“And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
This was the last word of the Tathagata.”~”Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.~Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
(English Standard Version Bible)
Last week, I honestly looked at my desires and saw how much I wanted to fast forward life, to be past this election, past the pandemic. I wanted it over and was not looking forward to living through the process of having these things unfold moment by moment. I had real resistance to this pain of uncertainty and the not knowing. When I was able to stay present with the discomfort with compassion, something shifted. I don’t know exactly the catalyst. I do know that there was a moment of joy when I recognized that I have been taught how to hold my suffering. I know what to do and I am doing it.
There is a joy that comes when we do not abandon ourselves, when we have the confidence to stay present and to say, “I got you. I am here for you, no matter what.” I come back to this self-compassion over and over. It is the most transformative and powerful medicine I have received from my practice. Showing up and knowing that no matter how good or how bad, I have the resources to stay.
The Buddha’s teaching on the Eight Worldly Winds, also called the vicissitudes, has helped me put my experience into perspective. 2,600 years ago, the Buddha said, “Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. (Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World, T. Bhikkhu, trans.)”
In this ancient teaching, we can see the universality of loss and pain. We encounter this in the first Noble Truth, that suffering, or stress exists. We also know that there are causes and reasons for suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. When we see the causes for suffering and discomfort in our lives, this gives us understanding and clarity. Recognizing these conditions leads us to the Third Noble Truth, that there is the opposite of suffering. The law of impermanence teaches that nothing can exist forever, this too will change. It cannot stay the same.
I can feel lots of compassion for us as a country and a world, longing for this pandemic to end, longing for racial justice, for change, for hope. And I remember a teaching by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron who was caught in distress. Her teacher asked her to notice the years of habits it took to for her to get into that state and to know it would take a while to get out. As a country, we have been planting the painful and violent seeds of racial inequality for more than 400 years. It takes time to uproot those dangerous vines long interwoven in the culture of America. This requires staying with the frustration, the discomfort, and the exhaustion. If we know how to show up when we are in pain, we will have more ability to be the hand that risks discomfort by pulling out the creeping thorns by the roots.
When we leave our experience, we lose the opportunity to develop trust in ourselves. As we learn to stay with the difficult and painful with compassion, we also learn how to titrate—not to exceed our capacity—to have a touch and go relationship with suffering that can help us to stay in self-trust. This is already the Fourth Noble Truth, stepping onto the path of practice ascribed by the Buddha. This path is powerful medicine to strengthen us against the forces that can overwhelm and destabilize our minds and hearts.
In 2013, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a series of retreats titled, The Art of Suffering. I remember him saying that he would never want his children to go to heaven if there were no suffering there. They needed suffering—a little bit, not too much—to grow and to stretch. They also needed to experience suffering to know what the end of suffering feels like. There could be no heaven if there was no opposite of heaven. This is the law of non-duality. Nothing can exist by itself alone. It needs a counterbalance or opposite to allow it to be known.
In the retreat, Thay spoke about staying present with our suffering, owning it, being available for it. When I want to fast forward through my life and wish it all away, I deny that I have competency and the presence to take care of myself. I forget my own resilience and strength and dodge whatever I see coming out of fear and reactivity instead of taking a breath, feeling my feet on the ground and connecting with my deepest intention, the realization of cessation, freedom, or nibbana. When I know suffering, and also know my own ability to accompany myself, I know the end of suffering.
Liberation is the act of non-abandoning is a way I show myself kindness and trust. I trust that I can be there for me. I trust that my presence liberates myself from the prison of helplessness, from rushing through. I can call upon my supports, my ancestors and those I admire who have lived through wars, through oppression, through situations that I have not experienced in my life time and they still found their freedom. Freedom is a way to reclaim our power.
The more our culture is infiltrated by algorithms that direct us towards what to feel, what to believe, who to trust, the more we are manipulated by what is outside of us. Returning to ourselves, to reclaim our freedom and our innate goodness is a radical act of self-accompaniment. We are truly free when we know that we have our own support no matter what comes, and we are ready, excited even to meet that challenges of accompanying ourselves.
When we have touched the benefits of practice, of meditation, stillness, and centering, we are able to return to the place in us. We learn over time that this is not dependent upon conditions. It is determined by our commitment to our own liberation, our own enlightenment. Enlightenment is the promise that we are born with the ability to live in the classroom of our lives and to learn what is necessary for us. Enlightenment is the stilling and the end of our desire to make this moment any different. We do this practice, not by giving up, but by straightening up.
May we all trust our light,