Crossing to the Other Shore

crossing to the other shore

Washington State Forest. Photo by R. Errichetti

Over and over, the seeds all get planted;

Over and over, the rain-god sprinkles rain.

Over and over, the farmer farms the field;

Over and over, the food grows in the realm.

Over and over, beggars do their begging;

Over and over, the givers give out gifts.

Over and over, the giver who has given;

Over and over, goes to a better place.

Over and over, he tires and he struggles;

Over and over, the fool goes to the womb.

Over and over, he’s born and he dies;

Over and over, they bear him to his grave.

But one whose wisdom is wide as the earth

Is not born over and over,

For he’s gained the path

Of not becoming over again.

~SN 7.12 PTS, Udaya Sutta: Breaking the Cycle

translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki

 

Dear friends,

This past week there were big shifts in my life, and I recognized my old friends, anxiety and fear, who invariably arrive when I am facing change. I felt the familiar restlessness in my body and the scrambling in my mind and I could say, “I know this.” This understanding made these two characters less intimidating and their arrival was far less terrifying than in the past. They lacked the power to take away my sleep and keep my mind twirling about how to escape difficulties and change the unchangeable. In fact, they were—predictable and sort of boring. I could see that they were arising out of habit, both with the lovely intention of keeping me safe and sound. I could also see through them to the fear that this shift of circumstances awoke, the real vulnerability of living in a transient body that longs for security in an insecure world. We know that life does not give us any guarantees and things can and do change all the time. This is the essential insecurity that calls for us to be unrelenting champions for ourselves.

There is a word samsara (Pali/Sanskrit), which signifies the endless rounds of rebirth we engage in. According to scholar-monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, samsara directly translates as “wandering on.” Samsara is the big picture of repeated life cycles, the endless rounds of birth and death the Buddha spoke about, but samsara is not limited to actual births and deaths. The cycle of samsara is constantly arising. We can change our environment, move across the country, go to therapy, do all the things we should—and remarkably, we can find ourselves still caught in the stickiness of repeated habits. This is samsara in real-time.

standing BuddhaThe Buddha described the system of repeated action in The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. This system begins with the avijja, the fundamental ignorance of how things really are. We think we are a discrete entity with a birth and death date, and we are, but we are also more than that. When we lose sight of our interconnectedness, our non-self nature and forget, we tend to repeat the behavior and “become” again. We become the angry person, or the righteous individual, we become the victim, the rescuer, the depressed one, the wronged, the winner, the loser. When we agree with these arisings, we are back on the wheel of suffering. The Buddha asked his followers:

Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed… (SN 15.3)

While creating time and intention to practice may seem daunting, when we look in the rearview mirror of our lives, we can see the ample tears that have marked our lives and the cost is exhaustion. The question becomes, where do we want to put our energy? Into reliving the same pain and experiences, or into finding liberation? Both take effort.

With patience, we can learn to stay and see the arising and passing of mind states—even ones that look so daunting. Carefully titrating the dosage of suffering can allow us to stay present with ourselves without overwhelm. This relentless determination to be a compassionate presence can help to break the bonds of samsara and release us from reacting to our same triggers over and over again. When we can see these patterns, without becoming swallowed by the big feelings, we have taken a step towards the shore of liberation. The willingness of learning to stay, to accompany ourselves on our journey with all its joy and sorrow takes energy, but it provides us with a true refuge. We become the very place of shelter that we are searching for and when we can find this solidity in ourselves, we are beyond the reach of fear.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

no death no fear

 

 

 

The Earth in Me

Bantam River

Bantam River, Photo by Celia

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  ~Margaret Mead

“Once we see that something needs to be done, we must take action. Seeing and action go together. Otherwise, what is the point in seeing?”   ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.” ~ The Dhammapada, Verse 81

 

Dear friends,

Many of us recently participated in the Global Climate Strike this past week. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with this section of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth, which Buddhist practitioners read at City Hall in New York before making peaceful steps to support the call for climate action. On Friday, I stayed local and was part of a small group of folks who came together on the Green in Litchfield, Connecticut. We received lots of support from those driving by, honks, waves, shouts of thanks…and a much smaller helping of disapproval, shouts that climate change is not real, trucks gunning their engines and revving in front of our group, one man told us to go home and stop telling people what to think. The scientific data supporting this issue is politicized and although many of us may recognize that humans have impacted the Earth in dangerous ways, many of us have a different reality.

