Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don’t know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it’s not happiness, but we are not sure that it’s suffering. We’re bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, “Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don’t know why.” When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it’s a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don’t like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we “change the peg.”

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, “My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?” Don’t treat it like an enemy. Don’t be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. “Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?”

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It’s quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, “I know you are there.” It’s okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn’t be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It’s just anxiety or sadness, and it’s not so difficult to bear.

Don’t think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don’t have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It’s like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. “Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude.” It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, “Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don’t want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations.” When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, “Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?” She replied, “Yes.” She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, “What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me.” She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, “Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them.” If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it’s no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, “My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?” We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, “Are you really suffer­ing?” It wasn’t really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. “I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you.” And therefore, it didn’t make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. “Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are.” I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

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I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It’s up to you. It’s not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, “Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?” You have to bow to him, “Please, please, help.” And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

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You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn’t help at all? Why didn’t it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it’s natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That’s a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? “I don’t want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn’t know how to be compassionate and understanding.” Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? “I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to listen to them. I have suffered so much.” Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. “Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don’t appreci­ate you.” If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it’s the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, “Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice.” And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It’s like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. “I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly.” But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you’ll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don’t hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

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