Dear Still Water Friends,
Recently a new acquaintance asked what first led me to mindfulness practice. My immediate response was “suffering.” Twenty-two years ago, I was often dissatisfied with who I was and what I was doing. I was critical of myself and others. I thought constantly about how I could rearrange my life so that others, and I, would consider me good enough. In others words, I was suffering deeply.
Mindfulness practice gave me many tools to work with my suffering. Perhaps most important, I learned that there is a difference between thinking and awareness, between obsessing and being present. I discovered that when I am fully present to my breath, to the wind, to the energy in my body, or to my other experiences, there is no “I” to be critical or judgmental. There is simply a moment of knowing. The habitual attack on myself subsided when I was able to bring awareness to the present moment. I experienced a pleasant lightness, as if a weight had been lifted off me.
Another mindfulness practice tool I learned is to be present in a different way to the self-attacks, and to the sadness, discouragement, and other painful emotions that might arise. I learned to not react to them, as I had before, but rather to observe them with an energy of curiosity and caring. I learned to ask: What is going on here? Where do these particular thoughts and emotions come from? From whom did I learn them? Why do I continue to feed them?
When I was able to hold my self-criticism in this way, it lost much of its sting. In the Buddhist tradition the habit energies that create suffering are often called fetters or knots. The path of practice is to loosen them, one after another, so the energy can again flow freely, like water flowing through a garden hose when the kinks are removed.
This past week, at a retreat at Blue Cliff monastery, I learned to use another tool for ending the war within. Many of us have used the Beginning Anew process to build community and reconcile differences in families, work groups, and organizations. The basic elements are to:
- share our appreciations (often called Flower Watering),
- express our regrets (acknowledging what we have said or done that might have contributed to someone else’s suffering), and to
- express our hurt (making known that what someone else has said or done might have created difficulties for us or contributed to our suffering)
We can also use the Beginning Anew process with ourselves, to reconcile our inner conflicts.
This Thursday during our evening gathering at Crossings we will explore practices to end the “war within.” We will begin at 6:30 with a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. (If you would like to attend the orientation, please let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.) Our meditation period, which starts at 7:00, will include a guided meditation focused on developing non-judgmental awareness. During our program we will work with a "Beginning Anew with Ourselves" exercise and then transition to a sharing of experiences.
You are invited to join us.
A related reading by Thich Nhat Hahn is below.
The best times to join our Thursday evening gatherings are just before the beginning of our 7 p.m. meditation, just before we begin walking meditation (around 7:35), and just after our walking meditation (around 7:45). If you arrive after 7:05 pm, the door to Crossings may be locked. If it is locked, someone will come out to open it at 7:30, then again at 7:50.
From The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy, And Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Buddhist meditation has two aspects — shamatha and vipashyana. We tend to stress the importance of vipashyana ("looking deeply") because it can bring us insight and liberate us from suffering and afflictions. But the practice of shamatha ("stopping") is fundamental. If we cannot stop, we cannot have insight.
There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, "Where are you going?" and the first man replies, "I don’t know! Ask the horse!" This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.
We have to learn the art of stopping — stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger, and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.
But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition. We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it. We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage. We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again. Why? Because our habit energies (vashana) push us.
We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction. With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests. "Hello, my habit energy, I know you are there!" If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength. Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.
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