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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Half Day Compassion Retreat: Heart Practices for Challenging Times

Saturday, June 3, 2017, 9 a.m. – Noon
Nashville Friends Meeting
Led by Lisa Ernst

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Please join us for a half day of sitting and walking meditation. Compassion and wisdom are the two wings of practice that bring our hearts to liberation. But how do we consistently practice compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others in challenging times? How does our wise heart lead the way? In this silent retreat we will explore several lovingkindness and compassion practices that refresh our hearts and open us to our innate freedom and kindness.

Led by Lisa Ernst, this retreat is suitable for newer and more experienced meditators. It will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, instructions and dharma. Cost is $45 and is due by Monday, May 29. A reduced fee spot is available, please inquire. Paypal is here. If paying by check, instructions are here. Please include your email address.

Additional details will be provided to registrants in advance of the retreat. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

Staying Right Here

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Before I think about moving forward, about kindness and a wise response, I need to stay right here. In this place of groundlessness, of vulnerability, of deep concern for the world and how things are today.

We talk a lot about practicing with groundless in the dharma, about letting the bottom fall out. That time is now. Do it if you can, let it happen. Don’t turn from your grief and fear, allow it. You don’t need to force yourself to think hopeful thoughts just now. This isn’t yet the time for that. Let yourself weep and know it deep in your heart, for yourself and the world.

Words aren’t enough right now, really nothing is, but here’s the poem that speaks to me in this moment, that cracks my heart open, as it often does in times of strife and suffering.

Please Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small 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 a 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 the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and 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 be left open,
the door of compassion.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Anxiety, Election Fallout and Finding Calm in the Storm

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Over the past month or so at One Dharma we’ve been talking about our practice in relation to this election. Many people have reported feeling challenged at a level they rarely, if ever experience. Anger, fear, discord in relationships and remorse. We’ve covered a lot of practice approaches to work with these. And remembering self forgiveness when we simply can’t act out of our best intentions in the heat of the moment.

While the divide in our country won’t be erased just because the election ends, we can continue to consciously work on our relationship to our inner and outer terrain, especially when its rocky, and find a path to be of help in whatever way we can. Jack Kornfield shared this short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that is very timely to our current situation:

“Remember the story Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh told of the crowded refugee boats. “If even on person on the boat stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Embracing “don’t know mind” has been an important practice for me, the willingness to hold in open awareness what I can’t understand. This practice allows me to access my heart rather than just staying in my head and trying to figure it out. It also helps me to let go of what I can’t control and find a calm spot in the middle of the storm.

I’ve read some good articles that have analyzed the political divide we’re engulfed in right now. Many of the articles make a case for trying to understand and empathize with people who we disagree with and remember our shared humanity, our interconnection. I wholeheartedly agree with this. But I’ve also found these articles are too general about demographics. They speak of the people who are angry and feel left behind, usually pointing to older white males without college degrees. Yes, we need to try and understand their pain. But deeper demographic analysis shows that many privileged people are angry too and want radical change, regardless of what it is or how dangerous it might be.

Because I can’t understand it all through reading articles and analysis, I find that an open ended question is helpful to me – what is the most beneficial response right now for myself and others? This is coming home to my own heart. It takes the edge off my fear. It shows me what I can and can’t control and a compassionate way forward while being rooted in the present.

May all beings find peace and the causes of peace.

Presence, Vulnerability and the Wise Heart

I gave this dharma talk shortly after finding out that a long time friend had died accidentally. I explore how cultivating presence and vulnerability, even in such difficult times, will open the door to the wise heart that knows the way to compassion and kindness for self and others.

Clear Mind and Open Awareness

“When your mind feels tight and constricted, you can make more space.” You’ve probably heard this before about meditation practice, but what specifically are we talking about here? The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of space, but the way our minds perceive space, which is related to our identity.

Most people think of the boundary of the body as a point of identity. That is, my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, heart, personality, all reside within my body. So the body is home and herein lies myself. This is who I am and where I exist. Everything I’m made of is inside is me, what’s outside is not me, or it may be related to me but still separate.

This boundary is useful and necessary living in the world. But it also has limitations when we only perceive ourselves through this narrow lens.

At times we may know that our hearts, our love, extend beyond the body. We may also feel compassion for the suffering of others and sense the boundary melting a bit. True lovingkindness and compassion function as a relative expression of emptiness or not-self. They are like a river that flows from a reservoir within our heart. But the reservoir doesn’t dry up – it has an infinite source because it isn’t limited to our body.

