Building a Raft

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Dear Still Water Friends,

At the end of June I flew to San Diego to spend a week in a beach house with my family–my brothers, their families, and my stepmother’s large family. There were 35 of us under one roof…yikes!

When I lived nearby, I would drop in for only a day or part of a day on this yearly family event. My reasons for spending minimal time with the larger family grouping were two-fold. One, large groups are overwhelming for my nervous system, and two, my relationships with my brothers are not as warm and loving as I might wish. The weeks preceding this year’s trip were filled with anticipatory anxiety. I wanted to find concrete ways to bring my mindfulness practice to this upcoming trip and pivot away from the narratives in my head.

Luckily, I had been reading The Eight Realizations of Great Beings by Brother Phap Hai. He uses the metaphor of a raft to visualize the Buddhist path. He draws a picture of us standing on the shore of suffering, looking for a way to reach the other shore, the shore of liberation. We cross over that “raging torrent” with a raft made up of teachings and practices of our own choosing. It is inspiring to contemplate, as Brother Phap Hai urges, how to take Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) teachings out of the merely cerebral realm and to begin applying those teachings to my moments, both large and small, of dis-ease and suffering.

I decided to focus on building my own metaphorical raft of teachings and practices. I began by creating some flashcards on a ring to keep handy during the week. I divided the cards into four sections according to a passage from Thay’s book, No Mud, No Lotus. These were:

Come Home,
Make Peace,
Treat Tenderly,
Look Deeply.

The first one obviously included reminders to breathe. The second involved smiling at the pain, embracing it, turning towards it rather than away. For the third I turned to The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Christopher Germer and Kristin Nefff for short and effective ways to relate to my inner struggles. For looking deeply, I went to Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer which helped me dialog with my inner experience, my inner child as Thay refers to this aspect of ourselves.

Here is how Coming Home worked for me. At dinner time the whole clan gathered together. Cooking duties were rotated daily, it was a whole thing! What cacophony! While jovial, it was usually much too much for me. In those moments I dearly wanted that inner island of refuge that Thay describes. The practice that helped me is called Breathing Hands. As I notice my in-breath, I slowly close my hands into a ball. Then, as I exhale, I slowly open my hands all the way. In my mind, I also created a quick gatha to reflect the struggle: in, noticing (noise), out, smiling at (noise). It was noisy and I could tap into my own sense of calm.

I practiced the fourth one on Looking Deeply with a less challenging situation: I was playing an old, family-favorite card game with my sister in-law and my nieces. My sister in-law became upset because I had only shuffled and dealt two decks of cards, while she thought we needed three decks. I gave the classic yet off-putting reply of, “But this is the way we’ve always played.” We continued to play the round. She voiced more displeasure. Internally, I questioned my motives. Why is this important to me? If I get my way then what do I get out of it? I kept questioning until I sensed a deeper value surfacing. What really mattered was spending time with my family, enjoying their gentle companionship. This need for connection is such a universal human longing! My sister in-law and young nieces, just like me, were trying to successfully navigate this large gathering and its sensory overload. I smiled at this insight, feeling a truly deep connection and sense of interbeing at our card table. We played the successive rounds with three decks.

This trip was at times very challenging – I may never feel comfortable in a crowded room with many people shouting to talk over each other. I balanced stressful times with periods of mindful walking along the beach, lovely moments of taking refuge in nature. The cards in my pocket were essential bells of mindfulness, I utilized them frequently. As a result, I was able to offer loving speech and deep listening to my family, to be present for and with them. I noticed how they also suffer from anxiety and get swept away by their own thoughts. Compassion arose naturally as the feeling of isolation that anxiety engenders fell away.

I hope and believe mine was a calming presence. I felt happy to be with them and close to the ocean, a reminder of the earth’s amazing power and vastness. For that week in June, I found an island of refuge within and was able to create space so the best version of me could be present for others.

After our meditation, our Dharma sharing will focus on how we can build a raft of teachings and practices that will help us cross over the raging torrents to the shore of liberation. We can begin by considering these questions:

  • Which practices help you transform suffering?
  • Are there changes you would like to make in your life?
  • What does the shore of liberation look like for you?

Related excepts by Thay and Br. Phap Hai are below.

Many Blessings,

Gwendolyn Threatt-Satoh


From the Art of Happiness section of No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh

The essence of our practice can be described as transforming suffering into happiness. It’s not a complicated practice, but it requires us to cultivate mindfulness, concentration, and insight. It requires first of all that we come home to ourselves, that we make peace with our suffering, treating it tenderly, and looking deeply at the roots of our pain. It requires that we let go of useless, unnecessary sufferings, release the second arrow, and take a closer look at our idea of happiness. Finally, it requires we nourish happiness daily, with acknowledgment, understanding, and compassion for ourselves and for those around us. We offer these practices to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the larger community. This is the art of suffering and the art of happiness. With each breath, we ease suffering and generate joy. With each step, the flower of insight blooms.

From the Great Vow section of The Eight Realizations of Great Beings by Br. Phap Hai

There are many metaphors for the spiritual path in Buddhism. In one of the most well-known, we’re offered an image in which we’re standing on the shore of suffering, needing to build ourselves a raft of the teachings and practices that will help us cross over the raging torrent to the shore of liberation.

For this metaphor of the spiritual journey to be useful and practical, it’s important to look deeply into our situation and ask ourselves how suffering manifests in our own lives and what the shore of liberation might be.

There are many loaded words in Buddhism that can lead us into all kinds of conceptual traps, and one of these is “awakening” or “liberation.” Another one is “suffering.” In order for your practice to be useful, real, and transformative, you may find it helpful to reflect on what it is that you need to be liberated from, exactly? What do you need to wake up to? What is the shore of suffering for you? It’s all too easy–and actually quite tempting–to remain on the superficial level and not look deeply and ask ourselves how suffering and happiness manifest in us and in those around us. Otherwise, we’re just dealing with generalizations.

When you speak of suffering, how does this manifest in you? What is your pain? What are the things that you need to understand, to transform? At the same time, what is liberation for you? What would that experience be like?

If we look deeply into our real situation, we begin to understand how suffering and liberation manifest in our own lived experience; they become concrete realities. Recognizing the unique patterns of our suffering, we build ourselves a raft of the teachings and practices that will address the particular constellation of our pain and help us to cross over the raging torrent.