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Category Archives: Suffering

J at Sunrise 5:17

Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, after doing Sunlight Qi Gong slowly to the rising sun, my mind tries to hold all the suffering in the world. The seemingly endless suffering feels so overwhelming, so huge – Syrian people bombed, children raped in Nigeria (reflecting the Untamed State, a novel about a kidnapping in Haiti I’m reading), and the insanity of our government. How can one heart and mind hold it all? Even knowing a small portion of the suffering, I could drown in it all, lose myself, my perspective so easily. I would possibly, if I were in the midst of being raped or watching my child die of starvation. These horrors are happening to some woman right now. In my safety, surrounded by beauty, I try to hold her suffering in my heart, send her love, gentleness, the power of the rising sun.

Practicing breathing mindfully, moving slowly, bringing the energy of the sun, ocean, sand and clear air into my mind, my body and my heart is more important now than ever. These are the times we have been practicing for – these moments of great uncertainty, fear, war, poverty, chaos and suffering. The world needs our mindful energy so much, our compassion for suffering, our openness to beauty, goodness, kindness and love.

As I hug my husband, I hug all suffering people in the world and send them the energy of hope.

Redbud and BEE

Suffering surrounds us – the starvation in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, the bombs in Syria, frightening threats from our government to the Earth’s survival.  Yet we breathe, have breakfast, hear the bees in the redbud tree in the back yard.  How can such deep suffering within and around us and such beauty and joy co-exist?

My meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that mindfulness has two functions.  The first is to get in touch with the wonderful and beautiful things all around us.  The second is to get in touch with the difficult emotions, like anger, fear, pain and sorrow inside and around us.  Mindfulness can help us recognize and embrace these difficulties and transform them. (Together We are One: Honoring our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection, p. 84).

Three things help me do this work of transformation:  a daily habit of mindfulness meditation , connection with community and active resistance to war, poverty, discrimination and destruction of our Mother Earth.  Suffering exists.  How do we transform it today within ourselves, in our world?

Eurythmie by Lyn

Today my task is to accept this bronchitis as my path for the day.  I woke many times during the night, still coughing, lungs rattling, difficult to breathe or really rest.  This will be my fifth day of illness, feeling unable to do much of anything.

About 5:30am, I tried Ruth’s meditation, thinking about all the people in this neighborhood, in the city, county, the state, the world suffering from the same illness. I am not alone, never am alone, in joy or suffering. There are so many people suffering much more greatly right now from war, poverty and oppression…and many suffering the way I am today. As I breathe in, I know I am breathing in; as I breathe out, I hear the “wheez” of my lungs rattling. A reminder that I am alive. I am here…in the here and now. I am grateful to be alive, to be slowly healing, to embrace impermanence. I think of my teacher, Thay, recovering from a serious stroke over two years ago, able to travel to Thailand, re-learning speech and movement, one muscle at a time. He inspires me to relax, to rest, to be where I am, with all those around the world who are sick in this moment. I am not alone.  I have my precious husband caring for me. I am breathing in, breathing out.

bell-outdoors

“May the sound of this bell reach suffering ones in the whole cosmos, sending healing, comfort and peace.”  These words from my meditation teacher, Anh Huong Nguyen (www.mpcf.com) last Saturday morning, brought tears of joy and relief to my soul.

I had just traveled half way around the world from a wonderful visit to family living in Malaysia.  I had suffered the night before from lack of sleep and justified anger directed at me from a loved one.  I ate cereal in the car on the ride to this beautiful annual ceremony to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to a member of WMC and many others from MCPF, Stillwater and other sanghas on the east coast.  I had been filled with remorse for my mindless actions that had hurt and angered someone I love dearly.  My body was still adjusting to crossing 12 time zones and being greeted by bitter 16 degree weather.  My spirit needed the silence, the beautiful church with huge windows revealing gently falling snow, a fox trotting by in the woods, the warmth of dozens of beloved sisters and brothers surrounding me.  I took a deep breath, relaxed and let myself cry.

I often find in meditation that the first person who needs the healing sound of the bell is me.  My suffering is so small compared to that of families dying daily in Aleppo, women raped and beaten in many countries, children starved and abused, all people suffering from war, poverty, oppression and fear of their political leaders.

