Monday, October 1, 2007

Interview: Emily Ferrara on Illness, Suffering and Death, and on Transformation and Healing through Mindfulness and Writing

Emily Ferrara
photo by M. Lara Hoke, © 2004

by Sean M. Madden
Mindful Living Guide
October 1, 2007

Last week, we published an essay by Emily Ferrara entitled The Alchemy of Grief. Below is our follow-up interview with Emily.

As with our earlier interviews, our intention is to publish a follow-up interview with each Mindful Living Guide contributor. We aim to do so within a week or so following publication of the original contribution. This, we think, will help to deepen the relationship between all of us—MLG readers, writers and editors—so that we may all continue to learn from one another through the sharing of our own stories.

First, a deep bow for sharing with us what is such a personal and poetic account of your son Adam's death and your subsequent healing transformation.

Mindful Living Guide readers may be interested in knowing that "The Alchemy of Grief", the title of your essay which we recently published, is also the title of your forthcoming book, a bilingual (English/Italian) poetry collection inspired by that grief and alchemical process.

I have read a sampling of these poems via your and the Bordighera Poetry Prize websites, the latter for the prize you were awarded for this collection in 2006. In these poems as well as in your essay, I am most struck by your willingness, courage or perhaps total determination to look your loss straight on, to not waver either in the moments of your loss or in your later written reflections upon these moments.

This confronting, after all, seems to be the lesson of your alchemical transformation, that illness, suffering and death are inescapable—they are as much a part of us as life itself.

I find that the questions I have for you are all roughly one and the same, though approached from slightly differing launching points which I see as perhaps mutually conditioning (or dependently arising) "causes" and "effects" or points on a progression, if you will.

The first aspect of this question, then, is: What brought you to this understanding "that illness, suffering and death are our lot" as you say in your essay?

And, inherent in my first question is a wondering of how your life experience, generally, and your meditation and writing practices, in particular, may have informed—and been informed by—this understanding and, thus, your full-frontal, wide-awake response to Adam's death?

EF: On some level, I was brought to this understanding on the day Adam was born, when we learned that he had a life-threatening congenital heart defect, aortic stenosis. Three weeks later, when he was in heart failure and doctors told us he would need immediate open-heart surgery, my world fell apart. It was at this point that I found myself living inside this understanding that "illness, suffering and death are our lot". At that time (some 23 years ago), writing was my primary tool for traversing this challenging terrain. I began to journal and write poetry with a vengeance, and this sustained me. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I explored meditation practices, and began reading 'populist' Buddhist writings that I could easily find in the local public library of the small New England town I lived in at the time—the wonderful work of Thich Nhat Hanh, for example. I also explored Christian mystic traditions, such as the Benedictine 'lectio divina' practice, which involves meditative contemplation of spiritual texts. A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, by Macrina Wiederkehr, was my introduction to this practice.

Prior to Adam’s death, I experienced two other major life events that enabled me to develop my mindfulness muscle. In 1994, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and was prompted to face my own mortality. I recall my doctor telling me that this was "a good cancer", meaning that my chances for a full recovery were excellent. This experience of surgery and follow-up treatment brought me closer to my meditation and writing practices, and certainly prepared me for the next challenge placed in my path just as I was getting back on my feet and fully functioning as a single parent of two young children (Adam and his younger sister Deva): the loss of our home and all our ‘stuff’ in a fire in 1995. This is what we did not lose: our lives (we weren’t home at the time the fire broke out), and my writing journals, all of which I’d been inexplicably carrying with me in a satchel. Apparently, these were meant to survive while all else needed to be shed. As my entire library of books had been destroyed, it is significant that the first book I chose to replace was the
Tao Te Ching. This text spoke to me at the time as no other could.

Four years later, I enrolled in graduate school at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a self-designed interdisciplinary program in which I studied poetry-writing, spirituality and activism. It was at this time that I stumbled upon the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, an amazing resource located only 30 minutes from my home. In short order, meditation practice took on an ever more important role in my life, alongside the writing of poetry.

In 2003, when Adam died, I immersed myself in journal-writing and Zen Buddhist practice, attending my first 3-day sesshin with the Boundless Way Zen community only one month after his death. This full-frontal, wide-awake confrontation with the fact that "illness, suffering and death are our lot" was not a choice. It was, in my experience, the only sane thing to do.

How has all of this—your loss, your meditation practice, your writing, and your teaching—impacted the way that you live? Or, put another way, how has this changed you?

EF: All of this has made me more committed to living in the present moment, even if that moment is full of pain, because I know now that the only way to become free of the pain is to face into it. I have also learned how to let other people companion me on my path. This is true on many levels—my family, friends and co-workers; my Unitarian Universalist church community; my Boundless Way Zen Sangha; fellow travelers on the recovery path, and my writing group. In terms of my writing, I was blessed to be a part of a community of writers who were completely committed to supporting my efforts to write poems about Adam’s death and explorations of the texture of my particular grief, and to help me to write poems that would extend beyond expressions of my personal experience to illuminate the universal human experience that "illness, suffering and death" are our lot, and so too are joy, well-being and living life fully.

I believe that I am more authentic; more patient in situations requiring patience; more assertive in situations in which patience is no virtue—for example when injustices need to be addressed. I am also learning how to be gentle with myself in all aspects of my life and work … to refrain from self-criticism and judgment, which also allows me to refrain from criticism and judgment of others. I strive to be aware that daily practice is not something I have to do, but something I get to do. It is not a burden or chore, but a gift.

When you first submitted your essay to MLG, you stated that "In more recent years, I have developed programs integrating mindfulness meditation with reflective/creative writing exercises, for medical students, medical school faculty, and for graduates of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts (this is the program founded 30 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn)." As you know, Rebecca and I, likewise, guide others in both mindfulness meditation and reflective/creative writing, separately and in combination. My final question, then, is: How has "all of this", as above, been alchemized in your teachings?

EF: At times, my experiences have been very directly alchemized in my teachings, as in the bereavement class I was invited to teach as part of a course for medical students on "Caring for the Terminally Ill". More often, my experiences inform my teaching in a more indirect manner. By that I mean the more I am able to live authentically, the more I am able to teach from that authentic place. It is abundantly clear to me that I am perpetually (thankfully) a student, learning alongside and from those I teach. Parker Palmer’s works have been an affirmation of this approach to teaching, as have the writings of bell hooks and Paulo Friere.

I also believe that having faced my own suffering allows me to be present to others’ suffering in a way that supports transformation and healing. I recently heard a recording of a dharma talk by Insight Meditation teacher Narayan Liebenson Grady which I think speaks to the alchemical process that is practice: "Transformation means freeing our hearts from its torments; the result of such transformation is a deepening degree of inner freedom. So we practice this path not simply because one’s life goes better, but really for the deepest of reasons—to free our hearts from the torments of heart, so that we know this within ourselves and so that we can alleviate suffering in others as well."


  1. hello Emily,

    I was at your reading in Florence last night and found your blog...

    Just another hello from Susan

  2. oops, my comment is anonymous...will try again,
    Susan ;-)

  3. Hi,

    You've an extremely wonderful blog. Most of the people usually do not comprehend what mind power can do to one's achievements.