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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Practicing as a Couple

By Brendan Sillifant

My search

I have had a deep affinity with the practice of mindfulness since I was a teenager. I had come across it in a variety of forms from different sources. From the Buddhist traditions of Thailand, Japan and Tibet, and from modern self-help psychology also. As a young man I wanted to learn to live my life fully, and I set out to travel for two years visiting different practice communities in North America looking for a teacher and a Sangha. That is where I first attended a retreat with Thay. I was drawn to his teaching which seemed so appropriate for modem society, deep and yet simple. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on joyful and continuous practice.

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Not being caught in dualistic thinking

I then came to practice with the Plum Village Sangha for six months in 1991. The Sangha was a small community made up of both monastic and lay practitioners. When I first came to Plum Village it was my love of mindfulness practice that brought me here, I had never had the thought to ordain. But after a time that wish grew in me, although that wish in me was still quite innocent, even naive. My teacher was a monk and I wanted to be like him. Nevertheless I made the determination to return to New Zealand, to sell all my worldly possessions, spend some precious time with my family, and then return to Plum Village to ordain.

Whilst in New Zealand I attended a Chinese Chan retreat in order to keep my practice strong. The retreat was held each weekend for almost two months. During this time I grew quite close to a young woman who was also practicing at the retreat. The blossoming of this relationship created a lot of confusion in me, it seemed like a conflict, to ordain or to marry. I wanted both, I wanted to be with the young woman I was growing to love, and I also wanted to practice wholeheartedly. I spent many months trying to make a decision between these two alternatives, trying to look into my real aspirations and yearnings.

Eventually I came to see that there was no conflict between these two things. When I looked deeply into my concept of monkhood, I found that what was actually important was to see what were the elements present in monastic life which would be supportive to my practice, and to find ways to bring these elements into my life and the life of my partner. With this understanding, there was no longer a decision or a choice that I needed to make. In my daily life I tried to blend my two loves, and I learned not to be caught in dualistic thinking between monastic life and lay life, but to seek to create a life with all the positive conditions present. I found I could have both a loving marriage and a strong committed practice, and there was no contradiction between the two. I experienced my relationship as a support to my practice, not a hindrance, even sexuality. My relationship supported my practice and my practice supported my relationship. I experienced these two things as a wonderful support for each other.

Relationship supports practice

My wife and I live closely together, and as a result we have grown to know each other quite intimately. This intimate understanding enables us to offer support and guidance to each other, helping each other not to fall into habit energies. An intimate relationship also provides comfort, soul sustenance, and nurturance, which can give one strength to overcome difficulties in one’s life and practice. I experience my relationship as a kind of Sangha, it supports me in the same ways as the greater Sangha does, yet very intimately. I feel very fortunate to have a small Sangha within the big Sangha. As practicing partners we also help balance each other. When one person feels sad or anxious, the other can help him or her to feel bright or relaxed again. When overcome by wrong perceptions about someone or some situation, the other can provide alternative ways of looking. When we need to nourish the five-year-old boy or girl within us but are unable to do so, the other can provide that loving embrace. When we need the firm words of a teacher or Dharma sister or brother to put us back in the practice, the other can provide those words to set us straight. We practice in some ways as a single body, being aware of our own mental formations and also the mental formations of the other. So we have both our own mindfulness to rely upon and when that is weak we also have the practice of the other to rely upon. We practice to transform our own afflictions and also the afflictions of the other.

Practice supports relationship

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful support in cultivating a loving relationship. It deepens our ability to speak lovingly, listen deeply, and understand each other. Mindfulness practice keeps our relationship fresh and helps us not to fall into negative habits. It gives each person more self-understanding and stability so we are more secure in ourselves, as a result we become much less prone to reading into the relationship what is not there. In addition to this the presence of the greater Sangha helps not to be isolated in our couple-ness. Sometimes two people become so much alike in character and view, that they cannot offer the other a new or different way of looking when needed. Dharma and Sangha can be a great support in offering clarity in situations that are usually dominated by habit energies. So when one person in a couple is lost in confusion, the other does not also become lost but can offer new clarity and fresh ways of looking into a situation.