Yet this body is the one I feel most closely, can breathe in most easily, can feed, rest, comfort and nourish.  I hope it is true – as Thich Nhat Hanh and his niece Anh Huong teach me – that in taking care of myself, I am taking care of the whole cosmos.  All suffering beings are present in me and me in them.  We “inter-are.”  I am the child in Aleppo.  I am the woman in Nigeria bearing a child of rape.  I am the coal miner in West Virginia worried about feeding his children.  I am determined to take care of all of me, all of the suffering in the world in my breathing, in the sound of this bell going out to the whole cosmos.

 

Butterfly Museum with my granddaughter-life, so beautiful, so fleeting it seems

Butterfly Museum with my granddaughter-life, so beautiful, so fleeting it seems.

My son, daughter in law and granddaughter are in the air for a two day trip half way around the world.  We might not see them again for a year, a very long time in a grandmother’s life.  I miss them terribly already, yet the joy of their two week visit is evidenced throughout our home.  Photos from two birthday parties, a christening yesterday in Baltimore of Pat’s grand niece and numerous adventures in museums and waterfront cafes with wonderful friends and family.  I shared with some friends at a meeting on Friday (another joyous celebration) that I’ve found joy nestled within the greatest sorrows.  In fact, joy and sorrow have become not separate, different entities in my life, but the same experience viewed with different attitude, viewpoint, perspective.

During one of his powerful talks, Thich Nhat Hanh (www.plumvillage.org) showed us a piece of paper and said, one side is joy and the other our suffering.  They are not different, separate entities or experiences.  They are the same.  Without our suffering, our challenges in life, how could we find the depth of acceptance, compassion and love that infuses our joy and happiness?  Without a deep inner happiness based on the oneness we have with others, with the whole Universe, how could we endure our suffering?

I might find some tears and longing in my heart today, a bit of fear for their safety and well-being, a desire to cling to them, hold them here close to us.  But it has always worked best with my son to “let him go,” allow him all the freedom to explore, work, learn and be the dedicated person he is in his work to alleviate poverty in Asia and other parts of the world.  I ask that my heart continue to grow with the love he inspires in me, to keep encompassing all people I meet, to treat them with the same respect and love I have for him, his beautiful wife and precious daughter.

I sing “Please Call me by my True Names”:

“My joy’s like spring so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain’s like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once.

So I can hear that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up

and the door of my heart will be left open.

The door of compassion.”

 

 

 

 

Buddhas at Malihom

 

“We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.” The joy, peace, freedom and harmony of our ancestors, our children and their children is ours, NOW. It works both ways – suffering passes from generation to generation, but so does the peace of one affect the peace of previous and future generations. This is the teaching on Inter-being of the Buddha, as transmitted to us in this generation by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dali Lama and other great teachers.

Scientists are now verifying what spiritual teachers have said for thousands of years. We have wondered how children who did not actually experience the Holocaust, genocide in Cambodia, war and poverty in Iraq and Gaza have suffered so much from their parents’ suffering. In an article I read yesterday, anthropologists have studied PTSD in children of Cambodians in Lowell, Mass, children who did not directly experience the Khmer Rouge but whose bodies, minds and spirits bear the marks of their parents’ torture. (See http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120144/trauma-genetic-scientists-say-parents-are-passing-ptsd-kids).

I have also personally experienced healing in my own body, mind and spirit from deep, generations-old suffering passed on to me from my ancestors and forward to children and grandchildren. Without the great suffering, how could we see this multi-generational healing? The suffering is necessary, Thay says, to develop the love and compassion, the motivation to practice deep listening and mindful speech now, knowing that it will help our mothers and fathers who didn’t have the tools of recovery and meditation that we now have. Their mothers and fathers and our beloved children and grandchildren benefit immediately also. Sometimes this healing is visible, tangible; sometimes it works at the level of DNA and gentle transformations in the synapses of our brains.

I still have the deep hope, shared by Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Buddha, Thay and many others, that we can achieve peace in the world by bringing true peace to our own hearts and those of our families and loved ones. Peace is possible….NOW! The deep teaching about living in the present moment is that in this moment is EVERYTHING, all the past and future, all the joy and suffering interconnected.  We are so fortunate to know and practice this reality.

Storm comingOne day in a place of great beauty, a sudden storm arose, carrying visible, tangible darkness and suffering.

I watched, listened, breathed in the smell and feel of quickening wind and rain.