Blue heron wingSome of my time on Friday was spent wishing well to those who have a different view and being mindful of any feeling of righteousness. Thich Nhat Hanh in the Three Earth Touchings reminds us of the non-dual nature of living on Earth, “I am the forest that is being cut down. I am the rivers and the air that are being polluted, and I am also the person who cuts down the forest and pollutes the rivers and the air. I see myself in all species, and I see all species in me.” This is the understanding of Interbeing, which sees the non-self nature in the world and in us. Interbeing acknowledges we are linked to that which we might consider shameful, or ignorant. We are part of all things, not just the things we admire and like. We can know that we are not separate from others who may have very divergent views.

The Buddha repeated used imagery of the Earth, especially to point out that we are not what we think we are. The physiological understanding 2,600 years ago included the four elements of Earth (solidity), Water (liquid), Fire (temperature and digestion), and Wind (air, movement, circulation) in the body and outside the body. Awareness of these aspects of ourselves in each human form and as they appear in the world, free from the confines of skin and flesh, shows we are interwoven with this planet. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his love letter, “You aren’t a person, but I know you are not less than a person either. You are a living breathing being in the form of a planet.” This living and breathing Earth is essential for all other life forms.

A neighbor told me that she was passionate about the Earth but didn’t know where to start and how to feel like her actions mattered. I believe this is true for so many folks. The problems feel so vast and we are so small. When we believe our actions, our thoughts, and intentions hold no value, it’s easy to lose our confidence. When we can connect with our intentions and nourish our commitments, we find that even small actions have the potential to renew us and support the longevity of committing to action. A way to build reverence and compassion for our ability to create change and our interconnectedness is through the Plum Village practice of Earth Touchings. To relinquish our idea of superiority and lie our body upon the Earth, allows the Earth to hold our sorrow, our desire to do more, our frustration and our pain. It can be deeply healing to surrender ourselves to the care of the Earth and to know that she is also in our care. When we see our strength aligned with the Earth, we are following the Buddha’s instructions for his son Rahula.

The Buddha told his son to “develop the meditation in tune with earth. For when you are developing the meditation in tune with earth, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when people throw what is clean or unclean on the earth — feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood — the earth is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation in tune with earth, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind,” (Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula, MN 62). This is the training of acceptance and patience.Goldenrod riverway

The Earth has held all things with equanimity. When we meditate on the solidity of the Earth element in ourselves, we can touch this unshakable part of ourselves, beyond our small judgments and see that all beings, just like me, want safety, choice, and consideration. When we look with the eyes of Earth, we see that anger and hostility are protections from fear and vulnerability. Just like the Earth, we learn not to take things personally, nor let the arising of hopelessness or fear deter us from caring. The Earth does not feel humiliation or pride but is steady and unwavering—The Earth knows her value. The Earth Touching practice can nurture our intention to create a deep bond with this planet we are a part of. Practicing with humility and reverence, we recognize that when we care for the Earth, we care for ourselves. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to doubt our value and contribution. We need all of us to support our planet and our belief that our actions make a difference.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

bhodisattvah

 

 

 

Who Makes You Happy?

View from the pinnacle

View from the Pinnacle Lookout, Photo by Celia

“Cleared of the underbrush

but obsessed with the forest,

set free from the forest,

right back to the forest he runs.

Come, see the person set free

who runs right back to the same old chains!”

