The bell, the bell, the bell invites us, to sit, alone, together. Breathing slowly, the fragrant incense flows, in, out; in, out; in, out. The silence of the meditation hall gently holds me in the lap of the Buddha. The bell.
The bell, the bell, the bell invites us, to sit, alone, together. Breathing slowly, the fragrant incense flows, in, out; in, out; in, out. The silence of the meditation hall gently holds me in the lap of the Buddha. The bell.
By Joan Halifax The breath practice of Giving and Receiving develops our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is a practice of lovingkindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and to our strength and willingness to transform suffering into peace and well-being. It is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do with people who are dying.
We begin the practice with a heart committed to helping others, to being with suffering and dying. When we look deeply, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering. To deny our suffering is to close off our hearts to what we and others experience. If we touch our suffering with awareness and love, Giving and Receiving becomes a practice of transformation. To see the possibility that we and others can be free from suffering is to see our own vast, good, and tender heart.
When I sit with a dying person, I must see beyond individual suffering. I must look from a place in myself that includes suffering but is bigger than suffering. I must look from a heart so big it holds everything. Can I see her suffering and her great heart as well? Can I see his true nature, who he really is, deeper than the story?
The practice of Giving and Receiving asks us to invite in all of our suffering and the suffering of others, and let them break open our untrusting and protected heart. When my heart breaks open by being deeply touched by suffering, its tender spaciousness becomes the ground for the awakening of selfless mercy. With an open heart, we cannot help but send all of our love and kindness to one who is suffering.
To begin the practice, you want to feel relaxed and open. You can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want your mind to be clear, calm, and spacious. If you feel agitated, angry, or afraid, breathe in whatever you are feeling, accepting it. On your exhalation, breathe out peacefulness and well-being. Clear your mind by bringing your awareness to what is agitating you and accepting it with kindness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.
When you are calm and clear, you can begin the second stage of the practice. For some people who have never done this before, it will seem counter-intuitive, because it involves working with the breath in an unusual way.
You begin by breathing in hot, dark, heavy, polluted smoke-suffering. On your exhalation, you breathe out a breath that is light, cool, and fresh. Breathe not only through your nose, but through your whole body. On your in-breath, dark smoke enters every pore of your body. On your outbreath, coolness flows from every pore of your body. Stay in this rhythmic pattern of inhaling dark smoke and exhaling cool, light breath.
Next, visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This sheath is your self-importance, your selfishness, your self-cherishing, your self-pity, all the fearful contradictions that are difficult for you to accept. It is the fear that hardens to protect your heart. The practice invites you to break apart the metal sheath around your heart, to open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. Visualize the metal sheath breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the smoke dissolves immediately, vanishing into the great spaciousness of your true and vast heart, and natural mercy arises. The quality of mercy in your vast heart allows you to be with suffering and at the same time, to see beneath the suffering. This is your awakened heart.
You have now touched the initial elements of the practice: calming and opening the mind, accomplishing the rhythm and texture of the breath practice, visualizing the metal sheath around your heart and the sheath breaking open, the spontaneous appearance of the vast heart of mercy, the disappearance of the smoke into space, and the out-breath of healing. Remember that you are doing this practice because you and others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings may be free from suffering.
You want to care, genuinely care. This wish cannot be general; it needs to be very specific, personal, and authentic. When the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche practiced Giving and Receiving, he remembered a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old. The puppy was being stoned to death, and the people killing it were laughing. He would have done anything to relieve the dog of its suffering. Whenever he thought of the puppy, his heart broke open. The memory of this helpless little creature was a key that helped him practice with commitment, resolve, and love.
Bring to mind someone to whom you feel a deep connection, whether this being is dead or alive, someone who is suffering, not a being whose life is all grace, but someone who really has suffered and whom you wish to help be free from suffering. Let your whole being tum toward this one's suffering and wish that he or she may be healed. If this is difficult for you, tum toward your own situation. You are also suffering.
I ask you to breathe through your whole body your own suffering, your own alienation, or the suffering of your beloved as heavy, polluted, hot smoke. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of selfcenteredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke of suffering instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, healing breath to this other being or to yourself. Let the out-breath flow through every pore in your body. From the vastness of your open heart, breathe out mercy and love.
If you feel resistant, call yourself back to the practice. Remember that this practice can be done on every breath you take, every breath you give. Cultivate the details, the craft of this practice.
After you have practiced Giving and Receiving with yourself or one you love, let go of the image of that person. As you do, keep breathing in the dark smoke of universal suffering and breathing out healing. Then, let the visualization become particular again. Take your attention to the parent with whom you had the most difficulty-whether dead or alive, foster parent, or whoever raised you with whom you had the greatest difficulty. See them sitting before you.
