As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been confronting intense heartbreak over my aged father’s alarming behavior in the last nine months. He has given away nearly $100,000 to criminal con artists in the hopes of winning a huge sweepstakes prize of $2.5 million. Each time he sends the criminals a check, it turns out there is another bogus tax or insurance payment he has to pay to release the treasure. If he was intentionally giving the money to a bona fide charity, how different it would be! My feelings of heartbreak are not just about the loss of dad’s assets. They center on my loss of the father I always had until now: a prudent, wise and even frugal man, and a dependable rock of stability in my life.
Pema Chodron teaches that when we confront a challenge that shakes us to our roots, we should be grateful for the opportunity it presents to soften from our hardness; to release our death grip on whatever we perceive as solid reality; and to awaken to the present moment, where actual Reality or Buddha Nature resides. In “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times,” she tells the story of how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, and his attendants were once confronted by a ferocious dog near the gates to a monastery. She writes,
“Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.”
Running toward the danger – this is the behavior that all of us instinctively avoid, yet Pema Chodron teaches that it is not only the true antidote to our fears but also the genuine path to spiritual growth. In the current movie, “The Life of Pi,” a small boy confronts a terrifying tiger on a small boat pitched in ocean waves until each learns to accommodate the other. It is exactly the same teaching, and it corresponds to Gautauma’s mythical confrontations with “Mara,” the devil figure whom he ultimately conquered.
So how can I run toward my heartbreak over my father, rather than running away from it to seek hollow comfort in distraction? In a word, I can use it as a lesson to help me come closer to attaining two fundamental spiritual treasures: patience and unconditional love. I have always been an extremely impatient person, and while I have loved, I would be lying if I said I have always loved unconditionally. Dad is giving me the opportunity to learn how to be patient with him and to use my new-found patience to learn how to love him even at a time when I don’t like him very much.
Every day I pray for divine guidance; I pray for God to show me the next step on the path. But there is a pre-condition for letting the Divine in: we have to let ourselves get out of the way. As my spiritual coach Jessica Maxwell puts it, when she describes the healing sessions she conducts, “I didn’t do anything, I just got out of the way.” Learning to be patient and learning to love unconditionally mean learning to get out of the way so God can guide us. The goal is not just to uncover my own capacity for unconditional love; it is to accept God’s unconditional love. This is a love that extends not only to me, but also to my father; a love that extends not only to my father, but also to me. We can only let it in if we stop using ourselves as a shield to block it.