“Rest in natural great peace,
this exhausted mind;
beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thought,
like the relentless fury of the pounding waves in the infinite ocean of samsara.”
– Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche
“In our everyday life our thinking is 99% self-centred.
“Why do I have suffering,
Why do I have trouble?”
– Shunryu Suzuki.
This blog is really just scattered thoughts, some resolved, some not.
This week I faced the reality of yet another future event involving surgery. My disintegrating lower back has finally hit a marker (and a major nerve) and has thrown up a number of continuing life challenges. I knew it would come, but I didn’t think I would be just 40 when it did. And I really feel cheated that it’s come along on the heels of my shoulder issues. I am flitting between being angry, relieved that it’s not worse, determined to be mindful and spiritual and giving up and just being plain old sad.
A very early thought was, “When is enough, enough? This is ridiculous.” Did I say “it’s not fair?” – you bet. But why was I thinking this? Frustration. Pain. Reaction. And what is this peace I deserve anyway? This expectation that what has happened in the past, should spread out a bit further. Why do we sometimes feel we are owed time off, some space from what has been….. before what comes next. Just give me a break!
Simply put, we find ourselves bombarded with events we don’t want to accept. And we suffer.
Last week, just prior to this information, I read a book on “How To Be Sick” by Buddhist, Toni Bernhard. Toni has had a mystery chronic illness since 2001 that keeps her bedridden with fatigue and flu like symptoms some days, which I guess is my story too, although I have almost recovered physically after 17 years. Through her focus on the Buddha’s teachings, Toni has learned to live contentedly most of the time, even celebrating the lessons and gifts that her experience has brought her.
A few lessons along the way.
Who am I?
Theravadan teacher Munindra-ji was in his eighties when waiting at a train station in India. The train was 5 hours late, it was hot, there was no food and no water. His student was worried and finally asked if he was alright. He replied,
“There is heat here, but I am not hot, there is hunger here, but I am not hungry, there is irritation here, but I am not irritated.”
Toni’s practice led her to understand and accept that she is not sick, because we are not our circumstances, thoughts or even our bodies… who we are does not relate to the physical casing we wear in this lifetime, or what we see in the mirror (or on MRI’s for that matter). Our hunger is in our bodies, indeed in our minds, so is physical pain and discomfort. But that which endures – is eternal, cannot actually experience hunger or pain. We just have to be present to the real ‘us’ and not live within our impermanent physical and mental selves. And because of this, we can feel sadness for the demise of our bodies, without losing any sense of true self and value.
Practising this, and truly feeling and living our separate yet symbiotic natures of flesh and spirit, is a little like living with two personalities. There’s ‘me’, and there’s ‘you’. You are broken down, but I can still feel whole. You hurt, but I don’t have to suffer too. You won’t last much longer – are impermanent, but me – I am here for the long haul – eternal. But the ability to truly feel the connection between the two without the physical situation dragging down the mind is a constant battle, both of the will to fight the downward spirals, and the will to let it be, accept and observe without reaction.
The value of understanding impermanence, goes a long way to relieving the suffering of, well, our suffering. We can experience physical pain, and know it will pass (eventually), and that it is an indicator of the impermanence of our physical being.
Impermanence. “All that arises is subject to change, decay and dissolution.” Life is uncertain, unpredictable and in constant flux. We should cherish each moment and be happy in what we can do, aware that everything changes in an instant.
Toni likens impermanence to the weather. We all know the weathermen struggle to perform. Things change quickly and rain comes earlier or later than expected. So it is with life. Our very humanity ensures instability. Unpredictable, unreliable. Therefore our experiences as humans are as the wind – blowing in and blowing out. Passing through. Where is that pain I felt 5 minutes ago. Not here and not now. That blue mood, the sadness, the anger. They have moved on – we can and should too.
Toni also talks about welcoming fear. Not pushing it away like some enemy to be avoided at all costs, but welcoming it into the vast space within our hearts. Indeed, embracing fear as a long lost friend, that needs our true love and compassion. Surprisingly this seems to disarm fear and turn it into understanding. Within fear there is love, passion, even knowledge and joy if we don’t fear and fight the fear, but accept it.
“To go into the dark with a light is to know the light,
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight
and find that the dark too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
– Wendell Berry
Compassion for self
Something I am getting better at is compassion for my body, as it does it’s best to adjust and work within the parameters of it’s biological limits. Whilst the human body is amazing, it can only take so much living. Having compassion on your body is not about toughing it out all the time. Taking time to rest, to eat, to think and not think. To treat yourself as you would treat another you love. This includes asking for another opinion, a more updated test or treatment, saying ‘no’ more often, just being aware of your human self. To be your own advocate and speak up for yourself.
Self punishment is something we all do. I don’t mean self discipline that leads to healthy living etc, but those thoughts that sneak in and destroy our compassion, “you don’t deserve to rest again, you haven’t done anything worthwhile today”, or “you’d better say yes or they’ll think you’re mean”. Compassion for self is treating yourself with love and affection, allowing life to take you on it’s wonderful journey, and finding every way to enjoy the experience.
“Let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool … You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.” Ajahn Chah.
Author and speaker, Byron Katie, has a process called “The Work” based on her own discovery that “when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, and when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer”
Q1 – Is the thought true?
Q2 – Can we absolutely know it’s true?
Q3 – How do we react when we believe the thought?
Q4 – Reflect on who we’d be without the thought.
It’s not the events in life that have us feeling life is unfair, but rather our thinking prior to, during and after the event that bring us suffering. It’s not time out that we need, it’s the ability to see that now is the perfect time to calm down and breathe. To see and accept what is, and to choose our thoughts and reactions wisely based on compassion for our selves and others.
Despising the past, and wishing for a better future is purely ego’s way of keeping us focused on what we don’t have, can’t have and don’t deserve. Woe is us and we are stuck in our situation, suffering pain in every way.
Thinking on who I would be without the negative thoughts about my situation, I can see that the pain wouldn’t bother me so much emotionally or mentally. It just is. It’s not a punishment, not a test of my will, or even a challenge to see how tough I am. It just is.
Thoughts that bring fear, mental pain and despair are not going to bring us peace or reduce any physical pain, in fact they are likely to increase the pain as such thoughts tighten the chest, shallow the breath and welcome anger into the body.
Again compassion is the key. What thoughts can I have that bring acceptance and love to my body, make me thankful and open up the narrowness that comes from self pity and self focus. These are the thoughts that bring reactions of peace and help to reduce physical pain. With these thoughts I am closing the divide between my physical and spiritual self, engaging the eternal to look after and comfort the temporal, until such time as they part ways and I move onto my next journey. And in that moment, I like to think that the physical suffering of these few weeks will seem a raindrop in a storm compared to the flood of awakening and self awareness that’s left behind when the clouds have finally cleared.