Maintaining the rhythm of the hot, smoky in-breath and cool, light out-breath, consider how this one and you have suffered. For a minute, internally raise your eyes to this one and look at him or her. Let yourself slowly and mindfully examine the face and hair. Then, very simply gaze internally into the eyes of this parent with whom you have a problem. If this is difficult it may help to look at a mental photograph. See the wear on his face. See how her life has been full of disappointment and frustration. Maybe she was afraid. Maybe he was numb. See if you can allow yourself to be in touch with the difficulties of this parent. Perhaps you experience anger, disappointment, or heartbreak while looking at this parent. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. Imagine your parent as a five-year-old child. See his or her face fresh and open, full of anticipation. If it is difficult for you to see your parent this way, please notice the resistance that may be there. Resistance is all right. Breathe in the resistance, breathe out acceptance, spaciousness, warmth, and relief. If your parent is still alive, remember that he or she will die one day.
Remember your sincere wish at the beginning of this practice that the friend on whom you focused would be free of suffering. Breathe in blanleless suffering as dark smoke. Remember your parent as you last saw him or her. Let the dark smoke of suffering break open the sheath of hardness around your heart. On your out-breath, send all of your strength, understanding, caring, and love to your parent. Give it away with an open heart so that this one may be healed, so that suffering will be transformed.
This practice can also be applied to your own life. Turn your heart and mind toward your own situation. Breathe in your suffering and let it break open the sheath around your heart. Let your own vast heart open to who you really are. Breathing out, send clarity and space to your whole being. Heal yourself. You have the power in you to come home to the vast and true nature of who you really are. If you are a Christian or Jew, you might say, "I want to come home to God." What separates you from God is the hardness around your heart, the fear in your heart. Breathe in the hot smoke of suffering from separation from God. Let it dissolve the hardness around your heart and disappear. What is left is love. All suffering disappears into the vastness. Breathing out, send a cool breath of radiant healing to yourself and come home to God. In your exhalation is the breath of spirit, the goodness of God bringing you home.
The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with the suffering of others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. Our difficult personal experiences are the bridge that leads us to compassion. We do not reject difficulties. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are. We cannot prevent suffering or death. We simply try to meet it, accept it, and find mercy in it.
Dharma teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, leads the Sangha at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is an anthropologist, leads retreats on death and dying and other issues, and has written a number of books. This article is excerpted from herforthcoming book, Being with Dying, to be published by Shambhala Publications in late 1999.
The breeze gently caresses my facetouching me in ways not mown before. Its energy reminds me of breath, the breath brings me to one with all that is, then flows out to leave a trace, a gentle breeze upon my face.
I feel the breath and breeze deep in that special place, a place called home from which I have traveled so far so long yet not out of Kwan Yin's palm.
And in this moment I realize, Arriving, I breathed in. looking deeply, I leave breathing out. In-out-my heart is open wide. Guided by the love of a brown-robed nun, chanting opens my heart.
For here I have laughed and cried with gentle touches and gentle eyes. There will be no sighs of goodbyesgreen lawn, green tree, blue sky, warm friendship.
This poem was written collectively by the "Columbine Family" Dharma Discussion Group on the last day of The Path of Emancipation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1998 in Vermont.
By Hannah S. Wilder As an executive and leadership coach, I am able to combine my spiritual and professional practices. Most of my coaching takes the form of asking questions to raise awareness, reflecting what I see, and checking to see if the executive sees some truth in my perceptions. Then we identify what is desired as a change, and figure out how to change behaviors and results.
Busy leaders like simple reminder lists that help them learn and remember practices new to them, so I developed the following Ten Principles for Working in Mindful Awareness:
1. Always be conscious of your breath and come back to that awareness when you find yourself being forgetful, confused, or reactive.
2. Let go of attachment to any system of working or managing, so that, through being mindful, you can observe with "beginner's mind" what is best for everyone present.
3. Open your heart so that you can be sensitive to your own pain and struggle, and that of others, because what affects one affects all. We are all connected.
4. Simplify everything, eliminate clutter, and do only one thing at a time.
5. Let go of anger, resentment, criticism, and self-judgment.
6. Look and listen deeply to see and hear what is below the surface.
7. Speak the truth, with compassion and kindness, from your heart.
8. Actively cultivate personal, organizational, and environmental health and well-being.
9. Choose to work with those who practice mindful awareness in their relationships with you.
10. Invite others to practice by your example, never by coercion (which wouldn't work, anyway!).
(10 points copyrighted by Hannah S. Wilder and reprinted with her permission.)
Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with the Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is Principal of Wiseheart Global Leadership Coaching.
Understanding the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana evaded me despite thee tomes I read and the lectures I attended. Then in 1998, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in the subsequent years struggled with fatigue, pain, and frustration. Refusing to be defeated by this illness, I intensified my meditation practice, changed my eating habits, and took on a regimented exercise program. Despite the positive physical changes, emotionally I remained exhausted and I felt no closer to knowing how to apply the practice of Buddhism to my situation.
