Healing the Past in the Present

By David Ostwald 

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Sitting awkwardly at my first Sangha meeting in 1998, I was feeling both ill at ease and curious. But by the time we’d finished reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings, those feelings had been transformed to excitement and certainty: I had found my path. One phrase in particular grabbed my attention: “I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.” It was an intention I was ready to embrace. (This sentence from the fourth training was not continued in the 2009 revision.)

Over the next months, I phoned some people with whom I had conflicts in order to reopen our fractured dialogues; to others I wrote letters of apology and appreciation. I gave a substantial sum of money to an old girlfriend, who in our years together had carried the majority of the financial burden. I thought I was making good progress until a more experienced practitioner quietly suggested that I might also want to apply the phrase to my internal conflicts. A crevasse opened at my feet; I had only addressed the tip of the iceberg.

Old Knots Loosening 

In spite of growing up in pleasantly cushioned middle class surroundings with well-intentioned parents, I received my share of wounds. And, like most of us, I developed compensatory behaviors in response. In my case, one of the most potent was taking on the role of the “good boy.” It was remarkably effective at the time, but now, more than sixty years later, it’s become a useless burden. Unfortunately, since my parents have been dead for many years, I only have the mom and dad I have internalized with whom to work out a more healthy and realistic position.

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One practice I tried, as a way to shed some useless behaviors, was to close my (almost) daily meditations by offering gratitude to my parents. Sometimes I focused on one parent, sometimes on both; sometimes for something specific—their wonderful curiosity, their trust; other times for something more general—their efforts to be good parents, or just for being who they were. Gradually, over the course of several months, I experienced small heart openings and old knots loosening: appreciation replacing hostility, flashes of anger replaced by understanding.

It was when I wanted to go deeper that I began to appreciate the power of Thay’s insight that we can heal the past in the present. As he points out, not only are all our blood ancestors alive in our very DNA, but so are all our life experiences—including the unresolved conflicts of those who raised us.

As my suffering was lessened by practicing compassionate meditation, I realized that I needed to be in touch with the suffering of the child that I still carried with me. Secure in this understanding, I began focusing on reconciling my conflicts with my mother. Several meditations in Blooming of a Lotus proved helpful, particularly those that encouraged us to look at ourselves and our parents as five-year-olds. Experimenting with the wording of these meditations—for example, choosing different ages for my mother—brought further gains. (I would imagine that for those of us who have stepparents or are adopted, there are probably other fruitful variations.)

Embracing my Inner Child 

Another helpful version was offered by Dharma teacher Lyn Fine. She suggested I begin with myself as a one-year-old and then, inhalation by inhalation, work up toward the present: “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a one-year-old; breathing out, I embrace my one-year-old in arms of compassion.” “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a two-year-old,” etc. I have found that some years arouse little or no effect, whereas for others, strong feelings well up. When I experience a “hot spot,” I try to look deeply at the emotions. How many causes and conditions can I discern?

Once, I found myself riveted in fascination when I inhaled “one,” and remembered lying tiny and helpless on an icy rubber sheet. The image was accompanied by feelings of loneliness and profound abandonment. I’m sure my practical scientist mother just laid me down in my bassinet for a moment as she prepared to tenderly bathe me. But wouldn’t someone less self-involved have extended her empathy to understand how vulnerable being left naked on that cold sheet might feel? At the same time, I began to wonder about my own needs. I know my mother was nursing me at that age; why do I not recall the loving warmth of that experience? Is there something in me which cries out, “More…give me more, ever more love?”

Another time, I successfully got by “one” only to stumble into a memory pit at “two,” the year my brother was born. Cradling my feelings, I was able to experience my self-centered, decades-old interpretation that his birth was an act of hostility by my parents. I chuckled. It was a rueful laugh, but I felt freer nonetheless.

Embracing my Mother 

Another technique I tried was writing my mom several long and painful love/hate letters. I could only send them by “internal mail,” but it was helpful nonetheless. Ultimately, it was making her hurtful behaviors the object of my meditations that provided real breakthroughs—although not right away. Significant change began only when I acknowledged that she, too, was scarred by suffering; that her suffering was mine, and mine was hers.

Many of my childhood hurts arose out of my mother’s inability to maintain her loving attention for more than twenty minutes. Hundreds of times, I reveled in her warm, loving support only to find myself abruptly “abandoned.” Naturally, like most children, I assumed I was doing something wrong. However, once I was able to embrace her with compassion, I recognized how damaged she was by painful events in her early life, which, of course, had nothing to do with me. How she must have suffered at age nine, when her mother left to be with her lover! No wonder she was fearful of being close to anyone for too long; she might be abandoned again—maybe even by me!

