From Ruthless to Ruthful

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Recently, in a morning sitting group, we read a small section about suffering from Mindfulness as Medicine by Sr. Dang Nghiem, a Plum Village monastic. A few sentences from the section keep resounding in my mind:

You know, suffering on its own doesn’t bring empathy. It can make people ruthless. It can make people believe, ‘I have suffered; you don’t know anything about suffering, and you should suffer some.’ … It’s only the understanding of our own suffering that will help us connect with other people, understand them in turn, and want to help them.

For me, the word “ruthless” is especially provocative. Dictionaries define it as “acting without mercy or compassion.” Those who are ruthless are “so determined to get what they want that they do not care if they have to hurt other people in order to do it.” There is also an English word “ruthful,” to act with mercy and compassion, that was once commonly used.

At first the excerpt gave me a helpful “insight” about people who seem always to be angry at someone or some thing: It is because of the not yet fully understood suffering that lives in them.

Then I realized that this “insight” is much too simple. It is not about “us” and “them,” the ruthless ones. It is not a dichotomy. It is a continuum that goes from ruthless to ruthful. We have all been hurt. We have all suffered. There are times when events trigger our old, deep sufferings. We want to strike back, to hurt those who cause us pain. We may do it overtly, or we may do it quietly, in our thoughts and judgements, or in ambiguous or hidden ways.

If I am skillful, I notice this ruthless reaction in myself as it it happening. I recognize and name it for what it is. “I am upset and angry and wanting revenge.”

If I don’t catch it early, and if I am lucky, there are others who can help me recognize and name it. Perhaps a bystander is surprised by my words or actions and lets me know. Or, perhaps the clarity comes from an informal or formal Beginning Anew, when others can help me see how I have intentionally or unintentionally caused them suffering.

The impetus to move along the continuum toward ruthfulness is that ruthlessness does not nourish us. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained in a Dharma talk at Plum Village on June 6, 2006:

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is also true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

Of course, we want to stop people who are truly acting ruthlessly, whether it involves assaults on us, on other people, or on our eco-system. The critical question is: “How can we do it with ruthfulness?”

This Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, our Dharma sharing will focus on our experiences with ruthlessness and ruthfulness. How has it played out in your life? What have you learned?

The Waking Up gatha and a commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh are below. Saying it each morning reminds me of my aspirations.

You are invited to be with us this Thursday.

As is our tradition on the first Thursday of the month, we will offer a brief newcomers’ orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at

Also, as well as helping to prepare and serve a brunch as Shepherds Table in Silver Spring on the fourth Sunday of each month, Still Water volunteers also help distribute clothing to clients every Wednesday morning. This time of year the Clothes Closet is in great need of warm coats. For the next three weeks (December 5, 12, and 19) we will be collecting women’s and men’s coats for Shepherd’s Table at our Thursday evening gatherings at Crossings. Thank you for your generosity!

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Waking Up
By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment and

to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

If you really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Your smile affirms your awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. How many days slip by in forgetfulness? What are you doing with your life? Look deeply, and smile. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.

How can you remember to smile when you wake up? You might hang a reminder—such as a branch, a leaf, a painting, or some inspiring words—in your window or from the ceiling above your bed, so that you notice it when you wake up. Once you develop the practice of smiling, you may not need a sign. You will smile as soon as you hear a bird sing or see the sunlight stream through the window. Smiling helps you approach the day with gentleness and understanding.

The last line of this gatha comes from the “Universal Door” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The one who “looks at all beings with eyes of compassion” is Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. In the sutra, this line reads: “Eyes of loving kindness look on all living beings.” Love is impossible without understanding. In order to under stand others, we must know them, “be inside their skin.” Then we can treat them with loving kind ness. The source of love is our fully awakened mind.

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