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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Becoming the Ocean

Leonard Cohen died yesterday. Many of his songs and lyrics have been shared on social media and I came across one I haven’t seen before, one that perfectly reflects my mood today: “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”

Right now it’s hard to become to ocean. I often feel seasick and keep reaching for the raft. But the raft has holes in it. When I hear of heightened bullying, I feel grief and fear for my LGBT friends and people of color, for Muslims and for people who have been traumatized by bullies and sexual predators. The last two include me. Everything is upside down and I am drowning.

But then, in the quiet, surrendering to my grief, to the groundlessness, I remember that I am the waves, the ocean. My heart comes to rest for a while and I’m no longer seasick.

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I wrote “Riding Free” at another time when I couldn’t stay afloat. This surrender is what serves me in the roughest waters when the boat doesn’t hold. From this place I can find my way again, I can swim and I can serve.

Riding Free

Its like you’re throwing away your canoe and oars and are riding the waves of emptiness. Its scary at first, you’ve no control. You feel vulnerable and completely without knowledge of where you are going, or even where you are. So you have to surrender completely to the waves when they come. It may take a while. It may take weeks or months or years. You may ask, “what if I drown?” Then I ask you, “who and what drowns? What do you lose? And what might you gain?”

You may decide to climb back into your canoe if you can. But if you’re truly on this path, the water will draw you in again and again until finally you drown and then you’re riding the waves and those waves are you, and you are the waves, there’s really no difference any more, and you arrive exactly where you need to be, where you always have been, but just didn’t know it until now. You are home.

Making Friends With Your Mind: Getting to Know Self and No-Self

Saturday, July 23, Nashville Friends Meeting
9 a.m. – Noon
Led by Lisa Ernst

Taking Flightcrop

In this half day workshop we will explore in-depth Buddhist teachings of self and no-self. We will learn how meditation can help us identify and befriend our many “selves” while also touching the ineffable freedom of the unconditioned heart and mind. By seeing through the endless flux of identity, we come to rest in compassion, kindness and clarity.

The workshop will include instruction, experiential practice and discussion. Cost is $40 and can be paid by paypal here. Instructions for paying by check are at this link. Please
include your email address. Scholarships are available, inquire at onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

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.

 

Why Retreats are Important to Me

by Frankie Fachilla

After completing my seventh One Dharma retreat in December, I have reflected quite a lot on the importance of retreats in my life. The retreats have varied in length from three days (4 of them), to five days (two of them), and one seven day. Every retreat is a gift to my own ability to cultivate peace of mind as I navigate the waves of my life. They are a training ground for this delicate and, often, nebulous task of being present with my own heart. Retreats allow me the time, space, and safety to make this journey to the core of things and stay there outside of the usual patterns of avoidance and distraction that sweep me along in my normal life routines. The more retreats I do, the more I think of them as essential for my mental well being and ability to live a fulfilling life.

Still, retreating from life is challenging as I disengage from my family, my work, my email, my phone. The process of letting go of all of this, even for a few days, feels to me like prying a young child’s grasping arms from her parents’ neck as she tearfully screams in protest at being dropped off for the first day of kindergarten. Once she’s in her classroom, though, she quickly begins making friends and learning about the beauties of this other existence… A world away from her usual comforts and routines but safe and secure under the watchful gaze of her teacher, with her basic needs provided for and more. So it is at retreat: I learn to sit and watch the anxiety come and go as I wonder what emails I might be getting that need attention. I watch the loneliness dance with me as I miss hearing my husband’s voice or hugging my cats. Then, I get to see what’s on the other side of those feelings, instead of merely feeling bound by a constant struggle to avoid emotions that are inevitable. Returning to life, I have a new confidence that I can touch what’s underneath the waves of pain and fear and “come home” wherever I am.

