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Waking up in the midst of loss

When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster, or look forward through it as an opening toward something new. Sunada tells her own story of how she woke up in the midst of a personal crisis.

This week, I closed a major chapter of my life. I watched as my beloved Bösendorfer grand piano, which I had just sold, was wrapped up and carted off to its new home. This piano had once represented my dreams. It was no ordinary grand piano. It was a top of the line, artist’s instrument. Beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. But now there is an empty space in my living room where it once stood.

I loved playing piano — I started when I was 8 years old, and studied classical music through my adult years. And I had long dreamed of having a piano like this. When I bought it, I was working in high tech, working my way up the corporate ladder and making good money. I thought I had it all – successful career, happy marriage, and a serious sideline hobby playing Chopin and Beethoven in my spare time. When a business windfall brought me some unexpected cash, I jumped at the chance to buy my dream piano. Music had always been my passion, and a golden opportunity fell into my lap. And in a way, this piano stood for many strands of my life coming together – a nice home, financial security, living out my musical dreams.

As irony would have it, I barely ever got to play my dream piano. About the time I bought it, I was pounding on a computer keyboard by day and playing the piano by night, so those hands rarely got to rest. And with that, my whole perfect world came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks, both wrists grew so painfully swollen from severe tendonitis that I had to stop using my hands almost entirely. When the injury was at its worst, I couldn’t even hold up a book or a coffee mug. It was too much strain. Playing the piano was out of the question. Permanently, as it turned out. I was at least feeling grateful that I could keep working and still had an income. But then after the events of 9/11, my fledgling business consultancy pretty much dried up, too. So much for my perfect world.

There’s a saying that when one door in life closes, a new one opens. It’s taken 13 years to recover from my injury and unplanned career change. And even today I live with lasting physical repercussions in my wrists, not to mention less financial security. But my life veered in a completely different direction because of this turn of events. It was what woke me up — and to this day I’m really grateful that it happened. The way I’m living now — as an ordained Buddhist, meditation teacher, and life coach – bears little resemblance to what it was back then.

What’s deceiving about such a condensed story told in retrospect is that it all sounds so neat and tidy. It glosses over the bumps in the road, the false turns and dead ends, and the terror of feeling forced to step out into the unknown with no guarantees that anything will work out. Even as recently as a few months ago, I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and go back to my high tech career so I wouldn’t have to sit with all the uncertainty and money worries. The compulsion to retreat into the comfort and security of the old and familiar is unbelievably powerful!

What I’ve learned is that when life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster and a loss, or look forward through it as an opportunity and opening toward something new. Which view we take makes all the difference in the world. And the key ingredient in making the wiser choice is a willingness to sit mindfully with everything, no matter what. I remember telling my friends that I felt like I was a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air: I had just let go of the swing behind me and was stuck in that moment where I couldn’t even see the swing in front of me yet, let alone grab it. And I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. At moments like that, the pull of our fears and aversions can be overwhelming. But something told me I had no real option but to keep looking ahead. I had to trust that the forward momentum of my trapeze leap would carry me to a safe landing.

When we sit mindfully in the midst of our own chaos and confusion, something different starts to happen. When we stop the reflexive reaction of our fear-based choices and instead allow the moment to unfold on its own, we shift in a new direction. We’re no longer ruled by our thoughts and habits from the past, but instead applying our open curiosity and creative energy toward building something new. One small step at a time, we start changing the trajectory of our lives.

As I said before, my life looks very different today. I’m now a mezzo soprano and singing with a jazz/pop a cappella group that’s just starting to perform publicly. I love singing – to me it’s a much more direct and joyful experience to have my own body be my musical instrument, rather than to manipulate a complex contraption of piano keys and hammers. I think singing jazz and pop music is much better suited to me than playing classical piano ever was. And I love teaching meditation and coaching people toward living happier lives. It’s so much more fulfilling to me than building software programs!

But you know what? I never would have gotten here if that rug hadn’t been pulled out from under me. The thought of leaving behind my “perfect world” wouldn’t have even occurred to me. And what a great lesson I learned from it.

I also see now that these opportunities for waking up don’t only come along in once-in-a-lifetime personal crises. They’re happening all the time. Every moment we live is an opportunity to stop, look, and start afresh. I was just so soundly asleep that I needed something big and dramatic to grab my attention!

My living room is now more spacious since I’ve rearranged the furniture, sans piano. The room actually feels more comfy, more inviting. My husband and I — and our friends too — seem to gravitate to it more than we used to. I’m not sure what new things will come into this space that’s opened up, but I’ll be mindfully watching for what it might be.

