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Lions Roar : May 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2008 25 I PHONED MY FRIEND and colleague Tamara Engel, a co-founding teacher of the New York Insight Meditation Center, at her home in Florida. I was in the com- munal dressing room at Loehmann’s De- partment Store in San Francisco. “Guess where I’m calling you from,” I said. “I’ll give you a hint. I’m with my daughter Elizabeth and it’s her birthday.” “Oh, I’m so excited for you,” Tamara said. “You must be looking for a birth- day present for Liz. You’re shopping for clothes. Am I right?” “You are,” I answered. “But where, specifically, are we? Where would I sud- denly think of phoning you?” “You’re in Loehmann’s!” “We are!” “Pass the phone to Liz,” Tamara said. “I want to say ‘happy birthday.’ ” I listened to Liz describing the dress she had on and heard her responses to what were clearly Tamara’s requests for more details. Tamara always had a won- derful sense of style, and I could tell Liz was enjoying her coun- sel. And I was enjoying the experience of shared delight and ap- preciation between two women I love very much. What made the experience even more remarkable was that Tamara had been told by her doctors only a few days earlier that the chemotherapy for her ovarian cancer was no longer working, and that she had only a few months to live. When Tamara told me the news she had said, “I have very little time to get every- thing in order, to get used to dying, to make sure I am ready.” Listening now to Liz in conversation with Tamara, I saw that in the midst of assimilating that news, amid the sadness and the urgency to prepare, Tamara was still able to rejoice. I phoned Florida again the next day and thanked Tamara for celebrating with Liz. “Oh, no,” Tamara said. “I’m so glad you called. It picked up my whole day. The thought of you both in Loehmann’s, in that dressing room where everyone shares views about what you’ve chosen, made me happy. I remembered shopping with my moth- er in Loehmann’s, and I remembered taking my daughter Emily there when she was young.” “I think you’re remarkable, anyway,” I said. “Here you are, just having heard your own news...I marvel that you can find room in your mind for gladness.” “I’m lucky,” Tamara said. “I’m sure it’s the mudita [empathic joy] practice I’ve done. I don’t think I appreciated, when I first learned it, that mudita is not about really wishing that the other per- son’s good fortune should continue. It’s practicing so that your own mind doesn’t cave in to despair and envy or jealousy. I am using other people’s happiness to keep my own love of life alive. I had a great life, and I want to remember that I loved it as long as I live.” Tamara did spend the last months of her life putting things in order, getting used to the awareness that her death was approaching, making herself ready. She ended her work with her psychotherapy clients in her customary thoughtful way. She phoned or wrote friends to say good- bye. She gave her close friends things she’d owned that had been meaningful to her, and I’m sure that everyone’s gift arrived, as mine did, as a sur- prise, carefully wrapped, with a note of personal explanation. “Every time I wrap and send a present,” Tamara told me, “I feel happy thinking of the recipient.” She changed her phone message when individual conversations became too trying: “This is Tamara. Thank you for your message and your kind wishes. I’m not responding to phone calls anymore, but please know that I feel your interest and care for me as an em- brace, as a hug, and in my mind, I am hugging you back.” “The only thing I sometimes worry about,” she said one day as she felt the end was nearing, “is that people will forget about me.” “No one will forget about you,” I said. “I promise. You’ve been a wonderful dharma teacher for so many people, and you are the best mudita teacher I ever had. Look, you’re still here and I’m already teaching people your insights into mudita.” “I’m so pleased,” Tamara said. “I want to be remembered as a good teacher.” I read this article to Tamara on the telephone two weeks before the day she died, December 10, 2007, and she was glad to hear it. ♦ SYLVIA BOORSTEIN’S new book is Happiness Is an Inside Job. Tamara’s Joy Tamara Engel was the best teacher of mudita, empathetic joy, that SYLVIA BOORSTEIN ever knew. Tamara shared in the joy of others’ lives until the very end. MAY 18-41.indd 25 MAY 18-41.indd 25 3/6/08 11:17:09 AM 3/6/08 11:17:09 AM