A LOOK WITHIN: Conversations on Mental Health & Well Being

A Look at Life, Loss, Grief, & Renewal with Chenxing Han

Episode Summary

In today's conversation we speak with the author, educator, novice chaplain, and one of American Buddhism's thoughtful new voices, Chenxing Han. What follows is a conversation on the topic of grief and loss with insights from a Buddhist Perspective. How do we grieve our losses? How do we experience this universal journey through loneliness, grief, and fulfillment? These and many more are questions Chenxing generously explores with us through her deft touch and tender spirit.

Episode Transcription

A Look at Life, Loss, Grief, and Renewal 
with Chenxing Han


Introduction:  A Look Within podcast is brought to you by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health - a healthcare organization providing innovative mental health and wellness services across all of South Carolina. Learn more about our services or resources at www.scdmh.net.

In today's conversation we speak with the author, educator, novice Chaplin, and one of American Buddhisms new voices - Chenxing Han. Her new book “One Long Listening: A Memoir of Grief, Friendship, and Spiritual Care” is a profound memoir of life, loss, grief, and renewal. What follows is an interesting conversation on the topic of grief and loss with insights for all of us from a Buddhist perspective. How do we grieve our losses? How can we care for ourselves? How do we experience this universal journey through loneliness, grief, and fulfillment? These and many more are questions Chenxing generously shares with us through her deft touch and tender spirit.


Moderator (M): Thanks so much for being here and part of the podcast I really appreciate that I'm right in the middle of reading your upcoming book which is coming out in mid-april correct?


Guest (G): That's right April 11th. 


M: It's called “One long listening a memoir of grief, friendship, and spiritual care” and that's sort of what I'm hoping that we can talk about a bit about.  I thought it would be really interesting for our audience around grief and loss and this is a great place to start for me because I'm really enjoying the book.  


G: Thanks so much for having me on David. Let's see where to begin as with my first book “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists”, I didn't quite set out to write this book but perhaps it wanted me to write it. I began really in the fall of 2014. I started a residency of hospital chaplaincy and some of your listeners might be familiar with CPE or clinical pastoral education the kind of clinical training for spiritual caregivers often in a hospital setting. So I was in Oakland CA working on an oncology unit and really just meeting so many different people and of course in particular the unit I was working on that oncology unit and other medical renal unit there was a lot of death, loss, grief. Of course also joys and successful treatments and all of that but you're a friend who said you know I don't really know what chaplaincy is or what CPE is I wonder if you can write about it. And so I took some notes and during the training you do so much writing anyway and chaplaincy the CPE program is really based on this action reflection model and so there's an action component of being there on the units and then there's this reflective piece with our peers with our supervisors with other people on the chaplaincy or spiritual care team. And as I got deeper into other people's stories and other people's lives I started reflecting on my own griefs and on my own losses and so forth. So I finished that residency in 2015 and then I flew to Taiwan to spend time at a Buddhist college there actually that was in fall 2015 and then fall 2016 a very dear friend of mine from college really someone who was like a spiritual sister to me - her name was Amy and she passed away at the age of 29 from leukemia. And so that particular grief hit me really hard and I think that's when this memoir really started to come into being as you know from reading.  Many pieces of it are letters to Amy really unsent letters I wish I could send to her an ongoing conversation and so it's a very multi stranded book but it really circles around these three autumns of my life quite pivotal starting this chaplaincy residency program and then spending that semester in Taiwan and then Amy's death and the processing of that and the yeah grieving of it really so it's a memoir of grief but it's also a memoir of friendship, of travel, of heritage, and a love letter to my ancestors to my family. It's many things. 


M: I found that all of those stages you were going through really interesting. You mentioned these letters to Amy is there anything is there, a letter I think we were talking about in a possible letter to Amy that maybe you could share with us here and perhaps we could then just talk about it a little bit more for our listeners?


G: This is from part two of the book which is titled slaying shadow / snake and it opens with a letter so I'll read it for everyone a letter to the young woman who was once my college roommate.