I already feel so fortunate to have a trusted dharma teacher live close by and offer retreats at an accessible location, and I feel even more fortunate that these retreats are sometimes offered for an extended amount of time. I find that, after the first day of a retreat, things get very interesting as my patterns take a backseat to noticing what is present within me. The more time I have at a retreat, the more I get to discover. Since the biggest challenge of retreat is always the initial disconnection itself (figuring out who will take my stepson to school, deferring tasks at work until I return, the anxiety of having no contact with my husband, etc), it seems like the opportunity to stay longer at a retreat offers much more gain for very little additional sacrifice. Once we’re there, why not stay for longer to get even more benefit and even more practice doing what is so hard to do in the thick of our lives? Why not give ourselves the gift of an additional day or two to connect more strongly with our heart-center, our core, the true nature of things? It reminds me of the choice to exercise or go to the gym: the hardest part is always getting started, but once those endorphins start flowing, we often don’t want to stop. I hope that others will choose to give themselves this additional practice time at our upcoming Spring retreat!

Frankie Fachilla has been practicing with One Dharma for 10 + years. She is a licensed professional counselor in the mental health field.

Identity, Healing and Unconditional Love

Identity, Healing, and Unconditional Love

Lisa Ernst Retreat I attended a meditation retreat last weekend on the subject of identity. It offered immediate lessons I want to share, because I think they offer a very useful framework for looking at how we function in the world. Beyond that, though, the retreat gave me a lot to think about, some in the light of the recent post on “The Problem of Taking Yourself Too Seriously“, and more deeply on giving and receiving love. I think these lessons, if you are able to move towards them, have the power to change your world.

Examining Our Identity

Lisa Ernst, a Buddhist teacher from Nashville who led the retreat, delivered several talks on identity. She set up a framework of a two-layered identity which she described using the analogy of clothes:

  • Outer Identity: Like our everyday clothes, “business casual”, sportswear, monastic robes, or formal suits, this is the identity we wish to show the world. It is how we want people to think of us;
  • Inner Identity: This is our private identity. Like our underwear or sleeping attire, it is a personality we show only to a handful of intimate people. It is the person we think of as the “real” me.

We believe that the inner identity is our core and has some level of permanence to it, and that our outer constructed identity is one over which we exercise control, one which we can shift, if not quite at will, then pretty close to it. But actually, as we will see, the outer identity is far from under our control, and the inner identity is a lot less permanent than it might seem.

Tension in Identity

How do your inner and outer identity compare? Are they pretty similar or very different? Do you allow the world to see your strengths and weaknesses? To extend the clothing metaphor, do you allow people to see your dirty laundry?

The whole point of the inner/outer identity bifurcation in this analysis is to acknowledge that you don’t bare all your secrets to the world, that you reserve some for yourself. The outer identity is both a mask to protect parts of you that you don’t want to allow to be hurt, and also a practical persona that serves your external purposes in the world. For example a cheery, professional demeanor is an expected norm in a business meeting and will allow you to close the deal or wow your management with a presentation far better than allowing your sloppy, maybe somewhat crass or course inner persona to emerge.

It’s perfectly natural and even healthy for there to be differences between your inner and outer identities, but what happens as the difference between the two stretches? If your outer identity is vastly different from your inner, then it takes a great deal of effort to maintain it, and that effort creates stress. On top of that tension – which is palpable to those observing the outer persona – you will not be able to keep the two completely separate, and at times the inner identity will surface.

By way of example, I’d like to contrast my life today with that four or five years ago shortly before initiating divorce proceedings, ending an important business relationship, and severing the relationship with my spiritual teacher. You won’t be surprised to know that I was under a lot of stress back then! So while I think I manifest the same external identity today as I did then, the inner identity – the identity we think of as fixed – was very different in important ways. What today is peaceful and at ease, four or five years ago was swirling confusion and anxiety. So the gap between the external and internal identity back then was far greater. I thought I was pretty good at sustaining my outer identity when I was in a business meeting, but those with whom I interacted knew that something was wrong. For example there were far fewer “buy” decisions back then, largely, I am convinced, because the people I spoke to subconsciously registered the inter-identity tension in me.