Conscious watering of positive seeds is one of the tools of the practice that can be a tremendous support to a couple. Many couples we see around us are fresh and loving in the beginning, but after many years the habit of blaming, arguing, and criticizing each other begins to give the relationship a sour flavor. And at one point it seems the relationship is so infused with negativity that the path to recreating a positive healthy love is such a difficult task that many couples give up, thinking its easier to start over with another person. The practice of mindfulness, of being present to each other and for each other, already increases an awareness of the preciousness of each other. The practice of watering the flowers in each other helps us to be aware of the positive qualities of each other, and to express our appreciation and gratitude towards each other. If over time we are able to water the positive seeds more than the negative seeds in each other, then the ability to appreciate and acknowledge the wonder and beauty of the other will always be present, even in the midst of difficulty. As a result, when there is disharmony, the motivation will be not to hurt the other, but to heal the relationship and to reestablish harmony between us.

From Attachment to Freedom

I have spoken about how I see that an intimate relationship can be a wonderful support to one’s practice. And now I would like to say something about the obstacles to meditation practice that can sometimes arise in a relationship.

We hear a lot about attachment in Buddhist teaching, and we may be involved in an intimate relationship and ask ourselves, “Well, what does attachment mean to me in my situation?” We need to look deeply into this area of our lives, because the practice of non-attachment can greatly enhance our relationship. Developing non-attachment does not need to go against our relationship. We need to look at our relationships clearly, not just follow an ideal we have heard about. What is our real experience of attachment, in what ways does it truly sustain us and in what ways does it make us suffer?

In our life we do take refuge in many things, we rely on many things. As children, and still as adults, we rely on our parents, we rely on our teachers, and on our friends. We rely on certain colleagues at work, we rely on our community of practice, and we rely on the three jewels. If suddenly one of these refuges is not there, we feel its lack, we suffer. This shows us the presence of attachment. Nevertheless we have been enriched by the presence of these people in our lives. Their presence has given great beauty to our lives and we would not wish to have been without them. We are attached to these people and situations because they have contributed so much to us. So the question is not to abandon these things, because we know that without them our life will be less rich, less nourishing. The question is, rather, how to bring the spirit of non-attachment into our relationships, so we can profit fully from the presence of the other whilst also maintaining our freedom and our sovereignty. The practice of non-attachment can lessen any unhealthy dependence that exists in our relationships and can allow our love to be light and joyful.

It is interesting to look deeply and to see in what way dependence is a wholesome and necessary part of our human and spiritual life, and in what way does it limit us? Does our dependence support us in becoming whole and complete or do we rely on the other person to complete us? We take refuge because we need support on our path to wholeness. But if our object of refuge or our way of taking refuge becomes a barrier to becoming whole, whether it is refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or in our partner, we need to re-examine our way of taking refuge. A true teacher does not want us to only depend on him or her for stability, he or she wants to strengthen the teacher within us and will direct us to rely on that teacher more and more over time. The disciples of the Buddha took refuge in the Buddha, their teacher. Yet near the end of his life the Buddha instructed them to take refuge in the island within themselves, because that island is the teacher within which will always be with them, it is a stable and reliable refuge. The Buddha knew that it is this island which is the real object of refuge.

I will give an example: My wife Fei-fei is someone who is very confident, she enjoys being in front of groups of people, and can be her best on stage. But me, well its something which makes me a bit nervous, something which I would prefer to avoid if possible. So I could say to her, “Fei can you talk tomorrow for me, I don’t want to speak in public.” I can rely on her in any situation where I have to speak in front of the community, and thus avoid ever having to challenge myself and grow. In did this she would become more and more confident, with all the practice she would get, and I would become more and more shy. And an imbalance would result in our relationship and also in me. I would become incomplete without her. So this would be a way of taking refuge which would prevent my becoming whole. Alternatively I can learn to see Fei-fei as a teacher and can learn from her strength in this area. I can try to emulate her confident presence, thus her presence can be a source of strength for me that supports me becoming more whole and less dependent.