“You said fall is the most honest season. It does not pretend that life blooms forever. People could be excused for thinking only of summer. Upon first meeting you your petite frame alight with that unruly Crest of golden curls we could be excused for thinking your life would bloom forever even though you knew from an impossibly early age that it would be more evanescent than most. Saw your favorite season - the season of cold and sun, rain and warmth, clear mornings and color. Soaked trees everywhere. Reminders of impermanence. Please excuse me yandamuri capitan told you rusty could say so much yesterday and all the language in all the languages I know or half know or barely know please forgive me or student of the most basic of Buddhist tenants all phenomena arise and pass away still that final fall came so swiftly. I had dared to hope for a dozen more on sunny days two dozen and in my hope I grew forgetful."


M: That is really beautiful. Changing and this issue of impermanence and not pretending life is forever that you referenced and all of that is that as a chaplain and training especially from the Buddhist perspective is that sort of one of the main tenants in terms of when you're helping people deal with whether it's their own death or the death of a loved one or just grief and loss in general?


G: Yeah absolutely I think that truth of impermanence of nothing lasts forever is to me a kind of ground for a living actually. I know sometimes, in popular culture, it can seem very morbid almost but you know the beauty of a flower is because it doesn't last forever and so we appreciate the impermanence of it. Amy had a rare genetic illness called fanconi anemia that two of her sisters had died from and so the reference to how she knew her life be shorter than most was something almost a practice from a very young age. Before she went to bed she would think reflect on her day and just think about has this been a day worth living? In a way you know she's talked about her days as being almost bonus and the way she lived her life with so much reverence and so much joy was such an inspiration to me it was not so much a source of sadness though of course many of her friends in the FA community did die of FA. In each of those griefs each of those deaths hit her really hard but in some ways I saw her as a kind of master of grieving and maybe she wouldn't call herself that but she really knew what it meant to live a really full life in the face of inevitable losses. And I think the grounding for her understanding was again this knowing that things don't last forever and that means we don't take things for granted. It's very easy to forget like I say in this passage you know I forget all the time but sometimes when I take a moment and stop and pause if I'm feeling angry or from having an argument with my spouse or something I take a moment and just think OK this moment will pass, these emotions will pass and how do I want to relate to this moment? That, I think, is a powerful question that for me put his teachings and my put his practice reminds me to ask yeah it strikes me that you might have must have had some pretty amazing presence about her if she sort of had this knowledge that she might not be here very long and I'm amazed because I find that you can intellectualize this idea of impermanence um but how does you know how do you deal with it when you're sort of you know when you're in in it you're really in the trenches I think it's a gradual process kind of like if weightlifting right you're not going to start with bench pressing 100 pounds or I don't bench press so I'm probably just making up a random number that's totally inappropriate but you know starting with lighter weights and so sometimes I think impermanence, you know, there are Buddhist traditions where people will do corpse limitations. I don't recommend starting there and I myself have not done such a practice per se but even something as simple as lying on your back in the grass and looking up at the clouds they're impermanent they're moving right and just being there with that and savoring that right. I think every meal we eat is also an occasion to no it is impermanence whether that's how good the first bite tastes and maybe by the time you're full. OK you're not as you know it's maybe not quite as delicious or the food is cooling down I think there's so many ways we can just notice change really. I think it's just an invitation to get intimate with change and get comfortable with it and sometimes those changes are wonderful. You were feeling down and then a good friend sends us a text or gives us a phone call and we suddenly notice oh our moods have changed. And so, for me, impermanence is kind of just an invitation into remembering nothing is stuck the way it is but it also means that you know no high lasts forever - periods of extreme happiness. I'm not going to be surprised or devastated if they come down from those moments of happiness. So I guess the practice is sort of woven into everyday life. I think sometimes these notions of health and wellness sometimes we make them just another thing we have to do or we can beat ourselves up about Oh no I didn't do XY and Z today, but I think that there's a way to just weave them in kind of really into our daily lives. It's almost a bit of an art and the creative practice and I suppose for me I feel it all the time, but I do try to remember that every moment presents an opportunity to practice that kind of awareness of impermanence or intimacy with change.