The way out began over a coffee at Starbucks. A physician friend cornered me with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (2) and asked if I would start a clinic to treat our mutual patients using mindfulness skills. I laughed. With barely enough energy to get from one day to the next, attempting this was out of the question. However, I knew that my meditative and doctrinal practice in Buddhism was the stabilizing force in coping with my disorder. Studying the sutras and having a disciplined meditation schedule gave me continual insights to the nature of my mind and its role in managing my illness. I could see the potential benefits and that it would be a way of reaching so many who were suffering. But start a clinic, especially when I seemed to struggle with core concepts? I thought it impossible until I attended a retreat with Chan Huy. He watered the seeds of comprehension for me with his presentation of the thirteenth step of the Anapanasati Sutra: On the Full Awareness of Breathing bringing to my attention three primary tenets of practice: Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.
Suddenly the clinic seemed possible. I became aware that what had been effective in managing my illness was not the physical schedules, the intellectual calisthenics, or the chase after experiences. What had helped me gain ease and composure in my suffering was living as best I could the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. I held no assumptions that any one moment would be the same as another. I was not my illness, I found joy and happiness where I could. Symptoms ebbed and flowed as did mind and its mental formations but I somehow stayed steady.
In May 2003, my partner and I began the Mindfulness Based Symptom Management program, an eight-week course in skilfull living modeled along the lines of the Canadian mindfulness-based program (3) at the Center for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The patients who registered were suffering from depression, anxiety, pain from severe physical traumas, and work-related stress. Some were afraid of relapse into depression when they returned to work. Over eight weeks, we planned to teach these patient-practitioners sitting and walking meditation, an understanding of the four foundations of mindfulness, the techniques in the awareness of breathing, and the use of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a guide to symptom management. They would be trained to examine their instincts to wrestle for control over their symptoms. This approach of no-action has been referred to as a paradigm shift from the medical model interventions that emphasize aggressive and often invasive interventions. The course aspirations and curriculum were daunting and ambitious, even more so because the canons of Buddhism had to be rendered into an acceptable secular form. However, we believed that anything less would not be powerful enough to transform their suffering.
We embarked on the program with an understanding that the facilitators and patients were equally practitioners. The tenets of the Five Mindfulness Trainings were listed and became a beacon when the work seemed tedious or not immediately relevant. The core of the course examined the body, emotions, sensations (mind), and thoughts (the most easily accessed and intellectually grasped object of mind) (4). In each class, we practiced the appropriate technique from the Anapanasati sutra (5). In the class dealing with emotions, we used the Theranamo and Bhadekkaratta sutras (Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone/An Auspicious Day (6)), as parables to encourage beneficial engagement with self, other, and the world. The glue that held the whole works together however was the primary tenets of practice– Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.
Without mindfulness skills, we become stuck in the illusion that symptoms are static and permanent, and therefore doom us to eternal suffering. Viewing the situation as singularly determined also results in thinking there is one magical intervention if we could “just do it.” When mindfulness is practiced continuously, we can look deeply into our symptoms and observe as they change in frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the gift of impermanence. It makes us available for many more possibilities and therefore many more opportunities to intervene in a suitable manner. Observing our level of fatigue we can recognize, for example, when jogging is less suitable than walking.
Practicing continuously means bringing awareness to all aspects of the system. We notice not just the segments of behaviors but the dynamic ebb and flow of all behaviors. It permits adjustment of our strategies as we attune ourselves to the impermanent nature of our experiences. When we are engaged fully in this practice, there is no way to “just do it” because there is no “it.” Continuous attention reveals nuances of change that alert us so we can adjust our actions, speech, and thoughts appropriately. It informs us when an intervention is suitable and beneficial; it informs us accurately of the specific signs in our body, which then allows selection of the beneficial and suitable level.
In the Clinic, patient-practitioners learn to adjust their body, speech, and mind to the ebb and flow of the breath. Using the body scan meditation technique, we set up an internal model of “observation, not indoctrination.” (7) That is, we learn to bring our attention to a part of our body, suspending the need to engage in action. We start with the toes, which always gets a smattering of giggles! The giggles turn to awe when we observe how hard it is to bring attention to the toes without twitching them automatically in response. We observe automatic behaviors and notice when we tune out, turn off, drop out of our daily lives. In the first two classes, we befriend our breathing and allow it to teach us the inevitability of change and the simplicity of adjusting to it. Because we breathe continuously, practicing continuously is no longer as imposing or tedious a task as it might have seemed initially.
Being in the present moment
The gift of non-self is the ability to discern the true nature of our suffering. Symptoms inter-are. They arise, endure, and dissolve from a complex interaction of the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Arising in any single platform, they are empty containing neither intrinsic meaning nor power. However, when we apply our assumptions about an independent self, separation from others and the world, energy is imparted to our symptoms powering them up to debilitating levels. Muscle pain now becomes a harbinger of days in discomfort, even loss of income from lost wages. A limitation in physical activity now means loss of connection with family and friends.
