounded by the scent of canvas. Mostly, I remembered how much my father loved being outside. As a lineman for Ontario Hydro he worked outside daily, and our weekends and holidays were spent out in the wilderness hiking, canoeing, swimming, camping and generally just enjoying the shared beauty.

As I remembered my throat tightened and my chest ached. Because these days, my father is confined to the indoors, unable to remember previous summers of outdoor adventures or even to understand our conversations about current outings. Alzheimer’s has made him aggressive so, for the time being, he is in a facility that unfortunately does not have a secure outdoor area where he could safely go out to soak in the sun. His caregivers and I have talked about the wisdom of taking him outside anyway, but it is unclear whether or not that would in fact cause him suffering (if trips outside resulted in him needing to be physically restrained from going where he might harm others or be harmed, or if they ignite expectations of regular outdoor expeditions that they may not be able to accommodate.) So, for the time being and until they find the right mix of medications that will lower his anxiety and agitation while leaving him lucid and able to enjoy where he is, he is not able to go outside.

Summer is short in this part of the world. Sitting by the lake and breathing in the scent of sun-warmed water my heart ached for the loss of this pleasure for my father. And then suddenly, spontaneously, I reached out for him, letting my heart-mind-spirit find and touch his. And I told him, “Feel the sun on my skin Dad, see the light on the water.” And I found a new practice: the practice of allowing the joy I experience in something I know my father has enjoyed but is not now able to access, be for the both of us. It’s kind of the flip side of the Buddhist practice of mudita: cultivating joy in the joy of others.

In her book How To Be Sick, Toni Bernhard does a great job of describing mudita. For those with chronic illness, one of the difficult aspects of life can be the envy and frustration that arise when others are enjoying activities or locations we are no longer able to access. The antidote to the poison of envy (and the pain and unhappiness it engenders) is mudita- focusing on cultivating joy in the joy of others. Like most practices it takes time to find real joy in the pleasure others are experiencing that is no longer directly available to us.

I think of what I am doing as a mirror image of mudita. I am bringing my attention to enjoying the moment my father cannot access, for the two of us. I dedicate bringing my full attention to the beauty of a summer day to him, to all the days he enjoyed, in the hope that my full enjoyment dedicated to him in gratitude and love may touch him in some way I cannot understand with a moment of unexpected and inexplicable joy. There is no way of knowing if this touches him in some way. I hope it does. I do know that it deepens my joy and my appreciation for the moments I am offered.

So, being here fully in the early morning sun and the shade of fresh green leaves- the joy of this moment, this breath, this summer day- is for you Dad. You are the one who taught me to love the wilderness and helped me to notice the great sigh of the sun as the wind moves over the water. For this and for so much more, I am deeply grateful.


  1. It is the deep sincerity of your hope that your joy be your father's joy which builds a lasting bridge from your depths to his depths. The fabric that unites us all ripples with the love you are bringing to the surface. We all receive that.

  2. This IS an answer to my prayers. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for sharing this Oriah. I too have engaged in a practice of asking that the overflowing joy and profound love of life I experience every so often be shared with whomever may need it, whomever is unable to, like your father, be physically present to the beauty and miracle of what embodied experiences can bring.

    And somehow I know that the joy and love that is overflowing in me IS shared with another — the beauty I observe, the fragrances I smell, the whisper of wind felt upon my cheek, the love and embrace of the earth and universe that touches my heart.

    Knowing that this sharing does happen, even if I do not know exactly who it touches, also helps me when I am in need of the joy and love overflowing from another, that they are sharing. Ah, true compassionate reciprocity at its finest.

  4. Well now, I like this idea. Often when I'm out walking alone with my dogs on a quiet country road, I'm so filled with contentment and joy at the beauty that I break into song. The only thing that might make the experience even better would be if there was someone to share it with. Next time, I will visualize my joy spreading out to someone who is not with me or cannot go out walking... thanks for the tip.

  5. your father sounds to me, a beautiful man. and your shared memories ? they are kept safe in a treasure box full of joy.

  6. Hello Oriah,
    What a blessed history to be given and shared by loved ones, mingling with the Glory of the natural world that brings such healing to the spirit. The pleasure that comes from such peace is what inspired me to write the following poem in 1999.
    "Twilight Meditation"
    Evening delivers her silent invitation
    To all and to any who may have the inclination
    For another blissful rendevous
    Beneath her cooling camouflage
    Spiders step out into the night
    On homemade tightropes just out of sight
    Of no one watching where they're going
    But the stars and the moon
    And those with a knowing
    That the essence of night is magic
    Rushing rivers of cars
    Are disguised in my mind
    As clear raging waters on a mission to find
    Their way home to complete a full circle
    Distant dogs sing mournful songs
    Longing for the freedom
    To roam in packs with their brothers
    Wilderness beckons to the primeval heart
    It speaks only one language
    And calls us by name.

    Katherine M. Cluff

    PS ~
    I came across a profoundly stunning time-lapsed video of "The Arctic Light" which is backed up with divinely soothing music, that I thought you might like to share with your father & mother. I watch it every chance I get & hope you & your parents find it equally enjoyable. Even if at times we must be indoors, we can still bring some of the beauty of nature in with us.
    You can find it at the link below;

    Peace & blessings to you & yours,
    With love, Kat

  7. After we have spent time as caregivers, with loved ones in facilities of any kind, we appreciate just how fragile our time here is and how short life really is too, no matter how many years we live. For me, it was 6 long years, with my mom. It is still 4 years after she's passed on, a stab in the heart, remembering. I feel for you Oriah and for your dad. There isn't really much to say that will help except, love, remember good times and cherish your times together. He knows. He will never forget. Hugs, G