On Valentine’s Day, 2004, my brother wrote on his blog:
Bitterness is a huge waste of time. That’s right, I said it! But goddamn, goddamn is it hard to abandon.
Peace, peace is where it’s at. I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Creating True Peace, and on a lot of issues the dude is right on. So I’m creating peace in my life, ending violence inside myself, enjoying breathing.
Two months later, just shy of his twenty-second birthday, he hanged himself.
My mother was a devout Catholic for most of my childhood, but she began to branch out in her spirituality once she went back to college and started working towards a degree in Religious Studies. She learned about Daoism, Buddhism, and Native American religions. She started reading Thomas Merton and practicing Centering Prayer. She sent my brother the Thich Nhat Hanh book in early 2004, a few weeks before he posted about it on his blog. Many years after his death, I asked her why. He was a professed atheist, with little interest in any type of religion.
She said that during a phone conversation that winter, he’d asked her how she managed to be so cheerful, so peaceful, in the face of such a messed up world. Why, he wanted to know, did she believe what she believed?
She told him about an experience she’d had in her late twenties. It was a Sunday mass—one the three of us were at together—and when she went up to receive communion she was overcome, infused, by love. She felt, she knew, that love was going to be her future, and that the love she was feeling was her gift to give. And, along with that, she felt a powerful sense of belonging, interconnectedness with the universe.
That experience, she’d told him—the experience of knowing she was loved, of knowing she belonged—brought her peace. She told him she hoped he knew that he was loved: by her, by many. That he was precious. She wanted desperately to impress upon him that peace was possible, and she hoped the love everyone had for him would bring him peace.
Apparently she also wanted to impress this upon me, because she sent me a copy of the book too. Unlike my brother, I didn’t read it. At 24 years old I’d settled into a comfortable discomfort. I figured the anger and fear that had plagued me for years, the waves of emotion that drowned me almost daily, were part of my personality. Some people were just built for equanimity, I reasoned. Maybe my brother wasn’t. Maybe I wasn’t either.
The similarities between us haunted me those first years after his death. We had both struggled with depression during adolescence, and we had both attempted suicide in our teens. I seemed to have come through it: earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, getting married, moving across the country and starting a career. But after my brother’s suicide I viewed my sanity as a taut thread, capable of snapping at any moment.
I couldn’t admit how afraid I was—not even to myself. My grief was a live thing, strong dark, and foul. If I turned to face it head-on, I was sure I’d be devoured.
I sat down to meditate for the first time in my life two years after my brother’s death—not because of the giant black hole of grief that had taken the place of my heart, but because I was having trouble sleeping. I might not have said that those two things were related. I definitely wouldn’t have said that I was seeking peace. After my strict Catholic upbringing, I was, like my brother, anti-religion: Buddhism wasn’t even on my radar. My practice began as an exercise in stress reduction stripped of spirituality. The particular process I used, called the Relaxation Response, was laid out in a book sent to me by my uncle. The front cover of the book purported a “technique that has helped millions to cope with fatigue, anxiety, and stress.”
For the first couple of weeks I sat twice a day—first thing in the morning and then again around 5 p.m.—cross-legged on the guest bed, my back against the headboard, my neck resting on its curved edge. I closed my eyes. One at a time I implored my muscles to release—relaxing the toes, relaxing the toes, relaxing the toes; relaxing the feet, relaxing the feet, relaxing the feet—until I’d worked my way up to my head and face, all the while taking deep breaths in through my nose, out through my nose, in through my nose, out through my nose. After I finished relaxing my head, I began to repeat the word ONE in my mind. Drawn out, sometimes, with my in- and exhalations; over and over again, sometimes, to match the rhythm of my heart. I slowed my repetition and my heartbeat and breathing followed suit. Then a tingling started at the base of my skull, spread down my neck into my fingers and toes. I floated up into the darkness behind my eyelids, lingered in a kind of limbo for 15 or 20 minutes, and then raised my head, prompting the flurried return of what I thought was my consciousness. It was surreal—akin to getting high. And though it was supposed to be strictly physical (a successful way to lower blood pressure, the book promised), it felt like more. In that floating darkness was the pull of the spirit, the separating of the conscious self from the body. Was it possible? After a childhood of turmoil and doubt in the Catholic Church; after an adolescence of anger, depression, and atheism; after an early adulthood of anxiety, fear, agnosticism, and heavy grief; was I capable of peace?
The short answer was no. After a couple of weeks I realized that my meditative calm was nothing more than a lack of circulation—the weight of my head pressing my neck too far into the edge of the headboard. The day after I figured that out I sat in a chair, head perfectly straight, neck resting on nothing. I breathed, I repeated, and I stayed right where I was—anchored in the flesh, fully conscious, and feeling my lack of transcendence was a failure. Years later I would understand that the sharp awareness of that session, as uncomfortable as it was, was actually my first brush with success.
And some part of me must have understood it at the time, because I continued to practice. I took a course at a nearby Buddhist temple. I bought a cushion. I read the Dalai Lama and Ram Dass. And, several years after I received it, I finally opened Thich Nhat Hanh’s Creating True Peace.
I don’t know how far my brother made it into the book. Since he mentions the breathing, I think he must have made it as far as page 19—where the first of many breathing exercises is laid out. A few pages later, in a section called “Meditation for Compassionate Listening,” are the following mantras:
Breathing in I know we both suffer. Breathing out I want us both to have a new chance… Our suffering, A new chance
Breathing in I want to be happy. Breathing out I want you to be happy… My happiness, Your happiness
Breathing in I see us happy. Breathing out that is all I want… Our happiness, Is all I want.
The first time I read these words, I pictured the two of us sitting cross-legged, facing each other and holding hands, breathing in and out. Something inside me shifted. Lifted.
It was around this time that I turned and faced my grief. I sat with my feelings, first. Then I put them down on paper. And slowly, little by little, I shared them with my friends and family. I let them out into the world. And I began to understand that peace wasn’t what I’d thought it was. Peace didn’t mean escaping my feelings—it meant cultivating the ability to acknowledge and honor them. Peace didn’t mean I would never face another obstacle in life—it meant that I would approach the next obstacle with open eyes and heart, no matter how painful.
As I read what I have just written, I think okay, this sounds way too easy. It wasn’t. It took years, and almost every moment of it was awful. I frequently cried while sitting on my cushion, and there were many days when, overwhelmed, I quit. And yet, I always came back.
Even now, nearly a decade later, I still think of my brother when I sit. I still picture him across from me, with a smile easier than the one he wore in life, and I know that both of us have found some peace.