M: I love this invitation to notice change. I remember when I was reading another portion of your book and you talked about some of the things. I think perhaps in western culture, maybe I'm making it too broad, but you can tend to turn things into almost a self-improvement or this constant need to progress.  Let me read a little portion here of this because I really loved it: 

“I doubt I would have been at the retreat in Northern California if I didn't believe to a certain degree that meditation would make me a better Buddhist or a better person because I wasn't yet calling myself a Buddhist then. Yes I just noticed what arises. Yes non attachment to the outcome and yet I can't resist the siren call of better. That relentless tread towards self- improvement - a familiar road. It is 1999. I’m 13, my hamster died a week ago. I write in my journal - lose weight 1 pound. I am 93 right now. And so it begins. There has to be a better tea out there, a better me out there. Surely meditating is better than starving myself”

That, on some level, made me chuckle a little bit because I know how many times I can find myself wanting it all. It's always more and more and more in some respects and so it makes it very hard to sort of stay present and to be at peace with that on some level.


G: Absolutely yeah. So much of writing this book was kind of excavating these past selves and past moments that I'd sort of forgotten, but I think, like many young women presented with diet culture, and what we see in popular magazines this relentless pressure for self- improvement. I think it maybe is only more extreme now with social media and for a younger generation. I think we really see the mental health effects of that and for me Buddhism was there's a playful aspect of it, these learning Buddhist teachings. And, you know, as this passage alludes to I wasn't raised Buddhist. I was raised in a non-religious household but Buddhism for example has a notion that because of impermanence there's no such thing as a permanent self. That's a really difficult concept to grasp I think and to wrap one's head around. But I think of that younger self whose 93 pounds and trying to lose weight and there's a humor and there's also a sadness to it. This kind of greed that we have that even something like losing weight can be a form of greed. And in Buddhism they're the three poisons of the mind - greed and hatred and delusion. So it's interesting that you highlight that passage you know, and I still feel very much prey to this notion of oh gosh I need to be a better person but writing this book really reminded me so much about just what it means to be in relationship. It's not so focused on the self or an ego or me, mine, anybody, this and that. What does it mean to be in relationship? I think that is where I find peace freedom when I'm relating in relationship when I'm actually less self-obsessed. So maybe in this moment I don't know what that might have looked like. I think I had some pretty unhealthy eating habits as a teenager into young adulthood that I really had to work on and what really helped with that was just being in relationship eating healthy meals with others. Going on hikes with other people so not so much framing it as this project of self- improvement. And I think working on an oncology unit reminded me we can do everything right we can feel like we're doing everything and still illness can hit us out of nowhere right? Still we're going to get sick and this time still. We just don't know there's so many illnesses going around and so what does it mean to even have some acceptance or openness or space around those kinds of changes that happen that might not be so pleasant that might be harder to be with yeah. 


M: And this kind of brings me to this the chaplaincy piece of it. How do you help people come to that space of openness or come to terms with sort of where they are at when you're when certainly you know and in the hospital oncology unit? what was that like or what was that like for you?


G: I think everyone has access to that somehow and it looks different for different people. I think what's really beautiful about the practice of spiritual care is it feels sometimes less like giving someone something but it again a mutuality of giving of listening. Sometimes that practice really just feels like inviting people into tell me what a moment you know right now you're in so much pain and I really see that and was there a moment even today or in your past or something where you felt a sense of peace? I remember once visiting a patient who just had so so much pain and having just inviting her to notice if there was any part of her body that was her pinky toe with the tip of a fingernail where she didn't feel that kind of pain to focus her mind there. So I think there's certain practices that I think are now becoming much more prevalent around mindfulness or meditation, which I think is really just an invitation to focus our attention somewhere sometimes that's helpful sometimes. A guided visualization sometimes distraction listening to some music you know or petting a dog or a cat. It can look like many things for many people and I think spiritual caregivers, fortunately you know, we only have our limited personal experience but I can learn so much from everyone. We need and I think we get to tap into and invite spiritual resources and stories of the people we need. And so if there is a moment of crisis we talk through that but we also really look for and try to surface in relationship these strengths that people can draw on.


M: What are some of the differences in your mind for somebody who's let's say a Buddhist chaplain versus somebody who maybe it's more traditional here in the states - the Christian chaplain?