Storms are sometimes quick;  some gather slowly, remain longer.

But all of them seem to contain an ending, a quieting, a moment of light

Bursting through.   I wait, listen, watch and keep breathing in the smell and warmth of light

within the clouds.

Sunrise over sea

4502746840_94507907ef_o

On Sundays, my husband and I have private Days of Mindfulness if we are not attending one with a sangha.  This is a chance to enjoy more silence, meditation, Qi Gong, walks, naps, reading and mindful eating, sharing and living together.  Yesterday my two themes were resting my bronchitis and looking more deeply into my use of technology.  I read the first three articles in the new Mindfulness Bell – “The Horse is Technology” by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Intention, Innovation, Insight: A Day of Mindfulness at Google by Sister Chan Hien Nghiem and “I Love Technology by Kenley Neufeld.

Thay says that technology can become a “horse” that carries us away, a tool that we’ve allowed to drive us rather than as useful way to relieve our suffering and that of others.  He describes a day of mindfulness he and the monks and nuns held at Google, to try to help them use their slogan of “Intention, Innovation and Insight” to connect to the four nutriments (contact, attention, feelings, perception and volition). “Some of us use technology to consume, in order to forget the suffering in us, the same way that we sometimes use edible food, not because we need it, but because we want to forget the suffering in us.”

That is sometimes true for me, that being on the computer, checking to see if someone has emailed me can be addictive, a way to seek stimulation, excitement, something moving me from outside. I have successfully resisted getting an I-phone, so that I can keep my calls and internet use to a minimum.  But don’t we also need contact, stimulation, ideas from other people? My need for reading is very high, perhaps higher than most people’s need to read, especially spiritual books and novels. I do need quiet, time alone every day,  these lovely morning hours when I write whatever is on my mind, establish a strong spiritual connection with my higher powers, with the Buddha, dharma, sangha, meditate and do Qi Gong.  I spend a great deal of time practicing to relieve my suffering and finding words that will help relieve the suffering of others. When I am disturbed, I now know to be quiet, to meditate, to look at the source within myself of my little suffering and share it with someone who can help. I can sit and absorb nature, enjoy doing nothing, take long walks in the woods, swim, bike, staying connected to beauty.

But I also get tired of mindless chatter, especially being ‘stuck’ in a superficial social situation. Picking up a good book can be a signal that I want to be alone, focused, learning. Perhaps – as with most things, it is a challenge of the “middle way,” of balance.  I’m not at all afraid of being alone any more, of looking deeply into my own suffering. I don’t feel that I really suffer very often at all. This little bout of bronchitis is hardly much suffering. It’s annoying, keeps me from the level of energy where I feel creative, useful, so I need to find deeper acceptance and love of myself and others. But suffering? When I have such a loving husband taking care of me, a sangha, many friends and the dharma, which tells me that “this, too, shall pass.”   Although I have suffered greatly in my life and learned wonderful lessons from suffering, I’m no longer a woman who suffers much at all. I’ll miss my children very much when they move half way around the world in two weeks, but I know I’m never really separated from them.  What more could a woman want in life than what I already have and am?

So, I’m at a place in my life where I mostly need to focus my attention more on those who are suffering.  That’s where the technology can be a powerful tool if used not to distract, avoid or drown our suffering but be a real means of communication with others. I loved Kenley’s article – “I LOVE technology, I value technology, I embrace technology!” Very upbeat and positive, a dynamic article that speaks to the youth of the 21st century. The article by Sr. True Dedication talked about the great “dharma sharing” Thay and the monastics had with the Google executives, sharing ideas for how to design technology that can help relieve suffering! Wow! Great ideas for furthering Thay’s talks, creating “mindful eating zones” at Google, creative ways to reach people through technology with the energy of mindfulness.   Ideas like this are the kind of  stimulation I need to become a better practitioner and someone who can be of better service in relieving the suffering of others.

IMG_3290

This morning dawned cloudy but warmer than the many before it full of ice and snow.  I heard thunder for the first time in weeks, then noticed the sun emerging for a moment from the clouds.  I felt an urge to write, more than my daily journaling, to communicate with you again about the power of meditation in my life, how it has transformed my morning feelings and my life.  I stopped and breathed.