~Tanhavagga: Craving (Dhp XXIV, V. 344), Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

“We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.” 

 ~ Chogyam Trungpa

 

Dear friends,

The Buddha taught that the root of suffering was craving, tanha. He also taught that the human experience embodies a restless sense of wanting, craving for sense pleasures—the good life of luxury, longing to become something or to escape from being something unwanted. These three types of wanting, keep us spinning, moving towards and away from. We imagine if we got the right combination—keep to a gluten-free and raw diet, work out, meditate, wear organic fibers, stop watching Judge Judy, find a LEED-certified condo in a pedestrian friendly area, get the hypo-allergenic dog, put in the extra time to really learn the new software and get noticed at work, we would discover the life partner who was actually our long-lost friend from fifth grade—waiting for us this whole time, and then—we  could be happy.

The Buddha knew about worldly happiness. He was raised as a privileged and sheltered child, groomed to take over his father’s leadership position. He had wealth, status, all types of things, a beautiful and loving wife and new baby… and yet—he wasn’t happy. So, he left in search of a more durable happiness than the one we find when the worldly conditions align, and we have a moment of ease. The Buddha went on a long and arduous search, nearly died and found a different type of happiness which did not rely on the external conditions of happiness being met.

Happiness is our birthright and being Buddhist does not mean we aren’t allowed to be happy, but our regular worldly happiness falls short and doesn’t deliver what we are really longing for. There is a more refined and wiser sort of happiness that comes from understanding that all the chasing and arranging we do—the looking for happiness in relationships, appreciation, wanting to be treated a certain way—will not make us happy.

We have volition or cetana, this is the intention that leads us to action. Cetana can be wholesome or unwholesome. If we act against injustice and the greed that is killing our support system, the Earth, we are creating wholesome and beneficial karma through this intention. But if we rage, treat others harshly and are violent, even this wholesome intention gets muddied and leads us to a bad destination. And if we start obsession about an intention, even a beneficial one, we can be caught in craving and pulled into suffering.

Goldenrod path

Sometimes we can’t see the demarcation line between acting on an intention and craving. How do we know if we are clinging and craving or merely wanting to do a good job and feel this project is important? A simple litmus test is to ask, Do I think this will make me happy? When I move to a new city, begin a new relationship, or join a protest, if I believe that this thing, this person, this job, the book being published, having children, or being in a relationship will lead me to an abiding sense of happiness, I am letting myself in for suffering.

The Buddha teaches us that when we get fixated on things, we create the same conditions for suffering we try to escape, but when we are free from repetitive and obsessive thinking we can act and be free. We don’t get caught in labeling ourselves and creating new and different boxes of identity for ourselves:

But when one doesn’t intend, arrange, or obsess [about anything], there is no support for the stationing of consciousness. There being no support, there is no landing of consciousness. When that consciousness doesn’t land & grow, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress. (Thanissaro, trans., SN 12.38, Cetana Sutta)

This does not mean we should not do things in the world. Knowing that we have a limited time on this planet, we can ask, Is this project or activity, a good use of my time? Grounding ourselves in the wisdom of understanding impermanence, suffering and the end of suffering, we can ask, Is this enough for me, right now? When we ask if something is enough, we stop considering if we fit the mold of the perfect employee—if we are good enough for this individual, or this relationship and instead ask, if this person, conversation, organization, meets the criteria of our intention to live an awakened life. Sometimes the answer is no. This job, this corporate structure, this friendship, does not align with my values and does not support my true happiness.

Crest of hill

True happiness is based on recognizing the constant shifting of our roles and conditions of the world. It is based on living with integrity and showing up with an open-hearted intention for kindness and compassion for ourselves and others. Our happiness is made from our efforts to be the peace, compassion, and love, we are seeking from the outside world. Sometimes, my entire practice consists of going through a day, attempting to keep my heart open to everyone I come in contact with—not closing off in defense and judgment—and sometimes I can just make it through a whole day. When I do this, I dwell in the bliss of blamelessness and living in accord with the Dharma. The Buddha is recorded in the Dhammapada as saying, “Your own self is your own mainstay. Your own self is your own guide. Therefore, you should watch over yourself —as a trader, a fine steed” (Dhp XXV, V 380). We are our finest treasures.

