Grandma's Lonely Joy


“I’ve been seeing a lot of 2’s lately,” my wife remarked casually. That night I woke up at looked at the clock: 2:22. “It’s grandma again,” we decided. She died on February 22 and around that time of year we always see lots of 2’s. Are they signals that she’s still around somehow, somewhere, in some form? It’s comforting to believe it. She always said we would be together forever, in each other’s hearts.

There was a time in my youth when I lived with my grandmother in the countryside. The evening before my departure to go to school in Tokyo, I became sad at the thought of leaving her alone, and said to her, “You’ll be lonely, won’t you?,” acknowledging that she would indeed be lonely without me. But she surprised me by saying, “That’s okay, I like loneliness.”

We were using the word sabishii, which I understood to mean “lonely,” but which to my grandmother seemed to have a deeper meaning. Perhaps to her it was the human condition to be lonely, so that being mindful in those moments connected her to others, because we all experience a sadness that is part of life. Hers was a mature acceptance of loneliness, of the fleeting nature of human experience, the suffering in existence — a mellow and peaceful feeling. Loneliness reminds us that we know love. I felt that there was dignity in sacrifice and service in my grandmother’s way of doing her part, freeing me to pursue my path and rejoicing in my growth.

Sabi represents the material aspects of life, the loss of that which once sparkled, and the fleeting nature of beauty. Like my grandmother, sabi things carry the burden of aging with dignity and grace. The word “sad” comes from the same Latin root as the words “sated” or “satisfied,” indicating that it may actually be a kind of fullness — in this case, fullness of heart. We often feel sad when our heart is full, tender, and alive, as opposed to the frozen state of depression that results from putting away our sadness rather than opening to it.

Mono no aware, expresses compassion and sadness in our awareness of the transience of all things, which in turn deepens our appreciation of their truth or beauty and elicits a gentle sadness at their passing. The love of the glorious yet fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms is characterized by mono no aware. This compassionate sensitivity is perhaps what my grandmother was describing.

When I’m feeling lonely I remember our last supper before setting out on my youthful journey. I have a growing sense of grandma’s mature appreciation of loneliness, her way accepting loss as an integral part of human experience. In tears of joy I remember and feel mellow and peaceful as loneliness reminds me that I know love.

From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: Transforming Self and Society with Compassion, 2018, pg. 50-51

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Heartfulness