Coronavirus–Leaning into and Learning from our Suffering

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community on Thursday Evening,
March 26th, 7:00 to 8:30 pm

Open to all, Friday Evening,
March 27th, 7:00 to 8:30 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

It has been a week like no other. I’ve been practicing social distancing. In some ways it feels like summer time in Maine with my wife, Ann-Mari. We see a lot of each other. She is often in the yard. I’m often at the computer. We go for lots of walks.

It is, also, not like Maine in the summer. It has been a scramble this past week as the Still Water community moved most of our twenty weekly gatherings online, and Sangha facilitators learned to lead virtual meetings.

Additionally, throughout the week my sense of foreboding has grown. Indications are that we are entering a massively disruptive collective experience. Some of the indicators are from the media  — infection rates and curves, and stories of illnesses, death, and disruption in hard-hit areas. Other indicators are more personal: day by day the number of verified infections and coronavirus-like symptoms is growing among people I’m close to, and among those they are close to.

For me, and I believe for all of us who practice mindfulness, the essential challenge in the days, weeks, and months ahead is neither to succumb to denial or obliviousness on one side, nor to fear and panic on the other. Our primary effort must be to embody and nourish our equanimity, clarity, love, and compassion, as best we can. Only then can we help ourselves and help others.

Whether we are very young, very old, or in between, we all have a consequential role to play in the drama that is unfolding.

Of all the counsel I’ve received this past week, the most useful was a video reminder from Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) to lean into and learn from suffering. Thay’s guidance came in a response he gave in 2014 to the question: “How do I stay in the present moment when it feels unbearable?”

Next time when we find the present moment not pleasant, don’t think that running away from it is the best way. … . Stay in that moment. Look deeply into the nature of your suffering. If you know how to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking, generating the energy of mindfulness, then that energy of mindfulness generated by the practice helps you to be strong enough to recognize, encounter the pain, and embrace it tenderly.

And embracing your pain tenderly, in a few minutes you can calm it down. If there are other practitioners practicing with you, then you can profit from their energy of mindfulness and compassion, getting in touch with the suffering will bring about understanding of suffering and the energy of compassion. Understanding and compassion have the power to heal. To heal you and to heal the people who happen to be around you at that time.

If there is a group of people practicing together at that time, embracing the suffering with tenderness, they will experience the collective energy of compassion that will heal them. And when the suffer less, they are in a situation to help other people to do the same.

The practice of mindfulness and Thay’s teachings seem to offer so much for this moment of history, when so many are looking for ways to take good care of their physical and mental health, and to offer to others.

During our Thursday gathering (now online) for those who ordinarily meet in Silver Spring, Maryland, we will watch together the Q and A session from which the above quote was taken. We will begin our Dharma sharing with the questions:

  • What helps you lean into and learn from your suffering?
  • What makes it difficult?

Also, in response to the larger need, beginning this week Still Water will open our practice to our out-of-area friends, wherever they live. We invite you to join us in a Zoom meeting on Friday night evening, 7:00 to 8:30 pm, Eastern US time. The Friday evening Zoom meeting will follow the same format as the Thursday meeting. The Zoom link is: (Meeting ID: 415 227 823) A more detailed Zoom link is on the Still Water website).

Additionally, beginning on Wednesday, April 1st, Still Water will be offering “The Art of Mindful Living – An interactive online introduction to mindfulness.” Classes will be held on Zoom on the1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month, 7pm — 8pm. The Zoom link is: (Meeting ID: 851 947 000).The class description and a more detailed Zoom link is on the Still Water website).

Simple instruction for joining a Zoom group are on our website:

You are invited to join us.

I would like to close with a blessing from The Discourse on Love:

May everyone be happy and safe, and may all hearts be filled with joy.

May all beings live in security and in peace — beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, invisible or visible, near or faraway, already born, or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquillity.

A Thich Nhat Hanh teaching on taking care of strong emotions is below, and also an updated list of Still Water programs moved online or suspended.

One more announcement: On March 25-29 there will be a free 5-day on-line teaching entitled In the Footsteps of Thich Nhat Hanh. It is offered by Lion’s Roar Magazine and the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation and will include daily teachings by lay Dharma Teachers and Plum Village monastics.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Belly Breathing to Take Care of Strong Emotions
By Thich Nhat Hanh from Creating True Peace

A simple method for taking care of strong emotions is belly breathing, mindful breathing from the abdomen. When we are caught in a strong emotion, such as fear or anger, we should bring our attention down to our abdomen. At times like this, to remain at the level of the intellect is dangerous. Strong emotions are like a storm, and it is not wise to stand in the open during a storm. Yet our normal reaction is to stay in our head and let our feelings overwhelm us. Instead, we should get rooted in our breathing, focusing on the rise and fall of our abdomen, bringing our attention down to our center. When we focus on our belly and practice mindful breathing, we give all of our attention to its rise and fall. We can do this sitting or lying down. Putting a hot water bottle on the belly is also helpful. We feel the warmth of the hot water bottle and we can easily bring our gentle awareness to our stable center, allowing us to calm down.

One night, when I was in pain and could not sleep, I brought to mind the image of three cedar trees at my hermitage. With my mindful breathing, I embraced these beautiful, strong trees. I felt their freshness and stability penetrate me and I was able to overcome my painful feeling.

When you look at a tree in a windstorm, you see that the top of the tree is unstable and vulnerable. The wind can break the smaller branches at any time. But when you look down at the trunk of the tree, what you see is very different. The tree there is solid and will withstand the storm. We are like a tree. When we are upset, our head is the top of the tree being whipped around during a tempest, then we have to bring our attention down to the level of our solid trunk, our navel.