Grounding ourselves in the moment, we develop the skills to discern the origins of our pain with clarity and confidence. We develop an awareness of the arising conditions that result in our pain, our depression, and our fears. We can locate physical pain in the body, observe the thinking that escalates the meaning of the pain. Like teasing out the threads of a knotted ball of twine, we begin to separate the true nature of the symptom from the pain generated by the story-telling about the symptom. In the next four classes, we become firmly established in the foundation of mindfulness that is appropriate: in the body if the pain is physical, in the emotions if the pain is psychological, etc. Discernment among the foundations allows the interconnections with the other foundations to generate information, not escalation. As we learn to identify the energy that causes the pain, we can then take steps to find alternative sources of energy.
As patient-practitioners grasp these concepts, the defensive stance to illness changes. The belief that things have to be different from what they are in this moment dissolves. Each moment is just what it is, an occasion. The ghosts of the past lose their potency to enslave us and render us dysfunctional. The ghosts of the future cannot hold us hostage with anxiety, fear, and the threat of failed dreams. The power in our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world can only be realized in the present. At this point, a critical flaw in the organization of current psychotherapeutic interventions comes to the fore. Relapse is not something that we practice at some future date when our symptoms disappear. Every moment is an occasion to prevent relapse into previously unbeneficial behaviors, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts.
Living in joy
Joy is the realization that suffering is impermanent. Sometimes joy is retroactive, arising only when the craving and clinging to what is not has abated. While experiencing an attack of vertigo, I tried desperately to convince myself that the spinning room was only a mental formation. I recited: Not real, not real, not real. My mind remained resolutely unimpressed with my rhetoric (an object of mind) and joy was not present until my inner ear (body) calmed itself. Like a symphony, timing is everything. To expect joy in the middle of a flare of symptoms is to lose sight of the moment as it is. It throws us back to the illusions and delusions we created to avoid the reality of our suffering.
When symptoms recur despite our greatest efforts, we are given the opportunity to practice looking deeply into our assumptions. The arising of a symptom we thought was well-managed can touch on feelings of being a failure, activate models of helplessness, or even cause us to give up our practice. Looking deeply, we often find we have derived predictive equations relating our efforts to improvement in some linear fashion. Feeling energetic today becomes a promise that tomorrow will offer the same joy. Thrown into the future, we lose the moment of joy in the here and now.
Observing the breath, staying grounded in the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts, patient-practitioners begin to experience the cessation of the craving to make things okay immediately. We recognize that symptoms dissolve and realize that awareness of impermanence enforces letting go. Symptoms become waves greeted, if not with ease, at least with composure and steadiness. With tools of mindfulness, we do know what to do. We acquire the secure knowledge that the symptoms are generated from the essence of who we are in the moment and dissipate as we alter our stance to them. In a single round of breathing in and out, we become evolving beings, intricately tied to self, others, and the world, and know comfort in that unity.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings
Throughout the course, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are used to give the skills a firm grounding in ethics and to provide deeper purpose for the practice. Viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, examining ways in which we generate delusions, setting psychological and physical boundaries, addressing ourselves with gentleness, and nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner become the modus operandi of creating skillful lives. As we become confident and stable in our practice, we find ourselves applying these skills in our interactions with others and our environment. In fact, interaction with all aspects of our environment is where the rubber meets the road. However, because suffering renders us somewhat narcissistic, we begin with applying the five trainings to ourselves.
Each foundational lesson is framed in the context of the five trainings. Behaving with respect to our body allows physical self-abusive cycles to be examined and broken. For the patient-practitioners suffering physical trauma this becomes a key to enter the realm of joy and acceptance. Rather than pushing past limits, they begin to accept and respect the body as it is.
Being generous to our body results in resting when needed, treating ourselves to days of silence and enjoyment of treasured activities. Depression and physical degenerative disorders respond well to this training. Rejuvenation becomes the form of continuous practice and symptoms no longer need to flare for attention.
Not exploiting our bodies psychologically or physically permits the building of safety in interactions with others. The target of this training is the anxiety generated from abusive relationships or lack of trust because of abuse. Recognizing and reducing exposure to toxic situations or relationships increases a sense that we are reliable in our assessments and consistent in our responses.
Speaking with kindness when referring to our body changes the sometimes hate-filled inner dialogue that in turn maintains our suffering. Lack of confidence, feelings of helplessness or low self-worth can be transformed through this training.
Altering the language alters the meaning we give to ourselves of who we are. As self-talk becomes supportive and honestly reflective of our situation, we develop trust and confidence that we can adjust to change.
Nourishing our bodies with beneficial foods and activities allows a sense of well-being. Being with persons who generate joy, feeling encouraged by others practicing healthy lifestyles, and exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives break up the fixed patterns that signify most physical and psychological suffering. As we limit the input of common myths about being human, we begin to develop a stronger understanding of the reality of being just who we are.
The suffering arising from weak practice of mindfulness in the foundations of emotions, sensations, and objects of mind (in this case, thinking) respond equally well to this application. In fact, the remaining foundations are deeply contained in the foundation of the body and are interconnected profoundly with the body.