When we meditate we begin to see this perceived boundary of the body dissolve, we see that what we think of as “me” doesn’t have a distinct beginning and ending point. This is a liberating insight and is often an early aspect of understanding not-self. At times, we may feel less compelled to put so much energy into simply solving our own problems and “fixing myself.” This brings to mind Lenoard Cohen’s famous poem:

“Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

If we only view difficult thoughts and emotions and as existing inside “me” there is often a feeling of tightness, a lack of space and confusion about what we should do. When the focus is mainly on myself, other conditions seem to disappear. Yet, as we sit, as our concentration deepens, the mental focus on self loosens up. The sensations of anger, sadness and fear are seen as conditions that arise and pass away and are not “myself,” even though we experience them in our bodies. As this happens, gradually, or perhaps quickly, a feeling of space opens.

When we understand that our minds are not simply in our physical bodies, our mental boundaries open and our awareness feels less constricted. From this perspective, our challenges and pain may still exist, but now the great sky of mind has room to include them all. We have access to our wise heart that sees conditions for what they are, without the limits of “inside and outside,” and our path becomes clearer.

“If you attain your true self, then if you die in one hour, in one day, or in one month, it is no problem. If you only do “fixing-your-body” meditation, you will mostly be concerned with your body. But some day, when it’s time for your body to die, this meditation will not help, so you will not believe in it. This means it is not correct meditation. If you do correct meditation, being sick sometimes is OK; suffering sometimes is OK; dying someday is OK. The Buddha said, “If you keep a clear mind moment to moment, then you will get happiness everywhere.” ― Zen Master Seung Sahn

To open your awareness to this clear mind, try my guided “Mind Like Sky” meditation here.

Saying Yes: The Cabin in the Woods

This dharma talk focuses on the aggregate of thought as it applies to perceived limitations we may encounter in our meditation practice. The main focus of the talk is in working with trauma and I tell my own story about my cabin in the woods — the most difficult time of my life.

 

Half Day Meditation Retreat: Touching the Boundless Heart

Saturday, March 26, 9:00 a.m. – Noon
Nashville Friends Meeting
Led by Lisa Ernst

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Please join us for a half day of sitting and walking meditation. In this silent retreat we will stabilize attention and deepen concentration through the breath and body, then gradually open our awareness to the boundless space of mind and heart. The morning will include mindfulness, lovingkindness and compassion practices. These practices help us touch moments of freedom from our habitual patterns and find compassion and equanimity in our present moment experience.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, this retreat is suitable for newer as well as more experienced meditators. The retreat will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, instructions and dharma talk. Cost is $40. A reduced fee spot is available in the case of financial need. Please inquire for details.

Paypal is available here. If paying by check, instructions are here.  Please include your email address. For questions email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

Avoiding the Dangers of Isolated Samadhi

“What the hell is isolated samadhi?” you may ask. Currently we’re in a mindfulness meditation boom and samadhi is not emphasized as often in this practice. With mindfulness practice, we’re focusing on objects, such as breath, body, emotions and thoughts. We watch them arise and pass away, doing our best to see their impermanence moment to moment. This is a wonderful practice and helps us become more familiar with our minds, our habitual patterns and how we function in the relative world.

Samadhi is a state of meditative absorption where we access deep insights into the mind and heart and the nature of interconnection. In samadhi, our minds are calm, our meditation is effortless and often includes feelings of bliss, joy and equanimity. It has great appeal but I find many practitioners of mindfulness don’t reach this state often. Their concentration isn’t developed enough or the focus remains subject/object oriented. In samadhi, the subject/object separation disappears. That is, “self and other” cease to exist as a fixed experience. A strong mindfulness practice can lead to samadhi. But it takes commitment and adequate time devoted to meditation.

I began my practice in the Zen tradition, where samadhi was emphasized. Through rigorous practice, I quickly reached deep states of meditative absorption. I found it invaluable in helping me with intractable depression and grief; I was able to see thoughts and emotions as empty of any abiding reality. I found the courage to experience the grief and depression directly, which allowed them to finally pass through to their end.

But I also became aware that many accomplished teachers seemed lost outside of the meditation hall. They spoke eloquently of emptiness and seemed to have deep dharma insights. But their “everyday” behavior was puzzling and in some cases, inexcusable. Whatever clarity they gained through samadhi was lost as soon as they entered the everyday world. It was as if a barrier had been erected between the two, and no amount of practice penetrated the clouded mind of craving and addiction. I was on the receiving end of this craving with two Zen teachers and it shattered my trust in the path. I didn’t understand how such seemingly awakened men could be so blind in other parts of their lives.