G: It almost doesn't matter what our own individual faiths are. Chaplaincy is really diversifying and becoming broad and wide. Then to answer your question though I think each individual chaplain really needs to be grounded in their spiritual tradition or traditions and so that can be hard. I think for those of us who come from a religious minority in this country Buddhism very much is that. And you're absolutely right - chaplaincy still tends to be a Christian dominated field but we know this is a religiously diverse country. And so what does it mean to have chaplains to reflect that religious diversity? Sometimes it's just a matter of some religious literacy if you will or awareness whether that's cultural awareness or cultural humility right? The more I go deeply into Buddhism the more I realize oh it is so diverse I cannot possibly know every single branch of Buddhism, which is of course true, about Christianity as well. But sometimes when we come from a majority position it can be easy to forget that those on the margins or those who are not so much at the center of our focus also have complex and maybe different spiritual needs. So to cite a very specific example, sometimes Buddhist families would like for their loved one to have some time after the passing of their loved one so that perhaps they can do some rituals around cleaning, chanting. And I think and even other religious traditions this might be so but there might be particular beliefs around not disturbing the body during a very important period right after death. What does it mean for chaplains to help advocate for that knowing that sometimes there are limitations with you know room availabilities in the hospital that kind of thing? And so I suppose yeah it's a complex question I think but first and foremost I think for myself, as an Asian American, as a Buddhist chaplain, I think a lot about language translation you know as an immigrant. I think I have a certain attunement or awareness about the particular challenges as well as the strengths and gifts that being multilingual might bring to people in the hospital in a hospital that's ultimately still majority English right? And I bring some awareness to OK this person might be a jodo shin but is this person a Thai Buddhist? Those aren't the same things. Can I ask some questions to hopefully show some awareness or sensitivity or humility and we just go from there. I mean I think there are as many ways to do chaplaincy as there are chaplains and just like every person's spiritual journey is so unique and it's constantly unfolding so it's a very humbling process to walk into a room. And I think I know inevitably the mind comes up with all kinds of assumptions and stories about who this person is and inevitably every time I'm surprised and I realize just how much I don't know. It's a true gift to be in that position or want to be in that position and being there for people. 


M: When I was talking about the Buddhism versus Christianity and all of that it just seemed like there were some tenants or principles around Buddhism that maybe people aren't aware of. Some of them, which you've already talked about, the impermanence piece this issue when I was I think I mentioned to you about this - this “no I” you know kind of component. We're talking about the ego or the self or being separate and then there's one on suffering I don't know if there's anything around that piece that you might talk about.


G: So you're naming kind of a core set of Buddhist teachings called the three marks that kind of mark existence. Sometimes translated as not self and then suffering is one translation for duka and there are many other translations and the words I'm saying in each our policy so in ancient liturgical language for Buddhism there are other liturgical languages as well such as Sanskrit but Polly is associated with the terravita. Buddhist tradition, which is common in Thailand and Cambodia and Laos, Burma, other countries of Southeast Asia in particular so you know I think yeah life is suffering really sounds pretty dark and sometimes I think I prefer translation of dissatisfactoriness for duca. And to me, it just comes from impermanence. The things we want don't last forever and so it's no fun when we're parted from them and then also we get stuck with things we don't want. Well that's kind of dissatisfactory too. The metaphor that's sometimes used and but it's stories it's a bit like a cart that has a wheel but it's a little off kilter like it's not quite fitting in the axle right? Things are just a little bit bumpy along the way there and so for me you know the three marks yes there's certainly part of Buddhist teachings but there are so so many and there's so so many stories. I really appreciate teachings and stories around karma actually and karma's used a lot in popular culture but kind of boiled down very simply karma it really just means action and it's just a reminder that our actions have effects. So these aren't just actions of our body but actions of our mind. In other words, thoughts and also actions of speech those three categories are actually thought of distinctly in Buddhism. So what we say can really have an impact sometimes. One word spoken harshly you know can really hurt but one word spoken with a lot of love can also transform a person's day and for me often it's talked about like planting good seeds. You don't know for sure if it's going to blossom into something but nothing's going to blossom if we don't plant these good seeds. These good karmic actions are karmic deeds and for me it's an incredibly hopeful teaching because again it means no matter what - if I'm in the depths of despair, something is always possible to change the situation. The situation is not going to last forever and so I find it to be a really beautiful teaching and a helpful reminder sometimes when I am not being particularly mindful or heedful of the impact of my thoughts or actions. And again those could be thoughts to myself like oh I am you know I'm thinking of my teenage self like oh I'm so overweight so you know ugly, or something like these thoughts, actually are harmful and damaging so right yeah so I think that's a really beautiful but it's teaching that maybe is not as widely understood but that I find to be really beneficial. 


