busyness

Demons into Butterflies

Chronic Illness as Dharma Teacher By Hannah S. Wilder

As a child, I was always in motion. I carried this energy into adulthood; it ran my life like a demon. As an adult with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I have brain chemistry that operates like two extremes on a dial: scattered/distractible or hyper-focused. As a child, I found respite in reading or lying beside a stream, watching tadpoles change into frogs. I found kindred souls in the streambed, and learned from them that transformation is natural.

The first fifty years of my life were a whirl of ceaseless activity. I rested only when I had pushed myself so far that I collapsed with a cold or flu, or when I found myself stuck in a subway tunnel or traffic. I always carried a book or writing implements, something to busy my mind and still my impatience. I completed several educational degrees, worked around the world, married, had a child, and divorced.

Then, I decided consciously to stop and raise my daughter in a quiet town on the Maine seacoast. I was on my own in raising my daughter and taking care of our home. I wanted very much to "slow down and live," but circumstances and habit pushed on. Thay tells the story of a man riding quickly on a horse. A bystander yells at him, "Where are you going?" and the man replies, "I don't know. Ask the horse!" I was like that man on the horse, propelled by my habit energies.

In the mid-eighties I began a recovery program from growing up in an alcoholic family. At a week - long residential program, a therapist had me portray my life, turning up the volume so that I could see how my busyness was a way of running from pain that only created more suffering. Each person in my group represented a demand in my life. I gave them each a line, and they all said their lines to me at once, so I could experience the overwhelming nature of how I lived: "Earn the money!" "Raise the child!" "Clean the house!" "Help me!" "Listen to me!" "Take care of yourself!" "Mow the lawn!" It was a vivid and clear picture, but still, I didn't stop. At home, I slid back into doing many things at the same time. My behavior was reinforced by others' admiration of my ability to accomplish so much.

Also in the mid-eighties, I first heard about Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching. The message that struck me was "do one thing at a time." I decided to try an experiment. Working in my home one weekend, I began one task. When a second task occurred to me, I wrote it down instead of starting it. I finished the first task, and then completed the rest of the list, one task at a time. I got just as many things done, but felt much more peaceful at the end of the day. I had taken the first step on the path of transformation to a more serene life. In 1993,1 received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and in 1995,1 joined the Order of Interbeing. Shortly after that, a series of challenges turned my world upside down.

Within two years the man I had loved all my life and my brother both died in protracted and agonizing battles with cancer. My parents had died just a few years before. Overworking helped distract me from my losses, but it was too much. My health collapsed. I was in terrible pain and had disturbing symptoms, such as blurred vision and extreme fatigue. I was ready to "stop, calm, rest, and heal," but my family had all died and I still had to support myself.

I accepted an invitation to spend the summer writing in a friend's house on the coast of Somerset in England. There, I rested and wrote, but my health continued to be problematic. Each time I took a long walk, I got extremely tired and felt a lot of pain for several days. After I returned to the States, it gradually became clear that what I'd thought was an acute but curable and known condition was instead a chronic and mysterious one. I continued to have frequent, intense pain, fatigue, and cloudy mental functioning. Doctors shrugged. It looked hopeless. I felt shock and despair. Fortunately, there was a patient group that exchanged information and held a national conference. At length, I got an accurate diagnosis and began taking medication for symptomatic relief. But I was severely depleted, and had to leave my job, with no financial reserve.

How does a chronically-ill person earn a living? Building on my mental health counseling and teaching/mentoring background, I began training to be a personal and business coach and opened a private practice via phone and Internet. Many times I have taken classes by phone, lying in bed, too tired to move. Two or three kind friends gave me moral support. Things seemed to be calming down at last. Then, I received a gift in the form of a daylight robbery. My computer, with three months of data, was stolen. Following this, there was a rash of gang-related activity in which a number of women were tortured. I somehow managed to pack and move into a friend's home. The gift allowed me to see that I could make a move, when I had thought it was almost impossible.