And this is where we can touch real happiness, in our own willingness to return to our true home—ourselves. Our own ability to still the mind, our own calm abiding in the face of change, this is the safe home we have been longing for. This is what the Buddha discovered through years of self-mortification and physical hardship. He created a refuge in his own heart and mind. He stopped running. He stopped doing and found himself with himself. When we stop, we can recognize ourselves as the soulmate who has been with us our whole lives—we are right here, waiting for ourselves to show up.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

You are enough

The Trigger of Loneliness

Ancestor altar

Ancestor Altar. Photo by Celia

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” ~ Mark Twain

“I learned to be with myself more rather than avoiding myself with limiting habits; I started to be aware of my feelings more, rather than numb them.” ~Judith Wright

“We cannot, in a moment, get rid of the habits of a lifetime.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

“Whenever you take a step forward, you are bound to disturb something.”

~Indira Gandhi

Dear friends,

Last month I met a grandmother from Tanzania who was visiting my neighbor. It was Mama Alice’s first time in the US, and she was curious and discomforted noticing that families live separately, with only two or four people and some with only one inhabitant, in big houses. The day before she left for the U.S., she had lunch with all her 500 friends after church. These are 500 living, breathing individuals, not Facebook friends. Mama Alice asked why do all these Americans live alone and how do people take care of each other? My answer was that this is a nation of individualism and our culture values independence, achievement, wealth, and power above caring for each other. The painful side of our focus on the individual above the collective is that we are one of the loneliest and most isolated societies in the history of the world.

One of the greatest ills in our technological society is the disease of loneliness. A study from Dublin Ireland interviewed 1,299 elderly participants and found that 70% of those interviewed were lonely, hopeless and depressed. Differing surveys report, levels of 42% to 70% of the Americans population feels alone. The risks of loneliness are especially prevalent among older adults and…young people. Loneliness does physical and mental damage, in fact, research demonstrates that the effects of loneliness increase the risk of heart attack by 29%. Being lonely is associated with a weakened immune system, heart disease, lowered happiness, increased risk for type two diabetes, and depression.

Loneliness is something that all beings feel. It is often associated with shame since if we are lonely, it means that somehow, we aren’t unlovable or aren’t interesting enough to warrant social connection. When we are lonely, we’re right back in middle-school, picked last for the team, having to sit alone at lunch, or being the one not invited to parties—no valentines on our desk. It is a deeply painful experience and the element of shame inherent in loneliness can quickly remove our sense of agency, the belief that our actions and intentions matter. Despair is the greatest predictor of depression and loneliness and shame are perfect catalysts for depression. As we know in depression, we cannot see a way out and we may become sunk and helpless due to these contributing factors.

On the night the Buddha became enlightened he was able to discern the system of Dependent Origination or the teaching that this happens because that happens. All things rest on each other. Our conditioning, our habits, the karma from our past life and the last minute are all creating this present moment. The Buddha pointed to contact as the cause for the pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feelings. If we encounter disappointment and isolation during our day, our friend cancels on us, someone doesn’t call back, we may start to feel alone, helpless, or abandoned. Our emotions and moods lead us to behaviors, some of these move us in the direction of happiness and wellbeing, and some of our reactions triggered by circumstance, lead to painful adaptations and protective habits that do not serve us and do not lead to happiness. We enact our habits of surfing the web, numbing out by watching TV, shopping, eating when we aren’t hungry, falling into depression, sobbing—and we become what we think and do. When we grab hold of these feelings and blend with them—we become something or someone. We take birth as a depressed person, a lonely person, a rejected or abandoned person instead of a person having an experience of loneliness, or the experience of suffering.

