childhood traumas

Pain and Reconciliation

Anonymous Last month I had a big gift. I realized that as a child under massively abusive and insane circumstances, I often "mistook the assignment." Did you ever get the homework wrong, do the wrong page in grade school? Well, I realized the same thing happened. For years I agonized over my own "cowardice and powerlessness" when at eight years old, I stood by watching my three-year-old brother be beaten almost to death and did nothing but walk away quietly into this 40-acre mango grove. I could hear his screams-but just sat at the center of the grove on a tree stump. So all these 30 some years, I tried to forget it, because to look at myself as a coward was just too terrifying. In meditation I was able to see that my "assignment" as an eight-year-old was not to be heroic, but probably to allow some force of the universe to lead me away from the scene-so that I could survive physically and emotionally intact enough to someday be able to "be the light at the tip of the candle," as Th~y has so kindly expressed it. So the real work of that event-protecting an eight-year-old-did take place. And my brother was not killed, which was very lucky.

I really identified with the story in Teachings on Love by Thay about the Vietnam vet who couldn't let go of the hammock. As I read it, I thought, he may have misunderstood his assignment, he may have done exactly what was required of him by the universe. Maybe his assignment was to just be with her when she died.

I was a perfectionist in school. I always got the assignment right. But, my realization through the practice is that in reality, in life, I often was blinded by fear and misperception. I was almost killed innumerable times before the age of 17. Many of these experiences can also be viewed as times my life had been saved. Seeing this perspective is a big change for me, very much thanks to the safety of mindfulness and the Buddha's protection. Without mindfulness practice and the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I would have no sense of what to cultivate in the safe container of my consciousness.

In terms of reconciliation with my mother, I'm very lucky to have remembered the wall in my Grandma's apartment in Brooklyn. There was a photo of my mother at about age 5 or 6. She looks pretty disgruntled! But in my meditation, I can place myself in the safety of my grandmother's house and focus on that photo on the wall. I try to send loving-kindness to that little girl in the picture. In "real time," my Grandma's apartment, the wall, the photo are long gone-but I'm glad to be able to retrieve them. This practice allows compassion for me too.

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Book Reviews

mb41-BookReviews1We Walk the Path Together:Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart

By Brian J. Pierce, O.P. Orbis Press, 2005

Reviewed by Chan Phap De

This is not another academic comparison of two great mystics; rather, it is a love affair, a meeting of two brothers in the heart of the author. Friar Brian is a Dominican monk and Zen practitioner who has been guided through his own spiritual journey by these two teachers. “Permeated by the flavor of living experience,” comments Bhikshuni Annabel Laity, “this book provides a freshness of insight and the deep humility that we need on the spiritual path.”

After years of reading Thay’s books, the author was finally able to join the Plum Village community for the 2004 winter retreat. He writes, “Meeting Thay and practicing with his monastic community have been a gift that I shall never forget, and in a surprising way, it brought me face to face with Eckhart. I realized with great delight that, through the person of Thay, I was sitting at the feet of both of these beloved teachers, drinking in their teaching in a profound way.”

Focusing mainly on Thay’s teachings in Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author explores the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, finding many intersecting points in the spiritual wisdom of Thay and Eckhart. For example, the following statement of Eckhart’s sounds like Thay: “God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious gardener, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree,...the seed of God grows to be God.”

Friar Brian credits the simplicity of Thay’s teachings on the practice of mindfulness and contemplative meditation with helping him understand the theologically rich and dense sermons of Eckhart, who, seven centuries ago, was “easily misunderstood and labeled as dangerous.” Whereas Eckhart emphatically said “What does it avail me that this birth of God is always happening, if it does not happen in me?” Thay simply says, “We are all mothers of the Buddha.” Thay also uses the birthing metaphor: “Waves are born from water. That is why we adopt the language that waves are sons and daughters of water. Water is the father of waves. Water is the mother of waves.”

Thay warns against trying to grab onto the Buddha: “You believe that going to the temple you will see the Buddha, but by doing so you are turning your back on the real Buddha.” Eckhart says, “If a person thinks that he or she will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.”

