Dear Still Water Friends,
I was invited this week to be on a panel for a nursing school class studying religious perspectives on suffering. The request was that I address the relationship between religion and suffering in my spiritual tradition and also in my own lived experience. I was allotted 10 minutes!
Since there would be five speakers, I wanted to keep my talk simple and memorable. I hoped the students would at least remember two key phrases: “Avoid the second dart” and “The healing power of presence.” Here is the gist of what I planned to say to the nursing students:
I came to mindfulness practice because of my suffering. Although there were many positive elements in my life, there was a lump of dissatisfaction and weariness in my heart. It felt like it had been there for a long time, and I didn’t know how to work with it. Mindfulness practice offered me new ways of thinking about my unhappiness.
The Buddha was especially interested in what he called dukkha, a Pali word that has been translated as suffering, anxiety, stress, discontent, or unsatisfactoriness. He encouraged his students to recognize it, see deeply into it, and learn to relieve it in themselves and others.
Unlike in common English where pain and suffering are often used interchangeably, the Buddha taught that there is a critical distinction between the painful feeling brought about by an intense or damaging bodily or mental event and the dukkha we create in reaction or response to it. There is a difference between the unpleasant feeling we experience when we have a severe cramp or lose a friend, and the resistance or resentment we add to the unpleasant feeling. Perhaps we may respond with anger and blame, as in, “This should not be happening to me. This isn’t right. I don’t deserve this.”
In the “Discourse on the Dart,” the Buddha taught that when an untrained person “is touched by a painful feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught.” (Translation by Nyanaponika Thera from the Sallatha Sutta.) It is as if the untrained person had been pierced by two darts: first by the original dart that caused the pain, and then again by the mental anguish he or she creates. The trained practitioner, the Buddha explained, experiences only the painful feeling — one dart. He or she avoids the second dart.
Knowing about the second dart helps me tone down my reactions, whether it is contracting around a physical pain or sliding into exasperation and judgment when I feel frustrated. I am encouraged to just experience what is there, without adding to it.
The Buddha taught that the best way to reduce our dukkha, our suffering, was through the healing power of presence: our capacity to mentally be in the here and now, without agenda, with a quiet and open mind, and with a warm and caring heart. A short-hand term for this way of being is mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh often compares mindfulness to the sun. What ever the sun touches, be it spring flowers or concrete buildings, it transforms.
One of my most memorable experience of the healing power of presence occurred when I was first learning to meditate during a week-long stay at a monastery in Thailand. The monks were encouraging me to be present to my breath and to my sensory experiences, to experience my body as I walked, to notice the trees and flowers around me. It didn’t feel right to me. There were so many life problems that were unresolved. It felt right to allow my mind to keep obsessing over what needed to change. Finally, we worked out a deal. At 7:30 in the morning and at 7:30 in the evening I could think or write about my problems and their solutions. During the rest of the day my intention would be to be present. It worked for me — it changed my life. Not only did my overall anxiety level drop down in just a few days, but remarkably, sometimes when I was focused on and enjoying my walking, a worry would just dissolve. The way out was obvious.
Just as we can alleviate our own suffering by being present to ourselves, we can support and heal others by offering our presence. Our presence supports their presence. Our capacity to embrace our difficulties allows others to embrace their difficulties. The theologian Henri Nouwen writes:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. (From Out of Solitude.)
This Thursday after our meditation, our Dharma discussion will focus on suffering: how we understand it, what we have learned about it, and what we might say to a class of nursing students. A reading on sitting with suffering, by Gunilla Norris, is below.
You are also invited to join us this week for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and 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 info@StillWaterMPC.org.
Finally, registration is now open for three upcoming Still Water events:
- Beginning the Year Mindfully: New Year’s Day Brunch, Wednesday, January 1, 2014, in Silver Spring
- A Calm Mind and A Joyful Heart: An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation, Monday, January 20, 2014, at Crossings in Silver Spring
- Smiling like a Buddha: A Ten-Session Mindfulness Meditation Class, Mondays, January 27 – April 15, 2014, at Crossings in Silver Spring
And you are invited to participate in or attend a region-wide Transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings Ceremony, Saturday, January 4, 2014, in Oakton, Va.
by Gunilla Norris, from Sharing Silence
Through the practice of silence we become aware
of our pain. The pain is always there—in our minds
and in our bodies. Silence allows us to see it,
face it, release it.
We constantly judge ourselves. Our minds decide
what our experience should or should not be
—relentlessly labeling things good or bad—
and demand that our lives conform to our labels.
Then, when pain comes into our lives
—and it does to every life—we not only suffer it,
but we suffer our suffering as well.
We add the mind’s harsh judgment of pain
to our actual experience of it.
By practicing silence, we may discover the ways
in which we intensify our pain by judging it.
Then we have a chance to become less harsh,
The pain created by our minds is stored in our bodies,
creating rigid patterns of behavior, blocking the flow
of energy within us, cramping our being.
Our harshness and our fears are embodied in our flesh.
In silence, we can feel these tendencies harden—
and allow them to be as they are. They may then
uncramp and release, for anything that is not resisted
tends of its own accord to unfold and change.
By cultivating silence, we can find and release
deeper and deeper levels of pain and so discover
once again what is beneath the pain:
the natural joy that is already inside us,
free to rise and flow into experience.