At the end of the eight weeks, we have all been irrevocably changed by our contact with each other. At the beginning of the course, the patient-practitioners were asked to list the things they wanted to change in themselves. Usually, the expectations revolved around “cure” or total cessation of physical and emotional symptoms. They want their suffering taken away when they enter7 treatment. Their perceptions of themselves as ones who suffer imply that the suffering means they are flawed and damaged by and because of their symptoms. So, at the start of the course, the craving is to be “normal” by which they mean “without suffering”. When asked if they have changed in ways they had listed eight weeks before, most patient-practitioners say it doesn’t matter anymore. Those expectations written fifty-six days ago are examined and deemed unrealistic, irrelevant, or—best of all—where there was no change, acceptable just as they are. Expectations transform into aspirations. Symptoms are now moments of education in developing skillful means. Self is now a product of an interaction of the four platforms with the moving moment and mindfulness is the mechanism to steady the interaction.
Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana reveal themselves in each moment. By practicing continuously, we are able to stay grounded in each moment. Observing the breath, we move through the four foundations of body, emotions, mind, and objects of mind. Skillful means grow as we develop clear comprehension of what is beneficial and suitable action. Understanding the true nature of our illness grows further as we experience being firmly in our physical and psychological domain, cutting through the illusions of what it is not. All symptoms are nothing more than the waves in our ocean of being. In the moments that our practice is strong and stable, we can allow the symptoms of our illnesses to penetrate us as great teachers do and ultimately let them dissipate as waves in the ocean.
Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, practices with Sanghas in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada. She is a psychologist in private practice, and Director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. She bows to teachers Chan Huy and True Body of Wisdom for inspiring the Clinic and assisting in the preparation of this article. Photography by Lynette Monteiro.
1 Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana are called the “Three Dharma Seals.” A teaching offered by the Buddha is considered to be authentic if it has these three characteristics. The awareness of impermanence helps us to see that all things are subject to change. Nothing in the universe is a fixed, unchanging entity. Secondly, the awareness of non-self shows us that all things are without a separate self; everything inter-is with everything else. Thirdly, all things have their ultimate nature, their nature of nirvana, meaning the extinction of all notions, ideas, and concepts concerning reality. For a more thorough explanation of the Three Dharma Seals see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).
2 Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Dell Publishing, 1990)
3 Segal, Z., M. Williams, & J. Teasdale, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Guilford Press, 2002)
4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press 1990) and the following texts were used by the facilitators to organize the course content
5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are Alive: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)
6 Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)
7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing, p 134
When I smoked cigarettes it was two packs, sometimes three, a day. My record for lit cigarettes simultaneously burning either in ashtrays or in my hand was four. Sometimes I chewed gum, too. Half cups of cold coffee were strewn about my office. I was skinny and nervous.
It was my habit to stay in constant motion. What bogeyman did I think would strike me if I stopped moving, watching television, listening to radio, eating, reading, writing, jogging, paying bills, talking on the phone? Maybe what was living inside of me following the trauma of the murders of three of my family was anger, even rage. I had no lack of confusion, doubt, greed, self-contempt, jealousy, and ego.
If I stopped, I would have to come face to face with my deeply inadequate self.
The murders of my sister-in-law Louise and my two teenage nephews, Dougie and Danny, brought me to my knees. It was October 15, 1990, and looking back, I see that for me and my family, it was the holocaust. Everything normal about our lives had been shattered; our shock and despair seemed too much to bear.
The DNA evidence proved that Louise, Dougie, and Danny’s lives had been cut short by the boy across the street. Eric was a friend of Dougie and Danny, and had ranked in the top two percent of his high school graduating class. Three weeks prior to graduation, Eric had dropped out of school and began prowling the neighborhood at night. A year later, he stabbed and bludgeoned my family to death.
Eric’s father was the only neighbor willing to be interviewed by the television reporters after the murders. He was like the movie character Rambo, telling reporters, “We’re going to get whoever did this; we have guns and dogs!” This air of retribution was carried out by a mob of people after Eric was arrested in Florida and extradited to Pennsylvania. When Eric was brought back in restraints in the middle of the night, a waiting crowd screamed, “kill him, kill him!”
Two months later, the trial ended with Eric’s confession. From the murder through the trial and confession, my family and I had lost so much hope, we felt like we were going through life wading under water.
Many months later I came face to face with a Soto Zen monk, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, who was to change my life in two important ways: by teaching me how to stop and enjoy my breathing, and by introducing me to the teachings on mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was thirteen years ago.
The act of stopping took courage, because I came face to face with my deeply inadequate self. At first when I meditated, guilt and betrayal and rage floated to the surface. I learned that the only way out of my pain was to let it happen ––to go through it. And on the other side of the pain, I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath.
Forgiveness a Breath Away
The breath became the gateway to my heart. Because I have learned to stop, sometimes I have felt my heart as an orb of a moonflower on the garden arbor, opening to the sky. I listen to my heartbeat. I let my heart open like a bud, like a leaf unfurling.