This is something to be aware of in a relationship, because we may have been attracted to our partner because they have certain qualities that we lack, to complement and complete us. But we can rely on our partner in a constructive way that helps us develop and transform our weaknesses, thus overcoming our initial dependence and becoming more free. In this way our relationship can take us in the direction of greater dependence or greater freedom and wholeness, depending on our way of taking refuge.

From attached love to boundless love

Our relationships can lead us into a narrow isolated love or a broad inclusive love, and this also depends on our way of taking refuge in each other. Sometimes our way of loving, our way of taking refuge in each other is a way of hiding from the world around us. And the more deeply we invest in each other the more deeply we cut ourselves off from others. So our way of taking refuge in each other becomes a prison for us. Even taking refuge in the Sangha can be like this. Perhaps we mix only amongst our close brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and we hide from the people who come to the community to practice, we may even hide from certain people in our own community. This is a form of attachment which may imprison us and keep us from opening our hearts to all those who cross our path in life.

Our love, to be deep and fulfilling, cannot be limited to only one person. If we love one person yet are alienated from others then our love will grow in on itself, it will not flower. It seems natural for a relationship to want to express itself in service of something greater. Perhaps that is why it seems so natural for couples to want to have children, so that the love that is cultivated between two people can seek a greater expression and flowering. When we can love one person we can love others also, love needn’t be limited to one person. For this we need to be able to see the deep nature of the one we love. To see that that person contains her mother, father, grandparents, a whole lineage and culture. Our love then becomes embracing and we can learn to accept the things in the other person which are the most difficult for us to accept. Mindfulness and looking deeply helps us to see beyond the appearance of the one we love, so our small love becomes a door to great love. The relationship becomes a labaratory or testing ground for our love, allowing us to cultivate a mature love which then extends to the many people we come into contact with. In loving one person we do learn to love many people, because the person we love contains multitudes.

Over the years I have been together with my wife I see more and more how deeply she is.the continuation of her parents and ancestors. That in marrying and making the vow to love her, I have married and made the vow to love also her parents, siblings, grandparents, society, and indeed all beings. A couple relationship is really the coming together of two streams, not just two people, so there is a lot of potential there, potential for strife and for strength. And for certain our love will be cultured and matured over the years, like a good cheese.

Sexuality

Sexuality is another area that can easily become an obstacle to our practice if we are not skillful. But my experience tells me that sexuality can be an integral part of an intimate relationship, and also an integral part of a spiritual life and practice. We sometimes make too much out of sexuality by either being preoccupied by it or by not wanting to have anything to do with it. But sexuality can be a beautiful and nourishing part of a committed relationship. We try to bring the practice of mindfulness to every area of our lives and sexuality is an area of our life that also profits from the practice of mindfulness.

With the practice of mindfulness the sexual act can be no less than a sacred and beautiful ritual that is performed in deep concentration and joy, a deep expression of love and care for each other. With mindfulness present we are able to maintain a peaceful and relaxed presence, without becoming lost in sensual desire. Desire is an obstacle to peace, and it can also be an obstacle to deep communion, because the other becomes an object of desire, and we lose the deep love and intimacy that is present. Sexuality is a form of expression between two people that can nourish joy in being together, and helps establish closeness   and love. But this is only possible in the context of a committed relationship where attention is also given to other forms of communication. Sometimes sexuality is sought outside of a committed relationship, because we yearn for intimacy but we do not know how to establish real intimacy. Perhaps in our relationship there is so much misunderstanding and so many small unresolved hurts that there is no longer intimacy between us. So we naively seek intimacy elsewhere, in new relationships which do not have the same baggage of suffering. We need to remember that intimacy comes from the meeting of hearts not bodies, the meeting of bodies is only an expression. And for the meeting of hearts to be deep and present even after many years together we need to practice constantly.