Over the last couple of decades, I have developed daily habits of mindful sitting meditation, eating meditation, walking meditation that have transformed my suffering greatly and allowed me touch the peace and beauty of the present moment.
We can’t meditate wrong – if whatever we do helps us stop the mindless “doing” escaping energy that keeps us from seeing ourselves, others and our world as it really is.  Once we stop, even momentarily, to breathe, feel our heart beating, smile at the beauty of nature, we can touch peace, stability, reality.  No matter what is happening inside us or outside in the world, if we are breathing, we are alive.
Then we can concentrate on touching our own suffering and transforming it in mindful breathing, being in the present moment.  Once we have a solid habit of stopping for twenty minutes in the morning and several times throughout the day, we might stop running from our suffering long enough to look deeply at its source.

“What am I feeling right now, at this moment?”  Fear, anger, frustration, anxiety or calm, peace, happiness?  Both joy and sorrow at once?  “Is this “doing” energy my mother in me, always worried that we will not have enough to eat based on her loss of her own father and his support of the family in the Great Depression?”  Once I recognize my mother in me, anxiously pushing food on family members at my husband’s birthday party, I take a breath, relax a bit, and smile at her energy in me.  She passed away 38 years ago, but she lives in my body, mind, heart and habit energy – both her anxieties and her great love.  As I recognize her anxiety in me, I breathe and smile, nourishing her love and breathing peace in my body, mind and heart.  I love continuing my mother’s best qualities in me, my father’s best qualities, still transforming their difficulties and mine in this beautiful moment.

I also take some time every morning to look at the suffering in the world – Syria, Ukraine, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, in DC – in all people who suffer from war, poverty, oppression, abuse.  I call friends who are ill, dying, suffering from addictions and loss of loved ones.  Suffering abounds in our world, suffering we need to see, touch, and do whatever we can to heal and transform.  When we understand our own suffering, we will be able to understand the suffering of others and help them transform it, with the help of our brothers and sisters.

I made a formal commitment to my meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and my world-wide sangha in our ordination ceremony in 2011 into the Order of Interbeing to “recognize, accept, embrace and listen to our own suffering with the energy of mindfulness…to not run away from our own suffering or cover it up through consumption but practice conscious breathing and walking to look deeply into the roots of our suffering…in order to help myself and others transform suffering into compassion, peace and joy.”

Thank you to all of you who help me to do this each day.  Thank you to the sun that peeks from rain clouds to invite me to smile.  I have so much more gratitude and love in this moment than suffering.

                                Failling star*

Today I woke with mind dwelling on an unpleasant scene during a meeting yesterday, feeling I might need to “DO” something about it, but what?  Would interfering with other people’s feelings and actions, just make it worse?  Should I stay in my own “hula hoop”?

So, I did my morning routine, journaling about my thoughts, dreams, feelings: “So many shoulds, worry about other people, what they are doing or not doing.  Why not look at yourself, Joann….deal with this sadness, loneliness that you are feeling, the lack of stimulation, exercise, giving of yourself to others, a contrast to the joy you felt on Christmas day with family.  Feeling “bored with myself” or something.  Tired of winter already, of being cooped up indoors, afraid of getting sick in the cold, self-centered, lazy, indolent, hibernating, feeling old and useless.  Ridiculous when I’m healthy for a woman in her ‘70‘s with only a couple of chronic diseases.  The cure for feelings is to DO something, not just sit around, girl!  It’s what you’d tell other people, so do it!  Stop beating up on yourself!”

I went outdoors to see the lovely moon at dawn, offered it a quick “Moonlight” Qi Gong exercise, more indoors with my husband, a reading (the 4th of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings) that helped me focus on my own suffering and begin to transform it in a 30 minute meditation.  Then I found a passage in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth that I knew would finish the transformation of my suffering (small though it is compared to most people’s suffering in the world) into gratitude and celebration of life.

After reminding us of the billions of years it took for the earth to being to manifest living beings, the development of life in the oceans fed by light particles from distant stars, Thay says “I promise to remember our extraordinary journey of eons and to live my days with awareness that we are all your children, and that we are all made of stars.  I promise to do my part, contributing my own energy of joy and harmony to the glorious symphony of life.”

Wow!  I can do that today, my small part – to contribute my own energy of joy and harmony to the glorious symphony of life that has been pulsating on this planet for billions of years!  I can’t miss this day, this opportunity, wallowing in negative thoughts, feelings or illusions.  I am, we are made of stars!  Let’s shine today.