What Thomas Merton said of Eckhart can be said of Thay: “He breathed his own endless vitality into the juiceless formulas of orthodox theology with such charm and passion that the common people heard them gladly.” In this book, Friar Brian taps into the good juices seemingly hidden in the Catholic tradition. He offers meditations on subjects such as suffering, the Cross, the Trinity, baptism, the Mystical Body of Christ, equanimity and grace.

As a former priest, a current Catholic, and a “beginner” monk, I felt great joy in reading this book. It not only helped me tap more deeply into my Catholic roots, it also connected me more deeply with Thay’s teaching. Like Thay, the author has made a significant contribution to helping Christians connect with their roots and spiritual ancestors.

mb41-BookReviews2Pine Gate Meditations

By Ian Prattis & Carolyn Hill

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

The guided meditations and chants offered in this CD come from the weekly practice at Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario. The hour long CD contains two chants, performed by Carolyn Hill, and four guided meditations offered by Ian Prattis.

The two chants, from the Plum Village Chanting Book, are the evening chant and the incense offering (the variation that starts,  “The  fragrance  of  this  incense”).

The guided meditations are each from twelve to fifteen minutes in length, making them a useful way to enjoy an extended guided meditation in solitary or in Sangha. There is a meditation on the Four Brahmaviharas, one on the Five Remembrances, an Earth meditation which helps us be in touch with our connection  to Mother  Earth, and  an Indian based So Hum healing meditation that comes from Ian’s practice in India. Prattis’s soothing voice and the gentle background sounds of water help to bring the hearers into a state of calmness and centeredness.

Though this presentation is rooted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh practice, it also offers some new ways of exploring our spiritual connections. Ian encourages us to be creative in our use of these chants and meditations, and invites us to share them with family and friends.

A practical tool for Sanghas everywhere, the Pine Gate Meditations can be purchased by check or money order to Ian Prattis and mailed to 1252 Rideout Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2C 2X7. Costs are $23.00 US, including shipping; $23.50 Canadian. Or contact Ian at iprattis@cyberus.ca.

mb41-BookReviews3What the Stones Remember A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane Trumpeter Books, 2005

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

Patrick Lane is a recipient of most of Canada’s top literary awards and considered one of the finest poets of his generation. He has also been an alcoholic and drug addict for over forty years. This book is the story of his first year of recovery as he emerges from a rehabilitation facility.

Lane finds his salvation in his half-acre garden, and shares intimate details of the lives of the flora and fauna that are his closest friends. Month by month, we track with Lane the change of seasons in the garden, and explore his circuitous path to healing and transformation through the gentle but unyielding examination of childhood memories.

The book flows seamlessly between childhood and early adulthood memories, usually painful; brief but sharply aware observations of a body and mind coming out of a lifetime haze of addiction; and intimate observations of the natural world. But perhaps more remarkable is the honesty that comes from deeply chosen words which reflect both the beauty and the pain of this man’s story. Lane tells us what his discovery of language meant to him: “Poetry was more important to me then than food or sleep, my wife or my children. I found my place in the world with language. I was certain that with language I could heal myself and control what surrounded me. If the house should burn down what would be most important was how I would describe the flames the next day. Love for me lay in imagined places, not in the real world. Death’s only dominion was in a poem.”

Walking through these stories with Lane––sitting with him by his pond with a cup of coffee in the early morning; watching the arrival and departure of the many spiders and birds that inhabit this territory; gathering boulders at a far-off quarry––weave this man into the reader’s heart. Though the stories focus mostly on his challenging early family life and his refuge in the natural world, the brief but stark reminders of the addiction he has just stepped out of remind us of his fragility and vulnerability.

In one of the many short paragraphs that sear with the challenge of freeing oneself of addiction, he states, “This is a fearful time for me and this first morning I stare at a whirl of flies and think the mad thoughts of an alcoholic. The absence of others has always meant excess to me. Bottles of vodka clink in my mind like wind chimes. I know my sickness will abate, the sickness of drinking will slip away, but I pray to the garden that I live this one day sober.”

