The Unhindered Heart: How to Hold Love and Suffering

The unfolding immigration tragedy that has left children separated from their parents, detained in prison-like cages, has provoked one of the strongest outpourings I’ve seen of grief, despair, anger and confusion, along with fierce protests and calls to our politicians to end the practice immediately. Through these efforts we’ve seen some movement on this issue but know there’s much more to be done. Even in the midst of this energetic effort, I’m reminded that we also need to remember that there is no “other” out there, or anywhere, to hate. Otherwise, weariness and despair can easily overtake us. We can protest, speak out, call our politicians; we can also remember our interconnected nature at the deepest place in our hearts. We are capable of both. Recently  I was moved by a quote from Phillip Moffitt and want to share it here:

“The Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” By holding the truth of our interdependency and refusing to participate in this endless cycle of hatred, you can help to heal the wound of the world. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. But if you love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, then your reward will be great.’

No one can accuse Jesus or Buddha of being cowards in the face of injustice; therefore, their teachings are about how to hold the difficult in the heart. You have to decide if you share their beliefs, and if so, you practice living in this manner as a reflection of your deepest values. It is a proactive, courageous way to live. This does not mean responding passively when you encounter wrong action, for you should always act to stop those who harm others.”

This reflection on interdependency reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago after I watched a movie about a woman who was stoned to death in Iran. As the movie ended, I was overwhelmed and struggled to get to sleep that night. During the next morning’s meditation, however, I gradually remembered that the mental creation of good and bad, enemies and friends just brought about separation that prevented my heart from bearing the pain of this act. In remembering the truth of interconnection, I found that I could open my heart to the stunning pain I felt at the stoned woman’s plight and to feel compassion for the great suffering of her entire community, even the perpetrators. To experience interdependency at this level in no way precludes wise action to stop suffering. While there was little I could do personally to stop the practice of stoning in Iran, there is much I can do in this country to help turn the tide away from cruelty. I can’t know if my efforts will succeed, but I know they are worth doing.

The One Who Casts the Stone and The One Who is Hit

by Lisa Ernst

Recently the impending stoning death of an Iranian woman made worldwide headlines and sparked international outrage. The pressure on the Iranian government to change her sentence has been immense. For most of us, it is incomprehensible that death by stoning is still a form of capital punishment in some parts of the world.

I was especially moved by the cause of this woman because I had recently watched a movie about the stoning death of another Iranian woman, “The Stoning of Soyora M.” The movie is based on a book of the same name, the true story of a woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in her home town in the 1980s. This movie depicted the woman’s stoning in a very accurate, unflinching way and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched on film. She was dressed in white and marched through the streets of her home town while men lined the way, rhythmically clapping stones together as a prelude to the execution. When she reached the stoning ground, her arms were bound to her sides and she was buried to her waist. A perimeter line was drawn, perhaps 20 feet away, behind which everyone in the town stood to stone her or to watch. A barrel of stones had been collected so the townsmen could all have their turn.

For a stoning execution, the stones are chosen for their size – not too large to kill the person immediately, but not too small as to do little harm. In Soroya’s case, I had hoped that her suffering would be brief, but stonings are deliberately stretched out over a period of time to create a gruesomely painful form of torture. The woman’s dignity was completely stripped away as her husband, her sons, and the men in her community threw stone after stone at her head, as she cried out in pain and disbelief, fell over to the ground, yet continually lifted herself back up with whatever strength she could muster. Slowly her white dress became completely stained with red. Finally, after perhaps an hour she was dead.

As the movie ended, I sat stunned and speechless, as tears spilled down my cheeks. It was just before bed and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep after witnessing such heinous torture. Somehow, I was able to fall into a restless sleep. The next morning I got up to meditate, having briefly forgotten what I had seen the night before. As I settled into meditation, the stillness of the morning and the sweet birdsong brought my heart fully awake. Then, in this place of stillness and open heartedness, the stoning images of the night before returned. There was great sadness in my heart, yet I didn’t close down or turn away. What I’ve learned through my practice is that when my  heart fully awake, it has the capacity to accommodate not only great love but great suffering. This is the “door of compassion” that Thich Nhat Hahn beautifully speaks of in this poem:

“Please Call Me by My True Names”
I am the 12 year old girl, refugee on a boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and
my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names so I can wake up,and so the door of my heart can open the door of compassion.
– Thich Nhat Hahn