Sunada teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, and also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own awakening moments.

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Comment from Rosetta
Time: February 27, 2008, 4:50 pm

Thank you Sunada.you have helped me so much in the past with your wise teaching. This article was a bonus.In my life there have been many set backs but with hindsight I see them now as doors opening. The most recent one was a 5 month stay in a psychiatric hospital. My psychologist was a meditator with great knowledge of Buddhism. Through him I was directed to Buddhism. Without this stay in hospital my Buddhist life would never have come about and by now I would have probably been back in hospital. Thank you for your article

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Comment from Bonnie
Time: February 28, 2008, 10:34 am

This is one of the most inspiring things I have read in a long time. No one escapes “having the rug pulled out from under them” in life. Whether that experience is a setback or an opportunity for growth is entirely up to us. (And maybe, in the end, it’s a little of both.) Thank you for sharing your story!

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Comment from Shulamit
Time: February 28, 2008, 10:39 am

Sunada,

Thank you for this story. I shared it with two friends who were also moved and serendipitously “needed” this message today. I needed it for the inspiration, for the learning about “the trapeze.”

It reminded me to have faith. I’d like to share my favorite quotation on faith, from Allan Watts:

Faith lets go

Belief is the insistence that the truth is what one would wish it to be. Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. Faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.

The attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. The attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

Allan Watts

Thank you Sunada :-)

Shulamit

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 28, 2008, 1:09 pm

Rosetta, It’s wonderful to hear from you again! Thank you so much for your kind words. I didn’t know about your hospitalization, but what a gift it is to be able to see it in such a positive light.

And to Bonnie and Shulamit, thank you too. I’m feel honored to know that my story has touched you so much.

with gratitude,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from sangos
Time: February 29, 2008, 3:59 am

Good stuff! Frightening for the uninitiated though..so recommend only for people firm on the path.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 29, 2008, 8:38 am

Sangos,
I’d like to add a few more thoughts to what Bodhipaksa said. When my rug got pulled out from under me, I was not yet a Buddhist and had no experience with meditation. It was not my being “firmly on the path” that enabled me to meet my challenges. The cause and effect was actually the other way around: it was the process of meeting the challenges that taught me what is means to be on the path.

As Bodhipaksa points out, we can never choose if or when rugs get pulled out from under us. It happens to all of us all the time, in varying degrees. Life is by its very nature uncertain and insecure. We all face fear and doubt, and will never feel fully “prepared” to deal with them. But regardless of our experience with meditation, we can choose whether to allow our fears to paralyze us and stop us from moving forward. Do we give up and admit defeat, or do we keep up our fighting spirit and will to live? That’s really what the choice comes down to.

(and thanks for the compliment, Bodhipaksa!)

My best wishes to you,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 29, 2008, 7:46 am

Hi Sangos.

Yes, it can be frightening to have the rug pulled out from under our feet (although I know someone who found watching her house burn down to be one of the most liberating experiences of her life) or to contemplate embracing insecurity. The thing is though that life just keeps on pulling that rug no matter how much we try to cling to certainty and safety, and the more we’ve been clinging in this way the more pain we experience when thins unexpectedly change. So one of life’s great paradoxes is that we feel most secure when we accept that life is insecure!

I don’t think we need actively seek slippery rugs, however! As Sunada points out there are opportunities to notice fear and clinging in just about every moment of our lives — and to practice acceptance and mindfulness. If we keep doing that then we’re better prepared when the big, unexpected changes come our way.

(By the way, I’ve said this already, but great article, Sunada!)

Take care,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Ana
Time: August 12, 2010, 6:48 pm

Sunada,
Ive come across this website while looking for a buddhist way to deal with my grief and loss.
I havent practiced any religion and am not a buddhist but have always leant towards buddhist beliefs as a choice.
The small amount of reading I have done in the past on the practices have all made sense to me although im living
in a typically western life.
4 weeks ago my beautiful 23yr old daughter committed suicide, after ten years of a very tormented life with
a personality disorder. Im now left worrying so much for my other daughter (now nearly 18) who considered her
sister her best friend.
The idea of putting oneself open to what life and world throws at you and having faith in it all working out is
a very difficult one right now. The feeling that things can in fact get worse, as unimaginable as that is, feels real to me.
My 18 yr old is in her last year of school and Im trying to help her finish these last few months and every day is a
struggle.
Is there a book you could recommend that will help me focus, get some peace and faith in our futures, see this from a
different angle and how to deal with my daughter who is left in the aftermath of this?
She refuses to see a counsellor and obviously Im so worried for her, its eating me up.
Any help would be so very much appreciated.
I feel like im just treading water to keep my head above and thats all.
Thanks in advance,
Ana