As the months go by, it seems that Lane goes through a softening, an increasing sensitivity to the beings in his world. One story tells of his starting to drive down the road in his pickup, only to discover a small spider in her web on the outside mirror. Knowing that increasing his speed as he approaches the highway would kill this creature, he pulls to the side of the road and finds a place to gently put her in the bushes.

The final garden project is the creation of a meditation garden. Though at first its location is surprising––in the front yard, near the road––this choice seems to represent the final stage of healing, returning to the world, centered and imperturbable.

In this remarkable book, we witness the suffering of one man, healed and transformed through a deep awareness of the world around and within him. A model for us all.

mb41-BookReviews4A Mindful Way A Simple Guide to Happiness, Peace and Freedom in Eight Weeks

By Jeanie Seward-Magee Trafford Publishers, 2005

Reviewed by Constance Alexander

A Mindful Way offers an eight-week course combining mindfulness meditation with writing exercises as a means to self-exploration. The three-part program includes a daily ten-to twenty-minute sit with emphasis on breathing, two to four pages of free writing (in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), and a nightly gratitude recollection. The layout of the book, wide margins with sidebar quotes from many traditions, makes for easy reading. The central five chapters each take one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their focus.

The author has practiced in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for a number of years, and Thay has written an introduction to this book. All profits from the sale of the book go to support Plum Village.

As a practitioner for four years, I decided to undertake this program as a way to deepen my own practice. I like to write—a bonus, given the many writing exercises. For those of us in a post-therapy era of our lives, going back to write about childhood and family may feel like “been there/done that.” However, the author raises enough interesting questions to keep one writing; for example, “Describe your life for the past ten years, but do it as though it’s ten years from now.” Talk about confronting all your hopes, dreams, and fears of the future!

I also enjoyed taking time before bed to remember five things for which I was grateful that day. I realized how often I prepared for sleep feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Remembering the small treasures of the past twenty-four hours and writing them down helped recast things in a brighter light. That little gratitude book became my reverse “to do” list—instead of guiltily reviewing what I hadn’t “crossed off my list,” I could refer to the list of blessings which had been heaped on me (many of which, I realized gratefully, were out of my control).

The author recommends that anyone using this book, if not already in a spiritual community, join with like-minded friends for this eight week journey. I agree. Sharing what arises will sustain and enrich the experience. In the early days of my practice, I dreaded reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings as, coming out of a strict religious background, I tended to see them as the Five Commandments (think stone tablets backlit with flashes of lightning!). It was only in sitting and sharing with my Sangha that I learned the beauty of the Trainings.

The author’s personal reflections, the stories she shares from her life, are an integral part of A Mindful Way. For me, these are sometimes not quite on target as illustrations of her point. This cavil aside, I found A Mindful Way a useful practice tool. It is an ambitious book, seeking to combine a spiritual guide with a more conventional self-help manual. But as such, it may also garner readers who would not otherwise pick up one of Thay’s books. There are many doorways to the practice.

mb41-BookReviews5No Time to Lose A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva

By Pema Chödrön Shambhala Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The night the Buddha died in the tiny village of Kusinara, nearly three hundred bhikkhus lit torches. Until dawn they told stories of the Buddha’s life in the presence of his body in repose, while sal blossoms floated to earth. It was as if the torches symbolized the light of the Buddha himself entering the bodies of his disciples. Pema Chödrön has lit such a torch for us with her book, No Time to Lose, A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, her commentary on the Tibetan Buddhist classic, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavat ara) by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master from the monastic university of Nalanda, India. The author calls Shantideva’s work “a rhapsody on the wonders of bodhicitta,” the mind of love.

Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group into quatrains with the accessible cadence of iambic pentameter, Shantideva’s words sing: And may the naked now be clothed,/And all the hungry eat their fill./And may those parched with thirst receive/ Pure waters and delicious drink.(10.19) Shining the light of her wisdom on small groups of stanzas, Chödrön brings the twelvecentury old teachings home to present-day Westerners.

The emphatic and pragmatic title gives us a no-nonsense summons to get down to business in our own life and practice. Shantideva and Chödrön encourage us to use our lives to water seeds of love. As we set out on the bodhisattva path to free endless beings from their suffering, Chödrön offers, “Everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.” The authors repeatedly remind us to fall back on our essential Buddha nature.

