Dharma
Claire Este McDonald

I didn’t know that life was my teacher. Dharma was staring me in the face and I had no idea.  Dharma? What is dharma? These were not words that I had ever heard but somehow felt and wondered about. The world seemed surreal, coming at me like a comet. Moving so unspeakably fast leaving me panting, desperate to understand. Why am I here???  

When I was a little girl there was a tree in my backyard. This tree was very big and beautiful and I felt very tiny standing next to it. The tree was magical, brim-filled with life and light. I felt safe and happy there. From my bedroom window, I could see my tree. Watching her made me feel peaceful. This tree was so alive. I felt its aliveness shimmering and dancing and I wanted to know why? What makes it alive? What makes me alive? Why am I here?

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On weekends, I would visit my grandparents. They lived in what I thought was a paradise. Being first generation Irish and French immigrants and post WW2, they did not have very much. They made their way working hard and making things from scratch. A garden in their backyard danced with color and life. Everything was nature made, kissed by the sun, and 100% organic. Concord grapes grew on a trellis just outside their back door. My grandfather and I picked grapes so my mom could make jelly. The smell was euphoric and brought me to a space of being in love with the whole world. They made life look easy even though I know it wasn’t. They were kind, gentle people and valued the simple things in life. Their mantra was “God will give us everything we need.”

Upstairs at my grandparents house was an attic space. Cans of food, hundreds of them lined the shelves. This is where they stored food, just in case something were to happen. Tucked in the corner was a blanket and a large pillow my Grandmother would use to do postures, breathing exercises, and where she would sit still with her eyes closed. Later in life I came to realize she was practicing yoga. I would go home and do the same thing having no idea what I was doing, I just felt better and continued to do it.

The feeling of aliveness was unrelenting. I didn’t think of it as strange or out of the ordinary. It was always there for me. As I grew older, the need to understand this feeling became overwhelming. Daily swim practice was a reprieve for me; getting in the water, breathing, and having a focus calmed and centered me just like the exercises I practiced with my grandmother.

As my life unfolded this feeling faded as my attempt to understand led me to lots of doing. Doing for doing sake. I felt lost, dark, and alone. Everyone around me seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going. I did not. I had a feeling, not an action plan. The feeling was crushing like what I imagine Superman felt when he was around kryptonite. All my power was lost to uncertainty. Success deepened my despondency and unleashed my inner monsters. I learned later this is what the yogis loosely call, “being in your head.

I went to art school. My desire to understand what makes us alive was back and all the stronger.  Madness and desperate with the desire to understand myself I immersed in painting, figure drawing, anatomy, kinesiology, and observation. I was trying to capture the essence of life in any way that I could.

What makes us alive? Why do some things appear to have more life than others? As much as I loved being an artist I knew life was beckoning me towards something else. Another canvas. Not a physical canvas but one that would take a lifetime to capture.

Physical pain has been one of my greatest inspirations and teachers. Very early on I was plagued with serious back injuries. Repeated surgeries helped but, ultimately a different kind of healing was necessary.

Not being able to move for long periods of time left me with a great deal of time to ponder why am I here? After burning through self-pity, anger, resentment, unfairness, why me? I was left with a space. There was no one left to blame. Life took me on a long and winding road. Nursing school, degrees, certifications, more degrees, more certifications, Hospice, emergency room, helicopter flight nurse, wife, mother, divorce, wife again, dogs, cats, losing my younger sister, four back surgeries, Lyme disease, and metastatic breast cancer. The bell had been rung. Life had asserted herself upon me and I came to my knees.

What I realized in those dark moments was this is my life and my dharma was to live it. What if this place that I am in-with pain, fear, doubt. What if this is all I am going to get from life? At that moment I knew I better get on board and live with whatever it is that’s showing up. I knew life would tell me what to do. Trust led me right where I needed to be. A kind of healing that brought me back to the place of feeling.

I have come to realize Dharma is not what you do; it is who you are while you are doing what you do. Life, in her generosity has provided a wealth of wonderful and extremely challenging experiences for me. It is through those experiences that I have learned and grown into the person that I am.

Uncertainty haunts all of us. Like my grandmother meditating amongst the hundreds of cans in her attic. She collected the cans because of her fear of not having enough food. These cans symbolize holding on, doing, the need for security and control, a guarantee of sorts. Through my grandmother, life demonstrated an epic lesson. While all those cans may have brought her some security, ultimately, she found a greater security and peace within herself through meditation and her yoga practices. Her way of being was her dharma-love, kindness, compassion, and her offering this lifetime.

My life essence is clear to me now. The challenges have burned away what I no longer need. As I walk my path as a teacher, I am filled with appreciation. Long ago the seeds were planted. Who I am was right there all the time. Growing up and walking my path, all of it. The ups and the downs brought me right where I was meant to be. All the heartbreaks, illness, dis-ease, love, friends, enemies, gifts and losses are a part of the canvas that has taken a lifetime to create. Everyone and everything has contributed to who I am and where I am meant to be.

For me, teaching was born from suffering. Pain brought me through my fears and darkness into the light. All the years of studying, stumbling, experiencing loss, failure, success, and triumph taught me how to ride the wave of my life. My dharma. Finding out what I was made of has led me to rejoicing in my aliveness. My mission as a human being and teacher is to be a space of love and freedom.

Why teach? Why am I here? I am not perfect! I am alive!