I rejoice in the healing and reconciliation that I am finding through my practice. At the same time, I often feel disappointed; growth seems to come so slowly. I have to remind myself that for every Buddhist story about moments of sudden enlightenment, there are at least as many about dedicated practitioners who sit, search, and question for the better part of their lives. Indeed, even after his enlightenment, Buddha practiced every day!

mb63-Healing3David Ostwald, True Path of Equanimity, has been practicing in Thay’s tradition since 1998. With his wife, Birgitte Moyer-Vinding, he facilitates the Flowing Waters Sangha in Portola Valley, California. David strives to extend mindfulness practice into his work as an opera stage director and as an educator teaching acting to singers.

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Dharma Talk: Diet for a Mindful Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness is the blood of our psyche. It is exactly like the blood in our body—it has the power to wash away the toxins and heal our pain, the pain in our consciousness.

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When we are not mindful, we ingest many poisons into our consciousness. In fact, we water the seeds of suffering every day, and the people around us water these seeds also. As a result, our suffering increases. When we spend four days together in a retreat, we water the seeds of happiness inside us and around us, and we refrain from watering negative seeds, like anger, hatred, and fear. At the end of four days of practicing like this, we feel much better. We need an intelligent policy concerning our cultural environ­ment so that we do not allow ourselves to ingest indiscrimi­nately TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and other so-called “cultural products.” Many of these things poison us every day with their frantic energy, noisiness, sexual exploitation, and violence. We need a diet for our con­sciousness to avoid ingesting so many of these poisons.

When we ingest toxic substances into our body, we get sick. When we ingest toxic “cultural products” into our consciousness, we also get sick. Our society has so many kinds of spiritual and cultural foods that are toxic. Televi­sion is poisoning us and our children, as are many maga­zines, news images, and so on. We practice watering the seeds of anger, fear, and violence every day. We have to learn to live our daily lives in a way that can help us refrain from taking in more poisons. When these poisons enter our store consciousness, they weaken our power of mindfulness. Without some kind of diet for our consciousness, it is very difficult to practice mindfulness. There are already so many toxins in our store consciousness; we should stop ingesting more.

Many unwholesome seeds have been transmitted to us since our childhood. Practicing mindfulness, we become aware of that pain. But we are not yet strong enough to transform it, so it is important that we stay in touch with the many wonderful, refreshing things that are inside us and all around us—the blue sky, the eyes of a child, the evening sunset. When our mindfulness becomes strong, we will be able to touch our pain with it, and the pain will be trans­formed. I often talk about the mother as the symbol of tenderness, love, and care. When a baby is crying, the mother comes and takes the baby into her arms. Her tenderness penetrates into the baby, and the baby stops crying. When we practice mindfulness of breathing and touch our pain with that energy, our pain will be calmed and will begin to be transformed.

But our seeds of suffering are always trying to emerge, and we try to suppress them. By doing so, we create a lack of circulation in our psyche, and we get sick. As the blood of our psyche, mindfulness can loosen our pain and help dissolve it. Every time our pain is embraced by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength and returns to our store consciousness a little bit weaker. When it arises again, if our mindfulness is there, our pain will be even less. In that way, we create good circulation in our psyche. If the blood in our body circulates well, we feel much better. If our mindful­ness circulates in our consciousness, we also begin to have a feeling of well-being. We needn’t be afraid of our pain when we know that our mindfulness is there, ready to embrace and transform it.

If we have not been practicing for some time, our mindfulness may be of poor quality. It may only be a fifteen-watt light bulb. But if we practice for a few weeks, it will become a one-hundred-watt bulb. For mindfulness to be of good quality, conscious breathing should be practiced. Conscious breathing is the kind of fuel that can keep the light of mindfulness alive. If you practice five minutes of conscious breathing, you will keep mindfulness alive for five minutes. When contemplating a beautiful tree, if you stay in touch with your breathing for five minutes, you will also stay in touch with the tree for five minutes. If you lose awareness of your breathing, thinking may settle in, and the tree will vanish. Breathing is a wonderful way to sustain the seed of mindfulness in your consciousness.