Chödrön offers a helpful study guide at the end, which is useful while reading. Our Sangha’s aspirants to the Order of Interbeing will use this book as they enter the bodhisattva path. Compared to two previous translations of Shantideva, I found this one the most helpful for its rhythmic, poetic translation and for Chödrön’s down-to-earth commentary. Allen Ginsberg’s translation of the last famous lines of the Heart Sutra captures for me the imperative of this book: “Gone, gone, to the other shore gone, reach (go) enlightenment accomplish!”

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Heart to Heart

In each issue of the Mindfulness Bell readers take on a different topic, writing in short essays about their personal experience and their practice. mb47-Heart1

The Fourth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

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Awakened Silence of the Heart

The Fourth Mindfulness Training has been a bell of mindfulness, a wise teacher, a good friend, and a road back from hell for me.

In my early life, my siblings and I were relentlessly bombarded with violent and angry language between our parents and issued daily reminders of our worthlessness, stupidity, and so on. We internalized the language and began to speak that way to ourselves and to others, even those we loved.

At my first retreat at Omega with Thay and the nuns and monks, I could not keep from weeping tears of gratitude and relief when we lay friends were addressed with so much respect, gentleness, even tenderness. When we were offered the opportunity to take the Trainings, my heart opened with joy. To join such a community and to practice in such a way for myself and for my loved ones seemed a precious gift.

I focused on the Fourth Training in my statement of aspiration and was given the name Awakened Silence of the Heart. The name has unfolded like a lotus, revealing its meaning to me over years of committed and joyful practice.

A small but profound miracle of mindfulness happened recently. I dropped one of my favorite mugs. It shattered. The miracle was that no abusive cascade of internal criticism followed. (“That was stupid. Clumsy fool! Etc.”). There was only compassionate silence, an awakened silence. After cleaning up the shards, a benevolent bell of mindfulness sounded inside me, inviting me to consider that the accident occurred because I was hurrying a bit. The mug and I might have been saved some suffering if I had not been ahead of my breath. The awakened silence, the space in the living room of my mind, made me feel happy. I bowed to the Training in gratitude.

A companion incident occurred later in the week. An office mate, while hurrying to set up for a meeting, broke a lovely piece of pottery made for me by a friend. In the beginning of the practice, I might have exploded with irritation and criticism. In the later years, I would have seethed with resentment and contempt while saying, “That’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” Now, my heart says gently, “All is impermanent. I’ve enjoyed its beauty a long time.” My body, speech and mind are in alignment with that kind remark. The friend who broke the bowl could feel easy.

One of the most delicious fruits of this practice is with my blood family. When I told my father that I was returning to Plum Village last year for a retreat, he launched into a tirade about cults and craziness. I was able to listen without reacting and to hear what was not being said. My awakened heart understood that he was afraid I would not come home, since I had once referred to the sangha as my spiritual family. Breathing in, allowing him to wind down, I said gently, “You are my father. I will always come home as long as you are alive.” His body softened. His heart softened. “Okay,” he said, “have a good time.”

In the spaciousness opening in the silence of my heart is also trust. I am becoming truthful enough to speak of my suffering and my need and desire for support without feeling painfully imperfect, full of shame or criticizing myself for not being good enough. I am able to more often say: “Dear sangha friend, can you help?” And to trust that they will come and breathe with me and listen deeply and speak lovingly.

As the Awakened Silence of my Heart grows, I am free. I suffer less. And I create less suffering in others, in my family, and in the world.

Diana Hawes Awakened Silence of the Heart, True Wonderful Light Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A.

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The Broadway Bicycle Boy

It was summer in New York City. I was walking along Broadway near 112th Street, when a boy about eight years old came riding his bicycle up from behind me and crashed a few yards in front of me. He was wearing shorts and I could see he had skinned his knee. He was hunched over, grabbing his knee, squinching his face in pain, but holding it in and not emitting a sound. I approached him, knelt down and pointed to his knee. “That must hurt!” I said. “YES!!!!!! It really hurts!” he screamed, and burst into tears. As he finished his round of crying, he looked up to see who this stranger was. I smiled, pointed to his knee again and said, “That must still hurt!” “YES!!!!!! It still hurts!” and he was off again, sobbing and pointing to his knee.