Soon after, with the help of a Dharma sister who found me a place to live, I moved to Virginia. Just before the robbery I had started my first ghostwriting job, which, fortunately, was portable. I was safe and had become a professional writer, something I had always wanted. I could support myself while working on my coaching career. I breathed a sigh of relief. But in the winter I realized that the years of stress and trauma, and my chronic condition had brought my body close to a state of collapse. Soon I had two more diagnoses: chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I was no longer who I had been, at any level. Constant fatigue, head and body aches, memory loss and confusion, extreme sensitivity to noise, light, and an extreme awareness of other people's moods and energy were my new companions. By February 1999,1 could sit up to write only an hour a day.

The Dharma was in my face, so to speak, and the mindfulness teacher of pain was in my whole body. To get better and maintain the delicate balance necessary to function from day to day, I had to learn to practice twenty-four hours a day. Living the way of non-awareness, my body had been depleted, leaving little margin for forgetfulness. Dietary mistakes, weather changes, overworking, or stress may cause my symptoms to flare up. This means I must stay awake as much as possible, and take exquisite care not to let stress build up. I must notice each need—rest, food, fresh air, or quiet—and take immediate steps to meet it. Not responding invites a temporal flare-up, and also progression of the condition.

As a chronically-ill person, I sometimes reflect the quality of impermanence to those who are still healthy and strong. In a youth and perfection-oriented society, it can be challenging to find a comfortable place for aging and illness. I see people trying to separate themselves from my illness, to explain it in ways that exclude the possibility it could happen to them. My compassion for them comes from remembering when I was in their position, feeling frustrated at my inability to help another person in some active way.

Now more than ever, I understand that being present and listening deeply will help relieve suffering. This realization inspired me to begin asking people with chronic illness, "What attitudes and behaviors are supportive and healing for you? How can we educate our medical professionals, loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors so that they understand what we are experiencing and what we would like from them?" Perhaps compiling the answers in an article or short book would help others learn to relieve the suffering of those living with chronic conditions. Of course, the short answer is mindful behavior, compassion, and understanding.

mb27-Demons

Medical people who have no treatment or explanation often feel unsure how to live with their uncertainty, and, out of their own "dis-ease," respond in ways that blame the patient. There are still poorly educated doctors who dismiss the condition or insult their patients. Some of those who take the condition seriously adopt a certainty that their specialty has the answer: if they are surgeons, it's a brain stem psychiatrists, it's depression and antidepressants will do the trick. Sometimes the variety of simplistic and radically different explanations and cures is overwhelming. Maybe there is a way to convey mindfulness to the health-care professionals as well, and let them know what it feels like on the receiving end of so much confusing and contradictory information, how it feels to be disbelieved and dismissed. So, added to living with the condition and earning a living is the challenge of education those who could be supportive.

In my other life, as I now call it, I loved to travel from snowy fields of the Northeast to high-desert mountains in the Southwest. Now I sit down in my lounge chair, lean back, put on my headphones, and open my laptop computer, traveling via the Internet or telephone to visit clients in California or Brazil, friends and Dharma brothers and sisters in Scotland or Scandinavia. I appreciate that the Internet was developed when I most needed it. Remaining in the comfort of home I can be in contact with the whole world! I speak to someone in Brazil or Australia, then go outside for a walk beside the stream to visit my friendly tadpoles.

mb27-Demons2

Aside from some persistent financial stress—selling a home to pay medical bills and living expenses often goes with chronic illness—and occasional discomfort, mine is a happy life. I have peace, beauty, and friendship, near and far. I am able to serve, by teaching tele-classes on mindfulness, by developing a program for mindful awareness at work, by coaching people in various walks of life, by leading two international groups of coaches by telephone, by mentoring a new aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, and by helping build our local Sangha. I am endlessly grateful for so many things.

