Mindfulness, Suffering, and Ease

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The past few weeks in Washington have been difficult for many of us. There are fewer hours of daylight. We have had day after day of rain and overcast skies. Abundant mold and ragweed pollen disrupt normal body functions. The news media have been full of stories forecasting economic, political, and environmental breakdown. It is easy to become despondent.

With this backdrop, I was intrigued by these words of the Dalai Lama: Suffering is nothing but experience enslaved by ignorance (cited by Joseph Goldstein in A Heart Full of Peace).

For me, these eight words capture the heart of the practice. Experience is the raw data that comes to us as sentient beings. It is the words and sounds, the physical sensations, the colors and forms, the smells, and tastes, as well as the rich inner world of thoughts, images, emotions, cognitive functions and mind states. If we were able to be with them just as they are, we would have great ease.

Most of us can’t do that, however. We add hopes, fears, and judgments to the raw data, and we don’t know the harm we are doing. We live predominantly in our heads, fitting together our ideas about our experiences, trying to make it all work out. It is what we were taught by parents, teachers, and the culture around us. But an abiding sense of ease and joy evades us.

Mindfulness practice offers a different approach. We learn to live closer to our experiences. It starts with our breath. "Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in." With practice and patience it expands to our other experiences: "Breathing in, I am aware of the pain in my knee". "Breathing in, I am aware of my sadness today". "Breathing in, I am aware of my reaction to the news account of this week’s political drama."

We lovingly embrace and see deeply into each experience, just as it is. It’s that simple, and that hard. At a retreat in 1998, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the question: “Why do we cling to our suffering?:

Many of us are not capable of releasing the past, of releasing the suffering of the past. We want to cling to our own suffering. But the Buddha said very clearly, do not cling to the past, the past is already gone. Do not wait for the future, the future is not yet there. The wise people establish themselves in the present moment and they practice living deeply in the present moment. That is our practice. By living deeply in the present moment we can understand the past better and we can prepare for a better future.

Today I attended a Vietnam war veterans’ discussion, and my heart is still heavy. The condition of the war veterans – their heart, their mind, their body – do you think that they will ever be emotionally healed in this lifetime? I think if they practice with all their heart and they are determined to relieve the past, they will be healed. . . .

If we stick to our suffering we can never stand up for healing and prepare the future for our children and their children. I would say to the Vietnam war veteran, okay, you did kill five children. We know that. But here you are, alive in the present moment. Do you know that you have the power to save five children today? You don’t have to go to Vietnam or southeast Asia. There are American children who are dying every day; they may need only one pill to be saved from their illness.

If you know how, every day you can save five children from dying. Why do you let yourself get caught in guilt and become paralyzed year after year? Why don’t you make a bodhisattva vow to use your life to work for the safety of many children?

This Thursday, after our meditation period, we reflect on mindfulness, suffering, and ease. Does the phrase “Suffering is nothing but experience enslaved by ignorance” offer insights into your life? Have you learned to let go of your suffering?

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Senior Teacher

You are invited to Join the Still Water community for: Committing to Practice: An “At Home” Week Of Intensive Practice, October 16-23, 2011, At Blueberry Gardens In Ashton, Maryland, and at home, See our web site for details.

Also, please consider joining us on Sunday afternoon, November 6, 2011 for an Embracing Ourselves, Embracing Our World workshop in Columbia, Maryland, co-sponsored by the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center and the Yoga Center of Columbia

Going to the Blue Cliff Retreat, Oct 5th to 10th? Still Water has set up a Ride Share Board for Washington area practitioners interested in driving together. If you would like to offer or request a ride, send an email to info@StillWaterMPC.org and we will send you the link.