How do we maintain our love over many years?

In the early days of a relationship there can be a lot of excitement, passion and romance. These feelings can be very compelling and attractive, they set our heart pumping and make us feel very alive. Our love is fresh and new, filled with hope and expectation. We do not know the other deeply and we imagine how wonderful they are. After sometime of being together, we begin to get used to one another more. We think we know pretty well everything there is to know about them. We quickly settle into a routine; our relationship becomes mundane, ho-hum, perhaps even boring. Th\ngs are ok, but not very alive. We think back to the early days and remember how fresh and wonderful it was to be with each other. But we don’t know how to return to that freshness again. We think we need to do something spectacular to get the vitality back into the relationship, like taking a romantic holiday on a deserted island in the Bahamas.

But it is much simplier than that. We just need to be more attentive to maintaining our full presence for our loved one, and not fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Fei-fei said that when we first met, she thought I was very romantic. For my part, I do not really feel I am a romantic person, neither do I aspire to be. But I think what gave this impression, was that I practiced really being there for her, giving her my full attention when we were together, and perhaps she had not experienced this kind of attention very often before. This kind of mindfulness is the tofu and potatoes of our love, it is the daily food of our relationship. And with this steady loving presence our relationship stays fresh and vital, even if our life appears very routine.

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Personal Time versus time for each other

Another way in which we might consider a relationship as an obstacle to a solid practice is that we may feel we have less space in our lives. I sometimes hear people say that they need more space in their relationship. They need time away from their partners. I have had this feeling occasionally in my relationship, although I feel lucky that this feeling comes up very seldom. For me this is a signal to look deeply, of course I can honor that feeling and take the opportunity to go for a walk by myself. But I need to ask myself, why do I not experience enough space in being together at the moment? I cannot just say that I need space and that’s normal , and take my space. Perhaps our way of being together has settled into a habit of being too talkative. We may have been spending excessive time gossiping about others. Or maybe there is some tension in our relationship that makes it difficult for us to be at peace in the presence of the other. All these things are signals to us to pay more attention to the quality of our time together, and the quality of our practice together. Just as the Sangha is a support for our practice so to can be our couple re lationship. And when we retum there we find a refuge of warmth, space, acceptance, ease, and peace. If these things are not present in our relationship, it is because we have not cultivated our relationship in a skillful enough way.

Oneness – from individual to couple

Life as a couple has a certain vitality and richness which takes us beyond our individual desires and aspirations. We are two but we are one, and we really need to leam to think, feel , and see as one, or there will be conflict. If we continue to follow our own wants and needs and the other continues to follow their own wants and needs, we will not find a deep harmony and unity in our relationship.

For our love to return to us a deep sustenance for our soul, for there to be a deep intimacy between the two of us, we really need to learn to see the happiness of the other as our own happiness, and our happiness as the happiness of the other. This is not an attitude of sacrifice, because in sacrifice there is still duality, there is still “I” give up my needs to satisfy “your” needs. Where there is sacrifice there is still the unconsciolls debt of the other that we hold in our hearts and expect to be paid back sometime. To see that our happiness is one is to see that giver, gift, and receiver are one. We don’t want to sacrifice because we know that deep down, for the other person to be happy, we also need to be happy. How can the other be bright and cheerful when we are moping around, feeling tired all the time having given beyond our capacity. So to give to ourselves, to nurture ourselves and our own deep peace and joy, is to make an offering to the person we love.

Recently Thay has said that practicing as a Sangha is like practicing as a couple. It can be a true practice of non-self to see that we are one body, and that we can no longer seek only for our own happiness without considering the happiness ofthe other. As a couple we become so interconnected, that this way of thinking no longer functions well. We simply have to learn to think in a new way, a way that really acknowledges our true interconnectedness, our interconnectedness as a couple, as a Sangha, and as a world.

Brendan, True Virtue of Loving Kindness, lives in the Upper Hamlet with his wife, Fei-Fei.

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