In Asia, since early times, we have known that there is no boundary between food and medicine. When we eat and breathe properly, we nourish our blood. Our blood has the power to rinse away the toxins in our body and heal our pain. If we have good circulation, we will have a feeling of peace and joy, because the blood can go anywhere in our body and wash away the debris eliminated by our cells. We know that if we ingest a lot of toxic food into our intestines, our blood will receive many of these toxins and its power of cleansing and healing will be diminished. So we need to practice a kind of diet to help our blood stay clean.

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Following a diet does not mean to suffer. There are many delicious foods that have great nutritional value. And we don’t have to eat a lot. Sometimes, when we are too sad and don’t know what to do, we take refuge in eating. One woman who came to Plum Village told me, “Thay, every time I feel anxious, I just open the refrigerator door and eat. I cannot control myself.” By taking refuge in eating, we stuff a lot of poisons into our stomach that we know are not good for our blood. Sometimes we also take refuge in studying, social work, protecting the environment, or watching television. We have many refuges that we use in order to run away from ourselves, from our own unhappiness.

We should select the things we eat carefully, and chew our food very well, at least fifty times. If you do so, after eating just half the usual quantity, you will feel satisfied. And chewing every mouthful carefully and slowly, your food will reveal itself to you, and it will already be partially digested by your saliva even before it enters your digestive system. Its passage will not be slowed down, and putrefac­tion will not take place in your intestines. Eating in this way prevents poisons from entering your blood.

Massage is also very important. When there is a spot in the body where the blood cannot circulate freely, we feel some pain. The oxygen in the blood isn’t able to go there and flush out the toxins. Massage is a technique to revitalize circulation. If I practice massage on the spot that is sore, fresh blood will come there to nourish the cells and create a feeling of peace and joy in that spot. For healing to take place, we need the blood to circulate into the zone of pain. Blood is the agent of healing.

We know that to improve the quality of our blood, breathing is important. Our lungs have a three-and-a-half-quart capacity, but usually we breathe in and out only one-tenth of a quart. And if we don’t breathe good air, the amount of oxygen we take in will be even less, and the quality of our blood will be poor. Therefore, we practice breathing in and out consciously, and as our breathing becomes deeper, we exhale more carbon dioxide and inhale more fresh, clean air. We have to learn to breathe more deeply, from our abdomen, and to breathe air that is of good quality. Diet, massage, and conscious breathing improve the quality of our blood. They also increase the quality of our mindfulness.

Please write down three things: First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche? “Breathing in and breathing out, I recognize that these toxins are already in my body.” What kind of toxins do you have in your conscious­ness? A guilt complex is a toxin, anger is a toxin, despair is a toxin, jealousy is a toxin. If you need to practice walking meditation or sitting meditation in order to look, please do so. Look and see for yourself what kind of toxins you have in your body, and what kind of toxins you have in your mind. What makes you suffer now? What blocks of suffer­ing do you have right now? When you have done that, you will know what you have in your body and in your con­sciousness. Then, please go further, and look into the bodies and souls of your children and your spouse, since all of you are practicing together as a sangha. (Practicing as a commu­nity or a family is always easier. Not only will you refrain from watering the seeds of your own suffering, but your spouse and children will also practice not watering the seeds of your irritation, anger, and so on. That is why we take refuge in the sangha, the community that practices together.) When you recognize these toxins and list them on a sheet of paper, that is also meditation—looking deeply, recognizing, and calling things by their true names.

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After that we come to Item Two: “What kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?” We do this as individuals, as a family, as a city, and as a nation. We need administrators, legislators, and politicians to practice with us. If you are a psychotherapist, a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer, a businessperson, or a social worker, you have to practice in this way for all of us. What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? What is my family ingesting? What are my city and my nation ingesting every day concerning violence, hatred, and fear? The beating of Rodney King, the young driver in Los Angeles, by the five policemen is a good example of how much hatred, fear, and violence are in our society. What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our city, and our nation? This is a collective meditation. We need everyone to participate.

Third, write down the prescription that arises out of that insight. For example, “I vow from today on not to ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness.” This is the ground of the practice—the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice love, peace, and enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight. When you look deeply, you have insight, and your insight brings about compassion. Before you begin to eat, breathe in and out and look at the table to see what is good for your body and what is not. This is to practice the precept of protecting your body. When you want to watch television or go to the movies, first look deeply in order to determine what should be viewed and what should not be viewed by you and your children. Think about the books and maga­zines you read, and decide what should be read and what should not be read by you and your children. Practicing together as a community, we don’t need to take refuge in eating or entertaining ourselves with any more poisons. Practicing the precepts in this way helps all of us. Buddhist precepts are not imposed from the outside. From our own insight, we decide what to ingest and what not to ingest into our body and our soul.

