By Svein Myreng
I was born with an organic heart disease that has limited my physical activity and more than once has brought me to the brink of death. Mental aspects of this handicap have, on the whole, been hardest to handle. The gap between my wish to be active and the limits set by my heart condition has been difficult at times, but the feeling that my disability made me worthless has been the real problem. I don't know how early in life this feeling started to grow, or why, but I think it has been with me for a long time. It probably was nourished by other people's fears and denial about disease and handicaps, and their aversion to suffering. In my teens, this feeling grew into a wish to hide my heart completely and to restrain my breath carefully, never to sound out-of-breath. I fought hard to pretend that all was well. Carrying my "dark secret," it has taken me many years of meditation to open up.
I believe this is a universal experience. The pressures from society's expectations and hopes—other people's as well as our own—shape us into patterns that do not fit. Our healthy emotional tissue gets scarred by all the cosmetic surgery that is performed on our mind.
After meeting Thay, it became clear to me that practicing acceptance is essential for healing. Acceptance is not fatalistic passivity where we believe that we just have to endure. Acceptance is to acknowledge a situation for what it is and to calm down inside of it. If we then find we can bring about change, very good! If not, then we must acknowledge and accept that. In both cases, a clear, open heart and mind are useful.
Recently I woke up with my heart beating extremely fast and out of rhythm. Though unpleasant physically, I noticed that I didn't feel the strong sense of failure that this illness has triggered in me in the past. I was able to stay calm and reasonably happy, dwelling in the present moment. This felt very satisfying and has given me further trust in mindfulness practice. It also showed that acceptance is very close to patience, one of the Six Paramitas of Mahayana teaching. Physical or mental pain often brings a burning sense of restlessness. When we can stay aware and not be carried away by it, we can be present and not make things worse by futile attempts to escape that only bring tension and conflict.
Even more useful than accepting difficult situations is accepting our own reactions to them. When our feelings and thoughts are not calm and patient, but rather angry, jealous, or petty, they are often difficult to accept. Our self-image is threatened. It is helpful to remember that thoughts and feelings arise naturally. The question is how we react to them.
The Buddha mentions three ways of reacting that create difficulties. One is escaping from an unpleasant situation into sensual pleasures or fantasy through entertainment, food, sex, or shopping. We lose important opportunities to learn how to cope with difficulties and easily become victims of the many toxins in modern culture. The second way is to cling to experiences. As everything changes, this attitude also removes us from the way things are. The third is to try to block off large parts of ourselves. With concentration, we can become aware of these habits, and they will no longer dominate us. Practicing acceptance, we can allow more of our imperfections to be visible. We can learn more about ourselves and walk more lightly through life. This also makes us more tolerant of others. We won't need to project our dark sides onto others, and we become more open-minded.
Accepting and seeing ever more subtle feelings, thoughts, and impulses can be quite a challenge. I sense how I'd like to be perfect and tend not to allow myself much leeway. I can see that both the thirst for situations to go away and the wish to be someone special bring strain and unpleasantness. Slowly, as I accept myself, I let go more and more. We can remember that our internal knots—desire, aversion, ignorance, pride, indecision—are universal. There is no need to blame ourselves for them.
If our intentions are good and honest and we are willing to use difficulties as a way to learn, The Sutra of Assembled Treasures has this encouraging comment: "Just as the excrement and garbage disposed by the people living in big cities will yield benefit when placed in vineyards and sugarcane fields, so the residual afflictions of a bodhisattva will yield benefits because they are conducive to all-knowing understanding." Another exercise is to celebrate imperfection instead of seeing it as something undesirable. We acknowledge that life will never be perfect and we can actually enjoy this fact!
On their first visit to Plum Village, many people have difficulties with the simple living conditions, constantly changing schedule, and lack of orderly silence. Both this situation and our reactions to it can be very valuable, as they challenge our habits and expectations. I have a hunch that this is one of the reasons why Plum Village allows people to get in touch with deep aspects of themselves so remarkably quickly. (Of course, love, beauty, and a happy atmosphere help.)
The practice of acceptance helps us attain the stillness described in The Miracle of Mindfulness: "Once your feelings and thoughts no longer disturb you, at that time mind begins to dwell in mind. Your mind will take hold of mind in a direct and wondrous way, which no longer differentiates between subject and object." We can be alive and cheerful, moving from one moment to the next and shedding our sorrows as we go.
Svein Myreng, True Door, is a high school teacher in Oslo, Norway.