Practice is all well and good, enriching, inspiring – even often a compass for navigating day to day challenges. Then one fine day, we get blindsided – boom – by something excruciating. We’re left with a whole gamut of emotions – despair, rage, fear, grief.Over the past two years, I have experienced more loss than I did my entire life – beginning with my sister Suzy who died several months after she was diagnosed with stage four cancer, too overwhelmed with her own grief and fear to really say goodbye. That was a tsunami – losing the person who had watched over my well-being my entire life. And then a dear friend passed away, and then another. These were on the heels of other dramatic changes in my family constellation. The anguish was great and unknown; and yet something inside of me said, “You’ve been practicing all these years – for this; so let’s see what “this” has to say. True, you’re in uncharted territory, but that practice has helped you find your way in the past. Could you look at this with curiosity and openness? You have a practice, use it.”
My practice, my laboratory
And so with some skepticism and a what-have-I-got-to-lose attitude, I once again entered my practice laboratory of investigation, beginning with the most basic observation “I’m in pain. I’m suffering.” This of course brought me to one of the most basic of the Buddha’s teaching The Four Noble Truths:
- Suffering is a fact of life.
- There is a reason for suffering.
- Well-being is also possible.
- There is a way out of suffering into well-being.
Thay says: “Recognizing and identifying our suffering is like the work of a doctor diagnosing an illness. He or she says, ‘If I press there does it hurt?’ and we say ‘Yes, this is my suffering. This has come to be.” And so I decided to start paying attention to this anguish in order to become better acquainted with what it was made of. I noticed that the feelings were always difficult but changeable; there were times when they were too deep and intense to touch, and others when I could get closer to them.
I also noticed that there were two very distinct modes. One was pure, raw pain, like when I was overcome with emotion and lost in a river of tears. That was a feeling both in my heart and in my body, in which there were minimal thoughts, and seemed to be followed by a modicum of relief. The other mode was more prevalent, a kind of hard ball inside that was difficult to touch and accompanied by many thoughts and stories. And it was relentless. I recognized that the former was the pain, the latter the suffering.
Thay explains the relationship between the two in this way: “There is a Buddhist teaching found in the SallathaSutta, known as ‘The Arrow.’ It says if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least ten times more intense. The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life—are analogous to the first arrow. They cause pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety.” (from No Mud, No Lotus, by Thich Nhat Hahn)
Well-being is possible
Thay writes in the Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings that the third noble truth, “well being is possible” unfolds in stages (turnings) that enable us to relate to and heal our suffering:
- Recognition: “The wound in our heart becomes the object of our meditation… We stop running from our pain. With all our courage and tenderness we recognize, acknowledge and identify it.” This is a tough one. All our lives we have been practicing warding off pain, distracting ourselves with consumption, not just eating, viewing and buying, but our thought consumption as well: thinking, analyzing, blaming, creating stories about how something is or isn’t, and then re-running them again and again in our own minds. So getting close to the pain is no simple feat. And lost in the stories of suffering, we get disconnected, and in doing so abandon our pain and ourselves. “The question is,” writes Thay, “Do we want to hold onto the lure of suffering and let our minds wander around in dreams?” (from the Energy of Prayer)
- Encouragement: Because keeping our pain at bay has been so deeply ingrained in us, daring to let go of these presumed self-preservation mechanisms requires much encouragement. Recently in the course of an impromptu conversation on logistics with a friend from the sangha, I asked her how she was doing. “The truth is,” she said, “I’ve really been in a slump,” and she proceeded to share what she was going through. Her disclosure opened up something in me, and I said, “Yeah I know what you mean, I’ve been really stuck in my own suffering as well. And then I tell myself, ok enough already, it’s time to move past this. And it doesn’t help.” “Right,” my friend said, “It never helps.” This reminded me how many years ago, when I first embarked on this path, I suddenly realized that self-criticism had been a way of life – identifying my short-comings and then instructing myself to change them. And it had never worked. Gradually, as I changed my perception, I saw that encouraging myself was the only strategy that helped me to change what I found less desirable in myself. Speaking to my friend left me feeling much lighter; and later on she told me the conversation had lifted her spirits as well. Encouragement holds our pain with compassion. Compassion brings relief. Thay says: “One single drop of this compassionate water is enough to bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains…” (from the Great Bell Chant)
- Realization that happiness and suffering are not two: For years, I have been hearing the adage, “No mud, no lotus.” For me this always meant something like “no pain, no gain.” Or you can learn and grow from difficult situations, and maybe even every cloud has a silver lining. Today, I understand this differently. I understand that touching, holding the pain is essential to healing; when I can do that, I have watered the seeds of compassion within myself. The alternative is abandoning myself to my suffering, to that hard ball, where there is no feeling.
As I continue to practice with this, I no longer need to get lost in a river of tears in order to get that feeling of connection with myself. I might even notice just a twinge. And if I can catch that almost imperceptible moment before that twinge becomes a story, I can identify it, feel its embodiment, and let it transform.
The spring of my strength…
I now view my ability to be with my own pain as an asset – and because the pain is so often elusive and couched in suffering, when I feel it coming, if I can, I welcome it. I am reminded of standing as a child staring out onto floating icebergs on Lake Michigan in the dead of winter – freezing winds lacerating my face, I linger there just to feel the intensity of the life force coursing through me.
Thay says: “Don’t throw away your suffering. Touch your suffering. Face it directly, and your joy will become deeper.” When we hold our pain with compassion, we clear away a space for joy – and it comes – my sense of humor, gratitude, the green leaves on the trees outside my window, even just a sense of general well-being for no particular reason. As essential as it is to lean into the pain, we need to remember to lean into the joy: smell the brand-new morning air, let our laugh be robust, savor a good conversation with a beloved person – and celebrate whenever possible. The life-force coursing through us contains it all.
Israeli songwriter, Shalom Hanoch says it well in his song, “A Song With No Name:”
“The spring of my strength is my laugh and my cry, the end of sorrow.”
((מעין כוחי צחוק ובכי, כץ ייסורי
It’s a beautiful song, I invite you to listen to it here.