It is essential to maintain the balance between accepting "what is" and continuing to hope and search for a possible cure, to strengthen myself. When I first moved to Virginia, I could not walk up my very steep driveway, so I drove down in my car, parked and walked across the rickety bridge to get the mail. Little by little, I walked farther each day, mindful of how much was just enough. By last summer, I was able to walk down and up my neighbor's driveway, swim a few laps around their pond, and then walk home up my hill. I have learned to replace grief at being an impaired person with gratitude for being able to walk and talk and look fairly "normal", and appreciation for the wonderful gifts around me. There are now times when I can dance!

I have improved faster than anyone else I know with this condition, and it's still with me. Applying my knowledge of holistic health and my research expertise on the Internet, I created a program for myself of nutritional supplements; a strict diet; a daily movement routine combining yoga, chi-gong, sa-long (in the Bon tradition), and mindful movements learned from Dharma teacher Thu Nguyen and Thay's tape. I meditate at least once a day sitting, and also do walking meditation. Practicing daily by myself, weekly with a Sangha, and sometimes traveling to Days of Mindfulness with Anh Huong  and Thu Nguyen sustain me. I am constantly reminded that being slow, being present, is all that is needed. I read the seventh of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings very often!

The tendency to wonder exactly what mistake brought me to this state, to rush around seeking an immediate cure, to worry about the future is still in my store consciousness. I do not water these seeds. I do not revisit my losses. And I remember Thay's words: "This is the shore of suffering, the shore of illbeing, despair, fear, and anger. I don't want to stay on this shore. I want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of well-being, forgiveness, peace, and compassion... When you practice to identify what is there and look deeply into the nature of what is there, you are practicing prajna paramita, and the insight you get will bring you to the other shore, the shore of liberation and well-being."

I am here, learning the gentle ways of butterflies as they light on flowers or settle at the edges of the stream looking for moisture on a hot summer day, sitting so still that the white-tailed deer, the wild turkeys, and the baby rabbits do not consider me alien. It is a peaceful, magical valley, an island of the self, a true home. And it goes where I go, through my constant practice.

Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She can be reached by e-mail  at Hannah@Wiseheartcoach.com and would like to hear from others who are practicing with chronic conditions, teaching mindfulness at work, or those who are experts at resting.

PDF of this article

Soymilk Sangha

by Susan Hadler mb37-Soymilk1

After dinner I walk to the kitchen to check on the soymilk we’ve made today. It should be cooling by now. Later, after evening meditation we’ll put it in the refrigerator, so we can have fresh soymilk for breakfast. The clean-up crew fills the kitchen with activity carrying racks of dishes, washing pots, and mopping the floor. I am surprised to see my soymilk teammate Gary standing at the stove spooning okara, the thick soybean residue, from the huge pot of soymilk into a basin. Normally the okara is filtered out by a machine. What happened to the soymilk?

Phap Do taught the seven of us on the soymilk team how to make soymilk for the 350 retreatants of Solidity Hamlet. Making soymilk is a day-long process that reminds me a little of taking care of a baby. After supper we measure fifteen cups of soybeans into a large plastic tub. We wash the beans three times and soak them overnight. The next morning during working meditation the little round beans are mixed with water and ground between two stones in the grinding machine. After that we pour the thick white liquid into the mouth of another machine we affectionately named “The Great Silver Dragon” whose belly is a filter bag. The machine whirls the soymilk, filtering out the okara, until milk runs out of the spout into a big stainless steel pot. Several times during the filtering process we empty the soft foamy okara from the filter bag into a basin. The okara is mainly used for compost. Later in the afternoon we cook the soymilk for two hours in huge pots double boiler style. When it is cool, we return to the kitchen and tuck it away for the night in the refrigerator.

Soon after learning how to make soymilk, I begin to identify with the little soybeans. We are both seeds in the womb of Mother Earth, constantly changing. I too, am soaking, soaking in the collective mindful energy of the retreat. My tough outer shell softens, my heart opens. I don’t need to protect and defend myself here. I feel safe.

