Dear Still Water Friends,
At a contemplative practices conference last week, I heard a compelling presentation on how adversity can lead one to greater wisdom. Margaret Plews-Ogan, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, conducted a study of doctors who had harmed patients through serious medical errors. She sought to document the process through which some of the doctors (but not a majority) grew in wisdom as they worked through their devastating experiences. Unlike the other doctors, they felt that their grievous errors had in the end helped them become better doctors and better human beings.
That we can learn from and be transformed by our suffering is a central teaching of the Buddha. Looking deeply into our suffering allows us to identify the ways we create and magnify suffering for ourselves and others. With this insight we can then change our beliefs and actions. In Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that it is our suffering that nourishes our capacity to love.
It is because we are struggling to free ourselves from the grip of suffering and affliction that we learn how to love and how to take care of ourselves and of others, not to inflict on ourselves more suffering, and not to inflict on others more suffering and misunderstanding. Love is a practice and unless you know what suffering is, you are not motivated to practice compassion, love, and understanding.
I would not be willing to go to a place where there is no suffering because I know that living in such a place I would not experience love. Because I suffer, I need love. Because you suffer, you need love. Because we suffer, we know that we have to offer each other love, and love becomes a practice.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the Third Training, True Love. We will begin our Dharma sharing exploring together the ways our suffering may have helped us to grow our love.
You are invited to join us.
The Third Mindfulness Training and an excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh on the the therapeutic power of suffering are below.
A brief note on the Still Water community and the Coronavirus. Our mindfulness practice teaches us that if we are on a boat going through a severe storm, it is important to nourish our calm presence, in order to best help ourselves and others.
The Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center is aware that novel coronavirus cases are being identified in our area. There is great uncertainty: no one really knows what we will face in a week or a month. The Still Water Working Group, in consultation with facilitators of our gatherings, is exploring what appropriate and loving action may mean in these conditions. Some of our gatherings may be canceled for a period of time, some may move online, new programs may arise. Still Water desires to protect and support those who practice with us. We will keep the community informed of changes as they occur through emails and posting on our website.
Actions we can all take immediately include taking good care of ourselves and following public health guidelines, such as staying home when we have flu-like symptoms, washing our hands often, not shaking hands (try a bow), and limiting close contact with people who appear sick. The guidelines also recommend that those who are at higher risk of complications from the virus, including the elderly and those with underlying medical issues (such as diabetes, lung disease, or heart disease), should take precautionary steps, such as avoiding crowds and nonessential travel.
The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society.
Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy. I will cultivate loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness which are the four basic elements of true love for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
The Therapeutic Power of Suffering
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism
The first Dharma talk given by the Buddha was on the Four Noble Truths. This First Truth is Dukkha, the presence of suffering. This is the starting point of all Buddhist practice. If we are not aware that we are unwell, we will not know how to seek treatment, and we cannot be healed. The Second Truth is the cause of suffering, the Third is the possibility of removing it, and the Fourth tells us how to do it. These are liberating truths. But we cannot seek for the other three if we do not accept the presence of the first.
Suffering can have a therapeutic power. It can help us open our eyes. Awareness of suffering encourages us to search for its cause, to find out what is going on within us and in society. But we have to be careful. Too much suffering can destroy our capacity to love. We have to know our limits, to stay in touch with things that are dreadful in life and also things that are wonderful. If the First Truth explains the presence of suffering in life, the Third Truth encourages us to touch life’s joy and peace. When people say that Buddhism is pessimistic, it is because they are stressing the First Truth and overlooking the Third. Mahayana Buddhism takes great care to emphasize the Third Truth. Its literature is full of references to the green willow, the violet bamboo, and the full moon as manifestations of the true Dharma.
Interconnections between other beings and ourselves are intimate. When we are peaceful and happy, we will not create suffering in others. When we work to alleviate the suffering in others we feel peaceful and happy. Practice is not just for ourselves, but for others and the whole of society. The meaning of Mahayana, the great vehicle, is to help ourselves and others, to liberate ourselves and others.