The Looming Empty Nest: One Mother’s Mindful Journey
“Trace the entire sole of your foot on the ground,” instructed the monk, her patched and faded grey robe swaying as she walked. Twelve eager students shuffled behind her on a garden trail behind a local Zen center. It was week four of a beginning meditation class and tonight we were learning how to do a walking meditation. I raised my face into the glow of the early evening spring sunlight and felt an edge of hopefulness that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I would soon discover that my deep connection to nature would give me a path to feeling whole and happy again. But not in ways that I could ever anticipate that night at the zen center.
I attempted to imitate the monk’s purposefully awkward and rolling gait. I planted my right foot down and felt off balance. Some of us held back giggles as we watched each other move in such a slow and deliberate way. After a few minutes of experimenting with the rhythm of the walk, I was surprised to experience my visual mind waking up in ways I hadn’t felt in years. I noticed intricate details of small budding plants. The petite garden felt huge—as if I was a child again exploring my backyard in suburban Cincinnati fifty years ago.
I had been desperate to take this class. Grasping for it, in a sense, which is not very Buddhistic at all. I had recently initiated a therapeutic separation from my then husband. Immediately after he moved out, I felt that I needed to study meditation as a way of centering myself in a deep and lasting way.
I have regularly practiced Iyengar yoga since I was 19, so meditation wasn’t far from my experience. Yet while yoga practice can foster a certain meditative state, I knew that I wanted to go deeper into a ‘mental yoga,’ which would require sitting and being with my swirling and often very unpleasant thoughts.
I needed a way out and the only way was in.
“Think of yourself as a mountain and your thoughts are passing clouds,” said the monk in a later session. She taught us several ways to sit on puffy cushions on the floor. Week by week, the class sat for longer periods—from ten minutes in the beginning to thirty minutes at the last session. By using the simple imagery from nature and following my breath I now had a process to create a place of stillness inside my mind.
Yet connecting to a calmness includes an invitation to also connect with one’s emotions and thoughts buried beneath the surface of everyday distracted behavior. I knew that I wanted to keep meditation as part of my life, but what about difficult thoughts and emotions? I wondered how to let go of my fears and give myself space to explore meditation in a deeper way.
Pema Chodron writes: “When our attitude toward fear becomes more welcoming and inquisitive, a fundamental shift occurs. Instead of spending our lives tensing up, we learn that we can connect with the freshness of the moment and relax. The practice is compassionate inquiry into our moods, our emotions, our thoughts.”
I already have a gift of living in a state of curiosity as a magazine writer, for which I am grateful. Yet meditation required a different kind of curiosity.
As I researched different meditation practices, I was pleased to learn that my Jewish background wasn’t at odds with many styles of secular meditation methods. Estelle Frankel writes about a well-known Jewish phrase that captures the experience of a yogi: “A famous Yiddish saying reminds us that Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht (Humans make plans and God laughs)...The wisdom of not knowing teaches us not to cling so tightly to our plans and ideas about life and instead to trust in the way our lives actually unfold.” (italics hers).
A month later, I enrolled in my second introduction to meditation class, this time in vipassana, or insight meditation. Here I found my preferred sitting meditation technique in the training of spaciousness and expansiveness of thought. In my home practice, on some days, meditation was hard work—simply sitting for twenty minutes every morning. And on other days, the experience was light, effortless and refreshing.
As I spent more time with my fears and difficult thoughts and attempting to let them go, I realized that my twenty-four year marriage would come to an end in a divorce. I reached out to a therapist and coincidentally discovered a grief counselor who helped me put my life in perspective. Learning how to grieve well shouldn’t be reserved for losing a loved one in death: a marriage separation is also something to grieve. One’s future life that one envisioned is now gone and many relationships change or are lost in a divorce. I had a lot to grieve.
If kids are involved, there is also a doubling down of shared grief with one’s children. In my case, my husband and I had three kids, two of whom were in college and one was in high school. I wouldn’t wish a divorce coinciding with an empty nest prospect on anyone, but there never seems to be an ideal time for a divorce. A marriage ending is so unexpected, yet expected, so painful and wrenching, yet also glimmers occasionally with a chance for reinventing oneself.
I was lonely. My kids were busy with their lives. I was not as needed so much anymore. I watched Netflix, took English Country dance classes, and signed up for Meetups that I never attended. I consoled myself that at least I had my meditation practice which took away some of the sting of loneliness.
“So how is your empty nest going these days?” I asked a friend over coffee. She laughed and then groaned. Her grown son had recently come home to live with her and her husband. He showed no sign of departing any time soon. The young adult children who make up the “nest” of one’s life still keep flying in and out of the nest without a lot of advance warning.
Margaret Atwood beautifully framed a parent’s bittersweet experience with the empty nest in a short story: “Stuck on to the refrigerator is a photo of our daughter, taken several years ago; it beams down on us like the light from a receding star. She’s busy with her own life, elsewhere.”
Some women can’t wait to have more free time as their children leave for college or jobs, but I was already dreading the truly empty nest long before the end of my marriage. Three kids underfoot (and on the soccer fields, and at cello lessons) kept me joyfully, and arduously, busy for a very long time. And then all of a sudden, there were quieter spells that stretched longer. I distracted myself with work, art classes, seeing friends for lunches and playing more tennis. And I wondered: is staying busy just avoiding facing fears of a next step, blinding me from a necessary and satisfying new life meaning—or two?
Soon after my divorce, I decided to examine the empty nest concept and explore it literally. Inspired by Pema Chodron’s intentional curiosity, I incorporated something new into my meditation practice: a different imagery than my beloved mountain and passing clouds.
I envisioned an empty robin’s nest with all of its amazing careful construction and loose symmetry. In my morning meditations, I allowed myself to take a few moments to imagine the awe of the bird’s process of building a structure to live in, to lay eggs in, to be light but strong enough to support new lives.
I peered into this nest, complete with interesting artifacts from my yard and beyond, and wondered how could I find the courage to keep exploring what this nest might hold for me?
Frankel writes that “one of the most powerful tools for developing courage is to align ourselves with our deepest core values. Our commitment to our values and ideals strengthens our courage reserves. We see this in many situations of true heroism.”
Struggling with a meditation practice reconnected me to appreciating my core values on a regular basis. I helped the kids with their projects, worked in community service, and pursued a passion for learning about gardening and plants.
In the summer months that followed my divorce, my kids came and went. They left dirty dishes in the sink. An unfinished Monopoly game was abandoned on the living room table for two weeks. My son drove across the country with his girlfriend, gone in a flash; another son joined friends for a month at a sleep away camp.
In meditation, visual images can comfort some; others focus on their breath, street sounds, or the pace of a walking meditation on snowy ground. The sticks, feathers, fluff and broken eggshells of the nest were my guide. Something about the fragile constructed chaos of a nest suited my own situation. Sticks fall off or a feather blows away, just like a twenty-year-old son breezes through my life.
Do I have all the answers now about my larger purpose? No, but I see the evidence piling up recently: a new and healthy relationship, several exciting work opportunities, as well as a newfound love of indoor plants and teaching plant propagation classes to the elderly.
As the screen door slammed behind my high schooler’s back this morning, I could see how far I’ve come by letting go—just a little bit every day.
Atwood, M. (2006). The Bad News in Moral Disorder and Other Stories. New York: Anchor Books.
Chodron, P. (2018). Comfortable with Uncertainty, 108 teachings on cultivating fearlessness and compassion. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Frankel, E. (2017). The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Corry is an urban planner, author and landscape designer. She loves doting on her rescue dog, propagating indoor plants and cooking healthy vegetarian meals for friends and family.