I’m remembering my dear mother-in-law Anna who, one morning more than five years ago, slipped away quietly, as if she wanted to cause the smallest possible disturbance. My father-in-law, who lives next door, awoke from his afternoon nap yesterday with a poem to her in his head and, fortunately managing to avoid interruptions (like Coleridge’s person from Porlock), set it down in writing before it too slipped away.
Anna had her full share of challenges, especially in the form of ill health in the last decade of her life, but through it all she maintained her equanimity and her characteristically sunny outlook. When people came to visit, intending to cheer her up, they found themselves pouring out their own troubles instead, while she listened with empathy and, if asked, gave sparing but always sound advice.
One day my mother and I were visiting Anna. I always got a kick out of seeing them together, because they were so different, both physically and in their personalities, my mother being small, fast-moving, and full of nervous energy, and Anna being large, placid, and calm. Yet they enjoyed each other’s company, admired each other’s strengths, and were wholly united in their motherly and grandmotherly love. That afternoon Mum was telling Anna about her anxiety, which was a perennial problem that caused her sleeplessness, headaches, and high blood pressure. She was a constitutional worrier, and although she realized intellectually that worrying did no good to her or anyone else, she felt unable to stop it.
Anna listened attentively as always, and then offered a remedy that worked for her: meditation. My in-laws had lived in Southern California for nearly twenty years before moving back to the East Coast for their retirement, and they had both embraced the best of New Age culture, especially a holistical approach to health and well-being. Now, Mum had a longstanding interest in meditation, having read just about everything by and about J. Krishnamurti and, more recently, having been drawn to Buddhist philosophy, but, always wary of organized belief systems, -isms of any kind, she had not been able to suspend her disbelief and translate her interest beyond the intellectual level into practice. So she asked Anna eagerly how she did it.
“It’s simple,” said my mother-in-law. “First, just empty your mind.”
Mum was incredulous. “Empty your mind?” she echoed, aghast at the very thought of it. “But how?”
But Anna couldn’t explain. For Mum, dispelling thought was unthinkable. For Anna, it was indeed simple: she had the gift of just being, and that Being shone through her and radiated all around.
I am by nature much more like my mother than my mother-in-law. But I know that despite appearances, Anna’s calm was hard-won. I can still learn to empty my mind and aspire to enter a state of Being, but not without sustained effort. It may be simple, but it isn’t easy.