Silver Spring, Maryland Community Online on Thursday Evening, May 28, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening, May 29, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Dear Still Water Friends,
Right now, living in this present moment is feeling very intense and challenging. My mother, who lives in Maine, is experiencing symptoms of dementia— including memory loss, paranoia, insomnia, and paralyzing fear. My sister and my aunt and uncle are all taking care of her. Because of the virus, and social distancing requirements, some necessary medical assessments and services are paused which adds a layer of complication. I talk to my sister every day, and Zoom with her and my mother every few days. I can feel my sister’s panic as she loses her regular sleep rhythms waking continually in the night to calm my agitated mother. I witness my mother’s fear and frustration as she fights against losing her memory and tries to sustain her awareness of present time.Today Mom was able to tell me with joy about the scent of lilac and apple blossoms on their walk outside. Yesterday Mom forgot how to use her fork to eat breakfast. My sister had to show her how.
There are times my mother can’t be present with herself and her own basic needs. In our Zoom time together she breaks off in the middle of a sentence, stands up to grasp her water glass, peers into it and hands it to my sister without drinking. Mom asks for her water bottle instead, but then forgets to take a sip. My sister has to remind her that we are talking to each other on Zoom.
The present moment is very poignant and real to me today as I walk barefoot in the grass outside, marveling at my peonies almost in bloom. I send Mom pictures of the flowers beginning to unfurl. Years ago, Mom brought the peonies from her old yard when she sold her house and transplanted them into my garden. She could not take them with her, so she left them in my care. These days, my sister and I nourish our mother with shared memories like the transplanted peonies that serve as a bridge from a present which feels distant and unreal to her, to a vibrant life before dementia and quarantine.
In my daily sitting practice, I keep coming back to the present moment to keep releasing my intense emotions— regret over lost opportunities for more heartfelt connection, sadness that we overlooked the symptoms we might have recognized earlier, endless thought-loops that can pull me back into the past.
In his published journal Fragrant Palm Leaves, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about listening to a moving concert by a blind pianist and vividly recalling his own mother as if she were still alive and present with him, though she’d been dead for six years:
Begin by looking at yourself and seeing how miraculous your body is. There is never any reason to look at your physical body with contempt or disregard. Don’t ignore the very things which lie within your grasp. We don’t value them. We even curse them. Consider your eyes. How can we take something as wonderful as our eyes for granted? Yet we do. We don’t look deeply at these wonders. We ignore them, and, as a result, we lose them. It’s as though our eyes don’t exist. Only when we are struck blind do we realize how precious our eyes were, and then it’s too late. A blind person who regains her sight understands the preciousness of her eyes.
She has the capacity to live happily right here on earth. The world of form and color is a miracle that offers blissful joys every day. After we have this realization, we cannot look at the blue sky and white clouds without smiling. The world constantly reveals its freshness and splendor. A blind person who regains her sight knows that paradise is right here, but before long she too will start to take it for granted again. Paradise comes to seem commonplace, and in a matter of weeks or months, she’ll lose the realization that she is in paradise. But when our “spiritual eyes” are opened, we never lose the ability to see the wonder of all dharmas, all things.
When I was a young monk, I was taught that the greatest sufferings were birth, sickness, old age, death, unfulfilled dreams, separation from loved ones, and contact with those we despise. But the real suffering of humankind lies in the way we look at reality. Look, and you will see that birth, old age, sickness, death, unfulfilled hopes, separation from loved ones, and contact with those we despise are also wonders in themselves. They are all precious aspects of existence. Without them, existence would not be possible. Most important is knowing how to ride the waves of impermanence, smiling as one who knows he has never been born and will never die.”Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me that we are not able to step over and ignore present hardships, but must persist, carrying our buds of hope and inspiration through the suffering. I savor the beauty of the blossoming peonies, even while acknowledging my own suffering and reaching out to those suffering all around me.
This Thursday and Friday at Still Water we will open our Dharma sharing with these questions:
- How do we ride the waves of impermanence, being present with the intensity of both joy and suffering in this challenging and wonderful moment?
- How do we keep finding our balance and perspective without feeling overwhelmed in the waves of suffering?
You are warmly invited to join us.
Fortunate and Unfortunate
From Fragrant Palm Leaves by Thich Nhat Hanh
Here in America, I feel an intense longing for the sound of Vietnamese. There are times I think, If is could only hear a familiar voice for two minutes, I could be happy all day long. One morning Phuong telephoned. it seemed completely natural to be talking to him. Though we didn’t talk long, I was in good spirits the rest of the day.
Since then, whenever I talk with a friend, I listen with all my attention to their words and the sound of their voice. As a result, I hear their worries, dreams, and hopes. It is not easy to listen so deeply that you understand everything the other person is trying to tell you. But every one of us can cultivate the capacity of listening deeply. I am no longer indifferent to phenomena that pass before my senses. A leaf, a child’s voice- these are the treasures of life. I look and listen deeply in order to receive the miracle these messages convey. Separation from loved ones, disappointments, impatience with unpleasant things— all these are also constructive and wonderful. Who we are is, in part, a result of our unpleasant experiences. Deep looking allows us to see the wondrous elements contained in the weaknesses of others and ourselves,and these flowers of insight will never wilt. With insight we see that the world of birth and death, and the world of Nirvana are the same. One night, while practicing sitting meditation, I felt the urge to shout out, “The work of all the Buddhas has been completely fulfilled!”
It is not possible to judge any event as simply fortunate or unfortunate, good or bad. It is like the old story about the farmer and the horse. You must travel throughout all space and time to know the true impact of any event. Every success contains some difficulties, and every failure contributes to increased wisdom or future success. Every event is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate and unfortunate, good and bad, exist only in our perceptions.