For example, if all of us practice looking deeply into war, we will see into the true nature of our society and we will know what to do and how to live in order to prevent the next war. If we prescribe a healthy diet to ourselves, our families, our cities, and our nation and practice that kind of diet, another war will not take place. If we do not practice, a war like the Persian Gulf War will happen again in one, two, or five years. If we continue to live forgetfully, we will be overwhelmed again when we have to confront such a war. The true nature of war and the true nature of our collective consciousness are the same. For war not to come, we need to begin now to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is to change our collective consciousness. As long as people believe that the war in the Persian Gulf was a war of liberation, a clean and just war, they will be tempted to do it again as soon as there is another conflict somewhere in the world. To change that kind of mentality, we have to practice looking deeply in order to understand the true nature of the war, which was not liberation, moral, or clean. If we don’t practice mindfulness, the amount of hatred, illusion, anger, and violence in our society will lead our leaders to adopt such means again. Without an intelligent diet, we cannot reduce the amount of delusion, hatred, and violence in our society. When we practice well, we will stop bringing poisons into our blood, our soul, and our society.

Insight meditation, looking deeply, is a practice of massage. You practice in order to push the energy of mindfulness into your pain. As it penetrates more and more deeply, your pain will dissolve. I offer you an example: There are those who do not get along with their father (or their mother), because their father has made them so unhappy, has created in their store consciousness so many seeds of unhappiness that they don’t want to look at him, they don’t want to hear his name. They may have been abused as children. For these people I offer the meditation on the five-year-old child, which is a mindfulness massage. “Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child. Breath­ing out, I smile to the five-year-old child in me.” During the meditation you try to see yourself as a five-year-old child. If you can look deeply at that child, you can see that he or she is so vulnerable and fragile, can be hurt easily by anything that is not kind, can be wounded very easily. A stern look from his father can cause internal formations in his store consciousness. A shout from his father can cause another wound within his store consciousness. When his father makes his mother suffer, when his parents fight and scream at each other, the five-year-old receives a lot of seeds of suffering in him. I have heard young people say, “The most precious gift my parents can give is their own happiness.” If parents live happily with each other, that is the greatest gift they can offer their children. This is true, and I hope all parents can understand it.

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By living unhappily, by making his wife suffer, the father is making his son suffer a lot. He may have brutalized him so severely that the young man has not been able to smile or think of his father. But now he is sitting and visualizing himself as a five-year-old child, very vulnerable, easily hurt. When he smiles at that child, he smiles with compassion. “I was so young and tender, and I received so much pain.”

The next day, I would advise him to practice this: “Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that child with compassion.” We are not used to seeing our father as a five-year-old child. We think of him as always being a big person, stern, with a lot of authority. But we have not taken the time to see our father as a tender, young boy who can be easily wounded by other people. The practice is to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy—fragile, vulnerable, easily hurt. If it helps, you can look in the family album to study the image of your father as a boy. When you are able to visualize him as vulnerable and easily hurt, you will realize that he too may have been the victim of his father. If he received many seeds of suffering from his father, of course he will not know how to treat his son well. So he makes you suffer, and the circle of samsara continues. Grandfather makes Father unhappy, Father makes Son unhappy, and so on. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you will do exactly the same to your own children.

The moment you see your father as a victim of brutality, compassion will be born in your heart. When you smile to him with compassion, you will begin to bring blood into your pain. With mindfulness touching the pain, insight will also begin to touch your pain. If you practice like that for several hours or several days, your anger toward your father will dissolve. This is to massage the pain by way of mind­fulness. It works in exactly the same way as the blood does in your body. One day, you will smile to your father in person and hug him, saying, “I understand you, Dad. You suffered very much during your childhood.”

Therefore, mindfulness is the blood. Whatever it touches, it transforms. When it touches something beau­tiful, it makes it more beautiful. When it touches something painful, it begins the work of transformation.

Please discuss among yourselves a diet for your body, a diet for your consciousness, and also a diet for the collective consciousness of our society. This is the basic practice. It is true peace work. Peace begins with each of us taking care of our bodies and our minds every day.

Photos:
First and third photo by Michele Hill.
Second photo by Gaetano Maida

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