Flower and the Buddha

A teaching that comes from the fifth Century Buddhist teacher Vasubandhu is that all suffering comes from supporting causes. This pain of suffering seems like something negative, but when we see it with Right View, it becomes the catalyst for essential growth. It is this ability to see what causes pain, and the ability to move away from the choices we make that cause more pain, that creates the path to happiness. This is the essential teaching of the Buddha who said, I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.

The teaching of the Buddha offers us enough space to look deeply and compassionately at our habits and actions that lead to happy or unhappy destinations. The primary teaching is “Stress should be known. The cause by which stress comes into play should be known. The diversity in stress should be known. The result of stress should be known. The cessation of stress should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of stress should be known” (AN 6.63 PTS: Nibbedhika Sutta: Penetrative. Trans Thanissaro Bhikkhu,1997). The causes of stress or afflictive emotions comes through sense contact–what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think. When we follow our day and attend to what we have contacted in our thoughts, our visual and auditory exposure, even what we eat and wear on our bodies, we can trace the roots of our suffering and discomfort. It takes Right View for us to be able to see how these contacts contribute to the stirring of emotions or thought patterns.

When we encounter our suffering, especially our loneliness, we may find it threatens to swallow us and triggers us to once again do the things that lead to more pain. But even knowing that we are suffering and seeing suffering as suffering is a source of celebration. The part of us that knows we are lonely is not lonely. The part of us that discerns what leads to happiness and unhappiness is not helpless, not unhappy. When we are able to know that this too is suffering, we are already on the path to happiness. When we recognize that our habits are ways we try to soothe and care for these emotions, we can recognize choice. We do not have to do what we have always done and take birth as the Netflix binge-watcher, or a secret eater. We can notice that we are having an experience of loneliness and move towards creating conditions that support connection, belonging, and welcome in our lives. Even when we get stuck or forget and repeat our same patterns, knowing that our actions are leading to suffering is the beginning of wisdom.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Be free where you are

I am offering a class in Litchfield, CT at Wisdom House Retreat Center in October focusing on the teaching of Equanimity and how it can support us during caregiving. There’s also a restorative weekend retreat at the beginning of November. For more information, please click on the links.

https://www.wisdomhouse.org/program-calendar/2019/10/5/equanimity-and-buddhist-wisdom-for-caregivers

https://www.wisdomhouse.org/program-calendar/2019/11/1/caring-for-ourselves-while-we-care-for-others-self-care-practices-and-meditation-retreat-to-support-caregivers

 

Is This a Happy Moment?

Paper wasps

Paper wasp’s nest, photo by R. Errichetti

 

“Those who are without compassion cannot see what is seen with the eyes of compassion.”

“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

“We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness and strength so we can help transform the situation.”

~ All quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear friends,

I hope you are enjoying some happiness this Holiday weekend. Here in CT, the weather is gloriously fresh, the air is dry, and the sun is shining. For me right now, no one in my life is acute distress—no friends, pets, or loved ones are in deep or unremitting suffering, so life is pretty sweet. Maybe that’s setting the bar a bit low, but contentment is the opposite of craving and when we can settle into the sweet and uncomplicated moments of life, we’ve ended our own suffering.

Speaking of suffering, I’d like to address something that comes up for those on spiritual paths. It disguises itself as diligence but is actually a way to keep our suffering and self-criticism alive and use our practice to do more violence to ourselves. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered folks in distress because of health difficulties, extreme uncertainty, and past traumatic issues that continue to arise. Each person expressed dismay that their practice wasn’t strong enough to support them in finding joy and equanimity during these hard times and to be happy in the midst of suffering. These folks feel that they are doing something wrong because they feel sad, confused, or thrown off balance by life’s events.