The Arising Of Ego

When you take your inner identity to be permanent, you create an ego and you can become attached to it. But if you let yourself get attached to your identity, you can become stuck on it and create a problem. You move into the territory of taking yourself too seriously!

When we see someone with serious physical or mental condition who smiles and laughs, who delivers motivational speeches, who inspires and encourages others, we praise them and think them remarkable. They probably are remarkable, but beyond that they are people who have not allowed themselves to get stuck on their injury, their condition, the labels of their lives. They have not over-identified with such matters as their permanent self. Rather they have chosen to see possibility and opportunity. And in that they are a lesson to the rest of us. They are an inspiration that however tough it might be to look beyond what you see as your permanent inner self, it is possible to transcend it.

Don’t Completely Lose the Ego

A word of caution or acknowledgement before we move on: while it is important to hold the inner identity lightly and not to let it calcify into a fixed ego, equally it is important not to let it go completely. Just as functioning effectively in the world requires an outer identity that fits with the environment, so the outer identity must be founded on some inner core, some inner identity. And it is important, also, to examine the ego and see those elements that pop up from time to time. For example, you may occasionally express impatience or control tendencies that come from an inner anger, though without looking closely you may never have realized the source. And that anger itself could be a mask for some deeper identity which you don’t know.

The Importance of Falling Apart

If you take the long view, you can see the arc of your life from infancy through childhood, youth and adulthood into old-age and death. You can see that the outer identity you assumed as a teenager is very different from your outer identity as a lover, a business person, a parent – or whatever roles you move into through your life. And you can similarly see that your inner identity has shifted over time, perhaps as a result of being the victim of a horrible personal invasion, an illness or accident, or conversely as a result of a wonderfully intimate partnership which gave rise to children, grandchildren, and a vastly different world than you had ever imagined could be possible. You know that your identity shifts over time. But it is nonetheless all too easy to find yourself holding on to your inner identity and not wanting to let it shift.

But when you hold on to inner identity you allow do not allow your “real” self to shift with the shifting circumstances of your life and of your understanding. To hold on to your identity, your hold it down and wrap it up. You do not allow yourself to grow and open. You do not allow yourself to flower as a human being.

Healing and Love

We all want to receive unconditional love but most of us, in some way, have had this withheld from us. Most of us feel damaged in some way and want to be healed. And most of us look to relationships with others to heal us. Whether we had an abusive father or an alcoholic mother, whether it was parental expectation of academic or sports success or it was, we all carry forward scars that we want healed.

Identity is a practical tool in the world, but it is also a way of protecting our hurt, of hiding our damage, maybe even hiding it from ourselves.

Healing can be extraordinarily difficult, for the pain and suffering may be immense. It may be that you are not truly ready to deal with your suffering, and that is fine. But if you think you are, then know that it can never be truly healed from outside. The only way of healing your hurt is to allow yourself to be with it without judgment. And before you can do this, you must first see your suffering, which in turn requires allowing yourself, your ego, that scaffolding you have created to protect yourself, in a sense to fall apart.

We all want to receive unconditional love, but in doing so we misunderstand. What we need is to give unconditional love. We have been raised to believe that our love must be validated by another, but that is not true. Your love need only be validated by yourself. If you can allow your identity to soften, you can start to see this. And once you do so, all the rules change.

To visit Gareth’s informative and reflective blog go here.

One Minute Audio Contemplation: Emptiness of the Breath

This is a one minute contemplation on the breath and how our ideas of inside and outside are illusory:

by Lisa Ernst

The Raindrops Are Perfect

Oregon Rain photography by Lisa Ernst

Oregon Rain
photography by Lisa Ernst

The raindrops are perfect
because they’re not.
They fall without ideas
of size and sound
how long or how much.
They just fall,
they touch what’s
exposed and open
and not under cover
like a heart without
a veil or a shield.
It rains in my heart
until we entwine
like lovers
who no longer know
where one ends and
the other begins.
A smile, a tear,
a heart drenched through.