Buddha taught that there is no inherent self separate from others; no self separate from all phenomena. This is called  emptiness. Through committed meditation practice, we gradually increase our capacity to experience emptiness.  We begin to understand at an experiential level that all of existence is none other than our own true nature. This insight is the basis for recognizing that all beings are Buddha, the awakened one. But what is often not stated, yet cannot be otherwise, is that we also are the pirate who rapes the 12 year old girl, and the man who stones his wife. If we selectively associate our understanding of non-separation with the highest of good, choosing to see only what we like and admire, we risk closing off our hearts to the often unspeakable suffering of our own humanity. Unconditional compassion and love can only arise when the heart is open to the full spectrum of experience, from great kindness to profound cruelty. This is true non-separation. Admittedly however, this kind of open- heartedness is not always easy;  there are times when we may see or experience suffering that is beyond our heart’s capacity to bear.  During these moments, some compassion for our own inevitable limits can soften the edges of our pain. At other times we may find the way to truly open our hearts and no longer look away:

You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
Franz Kafka

With a compassionate heart, we may weep at the inconceivable cruelty of this world and feel joyous when witnessing a deed of true kindness.  During the quiet of the morning when my heart touched the great suffering inherent in the act of stoning, for a few moments I could see without flinching the depths of  unkindness that is part of human nature. The same heart that fills with joy upon hearing a symphony of birds greeting the morning sun, also breaks for the woman who died the most unimaginable death at the hands of her own husband and community. They are all none other than me.

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Awakening to Joy: The Art of Letting Go

Daylong Meditation Retreat, Saturday 7/14/18

Nashville Friends Meeting, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Led by Lisa Ernst

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Life is a balance of effort and letting go. Meditation practice gives us tools to be present, to work with our minds and to uncover the heart’s true wisdom. This wisdom also points us toward letting go. As we release our personal agenda, spiritual joy arises through the capacity to touch this ever-changing life with a compassion and kindness that sees no ultimate separation.

The retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, dharma talk and q&a.

Cost: $50 – 75 sliding scale, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A scholarship spot is available in the case of financial need. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat. Payment can be made through paypal here. If paying by check, instructions are at this link. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

New Year’s Half Day Retreat

The Power of Intention: Clarifying Your Path for the New Year
Sunday, January 1 2017, 9 a.m. – Noon
Blooma Yoga, 4107 Charlotte Ave.
Led by Lisa Ernst

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“One of the Buddha’s most penetrating discoveries is that our intentions are the main factors shaping our lives and that they can be mastered as a skill.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Start your New Year on the cushion by joining us for a half day intention setting retreat. At the beginning of a New Year, it is customary to take stock of our lives and the world we live in, to review the previous year and set our intentions for the upcoming twelve months and beyond. Bringing this evaluation onto the cushion, to look with fresh eyes and an open heart, can help us refine and clarify our direction and to live from the truest part of ourselves.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, the retreat will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, dharma talk and discussion. Cost is $40 – $50, sliding scale and is due by Wednesday, December 28. A reduced fee option is available for those who need financial support. Paypal is available here. If paying by check, instructions are here. Be sure to include your email address For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com.

The Scientist and The Baker

By Lisa Ernst

Most people who take up meditation will find over time that they are drawn to a particular practice style that becomes their foundational approach. Usually the approach will tend either toward what I call the “scientist” orientation or the “baker” orientation.

The scientist gets to know the object of his or her study through objective observation. This is a classic Vipassana style of practice, where the meditator uses an object of concentration to still and focus the mind. The value of this practice is in allowing the practitioner to observe arising phenomena such as physical sensations, emotions and thoughts without becoming swept away by attachment, aversion and personal identification.  Through committed practice, the meditator gains experiential insight into impermanence, suffering and no-self.

Bakers like to get their hands dirty, to put them in the flour and other ingredients and work with them as an extension of their bodies.  Through repeated practice, bakers lose the separation of themselves and the ingredients, diving deeply into immediate experience of baking.  In meditation, this style is known as direct experience, where the meditator immerses him or herself in whatever is arising and becomes “one” with it, losing a sense of fixed self and dissolving into emptiness. This sometimes challenging approach is associated with Zen and certain Tibetan forms of meditation, although it can be found in some Vipassana approaches as well.

I use the analogy of baking because, unlike other forms of cooking, it is a science. Without very specific ingredients in measured quantities, baking will fail. So without the underlying science to support the recipes, bakers won’t achieve successful outcomes.  Conversely, bakers provide sustenance for the scientists, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Although most meditators tend toward the scientist or baker style as their primary practice orientation, often they move between the two as needed as they become more experienced.

Which practice approach most closely fits your own?

“Seekers who disdain clamor to seek quietude are as it were throwing away flour but seeking cake. Cake is originally flour, which changes according to use. Afflictions are none other than enlightenment.”

–Pao-Chih, from THE ZEN READER