I started to realize they had not developed their capacity to be mindful in daily life in a way that would bridge their insights and samadhi from the cushion. I knew I didn’t want to follow that route, so I took up Vipassana mindfulness as a counterbalance to samadhi practice. I had to let go of my pride of accomplishment on the path and approach this practice as a beginner. With its emphasis on ethics and compassion, and de-emphasis’ on holding teachers up as gurus, Vipassana helped me find a way back to the practice and to the dharma. This doesn’t mean I think one practice is better than the other. Both have merit and both need to be approached in a balanced way.

Many newcomers do best when they begin with mindfulness. But at some point they may need more. Mindfulness and meditative absorption are both important practices. I would not abandon one for the other, nor emphasize one over the other for the mature and committed practitioner. They are not mutually exclusive. Just enter the way with a good dose of compassion and find the path to your heart. All practices are like a finger pointing to the moon, as one saying goes. We don’t want to mistake the finger for the moon, and become attached to any one practice. Knowing when to let go is as important as skillfully developing these practices. When I let go of samadhi, I didn’t lose it, but gained another doorway into compassion and insight, especially in my everyday life.

A Phantom and A Dream: Social Media, Connection and Loneliness During the Holidays

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed the day after Thanksgiving, I saw numerous photos of people celebrating the holiday with family and friends. I shared their joy as they basked in the warm glow of their loved ones. Yet I couldn’t forget the people who had not posted, some who were either alone or lonely.

For the most part, people who share their holiday moments on social media have no ill will or intent to arouse jealousy. Often these photos are quite meaningful to distant family or others who appreciate seeing their friends in joyful times. But because people who feel less fortunate are unlikely to share, a false picture emerges. We can easily overlook that these feeds hardly represent the full spectrum of human experience  – we may forget to extend compassion to those who need our kindness or to simply acknowledge that not everyone is celebrating.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the capacity to appreciate the success and good fortune of others without reservation. When I scroll the feeds and see happy, fulfilled faces of friends and relatives surrounded by loved ones, mudita arises in me. But if you are alone or lonely, as I was for many years, it’s not so easy to summon sympathetic joy. Social media can amplify feelings of disconnection with its easy access to images of warm, happy clans on the screen, even though not all of these images paint a true picture. In fact, this is a good time to remember Buddha’s teaching in the Diamond Sutra that this fleeting world is but a phantom and a dream.

Having spent many holidays alone when I was younger, I became quite intimate with the seasonal pressure to be joyful and connected. That’s partly why I’m sensitive to those who may not communicate their loneliness or feelings of detachment during the holidays.

Although I wasn’t raised Christian, growing up I immersed myself in the spirit and excitement of the holidays. When I was 13 my mother died in the fall and I moved to Nashville to live with my grandmother. Even with my mother gone I prepared for the season with great anticipation. It would only be Granny and me, but that was enough. When Christmas finally arrived, we started the day with Gran’s whipped cream topped custard and presents. As the day progressed, however, she fell into grief for what she had lost: her only child and her husband. She began drinking heavily and I spent the rest of Christmas alone in my room, devastated that the day didn’t live up to my expectations.

This pattern would repeat itself for years.  My disappointment, at its core, reflected the grief and loneliness that I couldn’t yet face. I unconsciously hoped that the warm promise of the holidays would wash away my pain. When my father died from alcoholism a few years later, my holiday loneliness only intensified and extended well in to the grey, wet Tennessee months of January and February. Often relief came only when the longer, sunny days of spring finally arrived.

After struggling with loneliness and depression for many years, I started to address my losses, which helped me untangle from my holiday gloom. The shame of being alone slowly lifted. During meditation, I began to feel a deep heart connection to all that is present, or as Dogen put it, intimacy with all things. In my daily life I cultivated friendships and relationships that nourished me. Slowly, the holidays and those dark grey winters that followed were easier to bear.

These days I’m grateful to have loving people in my life.  Yet my heart still touches that deep loneliness from time to time. Mostly I have room for it now; I can feel both connection and loneliness in the fullness of my heart. And I remember that, despite the images on social media, some people are lonely and grieving this year. If you’re one of them, may your heart find peace. May you know that you are not alone.

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Winter solitude –
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

-Basho