M: Yeah no I love the way that you are that you put that with regards to karma especially at the end of it no matter what what's going on and something is always possible this situation is going to change so I really love that.

In your book you seem to be a bit playful around meditation and the idea of meditation. And I think sometimes people hear about meditation and the first image that comes into their mind is a shaved head monk in the middle of the mountains who has been meditating for you know half a day or all day or something like that. And so oftentimes it's seen as something to do as a solution kind of a thing actually I don't know if there's anything you can maybe comment on your thoughts on meditation. 


G: Well part of the playfulness is around really wanting to lift up a diversity of different spiritual practices right? Especially when we get stuck in stereotypes or we start to look at things as this is going to be the magic bullet. What can happen is then we start getting upset and after 10 minutes of meditation all our problems are cured. So that actually generates another kind of dukkha or suffering or dissatisfactoriness. And there's a kind of humor there but you know in Buddhist traditions around the world for example chanting and different rituals are so important whether that's lighting in sands or lighting a candle or the practice of generosity is incredibly important in Buddhism. One foundational karmic act we can do is just to be generous and I think that looks again like many different things and being generous to ourselves I think is deeply important because it's very hard to be generous to others if we aren't also generous to ourselves. And that looks like anything whether that's being a little bit gentle because you're having a rough day or whether it's just listening and realizing I need to rest a bit more than I thought I did and I'm going to allow myself to do that with the aspiration that then this will help me be more generous you know in my life.

Writing this book was a 9 year long journey from really beginning to write it and having it published oh I think well one thing you know the author Alexander chi says sometimes that we write for our dead and I think sometimes we write with our dead. I felt so much Amy's presence in my life throughout this writing process and it's not that there aren't moments of sadness or grief for missing her. Those still very much happen but I think I've seen how grief is a very creative process and there's a kind of gift to that so my creative act really was writing this book to help with my own healing and my own grief. The wonderful writer Paula arai who's a professor at the institute of Buddhist studies at Berkeley CA in Berkeley CA she has a really wonderful book coming out later this year in August I believe called the little book of healing Zen. It's just full of these wonderful invitations to create our own healing rituals regardless of what your own religious or spiritual path is. Amy, for example, was an amazing collager. She would sometimes spend years on a collage and this book was kind of my collage to her but for other people you know your act of giving to the world maybe a beautiful meal or a work of art or singing to someone even if it's off key and off tune. The heart behind it is what matters the most. You know it might be gardening, it might be sewing, it might who knows right? It's like surprise us and so I think perhaps that's something that I learned the most like hadn't thought realized so much that grief and creativity are so intimately intertwined and both of those move us through the world and they're playful and they could be fun so I cried a lot writing this book. But I also laughed a lot and there were so many cherished memories and it felt in many ways I hope this book feels like a blessing for the people who read it because it's really a book about all the blessings I've received from friends, from strangers at the hospital. So I guess I would just end with saying there is a practice in Buddhism called loving kindness and it's really just a practice of well-wishing. “May I be happy, may I be well, may I be at ease.” You can use any words you want but beginning with the self and then saying – “may you be happy, may you be well, may you be at ease.” “Let me we be happy, may we be well, may we be at ease.” It's kind of just an orientation of the heart mind and I suppose I'll just end there was a practice that Amy absolutely loved it's one that I try to remember to apply in my daily life and I know with an invitation so for everyone who's listening. Thank you all for listening to this conversation and I just wish you all such Wellness, I wish you peace, and health, and joy. 


M: I'm David Diana host and producer of a look within conversations on mental health and well-being we want to thank Chenxing Han for joining us today. You may learn more about her work at chenxinghan.com that's chenxinghan.com. And of course we want to thank all of you for listening and hope you'll join us next time.


Closing: A look within conversations on mental health and well-being podcast is heated and produced by David Diana and the South Carolina department of mental health we hope you'll join us for our next conversation