Dear Thay, Dear Still Water Friends,
As autumn unfolds, life appears to be returning to normal. In the United States, the COVID pandemic seems more or less under control with vaccines, boosters and declining numbers of cases. Children are back in school. Folks are returning to regular activities like work, play, getting together and socializing, perhaps having altered routines for the better.
For me, the COVID pandemic provided some respite from the daily routines. I enjoyed my “quiet time” at home, not having to travel so much or run around in busy daily life. I found that I could do yoga and music practice at home, read leisurely, handle volunteer assignments, and study Hawaiian language, some different pursuits to occupy my time. I was also in a “wait and see” mode especially in terms of relationships. Because I could not get together as readily with family and friends, I was pushed into more online relationships which were sufficient in keeping up the contacts yet ultimately not as satisfying. There was not the intimacy and personal connections; I missed the warmth of hugs tremendously. Also as communication was sporadic or virtual, there were numerous miscommunications, fractures and breakups that could not be resolved, it seemed, without face-to-face person contact.
I wonder how I have changed these past two years. Are there aspects that I have chosen to do differently? What is my “new” normal if there is such a thing? What now are the conditions for my happiness? Importantly I continue to wonder about who I am in the wake of having survived a global shutdown. During this time of transition, I am pondering what the past two years has meant. What did it mean during COVID to stay at home, restrict activities and isolate from family and friends? Did I substantively alter my daily activities out of worries and fears of safety? Will I retain the new tasks or pursuits that I started? I have come to realize priorities and values of which I was previously unaware, like keeping up with at home exercising and learning a new language is essential to my physical and mental well-being. Importantly, I continue to wonder about who I am in the wake of having survived a global shutdown.
In particular, I am struggling with how to guide our local sangha in transitioning to the “new normal” as we emerge from the pandemic. Our leadership group is split between wanting to return to in-person meetings versus retaining our virtual format for weekly meditation sessions. We are currently doing two face-to-face meetings and two Zoom sessions a month. The hybrid option of doing both hasn’t worked for us. We currently have a small contingent that is seeking only face-to-face contact while we have a majority who have grown comfortable with Zoom communication.
To help me work through these reflections, I have drawn upon the four concentrations explained by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Art of Living:
These four [concentrations] are found in Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a wonderful text from early Buddhism. The concentration on impermanence helps free us from our tendency to live as though we and our loved ones will be here forever. The concentration on non-craving is an opportunity to take time to sit down and figure out what true happiness really is. We discover that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy, right here in the present moment. And the concentration on letting go helps us disentangle ourselves from suffering and transform and release painful feelings. Looking deeply with all these concentrations, we are able to touch the peace and freedom of nirvana.
Impermanence reminds me that nothing can remain the same. I hope my Sangha can re-organize to accommodate everyone’s desires and needs. I know that there are those who will not be able to attend if we cease to do online meetings. Should we let them go? How do we honor their participation and value their contributions? I am also recognizing that our community is made of many elements and we need to come together for the good of the whole. Can I release my own attachment to how things were as well as how I personally think things should be? Non-craving offers me the chance to return to the present moment and identify happiness in the here and now. Perhaps by letting go of my notions of Sangha, I can release the obstacles which prevent me from seeing alternative possibilities for the community as a whole. These are the questions troubling my heart in this present moment.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation, in our Dharma sharing we will explore our understanding of our lives after the COVID pandemic using insights offered by the four concentrations. I encourage you to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation of the four concentrations in the excerpt below the announcements.
Please join me this Thursday for an evening of meditation and reflection.
Breathing and smiling,
True Mindfulness of Peace
The Four Concentrations from The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh
(1) Impermanence. Contemplating impermanence helps us touch freedom and happiness in the present moment. It helps us see reality as it is, so we can embrace change, face our fears, and cherish what we have. When we can see the impermanent nature of a flower, a pebble, the person we love, our own body, our pain and sorrow, or even a situation, we can make a breakthrough into the heart of reality.
Impermanence is something wonderful. If things were not impermanent, life would not be possible. A seed could never become a plant of corn; the child couldn’t grow into a young adult; there could never be healing and transformation; we could never realize our dreams. So impermanence is very important for life. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible (p. 116).
(2) Non-craving. When fear, craving, or desire comes up, we need to be able to recognize it with mindfulness and smile to it with compassion. ‘Hello, fear; hello, craving. Hello, little child; hello, ancestors.’ Following our breathing, and in the safe island of the present moment, we transmit the energy of stability, compassion, and non-fear to our inner child and our ancestors.
Meditation isn’t just a temporary place of refuge to help you stop suffering for a while. It’s much more than that. Your spiritual practice has the power to transform the roots of your suffering and transform the way you live your daily life. It is insight that helps us calm our restlessness, stress, and craving. Perhaps we can start to speak of ‘insight based stress reduction’ (pp. 141-142).
(3) Letting go. Each one of us has our own idea of happiness. We may think our happiness depends on having a certain job, house, car, or person to live with. Or we may think we have to eliminate this or that from our lives in order to be happy. Some of us think that if only a certain political party was in power, then we’d be happy. But these are just ideas we have created for ourselves. If we let go of our ideas, we can allow ourselves to touch happiness right away. Our idea of happiness may be the very obstacle standing in the way of our happiness (p. 166).
(4) Nirvana. We shouldn’t think that because we experience the suffering and afflictions of being human, we cannot touch peace, we cannot touch nirvana. Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha experienced suffering. From his teachings and stories about his life, we know that he suffered. But the key point is that he knew how to suffer. His awakening came from suffering; he knew how to make good use of his afflictions in order to experience awakening. And because of this, he suffered much less than most of us.
One breath or one step taken in mindfulness can already bring us real happiness and freedom. But as soon as we stop practicing, suffering manifests. Small moments of peace, happiness, and freedom steadily come together to create great awakening and great freedom. What more can we ask for? (p. 191)