I did not plan to forgive the boy who murdered my family. But after five years of stopping, enjoying my breathing, and relaxing every day, I was able to look deeply and understand Eric. He was not a monster, but a boy who had temporarily become a beast when he murdered my family. When I forgave Eric, I felt such a surge of relief that I understood why Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.”
Through this insight, I knew Eric was suffering intensely for his actions. And I began to understand that the seeds of violence in our society and in his family partly caused the murders. Eric was serving three consecutive life sentences in prison, with no chance of parole. I began to mentally place myself in his prison cell and hold him gently in my arms. I will never know if this helped him. One day he took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his cell. When I learned he was dead, I profoundly mourned his passing.
Gratefully, I turned to the refuge of the three jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Realizing that everything changes and that I will sooner or later lose those I love, I began to deeply appreciate the preciousness of each moment. I began washing the dishes as if each one were the baby Buddha, and looking deeply into the eyes of my grandchildren. I allowed my grief to be absorbed by the earth during walking meditation, and felt the earth give back to me, cool grasses soothing the soles of my sometimes weary feet.
During seated meditation, when emotions arise, I try to notice and stay with them. As a pain or an itch arises, instead of moving or scratching for relief, I try not giving in to the urge, but just notice the pain or the itch. How refreshing, not to move or scratch! One hot July evening while sitting, I felt a mosquito sink its proboscis into my scalp and feed. Welcome, my friend! I guess you deserve to live, too, I thought. There was never any swelling or itch from that bite.
The Voice of the Bell in Prison
My husband, Philip, and I take a bell to a medium security prison to share our practice with young inmates, some of whom had known Eric, the boy who murdered my family. The small bell with a beautiful sound is the centerpiece of our practice together. The noise of slamming metal doors and the prison public address system is the background even as we sit and walk in silence. Upon hearing the sound of the bell we breathe three times, returning to the moment. The men named themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha, a place of refuge.
Healing Both Families
I called and talked with Eric’s mother. We cried together over the four needless deaths in our two families. She said that in the thirteen years since the murders, mine was the first phone call regarding her son. She and her husband have been so shunned that they have become invisible to their family and neighbors and friends. She thanked me and asked God to bless me for making the call.
The first holy truth of the Buddha is that life constantly offers up suffering. Life offered me my deeply inadequate self for transformation. I no longer smoke cigarettes and pace the floors, afraid to stop. In fact, now that I’m walking mindfully on the path of joy, everything in the actual world— the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war — reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me.
Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. While around me the feelings, unbelievable and large, saunter. Heavy elephants.
The voice tells me things you don’t want to know I am thinking. You don’t want to know, because you will realize that I am crouching in a wretched place full of shame and dirty waters and elephants of so many colors and tales that all becomes confusing.
The voice whispers to me that I do not belong here, that I am breathing too loudly, that I am undeserving of love, that I am unable to speak truthfully, that I am a rapist inside and a murderer. The voice believes itself, and it is loud.
Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. Around me the sitters are sitting, silently breathing. I emerge from the pool gasping for breath. Tears are silently flowing down my cheek. Thank god in this practice in this room we don’t look and measure one another. I face the wall, and draw from the silence around me, from the still sitters not judging, only breathing.
Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. The sound of the bell emanates through the room. I bow, and I know I am in the present moment. Still, that voice tells me I am not welcome in the here and now. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.
I ask the voice, what do you want from me? Love, she answers. Only love.
How to love her? How to cherish her? I know I cannot do it alone. I need the support of Sangha. Sitting in the midst of those who meditate, a light grows as if from a seed inside of me. Hope arises like a small purple flame at the center of a candle, the kind that may stay lit and turn to a royal orange, or that may dampen and desist when untended.
I hear the sound of the bell and the flame is evoked; the voice is quiet. I wonder: is she listening? Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.
At home I am overcome with the image of a downtrodden black boy, seven years old and angry. His name is Jerome. His arms are crossed, and his hands are creased with many lines.
I wonder to myself, is this she? Is this the voice I have been waiting to love?
A watercolor painting of Jerome shows his angry lines, his dejected pouting lips. I sit on the purple cushion to meditate and light a candle in front of the image. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. I soak in all of the aspects of Jerome, and create a space for love in my heart.
The voice is silent. I listen to the sound of my breathing. I see the candle flame, I see Jerome.
Angry voice arises, and the elephants come trampling in. They trample me. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.
I am still alive, and the tears come again. This time the tears are not for me, they are for Jerome. They are for that small child inside of me that is so angry and unknown.
How many other suffering children are there? Which voices in my life do they come forth to represent? An angry father? A suffering relative? A buried ancestor coming back through my genetic structure to relay the message of pain?
How many times will I cry these tears? I don’t know. Sometimes I can’t see their faces––I only hear the voice.
It is when I hear the voice that I know how much compassion and breath I need, and how much I need the Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma. They have brought me to a time and place where I can meet myself with love. They supplement the medications and therapy in which I invest for healing. They are my refuge and place of stillness. To sit with the Sangha is like drinking a balm of honey, lemon, and water. It is simplicity that spins around me like a cocoon.
Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. During Dharma discussion someone holds my hand. People raise voices to the question: Can you speak to the matter of holiness, practice, and depression?
This so that during individual practice Jerome and I become so much one that he and I both dissipate, and the voice comes and goes until all that is left is breath.
Sarah O’Brien practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. She is a program coordinator for NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, of Montgomery County, Maryland, and enjoys playing Native American flute.
By Thich Nhat Hanh Blossom Books, 2012 Hardcover, 62 pages
Reviewed by Elle Snow
Many years ago, on a meditation retreat in Santa Barbara, Thay and some children created Pebble Meditation. Like so many of Thay’s teachings, Pebble Meditation is both simple and profoundly deep. The practice invites the child to hold a pebble, breathe in and out, and visualize an aspect of nature and what it represents as a life-giving state of being.
Breathing in I see myself as a ﬂower Breathing out I feel fresh. Breathing in I see myself as a mountain Breathing out I feel solid. Breathing in I see myself as calm water Breathing out I reﬂect what truly is. Breathing in I see myself as space Breathing out I feel free.
Pebble Meditation gives the left brain a tangible object for a child/practitioner to focus on (the pebble) as the right brain is opened to the abstraction of possibility. The whole brain is engaged as the pebble and the abstract are uniﬁed through touching what is evoked of the four elements in their symbolic representation of ﬂower, water, mountain, and space. Through the “touchstone” of each aspect of nature, we can open ourselves to the transcendent wisdom of their correlates: fresh, clear, solid, and free.
A Handful of Quiet is a sweet book that has a great deal to offer children of all ages. In accessible language and with gentle illustration, it provides a way for a caring adult to introduce meditation, mindfulness, and nature to a child. It offers sixty pages of activities and tools in which to develop a relationship with Pebble Meditation. There is a section with practice pages where a child can name the moments when she has felt quiet or free. Also, Thay walks a child through a drawing activity. And there are steps for how to make a pebble meditation bag. Perhaps my favorite are the series of pages that begin with one, then two, then three, then four small blue watercolor splotches for the child to set his pebbles on as he does each step of the meditation.
Teaching a cherished child the skill of mindful awareness is one of the greatest gifts we can give. A Handful of Quiet is not only a lovely book; it is a way to engage a child though story, activity, and relationship. It is a bridge between a wise adult and an innocent child. It is a way to plant seeds through pebbles!
By Thich Nhat Hanh Harper One, 2012 Softcover, 156 pages
Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace
It has been said that all of our negative emotions boil down to fear. So it’s no surprise that our beloved teacher has written a book that serves as an antidote to fear. As I write this review, just before the national elections on November 6, a ﬁerce hurricane is slowly descending upon the East Coast of the U.S. The news media is shouting and magnifying our worst fears, and is even turning them into tools for political gain. This type of fear-mongering is actually a storm in itself, for it creates a culture of fear, which Thay teaches us, in this small but potent book, to counteract with mindful living.
The Buddha taught that while there is suffering, through mindfulness we can transform our suffering into peace, stability, and joy. In the Introduction, Thay discusses how we cannot make our fears go away by ignoring them, and that to bury our fears is to give them even more dominion over us. He offers speciﬁc methods for how to live fully in the here and now, so that we are no longer battered by the modern storm of fear and anxiety. In reading Thay’s book we learn that we can, indeed, transform the roots of fear from within.
Nowadays we often use shopping, alcohol, drugs, TV, ﬁlms, books, and even conversations to distract ourselves from fear. By acting in this way, we unwittingly feed the storm. “If you stop running after the object of your craving,” writes the author, “—whether it’s a person, a thing or an idea—your fear will dissipate.” This notion reminds me of an old saying by the hippie philosopher Thaddeus Golas: “If you can’t ﬁnd it where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?”
Thay points out that when we act out of fear, we actually foster a culture of fear, and that the antidote to this oppressive cycle is mindful living. He encourages us to drop our isolated egos in favor of our communities and the world at large. When we remain in regular contact with our spiritual community and walk in peace with our Sangha, we help break the cycle of fear and provide a balm for all beings.
By Sister Chan Khong Parallax Press, 2013 Hardcover, 40 pages, with CD
Reviewed by Gary Gach, True Platform of Light
Whether you are new to our practice or a long-term beginner, you might agree how marvelous is its integration of body, feelings, and mind as one. We start with our bodies, return to our bodies. Even when our minds wander, our bodies are always here, fully present (with a lifetime guarantee on that fact). Our bodies can be wise teachers, messengers of the entire universe. After hundreds of years of their evolution, it’s nice to enjoy a little guidance in their everyday manners of operation.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a retreat with Thay Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village monastics, you’ve already experienced deep relaxation, taught perhaps by a bodhisattva.Yes, I’m watering ﬂowers in Sister Chan Khong’s window garden. How vividly (and bodily) I still remember the greatly pleasurable surprise in ﬁrst learning deep relaxation from her. How important it is to bring the nonverbal wisdom of our body from the background into the foreground of our awareness. Our body’s generosity to us, immeasurable, ceaseless, and selﬂess, can be reciprocated with gratitude. How marvelous! And so deeply relaxing, renewing, and refreshing.