Like the soybean, I am ground up together with the other retreatants and we slowly become a community. My protective edges wear away in the room I share with five other women as we bump up against each other and learn to live together in this intimate space. The aloneness I brought with me loosens and dissolves when I am helped over a rough spot by new friends. I feel supported by the people here and I give what I can. We live and work together mindfully day after day. We walk as one body during walking meditation. We eat our silent meals. We sit in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall in the morning and in the evening. We harmonize our voices to sing and to chant. We walk slowly up and down the mountain without speaking. Separateness is ground away until we become a Sangha river flowing in the Great Hidden Mountain.

Next we are filtered and refined. We let go of suffering, noticing obstacles to happiness, changing old habits. With Thay’s help I see that I’ve carry my beloved grandmother’s despair inside of me for all these years. Her despair is part of my mind. I take Granny for a walk in the hills and she enjoys it so much, the hills, the flowering trees, the birds and the sunshine. She is content now and so am I. I see something else; the way I try to save everyone and end up losing myself, a painful old habit that leads to exhaustion and feelings of imprisonment. It is thick and heavy like the okara we filter out of the soymilk. I see this when our soymilk team runs into trouble.

The seven of us meet with Thay Phap Do. For the first time I realize that my overactive sense of responsibility affects my friends adversely. It let go of every notion and experience great joy! I find out that he is right when I experience a deep wordless connection with this mountain, with the rabbits and squirrels, with the full moon, with the Sangha. There is enough time and space to enjoy every moment.

mb37-Soymilk2

Gary answers my question as I walk over to the stove. “The filter bag leaked and okara filled the milk. It was too thick to drink and wouldn’t be very tasty.” My first thought is, Why did the filter bag leak? My second thought is, What about tomorrow when we make soymilk again?

Thay Phap Do comes into the kitchen, looks around, and suggests that we use the metal colander and a big pot. He brings forth a nylon curtain to use as a strainer. I watch him line the colander with the curtain and then I speak. “Phap Do, I think I know what happened to the filter bag.” He doesn’t respond. Then I ask, “Will we have to strain the milk this way every day?” This time Phap Do answers. “Just do it now. Use this curtain to filter the milk now.” I feel a little embarrassed and rebuked, having wanted to impress him by figuring out why the filter bag leaked. I walk

is my habit to arrive early on the days we make soymilk and begin to set up the equipment. I run around the kitchen collecting spoons and pots and basins, thinking how nice it will be for my friends to arrive and have everything already set up. But wait, something is changing. Thay is teaching us to become businessless. I notice that my ancestors’ “businessfulness” appears in me. During our meeting several of my teammates express feeling rushed and left out. My heart thumps in my chest and my breath races. I have never before realized that when I act in that extra-responsible-businessful way I take up my teammates’ space and obstruct us from experiencing the ease and leisure that makes deep connection possible and enjoyable. I happily leave my businessfulness in the filter bag. At the end of our meeting Thay Phap Do asks each of us, “What does a cow say?” “A cow?” “Yes. A cow. You know the cow that gives milk. What does a cow say?” Each of us replies and then Phap Do asks us to repeat the sound all together. “Mooooo!” we bellow and laugh. We’re becoming nourishment for the Sangha, light enough to flow freely like a delicious stream of soymilk. We begin our working meditation now with a cup of tea and a long “Moooooo,” the joyful sound of the soymilk team.

And then we cook. We cook the soymilk in the afternoon and the Sangha cooks slowly and continuously in the pot of mindfulness. I feel myself growing more fresh and wholesome as I listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. He tells us that we can find happiness at any moment. He teaches us to transform our suffering and he shows us that we can into the hall behind the kitchen and feel tears spring into my eyes. And then I smile. Oh! I get it. No past. No future. Only now! No blame. No right. No wrong. No theories or notions. Only now!