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 13, 2010, 12:26 pm

Dear Ana,
Oh my! My deepest condolences for your huge loss. Yes, of course, it’s difficult to imagine opening up to a world that seems to have treated you so badly. And it wouldn’t make sense to do so. I’m going to recommend that you contact a friend and colleague of mine, Ashley Bush, who is a Buddhist therapist that specializes in grief and loss. She has also written a book on that subject. You can learn more about her at her website here: http://www.ashleydavisbush.com/. I do recommend too, that you seek a grief counselor, if you haven’t done so. It seems you’re not in the US, so maybe working with Ashley isn’t an option. In any case, nobody should have to face such a loss alone. And just reading a book, it seems to me, would be woefully insufficient support for you at a time like this.

My heartfelt best wishes go out to you,
Sunada

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Comment from Dreamer
Time: April 30, 2013, 9:30 am

Hi Sunada,

Yesterday, I read your article about sufferings and happiness, and after receiving your comments, I thought of finding more about you and your background. Yes, life is uncertain and a silly mistake could lead you to worst situation where there’s no turning back.

Many of my friends who learned about my interesting life story for past 65 years, were amazed and wondered if it actually occurred or just a product of rich imagination, because I used to be a writer in my high school days.

I was born in the Philippines in a small village where there’s no electricity or decent road. In spite of being an honor student in my last year in elementary school I returned to the same school the following year because my father won’t let me enroll in high school.

From the very young age of 11, I struggled, persevered and pushed myself to get higher education including a university degree and an MBA in a prestigious school as a working student. I had many challenging jobs (door to door salesman, construction worker, golf caddie, and many other odd jobs). My mission was to become successful in a career to help my mother and siblings. From age 16, I became the breadwinner of the family sacrificing all my own needs for their sake. I continue to help my parents, siblings and relatives even up to now.

As an intelligent & aspiring young executive in a known big establishment, many expected me to settle and get married. Instead, I migrated to Australia to be free from the demand of the society and the culture I grew up.

I got married in my early 30s, had two kids, got divorced and became single parent. Nearly 20 years later I remarried. I was a good provider and dedicated husband/father. Personally, I have to admit that in both occasions, I married for the wrong reasons.

My career in Australia had been successful except in years that I opted to be self employed to ensure proper upbringing of my young kids, being a single parent.

Throughout my life’s journey, I made decisions I considered correct at the time. I navigated the chosen path with no regrets with the thought that it’s better to make a mistake rather than being in limbo. I learned to accept my strengths and weaknesses believing that all past actions provided me with much needed experience, maturity and wisdom.

I am happy for all the things I have done, though I secretly cried at times for all the failures and hurts I had along the way. All these were true but I don’t think I could do it all over again.

Unlike in my younger years where I took chances, I am not sure if at my age, I can gamble my future knowing that I don’t have the luxury of time.

In 2015, I will return to Philippines to celebrate our high school batch 50th year where at least 100 of us are committed to attend.

Amazingly, in the years of being together in high school, none of us asked about our religion. Yet, these days, almost every one is discussing their spirituality. I supposed that’s ‘OLD AGE’….

Congratulations for sharing a very inspiring story.

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: April 30, 2013, 10:22 am

Thank you! I appreciate hearing your story, too. I have not yet reached my 50th HS reunion, but I had a similar experience when I went to my 15th business school reunion right after the events of Sept 11, 2001. None of us talked about the usual business school reunion topics (careers, promotions, exciting projects). We all talked about family, friends, a renewed spirituality, and what we most valued. It seems events sometimes brings us to that place where we realize what’s really important in life.

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Comment from Dreamer
Time: April 30, 2013, 11:01 pm

CHOICE IN LIFE……

When I finished elementary school in 1960 at age 11, my father dashed my hope of becoming a Doctor of Medicine by refusing to send me to high school. My older brother, who finished 3rd (I was 5th honor in same class), accepted the umpire’s decision and lived life with no clear direction… que sera sera. Now at age 66, he’s in destitute situation where he depends on others help on day to day basis. I have to provide his family with a roof to stay and continuously assisting in their financial needs, but for how long?

I wonder if my life could have been the same, had I opted to choose the same path? JUST A THOUGHT.

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