That was only my own initial response; you may ﬁnd it for yourself. It may be one of the most ancient human rituals, visualizing ourselves bodily in a sequence (“toe bone connected to the foot bone,” etc.). Our practice, sometimes known as the body scan, originates with the Buddha. As our Sangha publishing practice group, Parallax Press, offers this precious jewel to the world, it now ripples out like rings of a tree trunk. Don’t you wish all the world could know, enjoy, and share total relaxation? May it be so.
This book with CD makes deep relaxation easily and widely available, like a broad river ﬂowing out to sea. Following an apt introduction by our teacher, the guided meditation is presented in both short and long forms. On the CD, the meditations are read by Sister Chan Khong, Thay, Joseph Emet, Jean-Pierre Maradan, and Sister Doan Nghiem. The CD includes lovely songs sung by Sister Chan Khong in English, French, and Vietnamese.
For a lifetime of mindful living, this provides indispensable training and a beautiful gift. Total relaxation restores us to our organic integrity and our original nature. Recommended for every body.
By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2012 Paperback, 120 pages
Reviewed by Natascha Bruckner
As practitioners, we know that mindfulness can happen only in the present moment and that every action can be a meditation. But sometimes, caught up in a busy schedule, we forget. Thay’s new book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day, shows us precisely how each daily activity can be a place to savor our life.
Thay shines a spotlight on all aspects of our day, beginning with waking up in the morning. Rather than hurrying to get up, we can set an intention about how we want to live today. What is our deepest desire? Will it bring nourishment? With each morning routine, we return to mindfulness, guided by the gathas (poems) in this book. Thay reminds us that every action, from brushing our teeth to leaving for work, may be a practice of freedom. “Every time we walk out the door, even if we’re just on the way to our car to go to work, we can take the time to notice that the great Earth bodhisattva is all around us, nourishing and sustaining us.”
Thay’s spotlight penetrates into places where we could practice more wholeheartedly, such as sitting at our desk at work. He asks, “What is the quality of our sitting? … Even if we have a rare moment of quiet at our desks, we talk on the phone or browse the internet. We are workaholics. We always need to be doing something.” Thay invites us to take breaks and sit without effort or purpose, to be happy, like a Buddha.
The book is also a guide for handling strong emotions at work. Thay gives speciﬁc instructions for dealing with anger, restoring good communication, and engaging in loving speech and deep listening. The chapter “A New Way of Working” shares alternatives to the culture of competition that is likely to destroy us. Thay presents the three kinds of power that can make us happy: understanding, love, and letting go. The ﬁnal chapter, “Thirty Ways to Reduce Stress at Work,” offers jewels to help us deepen our joy every day.
Work shows us how to embody the truth that when we live mindfully, every activity of the day—whether answering the phone or cleaning the toilet—can liberate us. Our workday doesn’t need to oppress or restrict us. In fact, our livelihood can become a raft gently ﬂoating us to the shore of awakening.
By Valerie Brown Quakerbridge Media of Friends General Congress, 2012 Softcover, 152 pages
Reviewed by Judith Toy, True of Peace
The rambling spirit of this well-organized pilgrim’s primer seems woven into the wind. This travel guide not only provides tips for exploring the sacred world on foot, but also includes tales of exquisite detail and the author’s own personal revelations from the road.
Each chapter contains a small gift in the form of a question to ask ourselves, which may equate to a Quaker query or a Zen koan. At one point, the traveler arrives at a place with two ﬁelds: “Two plots, side by side, one wild and one tamed, are much like two competing forces in my life. … How do I acknowledge the wild parts of me, that want to plant garlic in a high desert farm, to Mambo well, and to learn to weave from a Navajo woman? The questions are deeper than the answers.”
Following in Brown’s footsteps, we hear the echo of our teacher— “I have arrived, I am home”—wherever we go. We travel with Brown through the famous El Camino, the enchanted Irish Isle of Iona, the sacred temples of India, Japan’s traditional pilgrimage route through rocks and temples, Shikoku Island, and places closer to home. With each step we are treated to historical nuggets such as the history of Indian Kanchipuram temples, which are dedicated either to Shiva, the destroyer, or to Vishnu, the sustainer of life.
In the introduction, Brown suggests that we “[u]se this book as a prayer book and guide book for contemplation, discernment and reﬂection.” Her emphasis is on inspiration, whether she is mightily challenged by the weather or rough terrain, or taking a much-needed rest. The end of each chapter contains a practice lesson in mindfulness, and the book even includes a Sample Packing List and Traveler’s Resource Guide. Peppered throughout, like blossoms along the road, are illuminating quotations, like this Spanish proverb introducing the section on afternoon tea in Iona: “How wonderful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.”