Practicing Transformation

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Dear Still Water Friends,

One unexpected avenue for me to live more fully in the present moment has been writing a coming-of-age memoir about how my visual impairment and the disfigurement of my left eye shaped my childhood and teenage identity. As I’ve reflected on, crafted, and written down stories from my past, I’ve looked deeply into the roots of challenging patterns and memories. In this process, I’ve been overwhelmed and pulled back into past sorrows and unresolved feelings. This sentence from the Fifth Mindfulness Training, Nourishment and Healing, has helped remind me to notice when I am feeling trapped in old hurts, and lost in anxiety about people’s future reactions to my words.

“I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing, and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past, nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment.”

The reminder to notice what I’m consuming emotionally, and the many possibilities of alternative nourishment, help me pause and consciously shift my focus. I exercise my body as a form of tension release, connect deeply with a friend, take a shower to wash off my unhappy past’s residue, and other options. I had to learn when I need to limit writing about my past and take breaks to bring myself back into gratitude for the present moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this process in The Mindfulness Survival Kit:

Suppose you’ve suffered a lot as a child. You have many sad memories of the times you suffered, and all of these are still stored in your consciousness. Many of us have made a habit of going back to the past to experience again and again the suffering that we endured in the past. It’s as if we’re watching a film of the past over and over again, reliving the suffering of the past. The past has become a kind of prison for us, and we’re no longer free to enjoy the wonders of life available in the present moment.

There are animals that are ruminants like water buffalo and cows. After chewing and swallowing they bring up the food again, and they chew and swallow it again. There are people who continue to consume the suffering of the past in this way. They spend their time during the day ruminating over their own suffering from the past.

The practice of mindfulness can help us get out of this prison and begin to learn how to live our lives in the present moment. If we’re aware that we’re replaying the past, we can make a concentrated effort to notice something that is healthy and wonderful right in front of us in that very moment. It might be a part of our body that is working well and not aching; it may be the blue sky or the softness of the pillow under our head. If we breathe and pay attention to this wonderful thing that is present with us right now, then the movie will recede and lose some of its power, as if it’s no longer being fed the electricity it needs to keep going.

You can even take the hand of the wounded child within you and invite her to come with you into the present moment. This can be very nourishing and healing. It will make you stronger so that later on when you want to look into the past you can do so with perspective, while remaining firmly grounded in the present moment. This way you don’t lose yourself in the sorrows of the past.

I’m grateful that I started writing the memoir a few years after committing to the five mindfulness trainings; the trainings have become old friends in times of need. Without the support of my commitment to the mindfulness trainings, I’m not sure I could have been as open to the process of transformation that writing my memoir has offered me. My relationships, especially with myself and my family, have changed over the last few years because of my trust in the practice and in the support of my community. I encourage anyone who is considering committing to the trainings, to follow through on their impulse. Everyone’s journey is different, of course, and from my perspective, the benefits of the practice are so worth it!

This Thursday night at Crossings, after meditation, we’ll recite the five mindfulness trainings and open our Dharma sharing with theses questions:

  • What nourishes and supports us so we can stay with ourselves and each other in the present moment?
  • How do we maintain perspective when feeling flooded by past sorrows or fear and anxiety for our future?

You are very welcome to join us!

Below is an excerpt on the transformational power of taking refuge.


Eliza King

“Taking Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha” by Thich Nhat Hanh
from For a Future to be Possible

In Buddhism there are two kinds of practice, devotional and transformational. To practice devotion is to rely primarily on another, who may be a buddha or a god. To practice transformation is to rely more on yourself and the path you are following. To be devoted to the Dharma is different than practicing the Dharma. When you say ‘I take refuge in the Dharma,’ you may be showing your faith in it, but that is not the same as practicing the Dharma. To say ‘I want to become a doctor’ is an expression of the determination to practice medicine. But to become a doctor, you have to spend seven or eight years practicing medicine. When you say ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,’ this may be only the willingness to practice. It is not because you make this statement that you are already practicing. You enter the path of transformation when you begin to practice the things you pronounce.

But pronouncing words does have an effect. When you say, ‘ I am determined to study medicine,’ that already has an impact on your life, even before you apply to medical school. You want to do it, and because of your willingness and desire, you will find a way to go to school. When you say, ‘I take refuge in the Dharma,’ you are expressing confidence in the Dharma. You see the Dharma as wholesome and you want to orient yourself toward it. That is devotion. When you study and apply the Dharma in your daily life, that is transformational practice. In every religion, there is the distinction between devotional practice and transformational practice.