My heart sinks when I hear people expressing that their acknowledgment of pain is somehow off-limits. There’s the belief that those who are spiritually evolved don’t feel many feelings besides happiness. We imagine that if we were better at our practice, we would be beyond pain and stoically smiling through all the unpredictable issues life throws at us. I wish I were one of those people who have cut the fetters to the view of self and only feel joy and happiness—but I am not, and I am guessing that most of us are not arahants either. Our most venerable teachers must know and understand the suffering inherent in life to be able to help us transcend our own suffering.

Flower and the BuddhaThe early life of the Buddha describes him as a small child sitting beneath the Rose apple tree seeing the pain of living beings. When a spring field was plowed, he looked at the bodies of the dead and mangled insects trampled by the horse and cut by the plow, being eaten by birds and other living beings, and felt deep compassion and sadness for the pain and loss of their lives. He was able to come home to himself and meditate to be stable in the presence of this suffering. When we dampen our ability to feel our sadness, we also dampen the ability to know our compassion and our own stability that leads to happiness. This belief in stoicism and cutting off from knowing suffering is an example of Thich Nhat Hanh’s message of “present moment, wonderful moment,” grasped the wrong way and used as a shield to deflect our own compassion from ourselves.

When we visit our mother in a nursing home and she cannot recognize us any longer, that is not a happy moment, nor is receiving the news our loved one has a serious diagnosis, or that our child will be born with a physical anomaly. When our middle-aged spouse dies after a short illness, these are not wonderful moments no matter how long we’ve been meditating and practicing for. The first Noble Truth—one of the truths that ennoble us, is that suffering exists. Dukkha [stress, dissatisfaction, undependability, pain, illbeing] is a part of life.

The Buddha described three types of dukkha, the first Dukkha dukkhataa is the suffering of living in a body that will get hungry, cold, tired, sick, and ultimately stop working. The second Sanakaara dukkhataa is the suffering of impermanence, all things change and are inconstant and will need maintenance. The new Mercedes and the most lovely oak tree, will both change with conditions and need care and attention to continue to function over time. The third is the Viparanaama dukkhataa is the inconsistency of the pleasant. We don’t like when the good times cease and wish things were different and much more satisfying. This is the dukkha that leads us to chase after pleasure and can lead to addictions—trying to get back to that perfect feeling when we first…drank that drink, smoked that smoke, fell in love, ate that food, took that drug, any and all of those.

The Buddha was a realist and let us know that some moments, to use the teenage vernacular, really suck. His teaching urged us to know suffering, to understand it—not to deny it is painful and unpleasant. And when we are faced with these moments, denying that we are in pain or expecting ourselves to be happy adds another arrow of suffering to our situation. We cannot selectively feel our feelings. When we suppress our pain, we also lose connection with our happiness. When we know we are suffering, we are already on the path towards relieving it because just like first responders, we can learn how to help ourselves in any crisis. We can become our own healing, compassionate presence of care at each moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh knows about suffering and the end of suffering, so how do these gathas [practice poems] actually awaken us to what is wonderful and happy? In 2013, Thay led a retreat called, The Art of Suffering, where he taught exclusively about how to be with suffering. How to be close to ourselves at each moment without running into distraction and looking for a pill or potion to take away our unhappiness. The ability to know we are suffering and to meet the moment with kindness and true self-empathy is a source of happiness. It is a skill that we develop—the skill to keep showing up and caring for this life and our tender feeling heart at all moments.

beach stonesKnowing when things are bad when we are in pain and not denying it but caring for our own experience means that all moments have the capability to be wonderful because of our efforts—not because they are wanted or pain-free. Happiness comes when we learn to stand in the midst of our pain and open our hearts to it and know we can be there for this too. It is recognizing suffering and moving forward with the intent to care for our own pain. That is a wonderful gift, the ability to be unafraid of our feelings and to know we are capable of showing up for ourselves. It is this ability, the cultivation of the loving heart and the intersection of compassion which can create the conditions for equanimity and joy for ourselves and others.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Dont ignore suffering