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I made a simple decision to not rush on. I stayed and paid attention to his hurt. After a few more rounds of crying about his knee, he looked up to see if I was still there. Do you know what he did next? For the following fifteen or twenty minutes, he pointed to scars on different parts of his body and told me how this one happened and that one happened and this one over here happened. It was as if he had never had a chance to tell someone completely enough how much it hurt or how scared he was. He had quite a few stories. After doing this for a while, his tone was happy and confident. He got on his bike and rode away.

As I walked on, I thought how many scars we all carry, physical and emotional, and how we rarely get a chance to really tell the stories to the point of healing. And so we find ourselves, at whatever age, dragging behind us a sackful, or in some cases, a huge trunkful of old unhealed hurts that weigh us down, depress our joy, sap our confidence, distort our thinking, and otherwise cause us to hide our true goodness.

Each of us is just waiting for the right conditions to tell our stories.

John Bell True Wonderful Wisdom Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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Stopping the Avalanche

mb47-Heart4Here at 8000-foot elevation, I am sitting quietly and gazing at an avalanche field near the top of Mount Shasta, California. The forest has been torn and many strong trees lie broken across the field. Jagged four-foot-high dead trunks still stand upright, looking like ghosts of people I have known and lost. So much breakage here even after ten years.

Sadness sweeps through me now as I remember ways that my words have avalanched angrily and broken friendships. I grieve the damage that I have caused. Despite a daily practice of many years, words can rush out of me just as this snow roared down the mountain. And like these fallen older trees even the strongest friendship and community can fall by the power of unmindful words.

“Words once spoken cannot be taken back.”

To understand stopping as a spiritual practice is one of Thay’s most valuable teachings for my fiery energy, because it is so uncomplicated and very clear: Stop when hurrying, stop when gulping food, stop when a friend needs you to listen, stop when driving too fast, stop when the phone rings... stop and breathe at stop signs.

These beloved practices have brought depth and happiness to me. But when emotions are strong and rushing out of your mouth, how do you even wake up enough to stop them?

There are the seven “stop sign” words that stop me before an avalanche and that can even stop me during an avalanche: always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, everything, nobody, nothing.

These seven stop signs tell me that the avalanche is coming or that I am already being carried away. They tell me that I am lost in black and white stories of my mind. After all, these seven words are never true!

If I say one of these words, I know to stop speaking immediately and breathe. I’ve learned to tell my family member or friend that I might need to stop abruptly and talk later. In my time out, as I calm myself, I inevitably realize that my point of view is neither balanced nor accurate! I become more ready to truly listen. (It’s very helpful to let friends and family know about this practice ahead of time so they don’t interpret your leaving as another whack of your anger. We support each other in this practice with an agreement that we will come back together calmer and more able to understand each other.)

If I think one of these words, I know that I am caught in creating a particularly dramatic off-center story. Time to detach from the interior talking and practice re-grounding — walking meditation is especially effective. If I wait (often about forty minutes) until the interior conversation finally comes to balance and compassion, whatever story the mind is creating transforms and becomes more positive.

If someone else says always, never, all or none of the time, everybody, nobody, everything, nothing, whether it’s about me or about somebody else, I am now usually less reactive to what they say. After all I know these words! They come out of suffering and can easily create more suffering. So it’s time for deep listening.

On Mt. Shasta, the avalanche field speaks to me again. Huge chunks of bark are composting into soil. Now there are the tiniest small firs bending into lovely diagonals from harsh winds and winters. They look like delicate bonsais. I see this beauty and the fresh life growing even amidst the wreckage.

We can all take heart to begin anew.

Laurel Houghton True Virtue and Harmony Fairfax, California, U.S.A.

For the Summer 2008 issue, the topic will be the Fifth Mindfulness Training. Please send your story to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org by February 15. Keep your writing personal and concrete, and under 500 words. Include your Dharma name if you have one, and your city of residence.

Photos courtesy of the monastic sangha

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