This past weekend, I participated in a a meditation retreat as part of my teacher training program. The focus was on fearlessness and meeting the world with an open heart. There is a concept in Buddhism that is discussed often in books and lectures of “cocoon.” My understanding of this phrase, in this context, is that it is a shell we protect ourselves with that may not necessarily bring us joy, but is familiar and feels safe. As the weekend progressed through a series of several sitting and walking meditations, many of the students began to share their experience of cocoon and how it is holding them back.

I enjoyed hearing the teachings, but during the weekend didn’t feel a deep spark of connection to them the way others had. I figured that was where I was in my practice and vice versa and continued on with the experience. At the end of day two, I was quite exhausted. I had been meditating for about twelve hours and was ready to give my mind and body rest. When I finally got around to checking my phone, I saw a voicemail from my dad. I called him back to find out that my aunt’s illness had taken a turn for the worse and she was entering hospice care this week. If I wanted to see her, sooner was best.

I had spent two and a half days in retreat, learning about breaking free of our familiar habits and patterns. Yet, in that moment, my emotions flooded in. I was caught off-guard and met the moment with a rush of tears. I had prepared myself for this day, but had not expected it to come so soon. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I am a crier. That I feel deeply. Often these tears burst out not from weakness, but from frustration and strong emotion – my body’s natural reaction to samsara or the endless cycle of suffering.

I started chastising myself, thinking things such as, “you just completed a meditation retreat, have you learned nothing?,” “this cannot keep being your way of responding,” etc. I was fully there in my cocoon, but wanting to break out. Then I remembered a phrase from one of my teachers that, “the only way out is through.” That was all I needed to understand that what I was feeling was okay. That meditation and mindfulness are not about unfeeling, but rather, about staying grounded in the groundless.

The next day, I took the afternoon off to visit my aunt. Her condition was markedly worse and it was jarring to see her at first. My family had prepared me, telling me it was unlike anything I have seen before. That I should be ready. My biggest fear was bursting into tears in front of her and causing her more pain. I wanted to be the brave warrior or bodhisattva that I have been learning so much about from the teachings.

When I walked into the hospital room, I was prepared for the worst, but I channeled my practice — taking a deep breath, looking deeply at my aunt, then taking another deep breath, looking away for a moment to gather myself, and then I was able to be the bodhisattva, the person that could understand her suffering and that of the family and friends around her and meet it with an open heart. I looked back at her, smiled, and started catching-up the way I would do with her normally.

She is not able to talk anymore, but her mind is sharp and alert and through all of her pain, she was communicating with everyone through her hands, as well as her writing. As tired as she was, her deepest wish was to have the people that she loved around her. She kept remembering her friends and family and telling us to call so and so and tell them to come visit. Watching her, in such pain and suffering, yet being strong and present for us, I recognized the bodhisattva warrior in her, who felt our pain and suffering and met it with an open heart.

At this point, all we can do for her and for each other is be there and be present. If we can loosen the cocoon of our habitual responses, step aside from our natural way of dealing with stress and strong emotion, we are able to be present in the most meaningful of ways. Looking around that room, many were holding back tears, replacing them with big smiles and laughter. I saw how lucky we all are to be surrounded by bodhisattva warriors who understand that the only way out is through.

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