From The Under 35 Project: “Because of That, This”

Profound loss can create a sudden, uninvited wake-up call, says Lisa Wilson. When she received hers, she was gifted with new perspectives.

Shambhala Sun
11 January 2013
Photo by Amaury Salas

Because death is this.
Because art is this.
This is, because of that.

That’s the funny thing about death. It completely changes your experience of life.

Haven’t we all gotten one of “those” calls? One of those wake-up calls that we didn’t schedule, one of those calls we wish we could just ignore and go back to sleep?

Mine came on a beautiful afternoon in May. My one-year old son was playing in the room of the house we’d just purchased when my husband answered the phone. I remember being frustrated that he’d called me away from my internet searching on ‘whimsy’… that I’d been pulled away from what I’d rather be doing. There are lessons even in the moments before.

He was very stolid, in his own state of shock. He spoke quickly and urgently. My brain having just shut down, I recall thinking this isn’t right. No, this isn’t right. He isn’t right. 

There simply isn’t a right when you learn that your father just committed suicide. Nor a wrong. Nor up, nor down, nor time, nor anything but that reality spinning around and around.

Very little changed, yet absolutely nothing was the same. Bills still had to be paid and the children taken care of. But the ground on which I stood was gone. So I simply started to float. I figured this was how life was now – that this is how I would feel until it was my turn to die.

But that’s a funny thing about life. Experiencing it completely changes your understanding of death.

My memories are basically compartmentalized – BHD (Before his death) and AHD (After his death). The latter are certainly more vivid – those were the ones for which I was most awake. My more recent memories are shaped from a unique mix of experiencing this profound loss stirred slowly with study on impermanence / suffering, and then baked for several months in a searing awareness.  Of all that was thrown in though, my favorite ingredient is art.

Art requires only two things.

1) That we experience.
2) That we share that experience.

How easy it seems.

Yet how easy it is to know suffering, to misunderstand the cause of that suffering, to ignore the wake-up calls, and cling to our sleep. Pillow after pillow piled on our head, we still feel the pain but miss the experience.

In the months after my father’s death, I was buried deeper in my metaphysical and actual bed than most. No matter how hard I tried, though, I could not go back to sleep.

A year later, I gave up on the chase of that illusive sleep of ignorance. I let go of my illusions that life is what I expect it to be. I threw back my covers. Naked and shivering, I stepped into the experience.

I pulled picture after picture, emotion after emotion, and made a short video to share with family. I felt pain deeper than I’d allowed myself to know and breath deeper in my lungs than I knew was possible.

Through my art, through the fire, through my willingness to shed my illusions, I began my practice of awakening. It began a practice and will remain a practice because, when referring to it in that sense, I am allowed my successes alongside my foibles and bumps in the road.

Case in point:  A few years went by before I truly delved into art again.  How easy it is to rush through the years and not truly experience life when others are doing exactly the same! Art, meditation, deep exploration all fell away as the mundane rushed on. But that knowing wouldn’t go away, that awareness that there was “something more.” So I kept on practicing.

When my grandmother died, after the initial tears and heart-wrenching pain, I went straight for my paints. With two colors and one paintbrush, I stepped outside, let the wind blow past and my emotions flow as gracefully as the paint strokes across the paper.

The next day, I was able to write her eulogy. The following, I was able to deliver it. I cried deeply, but I kept breathing as I saw the chiseled hole beneath her coffin on the gravesite. I’ve hugged my mother, taken the kids trick-or-treating, and done the laundry.

My practice isn’t confined to my meditation cushion, my yoga mat, nor my canvas. It doesn’t end with right speech nor meditative breath. It doesn’t exist just amidst friends (but forgotten amidst enemies and those who ride my bumper while I’m driving.) I no longer turn to books for the Final Answer, just like I don’t bow to the finger that points to the moon. All these might show me the way, but they are not the truth. And with every breath, I practice for that truth.

Because that next phone call can come at any time.

I find truth in the laundry, the hug, the purple paint, the pain, the hole in the ground, the laughter, the candy, the phone call. I remember, I forget.

That’s the funny thing about the truth. Once you experience it, it is everywhere … and nowhere.

So I walk, breathe, paint, awaken, fall asleep, awaken again, and answer the phone. Because of that,

This is.