I walk back into the kitchen and feel so happy as Gary and I strain the soymilk heavy with okara through the curtain. We pour the fresh soymilk into giant pots and store it for breakfast. Friends from the clean-up crew offer to help carry the pots and mop the floor. Just as we’re finishing up, Phap Do reappears and places a new filter bag on the table.

One morning I sit in the dining room that overlooks the temple and the blue hills. I eat breakfast in silence, concentrating on the oatmeal and the soymilk. Gary sits across the table. I hear a rhythmic sound and look up. Gary points to a red-headed woodpecker in the tree outside the window. We sit silently and watch. Phap Do appears on the path beneath the window. His body is completely still as he stands gazing at the tree and the bird. After several minutes he looks in the window and smiles a Buddha smile. Everything is all right. I no longer need to worry about food or cold or anyone or anything. This moment is enough. I am alive. I am here.

Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.

PDF of this article

Helping Obama, Helping Others

By Thich Nhat Hanh Responding to questions from lay friends on June 13 during the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay spoke about supporting President Obama and assisting those in need across the globe.

mb52-Helping1

Helping Obama

Many of us are very pleased to have Obama as president of the United States of America. I have not seen any politician like him who knows how to use loving speech, to speak in a humble way. The presence of Obama also tells us of the presence of a group of people who agree with him — not only Americans but also Europeans, Africans, and Asians. This is very important.

Obama, with his good intentions and his nonviolent approach to the problems of the planet, did not just happen. In the past forty or fifty years many of us have been working ceaselessly to sow the seeds of peace, reconciliation, and preservation of the planet. Sometimes we have felt that the work has not brought any results. But then the increased suffering and despair helped to wake people up and to see there is another way to deal with conflict in America and the world.

On Obama’s inauguration day, we felt hope. We want Obama to succeed; whether we are Americans or non-Americans we have invested in him and we are afraid that he will not succeed. In order to help him, we have to organize ourselves. We have to strengthen our Sangha, and the Sangha in America. Wherever we are, we can always do something to help. Obama may not call his team a Sangha but it is a Sangha. If not they are not capable of preserving their compassion, insight, and determination, they will not be able to help Obama, and then Obama will disappoint us.

I think President Obama doesn’t need to come to Plum Village and follow a retreat; he got his training somewhere in his own way. He used the word “mindfulness” in his inauguration, and in his speech at Cairo University he used “beginning anew.” He said, “I want to have a new beginning with Islam.” He knows how to use loving speech. Maybe he does not need formal training but he needs a strong Sangha surrounding him and helping to support him.

Helping Others Across the Globe

We all want to help people in Tibet and Burma and other places throughout the world. Forty thousand children die every day because of the lack of food and nutrition. Many of us are aware of that; and yet not many of us do anything to help. How can we reach out and help these children who are dying? How can we reach out to our brothers who feel left alone in the struggle for democracy and independence?

The problem is that we are so busy. We are running to get what we want. We have no time, no energy: that is the main obstacle. How can we rearrange our lives so that we have time to help our brothers and sisters who are caught in difficult situations?

We should liberate ourselves from our too-busy lives. We have to reorganize our lives, individually and collectively, in order to be with each other in a more intimate way.

We can begin with Sanghas. Members of a Sangha belong to society and have jobs, family, community, aspirations, and plans. But we still find a way to come and sit together for twenty-one days. If other people make an effort they can do the same. Imagine for twenty-one days all the cars stop. We don’t eat the flesh of animals. We enjoy the fresh air, the song of the birds. We allow our bodies to release tension; we listen to the sound of the bell. We cultivate brotherhood and sisterhood. We are truly making peace within ourselves, making peace with the environment and with one another. If 500 people can do that, other groups can do it also, whether they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews.

What we do here we are not doing for ourselves alone. We do it for everyone. We show people that another way of life is possible. They can release their habit energy, slow down and begin to change so that they have more time for themselves, for their family, for members of their Sangha. And then naturally problems like those concerning the hungry children, the environment, Burma, Tibet, will be more easily solved.

PDF of this article